- GUEST AUTHOR -
May I introduce another interesting writer from Australia.
Welcome, Sarah ...
1. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING JOURNEY.
I started writing about eight years ago. My children were growing up and needing less of my time, and I wanted to do something creative. My first idea was to do a photography course, but my eldest daughter was away on exchange and had taken the good camera with her, so I sat down with a pen and paper and started writing a story instead. That ‘little’ story became a YA paranormal romance trilogy – about 400,000 words in all! It’s not published yet, but my agent is having a look over it at the moment, so who knows?
2. WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A WRITER?
I’m still not sure I’m a writer. I am in awe of people like Kate Atkinson and Hilary Mantel, Salman Rushdie and Paul Auster – they’re real writers. People with big stories and fantastic skill at telling them. I love writing, and am happy that people read my books, but I feel a bit of a fraud calling myself a writer!
3. WHAT TYPE OF PREPARATION DO YOU DO FOR A MANUSCRIPT? DO YOU PLAN EVERYTHING FIRST OR JUST SHOOT FROM THE HIP?
I love the creative process. That said, each of my books has come about in a completely different way. I often think of the characters first, and flesh them out. I write extensive character profiles for them so I know them intimately. Then I start asking myself questions about what how they might react in different situations. Usually, one stands out as more interesting than the others, and I start from there – putting a character in a sticky spot and seeing what happens.
A couple of times I have planned the whole book before I started writing, even doing detailed chapter outlines. It was a complete waste of time, as the characters hijacked what I had planned for them and took over, making the book different to the one I had intended, and probably more interesting!
4. WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
I love immersing myself in the world of my characters. Not literally another world, I don’t write sci-fi, but the places they go, the people they meet, the things they do. My characters are often more ‘out there’ than I am, take more risks, and do things I wouldn’t. It’s nice to be along for the ride though.
5. WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
Self doubt. While I’m writing, I usually think the work has some merit – I guess I wouldn’t continue with it if I felt otherwise, but when it’s finished and I’ve left it for a few weeks, I look at it again and wonder if anyone would ever want to read it. I have a bit of a slump, it happens every time, and then I start the revising and editing and get it into shape. Then letting it go is hard, wondering if I really have done all I could. I heard an interview with Geraldine Brooks (another favourite author of mine) and she said that she often wishes years later that she could go back and change things in her books, so I suppose that question, ‘is this as good as it can be?’ haunts us all.
6. WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?
I trained as an Occupational Therapist after school and worked in Mental Health for some years. I also travelled a lot, including cycling round India and Nepal. I am from the UK, but have lived in the US, Japan and now Australia. Now I have my own counselling practice, teach yoga and volunteer at a Hospice writing biographies for people with a terminal illness.
7. WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
That’s a hard one. I have two published novels, one being touted by my agent at the moment and another being published next year. I’ve won a couple of awards for short stories too, and written for some blogs. I think, though, that the greatest achievement was the first story – the one that turned into the YA trilogy. It isn’t published, and may never be, but it gave me the confidence to keep going and I certainly learned a lot along the way!
8. WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I’m working on a novel that I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years. It’s been a tough one to write – I have the story all worked out but have had difficulty working out how to structure it. Also it required a fair amount of research into settings and also obsessive love which my protagonist struggles with. It’s been very frustrating trying to find the right way to tell the story. One of my friends suggested that I write a scene in which my character was doing something unusual, to see if I could write myself into the book. That was last year, and resulted in a totally different novel! I am happy to say, however, that I think I’m on my way now, nearly 30,000 words into the book I wanted to write, and going strong, even though the characters have changed the plot from the original in places. Fingers crossed.
9. WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Many things inspire me. I love getting out into the Australian bush – the colours are so different to anything in England, where I grew up, and the light is amazing. I also find people inspiring. Not important, famous people, but the people I meet every day; friends, counselling clients who are struggling with the issues in their lives but determined to keep moving forward, the patients I meet in the Hospice. Everyone has their challenges, their successes and a story to tell.
10. WHAT GENRE DO YOU WRITE?
After the YA trilogy I switched to literary fiction. I love to write strong characters in difficult situations.
11. DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?
Read, read and read some more. And write, even if you think it’s rubbish. Get a first draft down and then you’ve got something to work on. And just getting a draft done is more than most people manage, so build on your successes, even if they feel small.
12. DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
I don’t really know what writer’s block is. I certainly have periods where the book isn’t progressing, but I always have something knocking around that needs editing, or a new idea that needs filling out or researching, so I don’t worry too much if the work in progress is stalled for a while. I know I’ll come back to it and it’ll start moving along again.
13. DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
I would love to say yes to that, but in all honesty, I can’t. I have three part time jobs, two teenage kids still living at home, dogs that need walking and a house that doesn’t clean itself. So I write when I can. Usually I manage a couple of hours a day, but they might be at six in the morning or lunchtime or after dinner.
14. DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
I write wherever I am. Often that’s the family room with the dogs on either side of me and the cat trying to sit on the keyboard. I am a member of a Writer’s Centre locally, and sometimes borrow a room there if I need to get away for a few uninterrupted hours. I was once leant a house at the beach for a few days and wrote looking out over the ocean – that was fabulous, I’d like to do that again!
15. WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST JOY IN WRITING?
My greatest joy is watching a story that’s been in my head unfold onto the page. As I said earlier, it’s often not exactly the story I thought it was going to be, but that’s the excitement; how characters interact with the plot and with each other.
16. WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
I have several favourite authors. I love Kamila Shamsie for her brilliant characters and characterization. She really is a genius. William Nicholson for his gentle portrayal of everyday life in England, JK Rowling for bringing us Harry Potter, Sarah Winman for her whimsical stories, Hilary Mantel for her historical works…the list goes on.
17. WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?
My second novel Two Lives, involves a woman leaving a relationship in which she has suffered domestic violence. A woman I knew vaguely came up to me when she’d read it and thanked me for writing it; her sister was in a similar situation, and she’d given it to her to read, and it had given her the courage to leave the abusive relationship.
One of the funniest comments I got was a friend’s husband asking if I’d based one of the characters on him! (I hadn’t).
18. WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
I had an email from a reader with a list of questions; why did the protagonist do this, not that, why didn’t the police get involved, why, why, why…I felt defensive, and felt I should answer all her questions, but then I thought, no, I wrote the book I wanted to write. In the end I emailed back and thanked her for reading the book and left it at that.
19. WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
Undoubtedly, but none of the actual events in my life end up in the books. I think the way I see the world obviously influences what the characters do and say, although I do try and give them their own opinions. There is a piece of advice that gets pulled out every so often: write what you know. I think if we only did that, we’d end up writing boring books. So I watch other people, read a lot and try and make my characters more interesting than me.
20. OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
I love people, yoga, swimming, walking the dogs, travelling, hanging out with family and friends, reading and skiing, to name a few things.
21. DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
I belong to a writer’s critiquing group which helps me iron out plot issues, and I use beta readers too, who I find invaluable. My sister has a PhD in Literature, so she’s my main editor once everyone else has had their say. I really value her input.
22. DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
Early morning yoga, breakfast with the family before we all scatter to begin our days, writing, walking the dogs, maybe a swim after lunch, then back to writing. Dinner, chat, bed and book. If pressed, I wouldn’t say no to a week in a five-star resort though!
23. IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?
I know I should say my husband, and he would certainly be very handy on a desert island, but if I were to choose someone else it might have to be a stranger – someone whose stories I hadn’t already heard and who hadn’t heard mine.
24. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?
Be kind – to people, to the planet, to refugees, to the environment. The world would be a better place with a bit of cooperation. Naïve, maybe, but true.
25. WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
I have several more books in the pipeline – either in the writing phase, the ‘waiting in the bottom drawer’ phase, or in revisions and editing. I am also doing a course at the moment to become a Death Amicus – someone who can help people who have a life-limiting illness, and their families move through that time in the best way for them. I think as a society we are not very good at facing end of life issues, and they need to be brought into the public discourse.
26. WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON BOOK TRAILERS? DO THEY SELL BOOKS?
I have never made one, nor bought a book having seen one, so for me, I would say no. But I do believe they appeal to a section of the reading population, and perhaps more to certain genres – sci-fi and fantasy perhaps. I tend to buy books by authors I haven’t read before on personal recommendation or having heard them interviewed on the radio or after reading a blog such as this!
27. DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?
I see glimpses of myself in all my characters – a turn of phrase, a physical characteristic, an opinion. I don’t think it can be helped, because as writers we can’t completely get out of our own way. I think if anyone tries to claim that there is nothing of them in their books, they’re either lying or deluded; even making the effort not to put anything of yourself in means that you’re there all the time, making that decision!
28. DOES THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FRUSTRATE YOU?
Yes and no. Yes, because it’s annoying having to wait for decisions to be made, for queries to get answered, and those rejections that we all get always hurt. I also think that the whole model of the industry is wrong. The authors, on whom everything rests, get so little money from their product. Most of it goes to the publisher, the distributor the bookshop and a host of other people in the chain. I think if I worked out how much I got for writing, redrafting and editing a book, it would amount to about 0.0001 cents an hour!
