Q&A with Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is one of six authors shortlisted for the 2019 Readings Young Adult Book Prize for her coming-of-age novel, The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge. In this interview, she shares details of her writing process and the origins of her funny, warm novel about love, sex, friendship, family, and finding your voice.

Congratulations on writing this amazing YA novel! Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge?

The seed-of-an-idea came watching The Turning, a movie anthology featuring adaptations of Tim Winton’s short story collection by the same name. In the short film Abbreviation, the camera, from a young teenage boy’s perspective, pans slowly from the feet up the body of a young woman in short-shorts and a bikini top, sexuality bursting from her and overwhelming him. The sexual power seems calculated and dominating. When the camera reaches her face, she is just a kid. It got me thinking about the disconnect between desire and experience. About my own curiosity and fantasy as a teenager and the mixture of thrill, shame and confusion that can occur when romantic fantasy meets the sticky reality of sex. And it kinda made me cross: a girl as all-powerful and sexually in control in the down-the-beach-scenario was absolutely not my experience growing up. And I wanted to write about consent. My question began as how can I consent to something I’ve never experienced?

Van’s voice is so strong and immediately present in this novel and her hilarious internal observations are so sharp and witty. Where did this character come from and how did she come to you?

ClareI really struggled to find Vanessa. I was writing in the third-person, trying to make sure I didn’t recreate Clover from Cracked. The original Vanessa had a different name, was a different age, but her brother was Ashton and she was in love with her brother’s best friend, Darith. In that abandoned first scene the boys were private school-boy eco-warriors who had just blown something up.

Then I thought it was a portal novel – the English/Scottish heritage that led to a mansion being built in Australia, a sort of ‘manor house’ to make up for class ignominies suffered by her ancestors who ‘make good’ in the new land – which meant accepting the inevitable horror of it being built on stolen land and the resulting attempted genocide of our country’s First Nations.

But I also wanted to explore questions of desire and consent; the colonisation of the body by the male gaze; the colonisation of our souls by capitalist greed. It was unremittingly awful. I was wrestling with my own privilege as a white writer, as much as anything else. I woke up in the middle of the night one night and thought, the first word will be ‘Yes’ and the book is called ‘Yes’. I got up and wrote most of the first chapter in a frenzy. Vanessa landed on the page: privileged, awkward, smart, sexual and eccentric. I remember just before I crashed back to sleep realising she was in first-person and thinking ‘Oh no! I’m writing in third.’ In the morning, I recognised that the voice is where the energy is, not in any preconceived (and self-imposed!) fixed notions about what I ‘should’ be writing.

You explore so much in this story: from growing up with privilege, to environmental activism, to a candid and honest look at rape culture and sexual agency. These all feel like very ‘of-the-moment’ themes, but you must have started writing this years before. What made you want to tackle these things back when you started?

The scene with Richard Marks is a direct response to a certain American president’s remarks about ‘grabbing them by the pussy’ and my subsequent fury and despair. There’s a reference to #metoo in the scene at Kelsey’s house in a later draft but the bones of the story were already there. It’s a relief to write a book that’s relevant but sad, too. The problems of misogyny that have come to light with the #metoo movement aren’t new, nor have they been resolved.

The story hinges on an experience of sexual assault – before this moment, the tone is very chatty and spirited, and afterwards it’s almost as if that stream of thought has been dampened. As a writer, what was the challenge in balancing these two tones and resolving them?

It was hard! In fact, keeping up the pace and humour that Vanessa landed with was a challenge even when things were going relatively well for her. Her ‘blitheness’ which is a sort of bubble of earnest innocence she has lived in (in part because of her privilege) is quite cruelly destroyed – it begins with the scene with Bodhi in the car and is consolidated by the encounter with Marks and her father’s response. In the scene when Kelsey, prodded by Van’s mum, tries to remind her of who she was, I found Van’s newborn cynicism heart-breaking. But it is this, when tempered and worked-through with a bit of perspective and self-forgiveness, which allows Van to ‘grow up’ and claim agency in her life.

Striking a balance between the truth of this (and the ‘coming of age’ conventions of the genre) and an utter rejection of the idea that sexual abuse is somehow ‘strengthening’ was a danger. I can only hope I got it right. I hope we never wholly lose the ‘tone’ of the voice even if it gets darker as the story unfolds.

Do you have any favourite scenes from the book? Ones you’re particularly proud of?

I love everything to do with the shearwaters. Going out to research them and see them land and take off was a wonderful aspect of writing the book and I thoroughly enjoyed recreating those moments with the characters in the book. And I guess a favourite moment is the scene with Bodhi in the car. It was one of the first scenes I wrote after I found Van’s voice and that event guided a lot of the early chapters and paved the way for what evolves.

What are some great YA novels you’d recommend?

Anything by Cath Crowley, Margo Lanagan, Vikki Wakefield, Simmone Howell, Shivaun Plozza, Melissa Keil, and the Brontë sisters. For older readers I’d recommend Jessie Cole’s Deeper Water and Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The Gulf even though they’re not sold as YA. I’d also recommend Mervyn Peake’s (very dark) Gormenghast; Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby, Lili Wilkinson’s After the Lights Go Out and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and last but not least, the A Wizard of Earthsea novels by the late, great Ursula K Le Guin. And loads more. Read your head off.

Clare Strahan is a Melbourne writer who once rattled out a novel on a manual typewriter by candlelight. Her debut young adult novel, Cracked, was shortlisted for the 2015 Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Read more about The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge and the Readings Young Adult Book Prize 2019 shortlist here.

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The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge

The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge

Clare Strahan

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