The Stella Prize chats with Schools Ambassador Leanne Hall, the award-winning author of This is Shyness and Queen of the Night.
Stella: What were your favourite books as a child and a teenager? What factors or influences shaped your reading habits?
Leanne: I was a voracious reader as a child, and I loved Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner. I also read almost anything from my parents’ overloaded bookshelves, including Dickens. My reading slowed down quite a bit as a teenager, as I had trouble finding books I related to (and also found myself overloaded with sport and homework). However, I remember adoring Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman series, and very schlocky Christopher Pike books. If it had sex and murder in it, then I wanted to read it!
Stella: Do you remember the first character you saw yourself in?
Leanne: I remember relating very strongly to Anne Shirley in LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. She was so earnest, so passionate, so quick-tempered, and wanted to belong so much, and I related very strongly to those attributes. She had an overactive imagination and wanted to be a writer – just like me. In terms of seeing myself in characters who looked like me, or had a similar family background – that was not an option. I never saw myself in a character in that way.
Stella: How did your interest in reading and writing develop over time? Was this encouraged through particular teachers or educators?
Leanne: I was always drawn to writing stories, almost as soon as I learnt how to string basic sentences together. I have supermarket bags full of exercise books and babyish scribble that attest to this! This continued all the way through to high school, where my primary forms were angsty poems, obsessive journalling and drawing comics in my school diary. It took me a long time after high school, though, to take my writing ambitions seriously, and allow myself to think it might be possible to be a published author.
I wasn’t encouraged by any teachers or educators though, far from it. My creative interests were not considered important in the face of essays, exams and striving for top grades. Encouragement came in the form of very good friends who read my early attempts, who laughed, cried and gasped in the right places, and who shored me up with compliments and requests for more.
Stella: Why is it so important in literature to find characters that are familiar? Why is it important to find characters that are unfamiliar?
Leanne: It would have meant a lot to me to find someone who looked like me on a front cover or in the pages of a book. It would have gone a long way to making me feel that I belonged, that I was as interesting as everyone else, and that I had a story to tell.
But I benefited greatly from reading about a wide range of characters, and in fact sought out books about people very different from myself. As a youngster, I was hungry to find out about the full range of human experience, and I was particularly interested to read about characters who experienced setbacks or disadvantages I hadn’t experienced myself. I really feel as if this helped me develop compassion and empathy.
Stella: What advice would you give to young aspiring writers?
Leanne: I would advise reading everything you can get your hands on! Read widely and enjoy arguing with your friends about your favourite books and authors. Then write as much as you can, in as many forms as you can. Have fun trying to write stories, comics, poetry, stage plays, screenplays, imaginary TV shows, manifestos, letters, blog posts, zines… And share your writing with your friends – they will be your best audience.