Seventeen-year-old Iliad Piper – Ily for short – is named after war and angry at the world. Growing up with a violent father and abused mother, she doesn’t know how to do relationships, family or friends. Her love-hate friendship with Max turns into a prank war and she nearly destroys her first true friendship with misfit Mia. She takes off her armour for nobody, until she meets Jared, a local actor and someone who’s as complicated as she is.
From the author of Yellow comes a powerful exploration of family and identity set against the humid build-up to the wet season in Darwin.
I haven’t read many books about domestic violence, unless you’d count the abuse Monty receives from his father in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue or the emotional abuse Aled suffers in Radio Silence. I knew The Build-Up Season was going to be an emotional ride from the beginning, but as well as being a confronting read, it was also incredibly powerful and heart-wrenching. I adored Megan Jacobson’s previous novel, Yellow, but I was blown away by how phenomenal The Build-Up Season was. This is truly a book that must be on all reader’s shelves.
The way in which Megan wrote about domestic violence in such a raw, candid way should truly be commended. There were some very confronting scenes, but the genuine portrayal of this atrocity that is the reality for so many people is something that should be recognised and applauded. Not once does Megan shy away from such a sensitive issue, and instead she tackles it head-on, writing about not only what life would be like for someone who has experienced domestic violence, but also the way in which this person shouldn’t be defined by their suffering. But at its core, The Build-Up Season is a novel about what love actually means, resilience, and the importance of family.
While I didn’t particularly like the protagonist, Iliad, I felt that her character was realistic and vibrant and I loved the transformation she underwent. Iliad is, by far, one of the most flawed and imperfect characters I’ve read about all year, and I admired the way in which Megan fearlessly wrote about a teenager who wasn’t meant to be someone all of us connected with or adored all of the time. She was rude to her family, she made some terrible decisions, but I loved that she was a genuine teenager. Teenagers aren’t perfect — they make mistakes and they can infuriate us at times, but beneath the snark and anger, most teenagers just want to be accepted, believed in, and told that they’re worth something. Iliad was no different.
My favourite character was undoubtably Max, an Indigenous character with an affinity for pranks – he was just a completely adorable munchkin. His friendship with Ily was one of my favourite aspects of the novel and I really enjoyed the times they shared with one another. Most of the important lessons in The Build-Up Season stemmed from their conversations, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how their two lives ended up entangled. The Darwin setting was also one that I hadn’t experienced much before, and I loved how the build-up to the wet season mirrored the build-up of anger inside Iliad and the lead-up to the powerful end scenes.
The Build-Up Season is a powerful and poignant exploration of domestic violence, family, and identity that’s equal parts confronting and moving. This novel is undoubtably one of the most important #LoveOzYA releases of 2017, and it should be on everyone’s TBR. Phenomenal.
Check out this exclusive interview with Megan Jacobson, the author of The Build-Up Season!
Megan Jacobson grew up in Darwin and the far north coast of New South Wales, but now lives in Sydney, where she works in TV news production at the ABC. She has a degree in journalism and has worked as a question writer for TV game shows, and as an in-house script storyliner and script editor for several Australian television dramas. Her short stories have been published in the Sydney Morning Herald, aired on ABC radio, appeared in the UTS writers’ anthology I can see my house from here and in the Review of Australian Fiction. Her first novel Yellow was shortlisted in the Older Readers category of the 2017 CBCA Book of the Year Awards.
Why did you choose to set The Build-Up Season in Darwin? What kind of research did you have to conduct to make this setting authentic?
I spent my childhood there, and lived there for a few years after graduating. My sister, nieces, nephews and great nephews still live there, so I visit as often as I can. I’d go fishing with my sister and her partner on the Mary River, simultaneously frightened and fascinated by the giant crocodiles, I’d eat laksa at the markets and I would watch the teens jumping off the East Point cliff edge and I’d fossick for bullet shells in the sand. For the names of the plants and birds I’d ask my sister, because she knows the names of everything. She patiently answered my million and one questions because sisters are wonderful. Ily’s home is loosely based on my childhood best friend’s property, with the dam and the bush where we ran wild, and the chickens scratching around. When my friend got older and went to university, her parents actually imported a Balinese bungalow for her to live in, so she had privacy. They don’t run a wellness retreat and are nothing like Ily’s family, but I kind of stole their home as a setting. Side note – when we were children they used to adopt orphaned baby kangaroos that we’d bottle feed. Darwin is awesome.
I chose to set it there because it couldn’t have been set anywhere else. The natural environment is almost a character in itself, and I wanted to the weather to mirror the actions in the book – as the relationship starts getting more and more problematic, at the same time the humidity is slowly making the air heavier, and the heat gets more oppressive and the clammy air grips the characters tighter and tighter and everything just ‘builds up’.
