2012 Snapshot Archive: Penni Russon

First published at Alexandra Pierce’s blog.

Penni Russon is fascinated by adolescence and the intersection that exists in that period of life between language, bodies, reality, imagination, poetry, sexuality, and ideas, which is why she mostly writes literary fiction for teenagers. She sometimes writes for boring grownups too, now that she is one. She has a story forthcoming in Island Magazine #129 called Softly the Fall.

Your novel Only Ever Always is a finalist for the Aurealis Awards for 2011 – congratulations! Thanks. (Edited to add: and won the Young Adult Novel category!!)
One of the really intriguing aspects of this novel, aside from the plot itself and its changes between characters, is that you alternate between first, second and third-person voices throughout the novel. What did this technique allow you to do that staying with one narrative voice wouldn’t? And was it difficult to keep track of?
Only Ever Always was an exploration about where stories come from. You know those big narrative dreams you have, where the world is ending, or where you’ve been kidnapped and you are trying to escape, that stay with you? Where you wake up and feel you’ve just read a novel, or watched a movie? Well, I was wondering, what are those dreams for? What are stories for? And then that also led to an inquiry into how stories are told. The second person came about after teaching a subject called Radical Fiction at Melbourne University. One student used second person to great effect (before then my experience of second person had been mostly confined to Choose Your Own Adventure books, with the exception of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler). Second person is actually First Person when you think about it, a narrator is still implied. So this intrigued me – who tells the story? Who is the dreamer? The reader, the writer, the character?

It was occasionally difficult to track. I decided that when Claire entered Sedge that it would be third person, to highlight a further disconnect (the waking dream), but also to make it really clear to the reader that a significant shift had happened. There was one scene where Claire and Clara occupy the same space and I had a lot of trouble deciding what POV that should be from!

Your trilogy from a few years ago, Undine, Breathe and Drift focussed on a teenaged girl and her discovery of magic. What drew you to working with this particular mythology, and bringing it into the modern world?

I grew up in Tasmania which is where Undine is set. I was fascinated by what it meant to grow up on an island – I am still curious about this, as I come to realise actually just how socially disadvantaged Tasmania is compared to Melbourne where I live now. Anyway, to me it seemed natural that magic would be linked to the ocean. I once commented on Twitter about experiencing ambivalence with regards to the ocean. Another writer scoffed (I’m paraphrasing), ‘The ocean makes me feel many things, but nothing so wishy-washy as ambivalent.’ But I am happy to embrace my wishy-washiness! I am fascinated by ambivalence, ambiguity, halfway states, where you linger between, not quite one thing or another. Undine is all about being halfway between – human and magical creature, love and like, the thing and the reflection of the thing and so the Undine myth (which is not literally in the novel) is a metaphor for this.

I love Margaret Mahy’s YA fiction, so I wanted to write something with “magic in the real world”. Writing Undine was a very organic process, I really didn’t understand much about the practical aspects of writing fantasy when I began. The Undine books are actually incredibly autobiographical in parts, many incidents in the books actually happened to me.

You’ve written both speculative fiction and what might be called mainstream YA as part of the Girlfriend series; do you see yourself having to choose between genres, or continuing to cross them, in the future?

I think all my books belong together, despite the genre crossing. They are really all about those halfway states, about what’s real and what’s pretend. In The Indigo Girls the girls go night surfing – this is very similar to the way Undine experiences power and her body. In Little Bird Ruby-Lee falls in maternal love with the baby she is babysitting, and then transfers these feelings onto the baby’s single father in a romantic way and then has to try and figure out what is real and what is part of her fantasy life. I don’t think I will ever tire of this theme

What are some works by Australians that you’ve been enjoying recently?

I loved Queen of the Night, Leanne Hall’s excellent sequel to This is Shyness, with its comic book aesthetic. The FitzOsborne’s at War, the third book in Michelle Cooper’s Montmaray trilogy, made me cry and smile and laugh – these are historical fiction, though Montmaray is a made up island. I really admire Cooper’s world building, the way she stitches her fictional world and history together so seamlessly. Also this year I loved Foal’s Bread, which I read as magical realism.

Also I am reading Emily Rodda’s Fairy Realm books aloud to my six year old! Emily Rodda and I will be on a panel together at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival – my daughters are very excited!

It’s been two years since the World Science Fiction Convention was held in Australia. How do you think the speculative fiction scene in Australia has changed since then?

Well, the biggest change in Australia in the last two years is the loss of Borders and Angus & Robertson, the “middle” market, and at the same time many publishers are dropping their sales staff, instead having booksellers go to the website to select stock for their stores. I think as a result we are going to increasingly see a bigger divide – a lot more trashy trash, and some really interesting, experimental “literary” spec fic that works hard to catch a bookseller’s eye. Perhaps as a result of this, I think publishers are more focussed on “The Pitch” than on “The Talent” (though I don’t think a talented author will ever be overlooked). Still, it’s easier for publishers to sell books that can be summed up in a sentence, not just to customers, but to their own marketing departments, to booksellers, to reviewers, to overseas markets. It was really hard for me to sum up Only Ever Always in a sentence, and the exercise seemed artificial, nothing to do with marking art. It was actually the rights manager, Angela Namoi who crystallised it by describing it as ” a meditation on grief”. Of course the question I started out asking was where do stories come from? And Angela made me realise I had answered that question: “from lack, from absence, from loss. From the spaces between where the lost things dwell.”

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