Six Degrees from the City: Episode 6 – Oliver Phommavanh
Six Degrees from the City is a podcast about writing in Western Sydney, hosted by the writer and critic Fiona Wright. Each episode features a writer based in or hailing from the western suburbs of Sydney, one of the most diverse – as well as most maligned – areas in Australia, and the site of some of our most interesting and challenging literature and conversations. This episode features the children’s author and occasional comedian, Oliver Phommavanh.
Oliver has written seven books for children, including Thai-Riffic, which was named an honour book in the Koala Awards, Con-Nerd, which is a Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book, and, most recently, Super Con-Nerd and The Other Christy. Oliver lives in Cabramatta – where he also worked as a primary school teacher before turning to writing full-time – and many of his books are set here or in surrounding suburbs. His writing is funny and charming, and populated by weird kids, nerds and the children of migrants, all of whom are trying to find their feet and their friends in difficult environments.
I was never the popular kid. I mean, sure people knew who I was, but they thought I was annoying, they thought I was just a class clown who was amusing for the classroom time, but no one actually wanted to be my friend, per se. So you know that feeling of wanting to belong, not even being like the cool kids, but even I would settle for, you know, the C-team, or even the D-team! [laughs] I don’t have to be ultra cool, just 25 per cent cool I would have settled for! It’s kind of funny, because I always wanted to write books for the kids who did feel left-of-field, because I find that, I’m still going to hit kids in general anyway, but I really wanted especially to have a voice for those kids who think they’re weird, think they’re strange, and there’s always going to be kids like that. There’s a tendency sometimes for a classroom to sort of socially rank themselves, and they know who’s popular, who’s not so popular, and which kids to pick on, which kids to not pick on and that kind of stuff. I wanted to be there, from the outside in, and talking about those kids who think they’re weird, but at the end of the day, I always say, as clichéd as it sounds, if you be yourself you will draw other people towards you for yourself. And naturally I did have friends, but they were all weird just like me, which is perfect… I think kids, I don’t think they want a whole lot of friends, they just want one or two friends, that’s all they need. A couple of friends that they can cling on to. And that was me in a nutshell. When those kids were away it was a very long day.
When I first started writing, I wanted to be out there, wacky, sort of funny for the sake of funny, but one of my biggest influences is Morris Gleitzman, who you know, he tackles all these issues about war, even refugees and things like that, but he does it in a way where it is definitely an overarching issue and theme, but it’s always told from the kid’s point of view, and sometimes from a kid’s point of view, the issues themselves are not as major as something like that, it’s actually a bit more closer than that. And so for me, I really wanted to have that become the forefront…
I guess growing up, there wasn’t really anyone out there that had already sort of… there weren’t any trailblazers out there yet, if that makes sense. When I was doing research for Thai-riffic, I wanted to get a book deal, and I was looking for Asian-Australian characters out there, and there were hardly any. It was quite lacking… I really do get a kick out of visiting schools where the kids are Asian, and then they look at me and go, oh, it can be done. If I wanted to be a writer or an artist or a singer, there are people out there that I can sort of hear and go, ok, I want to be just like them. So it’s really cool. It’s something that I never take for granted. I think it’s something that really makes this work worthwhile for me.
Acknowledgements and links
Six Degrees from the City is supported by the Crown Packer Foundation, the Sydney Review of Books and the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. Music is by Phil Faddoul. Special thanks to Ben Denham for production assistance.
Fiona Wright: Hello, and welcome to Six Degrees from the City, a podcast about writing and Western Sydney. I’m your host, Fiona Wright, and I’m delighted to be talking in this episode to Oliver Phommavanh.
Oliver is a children’s author – and stand-up comedian – who has written seven books, including Thai-Riffic, which was named an honour book in the Koala Awards, Con-Nerd, which is a Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book, and, most recently, Super Con-Nerd and The Other Christy.
Oliver lives in Cabramatta, and grew up in nearby Canley Vale – where he also worked as a primary school teacher before turning to writing full-time. He joined me to talk about embarrassing families, classroom politics, and how to force down bitter melon soup. Here’s Oliver reading from The Other Christy.
[Oliver Phommavanh reads from The Other Christy]
FW: I’m so glad that you read from The Other Christy, because I really loved that book!
Oliver Phommavanh: Yeah, same. You know, it’s kind of funny, I was so hesitant to write a book from a girl’s perspective, and then I finally made the leap, and now, the next three books that I am working on, including a sequel to The Other Christy, are all girl books! Which is fantastic!
