NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2022 - author interview (secondary) - Sarah Ayoub
Dr Sarah Ayoub is a journalist, academic and author of books for young adults. She’s also a pleasure to chat to, as Isabel from Girraween High School discovered backstage at the 2022 Sydney Writers’ Festival Secondary Schools Day! Isabel and Sarah talk about representation, gender, identity, and the importance of connecting with characters in this fantastic interview.
Suitable for secondary audiences.
Transcript – NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2022 - author interview (secondary) - Sarah Ayoub
ISABEL: Hello, my name is Isabel, and I'm a student from Girraween High School. I'm here today on Cammeraygal land at The Concourse in Chatswood as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival Secondary Schools' Day. And I'm so excited to be interviewing Dr Sarah Ayoub, the wonderful author of 4 amazing books-- 'Hate is Such a Strong 'Word', 'The Yearbook Committee', 'The Cult of Romance' and 'The Love That Grew' for the New South Wales Premier's Reading Challenge. So, Sarah, how are you today?
SARAH AYOUB: I'm well, thank you. How are you?
ISABEL: I'm good, too. I noticed that in your books 'Hate is Such a Strong Word' and 'The Cult of Romance', there seems to be a recurring theme concerning how women should live. What was the inspiration behind these central themes, and what message did you want your readers to receive?
SARAH AYOUB: That's a very good question. I don't know when I started out writing 'Hate is Such a Strong Word' that it was a deliberate choice. I came to writing-- creative writing, I think, fairly late in comparison to other people in that it wasn't something I planned on doing. Even though I started writing 'Hate is Such a Strong Word' when I was quite young, it was always just going to be for me. And when it got published, I guess I didn't really think of that transition into it being something that other people would read.
So, when I wrote it, I was really just thinking about my own place in the world. I came from a very traditional, conservative Lebanese Maronite Catholic family. And in our culture, there were very specific gender roles. And I could see a difference in the way that I would say I was policed compared to my brother. And so, that's what I was trying to unpack.
When I wrote 'The Cult of Romance,' my life was very different. Writing was something I had grown a bit more confident in. A lot of the themes from the book that I did think about as I was writing came out of my research-- my PhD research. And I was also a mother of children-- 2 children and one on the way when I was writing that book. So, I was able to bring in my understanding of what being a female meant not just in my own family, but in the wider world.
ISABEL: In one of your other books, 'The Yearbook Committee', follows 5 different teenagers who have nothing in common except for finding themselves on the yearbook committee. The narration alternates between all 5 characters. And I noticed that each felt unique and all were extremely diverse, but the portrayal felt very realistic. How did you manage to write these perspectives from such diverse characters? Did you have some help with that?
SARAH AYOUB: Well, not really in the drafting process. But there were times in the editing process where-- writers are only, I guess, half the book. Our editors play a very important role. And I remember my publisher at the time was impressed that for my second book, I wanted to do this 5-point-of-view story. And she did think that I pulled it off, but there were always little things that we had to fine tune.
I think I just looked around me. Part of being a writer is observing the world around you. Hemingway says that most people don't listen. And one of his pieces of advice in his book on writing is go and stand outside a theatre and watch people getting out of the taxi. It's just an example of just one of the ways in which you can observe people.
So, I just paid attention to the world around me, to the way that teenagers around me spoke, how they interacted with each other. Teenagers on trains, I find, a very interesting observation because they're often in their school uniform, but they've finished school. So, they're in that liminal space between school-- the rigid rules of school and the rigid rules of home. And they get to be themselves for that moment in time.
So, I don't know that-- again, I don't know how deliberate it was, whether it was an organic process. Everything is in drafting. The first time, it probably wouldn't have come out right. But just paying attention to the world around me helped me to do that.
ISABEL: That must have taken a lot of research. I really liked how 'The Yearbook Committee' ended in, like, a wish dish in which everyone wrote letters to each other, but it was only revealed at the end of the book. I also enjoy the little social media posts at the beginning of every chapter. Where did the idea for that come from?
SARAH AYOUB: Well, I don't-- I haven't looked at that book in a long time, so I actually forgot about the wish dish. It was released in 2016, and we're here now 6 years later. And then obviously, I would have written it, like, in 2014 or 2015. So, it's a big jump in time.
