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NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2023 - SWF author interview (primary) - 03. Maryam Master

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BARNABY: Hi. My name is Barnaby Peake, and I'm a student from Epping Public School. I'm here on Cammeraygal land at The Concourse in Chatswood as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival Primary Schools Day, and I'm so excited to be interviewing Maryam Master for the NSW Premier's Reading Challenge. Hi, Maryam. How are you today?

MARYAM MASTER: Hi, Barnaby. I'm good. How are you?

BARNABY: I'm good, thank you. My first question today is, when did you realise that you wanted to become a writer?

MARYAM MASTER: You know, it took me a long time to decide that I wanted to do it as a career. I always loved writing, and I had very encouraging teachers at school, particularly my English teacher. But I didn't think it was something that you could do for a living. I accidentally stumbled upon it. I made a short film for fun while I was at university, and that did the festival rounds, and it won some awards, and I thought, 'Hey, maybe I could actually make some money doing this. Maybe I could do this instead of other things.'

But I actually studied economics for the first year at university, which is so not me. But then I changed into an arts degree, and I got my first job in television. So it was a little bit accidental. It's not something I always wanted to do. It's something I realised I could do, and so I decided to pursue it.

BARNABY: When you start a book, do you normally just write a plan out, or do you start the story straight away?

MARYAM MASTER: Oh, that's also a very good question. I think different authors work differently. Because I have my training in television, and television is very planned. So as a writer in TV, you go in and they tell you, 'This is your episode. This is what happens in your episode. This person does this, and this, and this, and this is where you end.'

I'm kind of used to that kind of storytelling. So I like to have a little bit of an idea of where I'm going with my story. But having said that, I can't plan it all out, because you have to allow for a little bit of magic to happen during the process. So I'm mostly planned, but somewhat blind as well [laughs] going in.

BARNABY: In both of your books, 'Exit Through the Gift Shop' and 'No Words', a main character is from Iran. Was there a reason for this?

MARYAM MASTER: [laughs] Yes. Well, I'm Iranian myself. I didn't really plan to make both characters be Iranian. The first one, you write what you know, you know? She's half Iranian, so I did want to put that in there and explore having a character in a mainstream book who was from a different background.

And then the second book is actually about-- it's very personal. It's about my escape from Iran. So of course, that had to be the character, and that had to be Iranian, because it's very much a personal story, the second book.

BARNABY: I noticed that both of your books seemed aimed at mature audiences, while the cover and the style of writing made it at first glance seem to be a book for younger children. Were you intending to have this effect on audiences?

MARYAM MASTER: Well, my books are-- I think the publishers say 8 years old and up. I don't think of an age range when I'm writing. I actually just write for everybody, and I like to catch all different kinds of readers. I like to capture, with the illustrations that Astred Hicks, who is my illustrator, has beautifully done in both books, to capture the kids who don't love reading, so it can hold them.

And with the content, it is a bit more mature, because the first one is about a kid who's dying, and the second one is about a refugee. So they do seem kind of serious. Again, not intentional. These are just the stories that are coming to me. I just tell them as they come.

BARNABY: Both of your books are written in the style of a diary. Do you like to write in diaries or is there another reason for this?

MARYAM MASTER: I love the first-person narrative, yes, I do. I feel like it is more engaging. I feel like you're talking directly to the reader. I like to read books like that, and that's just become my style. I may change and write in the third person, in other books, and again, because also I'm used to writing dialogue for TV shows, and that's always direct. It's my go-to.

BARNABY: I know you based your book 'No Words' on your own refugee experience. Can you talk about some of the similarities between yourself and Aria?

MARYAM MASTER: Oh, Barnaby, there are so many. In fact, that book was a bit of a cheat, because I didn't have to make a lot up. It is fiction. It is a work of fiction. I'm not saying that it's a biography or a memoir. But I would say 95% of what you read in that book is true and has happened. Most of it to me, and some of it is borrowed.

I've borrowed parts of my friend's story. She's also a refugee, and she also had her experiences. I won't do any spoilers. But with her permission, I melded those 2 stories together to make this book. But it is almost entirely the story of my escape from Iran, and my coming to Australia and trying to fit in, and trying to find my place in this new society. [chuckles]

BARNABY: Where did you get inspiration for 'Exit Through the Gift Shop'?

MARYAM MASTER: That initially-- I have always thought about the big picture stuff. I'm always thinking about what happens when we die. What's next? And I thought it was just me. And then my son, Leo, as soon as he could talk, he started asking kind of similar questions about the afterlife, and why we're here, and what's the point of it all, and why are some people sick, and why do people, some people, die young and some people die older?

And so it was him, it was Leo, whose questions made me think, it's not just me. This is actually something kids-- in fact, all people-- must at some point think about. So I decided to ask those questions. I don't have all the answers, but I thought it was a good conversation to have. Because death is a little bit taboo, and people don't like talking about it. But I thought, 'What have I got to lose?' [chuckles]

BARNABY: 'Exit Through the Gift Shop' has won awards. How did you feel about your first-ever book being shortlisted in 2 separate competitions?

MARYAM MASTER: It's been a wonderful and wild and very surreal experience, because you don't expect that for a first book. I had no expectations. I didn't even know if it was going to get published. I wrote it-- I wrote it for my son. I wrote it in between other work that I do. So it was amazing when it got published, and then it was even more amazing when it was shortlisted for these awards, and what's really wonderful about being shortlisted is that more people hear about it, and more kids read your work.

BARNABY: It would make people notice your book.

MARYAM MASTER: Yes. So I'm very grateful for that. But I know that it has to be downhill from here. [laughs] It's a pretty good start.

BARNABY: Are you planning on writing any other books?

MARYAM MASTER: Yes. I am writing a third book at the moment. But don't ask me any questions about it, because I haven't even told my publisher and it's bad luck for me to talk about it before it's finished. I am working on a third book, though. Yes.

BARNABY: Is there anything you'd like to tell to any aspiring young writers out there?

MARYAM MASTER: Yeah. I think the key is to do the work. Just to show up and write something every day. Don't worry if it's good or bad, if you think it's terrible. Every author, even award-winning authors and very famous authors, write bad stuff. I think that's part of the journey, and you can't get better at writing unless you practise. It's like going to the gym. You're not going to get fit unless you do the workouts.

So my advice would be to just write a little bit every day, if you can. If that's what you want to do with your life, start getting the practice. Even if you write one paragraph. Even if you write one little character breakdown, or just a little bit of dialogue, or just the beginnings of a story that you may not even go back to. That's OK. But it's just to show up and do the work.

BARNABY: Thank you so much for letting me interview you today, Maryam. It's been amazing talking with you. I hope everybody watching out there today enjoys reading your incredible novels as much as I did, while they work to complete the Premier's Reading Challenge.

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