Tag Archives: Annabel Smith

Writers ask writers: books that changed my life

hannah richellIt’s a pleasure to welcome Hannah Richell, author of Secrets of the Tides and the recently released The Shadow Year, as our guest in this month’s Writers Ask Writers series. Great to have you with us, Hannah!

Our question is: What are the books that have changed your life? I’ve really had to think about this because I suspect every book you read changes your life, in the same way that every day you live changes your life—imperceptibly, infinitesimally, incrementally. But with some books—as with some days—the impact is more profound, although it might only be with hindsight that you realise this.

It’s large, this latter category, so I’ve limited myself to an eclectic group of four—two that helped confirm me as a lifelong reader and two that, in surprising ways (considering they are non-fiction), affected the kind of writer I would become:

md4201611800Enid Blyton’s exotic school series

Exotic? Well, to a schoolgirl in Western Australia, the world of boarding schools was exotic. And this world was unfolded, year by year, in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s series in which girls played mystifying games like lacrosse and had midnight feasts and learned French (there was always a Mam’zelle), and there had to be something almost mystically wise, inviolably good, about the individual destined to scale the heights to become Head Girl. This was my first experience of narrative compulsion—I was avid for the next book, and the next, to find out what would happen to characters whose lives I had become invested in. Imagine it: a series set in a school with a set of characters who grow with each book; a school peopled with quirky teachers and a saintly but twinkly eyed, much revered headmistress; boarders of all kinds with faults to overcome and talents to develop; a place where lifelong friendships are formed; where games are played and lessons learned. Sounding familiar? I’ve always thought the Harry Potter series owes a debt to these early models.

1298405-3263547853-lLittle Women (1868)

Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War era story of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy is the first book I loved so much that I re-read it until the pages wore away. I responded to its story of love, family, friendship; its internal storytelling (there’s so much reading or acting out or writing of stories); its coming-of-age struggles; its grave, moving handling of death; its gentle humour and honouring of the joy to be found in ordinary things. The writer character, Jo, probably inspired generations of girls to write, but I always found Amy more interesting—Amy the artist, flawed, honest, kind, much maligned as trivial and shallow (I always knew she was anything but).

DSCN3407Biological Science: The Web of Life (1973)

A high school textbook? On science? Those who know me might find this hard to credit, but I loved this book because (although I couldn’t have articulated this back in high school) it was my introduction to ideas about the environment, the body, genetics, evolution—ideas that continue to interest me and find their way into my writing. I also hated this book because I had to read it, and learn it, and regurgitate it for examiners; I can still recite kingdom–phylum–class–order–family–genus–species (the order of biological classification) in the same way that I can recite aus–bei–mit–von–nach–zu–gegenüber–ausser–seit–entgegen (German prepositions that take the dative case). DSCN3406I’m so glad that love trumped hate and I kept this well-worn, much annotated, falling-to-bits copy. And the last time I opened it I found a few brittle flowers pressed between the pages.

100_5886The People of Perth (1979)

Tom Stannage’s social history of my own city—personally significant also because it was my first paid proofreading assignment—introduced me to a new kind of writing about the past, anchored not in dates and figures but in people’s lives. And not royalty or statesmen or founding fathers, not just those elevated by wealth or political prominence, by race or gender or class—but convicts and servants, women from all walks of life, Aboriginal people, children and the elderly, dissidents and artists, criminals and drunkards.  In 1979, the year of the state’s sequi-centenary, this book was a revelation. I’ve returned to it many times in the course of research, and this piece by S. A. Jones suggests its influence on me as a writer.

I could equally have included—for different reasons—Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, the entire Agatha Christie catalogue, My Place by Sally Morgan, Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson, everything Gail Jones has written …

What are the books that have changed your life? It’s interesting to see the diversity of titles, plus a couple of shared favourites, among the Writers Ask Writers group.

