The Stella Prize chats to Nicole Hayes, the author of The Whole of My World, a writing teacher and a Stella Prize Schools Program ambassador.
Stella: What were your favourite books as a child and a teenager? What factors or influences shaped your reading habits?
Nicole: I read and reread several books as a child. I loved Roald Dahl and my favourite of his was Danny the Champion of the World. My other go-to novel was Black Beauty. Beauty was as real to me as any of my living, breathing friends. Quite simply, I loved him. When I was a teenager Judy Blume rocked my world, as did the novels of S.E Hinton, particularly The Outsiders. I wish I could list some Australian authors. I don’t remember ever reading any and I didn’t even know they existed.
Stella: Do you remember the first character you saw yourself in? How old were you?
Nicole: Honestly, it was probably Black Beauty. Yes, a horse. A male horse, no less. I felt his pain and his joy as truly as I would my own. That’s what it felt like, anyway. I would have been about eight. I suspect it had something to do with not having control over my own life, like Beauty, and feeling somewhat at the whim of others. But maybe it’s just because the novel is written with such passion and empathy.
Stella: Why is it so important in literature to find characters who are familiar? Why is it important to find characters who are unfamiliar?
Nicole: We need stories. We need to know what’s gone before, what is happening now and what is possible in the future. Stories tell us these things and more. If we aren’t given the opportunity to see ourselves reflected in stories that matter to us, it limits our notion of ‘the world’ and all its possibilities. It also robs us of the opportunity to dream.
Stella: What gender stereotypes do you see in fiction that you wish you could change? What’s your favourite book that bends the rules?
Nicole: If you consider the classics, then there are too many to list. Contemporary fiction has gone a long way in redressing the stereotypes, but the one that bothers me most is the prevalence of the ‘mean girl’ – or girls – who are almost always pretty and cruel but also, inexplicably, popular. Kids are smarter than this, and far more sophisticated in their understanding of peer dynamics. And boys can be just as mean as girls, albeit perhaps somewhat less sophisticated in how they express it.
My favourite book that bent the rules was The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking. Pippi was outrageous and indomitable! And brave; she refused to bow down. This was a girl who broke the rules, but also who showed us how stupid many of these rules were. How stifling. She was fearless and uncontrollable, and I was awed and vaguely appalled by her. Reading Pippi Longstocking felt like a shocking and devilish thing to do. I loved it!
Stella: Why should boys read books about girls? Why should girls read books about girls?
Nicole: Girls read and see boys’ and men’s stories everywhere they look – on film, TV, online, and in books. If girls are always being shown the world through a male filter, they will continue to believe the stereotypical belief that boys do, while girls watch or assist, or even, in many of the classics, simply get in the way.
Boys, however, are rarely encouraged to explore girls’ stories. Encouraging boys to read books about girls promotes equality, understanding, empathy and fairness, while also providing boys with the opportunity to develop a greater awareness of girls and women, and the sorts of stories and concerns that matter to them.
That’s an awful lot of people whose stories you’re discounting simply because they’re not like you. Reading widens our understanding, so why wouldn’t you want to read as widely outside your own lived experience as possible?
Stella: What do you see happening in YA now that you wish had been around when you were a teen?
Nicole: Nowadays there’s greater access to real writers, and authors are more visible. While I was growing up, I didn’t really believe that authors were alive, or Australian, nor did I truly appreciate that they could be women. Not living, breathing women anyway. I don’t know exactly when that changed for me, but it was quite late in my adolescence. I knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t really believe that I’d be allowed to, in the same way that I wasn’t allowed to play footy, even though I loved it and stole every moment of game time that I could.
The more accessible authors are, the more accessible the idea of writing becomes.
Stella: What do you think or hope the benefits of the Stella Prize Schools Program, and the recommended texts will be for students?
Nicole: Fair and proportional representation among books that reflect Australia’s truly diverse society – on every level, whether that be culture, religion, sexuality, ability, any perceived ‘difference’. Not just because it’s right and fair, or because I believe in equality, but because anything less than this robs the next generation of a rich and full understanding of the world. And because as someone much smarter than me said, every child should be able to find themselves in stories.
Stella: What Australian authors should young readers get to know?
Nicole: Kate Grenville, Rebecca Lim, Melissa Keil, Sally Rippin, Stella (Miles) Franklin, Tony Birch… That’s a good start.
Stella: What advice would you give to young aspiring writers?
Nicole: Read everything you can get your hands on, and write every day.