An Unstill Life
by Kate Larkindale
Genre: YA Contemporary Romance
Livvie feels like she’s losing everything: her two best friends have abandoned her for their boyfriends, her mother continues to ignore her, while her sister, Jules, is sick again and getting worse by the day. Add in the request Jules has made of her and Livvie feels like she’s losing her mind, too.
Her only escape is in the art room, where she discovers not only a refuge from her life, but also a kindred soul in Bianca, the school “freak”. Livvie’s always felt invisible, at school and at home, but with Bianca, she finally feels like someone sees the real Livvie. As the relationship deepens and it comes time to take the romance public, will Livvie be able to take that step?
Livvie’s about to find out if she has what it takes to make the tough decisions and stand up for herself—for the first time in her life.
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“Thanks for the ride,” I said. “And … thanks. Again. Like I said, you’re always rescuing me.”
“Maybe I think you’re worth saving.” Bianca wasn’t looking at me. Her eyes were turned to the open window. The words sounded simple, but they weren’t. They lay across the seat between us, pulsing in shades of pink and red.
“Thanks?” The word felt awkward in my mouth. Would she still think I was worth saving if she knew I was thinking of ways to kill my sister? I shoved the thought away as I climbed out of the car. “See you in school.”
“Yeah. See you.” Bianca turned, her eyes glittering under the streetlights. “Hey, Livvie?”
“Yeah?” I ducked my head back through the door.
“I really like your painting.”
I jerked back in surprise, knocking the back of my head on the door. “My painting? You mean the still life?”
She nodded. “Yeah. It’s really good. It’s like everyone else is painting the surface of the things, but you’re painting what’s underneath. The real apple. The real flowers. It’s got—” She stopped, searching around as if she’d find the word she was looking for hanging in the air, ripe for plucking. “Well, it sounds totally corny, but it’s got soul.”
My face grew warm. “Thanks,” I mumbled. “But yours is way better.”
She waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “No. Mine’s clever. It’s thought out. But there’s no passion in it. Yours has that.”
I giggled. “Passion? For a bunch of fruit and flowers? I hope not.”
She smiled, too, the flicker of movement so small I could have missed it. “Well, yeah. It’s not the most exciting subject. But if you can inject that much life into something so stupid, just think what you could do with something you really care about. Like that thing you did with the song. That’s something special.”
I sank back into the seat, the springs wheezing beneath me. My ears blazed, and I knew my cheeks were just as red. No one had ever said anything like that to me before. Even Mrs. DeWinter dismissed my music pictures as irrelevant swirls of color, while Mom considered all painting and drawing to be a frivolous waste of time.
“Thanks.” I stammered again.
“No, thank you.” Bianca lit another cigarette, the fiery end punching a hole in the darkness.
“What for?” Smoke burned my eyes, making them tear. At least, I thought it was the smoke. I couldn’t remember the last time someone complimented me or made me feel special. I brushed at a wet spot on my cheek.
She took a long drag and turned to her open window before exhaling into the night. “I’ve always been the best at art. I never had to work hard to be the best either. Now I have something to work for.”
“Oh.” I admired the ease with which she admitted to being the best. “Okay.”
Silence filled the car, but it was a warm, comforting silence.
“I have to go.” The reluctance in my voice surprised me, and I realized I didn’t want to leave. And not just because Bianca’s words flattered me. I recognized the truth in them. “I have a curfew. And I’m late.”
“Sure. Wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.” She turned the key and let the engine struggle to life again.
I watched the way the light gleamed off her shiny red lips. Surprised, I realized I wanted to lean over and kiss them, wanted to see if she tasted of the raspberries I always tasted while in her presence. I scrambled out of the car, putting distance between us as fast as I could. My heart raced in my chest.
Her short stories have appeared in Halfway Down The Stairs, A Fly in Amber, Daily Flash Anthology, The Barrier Islands Review, Everyday Fiction, Death Rattle, Drastic Measures, Cutlass & Musket and Residential Aliens, among others.
She has written fourteen contemporary YA novels, a few of which other people are allowed to see. She has also written one very bad historical romance. She is currently working on a new YA novel and ghostwriting an autobiography.
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My father spelt my name wrong on my birth certificate and has never managed to get it right since.
I’m the oldest kid, and my dad was such a proud papa he rushed off to the registry office to get my birth certificate before my mother had really recovered from the long labour I put her through. He came back with a birth certificate bearing the name Katharine Larkindale.
Two big problems right there.
I was supposed to be called Kate. Picking a name had been a challenge for my parents because my mother taught in a girls’ school and every name my father suggested, she pooh-poohed because there was “a terrible girl in the fourth form” with that name.
