HCwBB Presents: Steph Bowe

HCwBB Presents is a monthly feature that aims to provide us with more information about the women who inspire us and their work. Each long form piece will focus on one woman and her career within her chosen field. It will not only showcase the existing work of the individual, but also delve further into their methods, mediums, and motives.

This month, we’re in conversation with YA author, Steph Bowe.

Emma Kate Lewis: Who are you and what do you do?

Steph Bowe: I’m Steph Bowe. I write YA novels, and I also present writing workshops with young people, and people who write for young people.

EKL: Tell me about the writing workshops.

SB: I do a lot of speaking in schools. I’ve done that since 2010, and it’s awesome. Especially when I get to go to schools and run workshops with teenagers on how they can create characters. It’s helpful for them, I think, as students who are going to be doing creative writing as part of their English subjects, but also in terms of just getting them to value their own thoughts, ideas and creativity.

It’s awesome to be able to go into schools and work with kids who don’t necessarily all love writing but who have good ideas and can come up with stories that are worth telling, even if they don’t view themselves as creative people.

EKL: That sounds incredible. It’s exactly the sort of thing I wish had been available to me when I was a kid. Is writing something you’ve always wanted to do?

SB: I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a young kid, I was obsessed with books and stories, and I wanted to be able to replicate them myself before I could actually write properly. I’d write stories in gibberish as a child.

Laughter

SB: So basically yes, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I was really obsessive about it as a kid, and fortunately for me that’s resulted in an actual career. So I’m very lucky that it’s all worked out.

EKL: Can you tell me a bit about how you got started as a writer?

SB: I started seriously writing when I was around 14. I was really involved in the YA blogging community, which was super motivating for me because I attended school by distance learning education, and I felt a little bit isolated in a way. I didn’t have any friends who were also interested in books and writing, and I was writing my first full-length manuscripts at that age, so the community was important to me. When I was 15, I wrote the novel that became Girl Saves Boy, started contacting literary agents, and everything sort of went from there.

EKL: Tempting as it is, I want to try and stop myself from taking this conversation down the whole “Oh my god, you were published so young!” avenue. Because of course it’s an incredible achievement, but I feel as though the disbelief surrounding the achievements of young people is a big part of why people our age face imposter syndrome. Most of us have been told that we have to have reached a certain age before we can achieve something like you’ve achieved. With that in mind, what sort of reception did you get from everyone when you started sending off your manuscript?

SB: I actually concealed the fact that I was the age that I was by referring to myself as a student.

I knew that I didn’t want to just be “a young writer”; I wanted my work to be assessed on its merits.

I didn’t want publishers to be deterred by the fact that I was 15 years old, and have them assume that I wouldn’t be able to work professionally. When the book had been published, a lot of people still seemed to view it as something that had only happened because of my age and the fact that it made a good marketing angle. Fortunately, that wasn’t the majority of people. The majority in the YA and literary communities were supportive, my family and friends were wonderful – but there was still that element of not being taken seriously. When I went to events I had to go with my mother, and everyone assumed she was the writer.

Because, of course, it’s believed that you can’t be young and also be a professional artist.

So there was that element, but overwhelmingly it was positive. I think that once people know you as a person and know your work, they’re less likely to be dismissive and assume you’re just capitalising on youth. The older I get, the more young people I see who are astoundingly talented and doing great things. I think that because of our ability to connect online now, we’re no longer limited to starting our careers once we’ve finished school.

So the idea of young people not being able to be professionals is disappearing, especially as more people are creatively engaging online and, in turn, starting their careers early.

EKL: I wanted to ask you a bit about your process as a writer. I write too, but mine is completely non-existent.

Laughter

EKL: Yeah, I don’t really have a routine. But I know that plenty of people are very strict when it comes to their own processes. What’s yours?