Hannah Richell: Inside were the Greek Myths, stories of brutal gods and powerful goddesses, fallible mortals and amazing, mystical creatures. They were fairy tales on steroids, filled with the sort of racy content that boggled my young brain and left a lasting impression.—Read more here

Dawn Barker: [We Need to Talk about Kevin] was the book that has had the biggest influence on my own writing career, because this is the book that made me realise that I could write Fractured … as soon as I started reading it, I had a physical reaction: my heart sped up, my skin tingled.—Read more here

Emma Chapman: I just couldn’t get enough of [The Magic Faraway Tree]: the endless possibilities of the worlds at the top of the tree, the whimsical characters. It’s the first time I remember getting lost in a book.—Read more here

Sara Foster: [In The Elephant Whisperer] I got so much from Lawrence Anthony’s balanced reflections on what it is possible for humans to achieve, how we can know so much yet understand so little, and how our blind spots are failing us.—Read more here

Natasha Lester: [Little Women] inspired me so much that it kickstarted the idea for the book I’m currently working on and I was very lucky to visit Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord just last week.—Read more here

Annabel Smith: I read Don DeLillo’s White Noise in my second year of university, aged twenty or so. It was the first time I had encountered what appeared on the surface to be a book about nothing—the minutiae of one somewhat dysfunctional family’s life—but turned out to be a book about EVERYTHING.—Read more here

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Writers ask writers: dealing with discouragement

This month, the question posed in our Writers Ask Writers blog series came from one of Annabel Smith’s readers: How do you maintain interest in your project when you’re discouraged?

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Becoming discouraged during the course of writing can happen for various reasons. Sometimes, for me, it’s because the editor who sits on my shoulder, who has to be levered off with whatever sharp stick I can find, refuses to go and won’t be silenced, and the air is filled with waspish, deflating questions like So what?

Discouragement is likely to result in despair and gloom. General prickliness in response to  everyday questions. Sometimes a kind of creative paralysis. Extreme anxiety. But with the exception of one abandoned novel many years ago, it hasn’t resulted in a loss of interest.

One of the reasons I did lose interest in that long abandoned novel is that, as a neophyte knowing nothing, I read everything, and everything seemed to suggest you needed things like a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, and a 20-page back-story for every character, and a clear vision of what you were wanting to say before you started. Well, I tried that, and I lost everything: momentum, enthusiasm, motivation.

It wasn’t until I went to a workshop in 2000 presented by Australian novelist Sue Woolfe that I discovered that there are many ways to write a novel. The workshop was attended by several experienced writers I admired and they seemed to be grappling with the same things that I was. Sue Woolfe’s startling proposition, a proposition that she and Kate Grenville also put forward in their edited collection Making stories: how ten Australian novels were written, was that it was OK not to plan, not to know. That in fact, not planning and not knowing could be a process in itself. I discovered there were many novelists who worked this way, finding their way as they went, through the writing itself, drawing on that well of ideas, research, thinking and wondering that compelled them to begin, carrying (to appropriate Adrienne Rich’s metaphor in ‘Diving into the wreck’) a knife, a camera, a book of myths. And so evolved the sketchy, spidery process I now use.

But …

This way of working has its difficulties.

It is not certain, and it is not comfortable. And it is another of the reasons why discouragement can set in.

I’m still working out what is the best way, for me, of dealing with this—I try different strategies, and the way forward often seems to lie in the space between persevering and allowing time for sifting and settling. But I do have a few mantras that help me keep the faith:

‘There is no way to be a writer and be comfortable.’—Eva Sallis (Hornung),  Text, 3 (2), 1999

‘Trust that the story is there.’—author unknown

‘Mastery [of the art of writing] is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather.’—John Gardner, The Art of Fiction (2001)

As for comfort along the way, I put my faith in this:

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and this:

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To read how my writer friends deal with discouragement, click on the links below. It’s reassuring to know you’re not the only one to run into a brick wall from time to time! If you have some strategies that work for you, I’d love to hear about them.