The social media posts were because social media is such an important part of the modern teenager's life. Many of you spend a significant amount of time on your phones engaged with the world around you in a way that my generation wasn't and the generation before mine. So, I guess I was just trying to tap into that. Obviously, the social media that's available that's used by teenagers has changed in that time, but I think the way in which it is used hasn't.
And then the wish dish, I think I just wanted something positive. It's a pretty heavy book in some parts.
ISABEL: Mmm, it is.
SARAH AYOUB: And I do like to have something positive in my stories. And I think sometimes, when I think back to my own high school experience, why was this person not cool, or why was this person bullied? In hindsight, it never made sense. It's almost like some person just decides this person's not cool and everybody follows suit. We were like sheep. And so I was really thinking about that when I tapped into that concept of the wish dish. What do I wish I could have noticed about the more marginalised people in my grade?
ISABEL: Continuing on, the ending of 'The Yearbook Committee' was very quite interesting and very unexpected. What inspired you to end the book like that?
SARAH AYOUB: So, I had covered a story-- I work as a freelance journalist for a teenage magazine, 'Girlfriend', around synthetic drug use. And there was a specific case of a young boy who took a synthetic drug and died as a result of that.
And I thought it was very interesting when I interviewed my experts for this piece that synthetic drugs actually weren't illegal, so this boy didn't think he was doing anything wrong because the ingredients that were in synthetic drugs weren't-- they're just a mishmash of things brought together. They're not substances that we classify as illegal. And then when they come together, they bring their own effects to something. And then I thought it would be interesting to combine some of that bullying that is prevalent in some high schools in with that synthetic drug use and what happens when a prank and a choice come together and collide in one moment.
ISABEL: Did that happen in real life?
SARAH AYOUB: That didn't. That was entirely me.
ISABEL: OK. Most of the books you've written have been for a teenage or young adult audience, but this year, you released your first picture book 'The Love That Grew'. What inspired you to write a picture book, and how is that different to the process of writing a novel?
SARAH AYOUB: Oh, it's so much easier because it's so much shorter. But it's harder, I think, to get it across the line. You know, I'd say to my publisher, 'I have an idea for this teenage book', and they'd be like, 'Yeah, OK, let's draw up a contract.' But with picture books, I remember this was my second attempt. So, the first book that I wanted to write didn't get across the line.
But I'm glad in hindsight because I wanted, you know-- I wanted to write picture books because I wanted to read them with my children. And this one is a love letter to my children. And it's a love letter that I hope all mothers can read to their children to let them know that no matter what happens in the world, no matter, you know, how they-- it doesn't matter how they experience life, their mother's love is something they can often count on to get them through.
ISABEL: That's a very empowering statement for all the people out there. What type of books do you like to read, and do you think that your reading preferences influence the type of books you read or inspire you to become a writer?
SARAH AYOUB: Oh, that's a good question. So, I read a lot of YA in my 20s when I was writing YA. I'm particularly interested in YA written from the perspective of marginalised communities because that speaks to my own experience of making sense of the world around me. Growing up in the aftermath of the Cronulla riots, being Lebanese, I felt a very distinct otherness as I moved through the world. And I felt very insecure and I felt very afraid to claim my space in this world.
And I write YA from that same sentiment. And I want my readers, whether they come from marginalised communities or not, to feel unafraid to stake their claim in the world, whatever that is; to make space for themselves; to find their voice; to engage with the things that they are passionate about. So, I read a lot of YA for a while, particularly as I was writing my PhD because that was specifically about intersectional Australian YA.
And now, because I've spent so much time in the YA zone, I'm starting to read more literary fiction. And I still read Australian YA 'cause I'm in that community. But yeah, I'm reading a lot more literary fiction by women of colour.
ISABEL: When and how did you first discover your love for writing? Was it always your dream, and were you ever worried that you couldn't make it as an author? Did you have any backup careers, or did you commit all your time to becoming an author?
