Ep 298 Meet Tristan Bancks, author of ‘Detention’ and Ali Berg, co-author of ‘While You Were Reading’.

In Episode 298 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Tristan Bancks, author of Detention and Ali Berg, co-author of While Your Were Reading. Celebrate Reading Hour this week. Plus, there are three copies of TRIM: The Cartographer’s Cat to give away.

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Show Notes

My Podcast Heart

So You Want To Be A Writer – Q&A Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait.

Reading Hour

Writers in Residence

Tristan Bancks

Tristan Bancks tells stories for the page and screen.

His books for kids and teens include Two Wolves, The Fall and the Tom Weekly series.

Two Wolves won Honour Book in the 2015 Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards and was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. It also won the YABBA and KOALA Children’s Choice Awards, as did his latest thriller, The Fall, a CBCA Notable book.

Detention, a gripping new novel about a daring escape and a lockdown in a school is out now.

Follow Tristan on Twitter

Follow Penguin Teachers on Twitter

 

Ali Berg
Ali Berg is the Creative Director and co-founder of Hedgehog Agency. Ali is also co-founder of Books on the Rail with Michelle Kalus.

In 2017, Ali and Michelle signed a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster. The Book Ninja launched in Australia, New Zealand and the UK in June 2018, and has since been published in over 10 countries.

Their second book, While You Were Reading was published in Australia, New Zealand and the UK in July 2019. It is soon to be published in Germany and Italy.

Follow Ali and Michelle on Twitter

Follow Simon & Schuster Australia on Twitter

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Interview Transcript

Tristan Bancks

Allison

Tristan Bancks is an Australian children’s and YA author, who almost needs no introduction to our podcast listeners as we’ve spoken to him several times over the course of the podcast history. He is so interesting, we just keep coming back. He is back this month with a brand new middle grade novel called Detention, which is already receiving rave reviews. So welcome to the program, Tristan.

Tristan

Thank you. It’s good to be back.

Allison

All right. So let’s talk about your new book, Detention. Can you tell me, tell our listeners a little bit about it?

Tristan

It’s about a twelve year old girl Sima who escapes from an immigration detention centre early one morning. And the escape goes wrong, an alarm goes up, there are smoke bombs, there are people being tackled to the ground. But Sima was told by her dad to run no matter what. So she manages to get over the motorway and into the bush, but she’s broken up from her family.

And she hides in a local school. And the school goes into lockdown. And during the lockdown a boy finds her in the toilet block and has to decide whether to dob her in and have her sent back into detention, or whether he can possibly help her get away. And she has to decide whether to trust him or not.

Allison

It’s a very meaty storyline, and a very timely storyline for a middle grade audience. So when you’re writing something like this, you’ve always got to keep obviously your audience in mind, how do you balance the seriousness of the issues that you’re addressing – because we are talking issues with a capital I here – with a story that kids are going to find engrossing and want to follow all the way to the end?

Tristan

I had a quote planted at the front of the manuscript. And it’s a Kate DiCamillo quote that I will probably misquote here, but it’s something like, she was fascinated by the way E. B. White managed to tell kids the truth and make it bearable. So E. B. White wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. But how do you tell the truth and make it bearable?

And I’ve heard Morris Gleitzman say a similar thing. And I love that idea. I love that you’re still trying to tell the truth. You’re not lying. You’re not being inauthentic. But you’re doing it in such a way that kids can take it. You might not be telling the story in as dark a way as it can be told, or as explicit as it could be told. But you are still telling the truth. And you’re giving enough information that a reader might go off and then find out more afterwards.

Allison

So what was the key for that process for you? Because that’s a big task, telling the kids the truth in a way that’s bearable. It’s a big task. And I know it’s one that parents address on a regular basis, let’s face it. But what was the process for unlocking the right… What’s the word I’m after? Like the right tone for the book? Was it finding the character? Was it finding that voice? Because it does have quite a distinctive voice, the novel, I felt, when I read through it. Was it finding that voice, was that where you kind of got into that zone of the truth but bearable?

Tristan

I think so. It’s partly hit and miss. It’s partly that you try a draft and you find you do go… I try not to pull punches at first. I try to just write it and let go. And if I start going into a place that probably feels too dark for the readership, I just let myself go into it rather than pulling punches. And then later on I can go back and I can say, oh, look, maybe there’s a more elegant way that I could do that.

And then sometimes I’ll maybe write it too young and I won’t be as honest as I could be. So really, for me, my early drafts, my zero draft and my first draft are a bit of a mess. And they’re sort of hit and miss and they’re here and there and it’s not streamlined at all. It’s just that process. Around the fifth draft, things start to flow and the pacing’s right and probably the age appropriateness, you know, it just feels right for that audience.

