Jo Case interviews Leanne Hall about her Text Prize-winning YA debut This Is Shyness
Leanne Hall arrives at the State Library engulfed in a coat and scarf, a lavender beanie over her pixie haircut. Her attention to detail when it comes to costumes – literally following my suggestion that she bring a coat and beanie so we can brave the cold on the pavement tables outside Mr Tulk’s – makes me laugh. It’s just what one of the two narrators of her debut novel, This is Shyness, would do. But image-conscious Wildgirl (who pauses to fashion a turban out of a tee shirt while underground tunnelling) would probably be wearing fake fur and glitter, rather than Leanne’s more practical get-up.
A children’s specialist at Readings Carlton, Leanne has long been a bookseller by day, writer by night (and days off). She’s been slowly but surely building a publication record and a reputation as a writer to watch, with short stories appearing in The Sleepers Almanac, Best Australian Stories and Meanjin. Then last year, she won the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing – and a book contract with one of Australia’s most respected publishers.
This is Shyness is dark, funny, joyful and engrossing – the story of two teenagers from literally different worlds who spend one long, crazy night together in the suburb of Shyness, where the sun stopped rising three years earlier. Once indistinguishable from the neighbouring suburb of Panwood, Shyness has descended into a bleak chaos.
Adults have fled, leaving teenage children to fend for themselves in grotty sharehouses. Tribes of children – Kidds – live together in a compound, and roam the streets with sinister monkeys known as tarsiers, mugging people for sweets and getting hopped up on sugar. A sprinkling of darkened bars with pale-skinned staff attract ‘tourists’ from nearby suburbs. When Wildgirl, running from intrinsically teenage-girl problems, is smitten by the mysterious Wolfboy after a chance meeting at The Diabetic Hotel, she dares him to stay up all night with her, to prove to her that the sun never rises. Of course, Wolfboy has major problems of his own, in the form of a fractured family – and together they find a temporary release and the chance to be new people with each other.
Like Leanne’s short stories,This Is Shyness treads a fine line between realism and fantasy. The psychology and dynamics of the characters are palpably true, and the writing is crisp and stark – it makes you utterly believe in the place being described, seduces you into it. Like Haruki Murakami, who Leanne is a big fan of, her stories begin with a portrait of life as we know it, and then silkily veer into the eerie, the fantastical. ‘If I try to write straight stories, those other elements just creep in and I almost don’t identify them as being unusual or magical or slightly odd elements,’ Leanne says. ‘Honestly, when I do write my stories, I feel like it’s just reality that I’m representing – which of course it isn’t. I don’t know what that says about my brain or what my everyday life is like.’
The book began with the names of Wildgirl and Wolfboy, the two narrators, and thinking about what kind of place they would inhabit led to the ‘suburb of darkness idea’. From there, the central theme of the one long night emerged. ‘I wanted to write about one of those really, really crazy magical nights – probably one of the first really crazy magical nights you ever have as a teenager – and how you never forget that kind of situation.’
The teenagers in the book are vividly drawn – not just their youthful bravado and conscious hipster cool, or the delicious, volatile fizz of attraction at that time of life, but their transitional state. They’re no longer children, but not yet adults – and while they’re both on an irreversible path away from childhood, they’re young enough to relish a brief return to some of its forgotten pleasures, even (perhaps especially) as their problems – and their feelings for each other – are anything but childish. Wolfboy and Wildgirl ride their bikes and explore underground tunnels on their quest to recover a precious item of stolen property from the sugar-crazed Kidds. ‘I thought it was pretty funny to set a couple of urban streetwise teenagers on a quite old-fashioned quest for an object,’ laughs Leanne. ‘To me that was the biggest joke, to send these really cool teenagers on a quest for an object, which is such a sort of dorky childhood thing.’
Leanne drew on her own memories of being a teenager to create her characters. She personally identifies more with the ‘quieter and more contained’ Wolfboy. But the girl-bullying problems Wildgirl is escaping will strike a chord with any teenager. ‘Everyone’s had that incident at high school ... there’s always something where everyone turns against you some day, or you have your dress tucked into your undies and you have to go up on stage at assembly and receive a prize or something. And you really have that feeling of, That’s it for me, I’m not going back. I can’t face those people ever, I just don’t want to exist, and I’m going to move to a different city and have a different name and no one will know who I am.’ Wildgirl gets to live out that fantasy – but her adventures also put her troubles in perspective and allow her to move forward. It’s a fantasy that teenage readers will vicariously enjoy.
They’ll also enjoy the chemistry between the leads. ‘They desperately want to connect but at the same time can’t let go of their mistrust and insecurity, so they’re kind of coming together and pulling apart,’ says Leanne. ‘I like the fact that they lust from a distance. I think it’s important to know that even if that hot boy at school is not jumping on you – he's still thinking about it.