You’re sitting by the Pond, talking to Amina about her travels across distant lands and the many different magical beings she’s met, when you hear Xiaolong calling to you in the distance.
You know by the sound of her calling your name that there’s probably a visitor at the Pond today. So when you turn away to see her, you notice that it isn’t just a visitor – there are four visitors trailing behind her! You’ve never seen so many visitors at the Pond before.
“Friend, come meet my new friends!” she calls to you.
You get up, and shuffle over. There’s a meerkat wearing a blue plaid shirt, a red panda wearing glasses, an otter wearing a red shirt, and a bunny wearing a black shirt! They were chatting among themselves, but now they’re waving over at you, introducing themselves.
“These are four of the twelve authors that contributed to the Underdog anthology! Remember how I told you about the book? I loved it so much that I had to ask them to come and visit me so we could talk about it more!”
That sounds like a lovely idea, and a nice way to spend your day. You help Xiaolong welcome the visitors to the Pond, help them make themselves comfortable by the Pond, and listen as Xiaolong asks them big questions about the book.
Hello friends, and welcome back to The Quiet Pond!
As you can see, today we have some very special guests! Please give the warmest of welcomes to four of the twelve incredible contributors of Underdog, an amazing YA anthology! I absolutely loved this anthology and all its incredible and diverse stories; some stories made me laugh, some stories reminded me of love and why we love, and some stories broke my heart. At first, I had just wanted to interview my amazing friend Jes, one of the contributors of Underdog, but things happened — and now I’m interviewing all twelve! Exciting!
Today, I have Michael Earp (‘Meet and Greet‘), Sofia Cassanova (‘The Gap Between Us‘), Tobias Madden (‘Variation‘), and Vivian Wei (‘The Chinese Menu of the Afterlife‘) joining Xiaolong and I at the Pond today! A common thing in these four stories is that the story explores relationships; something that’s really important to all of us, and certainly so for teenagers who are going through formative and life-changing experiences.
And now, without further ado, I hope you will enjoy reading this insightful and wonderful interview.
Author Interviews with Michael Earp, Sofia Casanova, Tobias Madden & Vivian Wei
CW: Hi Michael, Sofia, Tobias, and Vivian! A big welcome to the Pond; it’s great to have you! For all the friends out there who aren’t familiar with what Underdog is about, please introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about your story in Underdog, and what is your favourite book!
Michael: Hi CW! Thanks for having us (ALL of us!). I’m a writer and a bookseller who as worked with Children’s and YA books pretty much my entire adult life. Half that time as a sales representative for a children’s publisher and the other half as a kid’s specialist bookseller. I’m currently at The Little Bookroom in Melbourne which is Australia’s oldest children’s specialist bookstore. Underdog is my first time being published in a book! But I’ve got another story coming out in June in a collection I edited, Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories.
My story in Underdog, Meet and Greet, is a queer literary meet cute set at Melbourne Writers Festival. It’s queer, and adorable, and adorably queer.
My favourite book? I’d have to say ‘The Book Of Everything’ by Guus Kuijer. It’s a middle grade book by a Dutch author that I re-read every year or so, whenever I need an emotional boost.
Sofia: Hi CW! Thanks for having me on The Quiet Pond. I’m a writer, editor, and blogger from Sydney and I currently work in publishing. I’ve had my work published in Junkee, Meanjin and I was the managing editor of Chattr, an online young adult publication. Underdog has been a dream and I’m so grateful to be a part of this anthology.
‘The Gap Between Us’ is about two teens who go on a road trip on the Great Ocean Road as a last hurrah before their paths diverge. It’s bittersweet, full of friendship and love, and it touches on mental health, failure and the pressures of university and life.
My all time favourite book has to be The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s gorgeous, heartbreaking and lyrical. However my most recent favourite is The Bride Test by Helen Hoang. It’s so so good and has Vietnamese and autistic rep and I can’t stop thinking about it.
