The Stella Prize chats to Schools Ambassador Steph Bowe, author of YA novels Girl Saves Boy and All This Could End.
Stella: What were your favourite books as a child and a teenager? What factors or influences shaped your reading habits?
Steph: The greatest influence on my reading habits was probably my mum – I was read to often when I was little, we always had plenty of books at home, and I was taken on trips to the library regularly. That’s probably why I’m a writer now, and why I feel compelled to read every book I see (I get very excited in libraries). Having access to whichever books I wanted to read, and not having any limits placed on what I was allowed to read, meant that I was able to find books, authors and genres I loved while I was growing up. I liked being able to decide what I read, and finding a new favourite book was always an adventure.
As a little kid, my favourite picture books were The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch and Possum Magic – basically anything that featured pictures of food, I think. As an older kid, I read almost always, and I read anything and everything, but I especially loved series (like Max Remy Superspy by Deborah Abela, and the Saddle Club books) – until I started reading YA. I’ve read and loved contemporary YA since I was around twelve, particularly Australian contemporary YA. On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta was my first favourite YA novel.
Stella: Why is it important in literature to find characters who are familiar? Why is it important to find characters who are unfamiliar?
Steph: To be able to see myself in the YA fiction that I was reading as I was growing up was immensely comforting; reading characters who were like me made me feel less lonely and more hopeful about the future. I loved reading Australian YA because I felt I could relate better to teenage characters growing up in the same place as me.
One of the most important things about fiction, I think, is that it allows you to empathise with others in an indirect way – a sort of parasocial interaction. You might not meet anyone from a particular background in your real life, but through fiction you can learn about experiences that are different from your own. But if all of the characters you encounter in fiction are similar to you – which, if you’re white, or heterosexual, or cis-gendered, and/or able-bodied, are most characters – then you don’t get an opportunity to empathise with people different from you and expand your understanding of others. This is why it’s so important that diverse voices are supported and diverse writing is encouraged, especially in fiction for young people. Reading about unfamiliar characters helps us to see the world from a different point of view, and that carries over and has positive effects on our empathy in real life.
Stella: What gender stereotypes do you see in fiction that you wish you could change?
Steph: The gender stereotypes that tend to worry me the most in fiction are those that centre around relationship dynamics between boys and girls – especially the idea that a girl can save or change a ‘damaged’ boy with her love and that bad behaviour from a man towards his partner is okay because deep down he loves her. This occurs way too often for my taste. I think that fiction and culture have too much of an impact on reality – and the perceptions of young people – for abusive relationships to be treated as acceptable in fiction, even if he’s a vampire or a billionaire or whatever else.
I think that the stereotypical strong female character who hates being feminine crops up far too often, particularly in fantasy or sci-fi. I think the idea that femininity equates to weakness is one that’s too commonly held; women don’t have to be masculine in order to be strong. It’s fine for a strong female character to be masculine, but not for female characters to always have to be masculine in order to be seen as strong.
Stella: What Australian authors would you recommend for young readers to get to know?
Steph: My favourite authors are almost all Australian women writers of contemporary YA fiction. Melina Marchetta is one of my favourite authors, and someone I think everyone should read – On the Jellicoe Road is my favourite, but Looking For Alibrandi is required reading. Fiona Wood’s work is wonderful – my favourite novel of hers is Cloudwish, which challenges stereotypes around class and race, as well as gender. It’s incredibly authentic and engaging.
I love Simmone Howell’s novels, especially Girl Defective; I particularly love how unapologetically fierce and cool and complicated and wonderful her characters are (especially teenage girls). For supernatural YA, I love Paula Weston’s and Leanne Hall’s novels. Vikki Wakefield, Kirsty Eagar, Alice Pung, Kate Constable, Penni Russon and Cath Crowley are some more writers whose work I love, and who write thoughtfully and with nuance, and whose characters have depth and authenticity, regardless of their gender.
Stella: What advice would you give to young aspiring writers?
Steph: I think the most important thing is to always focus on the writing, rather than the result. While being published and read by others is wonderful, the most enjoyable part of the process is the writing itself, and thinking too much about writing for others can be a distraction or a source of stress. Focus on writing what you enjoy writing, and what you would love to read, without worrying about what appeals to publishers or readers; if you love writing it, it’s much more likely that other people will love reading it.
There is always room for new writers. If you’re passionate about writing, don’t let others discourage you. It’s always better to pursue your dreams than wonder what if?. There are many things that are outside of your control if you decide to pursue a career as a writer – luck plays a big part. Often, it’s a matter of your work being seen by the right person at the right time. Rejections, failures and disappointments are just part of the process, for all writers. The main thing is to stay hopeful, and keep on writing and submitting. Your voice is unique and important, regardless of your age, gender or background. Focus on writing and enjoying the process, and stay inspired and excited about words.