We chat with Nicole Hayes about her new book about AFL

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So Nicole Hayes is going gangbusters right now – with her YA fiction novels being so well received right across Australia and beyond. But her latest book, From the Outer: Footy like you’ve never heard it, is a collection of stories written by a range of different people about the game of AFL.

There’s some backstory to this. Her 2013 novel, The Whole of My World, heavily featured AFL (“footy”) as an integral part of the female protagonist’s story, and the book had highlighted some surprising firsts that even Nicole had been unaware of…

Hi Nicole, let’s bounce this interview into life. Tell us about the reception to that 2013 book.

“After The Whole of My World came out, I was regularly asked to speak about being a woman who writes about footy – and it was only after reading reviews of my novel that I realised The Whole of My World was the first novel written about AFL from a girl’s point of view. And the first written by a woman. This struck me as really odd – huge numbers of women attend AFL matches, and girls’ and women’s footy is the largest growing sport in Australia.”

That does seem odd. So how did those revelations get you to this latest book?

“I met [co-editor] Alicia Sometimes when she interviewed me for that 2013 novel, and then we kept running into each other at different events. We then started thinking about all the other people who also aren’t given a voice or a microphone to talk footy, even though they’re fans too. The idea for From the Outer: Footy like you’ve never heard it grew from there. We pitched it to Black Inc and they leapt aboard almost instantly, and in less than a year, it became a reality. Crazy stuff, really.”

Now this one’s not a novel. It’s a collection of stories about AFL written by many people. So how did you pick the people who you wanted as contributors to this anthology?

“We basically went through everyone we could think of who loved footy, but also, who wasn’t ordinarily free to talk about it – or known for writing about it, at least. We also asked a whole lot of people whose writing we loved, in the hope that they loved footy too. Many didn’t, and passed. Others did, but didn’t want to be outed! That was surprising, but also interesting. We realised that this was somehow more personal than we’d expected. And more complicated. Which was exactly what had drawn us to the idea in the first place.”

It really is like a religion for some. So for the “chosen ones”, what was your brief to them? How did you describe what you wanted?

“It varied, depending on how well we knew them, and/or what we knew about their relationship with the game. But the crux of it was about finding voices that weren’t ordinarily given a microphone to explore our relationship with the game in all its stages. Our tag line was: stories from those who love footy even when footy hasn’t loved them back.”

Editing an anthology can be tough … what do you do if something comes back not meeting your expectations?

“That was tricky, particularly given that some of our writers are very experienced and/or busy. All were open to feedback, but it’s a big ask to involve these people in the first place. Even bigger to ask them to rewrite, or resubmit. Fortunately there were only a couple that needed significant work – because they perhaps didn’t go as deep as we’d wanted them to, or hadn’t covered the angle we’d hoped they’d examine. Everyone was really amazing to work with. It was an incredibly time consuming but rewarding experience.”

So how did you and Alicia get the right “mix” in your anthology?

“With great difficulty! We had so many factors to consider. Given our pitch was all about diversity, we had to be really diligent and persistent in ensuring that the writers truly were representative of that diversity. That was our first priority. But then we also wanted to try to draw on writers from around the country. This proved to be more difficult, as we were so reliant on writers we knew or knew about. Fortunately it grew from there, and we were able to draw from outside of Victoria, to include writers from remote areas, as well as the other cities.

“The final, and more problematic factor, was that we wanted to represent as many different teams as possible. This would be a drawcard, so we actively sought out and prioritised writers who barracked for a range of clubs. We didn’t quite manage every team, but we got most of them, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying!”

How did things go on a practical level with two of you editing the book? What were your roles?

“Alicia and I read everything first, discussed broad issues and concerns, and then I’d mark up my changes or queries, and would send on the contributions to Jo Rosenberg at Black Inc. She did all the really hard work! We went back and forth a bit, but Jo managed the feedback with the authors, and worked directly with them from that point on. I loved that part of the process most of all. Alicia was the main contact point for securing the writers and garnering their interest, and now that the book is out, has been the key contact in working with Black Inc’s publicity team to generate publicity. She’s very media savvy, which is great.“

So on a personal note, how much of a footy tragic ARE you really?

“To quote Facebook, ‘it’s complicated’. I love the game – the beauty and majesty of the aerial skills, the grunt and groan of impact between footballers, the athleticism in the twists and turns, and the simple, uncomplicated beauty of seeing the human body do the impossible. So, in that respect I’m a tragic. But the circus surrounding it? The commentary, the commentators, the glamour and glitz? The ‘blokeyness’, the white-bread nature? I love the game, but it could definitely learn from the fans – the ones you’ll never see invited to the MCG Long Room. The view From the Outer…

Nice. So finally, what has been your most memorable AFL game you’ve been to?

“The 1984 Grand Final – and not in a good way. We – Hawthorn – lost. We were leading at three-quarter time, and the entire Cheer Squad was pulling out the champagne – literally and figuratively (sorry, Mum!). And then the final quarter started, and Essendon rolled us. It was heartbreaking. Devastating. So scarring that I wrote a whole novel about it. Though I fictionalised the characters and the names, the games and the season in The Whole of My World were drawn entirely from the 1984 season, with the disastrous climactic scene depicting the horror of post game pain and sadness.”

Ouch. Well, there goes the siren and that’s brought us full circle. From the Outer is available right now – and to find out more information, you can go here.

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