“There are certain ingredients in every dish that you eat that you don’t necessarily love, but other people do, and that creates the whole flavour of the meal.”
In the book, twelve-year-old Mike Amon deals with all the regular teenage concerns with a major extra thrown in – his mum has been diagnosed with cancer. Our First Book Club host Ellen Cregan asked Matt a few questions about reading, writing and the editing process.
Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’.
Read Ellen Cregan’s review of Being Black ‘n Chicken, & Chips in our November Books Roundup.
Read Matt Okine’s Seven Tips to Help You Write Anything.
Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!
Meaghan Dew: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew and today I’ll be bringing you our November First Book Club recording. This month’s First Book Club is Matt Okine’s Being Black ‘n Chicken, & Chips. In it, 12-year-old Mike deals with all the regular teenage concerns, with a major extra thrown in – his mum has been diagnosed with cancer. Our First book club host Ellen Cregan asked a few questions about the book.
Ellen Cregan: Hello and welcome to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. My name is Ellen and I’m the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club host. Today I have with me on the line Matt Okine, author of the novel Being Black ‘n Chicken, & Chips, which is our pick for November. Hello, Matt. Thank you for joining me.
Matt Okine: Hey, how’s it going?
EC: Good thanks! So we’re going to start today with a little reading from your book, if you’re ready to go.
Chapter 7: Friday 28th March 1998.
We were sitting in Biology, in our usual spot down the back- right corner of the class. The science rooms had shared seating at long benches, with gas fixtures attached and a tap and basin in the centre. I thought Biology meant hacking at dead frogs with scalpels. Instead, we got blurry diagrams of jellyfish projected onto the classroom wall, which was annoying. Jellyfish are already blurry animals.
Ms Harris, our science teacher, clopped wherever she went; a pair of black, closed – in shoes with a low block heel and a black velvet bow, permanently attached to her feet. She had a long, thin, Greek nose, big teeth, and a pair of tassel earrings constantly bashing against a line along her jaw where plenty of make-up met plenty of freckles.
‘Quick quiz. What is the name given to a particular free-swimming creature that is in the Medusa stage of its life-cycle?’ Ms Harris asked.
‘Is it “Tully”, Miss?’ I yelled out.
Tully whacked me on the arm as the class laughed. I spotted Zoe laughing too and I wondered who I needed to give my address to so they could send me a Hero of the Year medallion. Ms Harris rolled her eyes and carried on.
‘The answer is on the diagrams in front of you: the jellyfish. The name “Medusa”, of course, comes from the ancient Greek tale, about a lady with snakes for hair.’
‘Then it’s true, Miss. You should see me when I’ve gotten out of bed,’ Tully said.
The class giggled again.
‘Interesting fact about jellyfish: They are asexual creatures. They each release sperm and eggs into the water. From there, a larvae is formed, and an eventual jellyfish is released from that.’
‘Does that mean every time we go to the beach, we’re swimming in jellyfish jizz?’ Tully yelled.
Everyone laughed. Ms Harris shook her head in disappointment.
‘Now, the main predator of jellyfish are other jellyfish, but they have a number of other predators. These include fish, sharks, turtles – which is why they end up choking on plastic bags – and, would you believe, certain types of diving birds, who spot the jellyfish from the sky and dive down to eat not just the jellyfish itself, but what’s inside the jellyfish too. Imagine that. A little fish, being eaten by a jellyfish, being eaten by a bird. That’s quite the turducken!’
Ms Harris gave a hearty laugh and the class stared, silently.
‘That was actually pretty funny,’ I whispered to Tully.
‘I know, but she’s a teacher. I can’t laugh.’
Ms Harris cleared her throat. ‘But, of course, jellyfish are best known for their ability to ruin a day at the beach. Their sting comes from tiny nematocysts, or stinging cells, on the jellyfish’s bell. When triggered, the cells eject poisonous barbs that help the jellyfish catch their dinner. Now, fact or fiction: you should apply urine to a jellyfish sting?’ Ms Harris asked.
‘Ha!’ Tully bleated. ‘You should ask Mike, Miss.’
‘Let me ask you this, Mr Amon. Do you know how acidic your urine is at any given time?’ Ms Harris asked. And now everyone was staring.
‘You should be asking his Mum, Miss.’ Tully yelled. ‘She was the one treating his stings.’
