The Golden Child: an interview with Wendy James

It’s my very great pleasure today to bring you a fascinating interview with my dear friend and award-winning Australian writer Wendy James who talks about her new book, The Golden Child, an utterly gripping novel which poses the disturbing question: how well do we ever really know our children? Elegantly written, with richly-textured backgrounds and subtly-depicted characters, this is a memorable novel that will have readers talking about it long after they’ve turned the very last page.

 

wendy-jamesFirst of all, Wendy, congratulations on the release of The Golden Child! It’s an extraordinarily gripping novel which is also thought-provoking–and not a little chilling!– in its examination of the challenges of contemporary family life. Can you tell us about how it started, and did anything in particular inspire it?

Thanks, Sophie! It’s fabulous to have it out in the world at last!

The nature versus nurture question is one that I’ve always found fascinating.  And that’s where I started with The Golden Child. I wanted to very deliberately create a narrative that ran counter to Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. In Shriver’s novel, there was more than a hint that Kevin’s problems began with his mother’s ambivalence. I wanted a mother who, unlike Eva, wasn’t terribly conflicted about motherhood, who found it easy to nurture her children, who wasn’t disappointed in them, or frustrated by her lot.  And I wanted to think about what it might be like to discover that despite this, regardless of the effort, the environment, the endless love given — it can all go horribly wrong. What it might be like to discover that you don’t really know your child at all.

The story is told through several points of view, and not only as straight narrative, but also through blogs and websites and other online media. How did you juggle these very different forms in your writing?

I actually find it quite difficult these days to write a straight narrative from one perspective. There always seems to be another story, in the wings, waiting to be told., Another character, who sees things slightly differently. I guess that’s what interests me most about storytelling. It’s like acting, in that we get to become someone other than ourselves. As for the online narratives, I think online personas are so prevalent now, that it’s quite hard to write anything contemporary that doesn’t include some sort of online component. It’s becoming more and more pervasive in our lives, a big part of how we connect with others, and how we see ourselves. And I think for adolescents — as in my story — it’s now part of working out who they are, an essential element in their ‘becoming’.

Both Beth’s breezy blog and the sinister Golden Child site are masks, or to put it in another way, avatars of the real person behind each. One misrepresentation is innocent; the other is not. Do you think the virtual world encourages deception, and if so, why?

I think it’s more that it allows it rather than encourages it. Although sadly, the anonymity does tend to bring out the worst in some people — the bullies and sadists among us. Along with the whiners and those who suffer from opinion overload. It’s been such a sudden change, a revolution, and I think as in all revolutions, it’s full of frightening unknowns.  I guess it’s like being dumped ion an island with a bunch of strangers, having no rules or regulations, or notions of correct behaviour, and no laws.  It’s a free-for-all at the moment, for sure, but I like to imagine that we’ll calm down, and sort out some boundaries eventually. All the possibilities are exciting— but there’s frightening, damaging aspects, too.golden-child

In The Golden Child you get, as you say, one character whose online life is a fairly benign confection:  Beth uses what’s available to make a good story. It’s something I’ve done myself, and I suspect that most writers do something similar to some extent — we all have to spin that straw of ordinary life into the gold of narrative. The other blogger, the Golden Child, is the true self unmasked — and rather malign self at that!

Social media shaming and cyber bullying are recognised society-wide phenomena and also constitute an added hazard for parents and children, putting final paid, in my opinion, to the never-very-trustworthy proverb, ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me.’  In your novel, the two mothers–Beth, the mother of the bully, and Andi, the mother of the victim–have to face the devastating consequences of the cruelties of online mob behaviour. Is there any way, do you think, that they–or indeed real parents–could have acted to prevent or at least minimise the damage?

