What it’s Like to Write a Novel

A chat with first time book author Victoria Hannan about her stunning debut, Kokomo.

What made you want to write a novel?

Back in 2017, I was working in a job I hated. I wasn’t sleeping well and I was so stressed my hair was falling out. I knew I needed to change my life. The idea for Kokomo was brewing so I applied for a few artist’s residencies and told myself that if I got into one, I’d quit my job and go write this novel. I ended up in Brazil where I spent a month at a residency on a tropical island writing the first draft. I fell in love with residencies and discovered I’m very motivated by seeing other artists working hard around me and by having very little to focus on other than the work. In 2018, I spent three weeks in Tasmania and a month in Iceland to finish the manuscript. All three residencies were weird and wonderful in their own ways and the experiences I had and people I met definitely impacted the book.

What unexpected challenges did you face?

Between the second and third drafts of the novel, my mum was diagnosed with cancer. My dad has Parkinson’s and Mum is his primary carer so it was hard news and a lot for everyone to take on. I was about to cancel my residency in Iceland to stay home and help out but Mum insisted I go and finish it and I’m incredibly grateful she did. While in Iceland, I knew I had one month to finish the novel before I had to come back to real life in Australia and that if I didn’t get it done, it was never going to happen. It was an incredible amount of pressure to put on myself, but it worked.

What was easier than you thought?

I’m a fast writer, so once I actually start writing, I find it easy to get words on the page. For me, it’s the starting that’s hard. Writing a novel takes discipline and dedication but it will never happen if you don’t sit down and do the work and sometimes I struggle with that. In fact, I actually have a note above my desk that reads: “Do the work, you big baby”. I respond well to tough love.

Mina is soooooo relatable. Who is Mina inspired by?

Mina is an exaggerated, fictionalised amalgamation of me and some of my friends. I know a lot of people who thought they’d have things figured out by the time they turned thirty but are still working out who they are and where they fit. In Kokomo, Mina gets the rug pulled out from under her and has to work out how to stay on her feet. I think we’ve all had times when we’re flailing and have made mistakes because of it. 

Where did the idea for Kokomo spring from?

The layers of the story came from so many different places and evolved over a few years. The title of the book, however, comes from The Beach Boys song. I was at a karaoke party and a friend stood up to sing it and I started wondering where the tropical paradise of Kokomo is. Turns out it’s an industrial town in Indiana and The Beach Boys just liked how the word sounded. It got me thinking about the things we willingly believe.

How much does this book mirror your own lived experience?

Like Mina, I lived in London for a long time and worked in advertising while I was there. I think like anyone who chooses to live overseas, I spent time wondering what the emergency or phone call was that was going to get me on a plane home. My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s while I was away and I knew I needed to come home before he got too sick or I’d regret it forever. And even though I have a good relationship with my parents, there was still a period of re-acquaintance and some re-adjustment necessary when I got home.

What was it like winning the Vic Premiers award?

I’ve only ever won one thing before the VPLA and that was a drawing competition when I was five. The prize was a book about the history of the area where I grew up that my Dad helped to write. So the VPLA was really worth the wait and it’s been pretty life changing. Not only for the fact that because of it, I signed with my dream agent and got a two-book deal with Hachette, but because I’ve met so many lovely people and new friends. The writing community in Australia is incredibly supportive and I feel very lucky to have been welcomed into it so warmly.

What did you learn about yourself while writing this novel?

While writing this novel I spent a lot of time thinking about love and all the forms it takes. I learnt there’s no right or wrong way to love, and that love can take on different shapes in our lives. I really wanted Kokomo to be a tribute to friendship and I was reminded every step of the way (and every single day) how lucky I am to have the friends that I have. 

What did you learnt about other people while writing this novel?

I think the biggest lessons I’ve learnt along the way have been since I finished the novel. Seeing which parts resonate the most with people, or which parts annoyed, upset or frustrated them, tells me so much about their lives. That’s been fascinating and fun.

What character did you most think about and why?

I probably spent a bit too much time thinking about some of the peripheral characters, like Kira’s little sister Loretta. She never really appears in the story but she’s fully fleshed out to me and I really like her. I know what she looks like, what she’s doing now, what her whole childhood was like. Same with Mina’s ex-boyfriend’s mum. We never see her but she’s very real to me.

Where do you think Mina is now?

Someone asked me recently if I think they’re all okay. I hope so but, to be honest, I stopped thinking about their lives at the point I stopped writing about them. It almost feels like it’s none of my business any more. I do like to think that if I were to ever write a sequel, Mina will have finally written a screenplay. It won’t be very good but she’ll have done it and that’s the most important thing. 

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Want more Lunch Lady content? Read Growing Up In Australia by Tekie Quaye here or read our light-hearted parenting article kids and cubbies here

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Header Photo Credit: Elize Strydom