“I had to do justice to this story”: An interview with Danielle Binks, by Max Vos

 

Danielle Binks is a Melbourne-based author and agent, who recently published her debut novel The Year the Maps Changed with Hachette Australia. Underground Writers had the pleasure of interviewing her about her work, and the inspiration behind her novel.

So, I wanted to ask you what the process was like for publishing your first novel?
During a pandemic…?

Yeah, pretty much!
Well, considering that the novel took five years to write, it’s been ticking over in my mind that, had I been quicker, I could have skipped publishing in 2020 and published sooner. But you know, it is what it is. Everything happens for a reason, it’s kind of building blocks to get to where you are. My book came out end of April, early May, and I remember around March when everything started shutting down thinking “oh, should we bring this out earlier? Should we shift the launch?” There were lots of discussions about “should we bring it out earlier or postpone?”, and we decided that, no, we should keep with our time, and it ended up being fine. I think that because we were part of the first wave, the national first wave, there was a lot of goodwill from everyone about how difficult it was to launch a book at that time, considering that we had events in place that we had to cancel. So it ended up being that we probably got a few extra look-ins because people felt quite badly that I was having to launch during a pandemic. But in the end, it was all fine; it all moved to digital launches, which meant that all of my interstate friends could be there, which was wonderful. The sales are healthy, it’s still chugging along and doing everything it’s meant to. You know, you would always prefer a physical launch, just because it’s a party, and I guess every author just wants an excuse to have everyone fawn over them, but it is what it is! Given it is a pandemic, I’m actually really humbled and grateful that it did ok in the end.

That must be a really good feeling to know that there’s still support out there for your work and that people are enjoying things that you produce; that it helps people, or makes them happy in some way during this kind of time period.
Yeah, I’m in a slightly different position because my book was always going to be quiet. It’s for middle-grade readers, eight- to twelve-year-olds; it’s historic fiction; it’s got some grief in there, some family dynamics; it’s a quiet book. So had it come out traditionally in 2020, the way it was intended to, it probably just would have come and gone in a very quiet, slow release. But because of the pandemic we had a few extra eyeballs on it, and a few people wanting the angle of what it felt like to release in a pandemic, so I got to talk about it on that level. Whereas I feel bad for some people who have high fantasy novels, crime novels, where they would be going around touring Australia with so much interest and fandom around those sorts of books. Whereas I think mine was always resigned to the fact that it’s going to be a slow burn, it’s going to be one that requires people to actually pick it up, read it, talk about it; it doesn’t have anything flashy to hang on it for publicity. So in the end, coming out in a pandemic became the publicity a little bit; it became a talking point, people wanting to know what it was like. You know, “this is your debut book, that you spent five years writing, what’s it like releasing in a pandemic?” It kind of gave it a second wind, which was really nice. I think people had probably more opportunity to give it a chance that they wouldn’t have if it had come out in all the traditional ways.

It is a really interesting situation that lends something unique to your book that it wouldn’t have otherwise necessarily had. Other authors who are releasing right now probably feel the same way. Do you know anyone else who’s gone through something similar?
Yeah, all of my authors—Fiona Hardy, Jenna Guillaume. I feel particularly bad for Jenna Guillame, who’s one of my authors with Jacinta di Mase’s agency because she was actually meant to go over to America to promote the launch of her North-American rights book over there, What I Like about Me which came out with Peach View Publishing in North America. So she had this whole American tour planned that she was going to go do to celebrate the fact that she’s an Aussie author whose book got picked up in America, and she had to cancel it. That sucks! And I see Ellie Marney go through that right now as well with None Shall Sleep, which is a really big-deal book – it’s getting a lot of hype here and in America – and, had the pandemic not hit, I’m sure she would have gone over to America to hype it. So I feel really really badly for those Australian authors who’ve hit the big time and were going to go and have a big-time tour in America that would’ve been amazing. It would’ve been huge for them, getting their name out there, but maybe they’re doing that anyway digitally. Jenna did some events with Becky Albertalli, who provided an endorsement quote for her book, so that’s huge! But I still feel for them that it would’ve been nice to go to City Lights bookstore and do a little book chat in America and all of that. So compared to them, I feel like not getting to launch at my local bookshop in Mornington was just kind of small-time. But it is what it is.  

I wanted to ask you how your work as an agent has influenced how you approached this novel in particular. Did it come into consideration when you were writing it, or was it more in the background?
Probably the reason it took five years to write is because of knowing, as an agent, how high the standards are now. I was comparing myself to some really fabulously-polished manuscripts that I’ve pitched as an agent that have been picked and snatched up straight away, so I kind of knew where the goal-posts were. And I got very hung up on the fact that people would have high expectations of me, so I had to have manuscripts polished to a very satisfying high degree. I probably got a bit in my head as an agent, and that’s why it took five years to write, but all of that was experience that I needed and it ended up that when it came time to pitch it, I only pitched it to two editors. Luckily in my role as agent I knew those two editors really well and I really wanted to work with one of them. So that all informed it as well, it was really nice.

