Hypable caught up with Zac & Mia author AJ Betts to talk about the inspiration for her novel and what it’s like being an award-winning author.
Zac and Mia could never be friends if they met at school, or at a party, in the real world. But in hospital there are different rules – especially when everyone else there is your grandparent’s age.
Outside of hospital, everything is different. Maybe this is a friendship too fragile to exist outside the hospital bubble. How can Zac and Mia help the other understand what they are going through, when they are linked by something so terrible? Read our review.
Interview with AJ Betts
Tell us five random facts about yourself.
(a) I own five bikes
(b) I have no cats, dogs, or birds (but quite a few ants in my kitchen, and ladybirds in my loungeroom)
(c) I collect shopping lists (not mine, other people’s)
(d) I like crunchy foods
(e) I can get claustrophobic
Zac & Mia was inspired by your work in a children’s hospital, but was there one circumstance or person that gave you that final push to write this story?
So many real teenagers influenced the construction of my two characters: over the past ten years I’ve been inspired, awed, surprised and moved by hundreds of teenagers on the cancer ward. It was inevitable. In terms of actually writing the novel, there was one particular person who was a driving force. Her name was Tayla, and she was the one I discussed the novel with from early 2009, bouncing ideas off of her. She adored the characters and story, and kept telling me to hurry up and finish it, but I was working full-time and the writing was slow going. Unfortunately, when I was about a third of the way through the novel, Tayla’s cancer came back in her lungs. Then, when I was about halfway through the novel, she died suddenly. It was awful and it broke my heart. I couldn’t stop sobbing at her funeral, and I gave up completely on the novel. It was only in December 2010, after Tayla’s mother met up with me and urged me to continue the story, that I returned to it. It was painful, but I knew I had to finish the novel: not just for Tayla, but all the other teenagers who have taught me so much. I knew I had to tell their stories, good and bad. I wanted to give them a voice, then share it with as many people as I could.
How was writing Zac & Mia different from writing your other novels?
Writing Zac & Mia was a much more personal process as it drew on real life. As a result, I was very conscious of making divisions between my real students and my fictional characters. There was a lot of research required, including travel (I spent four days at a farm on the south coast of Western Australia) and I read many blogs about cancer. I guess the biggest difference was how much the story and characters came from me. There’s a lot of me in Mia — me now, and me as a teenager – and there’s also lots of me in Zac. I had to relive some painful experiences in my own life to get the emotional truths right. I cried a lot, especially writing the Mia scenes. But I laughed and smiled a lot too. (Note: I often write in cafes and public libraries, so I get some odd looks!)
This book has alternating points of view. Was one of them easier to write than the other?
Good question. Zac came to me first, and he felt natural and fun. He seemed very real to me. Mia was more difficult. Originally, I was going to write the whole novel from Zac’s perspective, but I realized that Mia’s story was the one that would matter most, so I needed to alternate perspectives. To start with, she was very hard to capture, particularly as she’s so angry. It was difficult to track her emotional state as she changes quite quickly. But the more I wrote from her, the easier it became, especially the later scenes. I came to adore her. I think she’s terrific!
Were there any scenes that were particularly hard to write?
So many. Every scene in which a character is sad or in pain was hard to write. Some of Mia’s scenes — in the bathtub, at her friend’s house, at the farm — were hard, emotionally. Also, the scenes in which there’s a sense of love or hope were hard, as I was very conscious of not making them sound clichéd or unauthentic. I rebel against melodrama — everything I write has to feel real, raw, unrehearsed, but yet, significant, as if every word matters. I aim for subtlety and nuance. Not all readers like that, but I do.
Zac & Mia came out in Australia last year, but this is its American debut. Have you been at all worried about how a book set in Australia would be accepted in the States?
Not really. I hope that the novel feels universal. The hospital setting, for instance, is quite generic. I’ve tried to describe the farm and town enough for the reader to follow. I hope the reader can imagine the setting in a way that’s colorful and entertaining, but not distracting from the story. What surprised me was how many Australian words and expressions I had in the novel. Many of them were changed, e.g. ‘Maths’ became ‘Math’ and ‘lollies’ became ‘candy.’ But there is still so much that is distinctly Australian, including the animals, work and recreation.
This novel has also won several awards. What was it like getting that phone call?
Crazy! When it won the 2012 Text Prize (before it was published) I screamed and jumped into my parents’ pool. I was fully clothed. My parents brought me a glass of champagne, which I drank in the pool in between screams. The dog was barking wildly. The last award I won was a complete shock. I was sitting at the award ceremony (I knew I’d been shortlisted) but when I heard my name called, I froze, then hid my face in my hands. I had to be pushed onto the stage by my publicist. It’s the closest I’ve come to being speechless.
What is one YA novel you wish you had when you were a teenager?
I’m going to choose a novel I read last week, which is Every Day by David Leviathan. I wish I’d read it as a teenager to know what’s acceptable (and what isn’t) in terms of relationships. The narrator has such a mature and sensitive outlook, imbued with the wisdom of his breadth of experiences. As a teenager, I would have learned a lot about having confidence in myself, and expecting good things from others. I would have reconsidered the qualities I considered to be ‘attractive’ in a guy.
What is easier to write, the first line or the last line?
Haha, I’d have to say the first line is easiest as it usually comes to me first. I often know the final line by the time I get a third of the way through the novel. I think the first and last are the easiest lines to write of the whole book! Everything else is a hard slog.
Can you tell us about any of your upcoming projects?
It will be a while in the making, but that’s okay. I can’t rush myself at the moment. My next book will be something entirely different, because that’s what I need with each project: I don’t want to repeat myself or write different versions of the same story. So, my next book will be set…in the future…underwater. I know, I know, it’s a shock, but I’m excited. I had the idea in 2004, so I’ve had a lot of time to chew it over. It will start off the coast of Tasmania (Australia) and move to the land. It’s not sci-fi or dystopia, but realistic: a possible version of the future. I’m encountering many challenges, so the story is held up with research. I’m going back to Tasmania next year for more research, including lots of forest treks with a backpack, a camera, and lots of snacks.
About the author
Australian author A.J. BETTS is a high school English teacher and who spent eight years teaching in a hospital setting. Previous novels include ShutterSpeed and Wavelength. She lives in Perth.
When she’s not writing, she spends her weekends riding bikes. She live by the sea and can be found taking photos, spotting whales, baking muffins, eating giant pastries, and occasionally communing with sea lions.