‘You can’t go into it going “I’m going to write a message,” or “I’m going to try and sound cool”. YA really is about voice, and you have to find the right, authentic kind of voice.’
Nina Kenwood’s It Sounded Better In My Head is the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club title for August 2019. A tender, funny and joyful novel about feeling left out and finding out what really matters, Kenwood’s debut young adult novel won the Text Prize in 2018, and is out now with Text Publishing. Nina discussed the novel at Readings St Kilda with our First Book Club Coordinator, Ellen Cregan.
This is an edited recording. Thanks to Readings, Text Publishing, Ellen Cregan and Nina Kenwood.
Our theme song is Broke for Free’s ‘Something Elated’.
Read Ellen Cregan’s review of It Sounded Better In My Head in our August Books Roundup.
Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!
ISBIMH FBC transcript raw [Music].
Meaghan Dew: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew, and I’m really pleased to introduce our August First Book Club event. Last month, Nina Kenwood, discussed her YA novel It Sounded Better In My Head with our First Book Club coordinator Ellen Cregan. Her tender, funny and joyful book about feeling left out and finding what really matters is out now from Text Publishing. So if what you hear intrigues you, you know what to do.
Ellen Cregan: Hello everyone. Before we get begin I’d like to acknowledge that we’re meeting tonight on the lands of the people of the Kulin Nation, and pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging. My name is Ellen and I’m the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club host, and this evening we’re going to be discussing our book club pick for August, It Sounded Better In My Head by Nina Kenwood. Thank you Nina, for coming here tonight to St Kilda.
Nina Kenwood: Thank you for having me!
EC: That’s okay. So Nina and I are gonna talk for about 30 minutes or so, and we’re gonna start with a reading from the book.
My skin was a ticking time bomb poised to explode in the most public way whenever I let down my guard. My GP said if I go off the pill in the future then, as well as the return of acne, I should watch for symptoms like a disappearing period, thinning head hair, increased facial hair, weight gain, and general depression. That’s a fun checklist. Also, by the way, this was a condition that would continue for a lifetime.
It wasn’t just my skin and hormonal stuff though. Meeting new people was hard and I hated it.
But Mum didn’t let up. She was so scared of me missing this opportunity, the fear became palpable in our house. The sign parental consent forms were stuck to the front of our refrigerator for days, and I kept catching dad looking at them with a worried expression. Mum surrounded them with Post-it notes, on which she drew arrows and wrote ‘Don’t forget!’ and ‘The deadline is Friday!’ and ‘Do it!’
They were going to be so disappointed in me if I didn’t go.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I took the phones to school and handed them in. I was going. Definitely, definitely going. Mum danced me around the kitchen in delight.
I made several trips to the dermatologist to beg him to fix the shiny red patch on my face, to no avail. (‘Unfortunately, Natalie, this is just something you’ll have to endure while you’re on the medication,’ he had said, with a tone that implied he thought I had a limited capacity for enduring things. ) I packed and repacked my bags. I chewed my fingernails. I had nightmares. I thought about changing my name. (Surely if I introduced myself as Roxy then I would magically have the confidence of a girl called Roxy. )
And I went to the camp.
Mum and dad dragged me there. It was a three-hour trip and Mum kept up a relentlessly cheerful commentary for practically every minute, as if a moment of silence would allow me to change my mind. She kept telling me I was going to have a great time, which made me want to have a terrible time just to spite her.
At the camp sign-in, I stood in line behind a boy. Mum nudged me, and I refused to look at her, because I knew she would do something unsubtle like wiggling her eyebrows suggestively. She’d done that once before when a bunch of boys were standing near us at the cinema, and I had to go into the bathroom and deep breathe in the cubicle to recover from my embarrassment.
The boy in the camp line (spoiler – it was Zach) turned around and smiled kind of goofily at me as he walked past. He was tall and skinny with messy dark curls and the friendliest face I have maybe ever seen on another human being. I quickly glanced away and didn’t smile back, which is my standard response whenever anyone looks at me, but in my mind I was smiling back, and it felt like a good sign.