Tobias: Hello CW! What a treat it is to be here at the Quiet Pond! I’m a writer, editor and now publisher of YA fiction. I spent the last 10 years performing in musicals around Australia, but I’m taking some time out at the moment to focus on writing. I was lucky enough to publish, edit, and contribute to Underdog: #LoveOzYA Short Stories. This project has been a dream of mine since 2017, so I am beyond thrilled that our stories are finally out in the world!
My Underdog story, ‘Variation’, is about a teenage ballet dancer growing up in a small country town, where his dreams make him very different from everyone around him. It’s about identity and the challenges of accepting the parts of ourselves that scare us the most.
Favourite book? I literally can’t haha. Favourite grown-up book is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Favourite YA book is probably Illuminae by Aussie legends Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Favourite MG (aside from Harry Potter, which obviously trumps everything) is Nevermoor by another Aussie, Jessica Townsend.
Vivian: Hey there CW! A big thank you for having us! I’m currently a university student studying architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney. Underdog is my first time being published which is SUPER exciting (and a childhood dream of mine since forever- but I didn’t ever think it would come true this early)
My story featured in Underdog is ‘The Chinese Menu for the Afterlife’ which is a journey of understanding grief, culture and identity through the means of traditional Chinese food, following my Grandfather’s funeral.
Just one favourite book?! My most recent favourite is ‘A Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ by Aimee Bender. An all-time favourite has to be ‘The Wall and the Wing’ by Laura Ruby. My childhood favourites on the other hand is another conversation haha!
CW: While reading your stories, I felt like the stories were very personal – which is something that I loved and enabled me to effortlessly connect to your characters. Did you draw from personal experiences? What was the inspiration behind your story in Underdog?
Michael: Yes, I was been inspired by my own book-geek life. I got the idea for Meet and Greet after spending the day at Melbourne Writers Festival, meeting one of my own literary idols, David Levithan, having him sign about 20 books for me, then going out for hot chocolate and hot chips with friends. It was such a warm, cosy Melbourne experience that I knew I could make a story of it. Enter Cooper and Brodie. I basically wrote the cuteness I wanted in my own life.
Sofia: While I didn’t draw from personal experience, I drew from some of the emotions I had while struggling with the pressures of university and my failing mental health, especially having grown up in a household that wasn’t aware of mental health disorders. The protagonist Lien, a Vietnamese-Australian, suffers from depression and while her story about finding herself is her own, the frustration and guilt she feels is partly me.
Tobias: My story is half personal experience and half vast exaggeration. I grew up dancing in a country town, so I understand all the pressures that come with choosing to live a different life to everyone around you. But apart from that, the plot is completely fabricated (I was certainly never good enough to go to the Australian Ballet School haha!). I wanted to draw a contrast between two characters who deal with their identity in very different ways. Identity, sexuality, masculinity, and ‘belonging’ are things that are very close to my heart.
Vivian: I’ve definitely drawn from personal experiences. I’ve struggled to embrace the Asian side of my culture, especially being an ‘ABC’- Australian born Chinese and even more so growing up in a country town and only being surrounded by everything BUT my own culture. I had just moved to Sydney when my grandfather passed, so we returned back to China for the funeral and the culture shock along with grief struck me with the realisation that I had lost a chance to learn about the rich history of my culture but also how important it was to my identity. Writing this story helped me understand so much about my past and by using food as a lens to see into my culture I learned to love this aspect of my life that I had once desperately tried to disassociate myself from.
CW: A theme that emerged across your stories was how relationships can impact us and how we take the next step in our lives. What do relationships mean to you as a writer, and how have relationships in your life shaped your writing?
Michael: Ain’t this question a can-o-worms! Relationships of all kinds are vital to me, as a person and as a writer. What I love to explore most in my writing is interpersonal relationships and how they play out in everyday actions and interactions. But the people in my life also shape how and when I write. I’ve been in relationships where I’ve struggled to write because of time, or other emotional barriers, and I’ve been in ones where I’m actively encouraged to put the work in, with honest feedback (sometimes brutal but justified). Somehow, each of these find their way into my work, even if they’re just the shadow of a ghost.
