Fiona Wood's New YA Novel "Wildlife" Is A Sharp Look At Contemporary Girlhood

"At that age we’re vulnerable, maybe not the most secure in terms of who we are. I thought it would be really fascinating to explore that terrain."
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September 30, 2014
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books, reading, s.e.'s bookshelf, young adult, author interviews, YA

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Aussie author Fiona Wood to talk about her U.S. debut, "Wildlife," writing, and the perils of social media. For me, her book was such a refreshing read, because it didn't feature a love triangle, which seems almost de rigueur these days. Moreover, while the book has relationships, it's fundamentally about friendship, which is a subject I wish we saw more of in YA.

Don't be put off by the fact that it's the second in a trilogy -- the books are more like a loosely connected series featuring the same world and characters, with each book focusing on a different group of people. You can read "Wildlife" without feeling confused, and each book is very much intended to stand alone.

The book revolves around the students of a private school sent out for an outdoor education program as part of their high school experience. Sybilla or Sib, 16, is struggling with her own identity -- especially after having been the face of a high-end advertising campaign. Lou, meanwhile, just wants to sink into her own depression, and is by turns furious and apathetic about being forced to attend a new school right in time to be flung into the woods with a bunch of people she doesn't know.

Here's what's fascinating about "Wildlife": It's a book about being a teenager in close quarters with other teens, spending weeks on end in the woods, being pushed outside your comfort zone. It's about being stuck in a dorm with five other people who don't necessarily share your opinion on matters like hygiene and cleanliness. It's about friendships, and how they shift as we age. It's about being brave and taking risks, and it's about love, but that's not at all the focus.

Which was intentional. Talking to Fiona, I expressed my surprise and delight about the turn the book took, and she explained the motivations behind her decision: "At that age we’re vulnerable, maybe not the most secure in terms of who we are. I thought it would be really fascinating to explore that terrain. The most frequent feedback I’ve had from readers is women and girls saying 'I’ve had a Holly,'" referring to the book's obligatory mean girl.

Even Holly, though, is complex, something it can take real skill to pull off. "I wanted to do these two slightly contradictory things. On the one hand, she’s kind of based on Iago from Othello -- I wanted to see how far I could push this ruthless, manipulative troublemaker. But I also wanted her to be human, through the mother, and Sybilla's recollections. She’s in 'Cloud,' which is the next book, but only in a very minor way."

Watching the toxic dynamic between Sib and Holly is by turns frustrating and tragic as you see Holly's cruelty and Sib's uncertainty, but, as Wood points out, "I know in the age group there is still this great tendency to ask what I think is the wrong question: 'Why is my friend being so mean to me?' The better one to ask is, 'Why am I wasting my time hanging out with the wrong person?'"

It's a fascinating and rough look at what it's like to be a young woman growing up and drifting apart from friends, and it's an ideal setting. Wood noted that she wanted to isolation of the woods to take her characters away from mundane things and force them into a pressure cooker environment, but, hilariously, she doesn't actually like the outdoors much herself.

"I fear the great outdoors! I love urban environments," she said. But, "I certainly did my research, I went and hiked that area again to see what it smelt like and what colour the dirt was."

Her research paid off in vivid, beautiful, loving descriptions of the Australian landscape; maybe there's a little love for the outdoors buried in there somewhere after all. And, for readers who are curious, the guerrilla sign activism that Lou and Michael engage in is based on real life and Wood's own adventures with a Sharpie in a land without apostrophes.

As always, I was very curious about how she came to writing and her experiences as a writer. Wood actually spent 12 years writing for television before she plunged into fiction, noting that she loved the sense of ownership that comes with writing a novel. Instead of being forced to work as part of a massive team often controlled by the whims of producers and others, she could focus on creating the greatest thing she could, on her own -- in her own office, which she described as a "tip" as she spun the camera around to show me a room with books and papers scattered everywhere.

One of the most interesting things we discussed was social media, which seems to be a growing obligation for writers, especially in the young adult field. Wood said, "It’s a job that has become intriguing in the public imagination in a way. It wasn’t really a generation ago. Writers were much more enclosed and private. I think it has something to do with the accessibility we offer ourselves now. We’re everywhere!"

"There’s actually an Italian writer called Elena Ferrente," she added. "James Wood has done a big rave -- there’s a trilogy of novels -- she’s the only writer I know of in the whole world who has kept completely private to the extent that people are not sure about gender or anything. This writer won’t be photographed or interviewed or anything -- she has maintained this incredible privacy."

There's something sort of amazing about that, we both noted, thinking of Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, Truman Capote, and other notable recluses.

"There is a definite encouragement to have a social media platform to be present and to be available," she said. "It runs counter to me to what is an essential part for me -- which is solitude and woolgathering and space. Twitter for me is like a Tamogotchi -- those things that die if you don’t feed them! I haven’t Tweeted anything for three days, I’m a failure at social media! I do a little bit and I try to do it in an authentic way, but I do think it’s antithetical to the job of writing. It’s a funny, odd time to be a writer."

As we talked, she heard my keyboard rattling away while I took notes, and I could see her smiling at the sound. "I do love a clicky keyboard," she noted, waxing poetic on the subject of the tactile nature of a good keyboard and her love for Macs. We exchanged notes on our favorite keyboards and ergonomic workplace setups, and bemoaned the difficulty of working in cafes, where it's impossible to set comfortably.

The clock started to wear on, and she offered up the dreaded final question, the one I usually don't ask because I know writers get it over and over again -- "What's your advice to writers?"

"The big piece of advice is read read read, and the second is: allow yourself to have a quiet mind. Story ideas and characters wander into a quiet mind -- you need that space and that quietude."