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Alison Booth: Author and academic

Author and academic, Alison Booth, has just published her second book – The Indigo Sky. Her first novel, Stillwater Creek, was published in 2010 and was well received by critics and readers alike. The Indigo Sky is the sequel to Stillwater Creek.

Set in the fictional town of Jingera in 1961, The Indigo Sky weaves together the stories of butcher and stargazer George Cadwallader, the young musical prodigy Philip Chapman, and former refugee Ilona Vincent, and her daughter Zidra.

Born in Victoria, and brought up in Sydney, Alison Booth lived in the UK for over 20 years. In 1984 she completed a PhD at the London School of Economics and has enjoyed a successful academic career ever since. She is currently a professor of Economics at the Australian National University.

She’s now working on the third instalment in her series, which will be set in 1970. 

Click play to listen. Running time: 30.20


The Indigo Sky

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks so much for joining us today, Alison.

Alison
It’s a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

Valerie
Alison, your onto your second novel, The Indigo Sky, which is the sequel to Stillwater Creek. Let’s start off just telling people a little bit about the novel, and about the first one as well, for those who haven’t read that yet. Then we’ll talk a little bit more about your life as a writer.

Alison
Basically The Indigo Sky is about bullying. How it all came about was that I wrote a first book in what’s going to be a trilogy, which is called Stillwater Creek. I set that in 1957, because I really wanted to write about an immigrant coming to Australia and then eventually coming to a small coastal town, and how she fitted in or didn’t fit in with the locals. I chose 1957 because I wanted to write about someone who had survived the second World War, and all of the tremendous upheaval that took place after that. That’s why I choose 1957.

When Random house offered the two book deal when they made an offer on Stillwater Creek. They actually stipulated they wanted either a prequel or a sequel. I didn’t really want to write a prequel. To be honest, at that time I didn’t want to write a sequel, but then I got very enthusiastic about it later. The notion of doing a prequel I think would have been very difficult because I already had all of the characters in place in this little fictional town, Jingera, on the South Coast. It would have been hard to go back for all of them, because they came from such different places. I chose to set it four years on, when the characters would have developed a bit more, especially the younger one. I wanted to write about some of those.

The Indigo Sky picks up the story towards the end of 1961 and moves through the start of 1962. The main stories are about Lorna Hunter, who’s a young, very resilient, and strong Aboriginal woman, who was part of a stolen generation.

Also another sort of parallel story, if you like, is a young boy who was sent against his wishes to a rather up-market private school in Sydney. These must seem like very different stories, but in fact there are some parallels, because both of these kids have been taken forcibly, in a way, away from their families. In Lorna’s case her family is a loving family, but very impoverished, dispossessed. In the other child’s, Philip Chapman’s case, it’s from a very affluent family, who sent him away.

For both of these young people communication is difficult, if not impossible. In the case of the young Aboriginal woman, the censorship that the Gudgiegalah girls home is where she was sent, so she can’t get any word out to her family, so she cannot stay in touch with her family.

At the start of The Indigo Sky she devises a cunning plan, she’d like to try and contact her parents, and that’s how the story begins. She relies on the help of Ilona, and this was a very strong mother/daughter pair, who were featured in Stillwater Creek. That’s where the story begins, how are these young people going to survive this grim situation for each of them.

When I was thinking about Lorna Hunter, because really I wanted her story to be a part of this, but I didn’t want to tell it from her point of view, of course, because we’ve already taken so much from indigenous people, we don’t want to take away their stories either. I wanted to tell what had happened to her from the perspective of those very good friends she had made in Stillwater Creek, and yet I do think the story comes through in Indigo Sky, in spite of the fact that it’s not from her perspective.

I suppose I followed the sort of format of Stillwater Creek, which was written from six points of view in this second book. It’s written from five points of view. Some of them are slightly different people than in the first volume.

These volumes can be read independently, actually. I do want to emphasize that. It’s quite possible to pick up Indigo Sky without knowing what happened in Stillwater Creek.

Valerie
You knew you had a two book deal, so when you were writing Stillwater Creek did you already have plans for your characters in the next book? Or, did that come later?

Alison
In the third book, or in the second book?

Valerie
In the second book.