So they settled on Kate. Just Kate. No middle name. No embellishments. Plain old Kate.
Katharine is not the normal spelling. Katherine would have been bad enough given the rationale my mother had for calling me Kate in the first place: Larkindale is a long surname and adding a long first name to that made fitting the whole thing on forms a challenge.
My father argued that one day I might marry someone with a short surname like Smith or Jones and I might want something with more syllables.
My mother lost that battle.
But she made my dad go back and correct the spelling to Katherine.
Years later, it was time for me to get a passport and issuing passports was one of the jobs my father had at the diplomatic post where we lived at the time. So he issued my first passport -- to Katharine Larkindale.
No wonder I have always gone by Kate!
Is there an interesting story behind your name?
2. My unique childhood
I grew up a diplo-brat – the child of a diplomat. So I travelled a lot.
We went on our first posting when I was six months old. I’m told my dad gave me a sip of the French champagne they used to hand out in first class in the ‘70s and slept all the way from New Zealand to Vienna.
I remember very little of that first posting to Austria, but I credit my knack for picking up languages to having both English and German spoken around me while I was learning to talk.
We moved to Washington DC from Vienna and I started school there. Eager for me to keep up my German, my mother found a pair of German-speaking twins for me to play with. We spoke English and cultivated our American accents until no one would guess we weren’t natives.
Three years later we returned to New Zealand and that American accent made me stick out like a sore thumb. Within weeks I’d dropped it and picked up a decidedly Kiwi twang.
We only stayed in New Zealand about eighteen months, then were posted to Samoa and Tokelau. While the tropical climate, easy access to beautiful beaches and exotic fruit were lovely, going to Apia Primary School was anything but. The classes were huge and because the kids all had to learn English before they’d be admitted, they were all older than me. There was one kid who was thirteen to my seven! And I was a pretty small seven-year-old…
Yeah. I got beat up a lot. Especially since I was something of a tomboy and wanted to play with the boys. By the time we left Apia, I could swear profusely in both Samoan and Tokelauan.
I have never been as cold in my life as when we left Samoa and moved to Beijing. Samoa was a pretty constant 30+ degrees Centigrade. Beijing in February was close to minus 30 degrees. The lush, green tropical landscape I had enjoyed for the past two years was replaced by dust and concrete high-rises, guards in military uniforms and bicycles. So many bicycles!
I went to an International School on the American Embassy grounds. My class was made up of people from Bangladesh, Australia, Malaysia, America, Canada, France, Nigeria and beyond. My accent changed depending on who was talking to. I even picked up some Chinese, never struggling much with the tonality of the language the way other people did.
After three years in China, it was time to go home.
Apart from the odd visit and that short stretch when I was in first and second grade, I’d never lived in New Zealand.
It certainly didn’t feel like home. I didn’t feel any real connection to the place or that it was where I belonged. I didn’t feel like a Kiwi kid. But how was that supposed to feel?
It took a long time for me to figure that out. But I now consider New Zealand home and look forward to coming back. For a while, anyway. Then I look forward to leaving again!
Is your home the place you came from originally? Do you feel like you belong?
3. The night a book saved my family’s life
My father was a diplomat and we travelled a lot, moving from country to country every two or three years. Between when I was nine and twelve we lived in Beijing, China and we took every opportunity we could get to travel and explore the country.
It was school vacation time so the entire family accompanied my father on one of his official visits. We were in a remote area, staying on a farm and it was early spring and still cold. To warm up the little house we were to stay in, our hosts had put a small coal burner in the entryway. It was a little smoky, but certainly took the chill off the air.
That night, I was woken out of a sound sleep by a thumping sound. It was like a large sack of something heavy hitting the floor. I was a little foggy with sleep, but realised eventually it was the sound of my father’s body crumpling to the ground.
Frightened, I climbed out of bed and tried to wake him up. When he didn’t move, I ran into the other room and tried to rouse my mother. She barely responded, even when I screamed that Dad had fallen on the floor.
It was then I noticed the coal fire smoking away on the other side of the door.
Now at that time, I was an obsessive fan of a series of books by Willard Price. Each one was an adventure story: African Adventure, Whale Adventure, Safari Adventure etc. My favourite was the one called Volcano Adventure.
In Volcano Adventure, the heroes of the series, Hal and Roger, almost died of carbon monoxide poisoning seeping into their bedroom while they slept near an erupting volcano.
Could this be the same thing?
I wasn’t sure, but I opened a window in my parents’ room anyway, then went through and opened one in the room my sister still slept in. My father was stirring by now, the gas less potent close to the floor.