I wish I could say the ensuing laughter was a gift that I ‘gave’ to the class. But nope. If I ‘gave’ them that gift, every single one of them returned to sender. So much laughter, directed ‘at’ me now. I locked eyes with Zoe across the room and she was doing her best to hide it, but she was laughing too.
‘If you get stung by a jellyfish, use vinegar! Urine, whether it’s yours or a very generous family member’s, could make things worse. Now, class dismissed.’ Her head pointed floor-bound as the whole class packed up their books. As I walked past, eyes to the floor, I could hear Ms Harris muttering, ‘Mike, Mike, Mike.’
Great, I thought, Zoe thinks I’m a dufus. Tomorrow everyone will have the scalpels. I’ll have a stick of playdough.
EC: Thank you for that. That’s a very funny one to start with, I think.
MO: I’m, I’m a little bit, it’s funny because you do – I’m a little bit annoyed because I, I… It’s funny the things that you pick up when you read it again – for instance in one of the rough drafts it said ‘Miss Harris says, let me ask you this Mr Amon, do you know how acidic your urine is at any given time?’ and then my, my original response was, ‘I don’t know Miss, I haven’t asked it.’ And I always liked, I always liked that line. But you get, you have to take it out because then it dilutes the next thing that Tully says, where she says ‘you should be asking his mum,’ and then suddenly you say ‘asking’ heaps of times. And it’s a real shame. I forgot that that had taken out. So I was kind of looking forward to it when I was reading, and I went ‘oh, that’s right, that’s gone, that’s gone for a reason.’
EC: Well, there are a lot of directions you can go with urine-based humour I suppose.
MO: Yeah, it’s very highbrow, isn’t it.
EC: So for those of us listening who haven’t read the book yet, give us an elevator pitch.
MO: Look, this is a book about a 12-year-old boy who’s trying to start high school while his mum dies of cancer. And it’s really just a 12-year-old boy who’s trying to just be a regular teenager and, you know, fit into the cool bench, become a star athlete, get his first kiss, get the internet installed in his house – all he wants is those things, and he’s just trying to be a normal person while his mum dies.
EC: Mike certainly, he’s quite a, you sort of look at him very fondly – like he’s doing all those cringeworthy teenage boy things, but you’re quite, you seem to have a lot of affection for him.
MO: Is that me or you?
EC: No, I think you, as an author towards your character, yeah.
MO: Well, I mean, you have to have an element of… You have to make the lead character likeable, but it’s a very easy trap to fall into to make them too, too unrealistic. So I always feel like I’m pretty unforgiving when it comes to making my characters unlikable.
MO: And having, definitely having not-likeable qualities about them. So, um, you can do that two ways. And you know, one is to make your character lose all the time, making sure they lose, or to make them do things that really frustrate you as the reader. And sometimes I push it too far, you know, there’s a scene at the end there where, I mean for those who haven’t read the book I’m not really spoiling anything, but essentially imagine a situation where, you know, you really, this person’s parent, this person’s dad has really gone out of, out of their way to to, you know, be a good parent to this, to this young kid, and the boy still can’t, just come to appreciate that, or thank him, he’s still mean to his dad. And there was a scene that I had to amend because, you know, the publishers were like, nah, he’s, that’s – you’re really pushing him into completely unlikable territory if he does this, if he, you know reacts like that in this particular situation. So yeah, there’s always a fine line between making sure they’re likeable and unlikeable, and, you know, honest and realistic.
EC: Well one of the things I really liked about reading this book is that you’re pretty, you are pretty brutal with those scenes of embarrassment, like, you don’t cut him much slack – Mike, that is – and it almost makes him more loveable. By seeing a 12-year-old boy, who really seems like a 12-year-old boy, who’s making 12-year-old boy kind of mistakes in a way that, I remember seeing 12-year-old boys doing things like that.
MO: Yeah, totally, and you have to go back there and remember like, you know, sometimes as an adult you think ‘oh, no one would actually do things like that.’ But oh they do, you know, you just forget – you’ve blocked all those awful memories from your brain.
