Author Interview - Antonia Hayes talks about "Relativity"

Australian author Antonia Hayes worked in bookshops and publishing, juggled motherhood and was a co-director of the National Young Writers Festival whilst writing her debut novel Relativity.
Relativity appeared on a number of "most anticipated" lists earlier in the year and now that it is out you can find out what all the fuss is about!
First take a look at what Antonia had to say to us about Relativity, publishing and her love of science.

"Fiction and physics aren't too different.... they even use the same vocabulary"

PP:  Tell us about your debut novel Relativity.
AH:  Relativity is about science, love, unbreakable bonds and irreversible acts.

PP:  You have had quite a varied career in the book industry already.  You've worked as a book publicist, bookseller and also as a Co-Director of the National Young Writers Festival.  What do these experiences mean to you now as an author?
AH:  I suppose all my various jobs sprang from my love of books and reading, and then trying to figure out how to turn that love into a career.  As a new author, those experiences have made me really appreciate the entire ecosystem of publishing and bookselling and all the amazing, enthusiastic people who work in the industry.  Editors, sales reps, publicists, booksellers, festival staff, bloggers, media (and many more!) all play a vital role in getting new books to readers.  Writing the book is just one step.  It takes a village and I'm extra grateful for this village because I've seen how hard everyone behind the scenes works.

"now it's sold in six territories, which is completely insane...!"

PP:  Can you tell a little about the main characters in Relativity - Claire, Ethan and Mark?
AH:  Ethan is a 12 year old boy who loves physics.  He's extremely curious and constantly thinking about how the universe works.  Claire is Ethan's mother and even though she loves her son intensely and is a bit overprotective, she does often find Ethan's obsession with physics mystifying.  She's also a former ballerina but now works behind the scenes.  And Mark is Ethan's estranged father who lives on the other side of the country.  Relativity begins when Mark suddenly comes back into Claire and Ethan's lives.

"Ethan is much more like 12 year old me."

PP:  As a mother writing about motherhood, and with a son who is around the same age as Ethan, how did you approach writing Relativity?  In fact, the dedication in the book is for your son, Julian - are you going to get in trouble with him for stealing elements of his growing up to create the character Ethan?
AH:  When I started writing the book - and when I created Ethan - my son was only four years old.  So even though Julian caught up and has outgrown Ethan now, the inspiration for that character didn't come directly from my son.  If anything, Ehtan is much more like twelve year old me.  Although there are a couple of moments that I shamelessly stole from Julian (he doesn't mind I put them in the novel, I asked first): he did actually compare my reproductive system to The Hunger Games, and he does often ask for pizza at inappropriate moments.

PP:  Mark and Ethan share a scene where they talk about understanding paradoxes and extreme duality (p 337).  They are talking about scientific principles, but I would suggest that your treatment of the issues in the book - including child abuse, bullying, love and family - also require this same understanding, as nothing is black and white in Relativity.  Would you agree?
AH:  Absolutely.  One reason I was drawn to writing about science when dealing with those particular issues was because they can be just as counterintuitive as understanding theoretical physics.  Light can be a particle and a wave at the same time, just like how good people can do bad things.  I think particularly inside families and with people we love, we see them at both their best and their worst - and everything in between.  All these issues require empathy to understand them too, and that means zooming out and not seeing them in a binary way.

"learning not only forgiveness, but also what it takes to be forgiven."
PP:  "Closure was fiction, it didn't exist" (p 348)
Your characters don't necessarily find their happy endings in the pages of your novel, however do you think Relativity is a story of redemption?
AH:  I suppose it is, in a way.  I think the idea of recovery and bouncing back - like living with failed ambition and being able to redefine yourself, or recuperating from damage or hurt - inadvertently became one of the themes of the novel.  And perhaps learning not only forgiveness, but also what it takes to be forgiven.

PP:  There is much to be learnt in the pages of Relativity about science.  Many of your metaphors are beautifully played out in scientific theory or conjecture.  Does it please you that some of your readers will inadvertently walk away with a better scientific knowledge of the work than before they opened the pages of your novel?  Where does your own interest in science come from, and how did that become combined with fiction?
AH:  Physics is a bit of a weird preoccupation of mine, which started when I was very little and my dad would point out constellations in the night sky.  Later, when I was in primary school, my teachers discovered I was pretty good at maths.  Numbers and patterns just made sense to me (although I really preferred reading Babysitters Club books), so I studied math and physics until I finished high school.  I never intended for Relativity to be a crash course in physics, I guess connecting science and the story/characters is just how my brain is wired.  Fiction and physics aren't too different anyway, they even use the same vocabulary; tension, friction, momentum, resonance, trajectory, etc all apply to storytelling as well.

PP:  You were formerly a co-director of the National Young Writers Festival which champions young and innovative writers working in both new and traditional forms.  How important do you believe such festivals are in promoting and supporting new Australian voices such as your own?
AH:  Festivals like NYWF and Emerging Writers Festival are really important, not just for discovering and promoting young and new Australian writers, but also because of the community and friendships they create.  I've met many great friends through these festivals, who not only support each other's careers and creative practice, but who also share a sense of solidarity about work that can often feel very isolating.

"Because my illness is unpredictable, I don't have time to procrasinate."

PP:  You wrote an incredible article for Meanjin last year about your Lupus diagnosis which was incredibly powerful and inspiring.  How has this illness affected the writing of Relativity and your creative output in general?
AH:  Thank you:  that essay was difficult to write!  Living with a chronic illness like lupus sometimes slows down my writing output.  There are days when I'm quite unwell and have trouble finding the mental and physical energy to write.  At the same time, I think my lupus diagnosis really spurs me on.  Because my illness is unpredictable,  I don't have time to procrastinate.

PP:  Can you tell us your publishing story?
AH:  When I did the Faber Academy novel writing course in London in 2009, all the students had extracts from our novels-in-progress published in an anthology.  Karolina Sutton, a UK literary agent, contacted me after reading my extract and asked to see the manuscript.  Six months later, I sent Karolina the first draft of Relativity, and she sent back a huge list of problems I needed to fix.  But it took me four years to fix them!  Last year when I moved to San Francisco, I wasn't able to get a job here for the first 90 days because I needed to wait for my work permit to be approved.  So I used those three months to finish rewriting Relativity again, then sent it to Karolina, and after fixing a few more things, she submitted it to publishers.  That was about a year ago.  Now it's sold in six territories, which is completely insane to me!

PP:  You are currently living in San Francisco and Relativity is to be published in the US in 2016.  You have received praise from the likes of S. J. Watson (who described the book as "wonderful, beautifully written and heartbreaking") and have appeared on countless "Most Anticipated Books of 2015" lists since the book was announced.  How does it feel to be the subject of so much anticipation?  And is it bittersweet being that you are so far from home (do you still call Australia home?)?
AH:  Australia will always be home!  To be honest, I was sad not to be home on Relativity's release day (which was also my birthday!) two weeks ago.  I can't walk into a bookshop and see it on the shelves, so if feels extra surreal and abstract to now be a published author.  I've been completely blown away by all the support Relativity has received so far, but I'm much more excited now that people are reading it and sharing their thoughts with me.  Hearing directly from readers is the most wonderful part of publishing a book.

"Writing the book is just one step.  It really takes a village."

PP: Do you have a favourite book?
AH:  I have about a million!  But my favourite author is Ian McEwan.

Make sure you check out our event with Antonia on Tuesday 25 August.  She will be in conversation with Benjamin Law about Relativity as part of the Authors Up The Cross event series.