I was desperate for Mum and Dad to leave, but the minute I saw their car pulling away, I was hit with a wave of nausea and had to stop myself from running after them screaming, â€œCome back, come back, come back.’ I was alone, and I had to cope without them for three days. I had to sleep in a single bed with itchy-looking blankets. I had to share a bathroom. I had to eat meals prepared by people who had no idea that chicken sometimes grossed me out and I didn’t like the texture of cooked mushrooms.
Lucy walked into the cabin then. She was assigned to the other bed in my room.
Lucy was the other student from my school picked for camp. We had been in several classes together, but we’d never spoken more than a few sentences to each other before this moment.
I knew about Lucy though. I spent a lot of time at school watching and observing, and I generally knew a lot more about my classmates than they knew about me. I knew Lucy liked poetry and YA fantasy novels, and that she always enthusiastically volunteered for things, from reading aloud a section of a book in class to creating posters for our school’s campaign for combatting climate change. She was on the debating team, she was in the school musical, she was vice-president of the social-justice club. She was a joiner and she was aggressively nice, two things I have a natural suspicion of, but with Lucy they weren’t fake or annoying. She acted like a good person because she really was a good person.
Lucy had one strike against her, though – she had perfect skin. Ever since the first pimple appeared on my face, skin is always the first thing I notice about someone else, the first judgment I make, even when I try to stop myself. Do they have good skin? Lucy was small (she was fifteen at the time, but she still looked twelve), with unmarked skin and the kind of big blue eyes that could get you off a murder charge with a couple of well-timed blinks.
Lucy’s face didn’t even have a mole or a slight discolouration. Almost three years later and it still doesn’t. The closest thing she has to a flaw is a scattering of freckles that appear in summer. Skin like this fascinates me. I google it sometimes. ‘Girls with perfect skin.’ ‘Flawless skin.’ ‘Beautiful skin.’ Celebrities with amazing skin.’ It gives me that bad-good feeling to look at people who have what I want so much.
I went to an all-girls school, which can be a harrowing experience, but I am happy I didn’t have to face boys in the classroom every day, because when my skin was at its worst, girls might have said nasty stuff behind my back, but boys straight up yelled at me at the train station with the least imaginative insults possible: ‘pizza face’, ‘fugly’, and once, ‘GROSS BITCH’. I couldn’t have dealt with that all day. My classmates wrapped their insults in the packaging of unsolicited advice, such as: ‘If you wash your face properly every morning and every night, it will draw out all the bad toxins causing the pimples’ or ‘Your make-up is the real problem, maybe if you went without concealer for a few days, it would get better’ or ‘Have you tried only using organic products and washing your pillowcase in vinegar and hot water every day?’ or ‘If you want clear skin, it’s simple: don’t eat sugar or carbs or fat or grains or coffee or red meat or anything processed or anything white or anything packaged or nightshade vegetables and especially not citrus fruit. And drink water.’
As if I hadn’t tried everything that every random person on the internet ever happened to recommend. Honey, toothpaste, olive oil, avocado, hot water, cold water, apple cider vinegar, fish oil tablets, spearmint tea, the juice from a sweet potato, the official ten-step Korean skincare routine, the keto diet. My skin usually got worse. It always, eventually, got worse.
EC: So give us an elevator pitch for your book, Nina.
NK: Oh boy!
EC: [Laughs. ] That’s a fun question.
NK: I keep being asked this question, and I’m getting worse and worse every time, I noticed. It’s part coming-of-age, part rom-com, it’s about 18-year-old Natalie, who has a range of insecurities largely coming out of her history with having bad skin, and it’s the summer between high school, and – this is not an elevator pitch, this is way too long…
EC: No, we’re still… [Both laugh].
NK: It’s about the summer between high school and university, when you’re on the cusp of all this change, and how she deals with that. Friendship changes, family, and romance.
