Holden’s Heroes: July 2019 – Interview with Alicia Tuckerman

G’day crew,

So pumped to share the latest installment in my blog interview series, Holden’s Heroes.

Firstly, I should mention that sometimes I get overwhelmed by simple things in life. This has led to me developing habits like responding to text messages five days later as if nothing has happened and it’s only been five minutes. For today’s post, I’ve decided to take the same approach. It’s been a few months since I posted my last Holden’s Heroes interview, and I’m just gonna strut back in here with my Oakley sunnies on and my shirt collar popped and a cigarette dangling from my gob and act like that’s what I planned to do all along. Okay? Sweet as.

So, this interview series focuses on fellow writers, and I’ve spent 2019 chatting with members of my #5amwritersclub. This month’s terrified abductee legally willing participant is my mate Alicia Tuckerman – a talented YA author, talented mother and talented lesbian (I’ll take her word for it) who is also a raging coffee addict and dad joke enthusiast. Let’s dive in and find out more!


Holden’s Heroes ~ July 2019

ALICIA TUCKERMAN

Alicia Tuckerman
Author Alicia Tuckerman

Holden: Alicia Tuckerman, welcome to my house! Um, look, first up, sorry about the mess … there is seriously just crap everywhere. In fact, I probably haven’t cleaned properly since Raihanaty A. Jalil came to visit … looks like the dregs of our peppermint tea is still in the bottom of those tea cups, ecch. I’d like to say I usually clean for guests, but I’d be lying.

Alicia: That’s alright mate! I had all my booster shots when the kids were small!

H: Booster shots? You underestimate the biohazard that is my house, I’m afraid … but please, make yourself comfortable. Okay, let’s jump in. You’ve had so much going on lately, I almost don’t know where to begin! I’ve really been enjoying your guest blogs for Margaret River Press during July. What have you enjoyed about that process, and is blogging something you have done on a regular basis previously?

A: I’ve had my Facebook page going for a couple of years now and while the posts aren’t typically “blogs” they do have that feel about them. Where I really just monologue about random stuff! I’ve really loved the opportunity to write for a different audience with the MRP blogs. The idea that other authors and writers would be able to relate to anything I have to say still blows my mind. I have to admit that the weekly deadlines have not been my favourite thing and I’ve seen a couple go rushing by, but I’ve really enjoyed it.

H: In your latest blog post, you referenced that famous Douglas Adams quote about loving the sound deadlines make as they go rushing by … I think we can both relate, ha! I believe the MRP guest blogging gig came about because your short story “Glass” is appearing in an upcoming anthology they are putting out later this year. “Glass” is a really moving short story and I feel privileged to have had the chance to read an early version of it. Can you talk about this story – what’s it about, and what was the inspiration?

A: Writing a short story was so ridiculously hard! And I tried really hard to not write “Glass”. I had a few different ideas and I tried to write those stories and they were good stories but Glass… well, it just wouldn’t bloody leave me alone. Pass the chips would ya?

H: As long as you don’t eat the last ones, or I’ll have a food tantrum. There ya go, enjoy the Doritos. And please, go on.

A: “Glass” demanded to be written and so the day before the deadline I gave in and it just fell out of me. “Glass” is kind of a break-up story and I didn’t want to write it because I went through one myself recently and I was worried people would assume the story was mine. It’s a story about what happens after a break up, when everything is so raw and fresh and jagged. When you’re terrified about what comes next but you can’t stay where you are and you’re learning what it is to heal. It explores that moment you start believing that maybe one day you won’t feel so broken and you might even be whole again.

Holden and Alicia C4S
Myself and Alicia Tuckerman in conversation at the Centre for Stories, 2018.

H: That’s intense, and dealing with an adult break up is quite different to say, dealing with YA relationships like those in your first published novel, If I Tell You. Glass is probably more pitched at an adult audience. Was there any shift in your writing process, or thinking process, when you crafted “Glass”?

A: As I said, I had a few other stories that I was going with for the MRP collection and they were YA or New Adult stories. And I had wanted to write those (and who knows maybe I will turn them into something). But “Glass” had other ideas and once I stopped fighting the words, they just came and I didn’t really have to do much at all! I wish it was always that easy. Maybe I should give an adult novel a crack?

