I am stoked to be able to bring you the next installment of our series 'Aussie Authors in Focus'. This week I got to chat with rising star Justin Woolley. Justin has recently published the wonderful post-apocalyptic novel A Town Called Dust, and I am over the moon to have the opportunity to be able to chat to him about this and various other things.
Onwards to the interview...
Justin Woolley, welcome to Smash Dragons! Tell us a bit about yourself, and your novel A Town Called Dust.
Thanks for having me Matthew, it's good to stop by. A little bit about me, well, I'm an author (obviously) but also an engineer and have at one time or another been a teacher and a magician. I've always made up stories and written them down. The older I got the more I realised I probably wasn't going to stop doing this so I might as well have a crack at getting serious.
'A Town Called Dust' is my debut novel, a post-apoclyptic story set in the Australian desert where the remnants of mankind live protected from undead ghouls by a giant fence, until the fence falls.
What motivated you to become a writer? The private jets, flash cars, or buckets of money?
Well it's probably my desire to have a flying car constructed entirely of chromed 100 dollar bills. Or maybe it was the fact I've just always loved stories, both reading and writing them. I couldn't imagine my life without writing. Without imagination the world would be an awfully dull place.
Where did you get the idea for A Town Called Dust from? What were your main challenges in getting this novel off the ground and published?
Like every book 'A Town Called Dust' is a combination of many, many ideas, some I'd been stewing on for a long time and some that just popped in as I wrote. There was no single moment of inspiration but I suppose if I had to narrow it down to the real core drive to write the book it would have been my time spent working as a teacher. I wanted to write a story for young readers. I wanted to engage young people, particularly reluctant readers, and I wanted to set the story against the amazing landscape of the Australian outback.
My main challenge was the same as many writers face. I had to balance full-time work and writing a novel. I had to find enough time to sit down and write the book and that can be a struggle. For anyone who is trying to do this don't be disheartened by how difficult it is at times. It takes a lot of commitment and resilience to write a book. I had false starts at writing a novel before but this was the one I was determined to finish.
A Town Called Dust seems to sit on the fence between YA and Adult fiction. Was this done on purpose to make it accessible to both markets?
Good question, and the answer is probably a vague combination of both yes and no. I'm an adult (although I'd call myself young at heart which I suppose is a nice way of saying I'm immature) but I'm writing books for young adults. I think the natural result of this is a layered narrative, aspects of the book are very purposely targeted toward the young adult audience and others are perhaps simply a reflection of myself being an adult. The result is a book that is accessible to both markets. I'd also add that young adults are extremely sophisticated readers, this is why such a large amount of adults read young adult books, it's not a reflection of the maturity or reading level of the adults, it's a reflection of how complex young adult books are, often more complicated and dealing with heavier themes than a lot of adult literature.
So I guess what I'm saying is I wrote a book I would want to read, even now as an adult, but while doing so I focused on issues that resonate with all of us but are especially important to young adults, things like feelings of isolation, dealing with authority and being told what to believe and how to behave.
Lynn and Squid were particularly fascinating protagonists, and I enjoyed their journey throughout the novel. Did you construct their characters from the start (and know their endgame) or did they evolve naturally as you wrote the novel?
Thanks Matthew, I'm glad you found Lynn and Squid interesting and enjoyed their journey, I can't ask for more than that as an author! When it comes to writing I'm a planner, probably comes from being an engineer as well but I won't start a book until I know where it will end and what the motivations of the characters are. So yes, I constructed Squid and Lynn before I began writing but of course things change and the characters grow. During the writing of the first draft I began to get a much better handle on the voices of the characters and their deeper feelings about their place in the world and this led to changes in their behaviour in some situations and a tightening of their characters during the later drafts.
The world building in your novel was well executed I thought, and I was over the moon to finally read a dystopian novel with a real Australian feel to it. What attracted you to write a novel with an Australian and dystopian setting?
Again thank you. World-building has always been a very enjoyable part of the writing experience for me. Ever since I read Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels as a teenager and feel in love with the world he created I knew I wanted to build worlds. I've always put a considerable amount of thought and effort into my worlds.
