Video transcript
NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2022 - SWF author interview (secondary) - 05. Jared Thomas

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MUNIA: Hello, I'm Munia, and I'm from Girraween High School. I'm here today on Cammeraygal land at The Concourse in Chatswood as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival Secondary Schools' Day. I'm so excited to be interviewing Dr Jared Thomas for the New South Wales Premier's Reading Challenge. Hi, Jared. How are you today?

JARED THOMAS: Good, thank you. Thanks for having me this morning and interviewing me.

MUNIA: Cool. In many of your books, there are strong themes of family and identity surrounding Indigenous characters. Have your experiences as an Indigenous man affected your writing?

JARED THOMAS: Yeah, absolutely. I think, yeah, growing up in a small country town where, I guess, the age that I am-- so there has been a lot of stigma attached with being an Aboriginal person. And also, I guess, because myself, I probably look more like a non-Indigenous farmer from the mid-north of South Australia than an Aboriginal person.

But yeah, having both my parents having mixed heritage, so both Aboriginal with European heritage, I think talking about some of my understandings of identity through my characters has been really important because really, what I'm wanting to do is just give readers an insight into what it means to be Aboriginal in this country and how diverse that is as well. So, with some of my characters, I guess they express their identity very differently. Some are of different skin colour and things like this. And so yeah, certainly, my own experience does inform my writing.

MUNIA: Interesting. In 'Song That Sound Like Blood', the main character, Roxy, is queer. This must be significant, especially to other queer Indigenous people, as this kind of representation is not very common. What inspired you to write this?

JARED THOMAS: OK, so I think it was in the-- I started writing this in the lead-up to the same-sex marriage plebiscite. And at the time, I was really frustrated with the conservativism in the country. And I have 3 daughters-- at the time, I had 2 daughters, so I recently had another baby girl. And yeah, I just didn't really know, didn't guess at the sexuality of my daughters and didn't assume that they were going to be heterosexual.

So, I just-- and just with my queer friends, I really hated seeing all of this kind of prejudice, discrimination against people that are same-sex attracted. And I had seen-- had really good friends that have had relationships for, like, 30-plus years, and they're really good relationships. So, that was part of the inspiration for the book.

And I was asked to write-- so Magabala asked me to write another book. And I knew that I wanted it to be about a young performing artist and how they leave a country town and how they start to succeed at university. But I also like writing about romance in my stories, and I thought I don't want to have another boy stalks girl, wins girl relationship. And I thought, can I write about 2 young women that fall in love?

And so to do that-- because, obviously, I'm not a woman, and I'm a heterosexual man-- so what I did is I spoke to my publisher about this particular representation and asked-- checked in with queer friends and got the publisher to get queer readers of the novel so that they could provide sincere feedback. And I felt that if it wasn't working, I just wouldn't continue in that direction.

But I feel really honoured that the book has been celebrated by the queer community and that I didn't make, I don't think-- well, I haven't been told that I've made mistakes. So, yeah, I'm really happy about that.

MUNIA: That's good.

JARED THOMAS: And of course, now there are queer Aboriginal writers that are beginning to write their own stories, which is the best thing.

MUNIA: I'm really glad that this kind of representation is becoming more common. Is it confronting to explore these kinds of topics in your writing?

JARED THOMAS: Yeah, I think, like, so many of my books are about difficult topics and issues. But I think part of the reason that I write is because I want to-- hopefully, I'd rather not see young people have to go through these journeys themselves and certainly not to go through these types of journeys alone. And so I write about things where I know lots of young people are experiencing this type of turmoil or doubts, uncertainty, fear, anxiety.

So, I'm trying to kind of write stories that just help young people to kind of navigate it and understand it. And sometimes, hopefully, so young people don't need to put themselves in that experience, they can experience it through reading.

But yeah, so it can be very confronting. Sometimes, I sit down and write, and I can cry while I'm writing because some of what I put my characters through is really intense and difficult. So, it is hard, but I feel proud that I'm able to write these challenging stories. And I think young people-- well, young people tell me they get a lot out of reading the material. So, for that, I'm really happy.

MUNIA: Something I found interesting was your versatility as a writer with your books spanning multiple genres and target audiences. You've written lots of contemporary fiction that focuses on big issues, but also you covered a sports series with Patty Mills. Which of these books was the most fun to write, and which is your favourite overall?

JARED THOMAS: Whoa, well, one of my favourite books was a book written with the senior girls at Tiwi College. So, it's a book called 'Shallow in the Deep End', and it's a novella. So, I think for me, that was one of my favourite books, like, working with those young women from the Tiwi Islands to produce this story about Shallow, who's a baby water buffalo.

So, it's about a little girl who wants a dog, and she begs her parents for a dog. And her dad, who's a park ranger, gives her a baby water buffalo and says it's a dog. And then Erica, the little girl, needs to look after the baby water buffalo. And I just adore that story. And I love sharing it with little kids and also young adults because I just think it's a very funny, great story. So, that was a lot of fun and a lot lighter.

And of course, the work with Patty Mills. It was so incredible to work with Patty. He's a very determined person, and he's really passionate about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. So, that was a great thing to be able to work with Patty and to work with someone that I really admire. Like, I really admire Patty and what he does as a sportsperson and also as a person is incredible.

MUNIA: Another thing I found intriguing were your book titles. I really like the name 'Songs That Sound Like Blood' because it's very poetic. How do you come up with them?

JARED THOMAS: Some of them are by fluke.

