Eleni isn’t one to shy away from a difficult topic. Her first novel, Stone Girl, tells the story of what can happen when adolescents are abandoned by protection services, ostracised by society and have to fend for themselves. Motivated to give these young adults a voice, she paints an authentic picture of life in the group home system – a must-read for anyone with an interest in society.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
As a child I volleyed between an actress and a cricketer – funnily I wasn’t good at either. An actress seemed so glamorous. I’d think for hours about the gorgeous clothes and people, and all the places I’d visit. And informing adults that I’d like to be a cricketer shocked them. Their faces got all pinched. Maybe it was just my inner feminist bucking their expectations.
I made up stories all the time but I never realized this flood of words would transpire into a career until about 24 hours before I had to submit my choices for university. I had ideas about design and then it hit me! I gathered my writing portfolio and thank God for that, as I’d have been a terrible designer.
Tell us a bit about life outside novel writing.
I lived in Greece as a child but came to Australia as a non-English speaking migrant at around eight years old. Now, I’m based in Melbourne.
I’ve worked as a reporter at various newspapers (five years at the Herald Sun) and as a communications strategist for the union movement. Since having kids, I’ve taken a step back from that sort of high-octane work.
Now, I do marketing one day a week to pay for childcare on the days when I write. The rest of the time I’m a mum. I’m not sure how much longer I can afford this luxury as Australian authors are notoriously low-paid but for now I’m trying my best to get my next novel written.
How long did it take to get your first novel published?
I wrote this book while working full time, so I could never fully focus on the task. After four failed versions of Stone Girl, the final draft was the easiest thing I’d ever written. All those mistakes showed me exactly what I needed to do and how to do it. So, it took about eight years to learn how to write and two years to create the final book.
What can you tell us about Stone Girl?
Sophie Soukaris is 12 years old when we meet her at a police station. Her mum is dead. Social workers are called to take her away. Sophie has no other family so like thousands of other Australian kids, she’s put into the group home system.
Stone Girl follows Sophie’s life from 12 to 18 years old as she becomes someone society judges, despises and ultimately dismisses. She soon comprehends her place and decides who and how she must be in a world where there’s no one to rely upon but herself. She toughens up and becomes Stone Girl. This persona is her survival mechanism. She uses anger to hide her vulnerability. When she lifts her chin against the world, she can shut out things that have happened to her. Most of us wear a mask to fit in and protect ourselves, but Sophie must wear hers 24 hours a day. In the end, it’s what she does with the Stone Girl facade that makes this a story of redemption.
The book is broken into three parts. Part one is Sophie’s induction into the world of the homes where she faces great dangers before she learns to protect herself. Part two is at 15 years old when she finds first love and a group of true friends. In part three, Sophie has to choose between life and death. Will she die like her mother or will she make a different choice?
What inspired you to write Stone Girl?
The past doesn’t just fade away, especially when it’s intense and dark and haunts the hell into you. The years I spent as a ward of state living in group homes in the early 1990s changed me.
When I fought my way out of the margins of society it became clear that I’d be judged for my past. So I hid it. I wrote but didn’t talk about it. I knew what it was to have nothing and also to have a good career. To be voiceless, and to have a voice. After university, my writing became focused. Under the cover of fiction, I was able to tell the story of the homes.
What have been the highlights of your writing career?
There have been many highlights. One that stands out is speaking to kids in care who were blown away that the world they know has been depicted in a book. They usually feel invisible.
The other is Stone Girl being shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Ethel Turner Prize for YA Literature. You can read the judge’s comments here. The book is on a number of top ten lists and on some even voted top YA for 2018. All in all I have been truly amazed that this book, that was so difficult to write, has been understood so easily. Many have connected with Sophie and expressed shock about the reality so many Australian kids live.
What have been the lowlights?
The lowlights have come from conservative forces with outdated notions who feel kids need to be protected from the hard truths of life. One librarian said Stone Girl might as well be science fiction. Another school in a low socio economic area cancelled my speaking engagement due to the novel’s content. This school is home to many kids in care. It’s so frustrating that their stories and their lives are silenced. How can we spread empathy and make the world a better place without empowering the next generation with quality knowledge? Would you rather teens learn from a YouTube video or from literature?
I made many decisions while writing this book. Should I tell it how it was or do I sugar coat it? I never chose the latter because I respect teens to make the right choice. They won’t read it if they don’t want to. But I wasn’t going to pretend that living in care was just like living with a family, something I saw in other novels.
What advice do you have for new authors?
Write. Read. Write. Read.
Don’t follow everyone else’s advice even if they are established. I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories of writers changing their books to suit editor’s suggestions – working for years on it – and then getting dropped. Stay true to the path that lights up brightest for you.
During early reads of Stone Girl by publishers, one suggested that it was three books. But this felt wrong, watered down, stretched out. A sure mistake. My aim – to show how a child changes within the ‘out of home care’ system over years – was achieved much more powerfully in one novel.
I lost them … but I got Penguin Random House and achieved my vision. Gosh it took a lot longer but by then it needed no major changes before publication. This was also thanks to the incredible and supportive team at Penguin, publisher Lisa Riley and editor Amy Thomas. We shared the same vision for Stone Girl. I’m sure that’s a rare thing and I’m extremely grateful.
Next time: an interview about Amelia Turner and the Little Farm in Mansfield