Barry Jonsberg is a writer and teacher living in Darwin in the Top End. His first book, The Whole Business with Kiffo and the Pitbull was published in 2004 and since then he has written a further sixteen novels and won six major literary awards. His books have been published in fourteen countries and translated into seven languages.
1. In May this year Allen & Unwin released the first book in your new Pandora Jones series, Admission, and in October the second book, Deception is due out. These are in the dystopian thriller genre which is a bit different from your other books – what inspired this series, and what can you tell us about it?
Yes, I suppose Pandora Jones is something of a departure for me. I generally write realistic fiction but, to be honest. I tend not to think too much about genres when writing a book. All of my stories come from small ideas or images and I write to find out where those ideas might take me. Sometimes this results in “straight” realism and at other times I find myself in different territories. Being Here, for example [which won the Queensland Premier’s Award], started as realistic but developed a strand of magic realism. I wasn’t expecting this and certainly hadn’t planned it. It’s just where the story took me. So, too, with the Pandora trilogy.
Pandora Jones was, in part, inspired by a television series called The Prisoner back in the 1960s. The main character found himself trapped in a strange village where personal identity was subsumed beneath a system of rigid conformity. Everyone was given a number and no escape [or even questioning of the system] was permitted. I have always been fascinated by the program and I wondered what would happen if a young Australian girl found herself removed from society and placed in a closed system, a kind of school, where answers to important questions were positively discouraged. What secrets would The School be hiding and how could she discover answers? As always, I had no idea where the story would take me. I wrote it to find out and in so doing surprised myself. For a start, what was going to be a standalone book became a trilogy. It was only when I finished the third book that I realised I had written speculative fiction.
That’s fine. It wasn’t a choice. It’s just the way it turned out. And I quite like the idea that the book determines the genre rather than the author. I have a sneaking suspicion that writers tend to channel stories rather than create them…
2. My Life As An Alphabet has been shortlisted for The Adelaide Festival Award 2013; The CBCA Book of the Year 2014; the NSW Premier’s Award [Ethel Turner, YA], 2014, and has so far won The Gold Inky 2013; The Children’s Peace Prize 2013; The Victorian Premier’s Award for YA fiction, 2013, The Territory Read Award 2014. The book was inspired when you set the same writing assignment we see in the book to your own students, where you received three thousand word assignments from kids who previously struggled to get a few sentences down. What do you think worked so well about the assignment itself, and what about it made the novel so brilliant?
How kind of you to call the book “brilliant”! Alphabet has achieved amazing success so far [it’s due out in Germany, France and The U.S. within a couple of months] and this was not something I anticipated. It’s a very simple tale after all but it appears to have captured the imaginations of many readers. Why is that so? I don’t really know, but I suppose I could make an educated guess.
The original assignment worked because it subverted the normal “rules” of written English assignments which tend to be dominated by learning outcomes that are the preserve of the teacher [or the examining body that instructs the teacher]. The alphabet autobiography gives writing back to the students. It isn’t an artificial exercise but is about the students’ own experiences and they have control over the content. “Write about what you know” is a rather simplistic piece of advice given to new writers of fiction but this is exactly what the assignment gave to the students. And they embraced the chance. I learned so much from the assignments submitted and that was incredibly refreshing. Most times, students give back to me what I’ve given them [often mangled in the process]. This time they were in control and it proved liberating.
As far as My Life As An Alphabet is concerned, I think the success of this book, perhaps more than most, depends upon the main character. Candice writes a chapter for each letter of the alphabet, rather than a paragraph as the assignment suggests. What kind of kid would do that? It became clear early on in the writing that only a very strange kid would do that. Candice has her own ways of looking at the world and she is comfortable in her own skin. Maybe that’s the appeal. We admire others who live by their own standards and don’t care too much what other people think. And, in a sense, that’s what I felt when I wrote it. I was having so much fun and I didn’t stop to wonder whether others would have fun reading it. The essence of the book wasn’t filtered through my sense of what readers might find appealing. It seems like it worked.
3. You’ve written a book for adults now, titled ‘The City of the Second Chance’. Would you like to tell us a little about it, and do you think you may write speculative fiction for adults at some stage in the near future?
Yes, City is my first book for adults and I took the chance to self-publish [partly because I was curious about the process]. It’s a comedy thriller set in Darwin, involving an English teacher who decides to become a private investigator, a bogan harmonica-playing male hitchhiker called Carol King, a religious hitman and the embattled Prime Minister of Australia. So, pretty much standard characters, as you can tell. I really enjoyed writing it and, again, didn’t care really that it was crossing different genres. I laughed quite a bit writing it and hopefully others will find it funny too. You can download the Ebook here less than the price of a cup of coffee!
And maybe I’ll write speculative fiction for adults in the future. It all depends on the kernel of the idea and where that story takes me.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas. I was lucky enough to meet Christos at the recent Wordstorm festival here in Darwin. It’s a fantastic book – the kind that hits you in the gut.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
Obviously I’m aware of the changes in the publishing industry and it’s certainly a worrying, yet exciting time to be a writer. However, I don’t think it does to change the way one works in anticipation of what changes might mean for the future. It’s a little like deciding to write a certain type of book because of a current trend – Divergent has done well, so therefore I should write my own version. This never works for obvious reasons: the book has already been written. I have to write my own books and I believe if they’re good enough they’ll find an audience, whatever format the book comes out in. Maybe print is dead [though I don’t think so]. Maybe electronic books are declining [there’s some evidence to suggest so]. What I am confident about is that there will always be demand for stories and therefore story tellers. I believe story is a fundamental human need, like food or breathing. The manner by which we consume stories may change but story and the demand for stories will always be here.
So I’ll keep on writing them.