The Stella Prize chats with Melissa Keil, the author of the Ampersand Prize winner Life in Outer Space and a Stella Prize Schools Program ambassador.
Stella: What were your favourite books as a child and a teenager? What influences shaped your reading habits?
Melissa: I grew up in a really big, extended family, so the first books in my collection were hand-me-downs from various aunts and uncles. My bookshelf contained an eclectic mix of genres and authors, kids’ books (the Enid Blyton collection had pride of place) and adult fiction, which I never thought was at all strange. I still have an uncle’s old copy of The Lord of the Rings sitting alongside my aunt’s collection of Anne of Green Gables, and a yellowed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that someone handed to me as a pre-teen and which is still on top of my list of all-time favourite books.
As a teenager, I read anything I could get my hands on – from literary classics to fantasy, from Mum’s Mills & Boon to the ubiquitous Dolly Fiction titles that my local library kept well stocked. I never felt that there was anything I shouldn’t be reading or that wasn’t meant for me – I read almost anything that was handed to me or recommended by a teacher, librarian, friend, family member or random book-nerd acquaintance.
Stella: What gender stereotypes do you see in fiction that you wish you could change? What’s your favourite book that bends the rules?
Melissa: One of the tropes that inspires my biggest eye-roll is the idea that the opposite sex is some sort of mysterious alien species that is unknown and unknowable – books that have characters of different genders or sexualities existing as curiosities on the periphery of the world of the main protagonist. It’s a frustrating thing to read, because often (not always, but often) it’s the female characters who find themselves on the margins, and who are most poorly served by lazy character development.
I think young adult fiction, Australian YA in particular, does a really great job of subverting this, but I still encounter books where it seems like the only way men and women can relate to each other is as limited objects of desire. I love friendships, and I want to see more strong, messy, interesting relationships in fiction – not necessarily just romances (as much as I love a good romance), but male and female characters who genuinely enjoy each other’s company, who have conversations and shared interests and who connect with each other as individuals.
I want to see stories in which all of the characters feel like fully formed human beings. There are so many great OzYA titles around at the moment that have wonderfully developed characters of all persuasions, and it’s one of the reasons I particularly adored Ellie Marney’s Every series. Although romance plays a part in the plot, it has two really interesting young people at its heart, who talk and argue and hash out problems together – a relationship that’s based on more than just physical attraction and longing looks.
Stella: Why should boys read books about girls? Why should girls read books about girls?
Melissa: I think one of the best things about fiction is that moment when characters and their worlds become so absorbing, so vibrant, that you can’t help but be there inside the story, inside the head of someone who isn’t you, seeing the world through their eyes and investing in their desires and problems and triumphs. It’s a wonderful thing to read about characters who resemble you – everyone deserves to see their reality represented.
But it’s equally wonderful to encounter characters who aren’t you, whose lives and journeys aren’t carbon copies of your own, but whose stories you can still connect with because of that amazing thing that is shared humanity. To say that a reader can only relate to characters who are the same as them is the equivalent of saying that they’re incapable of empathising with or being interested in difference, that any person who is ‘other’ than themselves is of no importance or interest. Perpetuating that old adage that boys won’t read books by female authors or featuring female protagonists is effectively saying that the experiences of girls – the thoughts, emotions, hopes, and ambitions of half of the population – don’t matter. Which is not only offensive, but I think also hugely underestimates the capacity of boys.
Stella: What Australian authors should young readers get to know?
Melissa: This could be an infinitely long list, but sticking to the young adult patch that I inhabit, some of my favourite writers of the last few years are: Ellie Marney, Nicole Hayes, Nova Weetman, Simmone Howell, Will Kostakis, Fiona Wood, Leanne Hall, Erin Gough, Vikki Wakefield, Amie Kaufman – and there are so many more! For young readers who might have a tendency to stick to big blockbuster titles, nearly all of which are from the US, Australian YA is an untapped goldmine of great authors and stories.
Stella: What advice you would give to young aspiring writers?
Melissa: Explore far and wide – read as broadly as possible, and challenge yourself to venture outside the boundaries of what you find comfortable and familiar. Find the thing that sparks your passion and write from there. Don’t be afraid to take risks with your writing, or to risk sharing it with others, which I think can be one of the biggest challenges for an emerging writer. Explore all the amazing opportunities that are available for young writers right now. There are a myriad of competitions, short story and poetry prizes, writing workshops, and journals and magazines that actively seek work by young people. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t know enough to tell the story you want to tell, or that your experiences aren’t consequential enough to matter. There probably won’t be some magical moment in your life where it will finally be ‘legitimate’ for you to call yourself a writer, so why not start now!