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September 2, 2014

On Writing ZAC & MIA - Guest Post by A.J. Betts

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YA author A.J. Betts’ novels SHUTTERSPEED and WAVELENGTH were “completely fictional, plucked from thin air.” But her newest book, ZAC & MIA, had real life inspiration --- the teenagers at the cancer ward in Princess Margaret Hospital in Perth, Australia, where she teaches. Below, AJ explains how her real life experiences influenced the book, as well as its main themes of isolation, love, courage and beauty. 
 
 

I love working in a children’s hospital. The teenagers are funny, brave, inspiring, and optimistic. But every now and then it gets too hard, and I wonder how I can go back.
 
 I’m a high school English Teacher (because that’s what writers do when they finish school and need a real job, apparently) and I’ve been working at the school at Princess Margaret Hospital in Perth since 2004. I’ve worked on each of the wards and met thousands of teenagers, but in early 2009 I found myself specializing on the cancer ward.
 
The idea for ZAC & MIA snuck up on me. I hadn’t intended on writing a novel inspired by my students --- my previous novels had been completely fictional, plucked from thin air --- but I was drawn in. It wasn’t cancer that interested me: cancer sucks. It wasn’t death: death sucks even more. I wasn’t drawn towards dark themes or misery, because I hate melodrama and cliché. What I was interested in was the nature of isolation. The students who were having Bone Marrow Transplants had to remain in a single room for five weeks or so. Imagine that! I couldn’t. I empathized with these teenagers, going slightly crazier every day, stuck in a room with their mums! I wondered what I would do in their situation. How would I cope?
 
At the same time, I was editing my second novel, WAVELENGTH. My teenage ‘test readers’ only had one complaint: there wasn’t enough romance. One of my 15-year-old students, a beautiful cancer patient named Tayla, begged me to write a romance for my next novel. I promised her I’d try.
 
And somehow those two ideas --- isolation and love --- came together. I wondered if it’s possible to fall in love with someone you can’t physically meet. I imagined a 17-year-old patient stuck in a room, hearing the new girl arrive in the room next door. As the story progressed, it wasn’t ‘cancer’ that interested me. I was intrigued by these two teenagers and their burgeoning relationship. I knew his knock on the wall would change their lives, but I wasn’t sure how. I knew that Mia would be the antithesis to Zac in many ways but, surprisingly, they’d come to complement each other. As the story developed, I became obsessed with three questions: What is courage? What is beauty? What is love? I wrote these on post-its and stuck them to my wall. They kept the novel (and me) on track. What does it mean, at 17, to be brave? What does beauty look like? And what is love, really?
 
Without their hair, school routine and cliques, what is it that really matters to them? What’s left to define their sense of self? Are they still beautiful? Who are their true friends? 
 
The answers emerged as I wrote. The answers also came from my amazing students who inspired and encouraged me. Tayla, in particular, was wildly enthusiastic about this book, and I read her each new section as it was written. I wanted to pay homage to these incredible teenagers who have such tough challenges: physical, social and psychological. They start to wonder who they really are. Without their hair, school routine and cliques, what is it that really matters to them? What’s left to define their sense of self? Are they still beautiful? Who are their true friends?
 
Writing ZAC & MIA was the hardest thing I’ve done. It often felt too big and impossible, and I abandoned the story many times, firstly when Tayla passed away unexpectedly. I didn’t want to continue a novel that overlapped with reality in such a heartbreaking way. It was only after Tayla’s mother urged me to finish that I returned to the manuscript, finding a new resolve. I had to.
 
I still work on the cancer ward, part-time. It’s hard but it’s rewarding, and I know that my work makes a difference. I don’t pretend to be an expert on cancer or teenagers or romance, for that matter. Everything I know I’ve learned through my students, who remind me what it means to be brave and beautiful. To see life through the eyes of Zac and Mia has been a privilege. 

A. J. Betts is an author, teacher, speaker and cyclist.  ZAC AND MIA, the winner of the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children's Writing, is her third novel for young adults.