Each month we shine our spotlight on a member of the Writing NSW community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements, and inspirations. This month we spoke with Hayley Lawrence, author of Inside the Tiger, a YA novel about love, forgiveness, and the death penalty.
Hayley worked as a commercial lawyer in Sydney before moving to the Mid-North Coast, where she lives with her husband and children. Despite leaving legal work, she was unable to leave behind the stories of the people she had encountered. Inside the Tiger, her debut novel, was published this year by Penguin Books Australia and earned her a place on the shortlist for the The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Awards.
Our Membership Intern, Alexander Wells, talked with Hayley about the novel’s inspiration, finding time and space to write, and the opportunities and challenges of being a regional writer.
Congratulations on the success of Inside the Tiger, which has been published by Penguin Books Australia. How have you launched the book?
Thank you so much! It’s been a thrilling journey. I launched Inside the Tiger locally in my home town of Port Macquarie on Saturday the 8th of September at my local bookstore, BookFace. Then I headed down to Melbourne for a Young Adult author event. Finally in Sydney, where I grew up, I launched Inside the Tiger at Kinokuniya Books on Thursday the 27th of September. I’m lucky to have the support of family and friends in all three ports!
Tell us a little about the story.
Inside the Tiger is about a teenage girl, Bel, who writes to a death row prisoner and falls for him, destroying them both.
Bel’s mother was killed by a drug addict when she was a baby. Since she was young, she’s attended a Sydney boarding school so that her father, the Justice Minister, could dedicate himself to victims’ rights. Now seventeen, she’s tired of her dad’s rallies, and has sworn off politics. So when she’s forced to align herself with a cause for a school assignment, Bel opts for an easy way out. She writes to a Death Row prisoner who she thinks will never write back. But when nineteen-year-old Micah responds, Bel finds herself drawn into the horror of his daily life. And as the letters continue, she develops feelings for him. But her friendship with Micah starts to threaten the people Bel loves at home. By caring about a convicted criminal, Bel inadvertently pits herself against her father’s ideals. She’s already lost her mother. Will loving Micah cost her everyone else she loves too?
Inside the Tiger is an exploration of idealism, justice and personal loss, with two very different love stories at its heart.
What was the inspiration for the novel?
The inspiration for Inside the Tiger came from the five years I spent writing to, and visiting, a death row prisoner in Thailand. Death as a form of punishment has always fascinated me, and I wanted to examine the ethics of the death penalty in a fictionalised setting. But more than the ethics, I wanted to look at what happens to the people caught behind the politics, because getting the death penalty doesn’t just affect the person condemned to die: it affects everyone who loves them as well.
I’ve been inside the Thai prison that features in my novel when I met the death row prisoner I was writing to. The conditions in Bangkwang prison are notoriously inhumane and many non-fiction books have been written detailing its horrors. I wanted to write a Young Adult love story that would shed a bit of light on what it’s like to be walking in the shackles of a death row prisoner, or in the shoes of someone who loves them.
Inside the Tiger deals with themes of punishment, mercy, and justice. Is it a coincidence that you used to work as a lawyer?
Ha, no! I think our past lives always embed themselves into our fiction, whether we mean them to or not. My legal background has probably left its mark in more ways than I realise, as when I’m writing, I find themes crop up that take me back to my days as a law student. Studying law largely means asking questions about the standards we set for ourselves as a society and the ways we go about enforcing them. Inside the Tiger definitely has these sorts of questions flowing through it!
If you could have anyone in the world as a pen-pal, who – or where – would they be?
Is Shakespeare out of the question? Never mind that he’s dead – he’s still in the world in body in some form, and his words are very much still haunting the modern-day vernacular. Shakespeare is one of my idols because of his incredible and timeless ability to observe and comment on the human condition. Oh, to have had the chance to meet with him over a stiff drink!