And partly it’s instinct. And party by sometimes I read test chapters for kids when I go into schools. Sometimes I’ll just venture a chapter and I’ll think, oh, and I’ll apologise, and say look, I haven’t really finished it, but you guys will be my first audience. And sometimes they nod politely. And then sometimes, and you don’t expect it, they’ll really lean in and you’ll think, oh right, okay, so this is better than what I thought it was. So it can go either way though.

Allison

Okay. Did you always know that it was going to be middle grade? Or was there ever a time when it could have been a YA novel?

Tristan

I really like writing for that audience. I think that ten and up, year five to year eight or year nine, I think kids are smart and switched on and they can deal with really big ideas in a complex way. But they are also enthusiastic and great to speak to in school and things.

I also have really strong memories of that time. I had really good teachers around that time and I had… I don’t know. I just feel like I can drop into the space of what I was like when I was 12 or 13 quite easily.

Allison

Okay.

Tristan

So yeah, I think I did always know it was going to be for that audience. And having written Two Wolves and The Fall, and started to build that readership, I think it doesn’t serve me to then randomly go off and write a really explicit YA novel for 18 year olds, and then suddenly to write a picture book.

You know, I think over time, you find your readership. And it takes so long to build that you may as well keep writing for those people.

Allison

Yes, that’s very true. I want to talk to you a little bit more about that in a minute. But before we get to that, you mentioned that you do a lot of drafts. So the process for writing this novel, how long did it actually take you until you had something that you were happy with?

Tristan

Well, from the initial idea of writing a story about a lockdown, because it was from when I was in a fire drill in a school, and I started talking to the kids and teachers about lockdowns that they had been in, it was about six or seven years that I was just noodling around with notes on my phone and notes in notebooks. And when I was doing writing workshops in schools, I would come back to this idea of a lockdown story in a school.

And it was actually only about a couple of years ago, two years ago, that I started writing it properly. When I realised that Sima was going to be an asylum seeker on the run who had escaped from this immigration detention centre. And that’s when I really felt like I had a story on my hands.

So probably two years of writing and six or seven years of thinking and note taking.

Allison

That’s interesting. So it actually came from the lockdown aspect of it more than it came from the detention aspect, so to speak? Because when I read it, I thought, well, it’s such a timely book. I assumed that it was that angle that had driven it to start with.

Tristan

No. And I’m kind of glad it came from the lockdown aspect initially and then I discovered this other thing that moved me, probably because I’m reading about it every day in the news, and I’m seeing news stories about it. And it’s such an interesting thing for all of us. And I think something that a lot of people are concerned about.

But I think the fact that I came from that lockdown aspect to begin with meant that I didn’t write the issue all the time. I didn’t just have characters talking about the issue nonstop. Or I tried not to, anyway. It’ll be up to the reader to decide. But that was my intention, to not write the issue.

I think I have tried to write things when I’ve thought, oh, that issue’s interesting, I might write something about it. And I find that all I do is write the issue and it’s really, really boring. And I think in fiction, you need to write the story, you need to write the characters, you need to find the emotion and have genuine people doing things and not just serving a theme or a premise.

Allison

Very true. But on that, on the issue and on the authenticity of the issue, the book has quite a lengthy dedication.

Tristan

It does.

Allison

At the start. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Tristan

At the start, I think there’s a dedication to Hassan Rezayee and Jasmina Bajraktarevic, who were my advisors, key advisors. I had been pointed to an organisation called STARTTS that they work with from the Asylum Seeker Centre in Sydney. And Hassan was an Afghani refugee in about 2001. Very early 2000s. And Jasmina a Bosnian refugee. And they both work with refugees also. And people who have survived trauma.

And throughout the process, they were just really helpful. I would send emails with questions. I would meet up with them. We would have phone calls and they were very tolerant of me. And also pointed me in the right direction to other organisations. Sarah Dale at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service who advised me, and then Shukufa from the Refugee Council of Australia. So I just really felt like if I was going to write this story and this character, I really needed to understand it properly and to make sure that the story ticked all the boxes in terms of authenticity. And even people who knew a lot about the issue, that they could read it and feel that it was the truth, that it could have happened.

Allison

Okay. All right, now you touched on this a little bit, but you’ve actually developed into an author with two quite distinct styles. You have that lighter humorous style of Tom Weekly. And then you’ve obviously got these darker more serious books, still middle grade, but just quite a different strain of writing, with Two Wolves and The Fall and now this one. How do you balance those two sides? Is Tom Weekly something that you use as a kind of escape when the other stuff is hard core?

