From Lunch With The Stars to One Book One Pen

The sec­ond half of 2017 brought more high­lights in this writer’s life. On the 12th of Sep­tem­ber, I attend­ed the unique­ly won­der­ful CBCA Lunch With The Stars at the ICMS in Man­ly (as often com­ment­ed, a more serendip­i­tous­ly Hog­wart­sian locale in Syd­ney could not be found). Organ­ised by the North­ern Syd­ney Sub-Branch of the CBCA and the extra­or­di­nary Belin­da Mur­rell (author of unri­valled gen­eros­i­ty and tal­ent), this was a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty for young read­ers, teacher-librar­i­ans, authors and illus­tra­tors to meet over a meal in mag­nif­i­cent sur­rounds to dis­cuss our favourite books.

At my table, I had the plea­sure of join­ing the stu­dents of the Mos­man Church of Eng­land Prepara­to­ry School and their Cur­ricu­lum Co-ordi­na­tor, Don­na Gibbs. Engag­ing with this group of fine young minds was a delight! They were par­tic­u­lar­ly intrigued when my friend Dr Leonid Petrov appeared to inform us of the pol­ter­geist haunt­ed room locat­ed some­where just above our heads!

It was won­der­ful to catch-up with author and illus­tra­tor friends old and new, and I thor­ough­ly enjoyed the heart­warm­ing and thought­ful keynote address from Aus­tralian genius Gus Gor­don. There is always so much to learn from each oth­er. Thanks to the good peo­ple of the NSW Pre­mier’s Read­ing Chal­lenge, the event was beamed live to thou­sands of stu­dents who could not make it on the day.

With­out hes­ti­ta­tion, I would rate the CBCA Lunch With The Stars up there with The Som­er­set Cel­e­bra­tion of Lit­er­a­ture as one of the best author events in Aus­tralia. Let’s be hon­est, it’s not every day that work­ing authors and illus­tra­tors, let alone chil­dren’s authors and illus­tra­tors, get to feel like stars of any sort! But this was bet­ter than Oscars night (not that I’ve been to Oscars night … but I have my sus­pi­cions). Heck, you’re not going to get to chat over Nespres­so to Susanne Ger­vay, Tim Har­ris, Yvette Poshoglian, Deb Abela, Jules Faber, Kate Forsyth, Jacquie Har­vey, Oliv­er Phom­ma­vanh, and so many oth­er great Aus­tralian authors at Oscar Night.

Soon enough, maybe. Hol­ly­wood, we’re coming.

San­ta Sabi­na Col­lege in Strath­field is a school with an incred­i­ble Head of Eng­lish in Rachel Duke, and I have been thrilled to be invit­ed back there sev­er­al times since the pub­li­ca­tion of Empire of the Waves, both to talk about my cre­ative writ­ing, but also about North Korea. In late Novem­ber, I had the hon­our of appear­ing at San­ta Sabi­na’s inau­gur­al lit­er­ary festival.

Enti­tled One Book, One Pen, the fes­ti­val organ­is­ers drew upon the words of young Pak­istani Nobel Lau­re­ate Malala Yousafzai. In a stir­ring rebuke of the Tal­iban who had shot her for chal­leng­ing their ban on wom­en’s edu­ca­tion, Malala declared to the the UN Gen­er­al Assem­bly:

… let us wage a glo­ri­ous strug­gle against illit­er­a­cy, pover­ty and ter­ror­ism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most pow­er­ful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Edu­ca­tion is the only solu­tion. Edu­ca­tion first.

One Book, One Pen thus put the idea of wom­en’s voic­es and wom­en’s edu­ca­tion at the cen­tre of San­ta Sabi­na’s inau­gur­al lit­er­ary fes­ti­val. In Empire of the Waves, young Anni Tidechild is the last cus­to­di­an of an all-but-for­got­ten library on the float­ing city of Pel Nar­ine at a time of ris­ing vio­lence and obscu­ran­tism. As the end­less Pirate Wars rage across the sur­face of Salila, the tyrant Fil­ip Able con­sol­i­dates his pow­er at the price of his peo­ple’s igno­rance. Anni knows that the answers to the ter­ror that envelops her may be found in books, yet she can­not find those answers alone…

Indeed, I wrote Empire of the Waves as a nov­el for our times, the end­less Pirate Wars an alle­go­ry for our end­less War On Ter­ror, a war so often empow­er­ing to dem­a­gogues and ter­ror­ists (Wavelords and pirates, in my case) at the expense of the civil­ian lives caught in between. In times such as these, chil­dren often emerge as the con­science of nations, and yet their voic­es are all too often for­got­ten and mar­gin­alised. Malala Yousafzai stands tall as a star­tling excep­tion. And yet, even now, even in her own coun­try, there are those who would silence her.

Join­ing me at the fes­ti­val were three oth­er amaz­ing authors and teach­ers. Eileen Chong work­shopped Moth­er­song: Writ­ing Wom­en’s Sto­ries, J.C. Burke spoke to the stu­dents about “tough” sto­ry­telling, how to bring dif­fi­cult sto­ries to life, and Tony Brit­ten deliv­ered a work­shop enti­tled, Cre­at­ing Female Char­ac­ters in YA Fic­tion: Beyond the Man­ic Pix­ie Dream Girl Love Tri­an­gle. I did­n’t dare ask Tony if he thought my Anni Tidechild passed the Brit­ten Test … but I like to think she would!

It tru­ly was an extroar­d­i­nary day, with a brim­ming sched­ule, and rooms full of inspir­ing and engag­ing young minds. Con­grat­u­la­tions to Rachel Duke and the teach­ers and stu­dents of San­ta Sabi­na Col­lege, Strathfield!

With no word on when Empire of the Waves will con­tin­ue, the rest of 2017 was spent in writ­ing mode, and I was in almost total lock-down for three months draft­ing a brand new nov­el. Enti­tled Occu­pa­tion Zone, this fresh­ly hewn nov­el is a dystopi­an YA sci-fi thriller set in a divid­ed Aus­tralia some twen­ty years in our future. The young female pro­tag­o­nist of Occu­pa­tion Zone is fif­teen-year-old Mir­ren Tran, and she too must face a world in darkness.

The world right now does feel dark at times — and is — but, as Malala said to the UN Gen­er­al Assem­bly, “we realise the impor­tance of light when we see dark­ness. We realise the impor­tance of our voice when we are silenced.” May 2018 be the year in which we see light, and hear for­got­ten voic­es raised above the silence.