Danielle Binks is an agent and author and her debut book, ‘The Year The Maps Changed’ was released yesterday and my review is due to be posted on 1st May. I asked Danielle lots of questions about her writing as it’s not everyday that a literary agent releases a book, and I am delighted with her answers as I’m sure you will be…
NLK: How long did it take to write The Year The Maps Changed? Can you share a little about your writing process?
DB: Well, five-years technically to have the idea and do research (that included travelling to places like Singleton in NSW and going through their archives for newspaper clippings etc.) but then only about 3-months of actually writing the very rough first draft. I think my process was largely using research as a procrastination tool, and then I finally gave myself a kick-in-the-pants to finish the thing and even though I consider myself a “pantser” who writes without outline, all the research I did gave the historic side of my contemporary novel the kind of “framework” for dates and markers I was striving for, and then the three-months of intense writing was really letting the characters I’d had in my head fight their way out and introduce themselves properly. So it was a very untidy process, to be sure – and I definitely tricked myself into thinking that research was writing – but actually and funnily enough, *writing* is writing! I was kind of doing the equivalent of highlighting every passage in a textbook and thinking that was studying. So I wouldn’t recommend my method to anyone – except for the last part, where I actually sat down and WROTE.
NLK: What was the inspiration behind writing The Year The Maps Changed? Are any characters or events in the book based on your personal experiences?
DB: The whole thing was sparked by my memories of growing up on the Mornington Peninsula and being the same age as my protagonist in 1999, and very vaguely remembering the events of Operation Safe Haven – when hundreds of Kosovar-Albanian refugees were bought to the disused quarantine station on Point Nepean at the height of the NATO bombings and Kosovo war. I remembered that time, enough to tuck that little nugget away somewhere deep inside and then in 2016 to have the idea to go back and research that time-period and see if there was anything more to it. Turns out – there was!
Apart from that; I also gave my protagonist Fred a father in the police-force, and a primary-carer grandparent who lives out the back of the main house. That was my childhood growing up too. And setting it in 1999 and having my protagonist being the same age I was; I was able to sneak in some of the pop-culture that shaped my (Heartbreak High, Pacey Witter, LipSmackers ,… all the good stuff!)
NLK: How important is it that your writing reflects your political perspective? Were you concerned the subject matter was too dark and grim for middle-grade readers? How did you manage the balance between darkness and light?
DB: I am a huge fan of Morris Gleitzman, and something he once said at a Wheeler Centre event stuck with me, and that is: “If it’s in the world, it’s for kids.” Morris has taken that belief into all the books he writes and topics he tackles – from the AIDS crisis, to the Holocaust. He says if it’s something that exists or existed in the world – then it’s up for examination in kid’s books. Of course; it’s the way you communicate that knowledge to kids that matters. You have to know the line, and be sure not to cross it – and you achieve that through things like language, and keeping the graphic content to a minimum. I also think when you’re writing historic-fiction, that you do it via the truth. Everything in Maps can be looked up by young readers (and I hope they do!) and they can go off and learn more about this period in Australian and world history, and the ramifications it had on the present …
As for darkness and light – that’s always a balancing-act, and I hope I got it right but I’d accept if some thought I didn’t. It’s tough; and it’s instinctual. Again, you draw lines in the sand for yourself when you’re writing and you try hard not to cross them, but you also don’t want to lie to kids because they can smell dishonesty a mile away. My book ends not in a conventional ‘happy ending’ kind of way, and I’ll admit – that’s largely because I’m writing in the present, and from a position of seeing how the events of 1999 and leading up to now are incredibly harmful and damaging. And when I was writing this, the story of the Tamil family from Biloela in Queensland was dominating headlines and really making me despair for Australia’s conscience. So of course all that stuff clouds me and impacts what I’m writing. I think kids can handle it though; and especially when I see things like ‘School Strike 4 Climate’ I am reminded that adults very rarely give young people the chance to be heard, be recognised, have the chance to tackle big ideas and meet them head on. I hope they see the child characters in my story wrestling with all of that too, and rise to the occassion as readers also.