And no, because they publish the books I love to read!
29. DID YOU EVER THINK OF QUITTING?
No. I can’t stop. There are stories to tell, and in the end, the money doesn’t matter. It would be nice to be a JK Rowling or a Stephen King, but it’s the writing that matters.
30. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE MANUSCRIPT TO WRITE? WHY?
They’re all my favourite at the time of writing. I think each book is better than the last, not because of the story, but because the more I write the better I get at it. I was incredibly proud of Never Laugh at Shadows when it was published because it was my first, and I loved the protagonist, a feisty young Ugandan Law student caught between two cultures.
The book that’s with my agent at the moment was fun to write because the protagonist has amnesia, and it was interesting to think about the part memory plays in defining who we are. I like writing books that make me think, because they’ll hopefully then make the reader think too.
31. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE ‘SUCCESS’ AS A WRITER?
Not money, that’s for sure! I read somewhere recently that the average earnings an author makes from writing novels is $2,000 a year. I won’t be travelling First Class on that kind of income. For me, success is someone telling me they enjoyed or were moved by my books. The woman I spoke about earlier, who left an abusive relationship after reading Two Lives – that was a success of a kind.
32. WHAT SHOULD READERS WALK AWAY FROM YOUR BOOKS KNOWING? HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL?
I’d like readers to know that I gave them the best book I could write and I hope they felt a connection with the characters as they read, and cared about what happened to them. I would like them to feel they have got their money’s worth and have a sense of satisfaction.
33. WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE YOUR BOOKS MADE INTO MOVIES? EVER WRITTEN A SCREENPLAY?
I’d love to see my books on the big screen – or even the little one. My father, bless him, read my first book and the first thing he said was, “Steven Spielberg should make that into a movie!” I’m not sure Steven Spielberg would be the right director for my books, but if he offered, I wouldn’t turn him down! I haven’t written a screenplay – I’m not sure I could, to be honest.
34. HOW MUCH THOUGHT GOES INTO DESIGNING A BOOK COVER?
Not enough. I’m not happy with the covers of either of my published books. They were produced by a small publishing house with a small budget and an autocratic publisher. He wouldn’t discuss the covers because he said he knew best. I still don’t think he did. The cover of Two Lives is terrible – I sent him an idea drawn by my daughter and he used it without changing it – it’s basically a sketch. Awful.
35. WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM?
To keep writing and build a loyal readership. I would love to think there are people out there in the world somewhere talking about my books and waiting for the next one to come out.
36. WRITING IS ONE THING. WHAT ABOUT MARKETING YOU, YOUR BOOKS AND YOUR BRAND? ANY THOUGHTS?
I’m not good at any of that – it’s on my lost of things to learn more about. I have a friend who is also a writer, and he is a genius at it. He has promised to sit down with me and teach me what he’s learned along the way. I do have a website/blog, but I don’t write often enough. I use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, but not that effectively. I have done a few radio interviews here in Sydney, and one in Hong Kong, which I enjoy, and I’m always happy to talk about writing in general and my books in particular at libraries and so on, but I do need to do more.
37. ARE YOUR BOOKS SELF-PUBLISHED?
No, they were published by a small publisher. I am grateful for getting started that way, but now have an agent and hope my next book will find a home at a larger publishing house.
38. DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS.
Curious, compassionate, loyal, persevering and generous.
39. WHAT PISSES YOU OFF MOST?
Badly written or edited books that become best sellers.
40. WHAT IS THE TITLE OF THE LAST BOOK YOU READ? GOOD ONE?
A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman. I absolutely loved it. The characters were quirky and interesting, the writing was sublime and the story was complex and satisfying.
41. WHAT WOULD BE THE VERY LAST SENTENCE YOU’D WRITE?
I can’t imagine that – it would be whatever makes sense in the context of the story I was writing at the time, but I don’t know if I’d actually know it was the last line I’d ever write. I hate to think that I might run out of words one day.
42. WHAT WOULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER THAN YOU ARE NOW? CARE TO SHARE?
I am generally happy with my life these days. At a global level I’d like more action on climate change and kindness to refugees, an end to poverty and hunger – you, know, the little things! At a personal level, I’d be over the moon if one of my books hit a best seller list. But if my life carries on in the track it’s on at the moment, that wouldn’t be too bad.
43. ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
That’s about it. Thanks for your questions.
Clancy's comment: Thank you, Sarah. I love many of your responses. Well done. Keep going.