Alison
Well, when I first heard about the sequel I didn’t have a clue was I was going to write about, because I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would get a two book deal. Then I had to spend a bit of time thinking about where I wanted to go from there. It took a while. One of the stories came almost immediately. I really wanted to tell that story. The other one I had to- it wasn’t until I had finished writing the first draft that I realized that I had to beef up the second story to sort of make it more balanced.

That was quite a challenge, actually. It was a contrast for me, because when I was working on the first book I had a clear structure in my head of where I was going and how I was going to work out specific different viewpoints. But the second one, because I didn’t have quite as much time, because of the contract, so I think I ended up writing rather inefficiently. It’s rather ironical isn’t it? You think if you have less time maybe you’d be a bit more efficient, but I think it was the reverse for me.

Valerie
You say that never in your wildest dreams did you think that you would get a two book deal. When did you start writing fiction, because your usual career is in academia, it’s in economics, which is a far cry from writing fiction.

Alison
Yes.

Valerie
When did you start writing fiction?

Alison
Actually I started very young. We had a fantastic teacher when I was in fifth class. She had us write in the composition classes a little novel, which was very enterprising of her. So every few weeks we wrote a little novel, and mine was very much swallows and Amazons, you know? Which was a lot of fun. It was my very first novel, very short.

Then I’ve always wanted to write. I had always read a lot, my parents read a lot. In my 20s I had another go at writing a novel, and I wrote a really awful one, which I’m never going to show anyone. But, I think that got out of my system, because it was partially autobiographical. I think that got out of my system the idea of writing anything that’s autobiographical. I don’t want to do that. I think actually starting writers probably shouldn’t do that, unless they view it as a practice run.

By the 1990s, I decided that I really ought to get on with another one, otherwise I was never going to write anything fictional. I started doing short stories, not realizing how hard it is to do short stories; very hard. It was very good practice, I think. It taught me a bit about plotting. It made my writing style a bit looser, because to begin with it was sort of very formal, the way you might expect an economist to be writing, sort of stiff and formal.

Then it sort of relaxed a bit. I learned to write a little bit more colloquial. But actually my favorite short story that I’ve done, which got published, was from three different points of view; all first person, all present tense. It was that short story that gave me the idea of writing Stillwater Creek from different view points. I tried to write that in the present tense, and decided to make it in the past tense.

Valerie
Do you have to put a different hat on when you’re doing your academic writing? Because as you said, that kind of writing is entirely different to what you do when you’re doing your creative writing. How do you get into the zone?

Alison
It’s definitely turning a switch off in my head putting another one on. The way I work is when I’m writing a story I try to spend maybe 3/4 of an hour a day, or an hour a day- morning or evening- not the weekends- just doing that very intensively, the creative bit. The reason I do it in pencil and paper is that I can do that anywhere. That also means that I can do it very fast, because I’m a very slow typist. I only do 30 words per minute. It’s also too much like my day job. In a way I think it’s picking up the 2B pencil and piece of paper that turns the switch on to letting more creative stuff flow out very fast.

But of course it’s very bad the first time. Then I dictate it into Word using this wonderful package called Dragon Speaking Naturally.

Valerie
Yes.

Alison
Then that’s has got used to my voice and accent. That’s pretty good at typing it all up. Then I realize that it’s been badly written and I have to do about another fifteen edits before it makes any sense. Because I work that way I can do little bits fairly regularly around the margins of the day job.

Valerie
You have your day job, which is something that you do full time- how do you squeeze it in? How do you juggle it all? Or do you set certain days, or certain hours, or do you actually fit it in the gaps?

Alison
I fit it in the gaps. If I going on a train journey, I’ll take my piece of paper with me. I prefer to do a bit in the evening, not very much, just a bit. But when I’ve got to quite a few thousand words, maybe, 50,000 or 60,000, then I need to get away from everyone for a week and just work very intensively on it, so that I can see the whole thing in perspective. Then I get very irritable as well, because I think at that stage I get obsessed with it. I can’t sleep, and I’m working all the time. I actually don’t think I’m the sort of person who could do this full time.

Valerie
How do you get out of the obsession? Do you just come out of it naturally at some point, or do you have to finish something?

Alison
I have to finish something, even if I think it’s only an initial draft. I have to finish, and then I have to leave it for a while.

Valerie
Do you set yourself word targets?

