Last week when you visited the Pond, Xiaolong had four visitors; four of the authors from Underdog anthology! You hadn’t seen so many visitors at the Pond before, but the magic at the Pond felt like it was warmer and merrier with all the good company.
And it seems like today, there are four more visitors! When Xiaolong enters the Pond, leading and talking to a group of new friends, you approach to give another round of warm welcomes. (You’re getting used to this!) Behind her is an orange octopus who, upon seeing the Pond, rushes over and dives in! The water and magic of the Pond invites him, and the octopus gives a sigh of contentment. Also behind Xiaolong is an orange fox wearing a red scarf, and an orange cat wearing a red cape!
“Friend!” Xiaolong greets when she sees you. “Please meet Jes, KM, Sophie, and Stacey! They are authors from the Underdog anthology that I told you about, and they’re here to discuss their stories with us! Isn’t that exciting?”
It sure does! You help Xiaolong usher the visitors to a comfortable and sunny spot at the Pond, and listen intently to the questions that Xiaolong will ask today.
Friends, welcome back to the Pond and I hope you all are having a wonderful week so far!
Today is my second round of interviews with the authors at Underdog, an amazing #LoveOzYA anthology that I had the pleasure of reading and absolutely loved. This anthology is one of the few that really explores meaningful and relatable teen experiences, and I think teens everywhere will find a piece of themselves in this anthology.
Today, I have Jes Layton (‘Chemical Expression‘), KM Stamer-Squair (‘Remnants‘), Sophie L Macdonald (‘Breathe Me In‘), and Stacey Malacari (‘The Bees‘) joining Xiaolong and I at the Pond today! Something that all four stories have in common is that they explore tough choices that people have to make, and how these choices can define them and define their lives. The stories explore the theme of choice brilliantly, and I’m so excited to share with you all this brilliant and thought-provoking interview today.
Author Interviews with Jes Layton, KM Stamer-Squair, Sophie L Macdonald & Stacey Malacari
CW: Hi Jes, Sophie, Stacey, and KM! Our warmest welcomes to the Pond; we’re happy to have you all! For all the friends out there who don’t know much about Underdog, let’s do a quick introduction. Please introduce yourself, tell us about your story in Underdog and your favourite book!
Jes: Heyo, I’m Jes; a geek with a hat. I’m a writer, artist, cosplayer and overall good bean concerned with all things nerdy, quirky and queer. My story Chemical Expression is a short piece with quite a bit of science stuffed inside. Specifically, it’s a snapshot into how emotion and science can mix in the everyday. My favourite book is a tie (I know, cop out) between Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X.R Pan.
KM: Helllooo! I’m a writer, reader and dreamer, born in Australia but blessed with multiple citizenships. I have strong feelings about food (food is LIFE), literature (don’t we all?) and the environment. My story Remnants is about an imagined future where the outside world is inhospitable to humans. It takes the current environmental crisis and accelerates it slightly, peering forwards into the “what if?” I have loved so many books but my favourite remains strong: it’s Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. That novel rips my heart out but in the most tender, beautiful way.
Sophie: Hello! I’m Sophie. I’m an English Aussie, and I love all things dark, twisty, and a bit weird. Plus cats. My story Breathe Me In is a creepy tale about an ancient legend and the power of a story. My favourite book changes all the time, but I always come back to Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop and Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys.
Stacey: I’m a Queer writer from Perth, WA, who loves food, books, adventures and red wine equally. My story The Bees was co-authored with my partner Paris, and explores the themes of global warming, personal sacrifice, dysfunctional family and death. How far are you willing to go for the people you love? I’m a huge dystopian fan, so my favourite book is The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood.
CW: I thought all of your stories were incredibly powerful, and I loved them. Not only did you have these great characters and stories, your stories also had something powerful and meaningful to say. What was the inspiration – and motivation, if any – behind your story?
Jes: As a writer I really take to heart the idea of ‘write what you know’ as it often turns out the things I think I know the best are the things that are so rich for further exploration. So, I grew up with an ill father, and decided to write about that. I grew up queer in a small rural town, which I decided to write about, and as a writer I’m driven by the desire to tell stories with queer characters where the main complication, what it is that needs resolving–is not the characters own queerness or identity, although that informs their experience. I write what I know, but with a twist.
KM: After a year of rewarding – but exhausting – research in dystopian fiction and ecology, I had my eyes opened even further into the reality of what climate change is. I was out on the beach one evening during summer, well past dinner time, and I became alarmed when I realised I was getting sunburnt. My northern European genes have made me a particular target for UV rays, but this was crazy! I grew distressed. UV levels have increased just in my life time. If I have noticed a difference in the span of 15 years, then it made me fearful of what another 10, 15, 35 years into the future might bring. I don’t want to live in a world where I can’t go outside, and this fear propelled me to imagine a person living in this sort of future.
