Australian author AJ Betts, who speaks at the Bookworm Literary Festival on Tuesday (Mar 24) is the author of three young adult fiction novels: ShutterSpeed (2008), Wavelength (2010), and Zac and Mia (2013). Betts is also a teacher, public speaker, and avid cyclist. She’s currently working on her next novel set in the future in Tasmania. beijingkids Managing Editor Sijia Chen sits down with Betts to find out more.

Which books have made a deep impression on you? [As a kid], I read everything I could get my hands on, from Mr. Men books to the back of cereal boxes. The most influential [books] would be Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, and anything by Robin Klein and Roald Dahl.

What was the very first story you wrote? When I was 11, I wrote about two survivors of a shipwreck in an inflatable raft who were being chased by a shark. It was a comedy! In my teenage years, I either wrote silly comedies (about haunted houses and exploding cane toads) or dark thrillers.

Tell us about the origins of Zac and Mia. I’ve been working as a teacher on an adolescent cancer ward in Perth for seven years, but I never imagined I’d write about [this topic]. It was always too close and too real. But in early 2009, I was intrigued with the idea of being stuck in a room in isolation … with your mum! At the same time, one of my students asked me to write a love story, so I wondered if I could put the two ideas together. That’s where the first chapter came from, and from there my characters Zac and Mia were born.

What’s your favorite scene from the book? Was it also your favorite one to write? The first “knock, tap” scene at the end of Chapter One; it feels quite magical, as if a simple interaction can hold such promise. My favorite scenes to write are in the middle section, especially the scene with Mia in the bath (this makes me cry every time I read it) and the scene with Mia and Bec in the house. I can’t say any more!

You’ve spoken before about the process of inhabiting characters as you put them down on paper, like cranking up “angry” tunes or sitting quietly in tears while writing Mia’s scenes from Zac and Mia. Do you tend to do this with your characters or was Mia special? I do feel I have to experience the feelings of each of my characters before I can write from them. I need to imagine myself in their scenes the way an actor does onstage, which means I’m often using hand gestures and facial expressions as I write (I get some strange looks when I’m writing in cafes). I also read everything aloud, working through each line until it sounds or feels authentic. In Zac and Mia, Zac was a very easy character for me to inhabit. Mia was more challenging, as her behavior is more extreme and unpredictable. My next book involves a girl on a journey through the wilderness, so I recently spent three weeks hiking in Tasmanian forests. After a while, I could imagine the things she might find amusing or frightening and the things she would say.

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Photos: The Bookworm Literary Festival

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