Interview with Glenda Millard

Today I’m joined by Glenda Millard, author of the amazing new YA book, The Stars at Oktober Bend.  Glenda’s book, A Small Free Kiss in the Dark, is one of my favourite books and I was very eager to read her latest book.  It is an absolutely amazing story with unforgettable characters (you can read my review here).

Check out my interview with Glenda to hear about her inspiration for The Stars at Oktober Bend, why she wrote her story in the way that she did, and her haunting characters.

The Stars at Oktober Bend | FRONT COVER (20 October 2015)

  • What inspired you to write The Stars at Oktober Bend?
My strong point as a writer is certainly not planning! I usually begin writing with a singular idea and develop it as I go. The initial idea for ‘The Stars at Oktober Bend’ came from a brief newspaper article about a homeless girl who sang and in doing so had earned herself a scholarship to study music at a prestigious conservatorium.
 So I began writing with the vague notion of telling the story of someone who sang as a means of escaping a traumatic past. But as often happens, once the characters began to evolve and further information came to hand, my story changed direction.
One of the bigger impacts on the change of direction for ‘The Stars at October Bend’ was that my daughter was studying for her Masters in Speech Pathology and I became aware of language disorders, their causes and effects. That led me to thinking about what it would be like to be unimpaired intellectually, but to struggle with expressing ideas verbally.
  • Your characters really got under my skin and I couldn’t stop thinking about them.  Do they still haunt you?

Literary characters have to live and breathe for me. I have to be totally engaged with them and believe in them otherwise I can’t imagine how other people will. I feel the same as a reader – if I have no emotional connection with the characters, then it doesn’t matter how good the plot is, there is nothing to keep me motivated to read. So I suppose the answer to your question is ‘yes’ because I think of the characters as  living people for so long, that it’s hard to forget them once the book is finished.

  • What is your secret to creating memorable, relatable characters?

I’m not sure I can tell you the answer to that. I imagine that creating a literary character and acting the part of one in a play or movie might be similar in some ways. I only know that I have to try to feel what my characters feel and then express it in a way that readers will relate to – not only in an intellectual way, but an emotional one.

  • Joey is the sort of brother that all sisters would want.  Do you have a brother like Joey?

I don’t have any brothers, but I invented one who I hoped would seem plausible – Joey with all his human faults and foibles, but staunchly loyal and faithful.

  • You use both prose and verse to tell Alice’s story.  Why did you decide to do this?

I used prose, verse, lower case letters and minimal punctuation as an acknowledgement of the difficulty Alice had in explaining longer, more complex thoughts in single sentences.  As Alice herself says, she began by writing lists, these developed into verse and then as the story progresses, so too does Alice’s ability to communicate more complex, cohesive thoughts. One of the things Alice and I love about verse is that each line can give a small foretaste of what is to come – a kind of prompt or reminder. So for Alice, verse became an aide to expression, something that helped her string longer passages of thought together in small bites.

  • You write picture books, books for younger readers and teens.  Do you have a favourite age to write for?

Anyone who can read! The age of the reader is in some ways irrelevant to me. Even when I write picture books, I don’t presume that only children will read them. I am always looking for the best way to tell my story, so that whoever reads it will enjoy it for some reason or other. Perhaps the story itself or simply the way it is told. Each genre has its own challenges and pleasures. Picture books, for example, generally demand very concise writing. For me, writing across a broad range, from picture books through to novels is a way of keeping my writing fresh and not allowing myself to get too comfortable or predictable.

  • Who are your rock-star authors?

Among the many on my list, David Almond, a UK writer, has been for many, many years, my rock-star author. My not-so-secret wish is to have David endorse one of my books!  In Australia, I am a great admirer of Ursula Dubosarsky’s beautiful writing and have had the privilege of meeting her on a number of occasions.

The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard

Some authors have the gift of being able to create incredible worlds that you get lost in.  Other authors bring characters alive that are so real they could almost jump off the page.  Glenda Millard’s characters become your life-long friends and they haunt you long after you have finished their story.  When you read Glenda Millard’s new book, The Stars at Oktober Bend, you won’t want to say goodbye to Alice Nightingale.

The Stars at Oktober Bend | FRONT COVER (20 October 2015)Alice is fifteen, with hair as red as fire and skin as pale as bone, but something inside her is broken. She has acquired brain injury, the result of an assault, and her words come out slow and slurred. But when she writes, heartwords fly from her pen. She writes poems to express the words she can’t say and leaves them in unexpected places around the town. Manny was once a child soldier. He is sixteen and has lost all his family. He appears to be adapting to his new life in this country, where there is comfort and safety, but at night he runs, barefoot, to escape the memory of his past. When he first sees Alice, she is sitting on the rusty roof of her river-house, looking like a carving on an old-fashioned ship sailing through the stars.

The Stars at Oktober Bend is an absolutely amazing story with unforgettable characters.  Glenda Millard’s writing is beautiful and I fell in love with her characters.  It took me a few chapters to get used to Alice’s unique voice but I had to know about her life and how she got to be the ‘damaged’ person that she is at the beginning.  Alice tells her story both through prose and verse.  Alice and Joey’s father is dead, their mother has left them and their grandfather is in jail.  As the story progresses you learn what happened to Alice and her family to get them to where they are.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters.  Alice and Manny took up residence in my head, going everywhere with me.  They are both damaged my their past – Alice by the trauma that she has suffered and Manny by war in Sierra Leonne.  Alice and Manny get to have their own voices in the story so we see the world from their unique points of view.  I loved the development of Alice throughout the story, especially how those around her helped her to grow.  Although I loved Alice and Manny, my favourite character was Alice’s brother Joey.  Joey is the sort of brother that any sister would be lucky to have.  He is always there for her, to help her make sense of the world.  He is trying to keep what is left of his family together, while trying to be his own person.

Glenda shows both the best and the worst of humanity in her story.  The people who killed Manny’s family in Sierra Leonne and the guys who damaged Alice show us the worst of humanity, but Joey and Manny’s adopted parents, Louisa and Bull James, show us the best of humanity in their kindness and love.

There are so many parts of Glenda’s amazing story that I love.  I stopped reading many times just to marvel at what I had just read and the beauty of Glenda’s words.  This is a tender morsel of text from the story and it’s a quote that I feel sums up the mystery of the story.

most days joey told me
at least one interesting face
to make up for school cut short
because of what happened
one starry, starry night,
and the fear
that sometimes still
squeezed my lungs
froze my limbs and tongue and talk,
as though he thought
interesting facts would
somehow subtract all that
and the disgrace that followed
our family.

The Stars at Oktober Bend is a must-read book for teens and adults.  Add a little bit of beauty to your world and grab a copy now.