Dystopian fiction has always resonated with me both as a reader and a writer. It is a genre that allows us to examine much of the human condition. It lets us ask questions about who we are as humans and how we would behave if the world around us collapsed. It can reflect the good and the bad in humanity's urge to survive. The main reason I chose an Australian setting for my own post-apocalyptic dystopian novel is because the landscape of central Australia, that vast arid desert, lends itself so well to the feelings of a post apocalypse. It is a place where it already feels like you could be the last people on the planet.
So, why zombies?
I love zombies. From Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead to World War Z. I've been a fan of the zombie genre for a long time - at least I'm a fan of zombies done well. I thought I had something unique to add to the genre.
For a more writerly answer I suppose zombies relate to our fear of the overwhelming. The endless horde that just keeps coming and coming, no matter how many you kill they won't stop. We all feel like we're being overwhelmed sometimes and this relates to that fear. The other aspect of zombies I find intriguing is the threat they pose, facing down a zombie is truly facing down death, the living dead. Not only is it metaphorical of trying to overcome death but fall victim to a zombie and you end up a walking corpse, trapped in death forever.
Your novel deals with some particularly fascinating issues. The notion of power, and its ability to corrupt, is a major theme throughout the novel. Was this based on your own views and experiences of power?
You're right that power is a recurring theme, particularly the clash between the church and state for control of the populace. What I set out to do, more than looking at the way power corrupts individuals, is the way that individuals with power corrupt large organisations. This is a theme of the book particularly directed at young adult readers. It reflects the feeling of being controlled by authority, a feeling that is common in young people as they grow to be more independent but not quite fully independent. It's easy to feel this way even as an adult when told how to behave and what to believe. This is how power is reflected in the book, not so much as corruption but as control.
A Town Called Dust is not your first published piece. Can you tell us a little about your other works?
I've had a few short stories published both online and in print, mostly science fiction and fantasy pieces but also an autobiographical piece. I've also been writing comics for a number of years and have had short comics published in anthologies and I've got two graphic novels currently in development. One, 'Nemesis', 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. The other is 'King and Country', an alternate history revolving around a resistance group in Nazi occupied London. 'King and Country' is being released by Australian publisher Gestalt Comics and hopefully isn't too far away.
What future projects have you got lined up?
At the moment I'm mostly focused on writing 'A City Called Smoke', the sequel to 'A Town Called Dust'. It's due for release next year. I'm contracted to Momentum for two books but the Territory series is a planned trilogy so if everything goes well there will be a third book (A World of Ash). So I'll be spending a little bit more time in the world of Squid and Lynn yet.
After that, well, I've got too many ideas and not enough time!
Hypothetical situation... you have been selected with 99 others to make the one-way journey to colonise Mars. You can only take, due to weight and space restrictions, three hardcover books. What titles would they be and why?
I'm terrible at answering these sorts of questions because I'm not good at having favourites, or at least I have too many! I'll give it a shot though. Given that I'm heading to Mars the first book I'd choose to take is 'The Martian' by Andy Weir - it's a terrific science fiction story thats something like Apollo 13 meets Robinson Crusoe. If something goes wrong there might be some decent tips in there on how to survive. Second, I think i'd take a copy of 'Atlas Shrugged' by Ayn Rand. This is a book I've never read, but one I've always wanted to. It's also some 1200 pages long so would full up some time on a one way trip to Mars. Lastly, I think I'd take 'The Lord of the Rings'. I don't think I need to explain why, fantasy classic that can be read over and over again.
Finally, best advice you can offer for people looking to get their work there?
Finish what you start. That's the best piece of advice I can give. If you don't finish a book it's not going anywhere. It sounds simple but finishing a novel is difficult and it's something you need practice at.
Justin Woolley, thank you for talking to Smash Dragons!
Thanks for having me!
If you would like to learn more about Justin, please drop into his website at http://justinwoolley.net
He is an incredibly friendly bloke... I promise! And I implore you all, jump online and purchase his novel A Town Called Dust... it's a bloody good read!