Penni Russon is the author of the Undine trilogy – Undine, Breathe and Drift. More recently, she has written several mainstream YA novels for the Allen & Unwin Girlfriend series, including The Indigo Girls, Little Bird and (with Kate Constable)Dear Swoosie.
1. Dear Swoosie, which you co-wrote with Kate Constable, has just been released. How did the two of you manage the co-writing experience? Would you do it again?
We planned the novel before we started writing. We came up with India’s character first (because like India, Kate used to tell fortunes that sometimes came true), but I honestly have no idea how the rest of the story emerged, it was a truly magical process. We had a google doc that we both added to one chapter at a time, and at the same time we wrote the letters between Mandy and Sarah – strangely the climax of the letters happened at the same time as the climax of the novel. Not everything was planned so we each had to wait for the chapter or letter to appear before we could write the next instalment. It was quite an incredible experience, like reading a novel at the same time as writing it. Would we do it again? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
2. I’ve heard it said that it’s easy to move between genres within the confines of YA. You’ve had both fantasy and mainstream YA novels published – has this ever been a problem for you? Do your readers follow you across the borders?
I think that’s true in terms of publishing contracts and your editor encouraging you to write what you want to write – I think its easier because you aren’t changing departments in the publishing house more than anything. I am not sure how many Undine readers are also Girlfriend readers and vice versa (though I sometimes say that Indigo Girls is just Undine, but the chaos magic is replaced with night surfing). I remember Simmone Howell saying once that she wanted to write the kinds of books kids would pick up off the shelves themselves, use their own pocket money to buy, rather than relying on the ‘gatekeepers’ like librarians and teachers and parents to put them into their hands, and I think the Girlfriends are like that – (relatively) cheap and cheerful, great colours, easy to find and swap around between mates. The Undine books – sitting as they do across genres and markets – have to work harder to find their readers. And I acknowledge that they are quite difficult books in some ways, the prose is demanding. But there are people who really, really love and adore Undine and Trout and Lou and Jasper and Grunt. So even if they never sell to the masses, I am more than happy with their place in the world.
3. What’s next for Penni Russon? What have you been working on, writingwise, and are you returning to speculative fiction any time soon?
I have a novel with the publisher at the moment, getting its second round of juicy structural edit. It is indeed speculative, a sort of dystopian fairytale set in alternative universes, probably sharing some common traits with Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, also The Silver Crown by Robert C. O’Brien and The Mouse and his Child by Russel Hoban, though it was actually Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland I was thinking about when I began the planning process, and the idea of the ‘everchild’. In Only Ever Always the eternal child is increasingly unhealthy, the child has to grow up in order to protect the child-self from harm, otherwise the adult world and the child world will dissolve into each other, with bad consequences. All that’s happening under the surface of course. It’s a quest narrative, and the quest is shared between two versions of the same girl. Only Ever Always will be publishing in Autumn 2011.
Kate and I are also cooking up another collaborative novel – fantasy this time – though not sure when writing will commence on that.
And I have two other nebulous ideas, one about the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart and one about a Thumbelina sized girl, who goes on a quest to search for her full-sized sister with a group of insect companions.
4. What Australian writers or work would you like to see nominated for awards this year?
Oh, all my mates of course! Kate Constable’s timeslip novel Cicada Summer raises the bar for junior fiction, I think it’s truly awesome, an enduring classic for readerly readers in a market dominated by books for reluctant readers – and I think its important that there are books on the shelf that celebrate the joy and wonder of reading a challenging, engaging, not altogether easy, but utterly satisfying book. I also loved The Museum of Mary Child by Cassandra Golds, and would love to see that recognised this year, it was shortlisted for an Aurealis award, which was fantastic. It’s published as YA too, though I think it’s on the younger end of the YA spectrum.
5. Are you planning to go to Aussiecon 4 in September? If so, what are you most looking forward to?
I don’t know, who will I be in September? If I did go, it would be for the sheer pleasure of the company.