NLK: The Year The Maps Changed is written in a realistic style. Do you plan on continuing to write in this style or will you consider writing for a different readership or genre?
DB: I have to admit, contemporary and realistic fiction is my lodestone. Those are the stories I most love (Melina Marchetta, Cath Crowley, Rebecca Stead, Wai Chim, Jacqueline Woodson, Jo Knowles – and so many more!) so I think for my next two books after Maps I might keep telling stories this way, just because that’s what moves and excites me – and has done, since I was a young reader myself. My next novel though, a YA stand-alone, has a lot more romance in it which is another genre I love as a reader. I am also a big crime & thriller fan, and I’d love to try writing that for adults. I’d also be open to more historical-fiction, maybe in the 13th -19th-century bracket; I’m a huge history geek, so the thought of both writing and researching for a book like that *thrills* me!
NLK: I really engaged with the character of Fred. Did she change much during the drafting of The Year The Maps Changed?
DB: She only changed in my head, when I was in the very first stages of brainstorming and trying to decide if this felt more YA or MG. And for a while I thought I might have a teenage boy protagonist and make this young-adult … but once I gave myself over to the idea of aligning with my own age in 1999 and making it middle-grade, then Fred came through loud and clear and never left. She was always coloured by grief, and that manifested through fear and anger – but because she was so raw and walking-wounded, her whole story came through so clearly for me. As did her growth and healing throughout.
NLK: Have there been surprises with being a published author? Has it been odd sitting on the other side of the table from your career as a literary agent?
DB: I am only surprised that I am as neurotic as any author (and I say that with great affection!). Fabulous advice I can impart as agent, I am unable to take onboard as an author in my own right – so that’s been …. fun. Otherwise; I am very grateful that I knew a lot of the mechanics of publicity and marketing especially, going into this – and because I’ve worked as a publicist myself, I hope I am proving to be a not-terrible author to work with on that side of the divide, lol.
NLK: Has it lived up to your expectations?
DB: Ha! … in the year 2020 and being a debut in the time of COVID, I’m having to leave all my expectations at the door and just hope for the best! So I’m almost lucky in that I don’t have a previous book-campaign to compare it to, but it would have been nice to do all the meeting-people-in-person and seeing my books on display stuff. Oh well! I only hope now that it does find readers, somehow! – and that I might be lucky enough to get to do this again (and a bit properly IRL) with my next book, which is tentatively scheduled for 2021 (but knock on wood – I think timelines and time-frames are a thing of the past!)
NLK: Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
DB: Remember everything. Write it down. Keep newspaper clippings. Have a notes-app in your phone for random ideas and memories. I never thought that I’d mine events of my own childhood in 1999 for my debut-book. I never thought I’d write historic-fiction, let alone write something set where I live and so impacted by my life growing up! But I have, and it’s because I tucked a little fragment of a memory away to pluck out and observe more closely later on … I say this also to all creatives during the time of COVID. I totally get the impulse to deny that Contagion movie rewatch, and avoid dystopian-fiction; but in 18-months or 10-years the way *everyone* is going to understand and comprehend this time, is through art. Majority of people are not going to go sit in a lecture-hall and listen to a virologist go through the impact of coronavirus on humanity; they’re going to engage with the story of this time through music, books, film, television, docu-series, dance choreography, heck – tapestry! So do what you can now, and if that means avoidance then so be it. But T
Look out for my review of The Year The Maps Changed on 1st May
About Danielle Binks
Danielle Binks is a Mornington Peninsula-based author and literary agent. Her debut book ‘The Year the Maps Changed’ is out with Hachette on April 28 – a historic-fiction novel for 10-14 year-olds, set in 1999 it deals with the events of ‘Operation Safe Haven’ and Australia’s biggest humanitarian exercise to-date.
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