Award-winning Australian middle-grade and young adult author Shivaun Plozza returns, just in time for summer reading season, with The Worst Perfect Moment (Holiday House, May 14). After 16-year-old Tegan is hit by a car while riding her bike, she wakes up in the afterlife. Specifically, a replica of the Marybelle Motor Lodge, a third-rate New Jersey motel where she spent a miserable weekend with her dad and little sister after her mom left the family. Zelda, an infuriatingly stubborn angel, insists this is Tegan’s personal heaven, the place where she was happiest. Do they make mistakes in heaven? And what will become of the growing attraction between Tegan and Zelda? This insightful, thoroughly readable work—hilarious and heartbreaking, grounded in life’s mundanities and deeply profound—takes readers on a journey of emotional transformation. Plozza spoke with us over Zoom from her home in Victoria, Australia; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How does your work as a freelance book editor affect your writing?

It’s a mix, both a pro and a con. I remember distinctly when I trained to be an editor, just how much my understanding of craft grew. I studied how to write at uni, I did a master’s in creative writing years ago, but most of what I’ve learned about writing was through editing and manuscript assessing—that feeling of, Oh, that’s why that doesn’t work—and then being able to understand that in my own writing. But then, I’ve noticed, over the years, that that part of my brain comes in too early in the writing process; personally, I need a fair amount of time to be creative, not worrying about whether or not it’s working, just gathering ideas and seeing what directions things can go in. So that’s my “no.” One battle these days: to say it’s OK to have that messy, creative start to a project. But overall, I would say that consciously thinking about craft is a good thing, and one of the best ways is by looking at other people’s work, whichever way, shape, or form that that takes.

What was it like writing your first book set in the U.S.?

I had this vision of setting a story almost entirely within a Doo Wop motel, and [they’re] specific to the U.S. and mostly synonymous with the Wildwoods [in New Jersey]. If I hadn’t already had those previous contemporary [YA] novels, which were set in Australia and then translated for U.S. release later on, I wouldn’t have understood the subtle differences. Frankie was my first experience; I thought we’d only change the spellings. I didn’t realize there are so many different phrases and ideas and words that just didn’t translate. It’s more than just taking the “u” out of colour. I’ve picked up a few things from consuming American media, and having American friends, and reading American books, and research. My agent is American, so that helps, and [Holiday House is] an American publisher, so the editor is American. Hopefully I’ve got it mostly right.

What did you find so compelling about the motel setting?

I know the idea of liminal spaces is overused, but it feels like no matter how wonderful a motel possibly is, something’s going on underneath the surface, and there’s so much possibility with a story set in that kind of space. Hotels in general I find fascinating: They’re transient in nature, and the more dingy they are, the more interesting stories there are to tell about who’s been there and the lives they’ve lived. I think of setting very much as a character, so I naturally gravitate toward spaces that are ripe for that kind of treatment. Doo Wop motels are just fascinating—beautiful, beautiful architecture but with that dark twist to them.

The heaven you created is certainly immersive and evocative. Did you plan the worldbuilding in advance or did it emerge organically?

I made a conscious decision to bring creativity into my life that’s not connected to my job, so I began painting again. I realized that the way that I paint is the same way that I write: I like that little section there, so I might repeat it over here, and then slowly it forms over layers and layers. And I do that with writing as well. I think this is the influence of Douglas Adams [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy], who’s one of my absolute favorite writers; I think he’s just brilliant. I love the little throwaway comments and lines and details [in his work]—and discovering later on that they’re not so throwaway after all. I’m changing things constantly, and that’s pretty much how heaven came to be. As one little detail appears, you tease it out, and eventually you’ve got this world—it arrives how it arrives, and it works.

One element I loved—and that I think of as a sort of hallmark of your YA books—is that you show how life’s a constant jumble of contradictory emotions. Given the premise of the story, I didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did.

One of the key things that I always have to work consciously on is drawing out that emotional arc and making sure that my characters feel emotions, because I tend to tamp them down. The writers that I love most often have that wonderful balance of humor and heartbreak—it’s just recognition that that’s what life is actually like. There are funny moments in the middle of tragedy, and there’s tragedy in the middle of the lighthearted moments. I’ve always been a champion of the idea that humor is such a deep way to approach seeing and reacting to the world, and I don’t think that it gets enough credit. We often applaud deeply tragic and serious artwork but, for me, being able to make someone laugh—especially when my character is dead—I think that’s such a wonderful thing. So much understanding can come through humor; you can laugh your way to understanding who you are in the world. Also, particularly with writing for young people, I’m always conscious of trying to offer a little bit of hope and humor, because their lives are hard enough.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I was very interested in the idea of What is happiness? It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time, that question of, Am I happy? Am I not making the most of life? Those sorts of questions are always in my mind, especially as someone who has an anxiety disorder. How do you identify when you’re happy? We all think of happiness as a big thing—pure happiness and bliss—and forget about the tiny moments. It’s this complex idea, and trying to strive for this big, ultimate happiness is an impossible journey, and it’s probably going to make you more unhappy. I’d love for my readers not to put too much pressure on themselves to attain this big happiness that probably doesn’t even exist—to take a bit more pleasure in friendships and families and the little moments in life.

Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.