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NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2021 - Author talks (secondary) - 03. Leanne Hall

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ASHLEY TACKS: Hi. I'm Ashley Tacks. And I'm from Galston High School. I'm here today on Darug land at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival Secondary Schools Day.

I'm so excited to be interviewing Miss Leanne Hall for the Premier's Reading Challenge. How are you today?

LEANNE HALL: I'm really well. Thank you.

ASHLEY TACKS: I want to start off by talking about your most recent book, 'The gaps,' which was published this year. Congratulations.

LEANNE HALL: Thank you.

ASHLEY TACKS: The novel follows 2 high school students, Chloe and Natalia, after the abduction of their classmate, Yin Mitchell. It is such a powerful, searing psychological novel that explores teenage fear, vulnerability, and many topical issues, such as power and privilege. What inspired you to write a novel incorporating all these things?

LEANNE HALL: Yeah. Well, it actually came from an easy place or a difficult place, which is real-life experience. So, unfortunately, a crime very similar to the one in 'The gaps' happened at my high school when I was a teenager. So, one of the students in my year level was abducted from their own home.

And so really, the book is inspired by that, but completely fictional. So, I kind of took that idea of what is it like when a crime takes place in a school community and what kind of ripples go out from that crime and how are especially the students affected. I really wanted to describe that experience of being a young woman, having something terrible happen to a friend, and then how do you cope with the uncertainty and fear that happens after a crime like that.

ASHLEY TACKS: The title of the novel is extremely significant and speaks so many words. Would you be able to explain why you chose the title of the novel as so?

LEANNE HALL: Yeah, I'm funny with titles. Actually, sometimes, they come to me. And I only have a vague sense of actually what the meaning is. But, I know very certainly that that's what it needs to be called.

'The gaps' came from an idea that Natalia, the character of Natalia forms, the girls have to read 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' as an English text. But then it's cancelled after Yin's disappearance, obviously because it would be a slightly insensitive book to read at that time.

And Natalia reads the book, anyway. And she becomes obsessed with this idea that there are gaps in the world, that there are little fissures in reality where young women can slip through and never be seen again. And from that sort of starting point, I realised there were lots of different meanings that you could attribute to the words 'the gaps.'

So, I started to think about the gaps between people. There were gaps between friends that grew apart. And there were kind of generation gaps that happened between the girls and their parents.

And there's also a bit of comment in the novel, as well, about how the media and the community can relate more strongly to some victims rather than others, that usually there's a certain type of victim that ends up in the news with everyone concerned about them. But actually, there are many gaps in our society where some people slip through, people don't notice that some types of people disappear more than others.

ASHLEY TACKS: The novel is extremely compelling. And I found myself in awe throughout the book, as the world-building was so amazing. Was there any part of the book that you struggled to write?

LEANNE HALL: I think I struggled to write the whole thing, really, in some way. That's very gratifying that you found the world-building good. But a lot of it was very much based on my experiences at school.

And I wanted it to be a real school novel with a lot of time spent in school, because when I think about my own teenage years, you actually literally spend so many hours. And when you're not there, you're talking to or thinking about your friends, as well. So, it's almost like you're there, anyway.

But of course, I went to high school so long ago. I'm well aware. I sort of thought, well, gosh, is anything the same at high school? So, much time has passed. So, I put a lot of effort in trying to make sure that it seems like a contemporary high school and contemporary girls, as well. I didn't want it to seem like a throwback at all in any way.

So, I had to work really hard to make sure that it felt real. But for me, I think what makes something feel real, and it's something that I think is the same no matter what the circumstances are around, it is some of the things you feel as a teenager I don't think change over time.

In a way, I feel like my emotional life as a teenager would be very similar to your emotional life as a teenager, even though there are plenty of things around you that weren't around when I was a teenager. So, that's what I really focused on is just the emotional reality of being a teenage girl. And I just hoped that it carried it through.

ASHLEY TACKS: Has writing and publishing your books changed the way you see yourself or society?

