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“There and Nowhere”: A Conversation with Jaclyn Moriarty

Jaclyn Moriarty

Jaclyn Moriarty

Around forty-five minutes northwest of downtown Sydney, Australia, is a pocket of suburbs known as The Hills: not quite city, not quite country. You only have to go back ten or twenty years to arrive at a time when these places — Castle Hill and Annangrove, Rouse Hill and Bella Vista, and, one of the oldest of them all, Kellyville — were full of market gardens and homes on acreage, with working dogs and agisted horses and paddocks full of chooks [chickens]. Long bus routes took kids from The Hills to suburban schools over rough, ungraded roads, and back home again.

So remote were these places that in the early 1800s Kellyville was known as “There and Nowhere,” then Irishtown, and then finally Kellyville, for Hugh Kelly, one of the area’s first (white) landowners. It’s a typical story for settlements on the outskirts of Sydney. Places that were once accessible only by horseback, places that represented a new start for ex-convicts and the Irish and others on the margins of this new society of New South Wales, eventually became respectable suburbia, with twenty houses crammed onto one of those old five-acre blocks. But somehow they always kept that sense of being on the edge, of not quite belonging to the rest of Sydney.

More than 160 years after Hugh Kelly staked his claim, a girl grew up in There and Nowhere, a place that was, in the 1970s and 1980s, neither here nor there — not yet truly suburbia, with its encroaching supermarkets, video hire stores, and shopping plazas, but neither still rural. She, too, was of Irish stock, the second child of six (four sisters, one brother): “Six kids, two horses, twelve chooks, two dogs, a cat and a duck. And babies. It was chaos. It was great!” It was the kind of childhood that could have come from the pages of a children’s novel. The kind of childhood that produces storytellers. It was the childhood of Jaclyn Moriarty.

Jaclyn’s desire to write, and her fascination with the lives of young people, began when she herself was only a child. “I grew up always knowing that I wanted to write stories,” Jaclyn says, something she attributes in large part to her father who came from a poor Irish Catholic family. An entrepreneur from the age of eight, selling sackfuls of manure to gardeners, he similarly taught his own children the ethos of “making things happen for yourself.”

Most of the kids in the family liked to tell stories. So instead of giving us pocket money, our dad would commission us to write stories. You got a dollar fifty if you filled up an exercise book. What our dad gave us was such a sense of achievement. It was very important to him to instill in us the idea — this is going to sound like a cliché — of pursuing your dreams.

Equally important was Jaclyn’s mother, a foster-carer who specialized in newborns. “There was a constant stream of babies arriving who were broken, and my mother would basically cure them, each time; she’d make them fat and healthy and fill them with love.”

It was these babies and their mothers — in many cases, desperate teens — who inspired Jaclyn to study children’s and family law.

I was unhappy at school a lot, but my family was so close…the days for me always felt like there was a stepping stone. If I could get through Monday to Friday, then I would have this retreat at the weekend. When I started finding out about young people who did not feel loved at home, who didn’t feel safe at home, I was overwhelmed. That gave me a fascination with young adult life. I have so much admiration for the strength and courage of young people who have no reprieve.

moriarty_feeling sorry for celiaAt the University of Sydney, Jaclyn won the University Medal for Law at around the same time she published her first book, one in the Dolly Fiction series of teen romance novels. “My dad is not academic or intellectual; in fact, he’s actually quite anti-academic. He was happy that I got the university medal, but he was ecstatic that I got that Dolly Fiction publishing deal.”

Her Dolly Fiction book notwithstanding (“I don’t talk about it very much, but it was wonderful to complete a novel and to write to a structure”), Jaclyn first made waves on the Australian YA scene in 2000 with the publication of Feeling Sorry for Celia.

When I finished the law degree I realized: now I’m going to have to become a lawyer. So I went overseas to study more law, to delay being a lawyer for as long as I could. I did a master’s degree at Yale and a PhD at Cambridge, and I wrote Feeling Sorry for Celia while I was doing the PhD. I knew that when I was a lawyer I wouldn’t have time to write, so I made a pact with myself that I wasn’t allowed to finish the PhD without finishing a novel. I sent the manuscript to publishers and agents all over England and they said no. I came home and became a lawyer and I put the manuscript in the corner of my office, thinking I’ll rewrite it when I get time. One year later it was still sitting there, so I put it in an envelope and sent it to [literary agency] Curtis Brown. A couple of weeks later I got a phone call from Garth Nix — he was an agent there at the time. He was calm, not effusive, but he loved it and he wanted to represent me. He found me publishers in Australia, America, and England.

