It is a pleasure to warmly welcome Fiona Higgins to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews for A Tea Break with Mrs B, a short form author interview series. To help celebrate the release of An Unusual Boy we sat down for a chat. Thanks Fiona!
What is your drink of choice as we sit down for a chat about your new book?
Kombucha – home-brewed, using a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) gifted to me by a mate in my mothers’ group (I’m not normally this homey, but I’ve been baking up a storm this year!)
Can you give us an overview of your writing career to date?
It’s slightly odd, in that I never actually set out to be an author. I haven’t pursued formal studies in creative writing and only considered writing for publication once I hit the wrong side of thirty. (My husband, quite justifiably, calls me ‘The Accidental Author’.) I also have a career in the not-for-profit sector, which I love. Despite this, I’ve (very slowly!) managed to publish a memoir (Love in the Age of Drought), and three prior novels (The Mothers’ Group, Wife on the Run, Fearless). An Unusual Boy is my latest novel and fifth book.
How different was the experience of writing An Unusual Boy, compared to your other novels?
Very different, in that it was the first time I’ve ever written from the perspective of a child – that was quite a thrilling experience, tapping into the stream of consciousness of an eleven-year-old boy! (Two of my three children are boys, which possibly helped me channel the pre-teen male…)
Can you tell us what inspired the creation of your new book, An Unusual Boy?
I have a habit of drawing inspiration from real life and weaving it into my fiction… so I wrote The Mothers’ Group, my first novel, back in 2012 when I was caring for my very sleepless second child; a few years later Wife on the Run drew on experiences I’d had riding a pushbike around Australia; and I wrote Fearless while living in Bali for three years with my family.
In a similar vein, An Unusual Boy is inspired partly by both personal and professional elements. Personally, I’ve known children – and adults, for that matter – who are ‘different’ in some way (some with a diagnosis, others without), and witnessed their joys and struggles. Professionally, I’ve worked for many years with charities and youth mental wellbeing is an area I’m passionate about – how can we respond better to difference as a community, to help build greater resilience, empathy and hopefulness among our future generations?
What are the main themes present in An Unusual Boy?
Fundamentally, this is a novel about valuing difference; cherishing it as a strength, rather than retreating from it as a threat. The novel explores this through a parenting lens, as Julia (Jackson’s mum) struggles at times to raise a child who is different in a world set up for ‘normal’. Julia is also, however, deeply committed to supporting and defending her son, and thus another key theme is how society’s systems – schools, policing, and the justice system – don’t always cope well with difference. The novel also highlights the incredible resilience and selfless love of parents; I’ve witnessed so many parents, carers, grandparents and teachers who, like Julia, exhibit incredible levels of patience and love.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Did you have a set outline of An Unusual Boy before you sat down to write this novel, or did you allow this book to take shape during the writing process?
I used to think I was a pantser, due to odious comparisons with some of my best writerly friends who plot their works so carefully – even keeping character spreadsheets detailing eye colour, unsavoury habits, favourite music and so forth! I definitely don’t do that. (In fact, I can’t always remember the names of all my characters once I’ve written them – is that insane?)
My characters do tend to ‘talk’ to me over the writing period, but I never know exactly what they’re going to do. With An Unusual Boy, while I did have a sense of where the plot was going from the outset, I left enough space/oxygen to allow the characters to choose alternative destinies. (And one of them did – the soccer coach, Steve. He surprised even me!)
Did you have an affinity with a particular character in An Unusual Boy and why?
Definitely Jackson. He’s a composite of all the wonderful, vulnerable, interesting and quirky children I’ve ever known. He has a strong moral compass that governs his choices – of which the rest of the world is mostly unaware – as well as some incredible hidden strengths that are there for the unlocking, if only he’s shown little patience and empathy. Jackson reminds me of a friend of mine from school, Michael, to whom An Unusual Boy is dedicated.
What is one thing that you really hope readers will take away from the experience of reading An Unusual Boy?
A recognition that there’s no such thing as ‘normal’, and a renewed commitment to inclusion. One early reviewer of the work sums it up nicely, I think:
If this is a cautionary tale about the dangers to children of unsupervised internet access, then it is equally an admonition to avoid xenophobia of any sort: race, colour, creed or simply a different way of thinking, an alternate perception of the world. The common compulsion to “label” is countered by Julia: “Sometimes labels just put special kids in boxes. Sometimes they just give adults an excuse to stop thinking.”
Have you developed any quirks or habits while writing your books?
I have a fairly significant caffeine dependence – but I’m detoxing with the kombucha!
How has your writing process been affected by COVID-19?
Interestingly, my ‘other job’ has become busier this year, which means I’ve had less time to write. I’ve envied some of my writer friends who’ve had extra time to write thousands of words!
What book or books do you recommend that I add to my reading pile?
Like the rest of Australia, I’m loving Honeybee by Craig Silvey. I’m slightly late to the party with Jane Harper’s The Survivors and The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey. Very much looking forward to the new Joanna Nell, The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home, being released in late October. And I’ve just finished a children’s crime novel… but I wouldn’t recommend adding it to your reading pile. Too much blood and poisonings for my liking.
What are you working on writing wise at present?
Oh Mrs B, you know the drill! I could tell you, but then I’d have to tickle you, stuff you with Tim Tams and swear you to secrecy. This could be ignominious for both of us – so let’s just say, I’m working on my next novel which is due out in 2021.
Thank you for the lovely tea break and chat Fiona. Congratulations on the release of An Unusual Boy.
Meet Jackson – a very unusual boy in a world that prefers “normal”.
Julia Curtis is a busy mother of three, with a husband frequently away for work, an ever-present mother-in-law, a career, and a house that needs doing up. Her fourteen-year-old daughter, Milla, has fallen in love for the first time, and her youngest, Ruby, is a nine-year-old fashionista who can out- negotiate anyone.
But Julia’s eleven-year-old son, Jackson, is different. Different to his sisters. Different to his classmates. In fact, Jackson is different from everyone. And bringing up a child who is different isn’t always easy.
Then, one Monday morning, Jackson follows his new friend Digby into the school toilets. What happens inside changes everything; not only for Jackson, but for every member of his family. Julia faces the fight of her life to save her unusual boy from a world set up for ‘normal’.
An extraordinary boy. The mother who loves him. The fight of their lives.
An Unusual Boy is a heart-stopping, devastating, but ultimately uplifting story about loyalty, love and forgiveness.
An Unusual Boy by Fiona Higgins was published on 20th October 2020 by Boldwood Books. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
Connect with Fiona here: