Hypable speaks to Australian author Nicole Hayes about her novel The Whole of My World, writing bad poetry, and more.
The Whole of My World is a moving story of family and grief – only you may not realise that when you begin it. Set in the world of Australian rules football, it tells the story of Shelley, a teenager living alone with her father, who begins attending a new school. She finds escape from the silence at home and the loneliness of school in a group of Australian rules fans, but there is more to Shelley than meets the eye.
You can watch the trailer for The Whole of My World below. If you don’t know what Australia rules is, don’t worry too much – the essentials are, it’s a male-dominated sport that evokes a lot of passion from its fans.
Exclusive interview: Nicole Hayes
Tell us 5 interesting facts about yourself.
1. I used to live in Japan.
2. I am a terrible singer. No. Really.
3. I often lie about my height.
4. I spent a long time living overseas thinking that Australia is boring and the end of the earth, only to learn that most of the world thinks Australia is fascinating — and the end of the earth.
5. I accidentally ran over our cat in the driveway, but because I didn’t realise she was hurt — she looked fine when she ran away! — and because my daughter’s 4th birthday party was about to start, I didn’t tell anyone until hours later. (Sorry kids! Rest in Peace, Zoe Cat.)
Tell us about your process to become a writer
I’ve been writing creatively for as long as I can remember. I think I wrote my first unprompted full story when I was about six. It was called Newman the Mouse and was basically a rip-off of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, with a couple of episodes of Tom and Jerry thrown in.
It was really bad, but it had a beginning, middle and end, and it felt so complete. For a long time that was the height of my literary success — ha! — though I spent most of my teenage years writing really bad poetry.
For a while I was writing “on commission” for friends at school. They’d tell me who they wanted their poem written about (always a boy, and always a love poem), and I’d turn it into a soppy romantic ode to love. I filled exercise books with these things. My greatest fear is that my brother has secretly hidden them away somewhere with the plan of exposing them to the world when I least expect it. (Don’t even, Damien. Don’t. Even.)
I started writing novels in my twenties, but I was quite a bit older before I finished one. And of course, after all that work, it didn’t sell. Neither did the next four. And then I came back to the second novel I attempted, rewrote it and here it is.
What was your inspiration for ‘The Whole of My World’?
I used to play footy with my brother’s local team as a kid. Or, by “play”, what I mean is that he played, while I was limited to training with them religiously and wandering dreamily along the boundary line, hoping I might one day get a game.
I wasn’t eligible to play real games. Not because I wasn’t any good but because I was a girl. The administrators informed my coach when he requested I be allowed to play that football wasn’t “safe” for girls.
I was crushed, but oddly, I thought the problem was me, not them. If only I were a boy, I reasoned, then I’d be able to play. Writing The Whole of My World helped me revisit that and, belatedly, literarily, it allowed me to apologise to my teenage self for getting that so wrong. There was nothing wrong with me. There was something wrong with society.
The other inspiration is my dad, who passed away many years ago. He was a footy genius, a scholar rather than a fan. A lot of the pithier truisms Mr Brown uses in the novel are stolen straight from my dad’s mouth. A lot were made up too, as was the character. But I loved giving my dad’s wisdom a second life.
When did you begin writing it?
OK. Truth? About twelve years ago. I wrote and rewrote it over and over but I couldn’t sell it. And then I set it aside, wrote more stuff that didn’t go anywhere only to return to this one with the aim of giving it one more shot. I’m very glad I did.
Why did you choose to base the book around Australian rules in particular, instead of some other subculture?
Everything I write has to be something I care about. It has to be a subject or a theme that really matters to me. And I have to be angry about it, too — an injustice or a crime — in order to maintain my focus.
Thinking back to my teen years, the footy shaped every aspect of my development. As a player first, and then as a fan. The disappointment I felt at not being allowed to play never really left me. It was a story I had to get out of me, one way or another.
Given how Australian-focused this book is, were you at all worried about alienating a non-Australian reader?
I am now! My hope is that 1) there’s a universality about Shelley’s desire to belong, her loneliness and her grief, which supersedes nation and culture. And 2) that the quirkiness and novelty of Australian football holds enough appeal for readers to enjoy the references in there, without feeling lost or confused about what is, I’ll admit, a very different kind of sport. A very entertaining one, too, hopefully.
Tell us about the title – obviously it will make more sense once a reader has finished a book, but I think it perfectly encapsulates the many obstacles Shelley faces within the novel. Was it easy or difficult to decide on?
I love that you think that! The title was one of the few sticking points I had with my editor. The original title was a football term — Full Forward — but this was deemed too narrow and obscure for non-footy fans.
The novel really isn’t about football, as such — that’s just the background — so we didn’t want to alienate readers before they’d even started. But I couldn’t think of another title that would accomplish what I thought a title should.
“The whole of my world” is a line in the novel, so they are my words, but it was my editor who suggested we make it the title. At first, I hated the idea! However, the more we talked about it, the more it made sense.
Your summation above is exactly what we were going for. And, of course, now I can’t imagine The Whole of My World being called anything else!
What do you find easiest to write, the first or the last line of a book?
The last. I often know how it will end long before I know what the story is. Which doesn’t make any sense at all, and yet it’s exactly how I operate. (And probably why it’s taken me so long to write a publishable book!) In all the rewrites of The Whole of My World, the last line is the only one I didn’t even consider changing.
Can you give us a recommendation of another YA book you have read recently?
I recently devoured Emily Gale’s Steal My Sunshine, and thoroughly recommend it. I love its Melbourne feel but I especially love Essie, the grandmother character. She is so fabulous and horrible all at once. A riveting story that sucked me in from beginning to end.
More about ‘The Whole of My World’:
An unputdownable novel for anyone who’s ever loved or lost, drawn a line between then and now, or kept a secret that wouldn’t stay hidden . . .
Today I am free. No guilt for who’s missing, what’s been left behind. My face aches from smiling in the wind and my voice rasps from all the screaming, and I know that it’s been forever since I’ve felt so completely alive.
Desperate to escape her grieving father and harbouring her own terrible secret, Shelley disappears into the intoxicating world of Aussie Rules football. Joining a motley crew of footy tragics – and, best of all, making friends with one of the star players – Shelley finds somewhere to belong. Finally she’s winning.
So why don’t her friends get it? Josh, who she’s known all her life, but who she can barely look at anymore because of the memories of that fateful day. Tara, whose cold silences Shelley can’t understand. Everyone thinks there’s something more going on between Shelley and Mick. But there isn’t – is there?
When the whole of your world is football, sometimes life gets lost between goals.
More about Nicole Hayes:
Photo: Sharon Blance/Image Workshop