Dawn Barker: That is the reason I write: when I feel like the project is going nowhere, something happens that starts it all again: the thrill, the excitement when you know that you can write something that might just work.—Read more here

Emma Chapman: … it’s easy, after coming through a difficult patch, to look back on it and be glad it happened. To see the positive with hindsight. But it’s not so easy when you are in the thick of one, unable to see the other end.—Read more here

Sara Foster: One of the most valuable things I’ve learned so far is not to fear discouragement when I am writing. A stumbling block might contain a valuable lesson … —Read more here

Natasha Lester: A residency is a wonderful boost. It made me feel that the work must have something good in it to have been selected above all the other submissions, and it gave me a whole week of tranquil and focussed writing time …— Read more here

Annabel Smith: … some years ago I became strangely addicted to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Remember the lifelines? Well, my husband, Jonathan Franzen and Ferris Bueller have all provided potential solutions to my writing dilemmas; they’ve been my lifelines.— Read more here

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Writers ask writers: writing space

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This month’s question in the Writers Ask Writers blog series is: Where do you write? Here’s my response, and you can scroll down to find links to those from my writer friends Dawn Barker, Emma Chapman, Sara Foster, Natasha Lester and Annabel Smith.

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DSCN3110My house was built as a shop (1928), and I write in a backyard studio that was once the storeroom for the shop. It’s a comfortable, messy, unglamorous space filled with books and maps, postcards and photographs, archive boxes and filing cabinets and hundreds of manila folders. I’m sorry to say that the paperless office is a concept unknown around here!

I love my studio, and it’s a bonus that the only rush-hour traffic I ever encounter on the way there is a few sleepy doves.

But much of my just-released novel Elemental was written in other places.

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Writing desk at Kelly’s Cottage

As the recipient of writing residencies/fellowships, I’ve spent time at Kelly’s Cottage, at the top of Kelly’s Steps in Salamanca, Hobart, overlooking Mt Wellington; Hawthornden Castle in Midlothian (south of Edinburgh) in a snow-bound Scottish winter; and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, a glorious stately home in County Monaghan in Ireland, populated by writers, artists, sculptors, dancers, musicians and filmmakers.

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Hawthornden Castle; the top left dormer window was my attic room

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You need gloves at Hawthornden in winter!

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At the Tyrone Guthrie Centre

If you look closely at the photos, you might notice that I carried around with me the same images—dog-eared photocopies of photos, found in old books, of the herring girls I was writing about.

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In the Morning Room, my space at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. Photo by Maria Maier

Place—landscape, people, history—affects me deeply as a person and as a writer, although there is often a gap of years before I can see a direct relationship between a place I’ve been and its trace in my writing. But I know that the atmospheric grey skies of Tasmania, Scotland and Ireland all found their way into my imagination, and into Elemental.

DSCN1365

At Ledig House

This last photo (right) was taken in late 2012 at Ledig House, in upstate New York. No herring girls this time—I was (and still am) working on a new project, set in Paris.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to write in these beautiful places (thanks to the Tasmanian Writers Centre, Mrs Drue Heinz, the Australia Council and Writers Omi), and to have my own place as a continuing inspiration.

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Click on the links to read what my writer friends had to say:

Annabel Smith: With a school-aged child, my writing day is short. I don’t want to waste even half an hour travelling to a library. And I am well-trained by now to ignore the siren song of bed-making, breakfast dishes, and piles of washing. So I write from home. I have a nice big desk, sandwiched between two ubiquitous Expedit shelving units from Ikea.—Read more here

Natasha Lester: I also have one entire wall covered in bookshelves because I love sharing my space with all these wonderful words. How can I not aspire to greatness when I have Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and Margaret Atwood sitting just within reach? —Read more here

Sara Foster: I have fantasies about a studio—a room of my own, with wall-to-wall bookcases, and inspirational images and quotes all over the walls. However, while I’m working on that I’ve found that good things can come out of being nomadic—sometimes my location, the weather, or something I witness can really influence a scene.—Read more here

Emma Chapman: Sitting at the same desk all day can make me go a bit crazy. If I feel like that, I take a walk around Lake Monger, or sit on our small terrace and read an unrelated novel. I also like to work in cafes in my local area, just to get me out and about. Baking with music on really loud also helps me to get back in the zone.—Read more here

Dawn Barker: It helps to have a dedicated writing space at home that I can associate purely with writing. Before I had an office, I’d write at the kitchen table, or with my laptop on my knees in bed, but I like the feeling now of entering a new physical and emotional space when I sit down at my desk.—Read more here

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Twelve-book giveaway!

