I received a proof copy of this book from Hardie Grant via my work - this doesn't colour my opinion or my review in any way. STARS LIKE US was marketed for fans of Leah on the Offbeat, Red, White & Royal Blue, and Heartstopper: Volume One, so I knew it was my type of book!
Liliana is a sixteen-year-old Australian girl on a scholarship at a prestigious music college in London. After she's asked to audition for Lady Stardust, a secret band that's forbidden by the rules of her scholarship, she meets Carter, Richie and Sam who change her life forever. Even though she has a girlfriend back home in Sydney, Liliana starts to fall for Carter, and writes a song about him. Lady Stardust use Liliana's song for their entry into a Battle of the Bands competition, and win. On the cusp of superstardom, and a flight back to Sydney booked for 12 hours time, Liliana is forced to choose between her life back home with her friends and potentially ex-girlfriend, and her love and passion for music.
So, a super fun story about rock and roll with a queer Australian main character? Sign me the HELL up!! What I thought was going to be a cute coming of age / love story about a girl conflicted between her girlfriend back home and her hot new bandmate, all in a high school context, ended up being so much more than that. STARS LIKE US highlights discussions of obsession and fame, the pitfalls of the music industry and music labels that take marketing too far, and the importance of having a found family. I really loved the separation Liliana created between her authentic self, and the 'character' of Lily, created for her as a band marketing tool. And the songs -- all I want out of life right now is to listen to King Cutie because it sounds like it absolutely SLAPS.
A huge new favourite for me. I'll be recommending this for years to come!!
INTERVIEW WITH FRANCES CHAPMAN
I was lucky enough to interview author Frances Chapman about STARS LIKE US! Thankyou to Lauren from Hardie Grant for this opportunity. It was super insightful and interesting to hear further information about the writing process, and other bits and pieces about Liliana's story!
How did STARS LIKE US come to be? I’m told there’s an intriguing origin story involving Justin Bieber!
Yes, it was a paparazzi photo in the paper when he toured Australia: he was having a casual lunch in a chicken shop, chatting to his friends, and there was a bodyguard holding back a line of teenage girls. It was the girls which got me thinking – they looked bored, a bit dazed, lost, even. You could see that they’d chosen their outfits with care, come out with the intention of meeting Justin Bieber, but now that they were there, it was like there was a huge gulf between what they’d imagined the day would be like and the hard reality of standing on the sidewalk watching a person eat his lunch. And I loved that he was just ignoring them, continuing his conversation, apparently unselfconscious: this was just his life. It got me thinking about what it might be like to be famous – the actual lived reality, not the glamorous fable.
How did STARS LIKE US come to be published? What is the Ampersand Prize process like?
I shopped the manuscript around to a bunch of agents and got a lot of rejections. A lot of the feedback was positive: some of them liked the writing but they felt it would be a hard book to market for a young adult audience. The version I was trying to get published at that point had a lot more drug use and older protagonists, they were living in sharehouses, working in restaurants to make ends meet, and it was just generally grittier. The feedback I was getting was that they couldn’t see a market for it and I was trying to decide whether I started to write something new or reworked it again for a more adult market.
So when I sent it into the Ampersand prize I didn’t expect it would be shortlisted. I was shocked when they rang me and to talk through some of the changes they wanted me to make. The main one was aging the characters down so that they were still at school. Chatting with Marisa Pintado at Hardie Grant Egmont about that made me feel really excited – it was like I needed someone to tell me which direction to go in. It was a lot of work – I basically rewrote the entire first third and then there was a lot of other work to do throughout the rest. But it felt like the right direction and I was really excited to be working with a publisher who was so passionate about the story.
I think the Ampersand process is so valuable because now I can see that although I had a manuscript, it was nowhere near ready for publication. The Ampersand process meant that the publisher worked closely with me to turn it into a book, and most first-time writers don’t get that opportunity. I feel so lucky.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I had a very hyperactive imagination as a kid and have always read a lot. I started writing more seriously about eight years ago when I was living in Melbourne, and a good friend of mine was living in Israel. We used to send each other a chapter a week, and he was always so enthusiastic about reading the next instalment. Having a deadline and a reader meant that I kept going and those chapters became the first manuscript I finished.
