Today’s awesome author interview is with debut author, PJ Kelly.
PJ’s book, The Good Teacher, is an intense contemporary urban fiction, which asks some very important questions through a suspenseful and insightful narrative—a teacher disappears, on purpose, with two students to save them from a life of neglect and abuse at the hands of their parents. Did the teacher do the right or the wrong thing? That’s just one of many questions this book provokes.
Welcome, PJ, it’s great to meet you. Can you tell us what the book’s about?
Thanks for having me. The book is about Truth and the lengths we will go to stay true to our feelings and beliefs. Life and the law can often get in the way of the truth, forcing us to take an easier route, one of ignorance and blind eyes. The Good Teacher is different. It follows the story of Miss Bell, a teacher with a heart of gold, ready to face and do whatever is required to save two students under her care. The trail of destruction she leaves behind is just one consequence of her actions. But she will protect them at any cost because that is what truth has asked of her.
I’m dying to know what gave you the idea for this book. It tackles some serious issues.
About six years ago I became more acutely aware of the huge burdens a teacher is expected to shoulder. The duty of care they have for their students is no longer limited by the confines of their classroom, but actually extends into the child’s family home as well. They really do need eyes in the backs of their heads. Worrying about something you have very little control over can be incredibly stressful, and it sparked a question in me; how far would a teacher go to save a child? This novel has that exact question at its heart and hopefully uncovers a few of the answers.
Have you always been a writer, and if not, what was it that inspired you to start?
I have always enjoyed writing, but being a teacher and helping young children write stories has given me a much deeper appreciation of the power of imagination. We can bring anything we choose to life and answer some of life’s greatest questions. Helping my students nurture their incredible ideas is very rewarding, and I know from experience what that spark of creativity feels like. It really is a wonderful feeling.
Did you have to do much research to write this book?
It’s taken me six years of blood, sweat and tears to get to this point, but the research was always so rewarding. It was never a bind and has always been one of the more enjoyable aspects of this journey. My research included visits to the district court, where I watched custody cases, hoping to understand how the law works. I also spoke to the Crime and Corruption Commission to understand the charges a teacher would face given the situation that Miss Bell provokes. I even spoke with a school psyche to understand the kind of mental state a young child from an abusive home life would possibly be burdened with. At every corner, the information I discovered not only made my novel more authentic and rich, it also made me more determined to tell this story.
Did you get emotional for your characters whilst writing The Good Teacher?
Yes I did. The central driver of this novel is a scenario close to every teacher’s heart. We all feel the desire to save some of the children in our care. The tug on our heart strings when a child walks in through the classroom door, looking unloved and uncared for, their uniform stained, sadness written all over their face. We know their lunch will be a donut or worse, nothing, and we just wish someone would sweep them up and care for them like they deserve to be cared for. But we can’t save them. It’s not our role. Miss Bell changes all that, and in doing so, she takes us on a very emotional journey.
Did you base any of your characters on people you know or are they more a mishmash of different people?
Some characters are a mishmash of several people, whilst others are completely imaginary. This is a story that could evolve anywhere in the world, from France to Argentina and up through the forests of Canada. I wanted this story to be for all teachers around the whole world, not just in Australia, so I tried to create characters that are universally correct and not just unique to this corner of the globe.
This book brings up so many questions and covers a lot of grey area. Whilst the law says one thing, you can sympathise with the teacher trying to save the children. Do you approve of all the choices your main character makes?
Yes I do. She places truth above the letter of the law, and I believe in that approach. The law is only there to guide us. Our own moral character must be what drives us to make the decisions we do. That is what we must live and die by, not a piece of paper created to pass judgement on us. Miss Bell has spent her life battling against some of her demons and only now does she realise that truth is what she really desires. It’s a realization that could save both her and the children.
Who is one of your favourite authors and why?
There are three authors whom I admire the most. They are Marcus Zusak, for the journey he has taken us on, from his early work with ‘The Underdog’ to his world conquering ‘The Book Thief’. I am desperately waiting for his next book to come out.
Next is Tim Winton because he can really get inside his characters, making you see the world through their eyes. ‘That Eye, The Sky’ is a particular favourite from his earlier work, followed by ‘The Riders’ and ‘Dirt Music’.
Lastly I would say Jodi Picoult, because her genre of Ethical Fiction is so similar to how I see my work evolving. The setting up of a central question and then the search to find an answer.
I have seen all three authors speak in person, and I found them all as inspiring in the flesh as they are in print. They are beacons that I aspire to be like.
Did your write this book while having another job, or were you able to write full time?
I have been a full-time teacher for nine years, but to finish this novel I had to go down to just three days. I came to this realisation a couple of years ago. I was running out of time and energy, and I feared Miss Bell’s story would never be realized. Working part time and having two days a week dedicated to being an author really drove me forward and provided me with the creative freedom to finish something that has been so intensely close to my heart for such a long time. I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. Taking it all the way to publication makes me very proud.
Being a debut author, was there anything that surprised you about the publishing/writing process or was it everything you expected?
Yes, I have been surprised by the moments when you realise you are not always in control of your characters or your story. That sometimes things happen that you, the author, never saw coming. My favourite example is a piece from another story I wrote. My main character was riding his bicycle home along a country road, and as he turned the corner into his street, he saw his house full of flames and close to burning to the ground. That fact wasn’t even on my radar. As the author of the work, I was just taking him home because I needed him to be there for the next scene I had planned. That planned scene never ended up happening of course, because his house was destroyed. My own story tricked me, taking me to a place without me even knowing it. It was very exciting to feel so out of control. My story, my characters, had a life of their own.
Are you working on anything at the moment, and if so, can you tell us a bit about it?
I’ve had some interest in turning ‘The Good Teacher’ into a film or play so I’m looking forward to seeing where that leads me. It would be great to see my characters on the big screen. I have always appreciated a good and faithful adaption from book to screen, and I know it can be a tough thing to get right.
Once that avenue has been exhausted then I’ll turn my attention to my next novel. I have a few ideas swimming around in my head, but nothing worth mentioning just yet. At the moment, I’m really just loving watching my novel sail out there into the hands of my readers. I hope it gets people talking. It really has been a pleasure to finish Jessica Bell’s story and watch others react to it.
I bet it will get people talking—it’s a hard-hitting subject that we need to be talking about. Thanks so much for joining us, PJ, I’ve really enjoyed learning more about you and your wonderful novel. Good luck with it!
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