FW: I loved it because it’s so clever, I mean, even from the title, The Other Christy, that has that alterity built into it, and who is othered in the story is a thing that’s constantly shifting.
OP: Yeah, that’s right. The sequel is going to be called Another Other Christy, because there’s going to be another Christy thrown into the mix and so those dynamics will change as well. I’m looking forward to reliving it, to trying that as well.
FW: So in this first one, The Other Christy, you just introduced us to Christy Number One, who’s the ‘Other Christy’ at the start of the book. But the other ‘Other Christie’ is the fancy, rich white girl…
OP: She’s very popular, she’s very loud. She’s always the girl who distracts the class, and so the teacher naturally says, Christie stop doing that! So when we talk about Christie in the class, we’re talking about that Christie, not the Other Christy, the one who never makes a noise, never makes a fuss.
FW: I love the kind of, the politicking of that.
OP: I love writing about classroom politics, I guess. That’s one of the things I really enjoyed about being a teacher, being at the coalface and seeing thirty different personalities in a class. They’re not all going to be friends, there’s going to be some rifts and some arguments and some tensions around them. So this is kind of loosely based on a story where I went into a school, and there were two girls named Sarah, who were both best friends, but they had different spellings. And so I wondered about, what if these two girls in my class became best friends over the course of the year, and what would cause them to become best friends.
FW: And of course, I loved that one of the things that helps them become best friends is baking!
FW: While I was reading the book I did have to stop and bake, twice! [laughs]
OP: That’s cool! That’s not the first time I’ve heard that, actually! It’s really funny, because my wife, she loves to bake. And so I’ve sort of become, like Christy to her Aunty Mayly, who’s the expert baker, I’m helping her out and doing all of these things. And yeah, it’s wonderful. I’m a big baker as well. Well, when I say big baker, I mean, baker’s assistant, actually. I just help her eat it, and clean up afterwards!
FW: I call it procrastibaking.
OP: Oh, nice! Ok, that’s actually a productive one, actually, because at least you get to eat something afterwards!
FW: Yeah! And I mean, the joke I always make is that I feel like it’s the exact opposite of writing, in a way, because when you are baking something, you’ve got a recipe, and you know what to put in, in what quantities, and what to do, and you’re guaranteed to get something at the end. But I feel like often when you’re writing, you know you’re making something, but you don’t know what it is, you’re not 100 per cent sure what the ingredients are. You just kind of chuck stuff in a bowl and hope that it… rises.
OP: And you can’t Google it to see if you’re doing it right or not, I suppose! I know how you feel, I’ve had days like that as well, actually.
FW: I did want to ask you about your background as a primary school teacher. How long did you do that for?
OP: I taught full-time for one year, and the reason behind that was because I did my Bachelor of Communication in Writing and Publishing at the University of Western Sydney, and I found out one thing. The one thing I’ve learnt from that degree is that there’s no guarantee of success in being a writer. And so I needed a back-up. And I was leaning towards doing a Dip. Ed. I was going to be a high school teacher, and then I thought, you know what? I might get bashed. [laughs]. Having been in a high school, a rough sort of school in the suburbs, I realised that… I’m going to do primary school teaching because at least I’m bigger than most of the kids! And so I did that, and I just ended up loving it. I fell into it so deeply, and I think that gave me the courage to actually… pursue writing. Because I had a back-up job now. So after one year I just quit. My principal was kind of devastated, and asked, why would you quit after one year? And I thought, well, I really wanted to give writing a go. I didn’t want to let it go, and the plan was always going to be, part-time teacher to pay the bills and all the admin stuff, and then writing was going to be my main passion. But I guess I was really thankful actually that I did do teaching, because until that point, I wanted to write for adults. And so a lot of my writing in university was very dark, it was very satirical, and I did stand-up comedy back then as well. So it was kind of on the borderline of wanting to write a sitcom or a show or that kind of thing. And it wasn’t until I became a primary school teacher that I realised, you know, maybe I should write for kids? Because I’m still a big kid myself, maybe I should give it a go. And I haven’t looked back since then.
FW: That’s amazing. I spoke to Felicity Castagna a couple of episodes ago, she was a teacher for a time too, and I’ve always thought she writes young men so well, because she spent so long in a boys’ school. And I wonder if that experience too kind of gave you insight into how kids speak?