SB: It really depends. When I’m not in a space where I’m feeling inspired, I’m more likely to force myself to sit down and to write every evening for a little bit of time. But I’m not necessarily going to write a thousand words a night – that’s not going to happen if I’m not in the flow of working. When I wrote Night Swimming, it was at a time when I was incredibly inspired and a lot of things had happened in my life that I was drawing upon. I basically wrote every night for a few months, and that’s how I wrote the entire novel.

I tend to write in the evenings, but 90% of the time it’s just about absolutely forcing myself to put something down on the page in order to keep momentum, and the other 10% is when I can get in the zone and hours pass without me noticing.

So it’s not super strict.

EKL: I can relate. Those moments when you lose track of time are worth hanging around, it’s just the fact that sometimes they seem to take forever to present themselves!

Laughter

EKL: Has your writing process changed from the time you wrote Girl Saves Boy?

SB: A couple of things have changed. At the time of writing Girl Saves Boy I was very young and I also an unpublished writer.

Being a published author is built up in your mind as this extraordinary thing that’s going to transform you as a person, making you feel accomplished and content with yourself.

That really heavily motivated me, and also because I was young I was generally incredibly enthusiastic and passionate, so it was an enjoyable process and something that I could obsessively work on. But then, once I’d published something, I realised that it becomes a normal part of your life and no longer inherently affects you. It’s still wonderful and exciting and you feel incredibly fortunate, but it brings all of these stresses into your life, like, “How am I going to sell enough books?” and “How am I going to get another book deal?”.

From that moment there’s that external force on your writing; you know that people are judging your work.

So I guess I don’t have that same sort of dogged enthusiasm now that I had as a young kid. In a way it’s become more difficult, because now I’m thinking about all of these external factors while I’m trying to write. That said, I’m a lot more confident in my abilities now as a writer, and I feel I’ve developed a lot. I also feel more confident tackling heavier issues in my writing, and things that I might’ve been frightened away from in the past. But it is more difficult thinking about commercial factors, and what other people are going to think, in a way that I didn’t when I was writing my first novel.

EKL: That reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk about her fear of being able to improve upon her first work in her future writing endeavours. I know that personally when a piece of mine is published it validates my work in my mind as “good”, and there’s an added pressure to replicate and build on that every time I write something new.

SB: That absolutely makes sense. When I sold my first book I had a two-book deal. The second book was tricky to write, but I got there. The space between two and three was when I really felt that anxiety.

I felt like I was so distant from the person I’d been when I wrote my first two novels, and I wondered whether I could replicate what I’d done before when I felt as though both myself and my writing were so different.

But I think that there’s always that fear, once somebody’s told you that something you’ve done is good, that you won’t be able to do it again!

Laughter

SB: So yeah, I can definitely relate to the anxiety of that. I think that would be incredibly difficult if you’ve published something like Elizabeth Gilbert’s first novel, which was off the charts. I think I’m lucky that I haven’t had a New York Times bestseller – the anxiety would kill me!

Laughter

EKL: So tell me where the inspiration for your latest novel, Night Swimming, came from.

SB: There were a few different things that inspired it.

EKL: It’s beautifully layered. You managed to create a narrative that brings out so many different aspects of your characters’ personalities.

SB: Thank you! One of the inspirations was that I had a family member diagnosed with dementia. I thought a lot about the fact that seeing someone losing aspects of themselves, and the affects of ageing, is something that’s really important, although difficult, to explore. Because the negative aspects of ageing affect everyone, and so many people have watched someone go through dementia. I also really wanted to write about a small town in a way that was realistic.

Rural environments are really common in Australian literature, but I find that a lot of them can be homogenous. My experience of having known people who live rurally is that in reality it’s much more diverse. As with all literature, I think the world is more diverse than tends to be represented, because there’s this default to some nuclear, white, heterosexual family ideal in literature a lot of the time.

So I was really thinking about that, because I’ve always thought about equality and feminist values in my writing and tried to construct my characters as individuals rather than basing them on gender stereotypes, which, I think, is still sadly very common. Over the last few years I’ve really felt as though I can write about other things, like race and sexuality and mental illness. So I was trying to write something that I felt was representing the true diversity of young people without it being issues based, and it was something I was heavily reading and getting involved in. It was about combining those two: the personal and a realistic perspective.

