Lisa Fuller’s novel – Ghost Bird – has had a real impact over in My Book Corner,
“A life-affirming narrative that will leave the reader questioning everything they know about their own life and the roots that were laid down before them.”
Set in 1999, in Australia, featuring First Nation Australian twins Stacey and Laney Thomson, begin their last year at high school. And then… Laney goes missing.
Ghost Bird completely hooked Sarah Broadley, and so she conducted this fantastic interview with the talented author, Lisa Fuller. It’s a great, in-depth, thoughtful interview, as Sarah’s interviews always are. Grab a cuppa, and enjoy…
1. From regional dialects to acknowledging ancestral beginnings, words play a huge part in how we create the stories we want to tell. In Ghost Bird, you pay homage to those who have come before, was it an emotional experience to write about your origins and yet embrace Laney & Stacey’s story at the same time?
I always wanted to write about my community, but I had a lot of fear around it. Australian media puts out certain narratives about First Nations Australians – we’re alcoholics, drug-addicts, we’re ‘the problem’ etc. There’s also a general lack of understanding about what happened, and is still happening, in mainstream Australia. For a long time, it felt like when I tried to write about us, I was battling those stereotypes and doing a bad job of it, so I escaped into other genres. During my Masters (where Ghost Bird began), I had to let go of all that, and write as though only my family would ever read it. That meant being true to our experiences and how we move through the world – the racism, the trauma, but also our spirituality, connections to Country and each other, our wicked sense of humour, all of it.
It didn’t happen in isolation. My supervisor helped me a lot when I started out. I gave him five ideas I’d been toying with, and he’s the one who picked Laney & Tace’s story (the idea I least wanted to do because of the above-mentioned fear). I got permissions from my aunties, per our cultural requirements, which helped me feel more comfortable. I also had my mum check the manuscript at various points to make sure I was on the right path. My main concern was telling a cracking good story that my niblings could hopefully see themselves in, and doing it ‘our’ way. If it helped others understand us more, then so much the better. Writing Ghost Bird was hard, but it felt like I was finally finding my voice.
2. Twins can have a unique bond that ties them together, Laney and Stacey have very different personalities and Ghost Bird takes the reader on a fantastic roller coaster as it reveals their inner selves. Are you a twin? If not, did you carry out any research or discuss your story/sibling relationships with any twins that you know? If yes, did you draw on your own experiences to create the wonderful bond that holds them close? (You can delete as appropriate)
I’m not a twin, but I always wanted to be one. I used to read a lot of those ‘strange but true’ books in school, that dealt a lot with twin connections. I still like watching documentaries about people with unique experiences. I’ve always been fascinated by the connections we have as humans, and how people can transcend what’s considered the ‘norm’. So you could say I’ve been researching twins since I was a child.
The sibling dynamic was easier and harder at the same time– I have two sisters, I’m the middle. My older sister and I are very different, so I riffed off that (some of it subconsciously). I think the sibling dynamic is usually complex, but it can be even harder in those teenage years when you’re trying to figure out who you are and where you fit.
3. You chose a year pre 2000 to set this book, is there a reason for this?
I debated about this with my editor. When I left home to go to university, there was no mobile phone coverage and only the school had internet. The first year I was gone, that all changed. Suddenly, everyone could afford access to the internet, you could call or text someone directly and not worry about having to call their house phone and speak to their parents. There were a lot of positives but also negatives that I saw when I visited. I was worried that I couldn’t portray these new dynamics in an authentic way, especially once social media got so big, so I wound the clock back to when I still lived there. Also, 1999 felt like a very strange time, with the Y2K fears and all the prophecies and doomsday predictions about the new millennium. It was anticlimactic in the end, but it was a weird year and I think it’s just stuck with me.
4. Guidance from those around you can come in many forms. The Ghost Bird in your story reveals a lot to the reader – can you tell us more about the signs and relevance of this cultural reference to the story and how you wanted it to be revealed to the reader as the plot progressed?