OP: Yeah. I mean, that’s probably the only thing I miss about teaching. I don’t miss the reports, the assessments, the meetings, but I miss being in the coalface, with kids who don’t have a filter. They’re really raw. They’ll say what they want, and they’ll crush you, but at other times you know they’re being frank and honest. So yes, that’s the one thing I sort of picked up on, from observing kids as a teacher. I think that did actually give me the confidence to actually be able to write from a girl’s perspective in that way too.
FW: That’s so interesting. And I think too, the other thing that I found fascinating about that is that so many of your characters are the weird kids. Especially the nerds. The outcasts, the lonely – I mean, in The Other Christy, Christy kind of has these drifters in the playground who she goes along to and consoles, and gives treats to… And I was wondering about that interest, if there’s something about those sorts of characters that just lends themselves to narrative or…
OP: Yeah. I mean, for me, I always wanted to be the voice for the weird kids, I guess. Because I was weird myself.
FW: Same here.
OP: Exactly. I was never the popular kid. I mean, sure people knew who I was, but they thought I was annoying, they thought I was just a class clown who was amusing for the classroom time, but no one actually wanted to be my friend, per se. So you know that feeling of wanting to belong, not even being like the cool kids, but even I would settle for, you know, the C-team, or even the D-team! [laughs] I don’t have to be ultra cool, just 25 per cent cool I would have settled for! It’s kind of funny, because I always wanted to write books for the kids who did feel left-of-field, because I find that, I’m still going to hit kids in general anyway, but I really wanted especially to have a voice for those kids who think they’re weird, think they’re strange, and there’s always going to be kids like that. There’s a tendency sometimes for a classroom to sort of socially rank themselves, and they know who’s popular, who’s not so popular, and which kids to pick on, which kids to not pick on and that kind of stuff. I wanted to be there, from the outside in, and talking about those kids who think they’re weird, but at the end of the day, I always say, as clichéd as it sounds, if you be yourself you will draw other people towards you for yourself. And naturally I did have friends, but they were all weird just like me, which is perfect.
FW: It’s funny you should say that. I was just thinking – I mean, the way I experienced weird-kid-ness, I didn’t have a sense of, I thought it was something that was unique to me, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I was like, oh my god, here are all the other weird kids, let’s make a weird-kid-tribe. And so I really love the idea of the kids kind of going, oh, there are others. And especially that, I think in The Other Christy, she spends a lot of time in the library, and that was definitely my experience too [laughs].
OP: Same here, the library was my sanctuary, it was my domain. I still remember, the library was closed for repairs for like a week or something, and it was like being out in the wastelands of Mad Max, skirting by the fence, along the soccer field. So that was pretty tough! I know how you feel though, because people…I think kids, I don’t think they want a whole lot of friends, they just want one or two friends, that’s all they need. A couple of friends that they can cling on to. And that was me in a nutshell. When those kids were away it was a very long day.
FW: I wanted to ask you a little bit about, it’s kind of a broader question, about young adult writing and childrens’ writing. It’s something that I’ve only read in the last year or so, for various projects, because I was always that precocious little shit who wanted to read stuff above my level because it was smart and cool. But the big revelation to me has been how progressive and how political they are as a form, and I find that so exciting.
OP: Oh yeah, for sure. Maybe this happened decades ago, but it used to be a problem, you know, talking down to kids, here’s a lesson kids, be good. In this day and age the kids probably know more about stuff than you do, these days, being so savvy and all. And so there’s no need to sort of shelter… I mean, I think 99 per cent of the things you do talk about in books, if it’s done in a tactful kind of manner, I think anything’s up for grabs, I find. I’m the same, I feel that the books that are really pushing the issues and things like that are the kids and YA books.
FW: Yeah, and I mean, I think you do really interesting stuff with class, with The Other Christy, and with race, obviously… and a whole lot of stuff about trauma as well, and intergenerational trauma as well, but it’s handled so lightly, I found that really impressive.
OP: I think for me, when I first started writing, I wanted to be out there, wacky, sort of funny for the sake of funny, but one of my biggest influences is Morris Gleitzman, who you know, he tackles all these issues about war, even refugees and things like that, but he does it in a way where it is definitely an overarching issue and theme, but it’s always told from the kid’s point of view, and sometimes from a kid’s point of view, the issues themselves are not as major as something like that, it’s actually a bit more closer than that. And so for me, I really wanted to have that become the forefront.