EKL: That’s one of the things I loved most about Night Swimming. A lot of the time when you read novels in this genre that deal with the sort of issues you deal with in your book, they’re dealt with in a heavy way that makes them seem a lot more serious than some of them need to be. Particularly when writing about teenagers. I love the part in the novel when Clancy discusses bullying related to sexuality with Kirby, and he says, “It was the intention that hurt, not the name. I didn’t care if people thought I was gay”. When I was younger there was nothing that took an approach like this. I imagine it’s especially useful today, when being queer isn’t seen as much of a “big deal” anymore by most, but there are still some people who will purposely try to hurt others by using related terms in negative manners. How important do you think it is that novels like this exist not only for queer young people but also for those who are straight and need to gain a better understanding of what queer people experience? That might be a silly one – I’d say it’s exponentially important!

SB: Yeah, I think it’s incredibly important!

I think it’s necessary to create stories that are hopeful. We’re going in a great direction with more diverse fiction, but I still feel like there’s a lot of representation of queer young people who are doomed, where they’re facing homophobia and everything is tragic for them. Of course that’s a reality for some queer young people, but I also think it’s important to have stories where things are good, hopeful, and they’re accepted. Because I think that’s increasingly true in reality. And, if you’re dealing with homophobia, then being able to read books that uplift you can give you hope that things are going to get better. So it’s not all about queer young people being doomed to face the sort of tragic consequences that you see a lot in film, books and TV.

There’s a possibility that in Australia in a few years it’s going to be just the same as being straight – a completely normal part of diversity. I think representing it in fiction helps, in a small way, the wider culture.

Who we are as people informs the work that we create, but also the work that we create informs who we are as people – literary canons show this.

I think the world is evolving, and in Australia we’re reaching a critical point where more people are accepting of marriage equality than against it. I think that all young people should be able to read a book and resonate with a character that they can see themselves in – we’ve got enough stories about straight kids.

EKL: Yes! Virtually everything queer that I was exposed to in the media as a young person had that element of tragedy to it and I think that makes people more fearful in some ways, because they’re told to expect the absolute worst. Particularly when it come to telling people, which can in fact be as uneventful as Kirby telling her mother! I think it’s great that a book like Night Swimming exists to reassure readers that even if it’s not always easy, it’s very unlikely to be the end of the world. I love that the characters in your novel aren’t just diverse but also multifaceted in a way that really captures adolescence. I definitely think that in certain books teenagers are stereotyped and can come across as almost two-dimensional, but all of your characters are so well-rounded. When you come up with each of them, how do you then develop them? Do you let the narrative dictate their actions and reactions, or do you create your characters first and then build the narrative around them?

SB: I tend to develop my characters first. I had a clear idea of Kirby’s voice before I started. I knew that I wanted to write about her dealing with her grandfather’s dementia, and I knew I wanted to write about life in a small town. I find that the plot tends to come through my characters because if you have a good idea of character then you can branch out from there.

You can really create something that’s character driven, which is the sort of story I prefer to read and consequently the sort I prefer to write.

Similarly, I had a general idea of what I wanted Kirby’s best friend, Clancy, and her love interest, to be like. From there, as I wrote, I developed them both further and gained a better idea of who they are. Had I just sat down and tried to write a story knowing only the plot, I’d have gone off on a bunch of random tangents. Initially having a sense of character and voice enabled the story to be engaging.

EKL: Totally. Kirby’s sense of humour is one of her really endearing qualities. The quip she makes about the ridiculousness of perceived gender binaries early on in the novel is great – it’s one of those things that are humorous among teenagers today now that these issues are being more openly discussed. And, of course, it wasn’t harped on about as a major issue that needed to be delved into at that very moment.

SB: Which is something that I was always thinking about as I was writing. I didn’t want it to be the sort of thing where I touched on those issues and suddenly I was writing a “gay” book, or a book about a specific issue.