What draws you to writing YA? Do you see yourself writing in other genres or age groups?
I feel like being a teenager is very close for me. My best friend from school said to me the other day that she can barely remember being a teenager and I was shocked. I can remember the whole thing in excruciating detail. You’re forming your identity and learning who you are, and I had so much hope at that time in my life – and so much pain. It’s a time ripe for fiction.
I am thinking about writing for adults - I didn’t particularly set out to be a writer for young adults, it was more that I felt this story would be best for a teenage audience. The next idea I’m working on is also a queer love story, but it’s much more personal and smaller in scope, so although it has teenage characters I’m not sure the readership will be the same. We will see what my agent thinks!
What do you love most about writing?
I feel like there’s something kind of magic about books: the writer creates a picture that only exists for the reader. It’s a work of collaboration. No two readers will have the same picture in their minds and I love that.
What are you currently reading?
I’m just at the beginning of Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein. I really love her work but I’m told this is a bit scary, so I’m reading it with the lights on! I don’t read fiction at all when I’m working and then I binge.
Why did you choose to write Liliana’s strong connection to her heritage and her name?
I felt like having a strong family connection would be a good way to show her integrity, and when she loses that connection I hoped it would demonstrate the new, very inauthentic world she was inhabiting. I chose Italian because that’s my heritage and because I could choose a name which could be anglicised - although I’ve since been told that some readers think I’ve based her on Ariana Grande, which was absolutely not my intention!
What bands influenced Lady Stardust? What do you think Lady Stardust sounds like?
I think Lady Stardust sounds like AM-era Arctic Monkeys but with a female singer. The lyrics were influenced by Bright Eyes, Gang of Youths, Polish Club and of course, Bowie. Addie Marmoset, who is Liliana’s mentor and love interest, is a solo artist who used to be in a manufactured girls group – a female Harry Styles, if you will – and her music sounds like Dua Lipa.
If STARS LIKE US was to be made into a film, who would you want to play each of the main characters?
I get asked this question a lot and I know it’s boring but I’ve never really thought about it. I think it would be better for the characters to be played by musicians than to try to find actors who can sing, if that makes sense. I’d love King Princess to play Liliana, although she’s American. Raleigh Ritchie – also known as Jacob Anderson - for Carter; Ncuti Gatwa for Sam because I just love him; Dua Lipa for Addie; Sacha Dhawan for Amir. That would be an absolute all-star cast and I would lose my mind if my book was made into a movie.
How different was the final product from what you initially imagined for the story?
The story is fundamentally the same – in terms of the shape of what happens to the band, Liliana’s journey, and the main characters of Liliana, Carter and Sam. The main difference is that the characters were younger than I initially imagined, but I actually think it works better this way – it raises the stakes and heightens the emotions to have characters who are just gaining their independence for the first time, falling in love for the first time, still feeling their way. So I’m really pleased with that change, even if it’s not what I initially envisaged.
STARS LIKE US is an own voices queer story, and it was wonderful for me personally to see a bisexual character lead this story. What does representation in YA mean to you, and what was the process of writing Liliana’s sexual identity like?
Thank you! That’s so awesome of you to say. I mean, how long have you got? What I really wanted to do with the story was have a bisexual main character whose sexuality was not the fundamental story. It’s not a coming-out story. For most of us, our sexuality is one element of who we are, and not necessarily the defining one. Representation in YA is incredibly important and we still have a really long way to go, although we’ve also come a long way. When I was growing up, there was zero representation. I remember when one of the characters on Dawson’s Creek came out and it was so chaste but was kind of heralded as a huge moment. Then when I got to uni, we all devoured The L Word, even though by today’s standards that show is kind of problematic. The thought that a teenager might read my book and see themselves represented in Liliana or any of the other characters makes me feel a bit teary, to be honest. I wish we’d had the own voices movement when I was a teenager.
Hello!! My name is Tessa, and I'm a 20 year old bookseller and blogger from Sydney Australia. I love queer YA, Schitt's Creek, and pizza scrolls.