H: If by adult novel you mean full-blown erotica, I’m down for that. I’d also be okay with a grown-up contemporary fiction, which is more likely what you actually meant. Speaking of being a grown-up, I recently saw you on stage at the Centre for Stories interviewing YA author Mark Smith. Your delivery was so funny and perfectly timed and it definitely got the audience on side. 

A: You’re being kind mate! I reckon I tanked so bad at that event! But thanks for boosting my ego.

H: You totally didn’t … this is one of those “writers are their own worst critic” scenarios. Are panels and public speaking gigs like this something you’d like to do more of in the future?

A: Yeah for sure! You know I love to talk and I love the chance to talk about things I’m really passionate about. You and I have an event later in the year at Crow Books and I’m doing a gig with your better half, Raphael, in October talking about the books that changed our lives. And really I’d love to do heaps more speaking gigs for sure! So anyone reading this—hit me up!

alicia tuckerman if i tell you
If I Tell You by Alicia Tuckerman (Pantera Press, 2018)

H: Go ahead people and book her, she’s stellar. Alicia, speaking of things that are stellar (my segue skills are off the charts today), let’s talk about your debut novel If I Tell You (Pantera Press, 2018). You’ve received some amazing reviews for this book, and it was even shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Congratulations! What does it mean to get such recognition?

A: It’s so wild! And unbelievable to be shortlisted. To go into the State Library and see a sticker on my book was a dream come true. And whilst I didn’t take it out, it was an honour to be named alongside the other amazing shortlistees. Renee Pettitt-Schipp’s book was so poignant and a very deserving winner.

H: Absolutely, huge congrats to Renee – great recognition of her book and as I said, the shortlisting itself is a real achievement for If I Tell You. Your novel was one of my favourite novels of 2018 and I talk about it a lot, just so you know. This is a bit of a Sophie’s Choice thing to ask, but who were your favourite characters in the book? For the record, I had a crush on Justin (but only in the early parts of the book), and found Lin to be the funniest part of the book.

A: Well Justin’s a hot guy (so I’m told)!

H: He is. I like my bogan boys. 

A: And despite his … opinions … he’s not a bad guy. That was important to me, that he wasn’t completely irredeemable.

H: Yeah, I really liked this – there was nuance to Justin, even if he was a bit of a douche at times.

A: But I loved them all, they lived inside my head for ten years and that makes me sound like a crazy person but sometimes I miss them a little bit now they’re out in the big wide world on their own. And of course I have big soft spots for Alex and Phoenix and their love story but one my favourite characters to write was definitely Lin.

H: Yesss. I am a big Lin fan club member. Lin for PM. 

A: I think everyone needs a mate like Lin, who will defend you to the end but also tell you when you’re being a dick. I also really loved Alex’s Dad, Andrew and Gilly and Van… And I think I’ve mentioned them all now which was probably not the point of the question!

H: Um, yeah, you’re kind of cheating now, but I’ll roll with it because hell, we make the rules here. Tell me, what’s your favourite thing that someone has said to you about If I Tell You?

A: I love a good ego boost as much as anyone. I love hearing anything good about my book, that someone has enjoyed something that came from my head and heart. But what really gets me in the feels is when someone goes out of their way to message me and tell me that my book has helped them or that they have seen themselves in my book. I’ve had so many messages from young people who are struggling with their identity who have said that my words have given them strength and that’s more than I ever dreamed of.

if i tell you wa premiers 2
If I Tell You with its shortlisted sticker at the recent WA Premier’s Book Awards.

H: I totally get that. It’s what we hope for when we send these hyper-personal stories out into the world.  

A: There’s this one message that sticks with me from a girl who contacted me on Instagram after Sydney Writers Festival last year. She’d come to hear my panel and she had my book with her and wanted me to sign it but she was with her mum and she was too afraid to come over to me in case her mum made some sort of connection between me and her. Because I wear my identity on the outside. Then she messaged me again a few months later to say she’d come out and everything was okay. Not great but okay—and sometimes okay is enough. It’s a start. And that, that right there really is enough to make up for my one star reviews or people not getting it. If I can help one person feel better, to be brave when they don’t know what is waiting for them after the fall, then I’m happy.

H: That’s unreal – this shit changes lives. You’re right to feel special about that. Okay, let’s shift gears, because I know you’re working on a second novel, because we’ve both bitched and moaned over coffee this past year at how hard second novels are. Can you give us a hint of what kind of book it will be, and how it’s progressing? Apologies in advance if this question sends you into a full-blown shame spiral and/or nuclear meltdown.

