When my mum called the other day to discuss the launch of my debut novel, Neverland, I assumed she wanted to talk cupcake logistics (I’ve been Pinteresting ideas; she’s been scaling them down to a workable reality). But no. She was more concerned with the book itself. In (a close approximation of) her words: ‘I just got off the phone with Nana, and I’m pretty sure our family is under the impression that you’ve written a children’s fairytale. You *may* want to set them straight BECAUSE THEY ARE IN FOR THE SHOCK OF THEIR LIVES.’
She has a point. Until recently, whenever someone’s asked me to describe Neverland, I’ve shuffled awkwardly and muttered something vague about a girl and an island, because spruiking your own book is hard. At least I find it to be. I basically had to learn my elevator pitch like a script before my first author event. But I’m getting better at it. And if any potential interviewers/festival directors are reading this, my god, I’m uh-mazing, like get-the-girl-a-microphone-and-dim-the-houselights good.
So, with the Neverland launch just one week away, I thought I’d share a little about the story and why I ran with the (arguably misleading) title, Neverland. This one’s for you, Mum.
Neverland grew from a sense of being stuck. I’d been living interstate for a few years and was feeling homesick and anxious about the future. To cheer myself up, I decided to reread J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. It was one of my favourite stories as a kid and I thought it’d be comforting and familiar. Instead, I was surprised by how dark and violent it is, and how different from the innocent story I remembered—Barrie’s Never Neverland is a terrifying place. This misremembering got me thinking about how, in times of uncertainty and upheaval, we yearn for a romanticised version of the past that in all likelihood never existed—and how this kind of nostalgia can prevent us from moving forward.
From that initial idea, I dreamed up a story that my agent calls ‘a subversive twist on the “boarding school” sub-genre’. And I like that, so I’m stealing it. (Thanks, Danielle!) Neverland is narrated by seventeen-year-old Kit Learmonth, a deeply troubled young woman struggling to come to terms with the terrible events of her past.
Kit grew up with her parents in the ruins of an old resort on her family’s privately-owned island. And to her, the island has always been a magical place—home to the pirates, mermaids, fairies, witches, selkies and sea monsters her dad chronicled in his semi-autobiographical bestseller, Kingdom by the Sea.
However, Kit’s parents were drowned in a sailing accident when Kit was ten. Since then, she’s been looked after by her uncle, Doc—a psychiatrist who has turned the island into a boarding school for mentally ill teens. Kit has spent most of her high school years at regular boarding schools on the mainland. However, after she tries to take her own life partway through year twelve, Doc brings her home to the island and places her in the care of his colleague, Dr Hannah Ward.
Once home, Kit tries to pretend that everything’s okay. She has her two best friends, Alistair and Gypsy, to distract her, exams and the Schools’ Cup sailing competition are fast approaching and there’s a new boy on the island who seems to understand Kit in a way no one else ever has. However, the island’s magic is beginning to fade. The mermaids and pirates have taken their leave and a new monster roams the island in their place, forcing Kit to question everything she thinks she remembers about her childhood and her parents’ deaths.
I chose the title Neverland because the story is bound up in memory, yearning and grief, and I wanted to evoke the sense of a dream-like place that remains forever beyond reach. I was also struck by the bittersweet note of nostalgia in Barrie’s description of his Never Neverland: ‘On these magic shores children at play are forever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.’ For a story about a girl who keeps willing herself back into fairytales, it seemed fitting.
Neverland is aimed at the upper end of YA and deals with self-harm, suicide and mental illness in a reasonably explicit way. Mum would also like me to point out that it includes underage drinking, pot smoking and *stage whispers* s-e-x. (Yes, giving her the manuscript was incredibly awkward.) But hopefully the rest of my family still want to read it!