Besides what is explicitly stated, how has Homer’s Iliad shaped the narrative or the characters in your novel?
I actually had Ily’s name before I had any storyline. I know this might sound weird and mystical, but it sort of feels like the characters come to me first, fully formed. Ily burst into my consciousness, all crazy curls with her half-shaved head, sticking her tongue out at me, rolling her eyes and grabbing my arm, trying to drag me along with her. I was actually trying to work on a different, dystopian story at the time, but Ily’s pretty headstrong and wouldn’t go away, so I put down that first story and decided to listen to what this character had to say.
I knew her personality, I could feel it, and I knew that she had a hippy mum, and that her name was Iliad, but that was it. That’s all I had. I couldn’t figure out why that was her name, I mean, I figured her mum would give her an unconventional name because she was pretty new-age, but that was more likely to have been ‘Amethyst’ or ‘Saffron’ or something similar. But I just knew that Iliad was her name, the character told me so. So I bought the book by Homer and read it, and the story was full of war, so it made sense, the book really represented this girl who had so much fighting inside of her, but it didn’t explain why her mum would call her child that.
Then I read the introduction to the book, and discovered that Ilium was another name for the ancient Greek city of Troy, and Iliad meant ‘in relation to Troy.’ That was my ‘ah ha!’ moment. I thought, who is Troy? And what type of man would insist his child be named after him? It seemed kind of controlling. That’s what made me discover what the story was about.
So, I know that sounds really hippy, but the whole book is basically the book that it is because of Iliad’s name, and I had no say in her name. The character came to me with a name already, and that was that. I just had to figure out why she was called that.
What aspects of yourself do you see in Ily?
I’m not very much like Ily at all, temperament wise, I’m pretty polite I’d like to think, and I was raised in a safe, loving household. While writing her, I instead tried to imagine how I would react if that hadn’t been the case, and tried my best to write her with an emotional truth, putting myself in her shoes.
I was, however, in a relationship much like Ily’s when I was in my early twenties. There’s a key scene that includes violence and it’s quite similar to what happened to me, so I wanted to explore how I could have ever let myself get into that situation. It seems so strange, looking back. I never pictured myself as the kind of girl who’d accept that behaviour, which is why I was always so ashamed to talk about it. The thing is, though, it can happen to anyone, and I wanted to let young women know that, and to dispel the stigma.
In my work at ABC TV news, we did a news story about how women between the ages of 18 and 23 are twice as likely than their older peers to be in an abusive relationship, however the narrative we’re told often seems to focus on older women. I spoke to friends, and it was shocking to discover just how many of my confident, intelligent friends had been subject to abuse by their early boyfriends, however none of us realised it at the time, because we hadn’t had much relationship experience to understand what our boundaries were, and we though abuse was only defined by ‘hitting’ and ‘punching’. We’re raised on the narrative that jealous and co-dependent relationships are ‘romantic’ (hello Twilight), and I wanted to show young women that abuse comes in many forms, and bad behaviours ‘build up’ over time, and I wanted to show how sometimes abusers are really nice, sometimes they don’t look like the monsters you see in the movies, sometimes they’re really remorseful, and sometimes you love them. Sometimes you stay out of love, not fear. I wanted to show that it’s not black and white, however, I wanted to show how violence and control can escalate, and I wanted to show the warning signs to look out for.
If anything, I’m actually a bit like Eve. While I was writing her I was basically mocking myself, I do yoga and meditation, I’m a vegetarian, the meals Ily mocks are actually my favourites, and when I was a teen I read tarot and collected crystals and the whole she-bang. I do draw a line, however, at teachings that are scientifically and ethically dubious, so I explore that as well.
What is your favourite and least favourite trope? What are some of your favourite books with the ‘friends to lovers’ trope?
My favourite tropes involve misunderstandings, where the protagonist thinks the situation is one thing, but they’re unreliable narrators, blinded by their own prejudices or preconceptions, and they learn that sometimes you have to be a bit more open minded and accept that they were wrong, leading to personal growth. My least favourite, surprise surprise, is jealous, co-dependant and unhealthy relationships being portrayed as romantic. Not cool. Not good role-modelling.
As far as friends to lovers (or, you know, when there’s obvious attraction even if they might not end up together), I really loved John and Josie in Looking for Alibrandi, it was so authentic, I never knew whether to ship him or Jacob because they were both written so truthfully and sensitively. My heart broke for him.
Did you ever have prank wars with people you knew growing up? Was this aspect entrenched in your childhood / youth?
YES! Mostly at university though. I went to uni in Bathurst, and in regional towns you sort of have to make your own fun. There were MASSIVE prank wars going on all the time. People would break into each other’s dorm rooms (we could open the locks by sliding bank cards or business cards through the door crack) and we’d swap all the furniture from one room to another, or cover everything in wrapping paper. I once stole a grey concrete garden gnome, painted it painstakingly, then returned it, to its owner’s confusion. I lived in Towers, and we had a huge rivalry with the other on campus accomodation ‘JOV’. Rumour has it that when Andrew Denton went to our uni he spray-painted ‘Towers Power’ on a JOV roof, and the graffiti was still there decades later, when I was a student. Prank wars spanned the generations. Sometimes, when our dorms had pub runs, the rival dorms would lie in wait, and they would ambush us as we were walking through the park and they’d throw us into the fountain. It was all good natured, and a lot of fun, except maybe when rival dorms would set off the fire alarm at 3am in the middle of a snowy winter and we’d all have to huddle outside in our pyjamas and blankets until given the all clear to return. However, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was glorious.
For people wanting to read more novels focussed on similar issues, what books could you recommend?
Unfortunately, controlling and jealous behaviours are far more likely to be depicted as ‘romantic’ in YA than as warning signs. The only one I’ve read that explores DV in a young woman’s relationship is Stay With Me by Maureen McCarthy, and it’s brilliant. That’s not to say there aren’t many more, but I haven’t yet read them.
I love your choice of title and how it not only relates to the setting, but also to the protagonist’s life and what is building up inside her. When did you decide on the title of this book, or was that clear connection known from the beginning?
I had the title from the very beginning. Again, I knew that I wanted the weather to mirror the action in the book, and I wanted the title to also be a reference to abusive behaviour – how it doesn’t automatically start with violence. It starts with someone not wanting you to hang out with friends, or controlling what you wear, and then tempers lost, then pushing, and so on, escalating further and further. I wanted to show how abusive behaviour doesn’t show itself straight away. It ‘builds up’ over time.
What are the most important steps to take when writing about characters of different identities or ethnicities?
Darwin is such a multicultural place, that’s one of the things I love best about it, and everyone just mingles in a way that I don’t think happens nearly as much down south. There’s no real suburb divide. It’s closer to Asia than any other Australian capital city and I love how the Indigenous, Asian and Greek cultures especially permeate through the whole town. It would have been ridiculous to not portray that.
Mostly, I just wrote the characters as people who happen to have different cultural backgrounds, because that’s how my friends and I would treat each other. I have Indigenous nieces, nephews and great nephews, and they rarely get to see themselves depicted in our stories, so I especially wanted to create an Indigenous character who accurately depicts the Indigenous families I know and love and grew up with, I wanted to represent their humour, their strong sense of family, the disgusting injustice of having a life expectancy twenty years shorter than the rest of the population, their connection to the land and their pride in their culture. One of my nieces’ aunties is my age and is a really close friend, we’ve known each other since we were seven and we call each other cousins. She has Bardi and Jabirr Jabirr heritages and I was lucky that she agreed to be a sensitivity reader for me. I also contacted the Baku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre for information about the different Indigenous art styles of the Northern Territory so I could represent Max and his art accurately.
What are some of your favourite Aussie YA novels about identity and belonging?
Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi.
I adored Shivaun Plozza’s Frankie.
As a teen I loved Puberty Blues, it looked at the misogynistic surf culture that still sadly exists in some places today.
My Place by Sally Morgan.
There are so many more I could list. Australian YA is brilliant at exploring those issues so authentically and beautifully.
Would you ever want to collaborate with another author in future? If so, who would you love to work with?
Oh gosh I’m not sure, I’ve never written prose with anyone else. I have a screenwriting background, writing for TV dramas, and that’s really collaborative, so perhaps it would be really productive. I’m in love with the writing of Cath Crowley, Melina Marchetta, Kirsty Eager, Nick Earls, Claire Zorn, Jaclyn Morriarty, and so many others, but I’ve admired these people for so many years I don’t think I could write very well I’d just be too awestruck to even be in that position!
Thank you so much, Megan!
Have you read The Build-Up Season yet? Do you know of any YA books that deal with themes of domestic violence? Is there one you recommend highly? Have you read many books set in Australia? I’d love to know!
Thanks to Penguin Australia for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
Megan Jacobson’s photograph sourced from Johnny Dias Nicolaidis.
Watercolour elements used in banner and throughout text sourced from Winged Graphics.
Megan Jacobson’s author bio sourced from Penguin Australia.