FW: It feels like it’s very much the fabric of their lives, it’s the thing that they… it’s so normalised.
OP: That’s right, yeah.
FW: And of course, there’s a lovely scene in The Other Christy, where White Christie, I’m going to call her White Christie [laughs]…
OP: I realised that I actually can’t actually have this as an audio book because it would just be impossible… I know how you feel!
FW: Yeah! So White Christie’s comes over to visit… Main Christy, and all of those unspoken mores of the household are suddenly very present in Christy’s mind, like taking the shoes off, and dealing with bitter melon soup…
OP: Yes, that’s right! And it’s funny, isn’t it. Because, you know, you can control your family’s weirdness or their habits and traditions in a tight space, but as soon as an outsider comes along, it just sort of like, it becomes a highlighter. And all of a sudden you have all of these things and you go, please family, just be normal! I remember, I was in high school, and my dad, we were just 15, 16 year old teenagers, and my dad came over and was like, hey, do you want a beer? And I was like, Dad, that’s the worst thing you could ever say. And thankfully, my friend said no.
FW: Oh, my friends would have loved that!
OP: Yeah, well my dad, he basically worked, I mean he still works as a labourer, and that’s a thing, they have drinks and that kind of stuff.
FW: That’s interesting. So your dad works as a labourer…
OP: Yeah, so he works, he does the door frames, that sort of thing. At a factory. He’s still working, and it’s just one of the things that he would just pick up – like his love of rugby league – it came through his workplace, that kind of thing.
FW: And do you ever have that, like, weird thing with them, having such a different job?
OP: Oh, right! Um…
FW: This is something I’m fascinated by, I’m fascinated by writers and their families at the moment. You know, I’ve got writer friends who’ve come from creative families, and it’s all kind of like, it’s cool, it’s fine, it’s whatever. And then writer friends whose parents do, and everyone else in the family have, very sensible, important, ‘real jobs’. And that kind of, I don’t know what it is that you do on a day-to-day basis, kind of thing.
OP: You know, my… In Con Nerd, his mum wants him to be a doctor, and that was for me as well. My mum wanted me to be a doctor as well, and if it wasn’t a doctor, it was an accountant or some sort of like job with high status, just so Mum could say, oh, look at Oliver, he’s an accountant or a lawyer or something like that. So when I said I wanted to be a writer, they were kind of shocked. Because I think my mum said, oh, you want to be a writer, so when does the book come out? And I was like, well, I haven’t got a publishing deal yet, and she was like, how come? And cause, you know, it’s hard to get a book deal…I think for them, even so, I had to say that I wanted to be a journalist, just so that they could kind of picture what it was. Even then I realised that journalists, in terms of Asian jobs, the jobs that Asian people look at, journalist would be right in the… just below car salesman, or something.
FW: And just as trustworthy?
OP: Exactly, that’s right. Not as classy as doctor or lawyer. And I wanted to be a comedian as well, and that was also completely foreign to them as well. There’s actually no word for ‘stand-up comedian’ in Thai, the closest word would be ‘clown’. And so my mum said, Oliver wants to go clowning, he’s going to clown college, that kind of stuff. So I picked jobs that, not only were they unconventional, there were also, in a sense, I guess growing up, there wasn’t really anyone out there that had already sort of… there weren’t any trailblazers out there yet, if that makes sense. When I was doing research for Thai-riffic, I wanted to get a book deal, and I was looking for Asian-Australian characters out there, and there were hardly any. It was quite lacking.
FW: I think you’re about the same age as me, and Looking for Alibrandi was published just before I hit high school, and that was the revelation, that there were migrant characters in that, and… even then, that was the 90s, which is a good 40 years since the big waves of Italian and Greek migration, it’s such a delay!
OP: Yeah! And I’m really so glad to actually hear that voice come out, because it means that we are starting to see all of these voices come out of the woodwork. And I think it’s…a lot quicker these days than four decades now! I think we’re getting all of these different voices out there, which is really good…
FW: And I think it’s happening in stand-up at the same time, too, right?
OP: Yeah, in a big way too. I guess in the arts world, in the creative arts space, that’s where we are beginning to see that major diversity of voices coming out more.
