This week LWOTW is very happy to welcome the intriguing Mat Larkin, author of the newly released middle grade novel The Orchard Underground. Mat has a very inventive imagination – as I know from working with him on a project in the past – so I’m expecting some unusual responses … Read on with caution and delight …
Last Word of the Week: Greetings, Mat! When did you write your first story?
Mat: When I was seven, I wrapped a small, brown, corduroy belt-loop in a note and left it on the kitchen counter. The note read: ‘Dear Mum, this piece fell off my pants. Can you fix it please? Love Mathew.’
That story was a lie. I cut it off with scissors. Don’t tell my mum.
The first honest fictions I wrote were little stories when I was around nine. They all had Doctor Who in them. I wrote them while wearing a duffel coat with a recorder in the pocket that I pretended was the sonic screwdriver.
I could tell you I got over that phase, but I now know someone who writes for Doctor Who and the envy is scalding.
LWOTW: What do you think of dreams, imagination, and planning?
Mat: A really good therapist once told me, ‘enjoy your dreams, survive your nightmares, wake up, walk away and leave them be. Your subconscious is out of your reach for a reason. Keep it that way.’
It’s profound, wise advice, and I absolutely never follow it. Dreams don’t make sense — that’s not what they’re for — but they’re so damn compelling, so tantalisingly just a fingertip beyond our reach that our big, twitchy, far-too-curious human brains don’t stand a chance to resist.
I still can’t make sense of them, though. Why would Daryl Somers even want me to have orang-utan arms for legs?
Imagination is play, and I lost the habit of play until my son was born. He taught me to write by asking me to get down on the floor and stare for hours at a spinning top, to clamber into a cardboard box with him, to draw wings on that box and fly in it with him to Neptune, to stare at Venus together until the actual real photons that bounced off another planet were lodged forever in our retinas. Space travellers we welcomed.
My son taught me to play, and to write.
Planning is creative. I plan a novel by playing with my characters, writing their backstories, wondering what’s around the corner of the last street of the world I just invented, writing all my plot points on system cards then shuffling them to look for better patterns.
I mean it’s also a load of financial, professional and record-keeping tediousness, but it’s easy to forget in all that to keep a creative element in the more mechanical parts of your creative practice.
LWOTW: System cards! Wow, I’m impressed. They obviously work well. What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?
Adults have been very nice about The Orchard Underground, and that’s very nice. But I’ve been visiting a lot of the middle-grade book clubs run by Melbourne bookshops, and there is no substitute, as a middle-grade writer, for sliding politely past the adults and talking to kids.
The kids I’ve met have been incredible. They’re engaged, thoughtful, creative, rowdy and very much full of their own ideas about my story and characters. It’s been exciting to hear girls tell me they love my female protagonists Attica Stone and Slotcar, but almost more exciting to hear boys tell me the same thing. Boys finding non-male heroes is a big deal for me.
So the highlight of my writing career so far is this drawing of Attica Stone, which was done on the spot for me at a book club. I can’t begin to describe what it’s like to see my character appear like magic on the notepad page of a ten year-old girl who loves her.
LWOTW: That’s wonderful! (I love Attica too – apologies for being an adult. I’m sure my child-self would have adored her, but I had to make do with A Little Bush Maid, who could at least ride horses, muster cattle, and fight bushfires as well as cook…) What are you most busy with at the moment?
Here’s my list
- A prequel to The Orchard Underground, working title: The Chameleon Thief
- Visiting schools, book clubs and anyone else who’ll have me to meet kids, talk about stories and hear their sensational ideas about double-decker ladders and rocket trees
- Reminding people that The Orchard Underground exists, is a cracking read, has a sloth in it and is available in good bookshops everywhere at a very reasonable price
- Writing on mental health for SANE Australia, a fantastic organisation that supports people affected by complex mental illness.
LWOTW: If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Two years ago I was uncertain whether I could make this career work. I kept going. Don’t give up.
Ten years ago I wrote an entire novel that never got published, and thought that was pretty much it for me. It wasn’t. Don’t give up.
Even with a book on shelves I frequently have moments when I feel like I’m not as good as proper writers. I don’t listen. Don’t give up.
I got a contract for my first novel eleven years into my writing career, at age 42. It’s never too late. Don’t give up.
The first draft of The Orchard Underground was extremely ropey, and so is the first draft I’m working on now. Publishers expect this. It’s okay. Don’t give up.
I absolutely bloody love this job and never want to do anything else. Don’t give up.
Don’t. Give. Up.
LWOTW: Fabulous advice! And the Last Word of The Week: What’s your favourite colour?
I’m reading Terry Pratchett with my son at the moment, so: octarine.
You can follow Mat at matlarkin.com
Mat tweets @matchtrick
And you can read my review of Mat’s book The Orchard Underground on Goodreads.