YA Interview: Jaclyn Moriarty

Jaclyn Moriarty grew up in Sydney, Australia and studied in the United States and England. She spent four years working as a media and entertainment lawyer and is now writing full time. Jaclyn is the author of bittersweet teen bestsellers Feeling Sorry for Celia, The Year of Secret Assignments, and The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie.

Tell us about your latest project.
I am working on another book in the Ashbury/Brookfield series. It’s called Shadowgirl, and it’s the story of Amelia and Riley: bad kids from the bad crowd at bad Brookfield High who have just transferred to Ashbury. They’re brilliant, mysterious, and probably evil, and Ashbury can’t get enough of them.
Shadowgirl also features a few characters from some of the previous books, including Lydia and Emily from The Year of Secret Assignments, and Toby from The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie.
It’s also a ghost story.
What are the highlights of your journey to publication? (How long did you write before getting a contract, how did you hear, what went through your head, etc.)
I always wanted to be a writer, and wrote a lot of opening chapters of novels while I was growing up. But never more than the opening chapter. I got determined when I went to study in England. I made a secret pact with myself that I was not allowed to come home until I had written a novel and got it published.
So, I wrote Feeling Sorry for Celia while I was living in England. I sent it out to ten different agents and publishers, and they all sent it straight back to me. Every time I got a rejection letter, I cried. Partly because I was sad to be rejected and partly because I wanted to come home.
Eventually, I ran out of money and my visa expired, so I had to break my secret pact and come home. I went to work as a lawyer in a Sydney law firm. I put the manuscript of Feeling Sorry for Celia in the corner of my office, planning to rewrite it when I had a chance. One year later, it was still in the corner of my office. I realised there would never be a chance to rewrite it. I put it in an envelope and sent it to a literary agency in Sydney – a few days later, I got a phone call from the author Garth Nix. He was working as an agent at that time, and had opened the envelope with my manuscript in it. He said he would like to represent the book. I was over the moon to get a call from an agent but did not believe for one moment that he would find me a publisher. Within a few months Garth had found me publishers in Australia, the UK and the US. That made me unbelievably happy.
I have to say, The Year of Secret Assignments is one of my favorite comfort books. Did you have to stay up very late to write some of its laugh-out-loud passages?
That is very kind of you. The Year of Secret Assignments was my second book and I wrote it while I was still working as a lawyer so I mostly wrote it on weekends. Sometimes, I went to cottages in mountains or by the sea to write. Sometimes I did stay up very late (but then I slept in late the next day).

