Nelika McDonald has just released her debut novel into the world, it was certainly an engrossing read and an impressive debut. The Vale Girl is a novel I would recommend to all. As I sat writing my review I realised there was more I wanted to know, and Nelika has been kind enough to answer some questions for us. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I do.
Hi Nelika, welcome to Beauty and Lace. Thanks for talking to us.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was quite young but I didn’t really have the confidence to pursue it as an actual career until a few years ago when I returned home from overseas and had to work out what I was going to do next!
Can you tell us a little about your journey to publication?
I had a pretty charmed journey to publication. I was studying a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT in Melbourne, and taking a class in Writing for Young Adults with Cath Crowley, who is a wonderful writer, published with Pan Macmillan. Cath’s editor at Pan Mac, a woman called Claire Craig, asked Cath if any of her students were doing anything she (Claire) might be interested in. Cath put my name forward, and it went from there. Claire ended up offering me a contract to finish The Vale Girl based on the few chapters that I sent her. I was incredibly fortunate to be given that opportunity when I hadn’t even finished my manuscript and was a total unknown as a writer. It still amazes me that someone took such a leap of faith in me, and I will be forever grateful to Claire and Cath!
Your debut ‘The Vale Girl’ has just been released, can you tell us a little about the book?
The Vale Girl is about a young girl, Sarah Vale, who goes missing in a small country town. She is the daughter of the town prostitute and doesn’t seem to be an especially valued resident because not any people seem to care that she is gone. The people who do care are her best friend and the boy who loves her, Tommy Johns, and the resident police Sergeant, Sergeant Henson. Together Tommy and Sergeant Henson mount a search for Sarah and some uncomfortable truths about the town emerge as they start asking questions.
The Vale Girl is set in the rural NSW town of Banville. Why NSW, and does the town actually exist?
Banville doesn’t actually exist. I set it in NSW because I have lived in Melbourne and Brisbane but not Sydney, and I wanted to make sure even for myself that I wasn’t writing about somewhere I knew, I needed it to be free of any associations.
Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
The idea for the book came from a number of things that were floating around in my brain that somehow came together. I have never lived in a small town but grew up in Brisbane, which is like a small town in many ways! I have always been intrigued by the dynamics of small communities and the interdependence of the residents in them, and how that affects relationships- when you are physically isolated you must need to rely on the people around you, and that must in turn create a lot of pressure to sustain relationships that are not necessarily organic. When my husband and I drove from Brisbane to Melbourne a few years ago we passed through a lot of small towns and I was thinking of them when I described Banville- towns that people pass through by necessity that try and capitalise on that trade by presenting themselves a certain way, even though the reality of living in those towns may be pretty far removed from the image. I also went on a bus trip in the UK that got diverted through some pretty grim streets of an otherwise picturesque village. These streets were not far from the main street, and it was clear that this was how the bulk of the population lived. The gentrification had been really confined to that small zone, and I wondered how many people had been to that village and assumed it was all reminiscent of that main street. I also wondered how the residents felt about that!
The character of Sarah was inspired by an article I read about young people who were carers for parents with illness or disability. It was interesting to me how adult some of these children were, and I thought the idea of the traditional parent-child relationship being turned on its head was pretty compelling. I thought about that in terms of addiction and substance abuse and how that would affect the relationship too. I think in Sarah I was thinking about children who were, by virtue of their experiences, a lot older than their biological age. I also wanted to write a strong, young female character, because I think there are plenty of them in existence, and as testament to those children shouldering such massive responsibilities with grace and integrity. Tommy is another character older than he should be, and I think that is part of the bond between him and Sarah. The story developed the way it did because I followed their characters to places that gave them endings that were sort of happy, but hopefully also realistic. As it happens, they do both end up with more traditional adult figures in their lives, but that was not so much because I thought they needed adults, but more because they needed to not be alone any more.
Do you find yourself at times thinking about what happened next for Tommy and Sarah? Or for any of the other characters?
I think about them a lot. It has been a really strange experience, since the book has come out, to have these people that I made up in my mind take on a new dimension, existing in the minds of other people too! It makes me feel strangely protective of them, I got so attached to them in writing but now they are out in the world and I can’t control how people respond to them or perceive them. I think a lot about real-life Tommys and Sarahs too, and wonder what their futures hold.
Are you working on something new at the moment that you can tell us about?
I am expecting my first child with my husband in October, so I guess I’m kind of working on that! But I have the makings of another novel in the works, and I’m also writing a book for children with my husband, who is an illustrator. It is called The Council of Cats, and it’s about a group of neighbourhood cats who meet under the clothesline at night and have meetings to discuss issues affecting them, like troublesome dogs. They’re like a little feline, bureaucratic Neighbourhood Watch committee!
Do you have a favourite place or time of day to write?
Not really, just anywhere comfy with a big cup of tea at hand! But one day I want one of those beautiful antique mahogany desks with lots of little drawers and shelves and inkwells. Then I would feel like a Serious Writer.
Are you a writer who plots methodically or lets the characters tell their story as it comes?
I usually have a loose plot but try and let the characters dictate as much as possible, that feels more organic and it is actually a lot easier than trying to wrangle them into some pre-ordained, rigid storyline.
How did you feel the first time you saw your book in print?
Amazed. I came home from the park with my husband and nephew and the box with my advance copies was on my verandah. I probably could have sat and just looked at them all afternoon but my nephew was pretty keen to get on with making paper aeroplanes, so we did that instead.
What does being a woman mean to you?
Being a woman means being able to decide anew, every day, what being a woman is and how I’m going to live it and honour it that day.
Thank you so much for your time Nelika, I really enjoyed your answers. I often find myself thinking about Tommy and Sarah and how things played out for them down the track. Good Luck for October!