The 'Norman Asks' corner of the blog is aglow with warmth now that the brilliant Tobias Madden has dropped by!
Tobias is a homegrown author, editor and marketing extraordinaire. If you’ve seen #LoveOzYA while perusing the internet, then you’ll be excited to learn that Tobias is the editor behind Underdog – the organisation’s first anthology of short stories – which was published in 2019 and featured budding Australian YA writers. Tobias’ own short piece, Variation, was also nestled in its pages. As if that wasn’t enough, he wrote Siblingship in the same year, and the cabaret show earned full houses all around.
Before he turned to writing, Tobias had a ten-year run in the performing arts industry, starring in musicals across Australia and New Zealand. He brought this passion to his debut novel, Anything But Fine, which follows a young dancer as he journeys through the hills and valleys of heartbreak, healing and new hope after an injury dashes his dream.
Norman the Bookworm asked Tobias over to shine a spotlight on this heartfelt debut. Follow the beam to the interview below.
Tobias: I’m so glad to hear this – thank you! As someone who was closeted until halfway through university, it was really empowering to create a teen character who was so confident and comfortable with his sexuality. And not only that, but to then place that character in the exact town where I was so reluctant to accept my own sexuality. Writing Luca’s story almost felt like going back in time and living out my queer teenage dreams!
Now, as an adult gay man, I’m extremely comfortable in my sexuality and my place in the world, and writing characters like Luca feels like an important part of my role as an openly gay author. I hope that young queer readers, particularly those growing up in country towns and rural areas, feel seen in Anything But Fine, and that Luca’s courage to be unashamedly himself helps them to live their own authentic lives, when they feel safe and ready to do so.
Tobias: While I was writing the first draft of Anything But Fine, I was smack-bang in the middle of a huge life transition myself. After a couple of years of feeling incredibly lost and adrift in life, I eventually decided to step away from my career on stage.
My own sense of loss – for my career, for my goals, for my identity as a dancer – definitely informed parts of Luca’s journey, though I genuinely wasn’t aware of the connection at the time. (The subconscious is a powerful thing!) So, while I never had a life-changing physical setback like Luca, I most definitely know what it feels like to have your whole identity crumble to pieces around you. And, for the record, it’s not a lot of fun.
But if I hadn’t gone through all that – and if I hadn’t decided to stop performing – I wouldn’t be a published author right now. So, I guess it was all part of the Universe’s plan (as Luca’s dad would say).
Tobias: As I mentioned above, setting Luca’s story in Ballarat was incredibly empowering. My teenage years were spent hiding the best parts of myself, and so to place Luca – a beautiful, sensitive, openly gay young man – in Ballarat was truly special. I’ve received quite a few messages and emails from young queer people in Ballarat who’ve read Anything But Fine, and it’s in those moments that the effect of setting Luca’s story in my hometown really hits me. For those kids, seeing their exact experience – down to tiny things like walking past the Big W at the bottom of the main street – reflected on the page is astonishingly powerful.
Tobias: I have a profound love of ‘present parents’ in YA novels, so creating Luca’s dad and their relationship was super important to me. I took inspiration from my own parents’ personalities, and also included the qualities I hope to exemplify as a father someday. In that sense, I guess writing Luca’s dad’s character was somewhat aspirational.
Also, knowing that Luca was going to be so open about his sexuality in the book, it just made sense that his home environment would be one of unconditional love and support. And that’s not to say that Luca and his dad don’t have their issues (clearly!) but I wanted the primary conflict between them to be something other than Luca’s sexuality.
I’d love to see more relationships like this in YA novels! Actually, I’d love to see more parents in general in YA novels. Parents, grandparents, carers, guardians and teachers are such crucial figures in any teenager’s life, and I think that should be reflected in contemporary teen fiction.
Tobias: I hope that the queer YA canon in Australia keeps expanding and flourishing. LGBTQ+ representation in teen fiction and media has come so far in recent times, but there’s still a long way to go.
There is no one way to be gay or queer, and every single person’s experience is different. It’s incredibly exciting to know that so many of these varied experiences will someday be immortalised in books and stories. And the more nuanced and complex the representation is, the easier the experience of growing up queer will become for so many people. A single book or film or TV show (or, these days, even a TikTok!) can completely change someone’s life. We should never underestimate the power of sharing our stories.
Playing even the tiniest part in a movement like this is an incredible honour, and my only hope is that my books continue to find the people they’re meant to find.