Stella: What were your favourite books as a child and a teenager?
Myke: My reading was all over the place as a child. I loved Roald Dahl and Paul Jennings and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. I was also a big comic book geek, and amassed a pretty impressive collection that is probably in a box somewhere now, or scattered about op shops. Other favourites included Doctor Who novelisations (this was the only way to experience episodes I hadn’t seen, back in those dark days before DVDs and video recorders) and Choose Your Own Adventure books. I actually ghostwrote a Choose Your Own Adventure book recently and it was great fun. As a teenager, I discovered Douglas Adams, Watership Down and To Kill a Mockingbird. My parents were always encouraging me to read, but I think I was pretty self-directed. I stumbled through libraries with little guidance.
Stella: Did you mostly study books by male or female writers at school? Did any of these have a particularly lasting impact?
Myke: I suspect it was probably mostly male writers, but the ones I remember now are Sylvia Plath and Gwen Harwood. Possibly because they were the exception to the rule. The books that really connected with me were the ones I discovered for myself, because even then I was far too contrary for my own good. To Kill a Mockingbird is one that still resonates, but we never studied that. I pinched it from a girlfriend’s shelf.
Stella: Are there any books you wish you had read when you were younger, but didn’t have access to?
Myke: Well, I’m sort of envious of the breadth of young adult fiction currently available. When I was 15, I would have loved Wildlife by Fiona Wood, because I was obsessed with girls and would have loved the insight into their outlook and friendships. I would have liked to have read my own book, Fire in the Sea! One of the reasons I wrote it was to fill a gap in my teenage self’s library. I suppose more teenage fiction with stronger female characters would have appealed. Back then, I had to settle for Lynda Day from Press Gang (though I’m not sure she would ever have settled for me).
Stella: Who encouraged your interest in reading and writing?
Myke: My mother was constantly encouraging me to read more. I went through stages of only reading nonfiction, or comic books, or poetry, and I think she believed this wasn’t helping my fiction writing. She was probably right. It wasn’t until I read Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (which she had been pushing on me for years) that I felt my writing voice ‘click’. I had some great encouragement from a couple of English teachers – Mr Cox and Mr Bolas, in particular – and was fortunate enough to study under Elizabeth Jolley at university, who wrote me a beautiful letter that I still dig out on occasion.
Stella: What do you think or hope the benefits of the Stella Prize Schools Program will be for students?
Myke: I hope the program works as a reminder that there is a wide range of books out there, and that it’s OK to read books that might not seem like your kind of book. Books are a great opportunity to step into somebody else’s shoes and see the world from a different perspective. Given that, why would you want to keep looking at the world from just the one perspective? Anything that presents students with more options (and helps them realise the unconscious bias that often operates in selecting books) has to be a good thing.
Stella: What advice you would give to young aspiring writers?
Myke: Read and write. That’s the only secret. As a writer, you’re only going to be as good as the stuff you’re reading. Read widely, because you need to hear a broad range of voices before you start to find your own.