World of Word Craft: Justine Larbalestier

justine-larbalestier-portrait
Portrait by Patrick Thicklin

Justine Larbalestier is an Australian–American author of eight novels, two anthologies and one scholarly work of non-fiction, many essays, blog posts, tweets, and a handful of short stories.

Her most recent book, My Sister Rosa, is about a seventeen-year-old Australian boy whose ten-year-old sister is a psychopath. It’s set in New York City and published by Allen and Unwin in Australia/New Zealand and will be published on 15 November 2016 by Soho Teen in North America.

Her previous novel, Razorhurst, takes place on a winter’s day in 1932 when Dymphna Campbell, a gangster’s moll, and Kelpie, a street urchin who can see ghosts, meet over the dead body of Dymphna’s latest lover, Jimmy Palmer. Of her other books the most popular are the novel Liar and the Zombies Versus Unicorns anthology which she edited with Holly Black.

Justine lives in Sydney, Australia where she gardens, boxes, and watches too much cricket, and also in New York City, where her game of choice is basketball. She’s a season ticket holder for the New York Liberty. — [X]

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NOTE: This interview does contain spoilers for Larbalestier’s novel Razorhurst; approach with caution!

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Razorhurst is a wonderfully unusual novel in many ways. Some, I’ve addressed in my review, but one thing I’ve failed to bring up is the fact that Dymphna and Kelpie, who are as different as can be, are the same age. How did you come to write this peculiarity about age? Did these characters come to you fully-fleshed, ready to inhabit the world you created in Razorhurst? Or did you have an idea of the kind of character your story needed and went from there?

I often don’t realise I’m researching a novel when I am. I think I’m just reading about cool stuff. I read heaps of non-fiction; not just books but essays and articles. Since I became a YA author I’ve read a lot about the history of YA and of teenagers. Since I moved to Surry Hills, where Razorhurst is set I’ve been learning about the history of this part of Sydney. When I started writing Razorhurst all that reading came together.

I didn’t realise Dymphna and Kelpie were the same age for at first. In the early drafts Dymphna was not a point of view character but once I realised I needed her voice I also discovered how young she is.

In 1932, when the novel is set, the concept of a teenager didn’t really exist the way it does now. The OED cites the first printed usage as 1941. So recent, right? Basically back then you were an adult, and in the workforce, or you were a child. As I wrote Razorhurst I realised I was writing about two girls of the same age but one of them was already an adult and the other was still a kid. I found it fascinating to be writing about teenagers before there were teenagers*.

*Read more of Larbalestier’s thoughts on age, childhood, and privilege here!

The ending for Razorhurst, or for that matter the ending of Team Human, aren’t very predictable endings—or, at least, I didn’t feel like they were. Are your endings something you carefully plan prior to writing? Or do your characters often lead you someplace new?

I don’t plan anything. (Well, except for Team Human because I wrote that with Sarah who’s an über planner.) Mostly I just start typing. Razorhurst started with Kelpie’s voice. That opening sentence is intact from the first draft and is, in fact, the first words of the novel that I wrote. That’s rare for me. Usually I throw the first few chapters out. The final first chapter is usually the last thing I wrote. I had no idea who Kelpie was, at first, or where she would lead me.

The ending was rewritten multiple times. Originally I was going to kill Dymphna. But when I wrote it that way it was just so wrong. It broke the novel. I had to keep rewriting it until it worked. This is typical. I always find endings are the hardest and they always go through, many, many drafts. I’m currently struggling to find the ending of my current novel. So it’s good to remember that this pretty much always happens.

It’s one thing to have a ghost inhabit an attic in an old house, it’s another to have them situated in every corner of Surrey Hills. You could have picked any other supernatural figure to introduce to Razorhurst. Why ghosts? And why so many?

As I mentioned, the first sentence of this book was the first thing I wrote, “Tommy was a talker and didn’t much like the other ghosts so he was forever talking to Kelpie.” All I knew when I typed that was that it was happening in the the early 1930s in Sydney. I’d had it in mind to set something in Sydney then because I’ve been working on a novel set then in New York City for years now and I got curious about what was happening in Sydney at the same time.

Next I had to figure out who Tommy and Kelpie were and what kind of ghost Tommy was. It’s become a bit of a trope that ghosts linger when they have unfinished business. I’ve always liked that idea. However, I’ve always thought that if you’re living through a particularly violent period of time or in a place that has a long history of violence there would be lots of people with unfinished business. There never seemed to be enough ghosts. So I fixed that.

My Sister Rosa comes out this winter from Soho Teen. Would you like to talk about this (kind of) new release? What excites you about this one? What excited you about writing it?

Unlike all my other novels, Rosa, started with an idea rather than a character. I was wondering what a YA version of The Bad Seed would look like. So instead of the mother slowly realising her child is a psychopath it would be an older sibling. I’d been reading about psychopaths for most of my life—because fascinating—so I had a good head start on the research. But because I was writing from the point of view of a seventeen year old boy, Che Taylor, I decided to limit myself to the kinds of research that Che could do. I didn’t talk to any experts until after I’d finished the book and most of what I read were books that he could get hold of and information he could find online. That was a fun restriction to put on myself.

I enjoyed writing about a psychopath so much that the book I’m working on is from the point of view of a psychopath. Disturbingly I found their voice much easier to write than I found Che’s.

How do manage your inner critic? What do you do about your inner censor?

I don’t really have one in that sense. Because I’ve published eleven books now, and it’s my job, I don’t have those kind of doubts anymore. I know I can write novels and so I do. Of course, I have other kinds of doubts, but they don’t stop me either, they just spur me on to do better. Besides most of my anxieties aren’t really about writing, they’re about the constantly changing publishing industry. I find it best to try not to think about the business side of things.

Managing my laziness is my biggest battle. I love writing, but there are lots of thing I love more, like reading, or hanging out with friends, or playing with my niece, or watching TV. You get the picture.

EXTRA: What are you looking forward to reading this fall?

Wow. So much. I’m super excited for the latest Marie Lu. I can’t wait for the sequel to Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. I’m also excited to read Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost, Robin Talley’s As I Descended and Nisi Shawl’s Everfair. I just wish I could read faster!

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Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Justine! Congratulations on the imminent N. American release of My Sister Rosa! And good luck with future projects–we’re excited to read more from you!

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