FW: It’s exciting to me to see this kind of stuff in Young Adult writing and children’s writing, because it makes it a normal world that you then grow into…
OP: Yeah, and I really do get a kick out of visiting schools where the kids are Asian, and then they look at me and go, oh, it can be done. If I wanted to be a writer or an artist or a singer, there are people out there that I can sort of hear and go, ok, I want to be just like them. So it’s really cool. It’s something that I never take for granted. I think it’s something that really makes this work worthwhile for me.
[Oliver Phommavanh reads from Con Nerd]
FW: I wanted to ask you a bit about the wacky families in your books. I love them. The families are all slightly mad, and they do come with certain expectations of their children too. I think you can see that in both of those pieces.
OP: You know, one of the things I always say to kids in my workshops is to write about your life, write about your family, your friends. And your family has a wealth of ideas for stories, probably it’s of the embarrassing kind, or the crazy kind, or just the weird things that your family does out in public that are quite cringe-worthy for the kids themselves. And so, it’s something that I love writing about. It’s a thing – I always say that Thai-riffic, basically what it comes down to is about embarrassing families. And I ask that question, who has an embarrassing family, all around the world, and everybody puts their hand up. It’s such a universal thing. We all have families, and we all wish… we love them, but, you know, sometimes they really push us to the edge, or they push your buttons and you just have to hang your head sometimes. But then the best thing about it is, when you get older, you becomes that embarrassing family, and that’s the circle of life that happens all over again. It’s something that can’t be stopped.
FW: That’s great! I think as a kid within a family too you’re in that weird position where you kind of… don’t have any power, in a way. And a lot of the time, you’re trying to figure out your own world and your own sense of self within that context…
OP: Yeah. That’s right. I think especially for Lengi in Thai-riffic, he wants to be Australian, and I wanted to be Australian too when I was a kid, but I didn’t know what that looked like. Does it mean you’ve got to play cricket or play rugby league or… and sometimes I do ask kids when I visit schools, are you Australian? And they say, oh no, we’re Chinese or Vietnamese or… even though, by this stage, they’re like second- or third-generation now. So they’re born here, their parents are born here now, and they’re still saying they’re not full Australians. It’s kind of weird sometimes. I think it’s a sense of, like, wanting to belong in the family space, but also wanting to have your own identity outside the family as well. And I think that’s where you kind of figure out those questions when you’re a teenager or a kid.
FW: And migration has often complicated things for these guys, because the context of their growing up is so different from what their parents are used to, linguistically, culturally…
OP: Yes, so the parents are also trying to find their identity as well, because they’re suddenly thrown into a different world as well and have to find their identity there, and at the same time with these kids as well. I understand that, my mum and dad used to want me to speak Thai all the time, they forced me to go to language school, and they forced me to have Thai food when I wanted to have McDonalds or KFC or stuff like that. And I realised that it’s not them just doing it because it saves money and it’s cheaper, even though they were good reasons why, it’s because, it’s the fact that they want to still impart some of their culture onto their kids, I think. Because for them it’s important to realise that they should be proud of having both cultures. And I think that’s something that people eventually do come to that conclusion, but sometimes as a kid you sort of find the long way to actually get there.
FW: Because you don’t want to stand out in any way, as a kid?
OP: Yeah, and plus as a kid and a teen, you want to rebel against your family anyway. And sometimes that means forgoing the, you know, going I’m Australian now, I don’t have to do this any more, I don’t have to dress up to go to a Thai temple any more, or do I have to go to a Thai temple, I’m too old for that now, all that kind of stuff. And you realise that it’s not just a family thing, it’s much deeper than that. But you just don’t realise when you’re a kid.
FW: That’s so interesting. I wanted to ask you, picking up on what you said about food, I feel like that’s a really common expression both of family and of difference that comes up in your books, again and again. I mean, in Thai-riffic, the family owns a Thai restaurant [laughs]
OP: I guess for me, it’s the fact that, you know, not only does food bring people together, but it also is a great introduction to someone’s culture, and someone’s family life. You come over for a meal, and you get to see their home cooking and what its like, it’s kind of funny, because I hadn’t realised this, but food is actually a major theme of some of my books, and it’s kind of cool. I think it’s something that the readers and the kids can relate to.
FW: It’s so concrete, and so social. And so laden with meaning.
OP: I like to think that most kids have tried Thai food or something similar by this stage, so at least they can share some of Lengi’s feelings when he eats the Thai food at some point, and that’s really cool.
FW: Even if they haven’t had bitter melon soup!
OP: Bitter melon soup is a whole different kettle of fish, I would never recommend that to anyone!
