The Road to Winter: An Interview with Mark Smith
I very much enjoyed The Road to Winter and look forward to the continuation of the story. Several questions emerged as I read and I’m really grateful that you’ve offered to answer them so that all our readers have the chance to find out more about how you approached writing the novel.
Thanks, Bridget. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how The Road to Winter fares in the UK. In fact one of the first trial readers of the manuscript was the 16 year old daughter of a friend living in London. She loved it so I’m hoping more UK readers will too!
I know you’ve written many short stories, but what prompted you to write a full-length novel, and propose a trilogy?
The novel actually grew out of a short story I wrote called “Breathing In and Out”. Although there has been a renaissance in short story collections recently in Australia, they are not big sellers and if you are lucky enough to get a publishing deal it is much more likely to be for a novel. When I decided to write a novel, the obvious place to start was with my short stories. “Breathing In and Out” had the most potential to grow into something bigger. I only intended to write a sequel but when Text offered a three book deal, that became a trilogy!
How long have you had the idea for The Road to Winter in mind?
I had always wanted to set a story in the sort of coastal town I live in – inundated by tourists in summer then left to quietly slumber through the winter. Once I decided to extend the short story into a novel, it was a fairly fast process - 18 months from beginning to submitting.
Living in a cramped little island like Britain almost any Australian novel set outside the city seems to show a life for young people that is far less constrained and more adventurous than here. The Road to Winter shows Finn to be a really capable teenager, who has learnt to cope on his own and survive the loneliness of his situation. Do you feel many Australian teenagers could be as independent and courageous as he is?
In my work away from writing, I run a residential campus on the Victorian west coast for a large Melbourne boys’ college. I work solely with 15 year old boys, teaching them outdoor skills and environmental awareness. While they might not have the resilience of Finn, they do adapt to the bush surroundings of the campus quite easily considering they are urban boys. I have a strong belief that teenagers are capable of great strength and resilience – once adults stop being strong and resilient for them. Finn’s independence is forced upon him and he is lucky enough to have developed skills in hunting and fishing that help him survive. Most teenagers in Australia wouldn’t have those skills but they are incredibly adaptable as circumstances change in their lives.
I know you cite John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began as a major influence on your decision to write The Road to Winter, and it, and its sequels, centre around a female lead character. The girls in The Road to Winter are very strong characters, arguably stronger even than Finn, despite the hardships they have suffered. What prompted you to foreground Finn rather than Rose or Kas as the main character?
That’s a great question! My work has put me in the headspace of adolescent boys for a long time now and it seemed natural to have a boy as the protagonist. I am a huge advocate for boys reading and I don’t think YA in general offers enough books for them. I didn’t write The Road to Winter specifically for boys but I did want to interest male readers in it. I also think it’s essential boys read about strong female characters – and I agree, Rose and Kas are stronger than Finn in many respects. Here in Australia, the balance between the male and female characters has seen the book taken on as part of year eight and nine curriculum in a number of schools.
I feel that girls would enjoy The Road to Winter as much as boys, especially because Rose and Kas are such vibrant characters, but by having Finn tell the story, do you think you have risked putting some girls off before they get beyond the first page?
The feedback in Australia has been that boys and girls have enjoyed The Road to Winter equally. I was also reluctant to write from the POV of a sixteen year old Afghani girl. I think there are issues of appropriation involved in doing that. I have written a number of short stories involving Indigenous characters but this has been from a position of knowledge. I have a close connection with an Indigenous community in the Northern Territory and friends and adopted family there have helped guide and inform those stories. I guess it’s the old mantra of “write what you know”.
Do the other two novels in the trilogy centre around Finn, with him as narrator?
Yes, Finn narrates the second and third books. I like the consistency of approaching the trilogy in this way.
Because of the isolation resulting from the epidemic, in many ways The Road to Winter seems to me to be in a direct line from much earlier survival adventures, from Robinson Crusoe to Lord of the Flies. Were either of those novels an influence on your writing?
Yes, they were. As an English teacher, I taught Lord of the Flies for a number of years and in some ways The Road to Winter mirrors the moral and ethical decisions faced by the schoolboys on the island. In this case, though, it is the adults who have resorted to violence first.
For me, a major strength of the book lies in the fact that its not unbelievably dystopian. Despite the epidemic and the resulting lawlessness, there’s very little that we can’t see in some developing countries now, and couldn’t imagine happening in developed countries pretty soon. Were you prompted by political views on current issues such as asylum seekers and enforced labour?
I certainly wanted to raise some of these isuues through the story but I was very conscious of not being “preachy”. YA readers are quite capable of making up their own minds about issues of concern to them. It was important to me to flesh out these issues through the characters – to personalise them for the reader. I know as an educator that one of the best ways for young people to understand an issue is through personalising it for them. I wanted them to feel a deep empathy for Rose and Kas and to question their treatment at the hands of a developed, western country like Australia. One of the beauties of writing dystopian fiction is that you can take an existing issue and ratchet it up a few notches – just enough for it to remain believable.
I doubt that many readers in the UK will be familiar with the opposing views on asylum seekers in Australia. Regretably many other previously welcoming countries seem to be heading that way. I know your publishers have teaching notes available for Australian schools, but as the book becomes available beyond the antipodes, would it be helpful to add notes which explained some of the issues you reference?
That’s a great suggestion and I will pass it on the Text.
It’s great to see diversity in a YA novel, but what prompted you to create both Finn and Rose as characters with disability? Obviously you’ve prepared Finn for the isolation after the epidemic, as he is an only child and has a speech impediment, but why Rose’s birthmark?
I wanted both Finn and Kas to be outsiders because their view of the world would be informed by it. Not only is Kas a Siley, she also has the birthmark to contend with. The way she deals with it is a sign of her strength of character. If anything, it has made her stronger and more fearless. The only time she appears to be aware of it is when her relationship with Finn begins to develop. She becomes more self conscious with Finn, often allowing her hair to fall over her face and cover the birthmark. Similarly, Finn has his speech impediment to contend with. It has made him more withdrawn as a teenager, thus increasing the challenge of engaging when he first finds Rose – and later, Kas.
In many ways we seem to be more uptight now about the appropriateness of content to readers’ age. With protagonists who are 16, 17 and 19, and a pretty realistic scene of childbirth late in the book would you consider The Road to Winter a YA novel, or a ‘crossover’ novel?
I agree that there are often too many “gatekeepers” ruling on what is and isn’t appropriate for YA readers. The interesting part of this is that I wasn’t consciously writing a YA novel when I wrote The Road to Winter. I was just writing a novel with a teenage protagonist. I had read very few YA books and I wasn’t aware of the tropes in the genre. In some ways I think that has been part of The Road to Winter’s attraction and its success. It is certainly a crossover book that has been taken up by both adult and teenage readers.
Finally, once this trilogy is finished, do you have anything else for this audience on the back boiler?
I think my next book, after the trilogy, will be adult literary fiction. All of the short stories I have had published are in this genre and I have made a start on a sort of literary thriller, which I hope sees the light of day in a couple of years time!