Penni Russon Interview:
Questions asked by Poppy Nwosu.
I first discovered your beautiful YA novel, Only Ever Always, a couple of years ago and it has remained a firm favourite of mine ever since. This book is a strange and magical tale of colliding universes and dreamscapes, told through the eyes of two very different young girls, one facing an ordinary but heartbreaking tragedy in our own familiar world, and the other on a dangerous quest in an eerie broken landscape.
I found this tale fascinating, and for me, the closest way to describe your story would be as a fairytale.
Fairytale retellings, or novels interwoven with that dark magical fairytale feel, are very common throughout Young Adult fiction, however, I don’t believe I’ve read any that feel quite so Australian.
When I think of fairytales, I imagine deep European forests and don’t often associate those kind of stories with our landscape here in Australia, and yet for me, Only Ever Always really feels like a dark and dreamy Australian fairytale.
I was! In fact just before I wrote Only Ever Always, I had written a Masters thesis called "Melancholy ever after? Repetition, maternity, melancholy and the everchild in modern and post-modern fairy tales". I traced recurring plot patterns in Victorian, Edwardian and recent "fairy tale novels" like Alice in Wonderland, Secret Garden, Wind in the Willows, Coraline and Thurday's Child by Sonya Hartnett.
I looked at the repeating motif of the "everchild", the child who is prevented from growing up - Coraline still hears the mouse circus at the end of the novel, Tin in Thusday's Child is forever digging underground, Alice is a phantom 'moving under skies' and the funny animal-people child-men in Wind in the Willows are forever caught in this in-between state.
I thought about the tension between the adult who idealises youth and childhood and the child who is at risk of becoming a figment of horror if they aren't permitted to grow and change (Peter Pan is a very dark figure at the end of the novel).
Yeah, I really wanted it to be like a dream, where you see the territories you grew up with. The river in Only Ever Always was the Yarra, but I grew up with the Derwent and lived in Adelaide for a while and got to know the Torrens - I think Australian cities are very characterised by their relationship with water (and whether the water is in-your-face like Hobart and Sydney and Brisbane, or sort of a secretive vein running through the city like Melbourne and Adelaide which both seem to sit with their backs to the sea - or for the northern dwellers they do.
'One day, your best friend is going to grow out of playing before you do. This is going to make you feel embarrassed and ashamed that you still want to play imaginative games with your toys. Never be ashamed, never stop playing, because one day making up imaginative games will be your job. And by the way, you and your best friend never stop being silly, making stuff up, laughing and having fun even in your forties and probably forever.'
So many, but the first book that popped into my mind was Never Ending Story, particularly the second half which begins where the first film ends and becomes much darker and more melancholy. Bastian gets to imagine and take control and be the hero he longed to be, but he almost loses himself - and his own name - in the process.
Yes, every time I write a novel I have to learn all over again how to write a novel. I love doing it, but it's painful and hard. The older I get the more frightened I am of the messiness of the first draft. I can get very hung up on trying to avoid making mistakes. I miss the fearlessness of my early writing, but I know that I am getting better at form and structure.
The Endsister is a story about an Australian family who inherit a mansion in London, which turns out to be haunted. Part real estate fantasy and part love letter to Australia, it traces my own experience as the daughter of a ten pound pom and my sense of belonging to the Australian landscape, even though I also feel so immersed in Anglo culture through literature and family.
I am also doing a PhD on the visual-verbal poetics of youth mental health. I'm making comics for young people who are mentally ill and exploring the relationship between reading and recovery - how do creative texts help people recover? What's the best practice for making 'recovery' texts. I'm supposed to finish that this year, and I can't wait! I'm ready to write another novel, and I have so many ideas!
Thank you so much for your time, Penni! It was wonderful to chat with you :)