FW: Oh, I love bitter melon! But I’m weird.
OP: Look, I’ll eat it, as long as I keep telling myself, it’s good for me, it’s good for me, it’s good for me, and then somehow I just get through it.
FW: That’s great! As well as the books, you’ve mentioned that you do stand-up, and you also make comics, is that right?
OP: I just do stand-up comedy.
FW: Oh, ok. They’re two very different types of writing…
OP: Yeah, they are. I originally did stand-up comedy to test out my writing, because you find out really quickly if something is funny or not by testing it out on stage, and so for me, it was just…
FW: Gosh, to me that’s a terrifying way of testing out your writing! [laughs]
OP: It is! It’s soul-crushing. I mean, there were nights where you’d wonder, what am I doing with myself and five minutes turns into five hours, but at the same time, it’s that instant feedback that you really crave. So I did stand-up comedy because of that. And even though I don’t do much stand-up comedy any more because I’m kind of like the West Tigers, I perform better on paper [laughs], I think that I’d rather pursue writing much more than stand-up comedy. But I still love it. I love being able to surprise people with their expectations, that’s what comedy’s all about, it’s about that element of surprise, the opposite of normal, it’s sort of like flipping expectations around. So when I used to do stand-up comedy, I’d travel out to these country towns and I’d be the only Asian in the country town, for like, three days straight. And you know, you get up on stage, and you’re in a pub somewhere, and everyone’s looking at you and the first 10 seconds, before you get to that first joke, is like, the longest 10 seconds of your life. Because you wonder, are they going to laugh at me, are they going to throw stuff at me, what should I do, that kind of thing. But you know what? Most times, they laugh, and it becomes a really great show. And afterwards, they’re very friendly. So sometimes, it’s that anxiety in your head, I think that happens in Thai-riffic, there’s this fear that you’re going to be looked at for being different, but at the end of the day, they’re not looking like that at all. Most of it’s just in your head.
FW: The impression I have of stand-up, from the margins [of the form], is that so much of it is about danger, too, and risk in the kind of jokes that you set up…
OP: That’s right. Out there, you have to be vulnerable on the stage. Whether it’s a persona or you’re being yourself, you have to put yourself out there. But at the same time, you also have to be liked by the crowd as well. So if they like you, then they’ll follow you anywhere. So you can say the most wackiest, out there jokes, no matter how controversial they are, if they like you, they’ll laugh at you. Because you’ve won them over. So for me, stand-up comedy is much more than just the jokes themselves, it’s about the character you put on stage as well. That’s why I love doing these comic observations in my books, because they’re kind of like stand-up routines in one sense…
FW: Yes! I was going to say that the books are terrifically funny. [laughs]
OP: I mean, that comes of being able to perform on stage and cutting out the words that don’t work and making sure that the punchline or the funniest line is at the end of the joke. Because it’s, I find that it’s actually harder to make someone laugh on the page, because there’s no element of surprise. So you have to find ways to actually do it, and I’ve been very thankful that I’ve been finding my way to put the funny parts into it.
FW: Yes, and I noticed that so often, you almost… end a chapter with a joke…
OP: That’s right, yeah!
FW: Which is such a beautiful structural device, it’s such a great way to get people going through… I wanted to ask you a little bit about place, now. One of the things I loved, I think it’s in The Other Christy, you keep talking about Cabravale! [laughs] Which really made me giggle. You’re in Cabramatta, right?
OP: Yes, I live in Cabramatta…
FW: Did you grow up in Cabra?
OP: I grew up in Canley Vale, which is right next door to Cabramatta. So I grew up in Canley Vale…
FW: So you’re from Cabravale, is basically what you’re telling me [laughs]
OP: Basically that’s right, I’ve come back to my roots. I’ve come full circle, even though it’s only a 15 km radius! I’ve come full circle! I grew up in Canley Vale, and then in Year Four, when I was nine years old, I moved with my parents to Liverpool, to Hinchinbrook, which is out sort of south, kind of out near Heckenberg, Green Valley, Hoxton Park. And since then, I’ve moved out, gotten married, and we’re living in Cabramatta now.
FW: And Cabra’s home?