MO: So, I mean it was fun to go back there, and there were certainly moments where I thought, oh, they’re not going to let me keep this in the book. But they did, and I’m really glad they did, you know, because it, it, it, it’s going to speak to certain people. The thing about my book is, it’s not going to speak – I feel like it’s going to speak to everyone, but not every part of it is going to speak to everyone, you know. There are certain ingredients in every, you know, dish that you eat that, you know, you don’t necessarily love, but other people do. And that’s why, you know, that, that creates the whole the whole flavour of the meal. My, my partner doesn’t like coriander, and I do – so we can both eat something with coriander in it, she won’t like the coriander, I will like the coriander, and we’ll both like the dish.
MO: So I try to make it really accessible for everyone, and, but also to make sure that it really speaks to certain people. Everyone gets a chance to to be spoken to at least once in the whole book.
EC: And just to step back a little bit to something you were saying, with writing about that particular time in life, or sort of setting a book at a main character’s early teenage years – was it kind of awful to return to the thoughts of high school, and the awkwardness – and especially just starting high school, that terrible time?
MO: (Laughs. ) No it wasn’t, because I… I’ve already experienced that, that cringeworthy feeling, you know, once – I’m not going to put myself through it again. I mean the reason why I write stories, put my character in situations like this is because these are things that people are thinking and doing, you know, and, and I, I wish that I could have read things like this when I was 12, and I like being able to read them now, you know, because this is, you know, when, when shame and embarrassment and everything is involved, these are feelings that everyone has, everyone can relate to those feelings. So I like conjuring up those feelings because, to sort of put a little mirror up to people, the reader, and just say hey, look, whatever you felt embarrassed about, or whatever you’re ashamed about, don’t worry because, you know, we’ve all, we’ve all done stuff that we’re embarrassed about.
EC: Absolutely. And this is a, definitely a funny book about shame and embarrassment, but it’s also a book about grief, and Mike is going through something quite horrible, and then the grieving process eventually. What was it like writing about grief in this kind of context? MO Um… It was good. You know, it’s hard at times because you, you have to approach it, you approach it with much more awareness than you did back then.
MO: You know, so as a 12-year-old you’re still living in that world where everything is… Everything revolves around you, and you don’t quite fully grasp just what the adults in your life are going through. So writing about it as an adult was confronting, in the sense that I had to be realistic in coming to terms with what the people around me must have known, that I didn’t know at the time. You know?
EC: Because this is, this story has kind of parallels to your actual life.
MO: Yeah, there’s definitely parallels to it, you know. So to make sure that the story is as honest as possible in terms of, for the, you know, who these characters are in the situation, I had to look a lot at what happened with me. And so yeah, you start realising that… That there’s so many more layers and so much more depth to everything and everyone around you, that you didn’t see when you were that age. So yeah, you, it was confronting in that aspect. But in terms of actually talking about how a 12-year-old feels and processes all those emotions, it was actually quite, um, enjoyable as well, you know. Because I’ve already had so many people message me saying, you know, I’ve had teachers message me saying, oh my God, you know, it’s so good to see someone speaking in an authentic 12-year-old’s voice. I had a friend, you know, message recently and say this brought back so many memories of when my partner died, and our kids… Just kept going, you know? And like, you know, she was saying that her son was back on the soccer field two days later playing, playing the regular Saturday match, you know, because that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to go back and play soccer two days after his dad had died. And that’s just what you do when you’re 12, you just, you know, you’re like, oh well, let’s just get back into it. And – I mean, that’s how some people deal with it anyway. And I just wanted to capture that, to say that there’s no, you know, to show that there’s no right or wrong way to process grief, especially when you don’t barely even know who you are as a person.
EC: Absolutely. I think the way that Mike deals with his mum’s illness is really, I thought it rung very true. There’s one scene where he goes to visit her in the hospital and the whole time he’s walking up to her room, he’s thinking to himself ‘I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be here,’ like, ‘I just want to go home and wait for her to be better and come back.’ And I thought that just incredibly accurate of what someone that age might be thinking about being in a hospital.
MO: Oh my God, yeah – and I still can’t stand hospitals now because of that feeling of, of sickness around you – and I mean, I have utmost respect for doctors and nurses who live and breathe in a place like that, because, you know, I still find it scary, and I still find sickness scary, but you know, I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the fact that, you know, I live in a world where someone can get a headache one day and then die three weeks later.