Tristan

I think so. I think drafts of novels like this, they tire you out. When you get to the end of a draft, you’re really thankful that you’ve actually made it through because you didn’t think you were going to when you were only halfway through. And they’re really hungry for ideas. And it’s such a relief after that to just write a short story that’s hopefully funny where you get to use the other side of your personality.

So I guess it’s a bit like, you know, we all read pretty diverse stuff and lots of different things. And we read nonfiction and comedy and drama. And it’s a bit the same. I just write different things as well.

So yeah, I love that relief. And I love flipping between the two. And I’ve always done it, even when I was making short films or when I was acting and things, I always seemed to work on funny stuff and then I’d work on something heavier and darker, and then I’d go back and do something lighter again.

Allison

Are you working on new Tom Weekly stories as we speak?

Tristan

I’m actually, I’ve actually been working on some stories… My great-great-uncle Jim Banks created a comic strip called Ginger Meggs in about 1921.

Allison

Oh that one. I think we’ve heard of that.

Tristan

Yes. Well, because I say it like that because kids aren’t necessarily as familiar with it now as they used to be. So sorry, yes, adults do know Ginger Meggs. And I’ve been working on some stories. It’s in 2021, it’s the 100th anniversary of Ginger Meggs. So I’ve been working on some Meggs stories, which I have always wanted to do. And always wanted to do something about my great-great-uncle. I’ve been fascinated by it since childhood, by him and the character. So that’s the next lighter funnier thing that I’m working on.

Allison

Oh that’s fun. I look forward to those. I loved Ginger Meggs. It was that whole redhead thing I think.

Tristan

Yeah, I loved it too. And I was very excited in about 1985 or 1986 when I won a Ginger Meggs showbag at the Royal Easter Show. That was a highlight of my childhood, winning that $4 showbag.

Allison

You would have been too young, I think, to audition for the Ginger Meggs film.

Tristan

I think so. I think I would have just missed out.

Allison

Because that was an open audition. I remember, because I was… Yeah, you must have been too young, because I was…

Tristan

I think it was 1982 from memory, that movie.

Allison

Yeah. I remember seeing it and thinking, wow, that would be so great. But it wasn’t in my realm of possibility at that point.

Tristan

Yeah. And Bert Newton was in it. And Drew Forsyth.

Allison

The world was in it!

Tristan

Yeah.

Allison

Okay. So switching gears a little bit, when you do school visits, do you have different presentations? Obviously you’ve got two quite distinct styles. So do you have different presentations that showcase different works? And do schools ask you for one or the other? Is it like, I’m gonna turn up and Tom Weekly? Or I’m gonna turn up and do Two Wolves? How does it work?

Tristan

I just lean… I see who the audience is when I get there and I just lean towards one or the other. And if there are year three and four kids in the talk, I’ll lean towards Tom Weekly, and I’ll mention the other books but perhaps not go into the same sort of depth. But if it’s years five and up, if it’s years five to nine, I will, you know, year five and six, I’ll do Tom Weekly and then the older novels, Two Wolves, The Fall, and Detention. And then if it’s more firmly say year eight and nine, I won’t do Tom Weekly. I’ll just focus on the older novels.

Allison

Okay.

Tristan

Yeah. So I like that. And it keeps me interested too. And I have it all in my presentation. So I just flip to different parts of the presentation depending on how old the audience is and how interested they are. And if they suddenly seem bored I’ll quickly go to something that I know is going to be more entertaining. So it keeps me interested too, moving around like that.

Allison

All right. So you’ve almost answered this question with the discussion about Ginger Meggs, but is that your main focus of what you’re working on at the moment? Or are there other things also in the pipeline?

Tristan

I’ve been working on a story about a drowned town. I used to go to Jindabyne when I was a kid. And they buried the town underneath the lake when they created the Snowy Hydroelectric scheme. And I was always fascinated by that town that was down there and the remnants of those people’s lives and the roads and the buildings and things that had been buried. So I just decided that I would try and write a story about a drowned town. A crime mystery about a drowned town.

Allison

That sounds great. I look forward to it. All right, well thank you so much for your time today, Tristan. Really, really appreciate it. Of course, if you would like to find out anything more about Tristan or his work or all the very interesting things that he does, you can find him at – what is your website?

Tristan

It’s TristanBancks.com.

Allison

Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time, Tristan.

Tristan

No worries. Thank you. Good to chat.

