Jo Case interviews Adelaide author Vikki Wakefield about her edgy, darkly funny YA debut novel, All I Ever Wanted.
Your teenage heroine, Mim, is the one straight girl in a notorious crime family, longing to escape her surrounds and fascinated by the brother and sister from the fringes of her dodgy suburb, “glossy with the sheen of parental love”. It’s such an inventive premise – a bit like Underbelly meets Hating Alison Ashley. Where did you get the idea for the story?
Originally the novel was meant to be a story about the underdog and her great escape. Thirty thousand words into the story, I realised I’d made my themes redundant. My antagonists were too likable. At this point I took a major detour and the novel was less about Mim’s escape and more about her journey – I was drawn to explore what she’d be leaving behind. I had to ask myself, if Mim escaped her poverty-stricken life without learning tolerance and acceptance, what kind of person would she become? How would she live her life? As Mim discovers, that glossy sheen of parental love can be all veneer and no substance. Jordan and Kate’s parents don’t understand them at all – Mim’s much-maligned mother knows her better than Mim knows herself. And she will sacrifice herself without blinking.
‘Surely there’s a recipe for it. Follow a few steps and you can cook up your own shiny destiny.’ Tell us about Mim’s formula for a different destiny to her family and classmates – her rules for ‘how not to be’. How does she expect them to work, and how do they work in reality?
Mim describes herself as ‘an outline, a caricature’. That’s how she views the suburb she lives in and the people around her. She’s as guilty of misguided judgment as the rest of society. She sets herself rules to live by – no drugs, no sex, no alcohol, no tattoos, don’t trust anybody, no dropping out of school. And, rule number one: I will not turn out like my mother. It’s an overly simplistic view – it follows that her rules for ‘how not to be’ are destined to fail. Hiding her true nature only works against her and Mim’s rules prove useful only as they are broken.
The idea of things – and people – not being as they seem is central to the book, it seems. As Mim’s neighbour Benny says, ‘Outside’s one way. Inside’s different.’ But it’s not that simple – Mim also learns to see herself and her surrounds differently by looking at them through new perspectives. How important are these ideas to the book?
Many of my characters are hiding something, some part of their character that they keep from the people who love them best. Telling someone your dreams and fears leaves you open to pain, but also to hope. I think that self-absorption and narrow-mindedness are an essential part of adolescence – it’s all to do with the process of separation. That period of being torn between love and loathing is so painful at the time, but liberating when you snap out of it. We call it coming-of-age, but it has little to do with getting older. It has everything to do with perspective, and what has happened in your life to change that perspective.
Mim is such a wisecracking character – she has some terrific lines, like when she tells her best friend, ‘Your definition of fun is puking in a bush, and trying to get your feet on both side mirrors of Ryan’s car.’ Was it fun to write her, and to give her this smart-ass dialogue?
Mim was a lot of fun to write. It was challenging to show the vulnerability beneath her tough exterior and she has a great sense of humour in some pretty dire circumstances. In my experience, teenagers with Mim’s kind of upbringing can be darkly hilarious and utterly human in the best and worst of ways.
One thing you do in this book is show a much-maligned place – ‘A lost street in a forgotten suburb, an hour from the city’ – in a far more nuanced light than we generally see, in books, film, TV or even on the news. Was that something you were trying to do? And how did you know the place you wrote about so well – experience or research?
The majority of this novel is written from experience. I’m easily bogged down by research, particularly the sedentary type. I’d rather see, touch or taste something before I write about it. In All I Ever Wanted, I meant for the setting to be a character, too. Along with the flesh-and-blood characters, its layers are peeled to reveal its heart. In the later chapters I’ve deliberately mirrored the description. The words haven’t changed on the page, but I hope the reader can see place differently, as Mim does. She says, ‘It is what it is, and I know every inch.’ Knowing a place well reveals its dark corners and its moments of radiance, however transient they may be.
There’s some fantastic imagery in this book. Describing the local kingpin drug dealer, you write ‘Dr Frankenstein could have put him together out of spare parts’. Mim’s overweight mother is ‘lying on her couch, like leftover dough’. How important was it to you to get those images just right? Did you spend a lot of time crafting them?
I’ve worked in graphic design, so I think visually. I have scraps of paper with annotated sketches rather than a notebook full of chunks of prose. I do these sketches in the planning stage so I can often refer to a character or setting sketch and translate to the page quickly. I will often discard the first image I write – it’s invariably been done before. Writing vivid description is a joy when I can nail it and, for me, short and punchy is sweeter. It is important for me to get these images just right. I hate to backtrack when I’m reading. It’s a lot like the memory game – if you attach an image to a person, you’ll never forget them.
The loneliness of being different seemed to be a major thread in this book – Mim trying to be straight in her rough surrounds, Kate as an intelligent ‘nerd’ in a rough school, but also other characters who stand out for different reasons. Was this something you were interested in?
I remember how it felt to be different, torn between fitting in and just being myself. At one point, so much of my identity was shaped by my peers that I didn’t know who I was. And often I felt loneliest in a crowd. When Mim and Kate find each other, it’s like seeing themselves reflected as they would like to be. It’s surprising to Mim that Kate would want to be like her. Their friendship gives Mim the courage and conviction that she needs to be herself.
Mim says, ‘I think I’m an anticipation junkie’. Do you think that’s something especially intrinsic to being a teenager – a time when you’re in transition and deciding how you want that transition to play out? How does the thrill of anticipation play into the book?
I think that anticipation, looking forward, is essential to every person’s wellbeing. It makes life worth living and it’s particularly consuming for a teenager. For me, adolescence was a holding cell, a time when I seemed like I was on the edges of myself, waiting to fall in. I couldn’t be trusted; I had a curfew and I couldn’t buy beer or cigarettes, but I was expected to know what I wanted to be. How is that possible?
Mim is a younger me, stuck in limbo, waiting for fate to step in. But there comes a point when she has to stop dreaming, to do something. She realises that she’s responsible for her own inertia. Accountability and ambition don’t just kick in when you turn 18 – it’s an ongoing journey full of wrong turns and dead ends. Sometimes you just have to keep moving even if you don’t know where you’re going.
Who are some of your influences? What books or authors do you like to read?
I love writing that evokes a sense of time, or place. Tim Winton does this brilliantly, as does Marcus Zusak and Annie Proulx. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders affected me deeply as a teenager – it was the first time I discovered pieces of my own life reflected in a book. To Kill a Mockingbird changed the way I read books forever. I read it so many times that I started reading as a writer, panning for the nuggets that hold such a compelling story together.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? by Peter Hedges was also a huge influence. I should never have watched the movie (although it was brilliant) because I’d imagined the characters as distinctly Australian. I could never read it again without hearing that American twang and seeing the Iowa landscape.