Steph Bowe burst onto the scene in 2010 (at the tender age of 16) with her debut novel Girl Saves Boy. Four years later she released her sophomore novel All This Could End and now she’s back with her latest offering, Night Swimming. I spoke to Steph Bowe about writing what was first titled as GOAT TRAGEDY, families in YA, and the importance of the queer love story in Night Swimming.
Anjulie: Your debut novel Girl Saves Boy was published seven years ago. Looking back on it now, what was it like being a teen author?
Steph: It was incredibly surreal and nerve-wracking and exciting and overwhelming. I didn’t expect that everything would work out well – I knew that years of rejection was more likely. So when I got a book deal, I was a little unprepared. But it was an amazing experience – to be able to work with an editor and a publisher, to be treated as a professional writer and have opportunities to develop my skills, to appear at festivals and visit schools and be interviewed… it was a really steep learning curve, and I had to overcome a lot of shyness, but it was ultimately really rewarding and worthwhile. I’ve made so many friends and had so many awesome experiences in the last seven years, it’s impossible for me to imagine my life if I weren’t an author.
Anjulie: Is there any difference between publishing as a teen and publishing as an adult?
Steph: It’s tricky for me to say because I don’t know what it’s like to publish a debut novel as an adult. As an adult publishing novels, I’ve already experienced being published before. I think your debut novel being published is the most nerve-wracking and the most exciting no matter your age, because everything is new. Maybe being older and having other professional experience makes it easier, but I’m not sure.
I feel a lot more confident publishing as an adult, because I now have a lot of experience talking about my writing. I feel much more comfortable doing public speaking and promoting the novel. I still worry a lot that people won’t like the novel or that it will sell poorly, but I think that’s common regardless of age or how established you are as a writer.
It was also more common when I was younger for people to be dismissive of me and my work. I really dislike the idea that young people are lesser writers, but it’s something that some people still believe, unfortunately. I don’t feel I have to prove myself as much as an adult writer. That might be because of my age, or because I’ve now been writing and publishing for several years, or just having more confidence and more experience. There’s no longer a worry of ‘what if I was only published because of the novelty of my age?’.
As a reader, I don’t care how old the author is, though obviously I think it’s awesome when young people are published. I would encourage anyone interested in becoming an author to pursue it, regardless of their age. I never found being young to be a barrier, however I also don’t think being published as a teenager matters in the long run. If you are a teenaged writer, don’t put pressure on yourself to publish by a certain age – it’s possible, but a lot of luck is involved along with hard work, and the best thing about writing is always the writing. So focus on enjoying it, and don’t feel dismayed by rejection – everyone is on their own path.
Anjulie: How did you get the idea for Night Swimming?
Steph: Sometime in April 2015, I woke up in the middle of the night with what I thought was a genius idea, which is a relatively common occurrence for me (though the ideas never seem genius in the morning). I wrote it messily on a notebook near my bed, then fell asleep. I did not recall this in the morning, but found the notebook. I had written in very large, messy letters ‘GOAT TRAGEDY’. I have no idea where that came from, or what I originally intended to happen. What tragedy was supposed to befall the goat? I’ll never know, but after that point I started thinking about writing a story featuring goats (…and started watching a lot of goat videos on YouTube). Stanley, Kirby’s pet goat in the novel, was the eventual result, and the story began to grow from this idea of a girl living on a goat farm.
There were so many other things that had happened in my life or ideas that had percolated in my head that naturally started to fit into the story. The aspect most directly drawn from my life was Kirby’s grandfather suffering with dementia, which was inspired by someone in my family being diagnosed with dementia. My life changed a lot in a short period of time as a result, and I started thinking a lot about what makes us who we are, and I really wanted to explore dealing with that in the novel as it’s something that so many people experience.
Anjulie: It’s been a few years since your second novel was released. Was writing Night Swimming difficult?
Steph: Night Swimming was actually relatively easy to write – I had a much tougher time writing my second novel, All This Could End. It just took me a long time to get to writing it – I wrote a couple of other manuscripts in between, in a very stop-start way, and they weren’t quite right. Once I started writing Night Swimming, writing became fun again.
Anjulie: The story is set in a rural Australian town. How important is the setting to Night Swimming?
Steph: I think the commonest setting in Australian novels, after Sydney or Melbourne, is a country town. Rural Australia has a history of being very romanticised in our fiction. So I wanted to reference that literary tradition, but also represent small-town life in a realistic way. For me, that meant representing the true diversity of a small town. I also wanted to capture the variety of different ways young people feel about their home towns. Being from a small town in the country informs so much about Kirby (the protagonist) and Clancy (her best friend), including their goals and dreams and perspective on life, but in different ways. So the setting is central; it creates a lot of conflict in the story, as Kirby grapples with the fact that she loves her home town and doesn’t want anything to change, but finds life changing around her.