EC: And she’s such a lovable and super memorable character as well, I think from that passage we can hear that there’s a really strong voice, and, like, a really strong sense of who she is, it’s quite a little snippet. What was it like, sort of finding that voice, while you were writing?
NK: Um, well I kind of – I was working on a different book, I was working on an adult book, a third-person adult book, and I was kind of sitting down every day, and it – it was kind of a depressing book, and it was getting me down, and I felt like I wasn’t… Nothing was flowing right for me, and one day I woke up and I thought, I really just feel like writing a fun, YA rom-com. And then her voice just kind of came to me when I started to write it. And it just felt like, ah, like something clicked, and there’s the voice, and now I feel like I’m not sort of trudging through mud when I’m writing it, and it just started to work.
EC: Oh, that’s so nice. So we just see in that passage that Natalie’s gone to camp – you also went to a camp as a young person, to a writing camp. John Marsden’s writing camp!
NK: I did, I went to John Marsden’s writing camp. E: So John Marsden, who’s, you know, a very well-known YA author, has recently made some comments in the media about bullying and racism that haven’t gone down so well – how does it feel for you, as someone who went to that camp, and I’m sure his work was kind of important for you growing up as a writer, to see something like that happen, where he’s kind of fallen from grace in that way?
NK: It’s really difficult – he was my, sort of, hero – in the, I grew up in the 90s YA heyday of John Marsden and the Tomorrow series, and Isobelle Carmody and the Obernewtyn series, and Melina Marchetta. And they were sort of my big three, and I went to the John Marsden writing camp – I actually found the other day a piece of note paper where he’d written the feedback he gave me on, he read some of my stories at the camp, and the feedback he’d written, which was really lovely and encouraging. So he’s obviously, like, he had a big impact on my life, so it’s really hard then to see your hero, I guess, say things that you really disagree with, say problematic things, and then you have to grapple with what it means to… Yeah, do you still, what their work means to you when the person themselves have become problematic to you.
EC: Yeah because you, can you kind of separate the work and the person – especially if it’s something that, you know, the Tomorrow, When the War Began series is such an old series now, like, it’s such a thing that…
NK: Yeah, and I haven’t reread it in a long time but it was, and it was also his other books as well that I read. And I don’t know, it’s hard – I mean it’s a question that a lot, you kind of have to grapple with a lot of the time now. [Laughs]. Because there’s a lot of, you know, in the era of #MeToo, there’s a lot of things that come out about different artists and authors, and you have to figure out, how do… What their work means to you now, and I don’t know the answer to this.
EC: Yeah, it’s tricky. On the flipside, though, you recently had an event with Melina Marchetta, who has not said anything bad, that I know of. Tell us about being in conversation with her?
NK: Ah, it was a dream come true, it was amazing. She is such an amazing writer, and she said some really lovely things about my book, which was like, never in a million years did I think I was going to write a book that she would even read, let alone say something nice about. So it was really special, it was one of many really special, sort of, moments I’ve had on the publication journey.
EC: Hmm, it’s pretty amazing. What’s your approach to writing for young people? You said you were, you started out writing an adult book, and then this kind of came around the corner…
NK: Yes, although I’d always wanted to write YA, and I have about… Through my 20s I stopped and started writing about, probably 15 YA books that are on my computer somewhere. So I always, that’s where my heart always sort of was. But it’s not like I went out and… I just think you’ve got to find the right voice for YA, and I read a lot of YA, but I wasn’t sort of, like, following teenagers around, writing or anything. I think you can, you either can find the authentic voice or you can’t, but you have to… You can’t go into it going ‘I’m going to write, like, a message, or I’m going to try and sound cool.’ [Laughs]. You’ve just got to… YA really is about voice, I think, and you’ve got to find the right authentic kind of voice.
EC: Mmm. But writing about being a teenager, and first love, and all the horrible awkward things that happen, was that kind of, like, a traumatic reminder of what it’s actually like being a teenager?
