An Interview with 2021 Morris Award finalist Nina Kenwood, author of It Sounded Better in My Head

The William C. Morris Award is awarded each year to a debut YA publication. After considering the wealth of excellence each year, the committee selects 5 finalists, announced in December. From these, the winner is chosen (2021: Kyrie McCauley’s If These Wings Could Fly) though all of the finalists demonstrate unique greatness in every page. You can watch the 2021 Morris Award Celebration event, where each of the finalists offered some amazing reflections on their work and these times.

In It Sounded Better in My Head, author Nina Kenwood provides a glimpse into that tenuous stretch of time between finishing school and making University departures that is common to so many teens. Kenwood, writing from Australia, is able to shine a light on the unique aspects of the Australian system while tapping into the universal experiences of those late teenage years. From social anxieties to relationship questions, family turmoil and looming adulthood, It Sounded Better in My Head covers a lot of ground. We are thankful to Nina for taking the time to answer some questions and for her remarkable book!

Author Nina Kenwood
author photo by Lian Hingee

THE HUB: Since a ton of our readers likely aren’t familiar with the Australian Educational System, perhaps we should start there. The book opens just as Natalie and her friends have finished their final final exams, which I understand is part of the placement process for University. Would you explain that system a bit more? Help us know where Natalie is in life?

KENWOOD: I’ll try and explain this in the simplest way possible! In Australia, the final year at school is really the only one that matters, in terms of grades. Our school years operate on a calendar year, so it starts in January and runs through to December. At the end of their final year, which we call Year Twelve, students receive a final overall grade, which is a number out of 100 called an ATAR. 

Students undertake a variety of assignments and exams throughout their final year which influence their ATAR number, but the end of year exams are the most important factor in deciding your result. Students sit those big exams in October and November, and then receive their ATAR in mid-December. University placements are then announced in January of the following year, and those placements are largely based on your ATAR. 

My book takes place in the limbo time between getting your ATAR result in mid-December, and receiving university placements in January. It’s a weird time when you know how you did at school, you know which universities and courses you’ve applied for, but you don’t yet know if you’ve gotten in.  

THE HUB: Parents going through a divorce is not exactly an unusual theme for teen readers, but Natalie’s parents’ divorce is not the “typical” story. What makes their relationship and situation so unique?

KENWOOD: Natalie is an only child, and her family is close knit and her central support system through her tricky teenage years. I wanted to explore the idea of her parents simply falling out of love, and ending their relationship in a fairly calm and reasonable way, and how that is difficult for Natalie to accept. In some ways, their very reasonableness is what is most painful for her, because she is the one left with the big feelings about it. She feels like her entire world is crumbling, and they aren’t reacting in the same way. They also made the decision to separate months before they actually tell her, so she also feels betrayed by this too. There’s a lot for her to work through! 

THE HUB: Perhaps the most real and fascinating piece of Natalie’s story is her struggle with acne. To be so common, acne gets relatively little attention in YA. Why do you think that is?

KENWOOD: Acne was a real and large trauma for me as a teenager (and to be honest, as an adult too!). Throughout my life, my skin has unfortunately taken up lot of my headspace, and I wanted to explore that feeling – the obsessing, the worrying, the shame. This was a chance for me to deep dive into the psychological impact that cystic acne can have on you, in a way I haven’t seen a lot of other books do. As a writer, I’m interested in bodies in general, and how out of control and difficult to manage they can feel during your pre-teen and teenage years. I wanted my book to explore that in a really intimate and authentic way.  

THE HUB: Regarding her acne, you write Natalie on the other side of the worst of it, after she has found a system that keeps her skin in fairly decent shape, but the psychological weight of her embarrassment and fear and shame follows her. Why was it important to have her in a healing space rather than in the worst of it?

KENWOOD: I needed Natalie to be on the other side of it in order to have her venture out into the world. When she was in the worst of it, she was hiding out at home and obsessing over it so much that there was no room for anything else, and she certainly wasn’t ready to be vulnerable. And so I couldn’t have written the story I wanted to write about her. I needed her to be ready to experience a relationship for the first time, so she could actually grapple with her deep-seated fear of vulnerability – both her insecurities around emotional vulnerability and her fears of being physically vulnerable with someone. 

THE HUB: Another highly relatable part of the story is how uncertain Natalie is about who she is meant to be. Do you think most kids have it figured out? 

KENWOOD: I don’t think many adults have it figured out! I think a lot of people feel pressured to know what they want to be or want to do when they are eighteen, and you get into a mindset of ‘I have to make the right decision now or the rest of my life will be ruined!’. It’s a time when you have to make decisions about if you want to do further study at university, what you want to study, and where you want to study, and I made that something that all four central characters had to navigate in different ways. 

THE HUB: How did you capture Natalie’s interior monologue so well? Her anxieties and conversations with herself felt natural and fully indicative of her character!

KENWOOD: Thank you! I think every author has parts of writing that come naturally to them, and other parts that are really challenging. Voice and dialogue are the parts of the book that came easily to me. Once I found it, I felt like I could write endlessly in Natalie’s voice, because it was so clear to me, and I spent a lot of time getting to know her and developing her character by just writing down her thoughts. Plot and structure are the parts of writing I struggle with! 

THE HUB: I cannot be the only reader wishing we had gotten more from Vanessa! You’ve used her perfectly in this book, of course, but she is such a fierce and thoughtful character! Could we ever hope for a book from Vanessa’s POV?

KENWOOD: I’m so glad you mentioned this! I have no plans currently, but I wouldn’t ever rule anything out. Vanessa was a favourite of the characters for me, and I originally had larger subplot for her in the book that I ended up cutting down, for a variety of reasons. But her character and her role in the book is really close to my heart, especially in subverting the trope of the evil ex-girlfriend. 

THE HUB: Everyone’s path to publication is a little different, of course. Would you mind describing how you brought your debut into the world?

KENWOOD: In the Australian book industry, there are quite a lot of well-respected unpublished manuscript awards for debut authors to enter, run by publishing houses. I entered the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing, a well-known writing prize in Australia run by Text Publishing, and to my great shock, I won. Winning the prize meant an offer of publication, and it also helps with sales and marketing, as Australian booksellers are familiar with the prize and generally interested in reading the winner’s book, which is always published in the following year (I won the prize in 2018, and my book was published in late 2019 in Australia). It’s a lovely way to start your publication journey, because you get to win an award and attend a fancy award party before you are even a published author!  

THE HUB: If you’re comfortable discussing it, what are you working on these days? 

KENWOOD: I’m writing another YA book, set in the first year of university. It is about four students living together in a sharehouse in Melbourne, so it has a little bit of a YA New Girl feel to it, and two of the housemates are ex-best friends who haven’t spoken in several years, so there’s a lot of complicated feelings around friendship being explored. And there’s romance too, because I love writing about love.