Off-course navigation: Claire Christian on ‘Beautiful Mess’
Claire Christian’s 2016 Text Prize winner Beautiful Mess (Text, September) is about two misfits who help each other through the raw pain of adolescence. Reviewer Angela Crocombe spoke to the author. (Read Crocombe’s review here.)
You’re an established playwright and theatre producer. What precipitated the shift to novel writing?
It kind of happened by accident. Beautiful Mess began as a play, but the further I got into it the more I came to the shocking realisation that it was actually meant to be a novel. I felt completely overwhelmed by this prospect: ‘Write a novel? Novels are long. And solo pursuits. And I know nothing about writing them …’
I’ve always wanted to be an author. I’ve always written and I love telling stories. I think this process has made me realise that I just need to give over to the stories themselves and let them manifest however they manifest, whether it be a play, a novel, a podcast or a long-winded social media post. It’s a grand joy to be able to cross sectors and forms. Plus, you publishing folk are so bloody lovely; I’m never going to leave.
I thought the voices of Ava and Gideon were really authentic and insightful. You work a lot with young people—how did this help inform how you wrote the book?
Ultimately, this book is for the young people I’ve had the great honour of working with over the past 13 years. I love working with teenagers. I actually think it’s my superpower. I wanted to write something that honestly and realistically represented them and what they wanted to talk about. Adolescence is tough, and adults forget how crap it is. It can be pretty potent as a young person to have an adult in your life telling you that what you’re going through is okay. That you are okay. Ava and Gideon
represent real contemporary young people navigating all of the big, messy life stuff. I didn’t want to shy away from talking about the issues that young people are curious about, that they’re going through and experiencing. I felt duty bound to get it right, otherwise I’d let all my kids down.
Suicide is not often talked about openly. Do you find that young people want to talk about this issue and how it affects them?
The biggest threat to young people in this country isn’t speeding, or drugs and alcohol, or even the threat of terrorism. It is themselves—their own mental health. We need to talk about it, about therapy, getting help and the resources that are available. It’s a hard conversation to have, but young people are smart and capable of being informed. One teenager articulated perfectly to me how we manage mental health for young people in this country: while we’ve communicated the importance of reaching out, we’ve done nothing to educate them about what to say. And because they know it’s really important, they don’t want to stuff it up, so they end up saying nothing at all. I think that is what’s at the heart of Beautiful Mess: that life is complicated and messy and all people are navigating big things. That it’s okay to ask for help, and there’s no right or wrong way to be in the world.
What project are you working on next and will you continue to write novels for young people?
Yes. I’m currently working on a new play called The Brothers Book Club, which is about a diverse group of teenage boys who start a book club to pick up girls. I’m working on a piece of sexy chick-lit about a woman in her thirties on a bit of a pleasure quest. And I’m working on a creative nonfiction piece, which is part memoir, part story-sharing extravaganza about growing up.
This is a bit of a cheeky question but I notice that your co-writing partner David Burton was also a Text Prize winner. Is this just a lucky coincidence or did he give you a cheat sheet on how to win the prize?
Yes, Dave is such a good friend he hooked me up, ha!
It’s a beautiful and very lucky coincidence. When I was freaking out about writing a novel, I gave the first 10,000 words of Beautiful Mess to him and asked if he thought it was a thing. He told me to stop being annoying and finish the book. He’s my best mate. One day we’ll write a novel together and it’ll be truly epic.
What was the last book you read and loved?
Apart from David Burton’s book How to be Happy (Text), of course, the last book I really, really loved was Rosie Waterland’s The Anti-Cool Girl (Fourth Estate). I loved the way she balanced brutal honesty with humour.