We believe that we’re connected to everything in nature and vice versa. Part of that is specific animals are messengers. They aren’t evil, but the message or warning they bring can be scary. Our ghost bird is the tawny frogmouth (it’s different for other nations). Basically, if you see one it means there are spirits around, but it can also mean something is wrong, especially if it’s acting strangely. I know a lot of people, myself included, who see a tawny frogmouth and walk very fast in the other direction. It’s why I asked that they not be included on the cover, because none of us would’ve picked up the book lol.
In the original manuscript, the ghost bird only appeared that first time with Laney and Troy’s car. My editor was helping me find a title, as it’s not a talent of mine, so I asked her to send me a handful of suggestions. Ghost Bird was at the top of her list, and it gave me goosebumps as soon as I saw it. We went with that, and I added more of it into the story. I think the book is better for those changes. (Feel free to delete this last para if it’s not relevant, I just thought it might interest you 😊 )
5. You are passionate about cultural appropriation in writing and publishing. Thank you for referring me to your post regarding awareness of your beliefs. As a First Nations Australian what advice would you give to those who are writing their own lived experience?
I’m so glad it was helpful! Oof, that’s hard. It will always depend on what each person is comfortable with. Publishing can be fraught, especially for minorities. Only you can decide what you’re okay with being out there, because once it is you lose all control over it. I would recommend not sharing something that you aren’t comfortable talking about with strangers and following whatever protocols you feel you need to for your work or ethics. Sometimes we have to write things down before realising a piece doesn’t belong in the public or isn’t worth putting out there if it will negatively impact you or your loved ones. That’s all valid.
Seek out publishers who are actively engaging with diverse writers. If you aren’t sure where to start, check who is publishing writers you relate to, join some writers’ groups, go to events, and do your research. You want someone who shares your vision for your work. People are experts in their areas and you’re an expert in your story, so the editing process should be a conversation.
Most of all, your story and your experiences are important, and there are people out there who are searching for the connection your work can bring. Please don’t ever water down your voice for the comfort of others. Just make sure to protect yourself while doing so.
6. In your opinion, what could the publishing world do to ensure more minority voices are on our shelves and in our bookshops?
I was in publishing for seven years, and I’ve seen positive change that’s meant more diverse voices are getting out there. Their voices, worldviews, and ways of expressing that difference in language would once have been homogenised, but are now being celebrated. A lot of that change I put down to people in the sector educating themselves about the issues, as well as organisations like black&write, who are training diverse editors and helping writers to have a culturally safe editing experience. Some editors/publishers are now seeking culturally diverse staff, sensitivity readings, and/or cultural consultations.
However, it can’t be on the shoulders of a few individuals to bring change. Everyone in the sector needs to take responsibility for learning more and doing better, from writers to editors, publishers, marketers, booksellers, judging panels etc. Unfortunately, there are still many people who don’t understand that to make diverse peoples feel supported, their processes and methods must change. That means listening to those who have the knowledge and expertise, and educating everyone involved about difference, power and privilege. Engaging in a genuine and meaningful way is imperative. For example, when seeking a sensitivity reading this should happen as early as possible, not when a book is ready to be printed. Doing so sooner makes it clear that what is being sought is actual engagement, while barely offering any time or scope for discussion or change to problematic content is tokenism.
As an author I’ve been lucky, my experiences have been largely positive, and I’ve loved working with my publishers and editors. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen on both sides, but we’ve worked through it from a place of mutual respect. As a publishing consultant I’ve seen some highly offensive content. I do my best to educate those who have contacted me in a professional manner, often spending hours agonising over an email to explain why a work is so damaging. I usually never receive a reply to these emails, and no offer of payment is tendered, proving just how little they value my time and expertise. If genuine engagement is being sought, this is not the way to go about it. Pay those you approach to do work for you, and reply to them when they offer you advice. Silence is the ultimate act of privilege.
Lisa Fuller is a member of the Wulli Wulli Nation, recognised in 2015 as the traditional custodians of 108,000 hectares of Queensland, Australia. Ghost Bird was an Honour Book in the Australian Book of the Year Awards and Winner, Readings Young Adult Book Prize and Queensland Literary Awards. Lisa has previously published poetry, blogs and short fiction and is passionate about culturally appropriate writing and publishing.