Sophie: Like Mina, my main character, I moved to Australia from England and, like most of us who move to a different country, I had many misconceptions surrounding what would be my new home. As I learnt more about Australian stories and culture, I became interested in the ways in which stories could be living breathing entities, and how a story can be as much a part of the land as a tree or a creature.
Stacey: My inspiration for this mostly came from Paris. There was a moment, early in our relationship, where she was sat on the balcony of my apartment, seven stories high, eating a pear and looking like she didn’t have a single worry in the world. It was beautiful. She was beautiful. I can still see it in my mind like a photograph. This became the launching point for my story, this single moment I wanted to write about forever. I always draw upon my own experiences and those of the people I love and find inspiration from books I’ve read and adventures I’ve had. My motivation again was Paris, who edited this story and pushed me to dig deeper.
CW: Your stories examine these engaging characters and their choices, and also how those choices reflect on society as a whole. What do the choices that your characters have to make say about them, society as a whole — and you as a writer?
Jes: Speaking to what I’ve said above I feel that the choices Autumn has to make feed into the reality that for queer people, queer teens, we have so much more going on inside of ourselves and in our lives than just our own identity. Teens have to make tough choices, sometimes life shaping choices that they don’t readily realise are so. The choices Autumn makes speak to this, and speak to the very serious issue and stigmatisation of drug use in Australia. It’s hard growing up with a sick parent, and when someone you love is ill you wish you could do anything to ease that pain, even if what you do isn’t necessarily safe. Yet, when you love someone, any risk is worth it. I suppose this says I’m interested in writing characters that are braver than I, even if they don’t really think they are all that brave starting off.
KM: I think the concept of choice is hugely important when considering an environmental future. It’s so easy to throw buzz words around – “climate change”, “environmental disaster”, “carbon emissions” – but they don’t necessarily create a lasting impact. They become white noise. A lot of the time, when issues feel so cataclysmically big, and you are privileged enough not to feel immediately impacted by them, you can feel powerless to do anything to stop them. Truthfully, though, I think everyone can do something. You alone may not be able to save the world, but you can actively choose to change something about your own behaviour within it. More important than the decisions my protagonist Melody makes is the fact that she is one who suffers because of the choices people before her have made. Everything is interconnected. I’m probably always going on about this, but interconnectedness is such a real thing.
Sophie: Without wishing to give too many spoilers here, there are times when we all need to decide whether to fight for ourselves as individuals, or whether we should become part of something bigger than ourselves. Mina and her mum make their choices for different reasons, but they reach a similar outcome. It could be argued that we can be stronger as part of a group than alone, but that the actions of an individual can have a domino-like effect on the rest of the world. Mina’s choices throughout the story show that she cares for those around her, and that she tries to do the right thing, even when she gets it wrong. She is willing to learn, and open to new experiences. However, similar choices from Mina’s mum may simply indicate that she doesn’t feel she has much to lose.
As a writer, I find it difficult to write a ‘straight’ story. Their choices reflect my love for an unexpected resolution, and all things mystical.
Stacey: Remi makes choices that are selfish, but she doesn’t see it like that. I think this is a running theme of our society: we all want to think we are ‘good’ and are doing the right thing. We want to believe that we are doing the best for our families and the people we love, but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we make the wrong call. Nobody likes to face that. Choices made with the best intentions can still go horribly wrong, and doing something out of love doesn’t always mean it’s the right thing to do. The Bees examines this from the personal and the wider perspective.
CW: Something that I also loved was how, across all your stories, how the story unfolds and ends may surprise the reader. (I definitely was caught off-guard, in a good way!) What do you hope your stories will inspire in your readers?
Jes: Recently I was invited to talking to some young teens about Underdog. We got to talking and I was really happy that Chemical Expression opened up the conversation about drugs and drug use with teens, as so many of them had only ever heard one side “Drugs are Evil Don’t Do Drugs”. It was really interesting, and highlighted the difference for me between rural and urban kids in terms of what they are exposed to and what they are taught. I hope that in addition to a general feeling of being seen in terms representation, my works will prompt conversation, hopefully between teens and parents, between teens and friends, between readers and themselves.
KM: I am humbled when anyone has any sort of reaction to Remnants. Good, bad (a lot of “it really scared me!”); they’re all equally valid, and amazing. Encouraging someone to think or feel something is a true work of magic. If one person walks away from the story and it makes them question something, or think about their place in the world, or the way something is conducted, then I feel this is an incredible feat, and I am very, very happy.
Sophie: I hope they enjoy it and, for those who don’t usually read that genre of story, I hope it encourages them to try other stories that are a little offbeat or creepy. I could go deeper here, but really I just want them to enjoy, and forget about the real world for a few minutes!