Sofia: It’s funny when you think about relationships because each one is so different. As a writer, I like to focus on the unique interactions between characters and how their relationship grows over time. I also like to sometimes start with best friends who have their code words and nicknames and they visit each other’s houses like second homes. What I’ve noticed is friendships are often the side plot in YA and I wanted this story to focus on how healing a friendship can be, especially between two girls from very different backgrounds.
Tobias: Relationships are everything. In terms of writing, I love creating beautiful and often atypical friendships. I am blessed with wonderful, quirky friendships of my own that I can draw upon for inspiration. The friendships you have as a teenager literally shape the adult you become, so I think it’s incredibly important to explore these relationships in YA fiction. I also love writing about LOVE, because it truly makes the world go round. I especially enjoy writing about first love through the eyes of a teenager, because it is confusing and overwhelming and messy and wonderful.
Vivian: I think relationships are so important in every aspect of someone’s life, humans thrive off of interaction! That being said, I think writing has helped me to understand and express my relationships. This definitely comes from growing up Asian-Australian and having the struggle of expressing emotions to family members which would then compensate in other relationships and I would OVERSHARE to friends or people I barely knew. So being able to write from a character who can work through these emotions bit by bit has helped me to understand my own growth and develop my personal relationships in life!
CW: Something that I loved about your stories was that your stories were led by characters that we don’t often see in mainstream media — specifically queer characters and characters of colour. How have your own identities shaped your story?
Michael: I was once asked by someone I was dating, “Why do you always write gay characters?” To which I replied, “This may surprise you, but I am a gay man.” I can’t deny my own queer identity and nor do I want to. If I’m honest, I don’t actively seek out queerness in what I write, but it tends to feature heavily because I’m so engaged with it. I do write non-queer characters from time to time, but more often than not, when a character presents themselves to me in my writing, they’re queer. And just like I’m okay with being queer myself, I’m okay with my characters being queer. I’m not going to try and change them
Sofia: I can’t recall a book from high school I read that had a person of colour as the protagonist, especially one that was Vietnamese; this explains why I never connected with stories as much as I do now with the multitude of Asian-inspired works being published. My identity as a biracial Australian means I’m well versed in Italian cooking and Vietnamese drama shows. I’m also well versed in achieving high grades and holding grudges. Which is why there’s something so special about reading a scene with a tea ceremony, or a mum slicing jack fruit in the kitchen, or the smell of soy sauce and rice. It’s the small details that are heartwarming and it’s what I’d love to be able to write more about.
Tobias: When I was a teenager, I struggled with my sexuality. I was really excited to write a character (Kyle) who was the opposite of me as a teen. Someone who was one hundred percent comfortable with who he was as a person. It was so refreshing to see the world through Kyle’s eyes. I often wonder what my high school existence would have been like if I’d accepted my sexuality sooner (and how that would have influenced my adult life as a proud gay man), so it was really interesting to examine these ideas in my story.
Vivian: Reflecting back on the community that I grew up in, I remember how different I felt around people. I would bring Chinese lunches that “smelled funny” and weird snacks that looked nothing like tiny teddies or shapes packets.
Lately, there’s been a growing movement in the media that’s letting us embrace our Asian culture and I’m so happy that I get to be part of this moment. We’re learning to talk about our feelings, we’re learning to feel comfortable about our differences, we’re reminiscing online about funny things our parents would say to us as children. I would never have imagined things to be this way or for me to be able to relate so personally to such small moments.
I want to keep being part of sharing these personal stories and pave the way for younger children to grow up without having to struggle to find someone in the media that they can can look up to.
CW: What relationship(s) are important to you personally, and how have they shaped you?
Michael: I have been through quite a lot in the last 2 (or maybe 10) years. What I’ve come to learn is how important friends are. Not only because they’ve been there for me when things are falling apart around me, or even when I’m just falling apart around them, but also how it feels to be able to return that favour. And one thing that I’ve learned the hard way, is that in all my relationships, romantic or otherwise, what I want most of all is honesty. Without it nothing is real, and then what’s the point? I’m also trying to build genuine connection with my family. I basically want to fully embody my own life, which means engaging meaningfully with those who share it with me.