Anjulie: Unlike many YA novels, Night Swimming puts an emphasis on family. How important is the representation of families in teen fiction?
Steph: As much as I love YA novels where the parents are conveniently ‘disappeared’ so the teens can take centre stage (like when they’re saving the world!), I think representing families is really important in YA. Family is important to so many young readers, and exploring family dynamics creates realism and depth and so many more story possibilities. I think representing diverse families is particularly important – there isn’t one normal or default family model, and for young people to be able to see families like theirs represented in fiction is vital. As writers, we can sometimes default to what we most often see in fiction – white, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, cis-gender, middle-class characters – and that can extend to families – the ‘nuclear’ family with a married stay-at-home mum and working dad plus kids. In reality, people are far more diverse and families are far more varied. So I try to reflect that in my writing.
Anjulie: One of the central threads of the novel is the f/f romance between Kirby and Iris. Can you tell us a bit more about these two characters and their relationship?
Steph: Kirby is an apprentice carpenter who lives with her mum on a goat farm, and loves her small town, her family and her pet goat, Stanley. She is often drawn into ill-advised money-making schemes by her musical theatre-obsessed best friend Clancy. Iris is the mandolin-playing, pun-making, always fabulously dressed new girl in town, whose parents’ restaurant has just opened across the road from the restaurant belonging to Clancy’s parents. Their relationship is complicated by Clancy being infatuated with Iris and Kirby being perpetually socially awkward. It’s my favourite romance that I’ve written. I love all types of love stories (and I approached writing it in the same way I would a boy/girl romance), but I think representation of queer love stories is really important in YA.
Anjulie: What are some of your favourite #LoveOzYA queer novels?
Steph: I just finished reading two amazing Australian YA novels, both of which feature queer protagonists: The Flywheel by Erin Gough and The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis. I also love Clancy of the Undertow by Christopher Currie, and About A Girl by Joanne Horniman (which was probably the first Australian YA novel I read which featured two girls falling in love, and is beyond gorgeous).
Anjulie: What would you say to queer teen writers out there who want to become authors?
Steph: Your stories are important, and they are stories only you can write. I think far too often young people’s opinions and writing can be dismissed on the basis of their youth, which is completely wrong – the stories of young people count just as much as those of older people. Everyone matters, and everyone has a unique viewpoint. And that’s especially true of young writers who are marginalised: the stories and perspectives of queer teen writers are really needed. There’s still a lot of homogeneity in writing and publishing, so we really need that next generation of diverse writers to come in and change that (and for the established writers to make room for that, and the industry as a whole to support them).
So, write as much as you possibly can. Write the stories that you want to read and that you feel inspired to write. Read as much and as widely as you can (and watch films and TV, and read comics, and listen to music, and seek out everything that inspires you). Don’t focus on the publishing part or whether there’s a market for what you’re writing – just write the best work you can, and be true to yourself. Always keep an eye out for opportunities for young writers and for diverse writers – there are more and more of these available, and things like mentorships early in your career can make such a difference. Creating a network with other writers (online or in person) is so important – writing can be lonely, and having support and people to ask for feedback can help motivate you. Fight self-doubt. Know that your stories are needed – and that they may someday mean a lot to young, marginalised readers, who deserve to see themselves and their realities reflected in fiction.
Anjulie: And lastly, what is essential to a Steph Bowe novel?
Steph: I feel that humour and a fair bit of quirkiness is always inevitable. I do sometimes try to be serious but I can’t seem to avoid some silliness. There is always comic relief – usually in the form of a wacky best friend, sometimes in the form of a wacky pet. And I love pop culture references and writing about tricky family dynamics and adorable romance and swimming at night.
Anjulie: Thank you for joining us!
About Night Swimming:
Steph Bowe is back. Night Swimming is a love story with a twist, and a whole lot of heart.
Imagine being the only two seventeen-year-olds in a small town. That’s life for Kirby Arrow—named after the most dissenting judge in Australia’s history—and her best friend Clancy Lee, would-be musical star.
Clancy wants nothing more than to leave town and head for the big smoke, but Kirby is worried: her family has a history of leaving. She hasn’t heard from her father since he left when she was a baby. Shouldn’t she stay to help her mother with the goat’s-milk soap-making business, look after her grandfather who suffers from dementia, be an apprentice carpenter to old Mr Pool? And how could she leave her pet goat, Stanley, her dog Maude, and her cat Marianne?
But two things happen that change everything for Kirby. She finds an article in the newspaper about her father, and Iris arrives in town. Iris is beautiful, wears crazy clothes, plays the mandolin, and seems perfect, really, thinks Kirby. Clancy has his heart set on winning over Iris. Trouble is Kirby is also falling in love with Iris…
Where you can find Night Swimming: