Sue Whiting is one of the most prolific and best-loved Australian writers for children and young adults. She’s also one of our popular presenters at the Australian Writers' Centre. Sue’s 2018 novel for kids, Missing, was a smash hit and she has followed it up with her latest novel, The Book of Chance. She has also teamed up again with illustrator Annie White for her new picture book Good Question.
With so much going on, we had to have a chat with Sue about her latest books and her writing process, and why she loves presenting for us at AWC.
You've got two books coming out in 2020. First off, The Book of Chance, which is a novel for kids aged 10 and up. Can you tell us what it's about?
The Book of Chance is set in Wollongong, NSW, and tells the story of almost 13-year-old Chance Callahan’s quest to find her own truth, only to discover that her life is in fact a big fat lie – #biggestfakeever! It is a mystery/suspense novel that reflects the challenges of our current world, explores truth and lies and the grey area in between, the impact of social media, the importance of family, and which ultimately ponders the notion that maybe being truthful is really just a great big lie.
It sounds very intriguing! How did you come up with this idea?
The initial inspiration came from a real crime that was committed in 1998, but not solved until 2017. As I watched the case play out on TV and social media, I became transfixed, maybe even a little obsessed. Before long, I began to worry about the young teenage girl embroiled in the thick of it all, and to wonder what it would be like to be that girl. How did she feel? How was she going to cope? What would become of her? These wonderings collided head-on with my preoccupation with the current challenges we face in finding truth in a world that is bombarded by Internet trickery, fake news and social media – the collision resulting in the writing of The Book of Chance.
With your last novel for this age group, Missing, you did a lot of research and took your time to make sure you got the emotional aspects just right. Was The Book of Chance a similar process?
I believe research is an essential element in the writing of any novel – especially if you want the novel to feel authentic and be convincing. While The Book of Chance was set in Wollongong, a city I am familiar with, rather than a very foreign country as in Missing, I still spent much time roaming the streets, noting details, taking photos, sound grabs, videos and generally lurking about. The houses that Chance and Alek live in are based on two actual houses in central Wollongong and I am sure the occupants must have wondered about the strange woman who walked past far too frequently and far too slowly!
There are also many elements to the novel that required research in order to get the facts straight. I interviewed a Detective Senior Constable from the Wollongong Forensic Command – and I still have the table napkin on which she drew crime scene diagrams! I visited and liaised with the SCARF Refugee Support organisation in Wollongong, and interviewed and liaised with people involved with the South Sudanese community in Sydney and Wollongong, and spent much time on the phone with various child protection organisations.
But importantly, I took every opportunity to chat with kids in Year 6 and 7 at school visits about smartphones, and their thoughts and usage of social media.
And like your novels Missing and Get a Grip, Cooper Jones – you don't shy away from serious topics and kids love it. Missing, especially, has been amazingly popular. Why do you think kids enjoy reading books like this?
I wish I knew the answer! I think Missing was particularly popular because the premise was highly emotional and quite confronting. Readers never knew until the very end what happened to the mother character, so I was able to keep readers in suspense throughout.
I also think the NOW and THEN structure of Missing worked well in keeping readers on their toes and turning the pages.
You also have a picture book coming out soon called Good Question and it looks like a lot of fun. What's it about?
Good Question is a fairytale romp that tells the story of why Fox is hiding in a tree. Poor Fox was just hungry and only wanted something to fill his belly, but he kept on ending up in all the wrong stories. The final spreads might even shed some light on that age-old mystery of why that acorn fell on Henny Penny’s head.
Kids are going to love going along the ride with Fox. How did you come up with this story?
I was flipping through some images in an online photo library and I came across a photo of a fox perched high in a tree, and I asked myself, “Why is the fox up in the tree?” And the answer came back, “He’s hiding, of course, from the giant.” And I just took it from there asking myself many “why” questions until the whole story unfolded. (It wasn’t as simple as that, of course, but that was the general process.)
The illustrator is Annie White, who you worked with on your previous picture book, Beware the Deep Dark Forest. Was it good to team up again? Tell us about that process.
Annie has been a dream to work with. We get on very well and have similar ideas. But best of all, apart from being an extraordinarily talented artist, she is a fabulous storyteller too. And that’s where the magic occurs. With Good Question she was using a new media – digital collage – so she was venturing bravely into new territory, which she mastered superbly.
We usually worked through the designer, but we also liaised directly when trying to solve some of the issues that were thrown up by telling the story backwards!
You've had four books out over the last three years. Plus you're also one of our fabulous presenters. How do you fit it all in??
Like any creator, it is all about being disciplined and using available time wisely. I am not always good at this, so I do often find myself overcommitted and overwhelmed!
You teach our course How to Write for Children and Young Adults. What's your favourite part about being one of our presenters?
I love working with the students. They all come with such varying backgrounds and experience, but they all share a common love of books and writing. And that moment when you feel you have given a student just the right advice at just the right time, well, that never gets old.
Want to win Sue’s latest books? We’re giving away a 2-book pack containing The Book of Chance and Good Question to three lucky winners. Head over to our competition to enter before 20 April 2020.