 

Ali Berg

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Ali.

Ali

Thanks so much for having me.

Valerie

Well, congratulations. Obviously you’ve been very busy, because when we first spoke to you, you had released your book The Book Ninja. And that was also after you had been very busy with a movement called Books on the Rail, where you and various other book ninjas would leave books on the trains and trams in Melbourne and around other cities to encourage reading. And obviously that inspired you and your friend Michelle Kalus to write The Book Ninja.

But now you’ve done it again. Both of you have co-written your latest book. Tell us what it’s about! You obviously both really love books because it’s got another book related theme. So if anyone hasn’t picked it up yet, what is While You Were Reading about?

Ali

Yes. So we definitely have a theme. While You Were Reading is also a bookish romance, as we like to call it. So it’s about books and it’s a romcom as well. It’s about a girl called Bea who lives in Melbourne and she finds a book at a second hand bookstore with scribbles all over it and notes inside it. And she falls in love with those scribbles and those notes, and she tries to find the owner.

So she travels all around Melbourne to try and fine the owner of this book. And ends up, yeah, well she falls in love with a few people along the way. And ends up in a love quadrangle, we like to say.

Valerie

Love it. And how did this come about? Did you find a book with lots of scribbles that you fell in love with?

Ali

No, not really. It came about in a more modern way than that. We actually, Michelle and I, my co-author, actually share a Kindle account. So we always leave each other notes, which you can do on the Kindle while we are reading. And yeah, we write notes to each to other, different parts that we like, or things we might think that the other person will laugh at or will find sad. And then we got the idea, really, to write a book about notes inside a book.

Valerie

That is brilliant. And so when you wrote The Book Ninja, which obviously came out of your friendship together and the fact that you both love books and that you both cofounded Books on the Rail, did you at that point think you would write another book together? Or did you kind of just think, let’s just try it and see what happens?

Ali

Well, we did, at the start when we first started writing The Book Ninja, we only really thought that our mums would end up reading the book. But then once we realised that other people did start reading the book and we really did enjoy writing it and we did think, yeah, that we did really want to write another book and we had an idea for it. We also signed a two-book deal, so we were also contractually obligated to write a second book!

But yeah, we did come up with an idea… Sort of at the end of writing the first book we had lingering thoughts about what we could write the second book about and then it just stemmed from there.

Valerie

And so just tell me a little bit of the rough timeline of when you conceived the idea, when you actually started writing it, the first draft, and then when you got it to a stage that it was finished, that you would submit it to the publisher.

Ali

So we ended up coming up with the idea six months before our first book was even launched. So it all sort of was very quick. We came up with a synopsis and a plot at the end of 2017. And then in 2018, last year, June, our first book was launched, and by that time we were already halfway through writing this second book, While You Were Reading.

Valerie

Wow.

Ali

Yeah.

We actually handed in our first draft at around November last year. So it was just over a year that we had for the first draft, and then ended up with the final draft went out in March, and then was published in July this year.

Valerie

So obviously you’re writing it together, tell us how that works on a practical level, and if that had changed at all from the way that you did it with the first book, because of what you learned and what you experienced, and so on.

Ali

Yes, so it’s a little bit different to how I used to write independently. We did start writing as co-authors sitting side-by-side piano style and just nutting out every word together, and then realised that that was not really effective and very time consuming. So then we split up the chapters, one each, and ended up writing one each. And then giving them to and fro to each other until we formed one voice.

But that meant that we had to plot everything out in detail at the very start. So we really plotted out every single chapter, what would happen in each chapter to very minute detail, which I never used to do. I used to just, I was a pantser not a plotter, so I used to write as I went and just sort of discover the story as I was writing it. But with co-authors it’s a little bit difficult to do that.

Valerie

Is it easier in a sense, because you know exactly what you need to write?

Ali

I think so, yeah. It is a bit easier. And a lot faster as well, because there’s two of us. So we knew exactly what was going to happen. I might be writing chapter three when chapter two hadn’t even been written yet by Michelle. So we would have to change things up here and there, but we did have a quite solid understanding. We spent a lot of time creating a structure and the plot map before we actually put pen to paper.

Valerie

So tell me what that looked like and what your environment was. Did you get together and have a whole tonne of post it notes? Or did you have a whiteboard? Did you do it on Scrivener? What did that look like practically speaking?

Ali

We did it with post it notes. So yeah, we got together a few times and just nutted it out over a breakfast, which turned into a lunch, which turned into a dinner. I think the first time we were together for about 14 hours. And yeah, we just sort of plotted out everything with a whole lot of different post it notes, ended up writing some things. Then ended up writing a structural map in Google Docs, which is how we do it, just so we can jump in and out whenever we want.