It took a while, but I managed to get everyone outside where the fresh air cleared our heads while open windows cleared the air inside. The coal burner was removed from the hallway and we all eventually went back to bed.
The next day, our hosts apologised profusely, thinking we had been shivering on the doorstep in the middle of the night because we had seen a mouse in the house. None of us had good enough Chinese to explain about the gas, so we just let them keep thinking that. But we made sure the coal burner did not come back inside.
Has a book ever saved your life?
4. Inspiration and where it comes from
I have never struggled to find ideas to write about. The hard part is picking out the good ones.
The starting point, or spark is usually something fairly simple. For example, An Unstill Life began with its original title: The Boyfriend Plague. Now, this is really unusual for me because I tend to struggle with titles, but this one came to me and I instantly knew it would be a book about friendships and how they change once boyfriends come on the scene.
But it wasn’t a book yet. It was an idea. It wasn’t until I read a newspaper article about a school forbidding same sex couples to attend their end of year dance that the book began to take shape.
With Stumped, my new book due out in November, the idea came to me in a very different way. I used to run movie theatres and one night we hosted the premiere of a documentary about sex workers who work with the disabled. One of the subjects of the documentary spoke at the event and I was so blown away by her, I bought her a glass of wine after the event just so she would hang around and talk some more.
I knew as soon as I finished talking to her I wanted to write a book about sex and disability. And fortunately just a few weeks later, I was challenged by another writer to write a novel over an eight-week period alongside her and four other writers. Stumped was the result.
Another of my books, yet to be published, was inspired by a single line spoken in a film. I heard it, and the whole book just came to me in a heartbeat, something that has never happened to me before. And you want to know something weird? I went back and re-watched the film after I’d written the book, and I couldn’t figure out what it was that had sparked me at all!
Another of my yet to be published books was inspired by something that happened to my bosses. When I first started working for them, someone close to them was murdered and they had to take in the children of the murdered woman because the father was the main suspect in the case and couldn’t take care of them.
Yet another was inspired by a scathing review of a film that came out of the Cannes Film Festival one year.
Ideas are everywhere. You just have to keep your eyes and your mind open to them. If something intrigues you, it’s worth considering it, ruminating on it. You never know! Your next book idea could be lurking away in there.
5. Writing Process
Don’t let anyone tell you there is only one way to write a book. There isn’t. And what works for one writer may not work for another.
I don’t outline. At all.
I’ve tried. People told me for years that it was impossible to write a good book without an outline.
Well, I can’t write a book with an outline.
You see, if I outline, I write down everything I think is going to happen in the book. But if I’ve already written down everything that’s going to happen, where are the surprises? I’m bored with the writing before I start because I already know what’s around every corner.
I tend to start with only a very vague idea about plot. I have characters well fleshed out in my head, and I’m always interested to see what they might do in the situations I plan to throw them into. But I don’t plan that. I let the characters lead the way and show me the story. And from there, the plot writes itself.
I also usually write an ending fairly early on. For all I like to let the characters lead, it’s useful to have a destination in mind. Often this isn’t the final ending, but it’s helpful to have something to aim for, even if I do go on tangents along the way.
I also don’t always write in sequence. If a particular scene is vivid in my head, I’ll write it and fill in the pathways to and from that point later.
I draft fast. It usually takes me around 8-10 weeks to draft a book, working in the early mornings and at night, after the kids go to bed. When you’re drafting fast, there’s no time to get stuck. If something trips me up, I leave a note in the text, highlight it, and move on to the next place I can think to go.
The same with research. In one of my books I have a Korean grandmother who speaks a muddled mixture of English and Korean to her family. I didn’t want to break the flow of my writing each time I needed to look up the right Korean word to use, so I just highlighted the words in English and went back later to fill in the Korean.
If you have written a book, that’s an achievement and you should be proud of it. And however you wrote it, it was the right way for you.
6. More About Me and Writing
I’ve been writing all my life. I can still remember how excited I was when I had my first story (about a witch) published in the Kidstuff section of the local paper. I think I was six…
But I really got serious about writing when I was twelve. We had a substitute teacher for a couple of months while our main teacher was away overseas. She absolutely loved a story I wrote. I can’t remember what exactly it was about, but I imagine it was a thinly veiled imitation of The Outsiders, which I was obsessed with at the time.
And after that, I never really stopped.
I submitted my first novel to publishers when I was eighteen. I had no idea how to do this, of course, and it was pre-internet, so I didn’t really have any easy way to research it. So I just found the address of the publisher who had published some of my favorite books and posted my manuscript off with a request that they consider it for publication.
No big surprise, they sent it back with a letter saying they didn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Hey, at least they sent it back. I bought really expensive paper to print it out on!