OP: Yeah, Cabra’s home, I mean, I like Cabramatta. You take for granted sometimes how good it is to actually buy fresh Asian vegetables on the day and be able to cook them, and I’m also thankful that you don’t have to find parking on the weekends! Because there just aren’t enough car spots in Cabra! And Cabra’s become, you know, it used to be a bit dodgy of course, back in the day, but these days it’s become a big foodie destination, and you have tours, there’s people there with those red flags going along, saying, this shop here, there’s good Vietnamese food here, and I’m like, this is just my neighbourhood, my backyard, kind of thing, it’s amusing. But you still see people selling illegal stuff these days, that still happens out in the forefront. Except it’s not drugs any more, it’s just all the little ladies selling off the vegetables they’ve grown in their backyard! And for the longest time, the council tried to get rid of them, but they keep coming back! So now it’s just like, doesn’t matter. So you go through John Street now, and you will see old ladies, and sometimes old men too, they’re just sitting outside with their bitter melon or bok choi, all that kind of stuff. Which is kind of cute. It’s not right for shopkeepers, but it’s all good.
FW: But I love that in comes through in the writing too – I mean, John Street was in that section you read from Con Nerd…
OP: It’s kind of funny because I wanted to make the point, I wanted to set these stories all in Western Sydney at the very start, because I wanted the kids in the schools in those areas to actually read it and go, oh yeah, that’s Liverpool! Or that’s Fairfield! That’s Cabramatta! But then, as I kept writing the books, I realised that once you set something in that place you have to be really authentic to it. And because you’re doing comedy, you don’t want to make too much fun of one place, you don’t want to make too many jokes about Cabramatta, because that might come back to bite you down the track. And while I love books like The Incredible Here and Now, which earmark these places, I’ve driven past there, I’ve been to those places, and I absolutely love it. Felicity did such a wonderful job of grounding that story in it. That place becomes a character, almost, in the story. But for me, I’m just using it as a bit of a backdrop. So what I’ve done is, I’ve sort of gone sort of halfway. I’ve made up suburbs like Cabravale [laughs] which is a little nod to Cabramatta and Canley Vale…
FW: And there’s Cabravale Heights, where White Christie lives…
OP: Yeah! [laughs]
FW: The fancy Cabravale!
OP: Which is so cool! And also, in the book that I’m writing now, the school is going to be called Merryford, which is a cross between Merrylands and Guildford, so if anyone out there has any other kind of suburbs they can mash together and give to me, I’d be happy to take it! In my next book, Natural Born Loser, the school is Barrajong, and that’s a nice little nod to that kind of thing as well. The thing, that’s probably what I do, I think. I imagine that my experiences in Western Sydney would exactly be the same for those kids who live in the outer suburbs of, say, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and so on. So I wanted to make sure that those kids could read that, and still get the same kind of experience as well.
FW: I think that touches on something that’s really important about that sort of place-writing, that when you do recognise your city or your part of the city… it’s such a wonderful reading experience.
OP: Oh it is, yeah. I’ve had kids come up to me with Con Nerd and they say it’s their favourite book because they’ve been to those places, which is so cool. So I do appreciate that as well. I’m really thankful that I’ve been able to actually put those places in my early books, just to say that I’ve done it.
FW: I sometimes think it must be… imagine being someone from New York, and just seeing your world everywhere all the time, and thinking that that was how things are for everyone… it’s such a fascinating thing when you suddenly realise too the absence of your place in these… in books and so on, because reading it is such a startling thing.
OP: And I guess, you know, on the one hand you want to have it in a way where everyone can kind of read it and get different things out of it, and so by not naming a place, or having a fake place, you can fold your own perspectives into that place. But at the same time, you can’t ignore the impact of actually naming a place and actually putting it into a story.
FW: But I do think, even when you do have Cabravale and Baroongah [laughs] those places are still recognisably Western Sydney,
FW: And that has to do with the cultural makeup, the sense of scale, the buildings…
OP: That’s true as well. Because the little things, like going to the shops in that arcade strip of shops, and so little touches like that I’ll still put in to my stories, because in a sense I do always want to have my stories out there, in the suburb kinds of areas.
FW: For that normalising?
OP: A little bit of that, but also because it’s what I know as well, in a sense. I couldn’t imagine myself writing the story… although never say never of course! I shouldn’t pigeonhole myself into one thing, I don’t want to constrain whatever I write. But at this stage, I’m happy that my writing is always out there, because there’s not many stories out there in the first place, so I want to keep filling that hole.
