Dianne Touchell is fearless when it comes to what she writes and how she writes it, although I’m sure she would tell you that she’s just responding to what inspires and interests her as a writer of young adult fiction. What I particularly admire about her work is the respect she accords her adolescent fictional characters and, by extension, the young people who are her readers. The result: fiction that feels authentic, that is unquestionably compassionate.
I had the pleasure of working with Dianne as editor of her debut novel, Creepy & Maud (Fremantle Press, 2012), which was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award in 2013, in the Older Readers category. It also became embroiled in a censorship incident, re-igniting the ‘gatekeeper’ debate that is frequently raised in relation to YA fiction; you can read a well-balanced account of that here.
Dianne was born and raised in Fremantle, Western Australia, and reportedly has worked as a fry cook, a nightclub singer, a housekeeper, a bookseller and an office manager. She enjoys cold weather—something we have in common—and Mexican food. She lives with animals (I’m not sure how many of them are human).
I’m thrilled to be featuring Dianne’s second novel, A Small Madness (Allen & Unwin, 2015), which I believe sets her career on a stellar trajectory. Here is the book’s blurb:
Rose didn’t tell anyone about it. She wondered if it showed. She looked at herself in the mirror and turned this way and then that way. She stood as close to the mirror as she could, leaning over the bathroom basin, looking into her own eyes until they disappeared behind the fog of her breath. Looking for something. Some evidence that she was different. How could all of these feelings not show? She was a woman now, but it didn’t show and she couldn’t tell anyone.
An intimate, beautiful, important novel that challenged my beliefs and broke my heart.—Vikki Wakefield, author of Friday Brown
Over now to Dianne…
2 things that inspired my book
1. This story was inspired by actual events that took place while I was living in the US more than ten years ago. A high-achieving teen couple became pregnant and hid that pregnancy. When the baby was born in a motel room, the teen father killed the infant and disposed of it in a dumpster. I was horrified by the story, but also felt there was more than one victim here. There was no compassion extended to the kids who had chosen this path; they were referred to as monsters.
I believe we have created a culture that hobbles young adults with strident expectations predominantly imposed to satisfy external appearances and alleviate parental anxiety, while simultaneously allowing these same young people to suffer in acute isolation with no outlet for their truest selves and fears. I became angry, because this sort of thing doesn’t happen in isolation. There had to be lots of broken things and broken people around them in order for them to feel they had no one to go to for help. Such an extreme choice had to be the product of some extreme familial and environmental malfunction. I wanted to write a story about the bigger picture.
2. I’ve always been very interested in the different ways sexually active girls and sexually active boys are viewed and judged. We are still slut-shaming girls while the boys enjoying these sluts are neither mentioned nor censured. A good girl apparently becomes a bad girl when she has sex, especially if she enjoys sex. So if there is a consequence to having sex, such as pregnancy or disease, a good girl who has been taught by society that her virginity is her crown is far less likely to seek help. Expectation becomes the shame-flame. And a good girl is aware that that shame will infect her entire family. In many ways we haven’t moved that far forward since Lydia Bennett fucked off with Wickham. There are cultures and religions operating right now where a girl can be excommunicated and banished for having sex, and/or blamed for leading a boy into having sex himself. This enrages me. I am inspired by my rage.
2 places connected with the book
1. The parental headspace: anxiety-filled, adamant, structured, time-poor, practicality-driven, peace-craving, obsessed with externals and appearances, a sense of isolation. Busy parents lose their peripheral vision and too often gain their only positive reinforcement from the eyes of other parents gazing enviously on to their apparently happy home. But no one looks into the apparently happy home. That might shatter the mutual delusion between grown-ups using their children for validation.
2. The young adult headspace: anxiety-filled, chaotic, unstructured, time-poor, sensually driven, acceptance-craving, obsessed with externals and appearances, a sense of isolation. The desperate need to be validated, which is so often misinterpreted as being bolshie. Young adults lose their peripheral vision and too often gain their only positive reinforcement by internalising and acting upon the expectations of grown-ups. No good choices can thrive within that kind of disconnection from self.
My geographical place is where these two intersect.
2 favourite things about A Small Madness
1. This description of Michael’s experience of the denied pregnancy:
He wondered if that nascent snow-caver ever sent tendrils of sadness into Rose’s dreams. It lived in his. It pulsed and rolled and nudged like a manatee in his spinal fluid, and it wasn’t even growing in him.
2. The relationship between Liv and her mother:
‘Oh fuck, oh fuck…’
‘…oh fuck, oh fuck…Mum?’
‘Livvie? Is that you?’
‘Please come. Please come to Rose’s. Oh fuck, Mum.’
‘Jesus, baby. I’m still in bed. What’s going on?’
‘Please come to Rose’s, Mum. She…she…’
‘Tell me what’s wrong—now!’
‘I just need you.’
‘On my way.’