It was quite a few years before I was brave enough to submit anything again, but I did keep writing. Quietly. In the background of my life. I didn’t even really admit I was doing it, but I was. It wasn’t until 2007 or so that I got serious about it again and started thinking about publication.
I entered a novel writing contest held by the same publisher who had rejected that first, sorry attempt. I didn’t win, but one of the two novels I entered made it quite far through the competition.
So I joined an online writing site and found people who like to write as much as I do. I joined critique groups and started writing and publishing short stories in literary magazines, ezines and anthologies. I re-worked a couple of novels with my critique group and entered one in into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2010. No one was more surprised than me when the book was a semi-finalist.
But I didn’t win.
So I threw myself into querying. I was terrible at it. So I had to learn how to do that too.
I discovered NaNoWriMo and took a stab at that. I discovered that fast drafting suits me, and within a couple of years, I’d written four novels I was actually quite happy with. Novels that were getting requested by agents and publishers and getting into online contests.
But so far, not offers of representation or publication.
It took a long time. A lot of rejections. Over 300, I think, across the four or five books I queried. But eventually I got an offer from a small press. Then I signed with an agent.
I wrote more books. I revised a lot. My publisher went bankrupt, my agent left the agency…
It’s been a long journey and one that isn’t over yet. Because I can’t NOT write. Every book I finish, I feel like it’s the last. I never think I can find the strength and energy to write another. Yet somehow, an idea grabs me, and next thing I know, I’m back in front of a blank page, inching word by word toward another novel.
And I doubt I’ll ever stop.
How long have you been writing?
I always like to figure out what is important to my characters. I almost always write in first person, so I have to really put myself into their heads and into their skins. To do that, I have to really get to know them otherwise the way they react to the situations I write them into won’t feel genuine.
In An Unstill Life, My main character, Livvie, is an artist. She has synesthesia so she sees sound as colors and tastes colors as flavors. One of her favorite things is to paint music, using the sounds to show her the colors she should be using. She’s fiercely loyal, to her friends, who don’t really appreciate it, to her sister, who uses this loyalty to ask Livvie to do something unthinkable, and finally to Bianca, the girl she comes to realise she loves.
I don’t plan my characters, or write up bios for them or anything. They tend to just appear in my head, fully formed, with their personalities and quirks already intact. They usually even have their names! It’s always a challenge for me to change a character name in editing because I’ve always known them with the name they came to me with.
Does this make me sound like I’m mentally ill? It’s not like voices in my head, I promise. It’s more like meeting someone new at a party. Except the party can happen any time, and I’m usually alone when it happens… And sometimes I start to wonder what might happen if character A was to meet character B.
Ozzy, the main character in Stumped is much less complex than Livvie in many ways. He’s a boy and like most teenage boys, he has one thing on his mind: sex. So a lot of his thoughts are about sex, and he objectifies women, breaking them down into body parts. I found some of his thoughts difficult to write because they are so far away from the way I think. Not to mention, I find this kind of behaviour abhorrent.
But despite these traits, Ozzy is a pretty loveable guy. He has a tumultuous relationship with his older brother, feels very responsible for both his mother and his little sister, and has a very blackly funny sense of humor.
I enjoyed getting into both characters’ heads as I followed them though their stories. And it really was me following them. As I wrote, both these characters surprised me. They did things I wasn’t expecting them to do, which change the stories in some dramatic ways.
At the moment I’m just in the meet and greet stage with a new set of characters, and I can’t wait to see what Luke, Drew and Kara get up to…
I’ve been a reader all my life. I still remember how excited I was when I discovered I could read to myself, inside my head. And I even remember the book I was reading when I made the discovery. It was Dick Whittington and his Cat.
Gorgeous writing is important to me in a book, but not if there isn’t a decent plot or characters as well. Pretty words and phrases don’t do it for me on their own. A few pages is okay, but not an entire book. Unless it’s a book of poetry, and even then, it has to be very beautiful to keep me in it.
Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere is one of those books that perfectly balances a good story, engaging characters and gorgeous writing. So is Janet Fitch’s White Oleander.
I’m also a huge fan of strong, muscular prose in books. I’m a huge fan of Russell Banks, Cormac McCarthy and Sam Shepherd because their writing is so deeply, unapologetically masculine.
Because I write YA, the bulk of what I read is also YA. I have to keep up with what’s out there, don’t I? I’m constantly amazed at how many wonderful writers there are in this space, and how many challenging and exciting subjects they are tackling. I’m a huge fans of authors like Hannah Moskowitz, Corey Anne Haydu, Jeff Zentner and A.S. King.
Who are your favorite authors? What should the next book on my TBR pile be?
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