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NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2021 - Author talks (secondary) - 04. Michael Pryor

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JASMINE: Hi. My name is Jasmine, and I'm a student at Galston High School. I'm here today on Darug land at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, as part of the Sydney Writers Festival Secondary Schools Day. And I'm so excited to be interviewing Michael Pryor for the New South Wales Premier's Reading Challenge. Hi, Michael. How are you today?

MICHAEL PRYOR: I'm top of the world, really excited to be here. Gonna be a lot of people here talking about books, reading, and writing, and that's just the best thing in the world.

JASMINE: I absolutely loved 'Gap year in Ghost Town,' which is about a boy called Anton who can see ghosts and comes from a family of ghost hunters. Who just so happens to take his gap year during a massive spike in violent and dangerous ghost attacks in Melbourne.

MICHAEL PRYOR: Yep, you've summed it up beautifully. People often ask me, what's your book about? And I go, umm, it's got ghosts in it and people. But you've hit the nail on the head. Thanks.

JASMINE: What inspired you to write this book? What was going through your head while writing it?

MICHAEL PRYOR: Yeah. 'Gap year in Ghost Town' was my 37th book, 38th book, something like that. I've written lots of books. And when you write a lot of books, when you finish one, and you're thinking of what am I going to do next, it's often a feeling of setting yourself a challenge. What sort of thing haven't I done before? What sort of a bar can I set myself to try to keep up the quality I've managed in previous years?

And with this one, the notion occurred to me that I've written many books set in far-off magical, imaginary lands or future or space or science-fictiony sort of scenarios. What I hadn't really done was what I call contemporary novel, set in the here and now, in the real world.

But, I didn't just want to write a bog standard contemporary novel. I still wanted to have the magical, imaginative elements that always fascinate me. So, it ended up being what we call urban fantasy, if you like, a novel set in our world and our times, with our people, but with magical stuff going on. And that once I locked onto that, I knew I was onto something.

JASMINE: And you definitely were on to something because the book is absolutely amazing.

MICHAEL PRYOR: Thank you. I'm pleased to hear that.

JASMINE: One of the things I enjoyed most about 'Gap year in Ghost Town' was the witty dialogue. It seemed like Anton had a comeback or clever remark for just about every situation. Is this similar to how you or someone else talks to you in real life, or did it take a lot of work to perfect Anton's character?

MICHAEL PRYOR: Yeah. Anton is the main character in the book. He's not just the main character. He's the point of view character. 'Gap year in Ghost Town' and the sequel, 'Graveyard shift in Ghost Town,' are what are called voice novels. It's almost like he's talking off the page to you.

And that's one of the extra challenges I set myself. Because his voice had to sound like an 18-year-old young man with all of his background and all of his particular strengths and weaknesses. So, getting the rhythm of that speech, the words he uses, the words he didn't use, all of that, was one of those extra challenges that I really enjoyed doing. And yeah, he's a funny guy.

JASMINE: He is. He's very funny.

MICHAEL PRYOR: Look, all of my novels, no matter how serious they are, they've always got a humorous element. And I decided to let it have free rein in this one. Yeah, Anton's got a bit of a fast mouth on him sometimes. It gets him into trouble.

JASMINE: Oh, yeah, definitely.

MICHAEL PRYOR: That's always good. But he's sort of aware of it. He knows that he can be flippant and glib, and he tries to cut back on it some, but it just comes out. And it is almost like a standard mode of interaction with young men, especially, that they want to tell a joke. They want to be funny guys. And humour is a lovely way of social interaction, and especially his humour. It's snarky sometimes, but it's never cruel.

One of the things I set, Anton does not use cruel jokes, cruel humour. He often makes jokes at his own expense, very Australian, that, where somebody will put themselves down, sort of with a bit of knowingness about it, and other people join in. We know you're not really that silly, Anton. Oh, yeah. And it's just gorgeous. I love that way of young men managing themselves in the world, with a bit of lightheartedness and a bit of quick wittedness.

JASMINE: When it comes to dealing with ghosts, Anton and his new friend, Rani, have very different methods. Rani can be pretty violent and doesn't care if she causes them pain, while Anton is much more gentle. Why did you choose to have this difference, and what message were you trying to give your readers?

MICHAEL PRYOR: Mm-hmm. That's one of the important, core aspects of the text. Ghost hunting's been done many times before. And if something's been done many times before, as a writer, always try to find a different wrinkle on it. And the general way of ghost hunting is pretty much Rani's way. It's violent. They're deadly creatures, so you chop them up, and you banish them.

So, I thought, well, wouldn't it be interesting if there was a different way of dealing with ghosts? And Anton and his family have this different way. They ease their passage. When they can get their hands on ghosts, they can actually send them painlessly on to the great beyond, wherever that is. And that's one of the great mysteries that even Anton, he's not quite sure about.

And I thought that would make a lovely contrast, and especially, seeing it's a young man taking the gentler approach and the young woman taking the more violent approach. Yeah. Let's play around with stereotypes.

JASMINE: Even though I'm not familiar with Melbourne, I really liked all the Australian references you made throughout the book, especially when a lot of the books I've read seem very American or British, like 'Percy Jackson' or 'Harry Potter.'