LEANNE HALL: Definitely. Yeah, it definitely has. So, I never imagined that I could become a writer. I had a very, very normal suburban upbringing. And I didn't really know any writers or artists or any creative people. So, I wasn't really even aware that you could have a creative life and that that could be your career.

So, my sense of self has changed a lot through becoming a published author. It had long been a goal of mine since I was really, really little, but I never actually thought it would happen. So, it is extremely strange. And so really having a book published, even when I had a book published, I struggled to say to people when they said, what do you do, to say, I'm a writer, as if that's my job.

I still find, for many years, I found that quite difficult. But I've gotten used to it. So, my sense of self must have changed through it. In terms of how I see the world, I had a friend once who she's not a writer. She's a visual artist.

But she said to me that artists are always outsiders, that in order to make art, you have to be sitting a little bit outside society and looking in and thinking, what do I want to say about this? And I think she said that to kind of comfort me. And it is both comforting and a little depressing, too, because I've long often carried that feeling around of being an outsider.

And at least that's a positive way to think of yourself as an outsider. I think that feeling of not feeling quite like I'm belonging is because I'm a writer. I am often the one staying a little bit quieter and listening and observing to people around me.

ASHLEY TACKS: You have four, sorry. You have four books published currently, all of which are phenomenal. However, I would like to know which one of the works are you most proud of and why.

LEANNE HALL: Gosh. Every book is challenging, so I'm kind of proud of all of them. I'm proud of my first book, 'This is shyness,' because it was such a massive achievement to even finish a manuscript in the first place. I'd never actually finished a book before and written it through. So, I'm very proud of that.

And I got my first book published because I entered a prize. And it won the prize, but the manuscript was still kind of a mess, even though it won the prize. So, I had to work very hard in the editing to make that book good. So, I'm proud of that.

The second book was a sequel called 'Queen of the night.' I'm really proud of that because I was asked to write it very quickly. I wrote a first draft that was terrible. My editor told me it was terrible in nice ways. But basically, we can't publish this. It's terrible.

I had to, I got very upset, obviously, and felt really discouraged. But I picked myself back up and took my time and wrote a good second draft of the book. So, I'm proud of myself for coming back from a low point.

My third book, 'Iris and the Tiger,' was for a new audience which was younger. And it was really full of magic and mystery and surrealist art. And I'm proud of that because I took a gamble in writing for a younger audience. I didn't know if I could write for 9 to 12 year olds.

And 'The gaps' I'm proud of because it was such a personal book and involved looking at kind of painful memories. And so I'm proud of myself for seeing that through.

ASHLEY TACKS: All of your characters are complex and an absolute joy to read. Which of the characters do you relate to the most and why?

LEANNE HALL: Yeah. I would say, oh, Chloe is very close to me simply because I did choose to explore that experience that was very similar to mine, which is that of being a scholarship student at a private girls school and also being biracial, being Chinese Australian. Chloe's all of those things, and I was all of those things as a teenager.

So, I do feel quite close to Chloe in that sense, in that, and I didn't realise this when I started writing 'The gaps' was I was really going to explore my own teenage years. And it did bring up all those feelings that I've already talked about of being an outsider and not knowing where to belong, both for reasons because I wasn't as wealthy.

I didn't come from a wealthy family, like the other students. But also culturally and racially, I found it very hard to figure out where in Australian society do I actually fit in. So, I would say definitely that Chloe is probably the closest to who I am as a real person. Yeah.

ASHLEY TACKS: How long have you been writing for? And when did you actually consider yourself a writer?

LEANNE HALL: Yeah. So, the easy answer is I was a writer in prep. When I first learned to write, I've still actually got some old notebooks, some exercise books full of little Leanne stories and drawings. So, I always wrote stories from the moment. I could read and write.

So, in a way, I have always been a writer. I probably knew I wanted to be a writer maybe in high school or in uni. But I was very embarrassed to tell anyone. I would never have admitted to anyone. It seemed like too ambitious and lofty a goal for someone like me. So, I didn't actually tell anyone.