In 2017, you were shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel’s Literary award. How did you react to the news? And how did it affect your pathway to being published
2017 was a big year for me as a writer! I was shaking when I found out that Inside the Tiger was a finalist for the Vogel Prize, as I sent it literally in the last minute before the competition ended, and I didn’t even believe they’d received my entry. Being shortlisted for the Vogel Prize had a much bigger impact on my ability to get published than I initially realised. It meant publishers were more interested in reading Inside the Tiger. I also managed to secure representation with Curtis Brown Literary Agency in 2017, and within weeks of the Vogel Prize winner being announced, I had a contract with Penguin Random House.
You stayed at Varuna for two weeks on a LitLink Residential Fellowship and again on a PIP Fellowship. How did those experiences help your novel, and your writing in general?
Oh, I just adore Varuna! You can breathe that place in – the smell of old books and inspiration – and the writing there just flows. Each of my stays at Varuna have been special. As a mother of five, I don’t get big chunks of time to write uninterrupted, so to get a solid week or two … heaven! And to be amongst other writers who get it, who can chat about life, stories, literature, the journey … who can sit around a fire with wine and good food and read, and critique and just muse about life experience – it’s precious. The connections I’ve made with other authors at Varuna have been invaluable. As well as the support and encouragement of the Varuna community. Not to mention the quiet solitude to write, where creative time is treated as sacred! A rare commodity where I live with my five daughters!
What can you tell us about the novel you’re currently working on?
I’m currently working on another Young Adult contemporary realism novel, Corridor of the Wild Dogs. Ruby lives in the forest with her frustrated maestro mother whose embittered ideas about life and men cloud Ruby’s own. As Ruby experiences her own horrors in a world of men, she begins to believe that her mother is right. But then Erik from her childhood returns to the forest. Healer of birds as a child, now he flies among them as a pilot. And Ruby may be forced to question everything she thought she knew about men and life.
You’ve been living in Port Macquarie for over a decade. Has that place been important to your development as a writer? What are some of the challenges of being an Australian regional writer in 2018?
I love living in regional Australia. It has given me a broader sense of place within myself, and I think that carries across to my writing. Inside the Tiger is set in Sydney, where I grew up, but Corridor of the Wild Dogs is set in regional NSW, very close to where I live. I think Australia is rich in natural playgrounds, and I feel very fortunate that Port Macquarie and surrounds offer so much visual and visceral stimulation. It makes for the perfect place to set a novel, and to use your setting for maximum impact! However, this is also coupled with a feeling of isolation as a regional writer, because most of the big literary events happen in the capital cities, as well as agents and publishers all being in the cities. So you have to be prepared to travel. And keep your finger on the pulse.
Do you have a regular writing routine?
I would certainly like to! I wish I could be more structured about my writing, but instead, it seems to follow patterns of crazy intense 2 a.m. sessions, followed by lulls. Between my daughters and school, and a husband who works an irregular schedule, a regular writing routine is difficult. But when I do get a few hours to write, I don’t mess around. I just go!
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
Finish it. The book. No matter how bad it seems, get it done. If you give it up when it seems like you have no plot, and this is the worst story that anyone’s ever told, and who do you think you are, anyway, trying to write, then you will have nothing to improve upon. So grit your teeth and finish the damn manuscript even if you hate it. And write from the heart – write what scares you, what interests you; write out your most embarrassing thoughts. This is the stuff of common humanity. You can edit it out later. Write it raw first.
What do you think are the most inspiring…
(a) Writer/Poet: Shakespeare. Hands down. Also Victor Hugo.
(b) Weather: Long, balmy summer days.
(c) Time of day: Twilight. (Pre-kids, this was my favourite time of the day. Hopefully in a few years, once the girls grow a little older and this time of day is a tad more peaceful again, it will return as my favourite, mellow time of the day.)
(d) Music: I’m a lyrics girl, so I like Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, James Arthur, Dean Lewis, Bruce Springsteen. Story songs essentially. They help fuel my own creative thought process and trigger plot ideas.
(e) Location: The ocean. There are few places more ancient or grounding.
To find out more about Hayley and her work, visit https://www.hayleylawrence.com.au and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.