Sofia: Mum used to tell me to hang out with the smart kids at school so they’ll rub off on me (thanks Mum). But what she also said is be friends with those who care about you. I’ve been so lucky to have a group of friends who would call me when I didn’t show up to school, tell me I’ll be okay, throw a surprise party for me that I was late to (yes, I was two hours late). They shaped me into a better person, and I’m so happy these friendships have continued into adulthood. My family have also been fundamental in my growth as a person, especially my mum who is honestly my idol. And of course, my partner Callum who pushes me out of my comfort zone and has shown me I can be loved and deserve to be loved. All these people I hold close and treasure because without them, I wouldn’t be where I am.
Tobias: I remember sitting down at my favourite spot in London a couple of years ago and thinking about this exact question. In the end, I realised that every single relationship I’ve ever had has contributed to who I am in some way. And that includes family, friends, boyfriends, teachers, students, colleagues, and everyone in between. Some relationships were/are beautiful, and others were toxic and awful. But I am so grateful for everyone who has entered my life—whether it’s for a week, a few years, or a lifetime—because everyone has brought something invaluable into my world.
I certainly wouldn’t be the man I am today without my parents, my brother and my best friends. And by the time this blog post is published, I will be married to the man of my dreams! My husband, Daniel, is my favourite person on the planet, and he inspires me every day. He gives me the courage to pursue my dreams, so it’s no exaggeration to say that Underdog wouldn’t have happened without his support and encouragement.
Vivian: They say that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”, meaning that the people you surround yourself with constantly add to shaping who you are. I think every relationship is important to me whether it was/is past, present or future, good or bad because every interaction will help me grow as a person. In saying that, I’ve learned a lot about who I need and value in my day to day life, so I treasure my family ever so dearly. My closest friends, especially my uni friends who I see five to six times a week, all add so much spark and joy into my life and have helped me to feel comfortable with who I am or support me in dreams I want to pursue. Each one of these moments I’ve shared with people have gotten me to where I am today!
The book industry has claimed Michael’s career. Between being a children’s and YA specialist bookseller and a sales and marketing representative for a children’s publisher, he has passionately worked with Children’s and YA books for more than half his life. A teacher that never taught because he couldn’t bring himself to leave the book industry, he’s a bit of a fanboy of Queer YA.
His writing has appeared in The Victorian Writer and Aurealis. He also established the #AusQueerYA tumblr to coincide with the #LoveOzYA campaign. He is the editor of Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories, due out in 2019.
Tobias is a writer, editor, and proud Hufflepuff. Originally from Ballarat, Tobias worked as a singer/dancer/actor for 10 years, touring Australia and New Zealand with musicals such as Mary Poppins, CATS, and Guys and Dolls. In recent times, he shifted his attention to the world of writing and publishing. In 2017, he edited an indie anthology called WOLVES, and typeset another, called Seasons of Discontent, both published by Needle in the Hay. Underdog is Tobias’s first commercial undertaking as an editor.
Tobias’s dream was to create a platform for aspiring young adult fiction writers to showcase their work, giving them a chance to be seen, heard, and noticed. With this in mind, he began working on the Underdog project, which led to the establishment of Underdog Books and the humble beginnings of the Underdog anthology.
Sofia Casanova is a writer, editor and blogger based in Sydney. She works in publishing, writes young adult and speculative fiction, and can always be found with a cup of tea in her hand. Her writing has been featured on Meanjin, Junkee, and she frequently tweets @sofiaecasanova.
Vivian is currently studying architecture at the University of Technology, Sydney. She enjoys all things in shades of yellow and loves exploring the arts and design world. In her spare time, Vivian likes to take photos of friends and food — but mostly the latter. The Chinese Menu for the Afterlife is her first published short story.