I first came to know Justin Woolley through the Melbourne comics scene. Justin’s a talented, motivated, and down-to-earth writer, and I was surprised to learn that he writes prose as well–I only know a handful of others who publish in both mediums here in Australia.
Momentum have just published Justin’s first novel, A Town Called Dust, so I thought now would be an excellent time to interview him.
JW: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. Mum dragged a box out of her garage a while ago loaded with “books” I’d written when I was 5 or 6 years old. Amongst the collection were such classics as The Magician Who Thought He Knew All The Magic–surely an in-depth portrayal of a man tortured by his own feelings of superiority. I am Captain Black Skull–a riveting and multi-layered depiction of how the social environment shapes a simple man into a feared villain. The Pirate Dragon–a Pirate WHO IS ALSO A DRAGON. Probably not a lot different from the stuff I’d write now, except maybe for the spelling.
So, I’ve always been making up stories, but I suppose it was in my mid to late teens that I started taking it more seriously. At that time I was completely enthralled with reading the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. Other than being enormously enjoyable I think it was these books that showed me how an author can craft a truly unique world and bring it to life. I wanted to do that.
JF: What was the path like for you from there to your first publication, and from that publication to A Town Called Dust?
JW: I kept writing all the way through school. I wrote a bunch of directionless science fiction stories. I wrote a whole lot of terribly generic fantasy stories. I wrote some good stories but I mostly wrote bad stories but I stuck at it, improving all the time. When I was in year 12 I studied a creative writing course. During that course I wrote an autobiographical story about being present during the Port Arthur massacre, something I’d never been that open about, but writing about it proved to be incredibly cathartic and the story was well received during a reading. The teacher approached me to submit it to Voiceworks magazine. When they accepted it I had my first publication. As a side note that story was reprinted in 2009 in the Voiceworks anthology ‘The Words We Found: The Best Writing From 21 Years of Voiceworks Magazine’. It’s still one of the stories I’m most proud of.
From then onwards I kept writing, mostly focusing on speculative fiction. I achieved sporadic success with short stories in competition and publication and faced a lot of rejection of course. I began writing comics as well, a medium I’d always read, had a few short comics published in anthologies and eventually had two graphic novels accepted by publishers (both still in-development).
After having a few false starts along the road, around five years ago I started getting serious about writing (and finishing) a novel. I was inspired by my time as a teacher to write for young adults. That was when I began writing A Town Called Dust. It took me over a year to write the first draft and then another year to rewrite it and polish it to a stage where I was happy with it. Then, through a fortuitous meeting I landed my agent. I did a little more reworking and it took almost two years to find a publisher. In the end it found its home with Momentum and I couldn’t be happier.
JF: Besides the obvious production concerns, what do you think are the key differences between writing prose and writing for comics?
JW: Comics are a different beast for a writer. The major difference is in the form itself. As a writer a comic script is mostly a conversation with the artist, other than the dialogue the reader never actually reads your description of the action, whereas obviously with prose your words are the only thing they read.
This brings a different way of thinking. Comics are a visual medium and this necessitates that the writer think visually. Pacing of panels, the length of dialogue, the need to avoid “talking heads”, how to portray emotion, even what occurs on the turn of a page all become considerations that are different to prose.
That said, I think writing comics teaches you to write very visual prose and to be concise and effective with your language.
JF: What do you think is the reason for the recent flourishing of genre fiction for young adult readers?
JW: That’s an interesting one, while I don’t necessarily think genre fiction for young adults is a new thing you’re right that there certainly seems to be a boom at the moment. I think it comes down to the psychology of being a teenager. It’s a time of trying to find your place in the world and it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong. Genre fiction provides an escape for young adult readers just as it does for adult readers but often the themes of genre fiction reflect the things young adults struggle with even more. Post-apocalyptic fiction often invokes feelings of isolation. Fantasy often provides a sense of finding great power. Science fiction is very often about identity.
JF: One of the things that strikes me about A Town Called Dust is the way that it addresses politics. Church and state are both shown as to be corrupt. Even the military is mostly stratified by class. Are these themes you intend to explore further in the series?
JW: The inherent conflict between Church and State and the use of power for control are certainly all major themes of the book. Many of my ideas about this stem from the world of The Territory. The population lives within an enormous border fence designed to keep the ghouls out but I quickly realised that this same fence keeps everyone else trapped inside. The behaviour of the government and the church really comes from a view of needing to control a population who lives this way. In many ways, particularly for the teen audience, this represents feelings of being trapped and controlled by authority figures that regularly tell you how to behave and what to believe.
In terms of moving forward in the series these themes do continue. Without too many spoilers we see what happens when individuals within large organisations seize control and use power for their own purposes, and the damage they can do even when they believe that purpose is right.
JF: Tell me about the inspiration for A Town Called Dust.
JW: For me inspiration is often difficult to completely articulate. It usually comes from many different sources, but for ‘A Town Called Dust’ the majority of the inspiration came while I was working as a teacher.
I saw how difficult it was to get 15 and 16 year old boys to read and that made me want to write for that audience. I thought back to the books I loved at that age and one that immediately came to mind was John Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow When the War Began’ series. In particular I remembered the buzz of reading a novel set in Australia. I had already planned to write a post-apocalyptic novel and the Australian desert jumped out at me as the perfect setting. It’s such a vast, desolate landscape that already evokes feelings of isolation and the end of the world, just think of Mad Max. Much of the rest of the inspiration flowed from this setting, the way the ghouls thirst for moisture rather than brains, dirt farming, the fence and even the imagery used throughout the book.
JF: How many books will there be in the Territory series?
JW: The Territory series is planned to be a trilogy. ‘A Town Called Dust’ is out now. ‘A City Called Smoke’ is due for release in October next year and then they’ll be a third book ‘A World of Ash’ in 2016.
JF: What’s next for you, Justin?
JW: Right now I’m just over halfway through the first draft of ‘A City Called Smoke’ the second book in The Territory series so that is my main focus at the moment. Once that’s done I’ll get cracking on book 3.
I’ve also got two graphic novels currently being developed. One, called ‘Nemesis’, is the story of a young boy who wants nothing but to be the next great supervillain but perhaps isn’t as evil as he thinks. It is unfortunately in what you might called ‘development hell’ being much delayed. The other is ‘King and Country’ an alternate history about a resistance group in Nazi occupied London. ‘King and Country’ is a book I’m incredibly proud of and so excited for people to read. It’s being released through Australian publisher Gestalt Comics and is still being worked on but hopefully not too far away.
Beyond that, I’ve got another YA series I’m writing the first book of which ‘Alpha’ I’ve spoken a little bit about on my writing blog explaining my process for planning and beginning the first draft. The premise of that book is: Six years after aliens arrive on Earth as refugees from a long distant war, a group of troubled teenagers find themselves at Alpha Academy – a prestigious institute for human youth to learn from the aliens – but they soon discover Earth’s visitors may not be as peaceful as they seem and must band together to prevent disaster for both races. It’s taken something of a back seat until the Territory series is done but it’s still percolating in my brain!
Then there’s more ideas, always too many ideas not enough time!
JF: Thank you, Justin, it’s been a real pleasure!
And so, dear readers, would you like some post-apocalyptic YA fiction for Christmas?
Very well, then: