Over the past weeks, I have been asked many questions about Laurinda at launches, public talks and over the radio, so I thought I would share these written answers with readers about the book:
How much does Laurinda draw on my own life experiences?
Growing up, I went to five different high schools, and I have always been fascinated by the way institutions shape individuals. In each new high school I felt like I was a slightly different person - not because anything about me had immediately changed - but because people’s perceptions of me had.
High school is the only time in your life where a large part of your identity is actually shaped by other people. As an adult you can choose your friends, and your time is finite, so of course, you try to only spend time with people who like and affirm you. As a teenager, though, you are forced to fit yourself in amongst 200-1000 other people, who are all with you every day. So I’ve always been interested in how teenagers adapt to this.
Many of the examples in the book are taken from direct experience, or experiences of my teacher friends. When my editor was editing Laurinda, he felt that some parts were so far-fetched he asked me whether I could change the examples. I had to let him know that these things actually happened! 15 year old girls can be real pieces of work sometimes. However, Laurinda is a completely fictional school. I created it as a representation of institutions that value success at all human cost.
Lucy Lam, my protagonist
When I wrote the character of Lucy, I was very aware of her voice first and foremost, very certain that the reader would be hearing her thoughts and not her words. She’s what school psychologists would now call a classic introvert, but the fascinating thing is that she was not an introvert at her previous school. It is only coming to Laurinda that she loses her speaking voice.
Lucy’s tenacity is not that she charges into the institution of Laurinda and speaks her mind, but that she silently watches this world unfold to gain understanding of it. Many young adult books stress the importance of belonging to a group, yet Lucy is content to be by herself at school after she recognises that the institution is rotten. When evil exists, we are taught to do something about it - Lucy’s non-participation in the institution is a form of resistance, and I think it’s pretty stoic. You have to have a strong sense of self to choose to be ‘a loner.’
What is the Cabinet?
The Cabinet are a trio of three girls who ‘run’ the school and lord over their long-suffering classmates – and teachers.
In Amber, Chelsea and Brodie, I wanted to create characters that were so entitled that they didn’t even realise how entitled they were. There’s the old cliché of the silver spoon, but I didn’t want these characters’ entitlement to be based on wealth - I wanted it to be based on cultural capital: the handed-down power that exists in our society. Their alumni mothers trained them to appreciate Royal Doulton and institutional loyalty, their fathers are powerful men and their school Laurinda trains them to be ‘Leaders of tomorrow.’
So of course they’re going to want to ‘lead’ the school. They feel it’s their birthright. And also, being such perfectionists, they feel a duty to weed out the weaker elements of the school: vulnerable teachers, students they feel are not up to scratch. I did not want the Cabinet to be vacuous ‘mean girls’, but the sort of pressure-cooker girls you would meet at a private school who must be on top of things all the time; and yet whose worlds are so tightly-wound that any threat to their order would ignite them. And I hope readers come away with an understanding that those girls are as much victims of institutional and familial insularity as they are cruel.
Why did I set Laurinda in the mid 1990s?
I deliberately set the story before there was social media and cyberbullying, for three reasons. The first is that young adult readers are the most discerning and astute audience you’ll ever have. They can tell a false note a mile away, so if I set the book in contemporary times and got cultural references wrong or tried to ‘be with it’ in relation to social media, they would know I was trying way too hard.
Secondly, I wanted the girls to demonstrate their nastiness in person, physically, face to face. There’s a certain kind of courage in this – like how soldiers used to fight wars, bayonet to bayonet. They could not hide behind drones.
Finally, I wanted to cement Lucy’s outsider status so the reader got a real sense of her complete alienation and disconnect from the school. I wanted the reader to hear her uninterrupted reflections on what this meant, to experience her working things out, thought by thought. This could definitely not be achieved if her inner monologue was constantly interrupted by her facebook posts or tweets, which are never representative of a person’s true state of mind anyhow, just symptomatic of temporary feelings.
Why is there a kilt on the cover of my book?
The uniform of the private school was a powerful symbol for me when a student myself. When I got my first kilt ($115 back in 1996!) I felt extremely guilty: neither of my parents had owned any singular item of clothing that cost as much. Also, I watched the way private school kids moved and walked and behaved in their uniforms, and realised that little 6 year old boys in blazers could not ‘play’ or ‘play fight’ without doing at least a hundred bucks damage to their clothes. The blazers were also emblematic of the suits they would wear in the future as men and women of power.
Power in Laurinda
People like to bandy around that cliché that ‘power always corrupts.’ But when I was twenty and a student of politics at university, Aung San Suu Kyi wrote something in her book, Freedom from Fear, that has always stuck with me. She wrote that power doesn’t in itself corrupt. What corrupts is fear – fear of losing that power, fear of being overpowered. So power in itself is neutral.
Race in Laurinda
I deliberately made the ‘race’ related aspect of Laurinda subtle, because that’s how racism works in real life. You are never quite sure whether something is racist or not, unless it’s in your face. Lucy grows up in Stanley where the local residents at the shopping centre are explicitly racist and hateful. They’re afraid of Asians stealing their jobs and hogging government support.
But at Laurinda, which is meant to be more civilised, the girls have not had much exposure to different cultures, so they treat every brown and yellow person like a fascinating perpetual exchange student. They don’t realise that those kids – Lucy, Harshan, Anton, Linh – are teenagers in exactly the same ways they are. They don’t realise that by reducing a person solely to their culture or race is a form of racism. It’s like treating a person with disability as if the only riveting thing about them was their blindness or deafness.
Class in Laurinda
One particular high school I went to was in the working class suburb of Braybrook, and most of the girls there helped at home or worked outside of school. They were also responsible for either looking after sick adults, or at the very least, translating for parents who could not read or write. Many had to fill out their own enrolment and excursion forms. In all senses except legally, they were like adults.
Conversely, I’ve visited countless other girls’ schools where the students are trained to be ‘future leaders’ through debating, public speaking and musical prowess. Yet many of those girls aren’t even allowed to catch a public bus home by themselves. They seem so helpless, which is why I called the trio of mean girls in Laurinda ‘The Cabinet’ – a very showy artefact which belies its conservative domesticity. The girls in the Cabinet may rule over their domain, but their domain is a very insular one.
In Laurinda, I wanted to explore how you could have one group of students who were very ‘worldly’ and political in an academic sense but had no clue outside their leafy suburbs, while another class were real-worldly, but had no chance academically.