I was trying to capture how teenagers are, and the fact that these things are just a normal part of their lives. I think you can absolutely have those political or social agendas – it’d be impossible not to in some capacity – but that they don’t have to be the driving force of a story.

When they are, teenagers pick that sort of thing up and disengage. They aren’t interested in being lectured to; they get that enough in school. Having political views as a teenager is normal.

EKL: Yeah, writing something that focuses on one issue just isn’t realistic because there are times in real life when, no matter how mammoth something seems, it has to be shelved for a while in order to make room for other things. There are often numerous problems occurring simultaneously. Some of them are pleasant, and it’s not all doom and gloom, and your entire existence isn’t ruined – there are still good things in life. The way you dealt with Kirby’s grandfather’s dementia shows that.

SB: Exactly! People still have a sense of humour during difficult times in their lives. That’s necessary in order to get through those times.

You can have something difficult happening and not have the character be consumed by it all the time.

They’re still a person, they’re going to deal with it however they can and for the most part they’re still going to have positive things in their lives to look to.

EKL: What was the most challenging part of writing Night Swimming?

SB: I think I was really fortunate with Night Swimming in that it was the easiest book to write since my first novel. I’d struggled to find an idea for my third book that I was really happy with, but then I ended up in a place where I was really inspired to write this novel and it worked out very well.

I think that’s because it’s probably the most realistic novel I’ve written, and the most personal. I drew inspiration from a lot of things that were happening in my own life, so there was the element of deciding whether I was ok with writing about those things and sharing them with people. I really had to consider that when I went through the editorial process. Ultimately, I don’t think I changed anything in the end, because I feel it’s important to be able to draw on your own experiences when you write; it really resonates with people.

The things that are explored are important, and I hope they resonate with people because they are drawn from a place of honesty and plenty are unexplored in YA, so I couldn’t not make a contribution in those areas. In the end, I just had to think about what I wanted to put out there and what I wanted to keep to myself. And, ultimately, about writing the best novel I could write. In this case, I was happy to put out what I did about myself in Night Swimming. My second book was about a girl who robs banks with her family, so there were no specifics that I drew from my own life for that!

Laughter

EKL: It makes sense that you have to be a little bit vulnerable if you’re going to talk about issues that have affected you personally, even if you do weave them into an otherwise fictional narrative. It can be quite confronting, and almost therapeutic in some ways. I know that I’ve occasionally found myself writing about something that relates to my own life even when that definitely wasn’t my intention from the start.

SB: Yeah, you can do it consciously but a lot of the time you end up doing it unconsciously. Then you go back to read over your work and think “Wow! This is really about me!”

Laughter

SB: It’s useful to be consciously interrogating what aspects of your own experiences you want to share in your work.

I’m a big fan of the Own Voices movement, and although I think that people who belong to minorities shouldn’t be obligated to write about their experiences, I do think that writing about your own experience creates something that’s really authentic.

So if people are in places where they can draw from that without feeling overexposed, then it’s a really valuable place to start from when you’re writing.

EKL: What points in the process of writing Night Swimming stand out to you? Did you hit any walls at all along the way or did it flow really well throughout?

SB: I wrote most of the first draft in a month, so in many ways it was the easiest writing I’ve done in years. It was amazing and I didn’t want the magic to stop, so I just kept writing. Even editing it wasn’t that difficult, because the things that my editor flagged as being issues were things that I was happy to change and develop further. The main thing for me was that I was really relieved when I’d written it, because it was the first time in years that I felt I’d written something that was good and could be published. It was nerve-wracking to send it to my agent and wait to hear her thoughts, because I knew I already felt great about it.

EKL: How do you ensure that you’re able to deal with serious, coming-of-age topics while simultaneously making the novel gentle and amusing?

SB: The narrative voice was a big part of it for me. Kirby is sort of naïve for her age, and there’s a lot of humour in her voice, so having a clear idea of that and who she was as a person was key to having everything integrate. Besides, I unavoidably tend to write stories that are humorous and fun and silly. It was helpful that I wrote the novel over a relatively short period of time, because when you take long breaks you tend to lose your flow.