I guess there are ways in which we can police our children’s use of the net far more strictly — there are parental controls available, and ways to stop them accessing certain information — but it becomes so complicated when kids need access for homework. It can be hard to extricate the necessary from the social. I think both Beth and Andi are caught unawares – Andi a little distracted by new motherhood, assuming that all’s okay with her eldest child, enjoying the slight loosening of the apron strings.  And then Beth, who doesn’t like that drift so much, but hasn’t any clue that all is not as it appears on the surface. She’s also so busy, juggling work, marriage, a move, renovations, mothers, children, her blog, everything. I think sometimes we forget that mothers ( and fathers) are also people themselves, who are still trying to sort their own shit out, as well as everyone else’s. And it has to be said that even though things are slowly changing, a greater portion of the emotional and logistical work of parenthood falls largely to the mothers, still. I’ve seen some reviews of the book critical of Beth and Andi, seeing them as being somehow negligent, but no one ever asks what the fathers were doing. And actually, nor do Andi or Beth; the blame is directed inward, as it so often is.

Your novel deftly portrays the different worlds that the adults (not just the parents, but also grandparents) and kids live in. They misunderstand each other often. Or do they? Are they really that different?

I do think there’s some interesting generational stuff going on, but isn’t that just inevitable, the way it always is?  I think these are as superficial as they’ve always been, and the real divisions are still more to do with personality and personal values than generations. For instance, not all teenagers think like Charlotte — that bullying is just how it is, and that we should all just get used to it. And yes, both the grandmothers dislike what they view as helicopter parenting, but for very different reasons:  one is worried about the moral ramifications of over-parenting and privilege; the other grandmother is scathing about what she sees as a type of emotional ‘mollycoddling’ — of allowing your children to be too sensitive.

Your depiction of the kids at the centre of the novel–Charlotte, Lucy, Sophie–is as satisfyingly authentic as that of the adult characters. Do you think there are differences when it comes to creating young as opposed to adult characters, and how do you keep it real?

You know, I actually never really think too hard about that! I was a kid once – and I have a pretty good memory of it. Or of how it felt, if not the details. And then, of course, I’ve been fortunate to be able to observe my own kids growing up. That of-the-moment authenticity is always tricky; it changes — and dates —  so quickly!  I did get my younger kids to check the language, and my daughter added a few choice phrases, and told me when things didn’t work. And in case anyone wants to argue the point, my kids and their friends do actually say lol aloud when something’s funny. That’s language change in action, folks.  LOL.

The mounting suspense in your novel, and the final plot twist, gives it very much the feel of a psychological thriller. Yet there is no straight-out ‘crime’ as such. How did you go about creating that sense of creeping menace whilst also keeping the novel anchored within ‘ordinary’ life?

I actually think that happened without any conscious help from me. Bad kids creep us out; it’s so wrong. And when you juxtapose this with the very ordinary domestic world, which is of course where some of the most horrible things happen, that sense of dread is ramped up exponentially. You know you’re meant to feel dread in a dark alley of a grimy city, surrounded by sinister strangers, but it’s a shock to find that life with nice middle class kids in sunny beachside middle-class suburbia can be as scary as hell too.

The Golden Child could be seen as part of the contemporary genre of so-called ‘domestic suspense’ to which novels such as Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin might also be said to belong. Are you comfortable with such a description? And why do you think it’s become such a successful genre?

I am completely, in fact, regally happy — probably because I have actually been called Australia’s Queen of Domestic Suspense (thank you Angela Savage!). I think we get so much pleasure from this particular genre because these situations feel so possible; they could all happen to you.  When the betrayal comes from within, from someone you love and trust, it can be horrifying. And it can be impossible to know how to protect yourself. There’s literally nowhere to run, no way to hide.

 

Wendy James is the mother of two sets of siblings born eight years apart, in the digital and pre-digital ages. She is the author of seven novels, including the bestselling The Mistake. Her debut novel, Out of the Silence, won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for first crime novel, and was shortlisted for the Nita May Dobbie award for women’s writing. She works as an editor at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation.

 

 

Teen Buzz: my workshop on writing YA fiction, next month in Sydney!

nswwcDelighted to announce that I’ll be once again presenting my one-day workshop, Teen Buzz: Writing Great Young Adult Fiction, at the NSW Writers’ Centre in Sydney on March 4. I presented this course last year at the same venue and it seemed very popular with participants! So if you’re interested in finding out more about writing YA today–what’s hot, what publishers are looking for, and how you can best hone your writing to reach a YA audience, complete with fun and useful exercises–come along and join us on Saturday March 4, in the beautiful parklands setting of the Centre!