What fiction most influenced your childhood, and what effect did those stories have on your writing?
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl; The Phoenix and the Carpet by E.Nesbit; all of the Mary Poppins books by PL Travers. Reading these books, I fell in love with the concept of stories set in a real world that has a magical edge.
Why do you write for young people?
I think stories set in a real world with a magical edge seem to work best for young people. Older people are cynical, and suspicious of anything that doesn’t fall into a particular category. Also, I like young people – they often seem to be funny, imaginative, honest and dramatic. I think they make good characters, and wonderful readers.
What prepared you to write for teenagers?
I read a lot of Young Adult books before I started writing them, and I still read a lot of them now. I also reread my teenage diaries every time I start a new book. When I wrote my first book, Feeling Sorry for Celia, I was addicted to YA books, and I was writing a PhD about the law relating to media and young people – which meant I was thinking a lot about the privacy rights of teenagers. So I guess that’s why I wrote a book for teenagers.
But I’m not sure that I am prepared at all. I keep finding teenagers’ blogs that are so fresh, fast and funny that I feel like I should close all my documents and let the teenagers speak for themselves.
What are a few of your all-time favorite books?
The Republic of Love by Carol Shields; The Waves by Virginia Woolf; Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn; everything by Jane Austen; The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin; The Tattoed Potato and Other Clues by Ellin Raskin; The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas; There’s a boy in the girl’s bathroom by Louis Sachar; We didn’t mean to go to sea by Arthur Ransome.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing for teenagers?
I once read that all young adult books have lists in them. Ever since then I have tried to be careful not to put too many lists in my books. But I notice they still have lists. I also heard someone say not to try too hard to include current teenage slang in your books. That’s good advice because any slang you use will be out-of-date by the time the book goes to press.
But when I’m writing I try to focus on making my teenage characters as real as I can, rather than on the fact that I’m writing for teenage readers.
What aspect of writing is the most difficult for you to conquer? How do you overcome it?
Hearing the voices of imaginary future critics in my head. Sometimes it can be a good thing to hear a voice saying, “the middle section of this book is unbelievably dull” – because it makes me rewrite the middle section of the book and make it better. But sometimes the voices are so sneering, scornful, dismissive and cruel that I feel like I can’t write another word.
I think I overcome that by making myself think about my characters. I think of them as real people who have stories to tell, and there’s nobody else but me who can do that for them (because nobody else knows my characters). Then I listen to the characters’ voices instead of the critics’ voices. They become the imaginary voices that count.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
Before I had my little boy, Charlie (who just turned two), I used to write late into the night and sleep until noon. Back then, I always said that my favourite part of being a writer was the freedom to sleep in.
Now, Charlie has taken that freedom from me.
Probably, my new favourite thing about being a writer is the fact that I can work from home, and see as much of Charlie as I can. I can play with Charlie and still call that ‘working time’ because ideas for books come to me while we play.
Other favourite parts of being a writer are: the fact that I can work wherever I want to (when the babysitter has Charlie, I mean); getting a new idea while sitting on the beach and thinking that the new idea is going to turn into a masterpiece; researching for a book; getting to the downhill part of a book; getting e-mails and letters from readers.
My least favourite parts are: trying to put a new idea onto paper and realising the idea’s not a masterpiece but a disaster; waking up in the middle of the night in terror because I think that people might stop reading my books and then I won’t be able to be a writer any more.
Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?
At the moment, my days look like this: I get up when Charlie wakes me up. This is always earlier than I want to get up, but he’s cute so I don’t mind. Or not too much anyway. We have breakfast and then go to the park, or the beach, or meet friends. He has avocado and cream cheese sandwiches for his lunch. Then he has his afternoon sleep. As soon as he is in his cot I run downstairs and make myself a salad sandwich and bring it to my desk and start writing. I write while he sleeps, which is usually for about two hours. I try not to spill the salad sandwich on the keyboard while I write.
Sometimes Charlie refuses to have his sleep. Then we play some more, and I try not to worry too much about writing deadlines and the end of my career and how I am going to pay the rent, etc, etc.
Three afternoons a week, a babysitter comes over and plays with Charlie for another two hours after he wakes up. Those days, I might run up the road and work in a café, or I might stay at my computer at home and work. I keep myself at the computer with fruit, chocolate and apple-and-cinnamon tea. I like to hear Charlie laughing downstairs while I work.
After the babysitter goes, Charlie and I have dinner, then he has his bath and goes to bed. Then I do the housework, and the business administration, and then I come upstairs again and do another hour of work. But sometimes I’m too sleepy. And then I go to bed.
If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?
I think that Lorrie Moore is both sharply funny and powerfully moving; and Lisa Moore’s writing is beautifully evocative. I’d like to have their strengths.
When do you know you’ve got the finished product and it’s your best effort?
When my own writing makes me smile and laugh. I always feel embarrassed when I realise that I’m finding myself funny, but I think it’s a good sign.
Your current work in progress is …
Apart from Shadowgirl, I’m working on a series of books about the Kingdom of Cello; and I’m working on a novel for adults (and young adults) about a girl who keeps getting chapters of a self-improvement book in the mail.
Do you have a dream, something you’d love to achieve with your writing?
I don’t think this is what I’m supposed to say here but I’d like my books to be made into movies and become HUGE, INTERNATIONAL HITS so I could live in a house by the sea and so that Charlie and I could fly first class all around the world. That is my dream.
However, I think a better answer might be to say that I’d like to make teenage readers feel happier and stronger and more hopeful about life. And to make them laugh when they’re having a bad day. I would like those things very much.
(But first class trips to Tuscany would also be great. I’d like both, to be honest.)