(Please excuse my terrible unoriginal post title.)
I’m extremely lucky to know Joanne Hornimann – possibly the author whose novels lie closest to my heart and my experience. I’d read some of her novels before, but my main love for her writing came around while I was spending my gap year in Germany and was terribly lonely and homesick. I found her blog, chapters of her books online, and went into full-blown nostalgia. I sent her an email (probably filled with homesickness), she replied, and we have kept emailing since, and spent a couple of afternoons together in real-life company. I even have some tiny little succulents sitting on my windowsill from her garden. We also share a name, which is pretty cool.
A lot of Jo’s writing is set in and around Lismore and the Northern Rivers, which is why the spaces in her novels have a lot of significance for me. Living in a place that is neither big city nor outback, it often feels like regional areas are marginal in Australian writing, so when I can follow a character’s path when they traverse the streets and landscapes I grew up in, it’s something special. Her characters are real to me: no stereotypes, no judgement, just amazing, strong, gentle, diverse people. In particular I love Anna from About a Girl, who works in the bookshop I used to work in, whose life mirrors the way I saw myself through high school. There is something about Jo’s writing that makes me see myself everywhere. And she’s a master of words: her sentences are heavy with feeling and space and experience. They read like poetry, and I’ve often sat there and read passages aloud just to hear the words rolling off my tongue so beautifully. They very much capture the feeling and depth of the Northern Rivers, with its forests and beaches and waterways and people.
She’s also an awesome feminist, which permeates her novels. From single fatherhood (in a totally non-men’s-rights way) to young lesbian women whose lesbianism totally isn’t the issue, you can find pretty much anything, without judgement, without stereotypes. It’s something really hard to find in young adult fiction especially. Jo blogs as well: you can find her in the basement (Notes from Underground), the main house (Secret Scribbled) or pop up into the attic (Madwomen in the Attic), where she spends most of her writing time – at least, last time I asked!
Jo kindly let me interview her about her books and on her thoughts about feminism, and I’ve finally gotten around to posting the interview. I’ve split it into two parts, follow the link at the bottom of the page for the second part!
I find it very hard to sum up what your novels, as a whole, are about. In a few sentences, how would you describe your novels to someone new to your writing?
I find it very hard to sum up what my novels, as a whole, are about! I only know that I write each one because it needs to be written. I think I write a lot about people who are ‘outsiders’ or troubled in some way. I’ve written about a 17 year old father looking after his baby on his own (Mahalia), about the mother of that baby and her struggle with depression (Little Wing), and about a young woman who is very certain about her sexuality, but not about her life as a whole (About A Girl). And then the two books about the O’Farrell sisters (Secret Scribbled Notebooks and My Candlelight Novel) are about two reading girls who view their lives through the prisms of the books they read. I write a lot about loss. Actually, most of my books are about loss. They’re quite melancholy really. People often remark about the way they’re written. I like sentences. I like the weight of them, and how they nudge up against each other and create a kind of music. Really I think I’m writing music. Or painting. I like texture and nuance.
Why do you call your novels young adult novels? Are there things you would change about your writing if your novels were marketed as (adult) literature?
I don’t call them young adult novels, but they are marketed that way. One was put out as an adult novel (A Charm of Powerful Trouble), but ended up being nominated for three young adult awards. I don’t think I’d write them differently if I wanted them to be adult books. But I came from the field of children’s literature, having written for younger readers, and I seem to fit into that niche. Lots of adults read my books. They have that cross-over quality. I like writing for the young, though; they are so very refreshing. I think I’m still about 18 to 24 in my head, though I’m 60.
Your novels often feature characters with different life stories and different perspectives to those commonly found in YA fiction (such as teenage fathers, lesbian relationships and people not from the city). Have you ever experienced controversy or criticism based on this?
Well, an early reviewer of Mahalia famously said that teenagers would find it as interesting as a pile of wet nappies: she received a lot of criticism from people for saying that. I think privately some people may have thought that ‘About A Girl’ was bit much – but then there’s the enormous gay readership for that book worldwide – it’s the Stonewall book of the month this month. I’m not sure what that means – Stonewall is a gay charity and they’re selling the book to raise money.
Place seems very central to your writing, in a way functioning as a character itself. Is this conscious? What significance does place have for you (personally and as a writer)?
I’m enormously influenced by place; I don’t know why. Perhaps because I’m such an introvert, sitting around on my own, or absorbing the atmosphere of places I visit. I do think places affect people. And I’ve written a lot about Lismore, the town near where I’ve lived for over 20 years. I’m not sure I even like the place that much, but it has a strong personality, with the river, and the weedy banks and rainforest remnants, and the old timber houses set up high for the flood. It inspires its own kind of melancholy and reverie. It’s almost like the American South in parts. And then there are all the alternate people who’ve come to live there: they’ve influenced how the place feels as well.