Mallee Boys: Meeting Adelaide’s newest writer
“If someone were to predict when I was younger, that I would one day come and live in Adelaide, I would have been extremely surprised! But life has a funny way of picking you up and taking you places you’d never have imagined,” says the newest writer on the block, Charlie Archbold. Life has indeed been a roller coaster ride full of surprises for this Adelaidean. Her debut novel, Mallee Boys is not only flying off the shelves but has also received the prestigious Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award. Mallee Boys deals with the concepts of teenage angst, self-discovery and isolation –themes that stem from her own experiences of being an educator and dealing with young adults and their idiosyncrasies.
In a chat with TAL, the writer speaks about her love for Mallee and travelling, tryst with grief, and future plans.
Before we move on to the book, please tell us something about yourself. Were you born and raised in Adelaide? And what do you do other than being a successful writer?
I was born in London and grew up in the UK. I’ve always been a traveller and when I was in my early twenties I put on my backpack and set off with around the world ticket. After many adventures and at times impulsive decisions I feel very happy to now call Adelaide home. I try to fit my writing in around my other job. I’m an educator and feel very lucky to be a part of the profession. Teaching is probably one of the most challenging but rewarding jobs there is.
As a kid, did you dream of becoming a writer?
For most of my life, I have been a reader rather than a writer. Therefore, I never dreamt of being a writer. In fact, I thought writing-particularly fiction-was something other people did. It was when I completed my thesis for my Master of Education that I felt I could write longer pieces. I remember saying to myself, back in 2012, ‘I really enjoyed the writing. I want to do more of it.’ Only then did I make a serious commitment to pursuing my writing more actively.
How did you prepare yourself for becoming a writer?
I never made a conscious decision to become a writer. I’ve always journaled and scribbled bits of stories and ideas since I was little. Before I did my teacher training I did a degree in drama. I loved theatre -still do- and during that time and for a while after I co-wrote radio shows, skits from improvised work, performance pieces and so on. My love of language and dialogue has always been there.
Tell us about Mallee Boys? How did this book come about?
Mallee Boys evolved from a short story. I’d written a story about kids from the country mucking around on the river. I gave it to my mother to read and she immediately said she wanted to know more about Sandy (the main protagonist) and I thought to myself so do I. I committed to following his story with no idea where or how it would end. And, he became the central character in Mallee Boys.
Please tell us something about the protagonists – the two brothers. What kind of research did you undertake to create the characters of the two confused and angry teenagers?
My research about the protagonists came from my observations and life experiences. I grew up very close in age to my own brothers and had no sisters. Therefore, I was witness to and privy to the confusion, anger and joys which accompanies male adolescence. I have also worked with young people for a long time.
Your book deals with themes like the inherent rage of young adults, death, emotional isolation, and the like. Why did you zero in on such themes? What attracted you to them?
The themes of confusion and anger are common in YA books. However, I chose to explore them against the backdrop of grief. My partner lost his mother to cancer as a teenager and the image of a boy adrift and managing such complex emotions in an isolated place has always sat with me. Living there I was struck by how young men related to the land and to one another, especially in the challenging circumstances of grief. It was these observations which ultimately led to the Mallee Boys story.
Why did you choose rural Australia to set your story, and what makes it so attractive and pertinent to your story?
My connection with the Mallee is personal. My partner is from the region and we returned there from England with a small baby and not much else. I was lucky to get a job teaching and my own experiences living in a remote but very supportive and welcoming Mallee township helped give an authenticity to the book.
You never know when the experiences you’ve had will resurface. At the time I lived there I had no idea the landscape had such a huge effect on me but as I started writing it just poured out. It is beautiful, bold and at times confronting. The sky and huge horizons like none I’d ever seen before. The rural setting is embedded in the characters and of course, drives the narrative.
Given your research for the book, do you think teenage angst and themes of isolation play out differently in a rural backdrop as compared to a more urbane setting?
Good question. I think there are people who live in a bustling city who struggle with emotional isolation just as people in the country can struggle with geographical and emotional isolation. But what is different is the fact access to support services and agencies for grief, mental health, unemployment, and so on can be limited in isolated communities and this needs to be addressed.
Did you ever feel like giving up while writing the book? If so, how did you overcome the periods of despondency?
No, but at times it was tough. I did get frustrated with plot problems and having to rewrite quite a bit, but I think this reflects my experience as an inexperienced writer. I made mistakes I won’t make again. When I feel despondent about what I’m writing I’ll write something else. That sounds counter-intuitive, but it resets me, so I can go back to finish what I started.
You are the recipient of the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award. Please tell us how did you feel when your debut novel received such an important recognition.
I felt incredibly lucky to have won the award because my manuscript competed with works from other terrific writers, and poets. I had some interest from publishers but had not managed to secure that elusive publishing contract. To have the manuscript recognised was amazing. It really changed my life.
What has the reception been like since the release of your book?
Good so far-I think –but it is still early to comment. I’ve had some lovely reviews, received cards and encouraging messages. But like everything in publishing, I’m learning you have to develop a thick skin. Some people will like it some won’t. This comes with the territory when you enter a public forum.
Can we expect another book soon?
I have written some other manuscripts but not sure yet what their journey will be. No books for a while I’m enjoying the ride with Mallee Boys. But I keep writing, blogging, and scribbling ideas. Can’t stop now. I love it.
Finally, what advice would you give up and coming writers?
I am quite new to this myself! But I would say you have to just start and finish a project. Even if it’s not great you have something to work with. Act on any feedback from people you respect. Good advice is like gold. Writing is a creative business and you can get put off easily. To get me going, I relied on quotes which reiterated the fact that only I can tell my stories. I especially like this particular quote from Neil Gaiman, ‘The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision.’ But mostly you have to enjoy writing enough, regardless of the outcome, to try.
Order or learn more about the book here.