When Claire was down for the Melbourne Writer’s Festival not too long ago, I was lucky enough to catch up with her at a little cafe in the city and have a chat. If you know me at all, there’s nothing I love more than coffee and books – so this was the perfect combination of the two. We went to a cute cafe outside the Melbourne City Library that I’d been meaning to visit for ages, called The Journal Cafe, and it was simply delightful.
I’d only met Claire briefly before at a writing event for the Emerging Writers Festival, and it was brilliant to be able to sit down and just have a chilled conversation, surrounded by the bookish decor and the smell of freshly ground coffee beans. Being the lovely person she is, Claire kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me to share with y’all!
I adored hearing more about how her novel, Beautiful Mess, made it into this world, what she’s working on now, and what influenced the writing of this sensational novel. She’s such a genuine, inspirational person and it was an honour to be able to spend some time with her.
“It’s okay to not be okay.” – Claire Christian, author of BEAUTIFUL MESS
For those that don’t know, what is Beautiful Mess about?
Beautiful Mess is a dual narrative about a sixteen year-old girl named Ava and a seventeen year-old boy named Gideon, who are both navigating some really big life stuff, and they meet each other because they start working at the same kebab shop. A friendship forms by them writing letters and getting to know each other, and inadvertently, helping each other deal with some of the messy stuff that they’re both going through.
What inspired you to write Beautiful Mess?
I lived in regional Queensland a few years ago and a young person in our community lost her battle with depression. That was the first time I’d ever heard suicide spoken about like that, and I watched my community, and the young people in my community deal with that beautiful and I watched the adults around them be really messy and kind of not know what to do. And that made me realise that the conversations we’re having with young people about mental health — and other big issues about adolescence — are just not adequate enough, in my opinion. So that’s kind of where the story was born, and that I wanted to write a story that talked about mental health and talked about it in a really realistic and honest and vulnerable way.
Why are YA novels about mental health important?
I think the dialogue around mental health, especially for young people in Australia, isn’t adequate enough. We don’t arm parents, we don’t arm teachers with the skills to be able to have conversations with young people, and we don’t arm other young people with the capacity to be able to have these conversations with their peers.
I had a great conversation with a seventeen year-old that I worked with, and I think he articulated it perfectly. He said, “I’ve been told over and over again that it’s really important that we have conversations about mental health and I know my friends are going through some stuff, but because I’ve been told it’s so important, I don’t know what to say because I don’t want to stuff it up. So I don’t say anything.”
And I think that, in essence, is the mental health situation we find ourselves in in Australia. What’s important is that I hope young people who are navigating something will see that Beautiful Mess gives them skills or affirmation, or knowledge that it’s okay to ask for help and that there are other people in the world who are navigating stuff like they are, and that there are options and that they will absolutely be okay.
Which character do you see the most of yourself in?
I think I see myself a lot in both of them. I think I’m an awkward introvert like Gideon, but then I think I’m also on the other end of the spectrum — a bit feisty, and not scared to stick up for what I believe in, like Ava. So I’m kind of a weird cross between the two of them, I think.
What do you want to say to the Ava’s and Gideon’s of the world?
I hope that real Ava’s and real Gideon’s know that they are absolutely, 100% okay, and if they don’t feel okay right now, they are going to be okay. That there are people in the world who want to help them, that there is always options, that there are services and adults around who believe in you, and who want to make sure that you are the best possible person that you can be. It’s okay to not be okay, is a really important message that I hope Ava’s and Gideon’s know. That life is allowed to be messy, because being a teenager is really confusing and it sucks a lot of the time, and we don’t talk about that, and we think that adults have it all worked out. But that’s not the case at all. Adults don’t have it all worked out. So yeah, I hope that ultimately they know that I, as an adult, are totally barracking for them to be okay.
Why is it important for teens to see themselves in novels?
Words are my love language. Words and novels are the things that make the most sense to me. Writing and words and stories are the things I love most, and I think that’s how we learn and change and that’s how we work out who we want to be. I think stories are one of the most important things, and sharing stories with each other. Novels will never die because I think people just want to know that there are other people like them. We want to feel recognised. We want to feel seen. And I think stories are the number one way to do that.
How would you describe Beautiful Mess in three words?
I would describe Beautiful Mess as funny, heartbreaking, and sweet.
I’d just like to say another massive thank you to Claire Christian for this chat, and if you haven’t picked up your copy of Beautiful Mess yet, please do! It’s such a powerful, moving book and it’s simply a must-read for teens and adults alike.
Claire Christian is a novelist and playwright who lives in Brisbane. She has had three plays published by Playlab, and her play Bloom was shortlisted for the Griffin Award in 2009. She was one of the YWCA Queensland 125 leading women in 2013. Beautiful Mess won the Text Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing in 2016.