Today, I have a special guest sitting through my Ten Questions – fellow Momentum writer Justin Woolley. Justin is the author of a great YA Dystopian Fantasy novel: A Town Called Dust. So let’s find out more about him, shall we?
Justin Woolley has been writing stories since he could first scrawl with a crayon. When he was six years old he wrote his first book, a 300-word pirate epic in unreadable handwriting called “The Ghost Ship”. He promptly declared that he was now an author and didn’t need to go to school. Despite being informed that this was, in fact, not the case, he continued to make things up and write them down.
Today he is the author of several published short stories and has a number of graphic novels in development. A Town Called Dust is Justin’s debut novel.
In his other life Justin has been an engineer, a teacher, and at one stage even a magician. His handwriting has not improved.
Ok, so let’s start with the questions!
How did you come to be a writer? Was it always something you were interested in? Stories have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I used to make up stories, ‘spin yarns’ as my grandfather would put it, and tell them to anyone who would listen. My little sister bore the brunt of it for a good while as I sat her down (probably locked her in the play pen) and told her stories about dinosaurs and pirates and other things she wasn’t interested in unless I inserted a fairy princess here and there.
I started writing down the stories I made up as soon as I knew what writing was, maybe even a little before. When I was six I wrote a story called ‘The Ghost Ship’ which was basically the plot of Pirates of the Caribbean – still waiting on my royalty cheque from Disney for that one – it wasn’t the bestseller I hoped it would be but ever since then I’ve still been making things up and writing them down. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a writer.
What were your favourite books/films growing up? What kick-started your creativity? I’m never any good at picking favourite things but I suppose the first book I can remember being a favourite is ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak. There was something about the way Max imagined his room becoming a whole new world where he could sail across the seas to a place populated by wild things that really resonated with me.
As I grew up my Dad fed me a steady diet of Doctor Who, Star Trek and James Bond movies and my Mum bought me fantasy and sci-fi books from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books to Tomorrow When the War Began, Ender’s Game and Hitchhiker’s Guide. From there I suppose my tastes never really changed, they just grew as I did until I added Frank Herbert, David Eddings, Robert Jordan, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Joe Haldeman, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, George R. R. Martin, China Mieville, Neil Gaiman…should I stop? I should stop.
In terms of movies I suppose I’m a product of my time, early on it was E.T. and The Goonies, with some old classics like Wizard of Oz, later it was the Indiana Jones trilogy (yes, that’s only a trilogy) and the Star Wars trilogy (yes, that’s only a trilogy), Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Batman, Die Hard, Jurassic Park, Terminator, Alien, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the Bourne trilogy (yes, that’s only a trilogy too), The Matrix, The Departed, District 9, Inception…should I should? I should stop.
I think what really kick-started my creativity as a young teenager were Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. They were just so wonderfully imaginative and so different to the other fantasy I had read, the sword and sorcery type that I was already growing tired of, and they had a sense of humour too. I thought, ‘Gosh, I want to create worlds like this!”
You have good taste! So where did the idea for ‘A Town Called Dust’ come from? ‘A Town Called Dust’ is a post-apocalyptic novel for young adults (hopefully crossing over to the adult market too). The idea for the story started out while I wasworking as a teacher. I had a wish to write a story that would draw in young readers and I wanted to set it against the amazing landscape that is the Australian Outback. As is usually the case the idea germinated as a number of smaller ideas which collided together in my head, post-apocalyptic outback Australia, dirt-farming and the name Squid, throw in some zombies and there you have it.
What were the challenges you faced writing ‘A Town Called Dust’ (research, literary, psychological, and logistical)? The main challenge I had while writing ‘A Town Called Dust’ was time. I was working full-time as a teacher while also studying. It took a lot of commitment and resilience to keep that word count ticking over and finish the book. I’d had two false starts at writing a novel before but this was the one I was serious about finishing and I think that was the key, knowing that I had to finish it.