Because of your work as an agent, you probably have experience with this—what are some common mistakes you see writers making when they submit to an agent for publishing or representation?
Probably just not going to the right agent. Anyone who submits to me not knowing what my pulse points are: young adult, middle-grade, romance; I’m pretty well-known for loving romance as well. Anyone who submits to me a true-crime adult novel, I’m just like, “that’s not really my wheelhouse”. I read it, but you don’t really hear me talking about it a lot. It’s a common misconception to think that literary agents just represent literature as a monolith, and it’s like “no, if we did that, we wouldn’t have the specialised knowledge we have of our specific areas”. And I need that knowledge not just for the industry side of things but for the editorial side; I do edits with my authors, and I tidy up the manuscripts, but the fact that I have specialised knowledge of youth literature, middle-grade and YA, and the fact that I’m a huge romance fan and I’m hedging a little bit more into those realms with acquisitions, all of that informs my editorial mind as well. So I can’t just be a monolith agent for every single written thing under the sun. It would mean that I didn’t really have that specialised knowledge, that I was just trying to run the gambit of everything, ever. I would also say our agency is quite a feminist one; we try to be very forward-thinking. So anyone that sends us, I don’t know, far-right QAnon nonsense or something, that’s not going to fly with us. We represent Clare Wright who writes about putting women back in the history books who’ve been long-forgotten, especially in Australian history. We’re not going to spend time on your far-right whackery!

You mention that you have a passion for romance and YA. Is that what inspired the themes you have in this book? Does it come from personal experience, or are you personally passionate about humanitarian issues as well?
I’m really passionate about humanitarian issues, I’m really passionate about found family; the families we make for ourselves, the families that young people make for themselves. You know, in The Year the Maps Changed, adoption is a thread in the story. There’s a big thread about the friendships that you build for yourself, and how those become your family as well. The new book that I’m writing right now, which is upper-end YA, so it will probably be for the fifteen-plus crowd, has got an LGBT+ romance in it that’s very heavily represented. So I get to spread kind of my wings and show all my love, and one of the things I love is love. It’s really nice to be able to get to write a romance that owns voices and that I’m really passionate about, so that will be really interesting. All of that goes into the stew of the story, everything that you love. It’s what I’m drawn to in my acquisitions as well. So I’ve represented someone like Anna Whateley whose Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal is about a young woman who has autism and is experiencing her first-ever romance with a girl. All of that stuff is informed – it informs my stories, and it informs my acquisitions as well. Not wholly, not totally, not every single story needs romance or romantic elements; it’s just the sort of things I gravitate towards. Just like you’re a reader in a bookshop looking at the spines and thinking “what jumps out at me?” It’s kind of what it means to be an idea-generator author, and it’s also what it is to be an agent. You look around and say “what interests me? What inspires me?”

That’s really interesting. Is there anything in particular that interested you in writing this for a middle-grade readership, as opposed to an older or younger audience?
Yes. The Year the Maps Changed is middle-grade, eight- to twelve-year-olds, and when I was still in the ideas-generating phase I was playing with the idea of making it YA and having a teenage boy protagonist who was going to be about seventeen. But when that was the idea I was working with, I didn’t have a voice in my head of a character, it just wasn’t coming to me. And it wasn’t until I accepted the fact that I would probably have to draw a little bit on my own life – because in 1999, much like my protagonist Fred, I was also eleven going on twelve – and once I decided to open myself up to a few of my experiences from that time, that’s when Fred came to me really quite clearly. The reason it’s middle-grade is because that was me growing up in 1999. I had to lend a little bit of myself to the story in order for it to matter to me. That’s really the main reason that it’s middle grade – is to kind of tap into my memories of that time.

Were there any challenges about writing that way? From your own personal experience or being attached to this character?
Yes. Again, that’s probably why it took five years, is that I decided to set it where I grew up, on the Mornington Peninsula, and kind of mire my own life a little bit. Fred’s father is also in the police force, which mine was for seventeen years; Fred also has a grandparent who lives at the back of the main house, which mine did – the second that I gave it all those little points of reference to my life, I started to get a bit hyperaware that people in my life would read it and be able to connect the dots. That just made me a little bit self-conscious and a bit wary, and it also kind of upped the stakes; it meant that it had to be perfect. It had to be really, really good; I had to do justice to this story. So everything just became more important, which was also the drive that I needed to finish it. It also made me really want to finish it to the point that I was proud of it, which was another driver. It was good and bad, and it pushed me to complete it to such a point that I was really happy and proud with it, and I could envision people in my life reading it and being happy and proud of it too.

