Review Blog

Aug 15 2011

Speaking of tangents

cover image

An interview with A.J. Betts by Fran Knight
Tangent: Trigonometric function that is equal to the ratio of the sides (other than the hypotenuse) opposite and adjacent to an angle in a right triangle.

A.J. Betts, author of Wavelength and Shutterspeed, two adolescent novels published by Perth's Fremantle Press, loves muffins, but the idea for her latest novel, Wavelength came unexpectedly from a bad experience with her favourite treat. Venting her outrage on her trusty lap top for an hour or so, gave her the idea for Oliver's mother, a hard pressed single mum, furiously making muffins from some god forsaken hour in the morning to create an income for the family. Oliver, a demented year 12 student, is slavishly following his peer group in obsessing about his exams, all to get a particular university entrance score. The two forces are bound to clash, and they do so with spectacular results.

This stream of consciousness approach worked exceptionally well with Wavelength, but it was quite the opposite with Amanda's first book, Shutterspeed. She took a text book approach with this story, making up character profiles, plotting a course of action for the tale, developing lines of plot. Both approaches worked well, making the development of characters a line I wanted to pursue when interviewing A. J. Betts recently. But tangents kept getting in the way.

Part of Wavelength is set, most satisfyingly in a retirement village. An idea fraught with danger, I thought, because it lends itself to the observation of the elderly as a homgeneous group, displaying characteristics bounded by their ages. But in Amanda's hands, no such cliche is obvious. Each person has a delineated personality, each can be viewed as a separate entity with their own story. One is based on Amanda's grandfather, another of a woman with dementia she met in a shopping centre, another through observations of older people in an aquarobics class.

But what about those chapter headings? I hesitated to ask.

The Wavelength chapter headings, mysteriously offering the reader a brief tangental look into long forgotten physics lessons or things still being committed to memory, reflect the nature of the emotional regime Oliver is experiencing at the time - as well as Amanda's recent interest in science. Interestingly the chapter headings were about rocks, with the book divided into three sections, Igneous, Metamorphic and Sedentary, the chapter headings reflecting the rocks of those eras, ranging from the very hard to the more malleable and softer rocks at the end, when Oliver has at last realised just what he wants to do. Amanda adores metaphors!

A teacher with the Western Australian Education Department in the Hospital School, Amanda loves the variety of work this offers. But writing was always her aim, so much so that when she drove to Perth in 2004, from her then home in Brisbane, she made herself a promise that she would stay in Perth until she had a novel published. Now with two published and another manuscript (entered for the Vogel Award in 2010 because that was the last year she fitted the criteria) receiving encouragement to develop the story further, she has some decisions to make.

But writing full time means earning money from other sources, so she is investigating further the possibilities of school visits. Mentorships from societies such as the May Gibbs Children's Literature Trust means that time can be spent unhindered for a little while, taking time out just for writing and collecting stories. And Fremantle Press with its editor, have been solid in their support of Amanda and her work.

Amanda is excited that her novel, Wavelength, has been shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier's Award, where she is one amongst a group of authors whose names are far more well known.

Not surprisingly, Amanda has found that people have questioned whether she would be better off living in the eastern states. And this is another question with which she will need to grapple. Another tangent which takes her away from writing.

With a list of the best cafes in the city to visit, Cibos, Brown Dog, Nanos, as well as places in Croydon and North Adelaide, from friends suggestions and her own googling, Amanda is well attuned to Adelaide life for the four weeks she is here for her Fellowship. Cafes are wonderful places to write, so you may see a young woman in bike lycra, tapping away on her lap top, listening into conversations, watching for a diversion to give her more material for her writing.

Tangent: Adjective
(of a line or plane) touching, but not intersecting, a curve or curved surface.
Fran Knight

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