Stacey: I hope this story inspires emotion and thought of any kind. I’m not particular about what kind, but I’d like the reader to finish and have something resonate with them, some thought linger in their mind. To make even the smallest impact on another human through the power of story has always been a driving force behind why I write.
CW: How have the choices that you have made in your life made you the person and writer that you are today?
Jes: Not all choices are made equal. Some are meaningful, and poetic, and satisfying. Others are abrupt and selfish. Most are unremarkable, unintentional, clumsy. I could get into a lot about this as I have not made wholly good choices, especially as a teenager. For the most part I wouldn’t change things, as I would have never been able to move to Melbourne, pursue writing in the way and at the speed I have if I hadn’t of worked myself, say, into a mental breakdown. If I made better, kinder choices, I sure would have made things easier on myself and others around me, but I might not be here, it is quite the conundrum, which probably explains why philosophers are still having a hard time untangling ‘choice’.
I believe that all we have in the end are our choices, which is why fiction and writing is so powerful because, as authors, we get to choose the consequences for our characters, consequences we may not necessarily choose for ourselves.
KM: I don’t consciously think about a lot of decisions I have made in my past – we make decisions all the time, every second of every day. And I always have faith that whatever I have decided has been right, because I wouldn’t be where I am without having gone down that path. So with that blind faith, the only choices that really stick out at me are the ones where I have defiantly decided to face a fear, and do something that scares me. It pushes me into something incredible, each and every time. At uni it was the choice to pursue study overseas, and to travel alone in foreign countries. Most recently, it was adopting the title of “writer” and owning it, rather than meekly apologising for it. This has obviously been so crucial in shaping me as a writer! If you have an innate calling for something, you should never wait to be granted permission to pursue it.
Sophie: I think we are little more than the sum of our choices – with one caveat that I’ll explain in a minute. Some of my choices have been big, such as moving to a new country, swapping careers in my twenties, and then deciding to write full-time, getting married, having children, etc. Other choices seem smaller: what to do each day, how to wear my hair, what to say when someone asks me a question, etc. But those small choices can have just as big an impact on life as the grander choices.
I would also argue that perhaps we don’t choose as much as we think we do. Anyone familiar with Derren Brown’s work (and if you’re not, look up his books or TV shows – I promise he’s worth it) will know that sometimes what we think is a choice is actually quite predictable given a set of circumstances and environmental cues. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I think we are the sum of our actions, which we like to believe are driven by our own choice and free will.
Stacey: Everything happens for a reason. Even the bad stuff. Even the poor choices. The choices I’ve made have lead me to grow as a person and this is reflected in my writing. The universe has a way of guiding us, sometimes we just have to stop being so self absorbed and actually take notice.
Jes Layton is a geek with a hat, who writes about, draws, and discusses queer-nerdy things. Born on Gulidjan land, now living on Wurundjeri, Jes is the Admin Officer for the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature Office, Admin and Comms Coordinator for Express Media, a freelancer, and a YA writer/advocate. His work has been published in The Victorian Writer, Reading Victoria, Junkee, and online (under several dozen pseudonyms). Jes was an Outstanding LGBTQIA+ Short Stories Award recipient in 2018 and her short story Chemical Expression is featured in Underdog: #LoveOzYA Short Stories (2019).
Jes has appeared at several literary festivals around Melbourne discussing fanfiction, online fan culture, and her inability to keep her houseplants alive for very long. Send your condolence GIFs to @AGeekwithaHat.
K.M. Stamer-Squair is a Literary Studies graduate from Monash University. In 2017 she spent her honours year looking at the relation between anthropocentricism and environmental degradation. She dreams of nurturing a self-sustaining garden, quotes Hamlet with too much enthusiasm, and lives surrounded by piles of books.
Sophie L MacDonald
Sophie L Macdonald is an English author who uses her background in psychology to delve into the darker corners of her characters’ minds. She has a love of all things twisty, beautiful, weird, and uneasy, and will probably be a suspect if anything criminally strange happens in her local village.
She writes short stories for both print and online publications, and her debut YA dark fantasy novel is due for release by the end of the year.
Sophie lives in Brisbane with her family and other assorted animals. She denies allegations concerning deportment from England for crimes against karaoke. Sophie’s dress sense has really gone downhill since quitting the day job to write full time.
You can find her short stories in the anthologies ‘Underdog: #LoveOzYA Short Stories’, by Underdog, ‘The Evil Inside Us’, ‘Futurevision’, and ‘Obliquity’ by 1231 Publishing, as well as in ‘Seasons of Discontent’ by Needle in the Hay.
Stacey Malacari is a Queer writer from Perth who enjoys food, books, adventures and red wine equally. She wants to travel the world with her partner: writing in and exploring as many places as possible.