A: You got anything stronger than these cans of export mate? Might need a whisky to get through this one, haha!

H: Answer the question, Tuckerman, and you can have all the whisky you desire. 

A: Well, it’s safe to say it’s taken far longer than I thought it would, but it’s getting there. It’s about a sixteen year old girl learning to accept the changes and challenges in her life following a pretty brutal car accident. Before the accident she was a soccer player with dreams of playing for her country and well, now that won’t happen. It explored grief and jealousy and the idea of participation. The idea of not needing to be the best at something to be able to love it. There’s a good handful of LGBT+ characters and themes but this isn’t a “coming out” story. And there’s some love/lust thrown in for good measure, because I love writing kissing scenes! Now… where’s that whisky!?

H: Terribly sorry to pull a GLaDOS on you, but the whisky was a lie. I need you relatively sober to answer my remaining questions. One thing I’ve noticed is that you write about lesbian characters in an authentic way that is often grouped in with the #ownvoices movement. What would you love to see more of when it comes to lesbian characters being represented in literature/culture?

A: There’s no argument that If I Tell You was a coming out story. It’s a book about being young and gay in rural Australia and what that can be like. But what I hope to write more of now and see more of, are YA books about sport or crimes or drugs and sex where the characters are gay, but it’s not about being gay. Or not only about being gay.

H: Totally agree. I kind of feel like us gay authors in particular sometimes need to write the coming out story – or some version thereof – first, maybe, because we can move on to those more nuanced depictions. 

A: Being gay is no different to being straight and I think people—including myself—can sometimes be attracted to the drama of a coming out story or a story about overcoming adversity because those stories allow for us as authors to really take the character on a journey. There’s a lot of scope for drama and it’s tempting to write in that space. But teenagers—gay or straight—have a whole lot of other crap going on I’d love to write about.

Holden and Alicia - Hungerford win
The two of us hanging out on the night my novel won the Hungerford – I am not accustomed to womenfolk kissing me!

H: Agree. Let’s touch on process now. We are both part of the same #5amwritersclub though we’re both, uh, a little lax about attending regularly. What made you join the club, and what made you stay? Was it my constant gym selfies?

A: Hahahaha! Well, we both know that every time I see you I get a front row seat to the gun show!

H: *kisses his own biceps*

A: It’s definitely your hot bod and constant innuendo that keeps me coming back for more!

H: Innuendo? You mean in your endo. Okay, go on, we have people reading this who are probably less vapid than us. Maybe. What keeps you coming back to the #5amwritersclub? 

A: I think it’s the collegiate feeling I get, even when we’re just pissing about on Twitter instead of being productive. I stay because we’re family. Up until I released If I Tell You I didn’t really have many writer mates, people who I could talk to about stuff that non-writers just wouldn’t understand in the same way. I craved that community, that connection with people—my people—to provide friendship and support and cameraderie while we all go along this crazy ride of self-loathing, rejection and a tiny bit of success.

H: More than a tiny bit, in your case! What’s something you’ve learned in the past year or two about writing that you wish you’d known before getting published?

A: I think it’s the pressure I wasn’t prepared for. Not external pressure but internal and self-imposed. See, I had my whole life to write my first book but now I’ve done it I feel I need to back it up with more books quickly so that people don’t forget who I am! There’s a lot of pressure in my head and that doesn’t lead to very good writing. So I think I need to relax a little and let it happen more organically. I’ve also learned that you can’t actually survive on coffee and zero sleep!

Alicia-Tuckerman
Alicia Tuckerman at a recent writers festival appearance.

H: Yeah, that shit will catch up to you. I remember you talking once about how your idea for a novel was shelved for many years until you were injured and had so much time on your hands you decided to write it. Do you think that Alicia would recognise the Alicia of 2019? And I guess my biggest question: where does Alicia Tuckerman want to be five years from now, in 2024?