UPDATE: Monday 6 May 2013. The competition has now closed. Congratulations to winner Jess Fitzpatrick. Happy reading, Jess!

If you live in Australia or the UK, here’s a chance to win a pack of TWELVE books (value over AUD$300) from the ‘Writers Ask Writers’ group. Just go to the Elemental Facebook page and click on the blue BOOK GIVEAWAY tab, top right.

The titles you could win are:

How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman

Fractured by Dawn Barker

If I Should Lose You and What Is Left Over, After by Natasha Lester

Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and A New Map of the Universe by Annabel Smith

Shallow Breath, Beneath the Shadows and Come Back to Me by Sara Foster

and mine: the newly released Elemental, Inherited and The Sinkings

Good luck!

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Writers ask writers: the writing process

PWFC author collageI’m delighted to be taking part in this new blog series, Writers Ask Writers, a collaboration with five other novelists based in Western Australia:

fractured coverhowtobeagoodwife coverimages9781921888786_IfIShouldLoseYou9781922089144_WHISKYCHARLIEFOXTROT_WEB

Each month we’ll be posing to the group one of the questions most asked by readers. This month’s question is: What is your writing process? Here’s my response.

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I’ve written two novels. I’ve published these and a collection of short fiction. I’m well into a fourth project consisting of two novellas. I should have a writing process, right? Hmm.

I suppose I do. There are, after all, stages that all writers go through—conception, dreaming, research, drafting, tinkering, review, editing—and the many repetitions of these last stages, however many are needed (so many are needed). But the way this happens feels too nebulous to be called a process. Process seems to imply a series of steps—linear, organised, focused. What I do is more spidery than that. And it’s been different for each work, although there are threads common to all.

For Elemental, I began with a few words on scraps of paper* and a rough idea of where to begin researching. Research is an especially spidery activity: throwing spinnerets far into the breeze, following them as far as they’ll go, or as far as you want to take them, seeing what sticks, and where, finding bridges between strands, filling in, unpicking, abandoning, rebuilding.

I LOVE it!

DSCN3038Research took me to the north-east coast of Scotland, the Shetland Islands and Great Yarmouth; to archives, libraries and museums, cemeteries, a fish factory, a cliff alive with puffins, a preserved but-and-ben (a type of cottage) with peat smouldering in the fireplace. I clambered over rocks to plunge my hands into the North Sea, to feel for myself how cold it was. I was blown along the seafront of Great Yarmouth and now understand why nobody goes there in winter.

I spoke with (among many other people) a former Shetlands herring girl; a woman who breeds butterflies; and the wonderful people at Royal Perth Hospital’s Burns Unit headed by Professor Fiona Wood, world pioneers in burns treatment. It always humbles me that sane, busy people are so generous and patient and willing to answer a writer’s questions.

The research gave me the precious gift of a few key images** that I sensed were important; that they would serve as structural markers along the way. It also made me realise what should have been obvious all along: that this novel was going to be dealing thematically with some ideas I’d been thinking about for a very long time: heroism, sacrifice, metamorphosis.

DSCN3036By this time I knew it would be a novel in four parts: Water, Air, Earth and Fire. I had a pattern in my mind, too, but I didn’t commit it to paper for a while. When I did, it was this messy thing—but it was the closest thing I ever came to having a written plan.

The writing itself? Well, it was/is one of the most solitary, insular activities imaginable, involving long periods of apparent inactivity unless you count staring as an activity, more talking aloud to yourself—and answering—than can surely be good for anyone, countless cups of tea, and millions of keystrokes. If you were to analyse the latter, I’m positive you’d find the delete key to be the most used of all.

I try—especially when I’m writing the first draft—to carve out blocks of time for writing so I can achieve and sustain momentum. But often I have to fit it into and around everything else. It’s a long process—there, that word has its uses after all.

elemental_COVERI began researching Elemental in 2007, writing in 2009, and completed a first draft in 2011, although I had edited and redrafted each part several times by then. It was finally ready for submission to my publisher in 2012.

