Damien Wilkins, star of screen, with his wife Maree's nail polish (left).

Stacy Gregg and Nicky Pellegrino continue their BookBubble podcast series. Today: an interview with novelist Damien Wilkins, whose debut YA novel has been shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Damien  Wilkins is one of our most celebrated and awarded writers of adult fiction. His first-ever YA foray, Aspiring, is a coming of age story in the classic YA tradition that stretches back to Catcher in the Rye.

It’s set in a fictional South Island town that very much resembles Wanaka. Fifteen-year-old Ricky lives in Aspiring, a town that’s growing at an alarming rate. Ricky’s growing, too — 6’7”, and taller every day. But he’s stuck in a loop: student, uncommitted basketballer, and puzzled son, burdened by his family’s sadness. And who’s the weird guy in town with a chauffeur and half a Cadillac? What about the bits of story that invade his head? Uncertain what’s real — and who he is — Ricky can’t stop sifting for clues. He has no idea how things will end up . . .

With sunlight, verve and humour, Wilkins brings us a beguiling boy who’s trying to make sense of it all. He talks to Stacy Gregg about being inside a young person’s head, thinking in the age of Twitter, and his career as a football player: “I was fast.”


That Thursday after school, I biked to the retirement village up behind the golf course, where Mum was a member and Dad hated to go. It was Mum’s idea that I try the village. She gave me names. “Say you’re Michelle’s son,” she told me, “and, Ricky, when you walk into their places, find a seat. Don’t… loom. A lot of these people are shrinking. They don’t want you looming.”

I did as I was told. Knocked on doors. Said I was Michelle’s son. Crouched low and quickly found a seat. Everyone said yes. Well, first they said, What is this again? Can you explain it to one more time? What do I have to do?

I went over it again. Our English teacher, Miss Clarke, had read about the idea of the Human Library—people being borrowed instead of books. Our task: find some interesting people (and everyone is interesting!), help them craft a brief story about their lives (but this is not about self-promotion), set up a ‘library’, invite borrowers/readers to choose a person/book. Lending time to be set at, say, ten minutes. A way of connecting people. A walk in someone else’s shoes. Think about prejudices. Discrimination. Find the people whose stories are not often heard. Homeless people were especially good, Miss Clarke told us. But that, she added, required care and sensitivity. She looked around at her class. Maybe, she said, stay away from the homeless. We don’t have homeless people in Aspiring, someone said. Hmm, said our teacher. At that moment I thought of Tessa Simpson who lived with her mother in a caravan on a vacant section above Beacon Point. Not homeless but it was rumoured they washed in the lake after dark. I glanced across the room at Angus Dean, 5’8”. He and Tessa were linked. Angus was bouncing his powerful legs up and down. He was our basketball’s team’s best forward and constantly surprised with his leap. In speaking his name, he was also using one more syllable than his normal speech allowed. Angus was repeating NCEA 2. His nickname on court was ‘Achieved’. But his fame now rested elsewhere. As of a week ago, he and Tessa Simpson were the new King and Queen of Sticky Forest. They’d replaced a Year 13 couple who, it was rumoured, wanted their crown back. But was that in the constitution? Surely the monarchy could only be passed on to first-timers. The king is dead, long live the king!

When would I wear the crown?

As if hearing my thoughts, Angus put up his hand. We all turned to look at this hand, connected to this arm, his trunk, which had been involved with Tessa Simpson in the tangle and in the dark folds, the low scrubby bushes of Sticky Forest. Only Tessa was not looking. I saw she had continued to stare at her desk.

Yes Angus? said Miss Clarke.

Do we need a library card? I don’t have one, said Angus.

Fucking hell, said someone at the back of the room.

Aspiring by Damien Wilkins (Massey University Press, $22) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Previous BookBubble interviews have been conducted with Kyle Mewburn, Nalini Singh, Christine Leunens, Elizabeth Knox and Brandy Scott.

* BookBubble is made with the support of Creative New Zealand Toi Aotearoa *

Stacy Gregg is HarperCollins NZ' third best-selling children' writer of all time (after David Walliams and Dr Seuss) as the author of over 30 pony novels. She is currently working on TV series Poni Poni...

Nicky Pellegrino is the author of 11 novels, many of them published internationally. Her latest book is Tiny Pieces Of Us (published by Hachette in 2020).

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