In the book, you write a lot about how place and spaces are constructed, that they’re transient and things like that. Was there anything in particular that inspired that aspect of the book as well?
I’m a huge history nerd. Because I was eleven going on twelve in 1999, I wasn’t really up at the time on all the intricacies of the Kosovo War and all the NATO bombings and everything, so when I started setting out to write this story I researched that, and what struck me was how difficult it is from a historic perspective, let alone geographical, to wrap your head around all the changes from World War I to now in the Balkan region, and just how much conflict that region went through, particularly in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s; it was rife with unrest, with civil war, with violence. And all of that kind of resulted in maps changing and realigning. I mean, the very fact that we have the former Yugoslavia – again there’s a country that once existed when we were growing up, when I was growing up, that is no more. So I was wrapping my head around that and deciding that I had to try to communicate this to quite young kids. How do you do that? I kind of leaned into the fact that the way to do that is to admit to them, “this stuff is ridiculous”. Geography sounds like it should be very real and solidified and there’s maps on a page that you can point to and say “there’s that”, but in reality, they don’t exist. Maps are made up by people. And, largely, made up by powerful people, who, oftentimes, are making these arbitrary decisions based on wins and losses. The moment I decided to communicate that, it was about leaning into the fact that it’s patently ridiculous, and it is, in some ways, corrupt, and that it comes down to politics; it comes down, ultimately, to people. I think I was just trying to communicate to them, in the same way that our history books are written by people and are therefore fallible, that they’re not wholly perfect. It’s really interesting, because looking the other day, I kind of think twitter or TikTok or something blew up because a young woman in America asked the question “how does math get invented? Who invented algebra? Why did we need algebra?” And people made fun of her for asking that question, and put it down to “dumb Americans”, but lots of people came to her defence. Actual mathematicians and physicists were like, “No, these are good questions. Math is an arbitrary concept that has no grounding in reality; why do we have it? That is ‘meaning of the universe’ kind of stuff.” And it was me sort of hedging in that way a little bit for kids, giving them room to think about politics and history and geography and society generally. Like, “what are the things that hold these concepts up? What makes them?” And what makes them is people. So trying to kind of convey all that in a single story was a little bit tricky, but it was the kind of meaninglessness that I leaned into.

I think that’s actually quite a progressive take on this kind of thing. These assumptions that people make about society, or the assumptions that we’re taught to make about society, that things are permanent and that they exist for a reason, because they’re good reasons, they just fulfil their own purpose by existing.
Yeah!

And by admitting that it comes from a person, or people, or groups of people, that’s admitting fallibility, like you said.
It’s the conversation of 2020, right? We’re talking about defunding the police, we’re talking about the way that society has been constructed to keep certain members of society down – actually explaining to people that these institutions have been in place since pretty much the beginning of time are really high-minded concepts. And it’s scary and tough for some people to wrap their heads around, that actually doing that is going to stop bad things from happening, basically. Kids can see that, I can see kids seeing that in the climate strikes, and the school protests against climate change and everything. I can see kids asking the question, “why are we doing things this way? Why have we always done things this way? Why can’t we change them?” And they’re actively battling against that. I can see kids instantly cottoning-on to why the Black Lives Matter movement is important, and what is at the heart of defunding the police, and what is at the heart of questioning these institutions and the roles that society plays in upholding them. Kids actually can tap into that because they almost have this black-and-white view of the world, where they can look at it and say that “this is unjust, and here are the reasons why”. So, I’m really quite moved by that. I quite like talking to kids on that level, because they seem to understand it and grasp it, whereas I think for adults it’s almost like they’ve had it too easy for too long, and they don’t want to probe at their own insecurities and their own prejudices, but kids are more than happy to, because they’re at the kind of thinking like this young student in America, who’s asking the question, “why math? Why does algebra exist?” Kids are constantly going to school and asking themselves those questions. It’s kind of inspiring. They’re at the base level of having to do the ground work in school, so they’re perfectly positioned to have these conversations that are really ethereal, almost. It’s really inspiring.

