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Bright breezy book cover showing torsos of two young men, illustrated in happy bright blue. Beside the cover, photo of a smiling woman wearing glasses, illustration of a book open in front of her.
H.S. Valley and her debut, prize-winning novel (Photo: Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksFebruary 8, 2022

Think Hogwarts, but closer to Westport: introducing a new queer YA rom-com

Bright breezy book cover showing torsos of two young men, illustrated in happy bright blue. Beside the cover, photo of a smiling woman wearing glasses, illustration of a book open in front of her.
H.S. Valley and her debut, prize-winning novel (Photo: Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)

Sam Brooks Zooms with HS Valley, the Auckland writer who won a prestigious award for her novel about a school of magic under Fox Glacier. 

I can’t remember the last time an opening paragraph caught me – hook, line and sinker, even a little bit of a wink – like Tim Te Maro and the Subterranean Heartsick Blues.

To wit: “You’d think a place like Fox Glacier High School for the Magically Adept – which has taught magic for decades – might’ve found a way to heat its super-secret underground compound, or at least the sick bay. Especially since it’s under a river of ice.”

It’s an opening that is, as every opening should be, reflective of the novel that follows it. It’s very matter-of-fact – this is not just a world where magic exists, but is studied and exists quite casually. It uses the words “super-secret underground compound” equally as casually. Finally, there’s that last sentence, a little knowing nudge.

It is also an opening that is reflective of its author, HS Valley (a pseudonym, but the H is real), who walked away with the 2020 Ampersand Prize, Australia and New Zealand’s premiere award for unpublished writers of middle-grade and young adult fiction. The judges called her book “charming and hilarious … [it was] selected from a record number of submissions, and was instantly beloved by the team”.

Valley, who is a high school teacher and has a bachelor’s degree in design – her website states she is using both to teach teenagers how to have good taste – comes from Tāmaki Makaurau and now lives in the Waitākere Ranges.

When I spoke to her over Zoom, Valley was a matter-of-fact, casual presence, but one who seemed quietly, confidently delighted in the world she’d created, even as her dog created pure chaos around her.

Selfie of a young woman in a glorious room full of plants and colour.
Valley doesn’t write at a desk – she has a blue velvet couch and bajillions of plants (Photo: Supplied)

The premise sounds hard won: Tim Te Maro and Elliott Parker, two students in their final year at Fox Glacier High School for the Magically Adept (think Hogwarts, but closer to Westport), have never gotten along. However, when they both get dumped the night before the big egg-baby assignment, they have to choose: join forces, or work with their exes. What follows is a fun, low-stakes (but high-investment) romp through the brains of lovelorn, hormone-driven teenagers, and the delightful array of queer people that populate their school and by proxy their world.

“It was born of my love of tropes and Draco Malfoy,” says Valley, in what would turn out to be a characteristically trademark brief, effective response. “I wanted to use magic, because I like magic and everybody needs a bit of escapism.

“I figured if there was magic in New Zealand, everybody would be real cash [casual] about it. It’s New Zealand – even if people had it, they’d be like ‘yeah whatever’ and if they didn’t have it, they’d be like ‘yeah but it’s not that cool’.”

The observation comes from Valley’s time as a high school teacher. She used her “in-depth knowledge on how annoying teenagers are” and combined it with our national inability to get excited about things that are sort of, objectively, very cool. 

She explains that no matter how cool the thing is that you want to get students to do, they’ll still whinge about it. “I always found a certain franchise quite strange,” she says with a verbal wink. “Nobody was acting like a teenager. Especially the main three in that particular brand. If you’ve seen a bunch of teenagers try something and suck at it and try again and again but still suck, they don’t want to do it any more. I found it really unrealistic that there was no one there who was like, ‘No, I suck as a student. Why would I want to turn a needle into a matchstick? This is dumb.’”

That intimate knowledge of teenagers rings true throughout Valley’s novel. These aren’t the sort of teenagers that often show up in such novels – essentially adults wearing teenage clothes and talking like insufferable postgrads – they’re teenagers who are delightfully, frustratingly human. They’re brash, rude, and believably inconsistent with their thoughts and feelings.

What rings equally true is Valley’s sense of place, even a place that’s as silly-sounding as the Fox Glacier School for the Magically Adept. Despite the drama that comes along with teen romance, especially queer teen romance, the book is a comforting affair. Of that choice, she says, “I had to spend months inside that world. I’m like, ‘why the fuck would I want to write something miserable and make myself cry?’”

When asked why her book is specifically a queer romance novel, Valley’s response is equally as direct. “I don’t know anything about straight romance and what I do know is boring. I don’t like it. It didn’t occur to me to pretend to be straight and write something.”

As light and fluffy as the premise may seem, there’s a real need for work like this. “If I was a 14 or 15-year-old and I picked this up off the shelf I wouldn’t quite know how to feel. These sorts of novels weren’t readily available when I was that age.”

Valley and I aren’t far apart in age, and I can remember scanning the bookshelves looking for anything that might have a gay character. More often than not, I’d end up skipping straight past the YA and going to the adult section. It’s not that I necessarily regret reading The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst at 15, but if you’re a young queer person, it might not be the best introduction to that realm of literature.

Scrapbook open showing double spread of images – two teenage boys relaxing in bed, birds, huge eerie trees and tunnels.
A mood board by fan Alice Barthelemy, an artist Valley met on Instagram (Photo: Supplied)

As debuts go, Valley’s is an auspicious one, but the transition from “person who reads books”, as she puts it, to “accidentally getting published” has been a tricky one for her to navigate. “Coming to terms emotionally with allowing whoever wanted to be in my own little brain world with the people I’d made was weird and odd.” 

Despite that, she hinted at another book in the pipeline – possibly a sequel – with the same kind of wink that permeates the rest of the novel. It doesn’t come up in the conversation, but there’s the prevailing feeling that she knows there’s franchise potential there, and it’s hard to disagree with that.

Someone explained to her that the book’s success, and people’s response to it, wasn’t about her, though. They used the metaphor of a cupcake. “If you bake something and sell it, and someone had a really religious experience with that cupcake, because of the perfect ratio of cake to icing or whatever, you wouldn’t take that personally.

“That’s true. I would be happy for them. They liked my cupcake. It’s nice to remember that.”

Tim Te Maro and the Subterranean Heartsick Blues, by HS Valley (Hardie Grant, $19.99), is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. 

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