But it was my secret ambition. I think having my book, my first novel, 'This is shyness,' published allowed me to say I was a writer, even though, of course, I think a writer is somebody who writes. So, at primary school, I was a writer. At high school, I was a writer. At uni, I was a writer.

I'd had quite a few short stories published before I had my first book published. But unfortunately, just because in conventional terms I had this product that I could say to people and people would understand and expect, understand and accept that I was a writer because I'd had a book published. So unfortunately, I think I had to wait until then to actually feel like I could own the title 'writer.' Yeah.

ASHLEY TACKS: What is the most valuable piece of advice you've been given about writing?

LEANNE HALL: I can't think of a specific piece of advice. But definitely, writers, we do talk a lot amongst each other because I think, actually, writers often feel very confused and insecure about what it is they're trying to do with their lives. So, we do talk a lot. And we offer advice. And we bolster each other's spirits when we're not feeling good.

I do think the best advice is do not compare yourself to other writers and to trust yourself. And that means to trust in your writing style and your writing process and to trust that you have something worthwhile to say and to trust that you'll find your way eventually in your own way. I think writing is a really individual thing. And so, I personally think some of the best advice I've been given relates to just being really nice to yourself and really accepting yourself as an individual and that you'll find your own way of writing.

ASHLEY TACKS: Obviously, as an author, you are surrounded by literature. What genre of books do you enjoy reading the most?

LEANNE HALL: I'll read anything. I will read across all sorts of genres. So obviously, I like reading books that are written for children or teen audiences. That's what I really love. I also work at an independent bookshop, and that's the area that's my specialty.

So, I really love reading youth and children's literature. But, I will read almost anything, like contemporary fiction, historical fiction, crime fiction, sci-fi, fantasy. I think I've just got really wide tastes. And I think it's good for me as a writer, as well, just to really read across a huge amount of different types of books.

ASHLEY TACKS: Are there any authors that inspired your work?

LEANNE HALL: When I first started out, I think I was really into writers that wrote fantasy in a very realistic way. So, writers like Neil Gaiman springs to mind. But, I also read a lot of fantasy when I was younger, like Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin, Susan Cooper.

So, I think those fantasy authors that I read when I was younger and developing my skills as a writer for some reason really, really stayed with me. And 'The gaps' is realism, but that's actually a real departure for me. So, my other 3 books really have elements of fabulism or fantasy in them.

And if you'd ask anyone before 'The gaps' what sort of books does Leanne Hall write, they would have been like, fantasy and magic and things like that. So, those were the formative authors for me, I think.

ASHLEY TACKS: Now, the all important question, I know you just released 'The gaps.' But, do you have anything else planned? And if so, can we get any hints about any upcoming novels?

LEANNE HALL: What I think I'm going to work on next is a YA historical fiction. I have never written historical fiction before, so I'm terrified. It's basically based on sort of we have these really wonderful old photographs of my mum's parents so, my grandparents on my mother's side of the family, of them as a young courting couple wearing really dashing fashion, looking really gorgeous and really handsome.

And I sort of realised that stories about Chinese Australians, the lives of my grandparents have not been shown on television or celebrated in literature. And it's almost like their lives didn't matter in some way, like these are not the kind of lives that we record in Australian histories or in Australian books or TV shows or movies about that time period.

So, I'm basically writing a historical book set in World War II based in the Chinese-Australian community at that time, because I really want to tell a World War II story that hasn't kind of been seen very often about Chinese Australians. So, it's kind of like an untold story. The narratives we have in Australia around World War II don't include people like my grandparents. So, I really want to bring that story to life.

ASHLEY TACKS: I can't wait to read it.

LEANNE HALL: Thank you.

ASHLEY TACKS: Thank you so much for letting me interview you today. It's been amazing to talk to you. I hope everyone watching out there today enjoys reading your incredible novels as much as I did while they work to complete the Premier's Reading Challenge.

LEANNE HALL: Thank you so much, Ashley, for your great questions.

ASHLEY TACKS: Thank you.

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