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Nina Kenwood and the vulnerable teen

With its pop culture and social media references, It Sounded Better in My Head plunges into the world of the modern teenager on the cusp of adulthood.


That Kenwood won the 2018 Text Prize for her novel is not surprising; it’s a sweet, funny and relatable account of the dramas of those grappling with late adolescence.

Most of the charm lies with its protagonist; Natalie is an endearing character. Her smartness, introversion and body-image anxieties are recognisable to anyone who’s ever suffered the mortifications of not being the cute, cool or popular kid at school.

Kenwood says she picked bits and pieces from her own slightly tortured history to go into the book, ‘‘All the bad skin stuff is drawn from my life. Bits and pieces are in there but it’s certainly not autobiographical,’’ she says. ‘‘I wanted to draw on that feeling of vulnerability; the first time you have to be vulnerable with your body, your emotions, your relationships.’’

At 18, Natalie is officially an adult but of course she doesn’t feel like one. Kenwood was particularly interested in exploring this ‘‘nowhere’’ land of emotional and physical discovery. She’d always wanted to do a YA book.

‘‘I grew up on a steady diet of The Babysitters Club and The Saddle Club as a tween, and then turned into a voracious reader of Australian YA as a teen. I came of age in the ’90s, when Australian YA was booming and it shaped who I am as a reader and a writer.

‘‘I read — and reread, and reread — Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody, Queen Cat, Carmel and St Jude by Maureen McCarthy, Touching Earth Lightly by Margo Lanagan and Back on Track by Margaret Clark. I felt seen and understood and challenged by these books and others like them, and that’s when the idea of being a writer really took hold in my mind.’’

Before taking maternity leave, Kenwood was the marketing manager at the Melbourne bookshop chain, Readings. Being on the other side of the publicity divide feels markedly odd: ‘‘I’ve been good at championing other people’s work but when it comes to my own … I’m not very good,’’ although she admits knowing the industry does help, even if there are gaps in her knowledge, ‘‘the overseas rights sales … I have no idea and the editorial processes; I’ve never even been edited before’’.

She may struggle with the technicalities of publishing but what Kenwood masters with aplomb is the dialogue of her characters. She does not, she assures me, eavesdrop in cafes any more than your average writer but credits her introversion: ‘‘I’ve always been a watcher and a listener naturally, and obviously I’m a massive reader but I’m also a big TV watcher …’’

YA books can have a reputation for indulging in darkness and doom but as Kenwood points out, there’s no death and no villains in her book. ‘‘It was joyful to write; Natalie is dramatic and insecure yes, but her voice is joyful … it’s really a coming-of-age rom-com.’’

It Sounded Better in My Head is published by Text at $19.99.

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