Emerging YA Fiction Writer Graci Goldhart
Kia ora Graci! After reading your website, I don't know whether to begin with dogs, coffee, diplomacy, Korean folklore or the cool mentoring programme for writers you've been involved in. Let's go backwards, shall we, and start with #LoveAtFirstChapter - what's that all about?
LoveAtFirstChapter.com is a free book discovery resource for readers of Young Adult books, young and old (you’re never too old to read YA books!). When you sign up, you get sent the first chapter of a new, curated YA novel every fortnight straight to your inbox. The idea is that if you don’t like it, you can delete the email and forget about it. But if you do like it, you can decide to commit to the full book.
It’s almost like a 'try before you buy' model, because we know sometimes, one chapter is all it takes to fall in love. It’s great for lovers of YA books who can’t decide on their next read (since we do the thinking for you), but it’s also great for reluctant readers who might not want to commit to a full book straight away.
Last year, RNZ reported that New Zealand was one of the only countries in an international study where the reading ability of our 10-year-olds had fallen. Not only that, the NZ Book Council found that almost 400,000 Kiwi adults had not read a book in 2016.
I hope that Love At First Chapter can be part of the solution to this literacy crisis – and that we can encourage those closet booklovers to come out and give themselves a chance to fall in love with a book (every fortnight!).
You say 'curated' - who's doing the curating? What kind of books are you going to be featuring?
We use the word “curated” because we are a group of YA writers from all over the world (Australia, Japan, US, England, Canada, and of course – Aotearoa), and we join our minds to choose our favourite books to share with our subscribers. Because of our wide range of interests and backgrounds, our selected books also vary in genre – ranging from realistic contemporary stories all the way through to magical realism, time travel, witches, and Viking fantasies.
While our book choices can vary greatly, we do try to share recent releases that are hot off the press, so our readers can keep a finger on the pulse of new YA titles. We also have a special focus on representing diverse characters and/or authors of diverse backgrounds, which includes (but is not limited to) LGBTQIA, indigenous stories, people of colour, gender diversity, people with disabilities, ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.
Screen shot showing some of the curators of Love At First Chapter
I recently read a study that found reading to be one of the most effective ways of learning empathy, especially in teenagers. I hope Love At First Chapter can be a vehicle through which our young people can discover empathy and compassion for others.
How would you assess the publishing landscape, in terms of featuring diverse characters and publishing diverse authors? How are we doing in Aotearoa, and what are things like internationally?
I think we are making inroads, both domestically and internationally, but there is always more that can be done. It is incredibly heartening to see more agents, publishers, and editors calling for more diverse voices in our books, and movements like the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign reflect how this is changing in real time. I hope this shift is something that can become an evolution of the publishing industry, not just a passing trend.
As an Aucklander, I’m always staggered by the fact that over 206 languages are spoken in this city alone, or that 40% of us were born overseas. That type of linguistic and cultural diversity provides a goldmine of unique lived experiences, and that’s so exciting if you think about how many stories are just waiting to be told. I think we have an incredible opportunity (and responsibility) in the publishing industry in New Zealand to capture these narratives, and to share these with our people.
On your website you describe yourself as a 'proud #Korean-Kiwi'. Growing up as a Korean-Kiwi in Aotearoa, did you find your life reflected in books?
Yes, that’s right - I’m a proud Kowi, which is short for Korean-Kiwi. I was born in South Korea but my family immigrated to Aotearoa when I was three years old, so I grew up in West Auckland with my parents, nana, and two little sisters.
Graci's family celebrating her Mum's birthday in onesies
Growing up, I didn’t realise how underrepresented I was in the books I was reading until one day I had to write a story for school about my family. When I handed in my piece, my teacher took me aside and asked me why I’d described my family as being blonde and blue-eyed.
I was confused. It’s not that I didn’t know we were Asian – I was very aware of that. But in all the books I’d read, there were no descriptions of people who looked like me. So I had just assumed when you wrote stories, everyone had to be white. To me, white characters in stories was just as much a rule as 'I before E except after C.'