And then again a few more times over drinks, over dinner. There was always a drink or food involved. But really long plot mapping sessions, always with post it notes. That’s how we work. And then writing it up officially in our Google Docs.

Valerie

Now you talk about doing it in post it notes and that you did it in quite minute detail. So presumably there were lots of post it notes. Now also on a practical level, how did this work? Because I was actually helping an author plot stuff out on post it notes the other day, and they weren’t good quality post it notes. They must have been from the $2 shop because they lost their stick very quickly and then everything was out of order. And they forgot which order it was meant to be! It took a lot of time to put it back in the right order.

So what did you do to make sure that you recorded things in the right way, that things didn’t fly all over the place when there was a gust of breeze? I know this is getting into detail, but this is reality, a question that some people might be asking.

Ali

Yeah, exactly. So we had that problem as well. And I think a lot of the post it notes that were used sort of just ended up in a pile somewhere. A lot of them, we did put them out at the time, but then after that meeting we ended up writing them all up in our Google Docs and putting them in order in our Google Docs. Just because we knew otherwise we would lose them.

And we do have those post it notes somewhere. But yeah, we didn’t use them for a long period of time. It was just mainly to get our thoughts from our head on to paper. And then we put them all together on the Google Doc.

Valerie

And so when you plotted it all out over a few days, it sounds like… Was it a few days? A few catch-ups?

Ali

Yep. A few catchups over a few weeks.

Valerie

So after you plotted it all out and then you essentially needed to then go write it, go fill in the blanks. Did the plot change? Because of stuff that you guys had written?

Ali

Yes. So it did change. Definitely it did change. We did… It didn’t change as much as it would have changed, I think, if we hadn’t plotted it. It still was quite similar to our initial draft. But there were some really pivotal changes or big changes that were made to the structure, mainly after the first edits, after we sent it into our publisher for the first time.

But actually no, from first initial writing to first draft, it didn’t really change that much, interestingly enough.

Valerie

Now tell me, are you still doing Books on the Rail?

Ali

Yes, we definitely are. So we are still putting books on public transport like crazy women. We’ve got a team of 1000 book ninjas across Australia now. And around 8000 books in circulation on public transport.

Valerie

And how do you know that the station – not the station – the tram driver or the janitor or whatever doesn’t come and just sweep the book up?

Ali

Yeah, so we were really worried about that at the start. It was sort of a covert mission where we didn’t tell anyone what we were doing and just planted them on the trains and trams and buses.

But now we’ve actually spoken to all the metro lines and all the tram lines and bus lines, and they’ve all briefed their cleaning staff in to keep them in circulation. So not to put them in lost property or in the bin. Which is great! So we know that at least they’re still riding the trains until someone picks them up.

Valerie

That’s great. And tell us, what else do you do? When you’re not writing books with Michelle, what else are you doing? And putting books on public transport.

Ali

So we both have fulltime jobs. Yeah, besides from being a ninja and an author, so I run an advertising agency with my brother. So cofounding that as well. I’m always co something. But yeah, running an advertising agency. I’m a copywriter. So I come from an advertising background and we have an advertising agency called Hedgehog.

Valerie

Awesome. And do you have… You had done the creative writing course at the Australian Writers’ Centre with Nicole Hayes at Abbotsford Convent. Was that useful for you when you were writing your first book?

Ali

Yeah, that was really useful. Really it was my first step into telling anyone that I wanted to write a book, or sharing any thoughts with anyone. And sharing my thoughts with Nicole and my writing was very scary but really gave me the confidence to actually do it.

Even though that manuscript that I wrote is still in my drawer somewhere, but having that confidence to write, I think, was really important when writing this book. I think otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.

Valerie

And are you writing a third book together?

Ali

Yes, we definitely are. We definitely hope to.! We’re coming up with a few ideas now. We’d like to I think revisit our first book, The Book Ninja. We think there’s a sequel in there somewhere, so we’re having a few thoughts about that as well.

Valerie

And now that you’ve written two books with Michelle, do you think you can go it alone?

Ali

Um, yes. I mean, I think I can. But I think that I love writing with Michelle, we both love writing with each other. And I think for the moment we want to do it as a team.

Valerie

Wonderful. Very, very excited for you and congratulations to both you and Michelle. I’m sure it’s going to go gangbusters. Well done. Thanks so much for talking to us today, Ali.

Ali

Thank you so much for having me.


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