NK: A little bit! Um… Yeah, a little bit, although I think a lot of the stuff that Natalie grapples with in the book is stuff that you still come, it still comes up as an adult, you still, relationships don’t suddenly become easy when you become an adult, or as you get older – it’s still really scary to be vulnerable for the first time, whether you’re 18, or 14, or 44, or 60, like, it’s still terrifying to say to someone, or I think it is, like, ‘I like you’, and you don’t know, or whether it’s romantic or friendship, putting yourself out there is a scary thing, that doesn’t sort of go away necessarily. And you know, body stuff is still continuing your whole life, and whether you, you know, maybe as a teenager you’re uncomfortable in your own skin, and then that goes away, but then certain things happen in your life where that can come back again. So I think that it’s universal issues seen through the eyes of a teen, maybe.
EC: Yeah, all the social awkwardness stuff, just very relatable.
NK: That doesn’t ever go away!
EC: That’s just there forever! [Laughs].
NK: I’m not going back, like, to my teen years to draw on that…
EC: That’s just life.
NK: I’ll still walk into a crowded room and feel that way.
EC: So this book definitely falls into the category, I think, of the YA-adult crossover genre. Did you sort of have that in your mind while you were writing it, because you were writing a book that you wanted to read?
NK: Um, at one point – no, at one point I thought about making her 16 and setting it over a year of high school, because I thought, oh, I did have a thought, oh, is 18, is this a bit old for YA – but then I was like, no, I just, this is all about that moment of being between, finished high school, about to start uni – you’re 18, you’re technically an adult but you don’t feel like an adult, and that’s terrifying. And it was all about capturing that. And it was, it’s a very immediate story, it’s happening over a couple of weeks. So it was sort of like, hmm, you’ve just got to focus on the story, and then figure out – it’s up to the publisher to figure out how to market it.
EC: And there’s, I don’t think there’s really that many books that are kind of set in that funny time period of between school finishing and uni, which is, like, such a weird zone of life, it’s like, what are you doing, you’re aimless.
NK: Yeah, well, and before it was sort of like, you found out your score, but you don’t know what uni you’ve gotten into, that kind of no-man’s land of like, I don’t even know where I’m gonna be living, maybe, or what I’m gonna be studying, or… My whole life is there but it’s completely uncertain, and that’s a really terrifying thought.
EC: And Natalie and her friends are such, like, high achievers as well, that they’re people who probably haven’t really stopped studying in such a long time, and now they’re like, oh!
NK: Exactly, and that I relate to, because I was, when I was in year 12, I was incredibly, intensely focused on schoolwork, and talking with my friends all the time, like, what do we, what uni are we gonna go to, what are we going to study, what, trying to figure out what marks we might be getting, and it’s so overwhelming, that period of time. And so trying to capture that sort of the… You’ve just gone through that and then that empty feeling of: ‘Now what?’
EC: Yes, do you think that there are things that young adult as a genre can do, that adult contemporary fiction can’t do for its readers?
NK: Um, I think there are things that it is doing; I would never say there’s something adult contemporary can’t do. But I think YA does grapple with a lot of… Like it was really leading the way for a lot of diversity stuff, it grapples with a lot of issues that I think sometimes adult books do shy away from, and it has that immediacy… and you can find what I guess, it’s not… I think YA is not afraid of going to a lot of places that you don’t find in adult fiction, but I mean any book can do anything.
EC: It’s true. I shamefully don’t read that much YA, but whenever I read a YA book, I always think that the authors don’t seem so obsessed about showing their work, being like: ‘Yeah see I’m kind of psyche source, but I’m not really…‘, like they don’t do that so much in YA, which is really nice.
NK: Yes, tt’s just about the story and the voice, and not there to be like: ‘I studied writing and here are my skills.’