Moriarty_Ghosts_of250x356Celia immediately captured attention (and awards), in particular for its humor — a rare commodity in YA fiction at the time — but also for its sharp observance of teenage life and the dynamics of high school politics. It was in Celia that readers first met the students of Ashbury and Brookfield high schools; the former an exclusive private school, the latter the local public comprehensive high school. The book captured all too well the public-private school divide, explored effectively, and with wry humor, through Jaclyn’s now-trademark mix of notes, letters, diary entries, and school assignments.

Jaclyn’s experience of attending a well-heeled Catholic girls’ high school but sharing a bus stop with kids from the local public school played a part in shaping her interest in the conflict inherent in the public-private school schism.

We were conscious of it all of the time, being the private-school girls. I waited at the bus stop with all the Penno High kids [Pennant Hills High School, a public school], and I always felt like they were the cool kids, and they had the edge that I was drawn to. And then getting to university, where I was making friends with the real private school kids, the Abbotsleigh girls and the Knox boys [Abbotsleigh School for Girls and Knox Grammar (boys only), two of Sydney’s most prestigious independent private schools], the trust fund kids, and so feeling like I was on the other side of the duality…And there was conflict, I was seeing the conflict all the time at the bus stop. And conflict is always great material.

There’s the socioeconomic aspect of the novels. There’s also their geographic terrain, not just within the (fictional) schools themselves, but also the larger geography of the Ashbury/Brookfield world — based on The Hills district of Moriarty’s childhood.

I wrote Feeling Sorry for Celia while I was living in England, so it gave me a fresh, new perspective on The Hills. I had that familiarity and intimacy with it, but I could also look at it from the outside; it felt like a fresh landscape. There are urban stories, there are suburban stories, there are country stories, and this is something that was none of those in a way. This area is marginal, it’s on the outskirts, and there’s the closeness, it’s cohesive — there’s a structure to it. But there’s also freedom in the space, the rural aspect combined with the urban and suburban. Which is why I’m drawn to high schools, too, I think. I love high schools as settings for stories because they have that freedom within a confined space.

After four Ashbury/Brookfield books, Jaclyn moved away from that setting — and away from straight (if hyper-) realism — to the dual world/portal fantasy of A Corner of White, the first in the Colors of Madeleine trilogy.

Writing fantasy had always been on the edge of my mind. That’s the kind of thing I have always loved; that Diana Wynne Jones–style of book is exactly what I find magical in reading. I love the real-world books, too, but the ones that catch something in my heart are those real-world books with a magical edge. I wanted to find my way into writing something like that. And it’s taken me this long to make it work — I started writing about the Kingdom of Cello about ten years before I started writing the book. A friend had given me a notebook for my birthday, it was covered in velvet or suede. I was living in Montreal. It was a snowy day, and I went to a café to work on my next Ashbury book. I opened this notebook for the first time and there was this row of little colored pencils, each in its own pocket. Something about the snow outside, the smell of cinnamon and chocolate, and the unexpected colored pencils made me start drawing pictures — I’m not an artist — and instead of working on the book I was supposed to be working on, I started drawing pictures of the Kingdom. I felt like I had to spend years working on it until it became completely real for myself before I could start writing it.

A Corner of White, for all of its genuinely original take on the fantasy genre, its glorious eccentricity, and narrative complexity, has its roots just as firmly in the things that fascinated young Jaclyn: kids living on the margins, kids who don’t feel safe at home. Kids roaming their streets and towns, finding freedom in the space around them—the strength and courage they need to grow up.

I just find teenagers fascinating characters. It’s partly their resilience and strength, and then the more I deal with them in my work, the more I find their passion and honesty. And they’re funny!

Moriarty_corner_of_white199x300Passion and honesty, trouble and humor, resilience and strength. It’s all about dualities and being on the margins: the Ashbury and Brookfield kids living sometimes parallel, sometimes intersecting, occasionally very similar — often very different — lives; Madeleine, the Girl-in-the-World, and Elliott in the Kingdom of Cello. It’s everything at once that’s There and Nowhere by a talented author who knows both worlds.

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Judith Ridge

Judith Ridge is an Australian writer, critic, and teacher specializing in literature for children and young adults. She is the program coordinator of WestWords: Western Sydney Young People's Literature Development Project and blogs at misrule.com.au/wordpress

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