Marlee Jane Ward’s first book, the dystopian novella Welcome to Orphancorp, was published in 2015 as part of Seizure’s Viva La Novella program. It details a version of the future where orphanages are run as for-profit organisations, and teenagers keep their heads down and hope to age-out of the system. When Mirii arrives at Orphancorp she has just days to go until her birthday, but as she develops bonds and relationships with other orphans she becomes increasingly willing to risk her own freedom for them.
The novella recently won the Young Adult Writing prize at the 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, and is currently shortlisted for Best Young Adult Short Story in this year’s Aurealis Awards. KYD’s Meaghan Dew recently spoke to Ward about debuts, genre and pushing the boundaries in young adult fiction.
Kill Your Darlings: Welcome to Orphancorp presents a bleak possible future, but like all good speculative fiction it feels like a plausible leap from our present. Were there any particular current events related to our society’s treatment of young people that inspired or shaped that world for you?
Marlee Jane Ward: The parallel to our current treatment of children in detention was a theme that came into it later in writing. I think it had been bubbling around subconsciously, like a lot of the themes in my stories. [Often] I’ll only come across them later, like ‘oh brain, I see what you did there.’
When writing it I was thinking about the ‘Kids for Cash’ scandal in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and articles I’d read about Ceausescu’s children under the Soviet regime in Romania in the eighties. And, too, it just seemed natural to me – of course orphanages in the future would be run for profit. My brain can be a pretty grim place sometimes, and that comes from the world often being a pretty grim place.
KYD: Optimistic isn’t the first word you’d pick to describe Orphancorp, but the orphans’ general lack of hang-ups around sex and sexuality does feel like a bright spot in an otherwise dark environment. How important was that aspect of the story to you?
MJW: Extremely important. I think there’s a huge shift in the perception of sexuality, and the younger generations have it a step up from how I had it and from the generations before, and that climb is going to keep building. It’s so exciting to me. I was out in high school as bisexual, and it was not easy in a small town in the nineties. I wanted that as a positive aspect of the future. It can’t be all grim, all the time, or what’s the point of reading?
As for the sex stuff, I don’t know, I just wanted to see people who looked at sex the same way I do. I’ve not really found that so far in fiction. So I wrote it myself! I was raised with zero information about sex, apart from what I learned about safe sex at school. So everything I know about sex, I had to find out on my own. A positive [effect] of that lack of information was a lack of judgement. I never thought anything I did was wrong. I feel like kids in the Orphancorp would be the same – their concept of sex would be all self- and peer-gleaned.
‘I just write what my brain lets me write, and think myself lucky for it.’
KYD: That sort of exploration isn’t something you see often in futuristic books, but it’s particularly rare in a young adult novel. How do you see the book, genre-wise? Did the way you felt it was likely to be labelled alter the way you approached the content?
MJW: I didn’t set out to write something that cleanly fit into this genre or that genre, or a specific age bracket. I just write what my brain lets me write, and think myself lucky for it.
Once it was done, I knew it would probably get labelled and put into the Dystopian YA or NA box, and I was cool with that. Books have to have labels so we know what shelves to put them on in bookstores. But I also knew it would appeal to a broad audience, because of the darker themes and you know, orgies and stuff.
KYD: Congratulations on the VPLA win, and your more recent Aurealis nomination. Has this recognition led to interest from any unexpected places?
MJW: The VPLA was completely unexpected and delightful. I didn’t think my weird little speculative book would have any chance in a more ‘literary’ kind of prize, and I’m so pleased that it won! I’m super excited for the Aurealis Award nomination – I’m going to haul up to Brisbane for the ceremony so I can hang out with all the amazing Aussie spec writers and try and wrangle them into being my friends.
I’ve had some interest from various people in the [publishing] industry, which is exciting and terrifying. I have no idea what I’m doing! I’m still trying to figure out what kind of career I might be able to carve out for myself, so it’s a bit overwhelming, but still awesome. The whole community is so supportive and everyone is offering really great advice, so for the moment I’m trying to listen and ask questions and write and figure out where to go from here.
KYD: There is a healthy literary fiction scene in Australia, but genre fiction can sometimes feel a bit rarer, particularly at the emerging end of the spectrum. Do you see yourself specifically as a genre writer? If so, do you feel that you’ve had access to as many avenues as you would if you were writing, say, the story of two teenagers coming of age in rural New South Wales?
‘There’s a huge divide between lit and genre writers everywhere, and especially in Australia.’
MJW: The genre fiction scene is not rare, it’s just not as cool. I am definitely a genre writer, that’s the one solid thing I know about my writing, and I’m super proud of it. I try to read widely, but there’s a special place in my heart for spec – I love the dystopian, post-apocalyptic and hard sci-fi genres especially. But there’s a huge divide between lit and genre writers everywhere, and especially in Australia.
When I went to uni to study creative writing, the first thing they told us was that genre fiction would not be accepted. During my initial education, I just didn’t think it was an option for me to be a spec writer. It’s treated as less of an art form. Don’t get me wrong, I loved uni and everything I learned there was huge in shaping me as a writer. But finding my niche, writing sci-fi and spec stories, was like coming home. I’ll write about teens coming of age in rural NSW – but, like, post-civilisation collapse or something. That’s where my brain just automatically goes.
KYD: Welcome to Orphancorp is your first book, but it was also the first book your editor in the Viva la Novella project worked on. What was that experience like?
MJW: Orphancorp was the longest thing I’d ever written at the time. I was worried that the threads might not all match up, because I’m a disastrous planner. I’d also never worked with an editor before, and had no idea what to expect. Zoya Patel had a light hand in her editing, but where it really mattered she was firm, and that was great. She really believed in the story and it was amazing to have that right from the start.
KYD: Are there any books you feel inspired you? Books that were or are to you what you hope Welcome To Orphancorp will be to readers?
MJW: Yes. So, so many. I read everything as a kid – there were no rules on what I could and couldn’t read. I think The Stand by Stephen King, which I read when I was thirteen or so, really skewed my brain to being obsessed with the end of the world.
But I grew up in the nineties in this rad golden age of Aussie YA speculative fiction too, so a lot of my formative texts are things like Taronga and Del-Del by Victor Kelleher, Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park, The Gathering by Isobelle Carmody, Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubinstein and the Tomorrow Series by John Marsden.
‘The real world wasn’t always awesome, and I took solace from escaping into other worlds with magic or tech or action.’
I grew up in small towns on the coast in near-poverty, and the world sometimes felt very small. Books like those really sparked my imagination. The real world wasn’t always awesome, and I took solace from escaping into other worlds with magic or tech or action. Worlds where things were hard, but they always found the stuff inside them to get through it. Later on, when life got harder and I was struggling through some very bleak times, I’d use those books as a form of comfort. I still do, come to think of it. My ultimate aim is to write books that mean things to people, the way those books meant things to me.
KYD: Without giving away any spoilers, the end of Welcome to Orphancorp definitely leaves some parts of the story open. Are you working on a sequel?
MJW: Yes, of course! It’s a trilogy, because everything should be a trilogy. Three is such a nice, round number. They are less Orphancorp stories and more Mirii Mahoney adventures. There’s a big world for her out there, at least there is in my head. She’s gotta try and find Vu! I mean, shit, I’m excited to see what happens. I know where she’s going, but not all the details, so it’s been fun working that out with her. I’ve also got a very clear image of another, completely separate book that I’m excited to write, maybe when I need a break from being inside Mirii’s head. And now you’ve brought it up, I’m gonna write my spin on that rural coming-of-age story you mentioned. So thanks for that!
Welcome to Orphancorp is published by Seizure, and is available now through Readings.