MICHAEL PRYOR: Which is lovely. They're great. I know everything about New York City from reading books set in New York City.

JASMINE: Yeah, basically.

MICHAEL PRYOR: But yes, I wanted to draw back from that default of writing things set in the United States and make the most of our Australian landscape, an Australian setting. And so, it's not just the vocabulary, the language, as you've said, but it's the landscape. And it is set in Melbourne, where I live, the city that I know back to front. And it does feature landmarks, actual landmarks, which people can visit, which, of course, then got me onto a bit of history, what's going on in previous years in those landmarks in the city.

And I did like, very early, I think it's chapter 2, at one stage, I have the classic Australianism that Anton uses, where he's talking, just musing, really, and he says, yeah, nah, yeah, nah, yeah, nah. That's in paragraph 2, something like that. And as soon as I got that on the page, I felt like I'd nailed Anton's voice and nailed it as an Australian voice, too.

JASMINE: When you were growing up, did you get to see any Australian stories in the books you read?

MICHAEL PRYOR: Very, very few. They were around. There were a few Australian authors who managed to get their work published, but you had to search for them. When you found them, they sounded so fresh and so different. And almost all of the Australian books I read were set in the country, though. They were Australian country landscapes and country towns.

And all of that is wonderful, but I can't remember ever reading an Australian story set in the city. And we're very urban people. We like to think we're all bushies, and we all get out there. We're very urban people. And we have a way of managing our city life that is distinctly ours. So, yeah, I thought I'd have a go at writing that.

JASMINE: How did you go about writing a book, especially one that's part of a series? When you first came up with the idea of 'Ghost Town,' was it a complete jumble of ideas that were all over the place, or did you know what you wanted to happen the moment you had your idea?

MICHAEL PRYOR: Initially, it's a jumble. There's so many things going on. And a lot of them get discarded along the way. But, you have to have the jumble to start with. I mean, really, that's where the structure eventually grows out of. And discarding the things that aren't going to work is part of the job.

Initially, I had the idea of the scenario, as I explained, a sort of an Australian city infested with ghosts. We'll have ghost hunters. We'll have a ghost hunter that has a unique way of going about it. We'll have some standard ghost hunters. All right, so it's starting to shape up when I'm getting to there. Once I get to that sort of stage, I like to know where my stories are going to finish. I actually never start a first draft without having the ending worked out ahead of time.

JASMINE: Oh, yeah. The ending's very important.

MICHAEL PRYOR: That keeps me on track, you see. If I start to flounder a little bit in the middle of the first draft, I've got my ending all worked out. Then it starts to kick me back on that path. So, at some stage after that jumble, after thinking of the scenario, then it's characters.

Characters will make or break a book. And so that's when I had to start thinking of the approach, the voice, novel approach. Who is this guy? Who is Anton? What's he doing? Why's he involved with ghost hunting? Maybe there's a family history. But, maybe he's reluctant. Then all of these ideas for the characters started coming out. Nail the main character. Then you need the subsidiary characters.

So, we've got his friend, Beck. We've got Rani, the intruder, the new friend. We've got his family. His dad also plays part. And start to organise those characters. And characters, a bit of a structure, what's happening in the story.

I do eventually dot point the structure, so chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, right down to the end. Then it's in the first draft, and I'm away. So, there's a lot of that sort of preparatory fumbling around stuff, starts to shape up, get it down on paper, launch into first draft.

JASMINE: Your 'Ghost Town' books and many of your other books are on the Premier's Reading Challenge, which means I was able to add them to my reading log. I'm now halfway to my goal of reading 20 books. How important do you think reading is for young readers, and did you participate in any reading challenges when you were younger?

MICHAEL PRYOR: Yeah, reading is very important for young people. I mean, it does good things for you. The more you read, the better you get with language. The better you get with language, the better you can conduct yourself in life, and in business relation, everything. And reading is a painless way to develop that sort of facility. But, it's also just fun. I want to see reading as a viable alternative recreational pursuit. Read good books because they're fun and enjoyable. And there should be a pleasurable part of life.

JASMINE: They are. Because when I read books, I just get lost in it. And you don't realise how much time has passed until you look at the clock, and it's like, oh, my god, like, four hours have passed.

MICHAEL PRYOR: You know, there's a psychological term for this. It's called narrative transport. And it's when you get lost in a book so much, you're immersed in it, that basically, someone has to tap you on the shoulder, and you go, oh, oh, and you're taken out of the world. Stuff happens in your brain that takes you away when you're that deeply immersed in a book.

JASMINE: Thank you so much for letting me interview you today, Michael. It's been amazing talking to you.

MICHAEL PRYOR: A pleasure, Jasmine. Thanks for the really thoughtful and insightful questions.

JASMINE: Thank you so much for letting me interview today, Michael. It's been amazing talking to you. I hope everyone watching out there today enjoys reading your incredible novel as much as I did for the Premier's Reading Challenge.

MICHAEL PRYOR: Right. Thanks, Jasmine. It's been wonderful.

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