Dear readers, I met the lovely author Victoria Carless online, and then read her recently released middle-grade novel Gus and the Starlight. Victoria kindly agreed to answer some of my burning questions about her book and her writing process.
The blurb states:
A spine-tingling and heart-warming story about friendship and finding your special place in the world.
Gus doesn’t want to make friends. She also doesn’t want to be intrigued by the cat-lady teacher at her new school, or the Riley’s Comet project that she and her seaweed-eating science partner are working on together.
And she definitely doesn’t want to fall in love with her job as the projectionist at the Starlight, a drive-in movie theatre that her family is reviving.
Because, knowing Gus’s luck, she and her family could be moving on in a day, or a week, or a month. When the ghosts that haunt Mum catch up with them. Or if the Starlight doesn’t succeed.
Then she’ll have to say goodbye. Again.
And saying goodbye is too hard.
KC: What was the first idea for your book? Was it about Gus, her family, the Starlight or something else?
VC: The idea for the story came from the setting, a drive-in movie theatre in a small town, which the locals say is haunted. I knew I wanted to write about The Starlight a year or so before I had the characters. Then an image of Gus and her family in a car came to me. I got the sense things were getting desperate for them, that they had to leave, and fast. When Gus said in the first scene that ‘she was getting really good now at not making any friends at all’ I realised they had moved around a lot and became completely invested in her story. I knew I had to find a way to help her. The Starlight drive-in became integral to her family’s safety and happiness.
KC: I loved all the movies Gus chose to show at the Starlight – The Princess Bride is one of my all-time favourite movies! How did you choose the movies?
VC: I am so glad you liked them. I am a child of the 1980s and my parents took my siblings and I to the local drive- in quite often, as we didn’t have a VCR player, so I had a lot of lived experience to draw on! Seeing a movie felt really special then, like an occasion, as opposed to now when you can stream anything you like, any time.
The drive-in movie theatre in this story still screens 35mm films on reels, instead of files on a hard drive like cinemas today, so that meant that I had to choose films that were distributed in that format, generally anything pre 2000s. At first Gus is guided in her selection of the movies by a local boy Stevie, who hangs around the drive-in, so he’s something of an expert. As Gus’s confidence grows and the stakes to bring more customers to the drive-in get higher, she begins to pick films that she thinks will resonate with the local community. It turns out she is quite good at it and their audience grows. The family are trying to revive the Starlight and also make money to survive and a fresh start for themselves. I also wanted the films Gus screens to parallel or echo Gus’s circumstance in real time, so I looked for films that worked in this way. Oh and some were also my favourites growing up.
KC: Gus’s world is a beautiful mix of a quirky family trying to make a new start with a ghostly mystery that has a surprising twist, woven together with a lot of feeling and humour. (I particularly liked Gus and Nicole’s science presentation!) How did you keep the balance between the humour and lightness – and the sadness and worries?
VC: I always love it when writers walk the line in this way, so I’m humbled you felt that way about ‘Gus and the Starlight’. I think Meg Mason treads this balance in her novel ‘Sorrow and Bliss’ so well and I have always loved the way children’s author Karen Foxlee’s books are whimsical and heartbreaking at the same time.
To be honest, trying to write moments of both humour and pathos is probably something I do to keep myself entertained, while grappling with the big-ticket items when drafting a novel, like plot and character arcs! And hopefully if you are entertained while writing, someone else will be too while reading it. Hopefully! You’ve got further drafts to resolve any writerly indulgence. You are your first reader. Robert Frost said it best when he said: ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’. He also said: ‘no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’
KC: Deirdre, who thinks she is the owner of the Starlight, is such an exaggerated character with her italics – was she fun to write?
VC: Oh my gosh, she was totally fun to write – I really had the best time with her and she was a nice distraction from the social issues and sadness experienced by Gus’s family, at times. Deirdre is the self-appointed Artistic Director and lead actress of the local Amateur Dramatic Society and she takes herself and her job very seriously. If only the rest of the community did too…
I was a playwright for ten years before moving into fiction, so have spent a bit of time in rehearsal rooms. Deidre is a heightened version of some interesting personalities I encountered. Perhaps there’s some of my own inner dramatic artiste in there as well.
KC: Did you do much research for your book?
VC: I did quite a bit of research into how drive-in movie projection technology worked. Having never actually seen a drive-in projector up close, I wasn’t even sure how they worked, so I did quite a bit of online reading to understand the terminology and watched YouTube videos about how to load 35mm film, etc. I also consulted with the owners of a drive-in in North Queensland who were very kind and answered some of my specific questions, such as how sound is heard in the projector room.
I also went to a drive-in while editing the book to make sure I captured the atmosphere correctly, for myself anyway, as this story is set in contemporary times and my last experience going to the drive-in would have been in the early 1990s! Drive-ins have upgraded to digital format now, so things have changed somewhat.
I also did some research into comets, as there is a (fictional) comet due to appear in the night sky not long after Gus and her family arrive in town. This is also what Gus and Nicole’s science project is based on. My memory of primary school astronomy had failed me and it was fun re-learning about comet behaviour and what they are made of – basically the leftovers of the solar system.
KC: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
VC: I would say I’m somewhere in between. When writing the first draft of a story I usually know the key plot points and what will happen a few scenes ahead and also the ending, but there’s often still a question to be answered or a few gaps in the story, usually of a metaphorical nature. I have tried to plan everything out in advance on a number of projects before and found that once I know what is happening in every scene I get bored and think well I don’t need to write it now, I know what’s ging to happen. I need to wade into the fog or have a problem to solve to keep me interested in the story. I’ve learnt to trust my process, I guess.
But over the years as playwright and author I have also learnt that every project is different. The form and how I approach it usually depends on what the story is concerned with, or the question at the heart of it.
KC: What is a typical week like for you as an author?
VC: At the moment I write on Mondays and also any time I can scrape together in the evenings and on weekends. It’s not enough. It’s never enough. I have met a lot of writers who struggle with the time issue. But if you want to finish your story, you’ll make it happen. It’s a challenge though and not without some sacrifice.
KC: What’s your favourite stage of writing – ideas gathering, writing the first draft, revising?
VC: I think writing the first draft is my favourite as it’s the first time you get to hear the characters’ voices and experience their world. If you’re lucky they’ll take you along for the ride.
That said, my first drafts tend to be sketches and I try not to look back, but just go with the momentum and get the ideas down. The real work happens in the second version – filling in the obvious plot holes and taking a more macro view of the character arcs etc, as well as actually using punctuation.. Scene maps are the perfect tool for this.
Yet the kernel or the heart of the story and the reason you wrote it, above all the other projects swimming around in your head, is in that first draft, for better or for worse.
And that kernel or heart – the reason you write the story in the first place – is what will get you through editing your manuscript through the next five to 100 times!
KC: Are you working on a new project?
VC: Yes I am. It’s for Middle Grade readers and is set in an alternative lifestyle community called Passing Waters. The main character Lani is a real STEM girl and the recent tree change instigated by her mother is very challenging, as is the curriculum at Lani’s new school which features biodynamic gardening and something called eurythmy (interpretive dancing). I am also weaving in a thread of quantum physics. Or trying to, anyway! I will keep you posted on my progress with that!
KC: Where can we find you online?
VC: I am on both Twitter (@VCarless) and more recently on Instagram (@victoria.carless). The kid lit and Midde Grade communities on Instagram are just so welcoming and I’m enjoying meeting so many lovely writers online. You can also visit my website at: https://www.victoriacarless.com/