MO: You know? So it’s, it’s… Yeah, I really, you know, yeah, that head down and counting the doorways until you get to the room, that, you know, not having to see, not wanting to see anyone else, except for the person you’re there to visit. I mean, I still do that, even when I go visit people to this day. I don’t want to see, I don’t want to look in the doors, you know? And it’s, yeah, it’s just something that I’ve held onto for years. And I really wanted to make sure that that rang true, so I’m glad that you connected with that.
EC: Absolutely. So your career has been quite varied, but I’m wondering, did you always know that you wanted to write a book eventually?
MO: You know, the first book I tried to write was, um, a book called ‘Metacarpal’. I tried to write it with my friend in Year 8, and it was about a guy who, who couldn’t feel pain, so mimicked Wolverine’s ability to make claws, but he didn’t have adamantium claws, he just, he just shoved his own bones out of his hand and scratched people with them. I mean, that, that’s just ridiculous. But that’s, that’s genuinely, you know, that was the first time I thought I’m going to write a book. And from that point on there’s always been, you know, that desire to create things. Um, whether writing a book was necessarily the thing that I’ve always focused on, I mean, it’s not – I’ve just always wanted to make things, no matter what format they come in. Whether it be a book or a TV show or a stand-up comedy show or a film, I really like making things that people consume, and, um, and when the opportunity to write a book came up, you know, I had to seriously ask myself, do I have a story to tell? And I felt like I did, and it was a goal that I really wanted to achieve, and a project that I really wanted to dive headfirst into and work my arse off trying to make. And also, you know, I think I wanted to surprise people, and myself, in that I could actually write a book that is engaging and funny and interesting and heartfelt and, you know, all of those sort of things that, yeah, that everyone can enjoy. So I wrote a book for a lot of reasons, um, and it’s all just about that sort of path of, as an artist, whatever you’re doing, just trying to make stuff that people can hopefully enjoy.
EC: Definitely. And with, sort of, adapting parts of your own lie for that public consumption, was it different doing it in book form than it had been in the past, in doing it in the form of a TV show or of a comedy show?
MO: Um, writing a book’s more like writing a comedy show, because when you write a comedy show no one asks any questions, no one cares what you do. They just say ‘hey dude, the theatre is booked on 3 March, there’s gonna be 400 people there, you better be funny.’ You know?
EC: (Laughs) No pressure.
MO: Yeah, exactly. Whereas a TV show, you know, they go ‘hey, we really want to make that TV show about your life. Um, you should write us a script.’ And then you write us a script, and they’re like, ‘oh, yeah, that’s cool, but, um, we can’t film any of this in that location, and there definitely can’t be 500 people in that scene, so could you please change all of that, and, um, just turn it into an argument in a chicken shop? And also it has to be at night-time and it can’t be raining.’ So, go for it. And then that’s like, so you’re suddenly, you’re consistently compromising everything, whereas with a book, you know, you’ve got an editor and a publisher, and they just say, it’s like the comedy show, they’re like ‘hey man, your book’s due on 19 March – better be on my desk.’
MO: And then you just, and then you just write it. And you know, and then they look at it, and they’re like, ‘hey look, you’re probably, you’ve probably unfolded too much sort of side-story with these characters, and you know, this subplot isn’t necessary, but overall this is what’s working’, and everything like that. And so, you start, you feel like very much that it’s your own journey, it’s really a solo process. And a TV show’s a really collaborative process, right from the, you know, right from the script writing, all the way to filming it with all actors, and you know, because, because… When you make a TV show, everyone’s agreed on the script, and, um, and then on the day an actor – and it might be me, it might be someone else – they might go, ‘nah, I think we should say it like this, I think I’ll say it like this,’ and you realise that that’s better. You know? You go ‘Oh, yeah, that’s heaps funnier,’ you know. So, so you, it’s more of a creative process. I mean, more of a collaborative process. Whereas a book and stand-up shows, it’s just you, and you can tell the story you want.
EC: What do you think you learned from writing a novel?
MO: So the big thing I wrote, and I’m going to mention it, I’m doing a blog for you guys very shortly as well, but probably the biggest thing, and it’s turned into a bit of my mantra at the moment – and that is the idea that writing is not typing.
