Working with Words: Vikki Wakefield

Vikki Wakefield is the author of Friday Brown, currently shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Young Adult) and All I Ever Wanted, which was shortlisted in the same category in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2012.

We spoke to her about writing a Silver Brumby spin-off when she was ten, the fact that the chain of events that gave birth to All I Ever Wanted began at a nightclub, and hitting it off with the grown-up version of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Not counting the Silver Brumby spin-off I wrote when I was ten (it was about a golden gelding – I didn’t know a gelding was, or that brumbies were typically in possession of their man-bits, but I very much liked the sound of golden gelding), a feature article published in Australian Women’s Forum in 1997. It was a feminist piece and in it I made an alarming number of comparisons between the sex life of humans and that of the praying mantis, including one blood-lusty scene where the female mantis chewed the male’s head off during mating. 1997 was an angry year.

What’s the best part of your job?

The people. The books. Receiving an email with ‘cover art…’ in the subject line. So many things.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The hardest part is trying to fit the demands of an almost full-time career into less than part-time hours. I have a young family and quite often I can’t write when I need to and when I need to write, I can’t. It’s a frustrating cycle.

The worst part is when I lose my passion for reading, which seems to occur around the midway point of writing each novel.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

There have been so many high points, but the significant ones have been turning points, the moments where I think, ‘Woah, that could have gone the other way’. (Human agency isn’t one of my strengths and often I’ll wait for the universe to tell me what to do.) The most serendipitous moment was the night I went outside of a nightclub to get some air and found a brochure for a regional writers’ festival stuck to my shoe. I registered two days later and submitted the first page of a manuscript (which was all I had written) for a critique panel. The manuscript was requested and that page became the first page of All I Ever Wanted, pretty much word for word. See? It could have gone the other way.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The worst advice: if the writing isn’t working, write something else and come back to it later. This doesn’t work for me at all – far better to keep wrangling the words, otherwise I’d never finish anything.

The best advice comes from my favourite quote by Maya Angelou: ‘A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.’

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I’m still surprised to see my work described as ‘gritty’. I’m quite sentimental when it comes to my characters and sometimes I think I treat them too gently. Maybe ‘gritty’ is a word used by those whose view of the types of teen experience I write about is from the outside, looking in – and that’s okay, it just means these teens have been underrepresented in YA literature.

Also, I once found a tweet about Friday Brown that read: ‘I had to use a coat-hanger to get it to flush’. Much later I discovered that clicking on a tweet will reveal the whole conversation – apparently, the day after Thanksgiving is sometimes called ‘Brown Friday’ due to the increase in sewer blockages (and plumber’s rates).

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I can’t imagine not working with words in some way, but when I was younger I wanted to be a veterinarian, or a drummer. If I went looking for full-time work tomorrow, on paper I’d be borderline unemployable.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

This is a question I can only answer from my own perspective. I haven’t completed any formal education in creative writing or any other field, so I’m not sure if tuition would affect my ideas and the way I write, or simply improve my execution and broaden my range. I think some parts of my own creative process are innate and could not have been taught; others have evolved through reading, listening and learning. For me, reading is breathing in; writing is breathing out. That’s all I’ve ever needed, but I suspect it’s different for everyone.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

There’s a gear in your brain and, when you find it, writing will become something you need to be you instead of something you want to be someone else. I’m sorry – I don’t know where it is.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I do both. I browse and impulse-buy in a bookshop, hit the ebooks if I need something RIGHT NOW and place bulk orders when the number of titles on my wishlist reaches ten or more. I always order physical copies of ebooks I’ve read and loved.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Beverly Cleary’s Ramona, but the grown-up version. I just think we’d really hit it off.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was a book I found at exactly the right time. I was in that space where life starts getting complicated and I might have given up on reading. It wasn’t enough to escape anymore. I needed belonging; I needed a book that would give me a reason to seek out the next book, and the one after that, and so on.

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