That’s really cool! I think, especially around a middle-grade readership, they’re perfectly positioned in this space of “OK, these are what I’ve been taught,” but now they’re coming into their own ideas about, “Well what do I believe then? Do I believe what I’ve been taught?” It’s cool to see a book that encourages that kind of questioning and sitting with anything that feels uncomfortable, pushing through it, and working through it with people around you. That’s a really interesting thing to see in a middle-grade-targeted book.
Thank you! It has been really interesting, especially – there’s a character in my book called Aiden, and I’ve had some book clubs with young kids, and they’ve just wanted to tell me that they really didn’t like that character. But then I started unpacking that, and I was like, “Why don’t you like him?” And they mention his dad, who is a kind of villain in the story. And I said, “Oh, but don’t you find it interesting that Aiden is trying to think for himself, and is just at the point of realising that he doesn’t share the same thoughts as his dad, or the same, maybe, political views as his dad?” And they all kind of go, “Oh, yeah, that would be really hard, if you were a kid who had those role models in your life, and you had to not think the same way as them”. And it’s cool to see them start unpacking that, and realising that he’s not a villain, he’s just really trying to do the right thing and figure out what that is, but he doesn’t have great role models in his life. I’ve put little markers in there, for kids to pick up and do with what they will, and I hope they do have some thoughts about it. I hope they do have discussions with their friends and their family about it, because I think these are the sorts of conversations that kids should be having and no doubt are having. Particularly in the climate that we’re living through, not just discussions about societal structures, around Black Lives Matter, but also climate change – I can imagine lots of kids are having very deep discussions with older generations, who are not on the same page as them about stuff like climate change. I think that’s, for now and in the future, going to be a huge marker of the next generation for us.

I think there’s probably a few readers out there who would relate to Aiden in that they don’t come from a progressive place, or they don’t come from a place that encourages you to question your own thoughts and what authority has taught you up until then. But it’s something that they might be able to see, “Oh OK, this is like me and that’s alright. I don’t have to be the same way that my parents are.”
Yeah, I hope so. I mean that’s one of the reasons I put it in the book, so that if any kids do have those thoughts, they can maybe start thinking, “I can think for myself”. And it comes down to moral compass, which is another big thing in the book, that you have to take care of your own moral compass, and figure things out for yourself a little bit. And, hopefully, them reading it in my book will have them thinking, “Maybe I should go seek out more books, or more art, or more of anything that speaks to this side of my soul and my brain a little bit”. So that was very deliberate of me; laying a path that if they want to walk down it, then they’re free to.

I think there’s a very empathetic core as well, to the novel that we don’t often see reflected in politics nowadays. They’re not often constructed around empathy, they’re more constructed around neoliberal approaches to issues that have a humanitarian solution. Having an empathetic core, is that something that you set out to do, or is that something that just came through the process of writing?
No, that was something that I set out to do. As soon as I knew this was going to be a story about refugees and asylum seekers, and I was going to be connecting the dots between 1999 and to now, the overarching message was a really big one looming for me. I wanted it to be a message of empathy, and more than that, I think empathy, at the end of the day, is imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is the ability to recognise someone else’s hurt, even if you do not directly have those same hurts in your own life. That’s empathy, you know? Being able to see the world from somebody else’s point of view, that’s empathy. That’s something that we have, you’re right, we’ve lost it in our societal discussions and largely because politics has become so toxic, and so entrenched. There’s almost an active glee in not being able to see the world from somebody else’s view. They say that so much of Trump’s politics comes down to “we want to hurt you”. And that is horrifying. So much of the Trumpian nature of republican politics right now is republicans backing him because they are hurting the same people that they don’t like, and that is just bizarre and toxic and vile to me. So, I think wanting a message of just empathy, it sounds a bit twee on the one hand, but if you look around at the current world, particularly the world in Australia as it relates to humanitarian crisis, to refugees and asylum seekers, and how much we are abusing humanitarian rights right now, I think wanting a message of empathy was the best I could hope for in these discussions. It was hard to communicate, but it was the thing that I most wanted to get across to kids.

To finish up, have you got anything else in the works or any other projects you’d like to tell us about?
Yes, so what I’m currently working on that is hopefully going to be out in May next year, also with Hachette, is the young adult novel currently titled The Monster of Her Age – which could change title in the future, who knows – this one’s definitely YA, for fifteen-plus. It’s about a young woman who played the child monster in an indie horror movie, and she is now seventeen when the novel begins, and she’s having to go home to Tasmania, to be by the family matriarch’s side as she’s dying. And this young woman has to confront the fact that she was used and abused a little bit as a child actor, and also how she fits into her family of thespians who are quite famous. She has to sort of realise that art is its own escape. That sounds very vague, but that’s what it’s going to be! I’ll bring it all together. It’s be something, it’ll be in bookish form somehow, next year.

Hopefully the release is a little smoother next year then!
Well, I don’t want to knock on wood or anything, it is what it is; I’ve learned once that I can survive a release in a pandemic, so if it has to happen again, I am prepared. I would love to actually see people and be able to go into a bookshop next year though, that would be very special.

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