EC: Yeah exactly. So you recently gave a really nice interview on the Kill Your Darlings’ website about bookish things, and the books that you have in your home, and in it you said that unlike some other readers, you really like reading about hyped up books and kind of discovering hyped up books?
NK: Yes, ‘cause I work in marketing.
EC: You do work in marketing! What do you think it is that people find so off-putting often about a hyped up book?
NK: Umm I think that it’s like a hyped up anything, people like, start to resist, when someone tells you: ‘This is great, this is great. You should read this, you should watch this!’. I mean, there is that natural like: ‘No, I don’t want to. Don’t tell me what to do!’ And everyone’s talking about this… And I don’t want to be just another person, but I guess especially in my job, where I get to see sometimes the hype before like publishers hyping up a book, before it’s actually reached the public, then it’s like, well if a publisher is this excited about it, I want to know why. Or you know, I like reading online about the hype of different books and generally people love something, it’s… it’s good; there’s a reason.
EC: Yeah especially publishers, because you know, they see so much. They’re not you know, they’re not struggling to choose things, yeah just it’s exciting. I like it when people are excited about books basically, it’s nice. Is there anything that you’ve recently read that was really hyped up that let you down a lot?
NK: Um let me down a lot… No I read and now I can’t remember the title or the author… yes Taffy… Yes, Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, which I thought I was going to love yeah, and I just liked but… and that’s been a really hyped up book, but I still really liked it. Not recently.
EC: It’s, it’s such a crushing feeling that happens. Oh and we won’t say it on, yeah. [laughs]
NK: I’d prefer not to go on record.
EC: It’s a small publishing scene. So the marketing campaign around this book has been so amazing; Text have put all their weight behind it, and I’m seeing Instagram stickers, I’m seeing cakes, I’m seeing all sorts of things, I just got a scented candle. What’s it been like seeing such a huge sort of effort behind your first book as a person who does marketing in your career?
NK: Amazing. I… I had this vision of what it was going to be like as a debut author, and I always like listened and read about like any time a debut author had sort of an interview about what the experience was like, and I was always seem to be like: ‘The publisher will never do that much and you’ve really got to put yourself out there’, and so I was like: ‘Right, I won the Text Prize in April 2018, the books not coming out to almost 2019, I am going to be this amazing debut author who is putting yourself out there, building this huge social media following, um doing all this stuff I’ve got a year to prep and then that didn’t happen mostly because I got pregnant yeah, and um that derailed everything. Um so… but I didn’t need to, because Text put together the most amazing marketing campaign and I just… I couldn’t have asked for more, and I feel like I’m the opposite of all those sort of debut authors who are like, who sort of say you know, there’s limited amount that your publisher will do, because I’ve known they’ve just done an amazing job at getting it out there.
EC: Mm, it’s been everywhere. So you did win the Text Prize, but before that you sort of kept your writing quite secretive for many people when you knew. Why did you choose to do that?
NK: Umm I feel like I just was always writing so and that I never felt like I was… well, I wasn’t finishing anything so there was nothing to say, other than um… failed again! I never sort of sent it anywhere, I never really did like I was just working away sort of, I guess, doing you know, the 10,000 hours they say, to be amazing anything, and yeah it just didn’t seem like something. And because I work at Readings, where there’s all these published authors, and you do, you feel like, oh well I feel like a fraud in all kinds of ways all the time in life and that was well, it just felt strange to me say: ‘I’m a writer!’. I didn’t really believe it myself.
EC: Mm-hmm, and was it the first time that you submitted this book anywhere when you submitted it for the Text Prize?
EC: Wow that’s a good, that’s a good result, 100 per cent.
NK: Yeah, it is!
EC: You can definitely claim to be an author now, I think that’s absolutely fine. I know that for when you were writing this novel, you had a writing group that was really important to the creation of it. What are the benefits of writing groups?