To me, white characters in stories was just as much a rule as 'I before E except after C.'
I think that’s one of the reasons I am so passionate about sharing my stories with the world. We don’t live in a monocultural society, so our stories shouldn’t be monocultural either. Our stories should be colourful and diverse, weird and different, and represent all faces and walks of life!
We have a regular feature, 'The Books that Formed my Childhood.' What are some children's and YA books that have been particularly influential on you as you grew up?
Some of my favourite books growing up included The Babysitters Club series (I inhaled those like they were chocolate dust), The Day After Forever by Erin Skiffington (she was 14 years old when that was published!), the Northern Lights series by Philip Pullman, every single one of Sherryl Jordan’s books (*dreamy eyes*), and the Dreamhunter series by Elizabeth Knox.
You're working on a YA book of your own at the moment. How long has that been in the works? What has the writing process been like for you?
I started drafting my current manuscript in November last year as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It’s a wonderful, fun, and challenging programme where you commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel within the month of November. I didn’t get anywhere near 50,000 words, but it did give me a good push in the right direction and I met some good friends through it, so I’d recommend all writers give it a go.
My work-in-progress is a contemporary fantasy about a secret society of Korean-American witch healers – kind of like Charmed (if you ever watched that show) but inspired by the Korean creation myth. Watch this space!
My work-in-progress is a contemporary fantasy about a secret society of Korean-American witch healers... inspired by the Korean creation myth. Watch this space!
The Author Mentor Match programme sounds like a fantastic opportunity. How did you get involved? What has it given you? Would you recommend other New Zealand writers apply for the next round?
I can easily say the AuthorMentorMatch.com programme has changed my life.
It was started by author Alexa Donne, to pair unagented, aspiring YA and Middle Grade writers with mentors to help them with their manuscripts. Writers with a completed manuscript can apply, and if selected as a mentee, you have a dedicated mentor to help you through the editing and publishing process.
I found out about this programme through the writing community on Twitter, and threw my hat in the ring with a previously completed manuscript. I was selected as a mentee for Round 3 (2017) and I now have a fantastic mentor, Rebecca Barrow, but also an incredibly supportive writing community of other Round 3 mentees.
Writing is a very solitary job, and having fellow writers to share the journey can make all the difference. For me, it’s been a game changer. We check in daily for motivation, support, accountability, or just for a chat. In fact, it’s with a group of fellow Round 3 mentees that we launched Love At First Chapter. It’s helped me find my writing tribe, and for that I will always be grateful to Author Mentor Match.
Writing is a very solitary job, and having fellow writers to share the journey can make all the difference.
I would absolutely encourage New Zealand writers with completed YA manuscripts to apply for future rounds!
Most writers in Aotearoa have a 'day job', but I don't know of many others working as diplomats. What do you do at MFAT? Do you find there's much overlap or sympathy between these two parts of your life, or are they very distinct?
Diplomacy is a fascinating area of work, and as diplomats, everything we do comes back to making New Zealand and New Zealanders better off overseas.
No two days are the same, and I’ve had the privilege of living in Wellington, Taipei, and Beijing, as well as travelling to all corners of the world to represent our country. At the moment, I’m based in MFAT’s Auckland office working on economic diplomacy.
Graci representing New Zealand at APEC in Beijing, 2014
On the surface, it’s easy to see how a diplomatic career is very different to a writing career. But if you dig deeper, there’s actually a lot of core truths they share. Diplomacy and writing are both, at their heart, about human nature. They both require you to understand your allies’ or characters’ motivations, to navigate conflicts, and to find a common path forward. They both tell a narrative, and they both aim to bring people together. In those senses, they’re very similar.
What's exciting you about the YA world at the moment? Any favourite genres or authors we need to know about? Any favourites on the Aotearoa scene?
Gosh, what isn’t exciting me about the YA world at the moment?