SARAH AYOUB: That's a good question, too. So, I mentioned before that being an author wasn't something I dreamed about, but being a journalist was. And so I didn't have any backup career, and I still don't have any backup career. And it's getting harder and harder in this day and age to be the kind of journalist that I want to be. Sometimes, I'll open a news website and I don't see quality journalism. I see a lot of repurposed content because that's what we've become. We've become a society obsessed with content, but we're not telling quality stories.
And sometimes, I'll go into a class and I'll tell students, you know-- even a lot of the TV shows that you watch are born out of literature or born out of good writing. The most recent example is 'Inventing Anna' on Netflix. People are quite shocked-- like, my students are quite shocked when I say, 'You know, this was a feature article that I read on The Cut, like, 5 years ago.' And they're like, 'Oh, what?'
So, I always wanted to be a journalist. It was a very hard industry to break into. I wanted to specifically write for women, and my options at the time were glossy women's lifestyle magazines. I did a lot of interning. I worked for free 2 days a week for about 2 years to try and get my foot in the door, but I couldn't even get a toe in the door because I didn't look and sound like the other girls and the other women that worked there.
I was from Western Sydney. A lot of them were from the Eastern suburbs or the North Shore. They were white, they were blonde, they were-- I just didn't fit in. And I felt like I should have probably found a backup career, but I persisted. Writing my books was-- writing 'Hate is Such a Strong Word', I mentioned, was just for me. So, that unknowingly gave me another entry point to where I am now-- a writer who writes for newspapers and magazines, who writes books for teenagers and now books for children, and who teaches writing at a university.
ISABEL: That's good to hear. My last few questions are for any aspiring young writers out there. What do you think makes a good story?
SARAH AYOUB: Oh, that's a good question. I think a lot of people think so much about plot. Plot is important, but I think you need to have engaging characters. And so my advice to young people who want to write is to really pay attention to the traits that make people who they are. So, look around at the people around you. What do your friends do when they're talking to someone they have a crush on? What do they do when they're lying to their parents or to a teacher? Those little idiosyncrasies that make us who we are, they're great for characterisation.
People love plots, but they also feel for characters, whether they want a character-- like, a mean character to get their comeuppance, or whether they're behind a character and they want them to overcome whatever tribulations they're having in the story. So, I think character is so important. And then just looking around at the world around them to see what makes people tick. I think if people can get behind an issue or something, then they're more likely to engage in your work.
ISABEL: What was one of the most surprising things you learned when creating your books?
SARAH AYOUB: I think the editing. Like that concept of how much an editor brings to a story. I'm so grateful for my editors because they make everything better. They will pull out threads that I didn't know were there. And so, I think that's probably the most surprising thing for me, and it's something that I really relish at the moment, particularly with the YA books because they're bigger. There's a lot more to them.
And once you, like, cross that 50-60,000-word point, everything kind of like meshes together, and your eyes glaze over and you stop picking things up. So, an editor coming in and going, 'Hey, did you notice that you said this here, but then this there, and they're completely contradictory?' And I'm like, 'Oh, OK, thank you.' So,--
ISABEL: Finally, do you have any certain quirks or strategies when writing that help you create unique stories or stay on track?
SARAH AYOUB: Oh, nothing with stay on track except to eat a lot of sugar. It's not the most healthy pursuit. I like to have-- I like to set aside little treats for me when I get to a certain point. So, for example, if I get to 5 chapters, then I can go out for lunch or whatever because I have a tendency to procrastinate, and I think we all do. And it doesn't help that there are apps there literally, like, begging for your attention. So, eating sugar is the thing that helps me get the work done.
And then in terms of quirks, I like to act out as I'm writing. So, if my character has just gone out into the playground, then I would, like, visualise myself going out into the playground. And what might I do? Can I put my bag down, or I might put my bag down and pick it back up and balance it on my leg to get my lunchbox out of my bag or whatever. So, I will actually act things out so I can use the right words or the right gestures for my characters.
ISABEL: Well, that concludes our interview. Thank you so much for letting me interview you today, Sarah. It's been amazing talking with you. I hope everyone watching out there today enjoys reading your books as much as I did while they work towards to complete their Premier's Reading Challenge.
SARAH AYOUB: Thank you so much for having me.
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