EKL: Now that Night Swimming has launched, what’s next for you?

SB: I’m studying psychology, which I believe is a great subject for any writer. It takes up a bit of time, and I’m also working on another YA novel. But it’s too early to say what it’s about. I’m feeling good about writing another novel, though, and it’s obviously very uplifting to have had a book launched.

EKL: What else do you do when you’re not writing?

SB: I do a lot of freelance creative writing teaching. I’m studying, visiting schools, running workshops and things like that. Apart from all of that I don’t have a lot of time for anything else.

Laughter

SB: All of those things compliment one another really well. Psychology is a great area to study for understanding how people think and why they think the way they do, which is helpful for developing characters. Particularly creating characters that are different from you.

Visiting schools and running workshops is also great, because it’s useful to be in touch with the sort of people who are reading your work, and to be inspired and amazed by them.

I’ve had so many really inspiring experiences working with young people, and feel a lot more positive about the next generation of people as a result. There’s a lot of demonization of young people, but when you actually go out, meet with them, work with them, and hear their stories, they’re not that bad. They’re just normal kids.

Laughter

EKL: Finally, can you offer any advice to other writers hoping to get their work noticed, be those YA writers or otherwise?

SB: I’d highly recommend having respect for your audience.

A lot of the time adults have this weird idea of teenagers as being incredibly innocent and unaware of the world, as though they need to be educated. But that’s not necessarily true. I think that teenagers are generally very aware of world issues and politically engaged.

If you write anything that talks down to them, lectures them, or is entirely issues based, then not only do I think a publisher’s going to be uninterested but, also, you’re going to lose your audience too. Kids are incredibly honest, so if you’ve got a kid reading your work they’re going to tell you what they think. So that’s important to keep in mind if you’re writing YA.

More generally, I think one of the most important things is to focus on the writing above all else as opposed to what the market wants or how you’re going to get your work published. Ultimately, what makes you a better writer, and allows you to create something that you can actually put out there for people to read, is the actual writing process.

Obviously reading widely in multiple genres and having respect for them is also really very important, as well as not focusing so much on the end goal. It’s really easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to other people, and thinking that you’ll feel like a legitimate writer when you get a book published or have a bestseller, but ultimately you’ll always feel the same on the inside. There are incredibly well-established writers who still think they’re terrible and that they’re never going to be able to sell another book.

Difficult as it is, it’s most important to focus on writing the stories that you can write and those that you wish existed.

Focusing on the process rather than all of the other stuff.

EKL: Sneaky extra question – what sorts of books do you enjoying reading and are there any in particular that you’d like to recommend?

SB: That’s a really difficult question because there are thousands!

I read a great deal of YA fiction and love contemporary YA fiction – I think that we write some of the best YA in the world in Australia. There are so many people who are producing great work in this country.

Melina Marchetta is an obvious recommendation. She’s a writer who’s incredibly established but also someone who I think everyone in Australia should read. On the Jellicoe Road is one I’d recommend particularly. Apart from that, I love the work of both Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood – they both write extraordinary feminist YA. I also read lots more literary fiction and, again, lots of great people are producing it in this country. I just read Our Magic Hour by Jennifer Down, which was a really great, engaging story. Honestly, I could probably recommend a hundred books. But I will say that I recommend adults reading more YA books – there’s a bit of a stigma round it, but there’s a lot of more literary YA, particularly being produced in this country. It’s awesome to be a part of, and it’s awesome to read.


Images: Nadja Poljo of Text Publishing

Featured Image: Anna Apuli of Crapuli

Questions, Intro and Edits: Emma Kate Lewis

We’ve already approached several incredible women whose work and stories we can’t wait to share with you over the coming months. If you would like to be considered for a future HCwBB Presents piece, you can apply to be featured by emailing Emma Kate Lewis via emma@hotchickwithbigbrains.com with links to your existing work and a short artist statement.

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