MUNIA: Oh?

JARED THOMAS: Yeah. So, for with 'My Spare Heart,' I was on a flight to America, and I was listening to Courtney Barnett, so an Australian singer-songwriter. And I thought she said my spare heart in the lyric, but she didn't say that at all. So, it was a kind of fluke, and I just-- it kind of fit with the story about a girl who can't rely-- she can't have a relationship with her mum with her true heart, and at times, she needs support in a spare heart because that relationship is too painful at times.

So, 'Songs That Sound Like Blood', I think pretty much similar, a similar kind of thing. Or no, that was about-- 'Songs That Sound Like Blood' was about the relationship between Roxy and her father. And it was about her having, like, this umbilical cord with her dad, so this connection. And it was really about their love of music. So, that's where that title came from.

MUNIA: That's really interesting. Your character Roxy felt like a very authentic Aussie representation in the way she speaks. Is there significance in the writing style you use for your characters such as the conversational turns in colloquial language in 'Songs That Sound Like Blood', or is it more of a subconscious decision?

JARED THOMAS: No, it's very conscious. So, with my characters and my plot, there's a lot of planning. So, when I think about my characters, it's really-- it's very multi-layered. So, I look at what are their needs, what are their boundaries, what makes them feel safe, what helps them to establish trust. And then I kind of mess with these elements in the story. So, I'll think about everything from their age, what they look like, and some of their colloquialisms, so the language.

So, most of my characters have particular catchphrases, ways of speaking, idiosyncrasies. So, for me, I try to really develop quite full characters. Yeah, it's something that I really enjoy about writing is going into that depth of character development.

Sometimes, when I'm writing, I will have images of people-- like the characters. OK, so-- And then sometimes, I'll take photos of where the story is set so that I can really see it. And then when I'm writing, sometimes I like close my eyes and I try to see the story like I'm watching a film so I can visualise when these 2 characters enter the room, what is the interaction. Yeah, so there's a lot of kind of detail and depth and visualisation I go into in the development of those characters.

MUNIA: They are really well developed characters. Each of them-- like, all the characters-- the father, the aunt and Roxie, they all have such distinct personalities. Your next book, 'My Spare Heart', is due out at the end of the month. What can we expect from it?

JARED THOMAS: Well, I think-- well, I'm getting some really great feedback from readers already. It's probably the work that I've invested most of my energy into, so it's taken a little bit longer to write. The story's about Phoebe, who's a 17-year-old who has been really good at basketball and quite academic.

And her mum's someone that she really looks up to. Her mum's like an event manager who is able to get concert tickets and things for her and her friends. But her mum is a high-functioning alcoholic, and the wheels are starting to fall off. And Phoebe is starting to see that, and it causes her huge amounts of anxiety and depression. And it's about the way that Phoebe and her family start to navigate that relationship-- what it's like to be in a relationship with someone that has a drinking problem.

Yeah, so, again, it's a difficult issue, but there's a lot of comedy, a lot of humour in the story. And again, just took a lot of research to kind get all of the kind of setting, the tone, the characters right.

MUNIA: I think it's really important to destigmatise these kinds of topics and present them in this kind of light, especially for younger readers.

JARED THOMAS: Yeah, well, in this situation, so Phoebe has an Aboriginal father and a non-Aboriginal mother. And it's the non-Aboriginal mother that has problematic drinking. And I think so many people think of people with an alcohol issue as being people that are kind of in the gutter, homeless. But in this story, I wanted to show that anyone in our society can have an addiction issue and to kind of-- yeah, to destigmatise it because it is so incredibly common.

And as an adult, if you're dealing with someone with an addiction issue, it's very hard. And maybe an adult might go to a psychologist or get some help. But where does a kid go, a young person? So, yeah, it was really important for me to destigmatise this. And I kind of just bring it out in the open.

MUNIA: What types of books did you like to read growing up, and did they influence your writing or mindset going into your work?

JARED THOMAS: Yeah, I think for me, my reading-- look, when I was young, I did enjoy reading, like, Roald Dahl and some of those types of books for younger readers. But I didn't really-- I wasn't into reading adult novels or anything like that. So, when I did start reading in my teens-- like, enjoying it-- it was more about reading political autobiographies, so things about Nelson Mandela, stories-- other stories set-- it took me a long time until I read literature about Aboriginal people in Australia.

But I was reading stories of people in South Africa, and that was probably my-- that set the tone for what I became interested in reading, which is more about politics, and what I was interested in writing for young people. So, really, I wanted to kind of show where prejudice, discrimination, racism was occurring and how that affects both the people that are being racist and the people that are experiencing racism.

MUNIA: That is really interesting.

JARED THOMAS: Yeah, so pretty heavy. When I was young, I was still-- I was into that kind of heavy type of topic.

MUNIA: Any last words for the viewers and aspiring writers out there?

JARED THOMAS: Well, just I hope people get the opportunity to read my work. Thank you for the great interview this morning. And with writing, I think it's really important just to enjoy it. So, for me, my writing is my meditation. I love sitting down and getting lost in this world and developing this world and speaking about things that are important to me. So, if you're a young writer, just write what you're, maybe, angry about or what gets you excited, what makes you happy. And most importantly, have fun with it.

MUNIA: Cool. Thank you so much for letting me interview you today. It's been amazing talking with you, and I hope everyone watching out there enjoys reading your books as much as I did while they work to complete the Premier's Reading Challenge. Thank you.

JARED THOMAS: Thank you.


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