All details and bookings here.

Story behind the story 8: And Then authors and their contribution

Today Dan Rabarts (story in vol 1) is sharing the fascinating Maori background behind his And Then contribution.

dan-rabartsDan Rabarts and Tipana Tapu

Tipuna Tapu is a post-apocalyptic adventure story, set in a dieselpunk world where every conceivable monster of myth and legend walks the earth, and where humanity struggles to exist in the shadow of dragons, giants, and kaiju. In a far corner of this world, misty Aotearoa, people crowd into places made tapu, sacred, by events of the deep past, or by the sacredness of bones that protect them and keep the hungering taniwha at bay. Our heroes, or perhaps anti-heroes, search for forgotten bones to sell to those who can afford them, and want to keep themselves safe from the taniwha. Which is all good and well, until things turn against them. Suddenly, the bones are more than just profit and loss. They’re a map to a past that just might save Aotearoa from the hell it has fallen into, but can our heroes change their ways in time?

My iwi is Ngati Porou, and my father maintains our histories, our whakapapa, going back many generations. Over the years, he has been sharing these stories with me, among them the narratives that connect our family to our ancestral lands in the Coromandel. This has included discussions of how the remains of our ancestors were handled and stored, of the tapu, or respect, associated with the bones of the dead, and the sacredness of those places, and those remains. So this story has been brewing for a while, and it was only a matter of time before it came out, mashed up with taniwha and motorbikes and nailguns.

Story behind the story 7: And Then authors and their contribution

Today, Kelly Gardiner talks about her story(published in Vol 1)

kellyg1Boots and the Bushranger is set in the early days of the Victorian Gold Rush in the booming town of Castlemaine, where every square foot was dug up and turned over, where people made and drank and lost fortunes or pennies, and where (as we now know, thanks to Clare Wright’s ‘Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’) women were a important part of the goldfields communities.
But what happens when some of those women decide to take the law into their own hands?
It’s the first in what will become a series of stories paying homage to the early sisters of Sherlock, those feisty young women like Hilda Wade and Miss Cayley, who were enormously popular amateur detectives created around the same time as Conan Doyle’s Holmes. I love how so many of those early detective stories were short stories: how much character and humour, how many clues and mysteries, were crammed into a few thousand words.
‘Boots and the Bushranger’ sets our two young heroines at odds with the law and their families, and is (I hope) their first of many brushes with danger, disguise, derring-do … and wombats.

Story behind the story 6: And Then authors and their contributions

Today it’s the turn of Jack Dann and Steven Paulsen(who collaborated on a story in Vol 2 ) and James Hopwood(story in Vol 2 ) to tell us about their And Then contributions.

jack-dann-and-steven-paulsenHarold the Hero and the Talking Sword, Jack Dann and Steven Paulsen

Jack and I have been talking for a while about doing a project together when the opportunity to write a story for Clan Destine’s ‘And Then…’ anthology came up. Jack had showed his story ‘The Talking Sword’ to Lindy Cameron. She loved it, but suggested it be expanded because the brief for the anthology was for stories with two equal protagonists; and in Jack’s original story the demon sword held sway over his ‘sidekick.

So…we started talking; and before long we were not only brainstorming the further adventures of the time-travelling sword, but we were working out how we might bring its unlikely wielder, Harold the Hero, to the fore. We took our inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey and asked ourselves what would happen if the sword somehow lost all its powers. The result is ‘Harold the Hero and the Talking Sword’. It was certainly great fun to write, and we hope it will be just as much fun to read.

hopwood-bioThe Lost Loot of Lima, James Hopwood
I have always wanted to write a ‘treasure hunt’ adventure story, and while trying to come up with an idea, I can across this old newspaper clipping(below) which suggested that a fantastic treasure trove known as the ‘lost loot of Lima’ was buried in Queenscliff. I immediately wanted to know more, and hit the research trail.
hopwood
My story, a globetrotting adventure, which is set in 1955, follows archaeologists Mark and Sarah Page (known as The Pages of History) as they follow the clues, and race to beat a cadre of neo-Nazis to the treasure.