FW: I was thinking too when you were reading from Con Nerd that there’s something kind of wonderful that happens when you have all of those mothers sitting around, talking about their children, and the big achievements are things like, the Western Sydney Orchestra, or the Green Hills basketball team – it’s both super sweet and kind of incongruous, too, and it’s a bit cheeky…
OP: I think it’s a very passive-aggressive kind of game, actually, that mothers play, or parents play in general, I guess. That feeling of never feeling good enough for my parents, because they did force me to go to tutoring, and I was doing two to three hours of algebra work, advanced Year Nine integration when I was in Year Six, for some reason, because you can. I respect people who do maths and are really good at it, but I knew that I wasn’t ever going to be smart enough to do maths or science or anything related to that. I think my mum realised that by Year 10, and from then they kind of dropped off. Which, I guess was kind of a burden away, but it also was kind of sad as well, because that means that they realised that I was not cut out to be a doctor or anything like that. It’s another cliché, but one of my hopes of wanting to be a writer was to actually show my mum and dad that I could just do something that I really wanted to do and make them proud of me. So that determination helped me as well, I think.
FW: I think there’s probably a tonne of young people who are pretty happy that you’re not a doctor!
OP: Yeah, yeah! Especially all of those people whose lives I saved by not being a doctor. I’m scared of needles, so I probably would have fainted before I put anything into someone anyway, so it’s alright. [laughs]
FW: I like that, that you’ve kind of got a constitutional inability to do this job in the first place [laughs]. That’s good! What are you working on at the moment?
OP: I’m working on, I’ve just put the finishing touches to Natural Born Loser, which is about a boy who goes to a very rough school, they’ve had principals come in and come out every single year, kind of thing. And this new principal comes in and says, you know what? I’m going to lay down the law and take things to the better…
FW: Because that always ends well [laughs]
OP: That’s right! And the main character in my story says, yeah yeah, we’ve had this before, they’ve had good intentions but they get scared by the kids and all that. But he actually starts making a difference. And he actually starts to… he starts to raise the school morale as well. And so Raymond’s the kid in the book, he wants to be a prefect, he wants to be school captain, but he’s a natural born loser, no one’s going to follow him. But when he gets his chance, he tries to make things happen. But of course, things always kind of fall apart for him as well. So it’s about him trying to win the school over by doing something really wacky and crazy. So that’s going to be a whole lot of fun, talking about that in August. But I’m also working on a book that I’m now calling Don’t Follow Vee. It’s about the daughter of an Instagram Mum.
FW: Oh, wow…
OP: And her whole life, from birth, has been portrayed up on Instagram. And she’s finally had enough of it. And she doesn’t want to do it any more. I’ve wanted to write this story for the longest time, because you’ve got kids these days whose lives have been mapped out on Facebook, and it comes to a point of, what happens when those kids grow up, and they start their own little profile, but theirs mums or dads have basically put their childhood up onto the…whether they like it or not. So I’ve wanted to tackle it for the longest time. But I was really scared, because as soon as you put things like Instagram or Facebook into a book, you date it. I cringe when I see MySpace, for example, in a book. I’m like, oh man. But then, having read books such as My Life As A Hashtag, love that book, I realise that, I think it’s here to stay. So it gave me the confidence to go, ok, I need to give this a go. So that’s my next book.
FW: I’ve got a real thing for fiction that acknowledges the existence of the internet. I think there’s this weird thing where there’s so much writing around still that just hasn’t… it’s like, if we just ignore the internet in the world of this book, that’s cool. Business as usual.
OP: I know how you feel. And I think editors are quite reluctant to lean towards that, because they are scared of dating the book, because of language as well. Because language changes all the time. If I put dabbing in a book, in five years time, kids will go, what’s dabbing, what does that mean, and they’ll have to Google it up. And because memes change all the time so quickly I didn’t want to put those in. But at the same time, you’ve got to put some things in like that anyway, because the kids have grown up on screens and on text all the time, It is about finding that fine line, I think.
FW: And I think it’s ok for people to look stuff up, too.
OP: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, it’s fine. Because at the same time, it can’t be a timeless story per se, you’ve got to still ground your kids into some sort of context.
FW: Yes, in the same way you have to have a physical place, you have to have a place in time as well, or your book is kind of anchorless.
OP: That’s right, yeah.
FW: That sounds really fascinating though.
OP: I’m about halfway through that, and it’s been a whole lot of fun, actually, writing that out.
FW: Terrific. Ok, well, I think that’s a really lovely note to end on. Thank you so much for talking to me, Oliver.