The (untitled) project I’m working on now is following a similar pattern of discovery and evolution (how’s that for a lofty definition of my messy process!). I have a scrappy looking crayon sketch that’s a lot less complicated than the one above. I have some key images. I have a head full of ideas and voices and about a hundred pages of typescript. I’m on my way.

* The words were fishermen, butterflies and consequences.

** One of them became part of the final scene.

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And now over to my writer friends.

Annabel Smith: ‘I am not a plotter. I carry lots of ideas around in my head and occasionally two of these ideas collide and sparks fly; that’s when I know I’ve got the seed for a book.’—Read more here

Natasha Lester: ‘I usually find starting a book to be the hardest thing; catching the voice of the main character can be a little like scooping sand with a net. But not this time.’—Read more here

Sara Foster: ‘I usually hold a story in my head for quite a long time without making any formal attempt to write it down. During this time I’m getting to know the different characters, looking at the plot, and basically seeing if this concept is strong enough to gain a hold on me.’—Read more here

Emma Chapman: ‘The hardest thing about writing is keeping going when it seems you are at it alone, or that nothing will ever come of it.’—Read more here

Dawn Barker: ‘I tend to write initially in a linear, temporal fashion—this way I know each character’s emotional journey, but that’s not necessarily the best way to tell the story.’—Read more here

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The next big thing

Last month Annabel Smith, author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (Fremantle Press), tagged me in the latest book meme, immodestly titled ‘The next big thing’, which asks writers to answer ten questions about their forthcoming work. (You can read Annabel’s responses about her exciting work-in-progress, a multimedia novel called The Ark, here.) So here goes.

1. What is the working title of your current work-in-progress/next book?elemental_COVER

Elemental

2. Where did the idea come from?

Different sources—some I’d been thinking about for a long time and some that sprang from research. I don’t keep journals but I accumulate ideas, often just words, on scraps of paper in a folder. Elemental came, in a roundabout way, from three of these scrap words—‘fishermen’, ‘consequences’, ‘butterflies’—and from my fascination with things like memory, inheritance, generativity, history, ethics, families.

3. What genre does your book fall into?

Literary fiction—three parts historical and one part contemporary.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Well, the lead role of Meggie would need several actors as we see her from childhood through to her forties, and then as an elderly woman. And the actor would need to manage a Doric accent (the rich dialect of north-east Scotland), with flourishes of Shetland and Australian thrown in. I don’t want much, do I! Maybe Cate Blanchett or Miranda Otto? (I can dream!)  I don’t see either of them as ‘my’ Meggie, the one in my head, the one I think I’ve written, but that would not matter as long as the actor caught the heart of the character. Film is its own art.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Meggie Tulloch is writing to her granddaughter—a story of a tiny fishing village in north-east Scotland at the turn of the twentieth century, of the wild, witchy sea that gives and takes, of the herring girls who escaped the lives mapped out for them from birth, of women’s work and women’s friendship, of a love that carries Meggie across the world to Australia, of the secrets she has spent a lifetime trying to forget.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will be published by UWA Publishing in May 2013.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?

I began the research in 2007 and finished the first draft just after midnight on 22 May 2011, at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland. I was so elated that I crept down to the kitchen to celebrate with leftover cake, accidentally scaring the hell out of German artist Maria Maier. When Maria recovered, she and I shared the cake and toasted the draft with tea.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t think writers are always the best people to judge these things—I know I’m not—so this is more a wish list on my part: The Shipping News by Annie Proulx; ‘In the Machine’, part 1 of Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham; Possession by A. S. Byatt.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Mostly covered in #2. But I have an enduring interest in exploring the past and how it affects the present.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Part of the story highlights the history of the herring girls—gutters—who were contracted by curing companies to travel in teams around the north-western islands of Scotland, up to the Shetlands, then down the north-east Scottish coast to East Anglia, following the shoals for nine months of the year. The more I read about the phenomenal skill and speed of these women, the more I admired them and wanted to know more. It’s reported—in so many disparate sources that it’s hard to doubt the veracity of the accounts—that many of them could gut and grade fifty, sixty, up to seventy herring a minute!

And now I’m tagging four other writers in the hope that they will tell us about their next big thing: Dianne Touchell, Magdalena Ball, Meg McKinlay, Denise Deegan.

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