 

Story behind the story 5: And Then authors on their contribution

Today, we’ll hear from Evelyn Tsitas(story in vol 1) and Lindy Cameron(story in Vol 2–and also the  fabulous publisher of And Then!)

evelyn-tsitas-photo-copyStealing Back the Relics, Evelyn Tsitas

 Stealing Back the Relics is a Dan Brown style art theft thriller, stealing wilfully from my intimate knowledge of the art world and academia. My day job is working in a university art gallery, so I know a thing or two about that rarefied scene. And as a speculative fiction writer, playing around with the supernatural is what comes as second nature.

 Inspiration for Relics came from a frenetic three-week trip to Europe, immersing myself in art galleries, presenting at academic conferences and catching up with an art historian friend in Germany and a journalist friend in Paris. I was up cathedrals, down catacombs, and sketching in museums where I was drawn to the grotesque and beguiling reliquaries – ornate vessels that hold sacred pieces of saints.

 The David Lodge style ‘campus novel’ twist in Relics came after a chance conversation with a friend’s husband. It turned out he was doing his third PhD. Now, still in recovery from finishing my own (first) doctorate (and not contemplating a second) this was struck me as so outrageous a passion that overnight it somehow merged in my writing subconscious with my European trip, and my newfound obsession with reliquaries. Relics and its characters emerged overnight. Of course, the female protagonist, the sassy Greek Australian journalist, may (or may not) be a self-portrait…or wish fulfilment!

lindy-cameron-3The Medusa Stone, Lindy Cameron

The idea behind what became The Medusa Stone is what prompted the idea for the whole anthology.

I love cliff-hanging page-turning Indiana Jones types adventures and wanted to write one myself. But as my original idea is part of a series of novellas I’m writing that will ultimately form a mosaic novel, I wanted to write a shorter one for And Then…

The overarching story is:

A tale of Amazons and the Great Library of Alexandria in which a time-travelling archaeologist and a writer from the 21st century meet the great-great granddaughter of Alexander the Great and Queen Thalestris.

The Medusa Stone episode, which begins in Istanbul in 1928, follows the adventures of two women, an Australian aviator and a English traveller, who battle both ancient Romans and Nazis – with the help of the Amazons of Amsara.

Story behind the story 4: And Then authors on their contribution

Today’s it’s the turn of Amanda Pillar (story in Vol 2)  Sulari Gentill(story in Vol 1) and Kat Clay (story in vol 1) to tell us something about their And Then stories.

profile3It, Amanda Pillar

‘It’ is a science fiction tale set on a planet that is plagued by a giant kraken-like monster.

And, believe it or not, it was inspired by a dream I had years ago. In fact, there are a couple of scenes that are direct reproductions of the dream!

 

 

 

 

sulari-gentillCatch A Fallen Star, Sulari Gentill

My contribution to the And Then… anthology is quite a departure from the historical crime, and mythic fiction I usually write.   Set in the near future, it imagines an Australia that has swung hard to the right, where nationalism is used to quell any resistance.  It is a storification of my own fears about the direction the world is heading.  Sadly, in the short time since I finished the writing it, Catch a Fallen Star has become a lot less speculative than I hoped it would remain.

 

 

web-portrait-kat-clayIn the company of Rogues, Kat Clay

In the Company of Rogues was born out of my love of fantasy video games, and my general amusement playing with genre tropes. You know the ones: the guy in a dark cloak chasing our heroes, giant spiders, and of course, the loveable rogue. I love rogues, but they sure do get away with a lot. I thought about what the consequences would be of this lifestyle, and so we chance upon our hero Randall the Rogue, who has developed an STD from too much ‘rogueing’. Together with his sidekick, Dennis the Budgerigar of Doom, they have to go on a quest to cure his illness, with the help of a lady rogue… and as they say in the land of Sidarth: “Never quest with another rogue, they’ll steal your heart then steal your clothes.”