A: I don’t think the Alicia then is too fundamentally different to the Alicia now. I’m definitely older now and not just in years. Since then I’ve had relationships and kids, I lost both my parents. I’ve experienced heartbreak and loss but also great happiness and joy and I think the Alicia then is still the Alicia I am now, just different. But I change and grow every day, that’s what makes life interesting. As for the future, there’s a plan. In five years I’ll have finished at least another two books and Netflix will have brought them all and I’ll be living on a farm in the Swan Valley with heaps of cool outbuildings that I’ve converted into little writing retreats. My kids will be running wild and I have a pet miniature donkey called Switch [don’t ask me why Switch because I literally don’t know—that’s just his name].

H: That is … oddly specific. The donkey’s name, I mean. And the existence of the donkey at all, actually. The rest sounds relatively in line with what I might have expected in your answer. 

A: Well, that’s the dream plan. Reality probably doesn’t look quite like that, but really the only plan I have is to do more of what makes me happy. Write more, spend time with my kids and people I care about.

H: Sounds solid. Okay, like a true investigative journo, I’ve saved the hardest-hitting question for last. 1990s pop group Alisha’s Attic had a hit song called “Alisha Rules the World“. Tell me honestly, have you ever listened to this song to boost yourself up before a public speaking gig? 

A: Oh you know I have!

H: I KNEW it!

A: But I wish they’d spelt my name right. And it totally pumps me up, but let’s be real here, the song’s about a badass heartbreaker and I don’t think I’m fooling anyone in that regard, hahaha!

H: Alicia Tuckerman, it’s always a blast shooting the shit with ya, mate. Thanks for coming round. The whisky’s up for grabs now – wanna stay on for another drink, maybe some light spooning? 

A: Sounds great, but you know I’m the big spoon!

H: Well, this conversation has taken an unfortunate turn. Maybe with some whisky in me I won’t mind being the little spoon … 


~ Social Media Links ~

I hope you enjoyed this interview with the amazing Alicia Tuckerman. She’s a true talent in the YA literature space and not just fun to chat to – she’s even more fun to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give her a like and a follow:

Facebook: @aliciatuckermanwriter 

Twitter: @aliciatuck_YA

Instagram: @aliciatuckermanwriter

Purchase “If I Tell You” here


Holden’s Heroes will return in August with another interview with a local WA author from my #5amwritersclub – stay tuned. Until then, thanks for visiting! 😉

Holden

Speaking in Someone Else’s Voice

I’ve been thinking about voice a lot lately – specifically, the way the voices of the characters in my current project are developing.

As part of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve officially started my third novel. This novel is a standalone – not a part of a series or linked to any other project I’ve written – which means it’s a fresh start for me. New plot, new settings and most importantly, new characters.

As I started delving into this novel, I realised that my process of creating characters has changed dramatically since my first book.

When I wrote my YA fantasy novel (we are calling him Swordy McSwordface at present, just for shiggles), I was planning to make it the first in a series. With that series in mind, I wanted to get all my ducks in a row for continuity and thus set up this amazing, fully-thought-out universe.

When I say I wanted this, I think what I actually mean is that I felt I had to do it.

When I was growing up, I was so impressed with how J.K. Rowling had reams and reams of backstory on her characters (enough to create a whole website like Pottermore). It was amazing to see how, in interviews, someone would question the origins of some random goblin from Gringotts or one of Sirius Black’s relatives and she would just be able to rattle off their history and motivations and Hogwarts House and even their wand size (oh my).

rowling

As a reader, these interviews were exciting ways to learn more about the wizarding world I’d fallen in love with.

But as a writer, they had an unintended negative consequence.

When I heard that Rowling had all this extraordinary backstory on her characters, I figured this was the way a true writer creates their characters; that they have to know every single thing about them, because they invented them. That seemed to make sense to me.

Moreover, the impression I took away from this was that if I wanted to be a good writer with well-rounded characters, it was essential to have mapped their entire existence as a human being.

And consequently, if I didn’t do this, I would be a bad writer. Or an amateur writer. Or a lazy writer.

So, I thought I needed to know all the fine details. Hair colour and style, of course, but also my characters’ addictions and crutches, their weaknesses, their scars, physical or emotional. Who were they friends with in primary school? Why weren’t they friends anymore? Why do they wear that particular T-shirt? Why do they drink that brand of beer? What colour is their piss in the morning? (Okay, kidding on that one, but you get my point.)

With the exception of the pee example (usually clear, though radioactive yellow after a multivitamin), these are all things you’d probably want to learn about the characters in a book you’re reading. It gives you a better sense of who they are and why they behave the way they do; it also makes them more real.