What was it in particular that drew you to write YA? It was while working as a teacher that I was drawn to writing YA. I saw how difficult it was to engage boys, particularly around the age of 15 and 16, in reading. I thought about the books I enjoyed reading at that age and set out to write a book I would have loved. It would have action and elements of fantasy and science fiction but also touch on issues faced by teen readers, their feelings of identity and concerns about their place in the world. Also zombies.
There’s a strong theme of ‘abuse of power’ particularly aimed at both politics and religion. I’m particularly curious about the religious side of things. Did you attend a religious school when you were younger? And has this influenced your writing? Well, that’s a great question Amanda and something I knew many readers would relate to in one way or another. Religion is always a touchy subject to write about, but you’re right, the abuse of power and wish for control and subservience through politics and religion are major themes.
I never attended a religious school and I’m not religious myself. Personally I’m an atheist but I never intended to write a book that is anti-religious. Instead, what I believe the book reflects is the power of organised religion as an ‘opiate of the masses’. In the Central Territory, the world of A Town Called Dust, the remnants of mankind live together within the borders of a giant fence to protect them from the ghouls beyond. Religion is one instrument used to control and manage a population that is forced to live in a giant enclosure like this. In that way the church in the book reflects not only organised religion but many things in our world such as mass media and particularly for the young adult audience it reflects the feeling of being controlled by authority, of being told what to believe and how to behave.
The book also demonstrates the inherent clash between religion and the civil government. Both organisations seek to control (and in their own view improve) the population of the Territory. Their differing approaches to this leave them at odds with each other and, just as we see in our world, each party tries to influence the other. Rather than a blanket government = bad, religion = good, or government = good, religion = bad, I’m hoping the book demonstrates the areas of grey. The idea is that all institutions are not flawed in their own right, but reflect the desires and flaws of the people within them.
Also, before we get too serious, there’s zombies.
You’ve had several short stories published. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Is that your preferred format? What made you try the long form? I’ve had a few short stories published over the years from science fiction stories both online and in print to autobiographical pieces such as ‘My Escape’ a very personal piece about being present at the Port Arthur massacre first published in Voiceworks magazine and then reprinted in ‘The Words We Found’ an anthology of the best writing in the 21 years of Voiceworks.
However, long form novel writing has always been my goal and the novel is definitely my preferred format. I also think I’m far better at writing novels, weaving a long story, taking time to flesh out a world and the characters that inhabit it and leading a reader along on a journey is more enjoyable for me. The two styles are very different but I’m glad I’ve had experience writing shorts, it teaches you a lot about effectively introducing characters and being efficient in storytelling.
You also have some graphic novels in development. Can you tell us a little bit about that? I’ve always been a comic fan; I mean I have tattoos of both Spider-Man and Batman after all! I’ve been writing comics for a number of years and have had short comics published in a couple of anthologies. I’ve got two graphic novels currently being developed. One, called ‘Nemesis’, is the story of a young boy who wants nothing but to be the next great supervillain but perhaps isn’t as evil as he thinks. The other is ‘King and Country’ an alternate history revolving around a resistance group in Nazi occupied London. It’s a book I’m incredibly proud of and so excited for people to read. It’s being released through Australian publisher Gestalt Comics and is hopefully on track for a late 2015/early 2016 release.
What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had told you when starting your writing career? What do you know now, that you wished you knew then? As I mentioned earlier I had a few false starts at writing novels before I finally did it. I think the advice that would have helped is simple but often needs reinforcing: finish what you start, you can’t edit a black page and you can’t publish a novel you haven’t finished.
I think the key to this, which I had to learn, is how important planning is to a piece of work as long and complex as a novel. The reason I didn’t finish my first two attempts at writing novels is that I didn’t plan them well enough in advance. The advice I wish I got earlier is to understand that having a plan does not constrict your creativity; it gives it the framework it needs to thrive.
If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be? Do you have a secret passion that we don’t know about? Growing up, if I wasn’t going to be an author, I wanted to be an astronaut. Just like the desire to be an author never went away neither did the desire to be an astronaut. If I could I’d be the first person to walk on Mars!
Excellent! Well, thank you for sitting through my inquisition today. It’s been great chatting with you.
If you would like to know more about Justin, simply check out the links below.
Until next time!