Tag Archives: Sara Foster

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.

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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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Reasons to love a novel: discovery

Have you ever finished a novel and realised that you’ve learned something new, or understood something you’d only barely grasped before? I love the capacity of a novel to open my eyes in this way.

There is a qualitative difference, of course, between a writer who imparts information in the service of plot and one who lives inside its world and then makes their experience of that world accessible to readers. You might discover something new from both, but good novelists take you there and make you feel.

Here are three who achieve this.

Sara Foster’s Shallow Breath, a psychological thriller with an animal conservation theme, made me weep more than once. Dolphins, in one way or another, shape the life of Shallow Breath’s main character, Desi—a childhood encounter with a wild dolphin, her work with the performing dolphins at Atlantis Marine Park (long-defunct) in Perth’s northern suburbs, her witnessing of the horror of the Taji dolphin hunt in Japan. I knew nothing of the award-winning documentary film The Cove (2010), which investigates Japan’s dolphin industry (and which is referred to in Shallow Breath), so this was new territory for me.

 imagesAt that point, to Kate’s surprise, another group of people had arrived. ‘The trainers,’ the same girl murmured disgustedly. ‘Hand-selecting the prettiest dolphins for a life of captivity, and turning their backs on the dying cries of the rest. This is where the real money is. This is why they do it. A dolphin to be eaten is worth six hundred dollars. A dolphin to be saved, and petted, and ogled is worth more like a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. They are sent all over the world. A dolphin in a show might well have endured this or something similar to get there. ‘Shame!’ she suddenly turns and screams towards the trainers, and Kate jumps at the rawness in her voice, a mix of pain and anger and devastation. ‘Shame on you all! Shame!

But the group ignores her, and gets to work.

—Sara Foster, Shallow Breath (Bantam, 2012)

The Winter Vault, the stunning second novel of Canadian poet Anne Michaels, is the story of a marriage torn asunder by grief, and also the story of peoples and nations displaced from land and home. It begins with the drowning of land to dam the Nile in the 1960s—a history I was aware of only vaguely, and only in the sense of being aware of a fact, something I might have read in an encyclopaedia. The Winter Vault, as well as teaching me more about this history, gave me cause to imagine what it might feel like to see one’s birthplace literally disappear.

4682252Before the building of the High Dam at Aswan in the 1960s, a small dam was constructed, and its height was raised twice—ten, then twenty years later, the villages of lower Nubia, the fertile islands, and the date forests were drowned. Each time, the villagers moved to higher ground to rebuild. And so began the labour migration of Nubian men to Cairo, Khartoum, London. The women, with their long, loosely woven black gargaras trailing in the sand, erasing their footprints, took over the harvesting and marketing of the crops. They pollinated the date palms, cared for their family’s property, and tended the livestock. Men returned from the city to be married, to attend funerals, to claim their share of the harvest. And some returned in 1964 to join their families when, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cement and steel, and millions of rivets, a lake was built in the desert. Nubia in its entirety—one hundred and twenty thousand villagers, their homes, land, and meticulously tended ancient groves, and many hundreds of archaeological sites—vanished. Even a river can drown; vanished too, under the waters of Lake Nasser, was the Nubians’ river, their Nile, which had flowed through every ritual of their daily life, had guided their philosophical thought, and had blessed the birth of every Nubian child for more than five thousand years.

—Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (Bloomsbury, 2009)

As a writer, I have always been interested in obsession and addiction, and in the course of research I’ve read a lot about various disorders such as bulimia and cutting. However, until I read Dianne Touchell’s young-adult novel Creepy & Maud (recently shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year for older readers), I had never heard of trichotillomania.

E-9781921888953_AMAZONUKKINDLE … it’s Maud’s hair pulling that I love the most. Her fingers are thin and white and her hair quite wiry. I know I’m supposed to say something like: ‘and her hair is spun like gold ablaze in the lamplight with an incendiary burnish.’ But most days it really looks like it could do with a good brush. She winds lengths of her hair around one finger (usually an index or middle finger) and then pulls quite hard, letting the hair slide down and off the finger in a smooth ringlet. I can feel my own scalp tingling, just thinking about it. Sometimes she pulls really hard, and thick strands come away in her fingers and she flaps her hands wildly as if they are covered in cobweb. I find myself breathing through my mouth, watching her.

It’s called trichotillomania. I didn’t know that at first. It wasn’t until I noticed her pulling all her hair that I did some research. And I do mean all. At first I got really excited when she slipped a hand inside her knickers. I’ve never seen a girl do that before. But it didn’t take me long to realise there wasn’t a lot of pleasure involved, just concentration. And that same hand flapping. Well, I guess she’ll never have to wax. Once I watched her sitting in front of her mirror, tears streaming down her face, as she pulled out her eyelashes.

—Dianne Touchell, Creepy & Maud (Fremantle Press, 2012)

The novel as encyclopaedia? Of course not. And I’m certainly not making claims for fiction as superior to history. But in reading a novel, in becoming immersed in its world and the lives of its characters, we can also discover something new by default, and for me it’s another reason to love it.

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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:

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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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