Where the magic happens for Justine Larbalestier


What I’ve found about writing YA is that at some point you realise you’re part of an ongoing dialogue about YA. When I started to consider things like gender bias, the perception that realist novels are somehow better than fantasy novels, diversity, or the role of YA as viewed from the perspective of readers who are actually young adults, sooner or later I’d find that Justine Larbalestier had written an intelligent and balanced post (or several) about that very thing, giving voice to many of my feelings, but with a well-argued logic. So, in introducing Justine today, I want to start by acknowledging that: the YA community is lucky to have someone who opens and facilitates discussion in the way that she does.

Razorhurst cover

That’s all very serious, though. It is also due to Justine that whenever I eat Laughing Cow cheese (which is often) I am aware of there being other options, and I feel guilty. She has done more to further my cheese education than any other person. Also, when I next visit Surry Hills I’ll feel doubly haunted: by the Surry Hills of my past, and the Sorrow Hills of a ​more turbulent past—thanks to her novel RAZORHURST (recently reviewed by the NY Times—whoop!). And I’m really happy she said yes to doing this post, because I have been curious about how she maintains her writing routine, interspersed as it is with a lot of travel. Over to you, Justine!

How’s this set-up differed over the time you’ve been writing? Like, say, back in the day, did your “office” consist of a soggy drink coaster and broken pencil stub, or some such? 

The main difference from when I started out as a writer and now is my brokenness. I learned touch typing very young so I’ve been typing for more than thirty years and, wow, is that deeply ungood for your body. I have tedious repetitive strain injuries which meant that my office set up had to change to accommodate those injuries. So glamorous!

I used to be able to write anywhere. I had a laptop and I sure did travel. I used to be able to write all day and all night. 10,000 word days were not unknown to me.

Now when I travel I am unlikely to write. These days writing a thousand words in a day is a rare and strange miracle.

Now I have to have an ergonomic set up. Screen and keyboard have to be at the right height. I use two trackballs to make sure I use my right and left hand evenly. I also sit on a stability ball. I take frequent breaks—achieved by drinking gallons of water; only my bladder will get me to move when I’m deep in writing mode—and I rarely write for more than six hours in a day.

Are you someone who has to be in the same bat place at the same bat time, or do you prefer to free range?

Since 1999 I’ve lived back and forth between Sydney and the USA. I’ve written all over the world and in many different locations from an office to a cafe to a hotel room.

And yet, I find it way easier to write in the same place every day and with a properly set up office. Tragically, that’s not always possible. When I travel and am on deadline I have my ergonomic keyboard with me. Hotel wastepaper baskets tend to be the right height to put my laptop on.

Justine hotel room

If these walls could talk … 

They’d say that I type an awful lot. Fortunately the walls are far enough away to not be able to tell that much of that typing is tweeting.

Any talismans around? Feel like explaining them to us? 

Not really. It’s a book by book thing. When I was working on Razorhurst I had reference photos of Sydney in the early 1930s propped up around me. Some postcards from the Justice and Police Museum of criminals that I was basing characters on. And also several books on Australian language and slang back then.

Sadly at the moment there’s just a stack of bills I have to pay–Boo!–and random bits of detritus deposited there by my niece. Yay!

Is a view a talisman? In our Sydney office I have a wonderful view of the city and also of my partner typing away on his latest book. Both are very inspiring.

Any books that you keep there that have special significance to you as a reader, writer, or person?

Nope. I always try to keep my desk as clutter free as possible. So that only the stuff I have to immediately deal with or is directly related to the book in progress is on it.

If, for some unexplained reason (but nothing too bad – we do like you after all) you had to get the hell out of there and you couldn’t go back, what 3 things would you take?

Laptop. Back up hard drive. Phone.

What’s the policy on interruptions? Open door policy? Open door policy with cranky look on face? Door locked tight and hands on ears, shouting: ‘Can’t hear you, lah, lah, lah!’?

I live with only one other person and he’s excellent at knowing when I can’t be interrupted. Also when I’m deep in the book it’s hard to interrupt me. I stop hearing things that are unrelated to the book. Also I turn the sound off on my phone.

Social media – do you block it while you’re working, or let it come along for the ride?

Sometimes it’s on. Especially when I’m doing a lot of online research. Twitter’s great for getting me quick responses about matters of US and/or Australian grammar, spelling and usage. When I’m on a deadline and a book must be finished now or the world ends then I tend to turn on Freedom.

What magic is happening in there right now? 

The magic of people getting my women’s basketball jokes on twitter. Look, it’s research, okay?

In all seriousness I don’t know how I wrote before social media. As you say in your intro we’re part of a community and a continuing conversation. Social media means that we no longer depend on conferences and book events to find each other–though that’s always lovely–we can also find each other online. We can drop in and out of the various continuing conversations about our genre at any moment. I know you through our YA community. I’ve made so many friends because of social media. I’ve met others who love cricket as much as I do and also think it’s as hilarious as I do. (Nothing worse than a no-sense-of-humour sports fan.) Ditto with women’s basketball and cheese and pretty much all my passions. Especially writing. It really does feel magical.

Do we need a room of our own? 

Absolutely. Then we can choose whether to share it or not.

Ever use longhand? Or is it all clickety-clackety? 

What’s “longhand”? I’m confused.

What you be sticking up on those walls?

The walls are floor to ceiling books.

One thing I’d love to know is how you go about maintaining a writing routine when you travel? (Or maybe you don’t – see, that’s the burning question). 

As much as possible I try to meet deadlines before I travel. That way I can have time off to rest my arms while travelling.

But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. Alas.

Thank you, Justine! Look at that – another Freedom user. For different reasons, my daily word counts have dropped dramatically over the years. I wonder if it’s the same for most writers. Also, I swapped sides a couple of years back, changing from my right hand to my left to work my mouse – thinking now I should even it up a little …