Reading Matters 2017: Author Talks: Alison Goodman (#YAmatters @AlisonGoodman @CentreYouthLit)


Alison Goodman is the award-winning author of the New York Times bestselling duology Eon (2008) and Eona (2011), with Eon being the winner of an Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel. An earlier book, Singing the Dogstar Blues (1998), won an Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel. Her Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club (2015), the first in a trilogy of supernatural Regency adventures, was shortlisted for two Aurealis Awards: Best Fantasy Novel and Best YA Novel. Its sequel, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact (2016), won the 2016 Aurealis Award for Best YA Novel.

At the 2017 Reading Matters Conference, Goodman participated in two panels: “Invented Worlds, Real Feelings: Writing authentic teen characters” (hosted by Jessica Walton [@JessHealyWalton]), and “The Real and the Unreal: The line between fact and fantasy (hosted by Amie Kaufman [@AmieKaufman]). When asked how she reaches back to her own YA years in order to write books, Goodman said she concentrates on new experiences and emotions, which were intense and therefore hard to forget.

Left to right: Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club, US edition hardback; UK edition & US edition paperback; Australian edition.

According to Goodman, authors need to avoid instant transmission of their experiences and emotions onto paper. Instead, it should be a deliberately delayed, much considered process, in the same way that many people still favour snail mail than email or direct messaging. Before the writing of her Lady Helen series even started, Goodman spent eight months conducting full-time research on the Regency era, followed by specialist research. For example, she studied the names and addresses of shops in Regency London because Helen needs to go shopping. To truly experience what Helen would act, think and feel in her era, Goodman even travelled to England to study all about contra dancing and high tea!

“It is often readers, instead of editors and publishers, who can and will tell if authors get the details wrong.” Goodman said the logistics in made-up worlds is always the hardest. People from another world or era may describe things in their own unique ways, because their conceptualisation and measurement of their surroundings can be completely different from ours.

When asked how she decided to include certain details in her books, Goodman said the Regency era placed severe constraints on women, and she wanted to experience the emotions of women back then, when men and women were not allowed to touch, when their bonding was only through dancing and eye contact. She very much wanted to feel how her characters would notice in that world.

“There is no rush in finding your fate. Take time to explore, to look around.” Goodman’s advice applies to both teens and those writers aspiring to create and shape their teen characters. In Goodman’s books, Lady Helen withstands the pressure from her family and society and takes a break to find out what she wants. She soon realises that demons exist in London, but is unsure whether she can handle it, due to all the sexist “norms” being enforced upon young women like her.

In portraying her characters, Goodman pays specific attention to the kind of social pressure not only on young people but also in their own minds. Young women, in particular, feel a sense of duty to perform the roles that are required of them, and often take terrifying effort to handle it. Such sense of obligation forms prisons both outside and within them, and it is often difficult to recognise what is holding them back.

Commenting on fundamental change of life in her characters, Goodman said all characters have their “baggages”, things that they feel strongly about and respond to. “The emotional growth of a character is vital, and you need to make it consistent and right. Keep your character emotionally and psychologically strong, and your readers will understand.”

Left to right: Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact, US & UK edition paperback; Australian edition; US & UK edition hardpack.

When asked how historical fiction can help to tackle modern issues such as sexism, feminism and racism, Goodman said authors need to do it delicately, because “you can’t abuse history”. By granting Lady Helen the unique power to see the truths in people, Goodman is able to utilise modern sensitivity while commenting on real historical issues in her writing. Instead of being limited by her society, Helen is more open to the changes in it. She is practically a feminist in 1812, confronting issues such as science and race. “How people move through that old world is sharpened by the use of the supernatural, as both external and internal conditions of their society are contested.”

Goodman said it is fascinating to create characters with supernatural powers. “But you need to have constraints, such as Superman’s Krypton and (in most teen cases) PARENTS.” More importantly, readers need to know things at a certain level, “but you also need to leave gaps for them to fill”. Authors need to provide opportunities for reader imagination to take over. “Don’t give them all.” Finally, characters can help to provide vital information about their world through opinions and a sense of humour. Depiction of funny events can be both informing and entertaining.

Goodman said she would love to further develop the friendship between Lady Helen and her maid, not only regarding the unequal power between them, but also how they strive to survive in their respective social classes.

You can read Inside a Dog’s interview with Alison Goodman for the 2017 Reading Matters Conference here.


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