Shirley Marr on ‘A Glasshouse of Stars’
Perth author Shirley Marr’s fourth children’s book, A Glasshouse of Stars (Puffin, May), is a semi-autobiographical middle-grade novel inspired by Marr’s experiences growing up as a first-generation Chinese–Australian migrant. Reviewer Erin Wamala said A Glasshouse of Stars, which will also be published in the US and UK later this year, is a beautiful and melancholy novel that uses magical realism to explore some big themes. She spoke to the author.
You have previously stated that this book was difficult to write because it aligns so closely with your own experiences. What led you to finally completing the novel? Why now?
Trying to write about my childhood experiences of migration has been a double-edged sword for me. On one hand I wanted to bring to light my own experience, which I think is an important story to share, but at the same time it also brought up a lot of harrowing memories. I became aware and then interested in the Own Voices movement a few years ago and, buoyed by the momentum and the courage being displayed, I felt like it was time.
Also, in a stroke of kismet I stumbled across the idea of using the second-person point of view—writing my story by letting the reader walk in my shoes—and it just fell together. In this recent climate of renewed hate and prejudice, I am more than ready to see this story come to light!
The second-person perspective is unusual; why did you choose to write this way? Did you receive any resistance from your editor and, if so, why did you persist?
I did at first write from the traditional first and third-person points of view, but they just didn’t work for me. One was too close to my own truth; the other too distant. Which left me with the idea of the second-person perspective—which I have rarely seen used outside Choose Your Own Adventure stories! But I have seen it used to great effect in other works before. I gave it a go and I just felt my entire story tumbling out of me to the point I couldn’t stop.
I knew it was a risk—who would publish something as experimental as this?—but I felt I had to honour my gut instinct. To my surprise, literary agent Gemma Cooper loved it and she signed me! While Glasshouse was being offered for acquisition, one large publisher wanted it on the premise the perspective was changed. I panicked. What if I rejected the only offer I got? But stuck to my guns and said changing it was not an option. That was me being brave. Lucky for me, my editors who eventually acquired the book loved it!
Where did the inspiration for Big Scary come from?
Big Scary, the house that expands and contracts according to her occupant’s feelings, came from a personal experience of mine! I went through a stage where I was rapidly changing homes in a very short amount of time and, at the time, I was also sleep-deprived with a baby. So instead of recognising I was moving from a large house to an even larger house to suddenly a small house and then to an even smaller one, it felt sometimes like I was in the same house that was changing around me instead! And I just thought, this is a great character for a book someday!
There are some heavy themes within the book, including mental illness and bereavement. How did you go about tackling these themes for a young audience? Does it feel like a big responsibility?
I feel that it is a duty—a public and civic duty—to include big themes in children’s books. To be conscious of it and not shy away from it. It is just a case of incorporating it in a way which is organic, sensitive and champions the rights of children. To tell a great story, but to also think that it is an opportunity to either reflect the possible issues your reader is going through and to provide them with mechanisms in which to be resilient, or an opportunity to educate.
For example, I have a character called Kevin who finds it hard to control his anger, and which he equates to the colour red. He makes friends with Meixing who is sad and equates herself to the colour blue. Kevin figures whenever he is angry to think about his friend and how the both of them form the colour purple and use it as his strength. I feel that if I didn’t include at least one important theme in a book that I’m not doing my job properly!
What would you like younger readers to take away from the novel?
I would like them to be able to have open discussions about migration, to be able to cut through the negativity they may have absorbed from the media and their environment and see it as a human issue—with human beings at the centre of it. That would make me feel like I’ve made the right decision to put myself and my own story out there.
What was the last book you read and loved?
Tiger Daughter by Rebecca Lim (A&U)! It is honestly the best book of 2021 that I’ve read so far—an unflinching and honest account of being teenagers within a migrant family and also a larger community. It is so heartening to see more stories coming from the Asian diaspora, so that the world can learn that we are not just one homogenous ‘lump’ and that there are so many cultural differences across so many Asian minority groups. It is also a learning opportunity for me too—the characters are so different to my own family, friends and community and I loved reading this story.
Photo credit: Jessica Wyld