- Guest Author -
Welcome to an interview I recently conducted with a very talented woman. Pauline James has been a chemistry teacher, a lecturer in Educational Psychology and researcher at the Hawthorn Institute of Education, and then the University of Melbourne. Her first novel is called 'Disturbing the Dust'.
Welcome Pauline ...
1. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING JOURNEY.
At times, I’ve found writing immensely pleasurable, at others, extremely frustrating. I was once an academic writer and the switch to writing fiction, a novel called Disturbing the Dust, seemed sometimes an arduous, perhaps fruitless, journey. My writing was too formal, lacking sufficient emotional resonance. But the challenge was too great to resist. Though enjoying writing fiction and studying literature at school, I’d specialised in science (they called people like me ‘all-rounders’ then) and later, educational psychology, taking me then on a different journey.
2. WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A WRITER?
Having retired, I wanted to renew my interest in English language and literature and made writing fiction a retirement project. I would read widely, go to creative writing courses, join a book group and immerse myself in a different field. On a visit to England too, I passed the house where once I’d lived and thought it an ideal setting, if fictionalised, for part of the novel I had in mind.
3. WHAT TYPE OF PREPARATION DO YOU DO FOR A MANUSCRIPT? DO YOU PLAN EVERYTHING FIRST OR JUST SHOOT FROM THE HIP?
I made a general plan of the novel’s plot―what would happen in its four main parts―and a brief sketch of some of the characters. My story was of unresolved injustice and characters struggling with subsequent resentment. I would show post-traumatic stress in two young people of different ages (eight-year-old Jenny and sixteen-year-old Terry) manifested in different ways and then as adults, their journey towards healing through love and friendship. Using ‘themes’ from a personal trauma in my early adult life, I shaped the experience for my two main characters. These themes included: stereotyping, humiliation, not being believed when telling the truth, malicious gossip and an inability to prove my innocence. But then I started writing creatively. Other issues emerged, the plot evolved, characterisation had to deepen, unanticipated problems developed, new characters were needed and others discarded―not very orderly after all. Still, the process worked and, I suspect, in the second novel I hope I’ll write, my planning will proceed in a similar way.
4. WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
I most enjoy the freedom of working at home, not needing now to go out to work. I think it must be hard for writers combining their writing with another career.
5. WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
Perhaps the hardest aspect of writing my novel, as opposed to academic writing, was my uncertainty about it on a number of levels. Was the fiction I’d created believable, were my writing style and choices about what to include and to exclude appropriate? Academic writing, in which I’d presented, interpreted and theorised data, seemed much easier. Those difficulties though were largely overcome when I found a mentor, the playwright Diane Stubbings, who boosted my confidence in what I was doing and, when something wasn’t working, often suggested an alternative approach.
6. WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?
I was a country girl who grew up in an English village, a corner of which is shown in the photograph. Poignantly, that patch of grass is called Stocks Hill (a site for punishment) and this was once my postal address. I studied chemistry and education at Sheffield University, married a fellow student and migrated to Australia after two years in the USA. In Australia, I continued to work as a chemistry teacher, specialised in educational psychology at the University of Queensland and had two children. Having moved from Brisbane to Melbourne, I then became a teacher educator, obtained a PhD at La Trobe University, conducted further research, lectures and administrative duties and later was appointed as a Principal Fellow at the University of Melbourne.
7. WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
I would have to cite my novel, Disturbing the Dust, though my PhD thesis, which won the La Trobe education medal, comes a close second. This explored the process of mature-age, beginning teachers becoming open to new learning through changing some of their personal stories. This gave me extra knowledge, usefully employed in the novel. I was also rather proud of a research project I led, and the report written with my colleagues, Pamela St Leger and Kevin Ward, and area networks throughout Victoria. This project evaluated strategies for helping students at risk of leaving school early. Encouraging young people to stay on in school, through school liaison with TAFE colleges and numerous community organisations, was a cause especially dear to my heart, creating greater opportunities for many young people.
8. WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I am thinking about writing another novel but am no further along than very preliminary planning and research. I’m too preoccupied in promoting Disturbing the Dust, as at my book launch at Readings, Hawthorn, book signings and discussions with book groups.
9. WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
I am always inspired by stories and projects involving issues of social justice, especially psychological responses to injustice, and ways towards healing and improving situations. Educational innovation and scientific breakthroughs remain an abiding interest too and may also be linked to social justice.
10. WHAT GENRE DO YOU WRITE?
I suspect I’ll always write psychological novels involving social issues, such as bullying, stereotyping and scapegoating those who, in some ways, are different from others.
11. DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?
Most importantly, don’t give up. I nearly did. Use negative feedback constructively too. Even if it’s hurtful, or your critic has missed the point, look to discover how aspects of it might be employed to make useful changes (see Q. 12 below). Create something positive out of the negatives.
12. DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
I only once suffered from severe writer’s block. This came after some very hurtful criticism of my writing, in which my critic had totally misinterpreted what I was trying to convey and was scathing in her condemnation. Though I tried to continue, I did nothing useful for several months. At last, though, I decided to change certain aspects of my novel, making misinterpretation virtually impossible. That led to deeper characterisation of several minor characters as well as my main character.
13. DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
Unless I have other commitments, I like to start work in the mornings after breakfast. I rarely force myself though, if I really don’t feel like it. My experience is that doing other things first is useful in keeping me going later, and there are times when I feel inspired in the evening or, on occasion, in the middle of the night. I live alone now and, without family and work commitments, it’s very easy to suit myself.
14. DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
Yes. My favourite writing place is my study, on a comfortable chair in front of my computer, with bookshelves on each side and space for my scraps of paper containing various jottings made at different times. When I visit my adult children and use their computers, I don’t work nearly as effectively, even when alone. Perhaps it’s a matter of feeling safe, enclosed by familiar things I love. That said, I’ve found it useful to have a notebook by my bed, in case I have a sudden insight, easily forgotten by morning. Many a writing problem has been solved this way. I’ve used this strategy for research projects too.
15. WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST JOY IN WRITING?
My greatest joy in writing is in solving problems, such as bringing a wayward sentence under control, or finding that what I want to say is at last being said with economy and elegance after much agonising and repeated failures. Finding a suitable place for essential backstory that hadn’t fitted conveniently before is another example of a challenge met.
16. WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
My favourite author remains Jane Austen for her complex understanding of people, her opposition to social snobbery, her wit and wisdom and her ability to afford immense variety in her characters, within the limitations of her chosen field. She was also a pioneer of free indirect speech, providing access to her characters’ consciousness even while writing in the third person. My novel uses this technique and is written entirely from the perspective of my main character, Jenny. Jane Austen’s books may be read many times over, with always something new to discover. Brilliant.
17. WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?
Many readers have said that, once started, they were ‘riveted’ by Disturbing the Dust and couldn’t put it down. But perhaps the greatest compliment came from Mehreen Ahmed, who wrote: ‘… its universal appeal, honed over many years of learning, is its clarity of writing…’ and ‘…the book’s uniqueness lies in its apt use of powerful and unconventional images unfolding a convincing, robust tale.’
18. WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
Since publication, the worst comment I’ve heard about Disturbing the Dust is that it is ‘quite good’. Perhaps those who dislike it remain silent in my presence.
19. WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
Yes, I’ve drawn indirectly on my own life in two main ways. As mentioned in answer to Q. 3, I drew on ‘themes’ of an experience during my own early adulthood for creating traumatic situations for my two main characters. These were also set within the social and cultural milieu of a house where I lived as a child in that English village (see Q. 2). I was also a chemistry teacher, as is my main character, Jenny; like her, I also migrated to Australia. So my experiences overlap with hers, though in the book, of course, they are fictionalised for the purposes of the plot and characterisation.
20. OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
I love classical music and regularly attend concerts with friends at the Recital Centre in Melbourne, this year following the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Opera is another favourite, and I’ll have attended six of Opera Australia’s performances by the end of 2015. I also have a subscription to the Melbourne Theatre Company, enjoy seeing the latest films, attending art exhibitions (see photograph), playing the piano (wonderful for relieving stress), reading (biographies and fiction mainly), lunching with friends and travelling, especially to the UK, where most of my family, including my son and his wife, live.
21. DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
Yes, I was fortunate in that my publisher appointed a professional editor, Orme Harris, for Disturbing the Dust. She made the process easy, enjoyable and satisfying.
22. DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
My perfect day might involve: solving The Age crosswords over breakfast, polishing some writing (not too arduous), lunching with a friend and seeing a film. On returning home, I might then attend to social media, read The Age, undertake more writing, walk around the block, cook dinner, listen to the news and watch a satisfying TV drama.
23. IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?
For a desert island, I’d choose my late husband, though I’m not sure he’d be any better than I at building a shelter or life raft, or obtaining suitable food. However, when not engaged in the serious business of staying alive in relative comfort, we would be able to laugh together, reminisce about our life experiences, provide accounts of books we’d read (he enjoyed crime fiction), all of which might help us stay sane, until a welcome ship appeared on the horizon.
24. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?
Probably what most people would say, that world leaders need to cooperate more, say, through the United Nations and other world fora, to provide better solutions to the problems of: displaced and persecuted people, climate change, women and minority groups throughout the world, poverty and disadvantage within and outside their own countries, warring factions and terrorist groups, but with less emphasis on bullets and bombs and more on addressing causes of dissatisfaction. It’s much easier to talk, of course, than to formulate detailed, effective policies that leaders can agree are fair and right and won’t lead to their soon being ousted from office for concessions made and advantages set aside.
25. WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
I would like to write at least one other novel, but am expecting my first grandchild in October so, until my son and his wife return to Australia, hope also to visit the UK often in the next few years.
26. WHAT FIVE BOOKS WOULD YOU TAKE TO HEAVEN?
The five books I would like to take to heaven would be Emma, Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, the complete works of Shakespeare, and An Anthology of English, American and Australian poetry, if such a one exists. I could read these over and over again.
27. DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?
Yes, in some ways, I resemble both my main characters in Disturbing the Dust, though they seem to be very different people. When I was suffering from post-traumatic stress, I was very like Terry, my emotions very close to the surface. Later, once recovered, I became, not quite my old self (I had learnt a lot from that experience) but, like Jenny’s, my emotions were generally easier to control. Some of Terry’s and Jenny’s debates about such issues, I have also had with myself.
28. DOES THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FRUSTRATE YOU?
Yes, waiting to hear a yea or a nay from publishers and often not hearing anything from them is hard. I did appreciate certain publishers giving a reasonable timeline, though, for example, ‘If you haven’t heard from us within a month, then assume we’re not interested.’
29. DID YOU EVER THINK OF QUITTING?
I frequently thought of quitting, particularly in the early days when unsure about even considering the idea of publication. After working with my mentor, though, that did change, and I do tend to persist at anything I try to do.
30. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE ‘SUCCESS’ AS A WRITER?
‘Success’, I think, may be experienced on a number of levels. It may be sensed from the small personal achievements described in answer to Q. 15; I also felt successful when I obtained a publisher for my book and when my manuscript had been polished to my satisfaction. I once heard the novelist and playwright Michael Frayn say, when speaking in Melbourne, that ‘success is the ability to survive failure’ (I hope I’m not misquoting him), and think that is a positive way to see it. Now though, success for me has become defined by positive feedback received from readers, and I have received a lot of this. But it’s about sales figures too, and that external factors should matter so much to me is rather unnerving to say the least. But then, who would want to publish my second novel if my first isn’t successful according to those criteria?
31. WHAT SHOULD READERS WALK AWAY FROM YOUR BOOKS KNOWING? HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL?
I should like readers to know from Disturbing the Dust more about the psychological effects of trauma and some avenues for recovery from post-traumatic stress. I would like them to feel empathy for my characters and greater empathy with people’s suffering generally. I’d also like them to develop more insight perhaps into some of the psychosocial dynamics that may lead to misunderstandings, stereotyping and false accusations that sometimes devastate people’s lives. As Carolyn King, one of my book reviewers wrote, ‘Disturbing the Dust provides a powerful insight into the psychological damage wrought by social stereotyping in 1950s England. We follow the life of a young girl as she grapples with past injustices and is compelled to make things right. We are transported back in time and are able to understand the horror this young girl felt when no one would listen to the truth.’ As Cheryl Calwell, another of my reviewers, wrote: ‘I really cared about Jenny. The description of her childhood feelings were so real―at times painfully so …’
32. HOW MUCH THOUGHT GOES INTO DESIGNING A BOOK COVER?
I was fortunate in having Luke Harris, appointed by my publisher, to design my book cover. I was very grateful for that because I am definitely not a visual artist. The cover was suggested and I agreed.
33. WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM?
My ultimate dream is to have produced two, or even three, novels with which I feel satisfied.
34. WRITING IS ONE THING. WHAT ABOUT MARKETING YOU, YOUR BOOKS AND YOUR BRAND? ANY THOUGHTS?
I find marketing very hard and prefer others to sing my praises. I do have a publicist, but much of this work, I understand, inevitably falls to the author to arrange. I was always taught not to speak of my achievements, unless specifically asked, and certainly not to boast, but that’s what I feel I’m now obliged to do.
35. ARE YOUR BOOKS SELF-PUBLISHED?
No, I am fortunate in having a Melbourne publisher, JoJo Publishing, for Disturbing the Dust. This is a small, independent publishing house, specialising, as they say, in ‘books that make a difference.’
36. DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS.
Some words used to describe me as the author of Disturbing the Dust are ‘compassionate’, ‘perceptive’ and ‘analytical’ and I’ll accept those with good grace. I’d also like to add ‘gentle’ but ‘persistent’, though some might say ‘obsessive’ instead.
37. WHAT PISSES YOU OFF MOST?
What pisses me off most is the refusal to listen to evidence or reason, denial, for example, that climate change is happening, or that it’s a product of human behaviour.
38. WHAT IS THE TITLE OF THE LAST BOOK YOU READ? GOOD ONE?
Among books I’ve read recently was The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, a brilliant, shocking and deeply moving book that forms useful background reading for my novel.
39. WHAT WOULD BE THE VERY LAST SENTENCE YOU’D WRITE?
If that were in a letter to my children, I’d like to say: ‘I’ve had a wonderful, even if difficult, life, full of opportunities some might envy, but, beyond everything else, you have been my greatest achievements.’
40. WHAT WOULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER THAN YOU ARE NOW? CARE TO SHARE?
To have written a second, even better novel, and that both my children could settle in a place to which I could conveniently move as well.
41. ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
I don’t want to add anything else other than a very big thank you, Clancy, for giving me this wonderful opportunity to reach more people.
Clancy's comment: Thank you, Pauline. Folks, I told you Pauline was smart and talented. Good luck with the book. Keep going, and write the next. Love the title.