NK: I wouldn’t have finished the book without one. My particular writing group is less about reading each other’s work, and more about every week checking in over email saying: ‘Did you write this week? How much did you write to do if we have various word goals? So maybe it’s like, I want to reach 30,000 words by a certain date, and then just encouraging each other and sort of yeah, checking in, someone else holding you accountable, yes and that is what I needed, because otherwise, I mean writing especially when you’re an unpublished author no one cares if you finish it, like no one cares at all, so you really need so much self motivation and discipline to keep going especially when you work full time, and yeah so having a writing group just makes you accountable to someone.
EC: What is your advice to someone who wants to start up a writing group and kind of have that accountability?
NK: Umm, get a job in a bookshop? You meet lots of people in bookshops and you’ll find there’s a lot of writers working there, yeah find like-minded people, especially people who… so my… The two people in my writing group both read a lot of YA, so like getting feedback from them is really helpful. If they didn’t, you know don’t give your – if you’re writing a young adult book, don’t give it to someone who doesn’t know anything about young adult. You know, he’s young adult and those are Twilight, like that’s their only reference point, they’re not going to be able to give you any helpful feedback, so you want to be on the same kind of wavelength.
EC: Definitely. So book two – I’m sure that’s your favourite question, do you think you have more to say about Natalie and her friends and her life? Or do you think book number two will be like a totally different story?
NK: Oh I have been saying book two is going to be about sisters, partially because my sister was really disappointed but she wasn’t in this book, and was like, ‘Where, where am I in the book?’ and when she, so I’ve been saying I’m writing a book about sisters now. Um but I don’t know, it’s, it’s too soon to know.
EC: It’s very soon; it’s just come out. As I said before, I’m, I’m one of those people who’s annoying and doesn’t read YA, and I don’t not mean to read it, but I just don’t get around to it and when I do read it, I really love it. So I’ve read like, The Hate U Give, what are some other big ones I’ve read… Any of the ones that are really hyped up actually that you recommended to me. What are the some of the key titles in YA that you’d recommend to the people like me who do like YA, but have these massive to-be-read stacks to contend with?
NK: Uh, I would say, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley. Anything by Emily Gale, anything by like Jay and Amie Kaufman, I’m not sure how to say her surname, and Jay who wrote the Illuminae series, and they are mega stars, and there’s a reason for that. I mean there’s so much; there’s so many great Australian YA authors. Melissa Keil, Claire Christian Beautiful Mess, I mean there’s just a lot, so I would say, once you start looking, actually the easiest way is just going browse at the YA shelves, and talk to a bookseller who can recommend and that’s just the Australian YA stuff and then there’s a whole plethora of American UK; there’s a lot out there
EC: There’s so much. Just on Jay and Amie, do you think you could ever write in a writing partnership like that? ‘Cause I just don’t know how they manage that.
NK: It sounds fun in some ways, but I think that it’s got to be, you’d have to find the right person to collaborate with, but it does sound like a lot of fun.
EC: But you think writing is a solitary act for you?
NK: Umm yeah well I’m a fairly introverted person, so I like spending time on my own, but you know, never say never.
EC: And I have one final question for you. If you could choose one person, dead or alive anywhere in the world that you want to read your book now, who would it be?
NK: Oh god…
EC: That’s a bad question to be the last question.
NK: And my marketing brain goes to, like an author to give them good prose quote, like Rainbow Rowell.
EC: Yeah, do you want Rainbow to read your book? Okay, we’ll organise that. [Laughs] Okay, thank you so much Nina for coming out and talking to me about your wonderful book. I feel confident saying that Nina will sign your book if you buy a copy up at the counter which you can do and answer any questions you might have about it. Thank you!
MD: That was the August First Book Club edition of the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. Our September title is Yumna Kassab’s The House of Youssef, a short story collection portraying the lives of Lebanese immigrants and their families in Western Sydney. You can pick up a copy of our August or September picks at your local bookshop or library. If they don’t have it, just request it. in the meantime, don’t forget there’s always more commentary, criticism, essays, memoir, short fiction and more on the Kill Your Darlings website. See you next time!