Shirley Marr is an award winning author and a first generation Chinese-Australian living in sunny Perth. Shirley describes herself as having a Western Mind and an Eastern Heart and writes in the middle where both collide. Today we’re thrilled to be talking to Shirley about her latest middle grade novel, All Four Quarters of the Moon.
From the publisher:
Making mooncakes with Ah Ma for the Mid-Autumn Festival was the last day of Peijing’s old life. Now, adapting to their new life in Australia, Peijing thinks everything will turn out okay for her family as long as they have each other – but cracks are starting to appear. Her little sister, Biju, needs Peijing to be the dependable big sister. Ma Ma is no longer herself; Ah Ma keeps forgetting who she is; and Ba Ba, who used to work seven days a week, is adjusting to being a hands-on dad. How will Peijing cope with the uncertainties of her own little world while shouldering the burden of everyone else?
Peijing and her little sister, Biju, make a paper world of their own. Is this inspired by something you and your sister liked to do when you were growing up?
This is most definitely based on a true-life event! We would draw tiny animals, cut them out and then make homes for them. It was a true paper world of our imagination, which we kept inside a cardboard box. We were still learning to speak English back then, when I was seven and my sister was four, so sometimes we would act out what happened to us during the day – when I went to primary school and she went to kindy. As we had just migrated to Australia and learning to adapt was hard, it felt safer to talk about our experiences this way. Sometimes we wouldn’t talk at all, just work side by side and that was a beautiful bonding experience in itself.
Your earlier novel – A Glasshouse of Stars – was written in the second person, present tense, and All Four Quarters of the Moon is written in third person, past tense. When you start writing a new book, do you already know which point of view to adopt or does it change over subsequent drafts?
I believe that when you have a story inside of you, waiting to come out that the voice will find you. That when you start writing it, you will know if it sounds right or not. A Glasshouse of Stars needed to be second person, present tense. I wanted the reader to be able to walk in the shoes of Meixing, our young migrant protagonist, and see what the experience is like for her, as she experiences it. It took me a while to find this voice, and many abandoned drafts. All Four Quarters of the Moon on the other hand, as it contains a lot of Chinese myth, felt to me like an old-fashioned story that had already happened and which I was retelling in past tense. That one I nailed on the first go, so it’s case by case for me!
How do you choose the names for the characters in your books?
Sometimes I look at baby name lists and choose something that has meaning, like Meixing which means beautiful star in Chinese. Sometimes I name characters after whoever happens to be sitting closest to me, like the teacher Mr Brodie is actually named after a little dog who happened to be at my feet – so watch out! Then at other time I will name characters after real people – Ms Jardine in A Glasshouse of Stars is named after a beloved primary school teacher of mine. It’s only just recently that a keen-eyed reader asked if I had chosen the name because it means garden in French, as gardens play such a big part in the book. It’s a happy coincidence I swear!
Peijing loves the mooncakes Ah Ma makes with an egg yolk in the middle. Do you have a favourite mooncake filling?
This will be to little Biju’s disgust, but my favourite is lotus paste with double-preserved yolk!
Can you tell us something about what you’re working on next?
I have just submitted a brand-new middle grade manuscript to my agent! And she’s submitted it to my Australian publisher who I believe is looking at it as we speak – cross your fingers for me! If it’s good news, then it’s a completely different direction for me. Think contemporary sci-fi, time machines and ground control to Major Tom!
All Four Quarters of the Moon is out now! Ask for it at your favourite bookstore or local library.
Read a 2021 interview with Shirley Marr about her junior fiction novel, Little Jiang