Mary Woodbury (pen, Clara Hume and social media manager for the League’s Twitter account) talks to Mark Ballabon about his YA novel Home: My Life in the Universe (released on Earth Day, April 22, 2022).
Mary: What is your background, and what led you to writing Home?
Mark: I’ve always had a great love of philosophy and the big questions about life on earth. It began when I was 8 years old and it led me to my first big question, Why is the human on Earth? Many years later, I had a book published entirely about that question. 14-year-old protagonist Leah has her own big question, which no one can answer.
I also have a love of nature and wildness, and a passion for discovering the natural patterns, geometry and systems in living things – from a flower to a human cell. This has led me to being a strong environmentalist, involved in projects and supporting groups who defend the integrity of the planet’s natural ecosystems and habitats. Leah, who grew up near the great lakes in Killarney, south west Ireland, develops a similar passion for nature.
In the last decade I’ve been involved in a growing number of international projects with youth, and co-founded a youth group (12-17yr olds) who love to explore the big questions about living as well as contemporary issues of our modern culture, relating to body image, bullying, people pleasing and so forth. Through all of these projects, the climate crisis features all the time.
So all of these themes form the foundation for HOME. Yet it was a particular experience in leading an international group of 80 teenagers on a trip to Greenwich, which inspired me to not only write the book, but to develop the main characters. After a meditation and movement session, which I took them through on the hill, right by the observatory, they began asking questions about their lives, their issues, and their hopes for the future, which to me were profoundly moving. I felt I had something to offer them, which became Leah’s story in HOME.
Mary: We recently chatted on Zoom, and you mentioned that some of your earlier reviewers were children and teens. What did you learn from them?
Mark: Humility, I hope! I realised that as much as I tried to empathise with their world, I didn’t really understand it, and I wanted to. So I listened, a lot, took many notes and encouraged them to freely edit my draft manuscripts with a red pen or a finely sharpened pencil! It was actually very liberating when I received feedback such as “I don’t think like that”, or “I don’t speak like that”. After a few years of this, I finally got a piece of feedback from one of the teenage editors, which told me that I was on the right track. It simply said, “Great. It’s working. You’ve written yourself out of the story!”
Mary: What’s happening in Home, and what would you like us to know about it?
Mark: A lot! 14-year-old Leah’s story was inspired by true events and real teenagers.
Beneath the daily noise of social media, clips, memes, and role models, Leah is trying to discover who she is and where she fits in, not only in the world, but in the universe which she sees herself to be part of. While she is affected by the super-competitive culture at school, it doesn’t define her. Initially she becomes a loner, but she doesn’t feel alone. She has a big question, and although no one can answer it, she knows that there is an answer.
In the handwritten prologue from her journal, Leah says, “I’m writing this for anyone whose ever had an experience that no one could explain or asked a big question that no one could answer…” I hope people will relate to Leah’s quest to find herself, to find true friendship and to feel that very special feeling that you are really worth something.
Mary: Your main character, Leah, writes in a journal, so we get to see her perspective of the world, her friends, and her family. This allows the reader to better understand the mind of a younger person and see the world through their eyes. How did you step into that mind?
Mark: I’ve been trying to develop the art of listening for many years. And in the book, Leah’s mentor, Maia shows her the anagram of the word ‘LISTEN’ which is ‘SILENT’. So with the many young people I’ve met, I’ve tried to maintain an internal silence so I can fully listen to what they’re saying, unconditionally. That’s when their deeper thoughts, fears, hopes and aspirations reveal themselves. And it’s those feelings, which imbue each character in their own unique way.
Mary: Climate change, pollution, and other ecological horrors are a part of this story. Can you talk about why it was important for you to bring these issues into the story?
Mark: The climate crisis and climate anxiety are a daily reality for millions of people around the planet and for myself too. But for young people, this is the biggest threat to their future, the biggest threat to their hopes and the biggest threat to their enjoying the beauty of nature, the planet, flora, fauna and natural ecosystems. The conversation about this needs to go deeper as well as more practical, and the clash between climate activist Kayleigh and Leah hopefully offers some original and practical ways of approach.
Anything else you would like to tell audiences who read Home?
My main hope in writing HOME is that it would promote meaningful conversations in schools and homes, between friends and families… not only about the climate, social media, bullying and other contemporary issues, but about finding one’s place in the world, and in the universe.
Are you working on anything else right now?
I’m working on book two in the Trilogy, called DRAGONFLY which is about what it really means to change. Leah’s first love, Sean, will have a big part to play in that!
Find out more about HOME.
Mary Woodbury (pen, Clara Hume) has written the Wild Mountain Series: Back to the Garden (Moon Willow Press, 2018) and, upcoming, The Stolen Child (Dragonfly Publishing, 2022) as well as The Adventures of Finn Wilder’s children’s series, Finn’s Tree Alphabet (Dragonfly Publishing, 2021), with more to come, and Bird Song: A Novella (Dragonfly Publishing, 2020). Mary contributed to the book Tales from the River (Stormbird Press, 2018) and edited the anthology Winds of Change: Short Stories About the Climate, which received kudos from Bill McKibben. She is a graduate of Purdue University and lives in Nova Scotia with her husband and two cats. They maintain a 2-acre property with beehives, over 50 newly planted trees, and much more. You can read more about her at her blog. She runs the site Dragonfly.eco, a place to find meaningful stories about our natural world and humanity’s connection with it.
Mark Ballabon is a philosopher, environmentalist and author who has been teaching and writing about personal and spiritual development for over two decades. He is the author of several non-fiction books, including the acclaimed, ‘Why is The Human on Earth?’ and ‘Courting the Future: Preparing for a Different World’. The latter features a collection of essays that explore the future in a visionary and practical way, including a section of writings on the climate crisis and climate change in the human. ‘Home: My life in the Universe’ will be published on 22nd April 2022.
Mark is an honours graduate from the University of Greenwich and lives in England with his wife. He continues to be actively involved in a variety of international projects with youth groups.