Interview by Shelley Carter
Lisa Walker is an established Australian author with a range of works under her belt, ranging from young adult fiction to radio plays. Her latest novel, Paris Syndrome, has been likened to author John Green and features a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Paris. Editor Shelley Carter spoke to Lisa about her writing career so far and her tips for aspiring young adult authors.
Firstly, tell us about your writing career – how did you become an author?
I started off by writing short stories and travel articles and was excited to get them published, so I kept writing. I then went on and wrote a radio play that was produced on Radio National, which was another huge boost. At that stage I decided I was ready to embark on a novel, which had been my secret goal for a long time. So, about twenty years ago, I started writing novels. The first novel I wrote, which will never see the light of day, was a young adult fantasy, but I turned to adult fiction after that.
I wrote three novels that didn’t get published before I wrote Liar Bird. With Liar Bird I was accepted into the Varuna HarperCollins Program, which allowed me to work with a HarperCollins editor at the Varuna Writers House in the Blue Mountains. After the program, amazingly, they offered me a two-book deal. All up, it took about ten years from seriously deciding to write a novel until my first novel actually came out!
You’ve published a range of books with big publishing houses such as HarperCollins and Random House – what was it like working with them? How did you pitch your manuscript to them?
It is hard to get your work in front of publishers, so I was lucky to get my introduction to HarperCollins through the Varuna Writers House, which I highly recommend. Before Liar Bird was published I got myself an agent and she pitched my third novel, Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing to Random House, who loved it. The advantage of working with big publishing houses is that your work gets pretty much everywhere. It’s been such a thrill to see my books in airports and department stores as well as bookshops. The editing process at both these publishers was also fabulous and I felt like they helped me to take my books to the next level. The potential disadvantage of being with a big publisher is that they produce a lot of books, so you can sometimes feel like a very small fish in their big pond.
You have recently published both a young adult novel and an adult romantic comedy – did you have to adopt different writing styles and approaches for each work?
I write my adult novels in first-person point-of-view with readable language and humour, which is typical of YA, so I found it relatively easy to make the switch. Many years ago, a publisher said to me, ‘You know, you have a great voice for YA.’ I never forgot that and as a result have been wanting to write a YA novel for a while. The main difference with YA is that the protagonist experiences life-changing events for the first time. I think that adds extra power to the story-telling. Things seem closer to the bone when you’re a teenager. At 70 000 words, Paris Syndrome is a little shorter than my other novels, which have ranged from 75 000 – 90 000 words. The story therefore focuses more closely on the protagonist’s journey. There is less room for tangents. The editing process was also slightly different for my YA novel. I was encouraged to minimise swear words and there were also a few other editorial suggestions around making my protagonist a better role model. This never happened with my adult novels!
Do you have any tips for authors wanting to write for a YA audience?
I think YA authors work hard to balance light and dark in their storytelling. YA fiction is characterised by writing which is amusing yet hard-hitting. No topic is off-limits, and teenagers seem to ‘get’ quirky in a way that older readers may not.
Many YA books explore social issues and I think that’s a good thing. The right book at the right time can make a difference to a young person who is struggling. Paris Syndrome is a comedy, but it also explores diversity in sexuality, coping with grief and learning the difference between fantasy and reality. Above all else though I think YA needs to tell a relatable story. If that’s just about surviving at school or finding love, that’s fine too.
What does a typical day of writing look like for you? Do you have a set routine?
When I’m working on a novel, I aim to write for six hours a day between about 9am and 4pm. I find that the Pomodoro method usually works well for me – this is where you work in twenty-five-minute blocks, with five minutes off in between, then a longer break after every four sessions. If I can get twelve ‘pomodoros’ in, then I’ve had a productive day. I don’t worry too much about word count, just about maintaining focus. I have an internet blocker on my computer, which helps a lot. I also work at a stand-up desk and spend about half my writing time standing up, which I find is good for my energy levels. Before and after writing I’ll always get some exercise – either a surf or a walk. It helps me to work through my story and keeps me sane.
You have been travelling a lot for writing-related events. Any highlights? Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to?
Yes, I’m over in Western Australia at the moment, which is fabulous. I loved participating in the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, as well as the Young Readers and Writers Festival. I also enjoyed visiting the Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre and giving a talk there. It’s such a beautiful old house. At the moment I’m looking forward to spending a few days writing in a cabin at the KSP Writers Centre and then heading up the coast to participate in the Geraldton Big Sky Writers Festival. It’s such a privilege to be able to explore a place like WA and interact with readers and writers at the same time. I feel very lucky.
Lastly, we ask our interviewees for book recommendations. What have you been reading recently?
I’ve been reading a lot lately and it’s hard to pick favourites, but here goes. Catching Teller Crow, a YA novel by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina was a stand-out. The authors are Aboriginal writers from the Pilbara region and the novel is a blend of crime and magical realism, written in a combination of prose and poetry. It’s a dark, highly original story and it blew me away. I also loved The Last Family in England by Matt Haig, which I’ve just finished. It’s narrated from the point-of-view of a Labrador, who is trying to hold his human family together in difficult circumstances. It sounds light-hearted, but it’s actually a fairly emotional read. Anyone who can pull off a Labrador narrator gets kudos from me. I’m off to read the rest of Matt Haig’s books.
A full list of Lisa’s books can be found on her website.
Purchase her latest novel, Paris Syndrome here!