So with this in mind, when I wrote my first novel, I first set about creating these extraordinarily long documents of character bios. I spent hour after boring hour agonising over the origins of nicknames, the hobbies, the favourite school subjects, until finally I had what I needed: a full dossier on all my main characters.

Now I’d like to tell you how many times I actually referred to that dossier.

It was zero.

Actually, that may not be 100% true, because I seemed to constantly forget basic stuff like eye colour and hair colour/style, so for purely physical stuff I did glance at the beginnings of the dossier at times, for continuity.

But after writing them, I never again referred to those dossiers for input on what to make my characters say or do. I didn’t consult them for guidance when I was stuck in a particular scene, or when a character had to make a particular decision. So much of those documents was never viewed again.

stephen king

The reason for this is that my character dossier, for all its statistics and descriptions, actually didn’t tell me anything about my characters as people.

My character bios were like swirling double-helix strands of Deoxyribonucleic Acid: they contained everything that made my characters who they were, and yet, I could have analysed them for a decade and still I would not have known how my character felt, or thought, or sounded, because I had never heard them speak.

This was a profound realisation. When I created characters in bios and dossiers, they were really just blueprints – a network of pins upon which I would hang the nerves and synapses of a real human. But the bio itself did not bring the character to life: it created a lifeless, faceless mannequin that had no autonomy, no presence and no voice.

When I wrote Invisible Boys, I didn’t spend hours and days on constructing meticulous character bios. I did have a bunch of brief character notes in one word document that I drew from, but what happened with that story was that the characters revealed themselves to me, rather than me creating them.

This probably sounds disingenuous. I’m not cray-cray (well, no more than usual): I do understand that ultimately it was my fingers spidering over the keyboard that brought these characters into existence.

But I do also feel that I didn’t grow these characters in a clinical way, like embyros grown in a petri dish. Rather, it feels like I talked to them. I asked them to tell me who they were, and so they did.

My characters told me, and showed me, how they felt. They spoke to me in their own voices, and I was the scribe, and I recorded that snapshot of their lives for them.

It felt like they already existed, and I was just doing the hard work of asking them the right questions and getting them to reveal more and more about themselves. In hindsight, this reminds me of Michelangelo’s famous quote about freeing his statues from the stone:

“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” – Michelangelo

I imagine a lot of writers can relate to that quote – probably not just with character creation, but when it comes to editing a draft, too.

And writing characters like this felt natural and organic. Sometimes they did what they were supposed to do, but other times my characters kind of went rogue and did stuff I didn’t fully expect. And that was pretty damn awesome to be a part of.

So now that I am starting my third novel, I have made a conscious choice to not make any complex character dossiers. Instead, I’ve done up one-page bios on each of the five main characters, just to give me a factual reference point for stuff like what they look like, how many family members they have, etc. – mostly for continuity. But I’ve forbidden myself to write more than a page on each character.

I don’t want to tell them who they are and what they want.

I want them to tell me, in their words and their voice, who they are, and what their life is like, and how that feels for them.

characters off track

I don’t know if most writers work like this, or actually, if any work like this, but this is what feels right for me.

It does mean that, should someone one day quiz me in an interview about the full family tree of one of my characters, I may not be able to fully answer.

But at the same time, my gut response to that question is that I am not super interested in knowing everything about my characters. In fact, I would feel weirdly invasive telling a whole room of people what a particular character would do in a given situation. Unlike Rowling, I don’t think I’d have an answer prepared. I would probably have to write it as a scene and see what my character wanted to do.

I know I’m speaking about my characters like they are real entities with their own minds, as opposed to being figments of my imagination. But the reality is that I do see them as real, even while knowing they are fictional.

I see them as real because they are all, ultimately, fragments of my own self, expressed in different ways. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it:

Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. – F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Ultimately, that is what makes an authentic character for me: that they are a fragment of me each filtered in a slightly different way – like white light diffusing in a prism – and that they speak for themselves, rather than me speaking for them.

I don’t know if my process with character will change or evolve in the future. I’m certainly not dissing Rowling’s way, because frankly I’m still impressed and slightly envious of her control of character and world (not to mention for her success and wealth, but that’s a song for another day).

Ultimately, there’s no one way to do character, and every writer will have their preferred approach.

I’m just glad to have found mine.

Holden