MO: And I feel like it’s very much a trap that writers fall into, especially new writers – I’m sure older writers understand this. But when you’re new like I had been when I was writing my first TV show, and as I was beginning the process of writing this book, is, you… Sit down in front of a computer and there’s a blank page in front of you and then you sit there biting your nails, trying to figure out what the hell you supposed to write, and nothing’s coming to you, and you wonder why there’s nothing happening. And the reality is, you know, I do the best writing when I’m not typing. When I’m sitting on a bus looking out the window, when I’m on a plane, or when I’m floating in a pool, or when I go to the beach and I’m staring at waves, or when I’m sitting in a pub and watching a couple fight – like, that’s when I do the best writing. It’s only when I’ve actually got something to write that I will sit down and type.
MO: So that was something that I learned, to not beat myself up if I wasn’t, if I hadn’t done any typing on that particular day. Because it didn’t mean that I wasn’t writing. It just meant that I hadn’t, that I didn’t have anything to type at that stage.
EC: That’s a really great take on it. I really like that.
MO: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a, I think it helped me tenfold. That processing things and experiencing things, writing is experiencing, and writing is like, is thinking, you know? It’s internal, it happens internally. Typing is just the output that you do.
EC: Absolutely. And I do have one final question for you. It’s kind of a, maybe a tricky one. What do you hope your readers, whoever they may be, will take away from this book?
MO: I think… That they will take away an understanding that people, everyone is different, but there’s an underlying similarity with all of the, all of the problems that we would face in life. No matter what age we are, or no matter what background we’re from. Mike is a 12-year-old kid, and people will immediately think oh, if it’s about a 12-year-old kid then it must be a YA novel, and it’s not a YA novel. It’s, it is a novel for literally everyone because, yeah the character’s 12 years old, but he’s dealing with the death of a loved one, a family member; self-consciousness about his body, you know, being heartbroken and desperately wanting the love of his life to love him back, and also wanting to fit in with the cool kids at school, and all that – fitting in with the people around him. And you know, wanting things, wanting the internet, stuff like that. These are all problems that you will go through your entire life. When you’re 50 years old, you will still have bits of your body that you hate, you will still, you’ll feel even more worried about the loss of a loved one. You know, you still want to fit in at work or do whatever, like, these are problems that everyone still has. So, and will always have to the end of their life. So what I want people to take away is that this is a truly universal story, that they can connect with no matter who they are, and where they’re from, what age they are. I really hate the thought of people thinking of this as ‘just a YA novel’ simply because the character’s a 12-year-old boy, because it’s just not like that at all.
EC: I think this is the kind of book that you would give to someone who was like 15 or 25 or 35 or 45. Like honestly, as I was reading it, I couldn’t think of a person who wouldn’t be able to engage with it. So I’m really glad that that’s what you said, because that’s definitely what I thought when I was reading it.
MO: That’s what I set out to do, and I worked really hard to make sure that it was accessible to everyone, you know? I really, really worked hard to make sure that everyone would get something out of it. And that was also, you know, and bit of that was becoming – you can hear my daughter in the background – but becoming a parent during that time was also a very big part of that, you know, and understanding suddenly – suddenly that understanding of what it feels like to be a parent really opened up, you know, the depth of the characters like my dad and my mum in the book, you know, and really put showing them the world through their eyes as well, for older audiences connect with. So yeah, I’m extremely proud of how hard I worked to make sure that anyone could could pick this book up and enjoy it.
EC: Thank you so much for joining me today Matt, it was lovely to talk to you, and everyone should go out and pick up a copy for this book, for their cousin or the aunty or their grandma, or anybody.
MO: Themselves! They should buy it for themselves! Read it first.
EC: (Laughs) Themselves as well, that’s probably the most important, you’re right.
MO: Nah, thank you so much hey, I really appreciate it, thanks for having me on.
MD: That was the November First Book Club episode of the Kill Your Darlings Podcast, where Ellen Cregan spoke with Matt Okine. Matt’s book, Being Black ‘n Chicken, & Chips, is out now from Hachette. Our next episode, you’ll hear from our recording at the Australian Short Story Festival. So make sure you tune in to that one. While you’re waiting for that to drop, we’d recommend you get your short story fix from our book. New Australian Fiction 2019 is still out, and we think it would make a fantastic gift or summer reading stack member. And don’t forget that commentary, criticism, essays, memoir and more you can always find on the Kill Your Darlings website. See you next time.