Kids Club: Michelle Kadarusman Talks First Drafts, Stage Fright, and Wild Possums
Louisa, the protagonist of critically-acclaimed author Michelle Kadarusman's new middle-grade novel Music for Tigers (Pajama Press), is not having the kind of summer she planned on.
Sent to live with her mother's bizarre relatives at a remote compound on the Australian island of Tasmania, the middle-school violinist feels way out of her element. Strange smells, scary noises, and unfamiliar wild animals surround the camp, but it's her Uncle Ruff's allusions to a place known as Convict Rock that captures her interest the most.
Louisa is shocked to learn that Convict Rock is a sanctuary housing the last Tasmanian tiger, a species thought hunted to extinction nearly a century ago. When large-scale mining threatens the tiger's habitat, however, a plan is hatched to protect it by leading it deeper into the rainforest. The only hitch: no one has been able to bond with the animal since Louisa's great-grandmother, Eleanor, created the sanctuary years ago. Can Louisa earn the tiger's trust, and could the key to saving its life be the beautiful sound of her violin?
A spellbinding adventure, Music for Tigers blends themes of environmentalism and self-confidence, bringing young readers into a lush and vibrant wilderness rarely seen.
We're thrilled to have Michelle at Open Book today, where she discusses her exciting research trip to Tasmania, why she prefers revising to writing first-drafts, and what she has in common with her book's main character.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Music for Tigers is a middle-grade novel about a young violinist spending the summer at her Australian mother’s family camp in the Tasmanian bush. She discovers that her family harbours a secret sanctuary for extinct marsupials, including the Thylacine, more commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger. Her family have been stewards of the sanctuary for decades, but now a mining development threatens the forest and the safety of the last remaining tiger.
Growing up in Australia, the history and demise of the Tasmanian tiger always captured my imagination and deeply saddened me. The last known tiger died in captivity in 1936 after they were hunted into extinction by early settlers. A few recent articles about locals claiming to have sighted them reignited my fascination. The question of whether they still exist continues to intrigue me.
For research, I travelled to a remote area in the North-West of Tasmania called the Tarkine. It’s an incredibly beautiful part of the world, including a pristine coastline and ancient temperate rainforest. Sadly, logging and mining remain a threat to the area. It is hard to fathom, world-wide, how we are allowing old growth forests to be compromised. I grew up in Melbourne, but my mum was born in Tasmania. Even for Australians, Tassie (as we call it) feels distant and remote, so I’m excited to introduce this unique place to North American readers who may not know about its rich history.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
The reality of animal extinction and deforestation is devastating. With this story I hope to inspire and encourage young readers to imagine themselves becoming future caretakers of the natural world.
Did the book look the same in the end as you originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?
My work always changes significantly from my initial outline. This is thanks to Pajama Press senior editor, Ann Featherstone, who ever so gently suggests additions and changes – like, maybe you’d like to add another plot line here? Or, maybe you’d like to deepen this connection? Or, maybe the ending might be more impactful if you omitted this? And so on. Honestly, she guides and elevates my work beyond anything that I could envisage when I set out from the first draft. I am forever grateful.
Is there a character in your book that you relate to? If so, in what ways are you similar to your character and in what ways are you different?
Louisa in the story suffers from performance anxiety, or stage fright, as it used to be called. It’s an affliction that many people wave off, saying Oh, you’ll be fine, just be yourself. I wish it were that easy. Even if the event itself goes all right, the anxiety takes its toll mentally, physically, and emotionally. Like Louisa, I have the same anxiety. And like her, I try hard not to let it diminish my goals. Unlike Louisa, I don’t play a musical instrument, but envy those who do.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the creative process for you?
During my research in Tasmania, we were staying in a very remote eco lodge deep in the rainforest. At night, the stars were breathtaking. One night I sat on my cabin porch, watched the night sky, and marveled at how far away I was from my usual life. Surely nothing, I pondered, could break this peaceful spell. Right then, an enormous wild possum leapt onto the porch balcony. I scurried into the cabin to alert my husband. Being Australian, I knew enough to be a little freaked out. My Canadian husband did not. He promptly ran back out to the porch with nuts in his hand intending to feed it. Before I could stop him, he’d stretched out his hand in front of the possum. It nipped him, then took the nuts.
(Both possum and husband were fine.)
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
Mostly I just need uninterrupted time. Breaking concentration during writing – a first draft especially – is frustrating. I need to psych myself into deep concentration.
What's your favourite part of the life cycle of a book? The inspiration, writing the first draft, revision, the editorial relationship, promotion and discussing the book, or something else altogether? What's the toughest part?
For me, writing a first draft is absurdly difficult. It takes a lot of self-bribery (cake, wine), endless pots of tea, and long dog-walks. I truly find this part of the creative journey grueling. But once I’ve got the first draft out, I happily spend months revising and editing. This is the process of writing that I really love – molding and puzzling the pieces together. My mother is a master quilter, and when I’m at this stage of the project I often have images of her with coloured fabric spread all around, crafting the pieces together to make the final design sing.
What are you working on now?
The setting of my next middle grade novel returns to my father’s homeland of Indonesia. My previous novel, Girl of the Southern Sea, was located in Jakarta. This one is set in Surabaya, East Java. It centers around a captive orangutan and two middle schoolers. One is a budding animal and environmental activist; the other is the orangutan’s keeper. It will delve into palm oil deforestation, the black-market exotic pet trade, identity and belonging; along with my usual themes of friendship, self-acceptance and celebrating differences. I’m grateful to have been given a grant from the Canada Council to complete the project. Once the world safely opens up again, I’ll be on a plane to Borneo for more research.
Michelle Kadarusman is a children’s author. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, she has also lived in Bali, Jakarta and Surabaya in Indonesia. Toronto has been her home base since 2000. Her first middle grade novel, THE THEORY OF HUMMINGBIRDS, was inspired in part by her experience of having a childhood disability. It was nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s (OLA) Silver Birch Express award, and the Saskatchewan (SYRCA) and Manitoba (MYRCA) young readers’ choice awards. GIRL OF THE SOUTHERN SEA, set in Indonesia, was a Governor General’s Award finalist for young people’s literature, USBBY Outstanding International Book choice and Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children’s Literature Honor Book. Her latest middle-grade novel, MUSIC FOR TIGERS, released in spring 2020.