First of all, a huge shout out to the amazing Tomi Adeyemi and Angie Thomas whose respective books Children of Blood and Bone, and The Hate U Give are burning it on the New York Times Bestseller List. They are stellar examples of diverse stories written by writers of colour touching readers all over the world, and both of them are being turned into motion pictures, which is exciting for movie-goers too.
Some other authors I’m very excited about right now include Zoraida Córdova and her Brooklyn Brujas series, if you’re into contemporary fantasies about witches and magic with a Latinx twist. Also, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman if you want to read realistic contemporary stories that make you heart feel all the things.
I am very excited about getting stuck into Mortal Fire by Kiwi author Elizabeth Knox, and also The Traitor and the Thief by Gareth Ward (who was the winner of the New Zealand Storylines Tessa Duder Award in 2016).
Pen and paper or computer? Late nights or early mornings? Music or silence? Wait for the muse or make an appointment? How do you do your writing?
I do big picture brainstorming and flowcharts on an A3 sketchpad, and then start writing on my laptop using Scrivener (the best software for writers in my opinion).
I usually try to write 5am-7am in the mornings before work, and then on my ferry rides to and from work. I find my brain is way too fried to write after a day of work.
Both music and silence – depending on how intense the scene is. At the moment, I’m obsessed with the playlist called 'Deep Focus' on Spotify. The name delivers!
I make an appointment. But sometimes, I turn up and the muse has taken a day or two (or five) of leave. There’s not much you can do about that. What’s important is that you keep turning up!
I love making plans, I love to-do lists. I love ticking things off, and calendars, and setting goals and targets. All of that stuff makes me very happy. So I try to do the same with my writing. I do plot outlines first, and then start writing. The outlines always seem to change as I start writing, so then when I get stuck, I revise my outline before jumping into writing again. Then when I hit the cold, dark middle, I have a mid-manuscript crisis, drink too much coffee, avoid my writing like the plague, play with dogs, and then eventually find my way back. Sometimes it feels like self-inflicted torture, but of the writing kind – the best kind.
When did you first consider yourself a writer? How did you get started?
To be honest, I still struggle with the term 'writer', but as my writing tribe would say – if you’re writing, then you’re a writer. I think I first let myself consider the term “writer” when I completed my first manuscript. But it was only when that manuscript got shortlisted for the Storylines Tessa Duder Award that I felt more at ease using it. Writing can bring out your harshest self-critic, and I think it’s important to practice self-acceptance and cut yourself some slack when the demons come knocking (because they will!).
I have always loved books, but I started considering writing as a serious endeavour only a few years ago. I was living in China at the time, working at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing, and one day, I realised I couldn’t read my computer screen properly at work.
I waltzed into the eye doctor thinking I just needed a stronger prescription for my contact lenses, only to be told that I’d be blind if I didn’t have emergency eye surgery within 24-72 hours. So I did, and during my recovery, I was blind. It forced me to take some time out from the world as I’d known it, and to reassess the direction my life was going.
Graci and her Dad after eye surgery in Beijing
It might sound cliché, but the experience of being blind really opened my eyes, and I rediscovered my passion for books (albeit in audio form). It allowed me to take a breath, and ask myself what I really wanted to do with my life. Despite being visually impaired now, I am more focused than ever on my commitment to sharing my stories with the world. And that’s pretty exciting!
Do you have any messages for publishers, book-buyers, librarians, fans?
I just want to say thank you to everyone in the book business – the librarians, the booksellers, the editors, the agents, the publishers, the cover designers, the reviewers, the bloggers, the publicists, and most of all, the readers, for giving life to books! Without you, our stories would have no place in the world, and that would be a sad place to live indeed.
Let’s keep creating stories and making the world better through them!
Graci Goldhart is a proud #Korean-Kiwi, an #AuthorMentorMatch R3 mentee, a pompom shaker for #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and a struggling member of the #5amwritersclub. In 2018, she was shortlisted for the Storylines Tessa Duder Award for YA fiction. When she's not writing, she daylights as a NZ diplomat.