Alison
I did at the beginning of The Indigo Sky in order to get up to- there was sort of like a psychological barrier. I set word targets of 1000 a day for a couple of months. That was really quite hard going with working in the daytime as well. I think that’s unrealistic for me, but anyway I did that until I got up to that. Then I felt I had gotten through the first hurdle, then I could relax a bit more.

But for this last one, which I’m currently working on, the third one, I’m not doing that because- you mentioned in your list of questions at what point does it start to shift from being an escape to being another job of work. I think for me if I say, “OK, I have to do 1,000 words everyday,” it start becoming not an escape, but a job of work. I may as well not be doing it, because it’s not such an escape.

Valerie
It is an escape for you?

Alison
It is, very much so. I think in part it’s  doing it hour on hour with the pencil and paper it’s intense concentration. You have to concentrate so hard that you forget everything else. When you come out of that you feel better, because you’ve forgotten all of the other worries. So, in that sense it’s an escape. That’s all I meant really by that.

Valerie
When you created this town, and the people, and that kind of thing, did you just start with the seed of an idea? Or, did you know a town, or people like that? Was it based on some real things in your life? Did you go and research heavily and then create the town? How did this world get created?

Alison
That’s a very good question. I think it was more that I started with the characters and then I decided, “Well, where am I going to place them?” Then because of being in Canberra and also my childhood, also being a very small Australian town, I thought how lovely it would be to set it a fictional one of those. So, that’s how it arrived. More or less spontaneously when I got the characters organized.

Valerie
When you were writing the first and second books did you know there was going to be a third?

Alison
No, no I didn’t.

Valerie
When did that come into your head? When did you decide that was going to happen?

Alison
Actually one of my good friends said to me when I had finished the second she said, “Why don’t you go and ask the publisher if you can have a contract for a third?” I thought, “What a wonderful idea,” because I didn’t really want to give up the characters just yet. I actually wanted to write something ten years on.

I did that and they agreed. So, that’s how it happened. Again, it was accidental really.

Valerie
When you started writing Stillwater Creek, you’ve started writing your novel and you didn’t have a contract yet when you first started writing?

Alison
No. No. No, I didn’t. No.

Valerie
Can you tell us the steps then? What happened to eventually get that contract?

Alison
The first thing was getting the agent. I sent- I’ve forgotten. I think it was three chapters, or something, off to agents. One of them- both asked to see the full one. One of them offered to represent me; that was Australian Literary Management, rather quickly. Then they spent a long time making me improve it. That was really useful, really useful. I think I was very, very lucky to have that. I think that for people starting out it’s the best way to go, to get the agent to help you.

I really thought it was very polished by the third time I had sent it to an agent, but it wasn’t. But by the time they sent it to the publisher- they only sent it to one. Random House was the first one. It was very polished by that stage, because it had been through so much work. So, I think that’s why it got accepted so quickly.

With the second one it wasn’t so polished. I hadn’t had so much time to work on it. But, the publishers by that stage were- they were waiting for it. They had lots of fantastic advice for how to improve the editing of it, which again I found invaluable. It’s such a learning experience, I think. Every writing endeavor I’m learning new stuff all the time, which is fun. That’s how it should be, I reckon.

Valerie
Have you made plans for your fourth?

Alison
No. No, I’ve got to finish doing the third. One of the fun things about the historical writing is that you can do lots of research. I really love doing that. It’s a leisure activity for me getting the books out of the library and reading a bit of history. I’m married to an economic historian, so we can talk about these things.

Valerie
When you do your academic writing, because it sounds like you really enjoy and get a lot of the creative writing- as you said, it’s your escape. When you do your academic writing now, do you still enjoy that?

Alison
I do. I do, but I’m much more selective now about what I’m going to do, because I’ve decided, I think when you get to a certain point in your life you think, “Well, I’ve only got ‘X’ more years to go, and I want to work on stuff that really matters to me.” I think that’s in part why the creative writing emerged, but it’s also making me say, “OK, well, I only want to do academic work that I find really exciting.” So, I’m doing some more behavioral economics now, which is an experiment. So, that’s great.

Valerie
When you started becoming more intensive in your creative writing, and really honing your creative writing, and obviously becoming more serious with it, as a published author, did you find at all that your academic writing changed a bit? Or did any of that seep in?

Alison
I don’t think I’m the best person to ask that, actually. Maybe I’m a bit shorter than I used to be with academic writing. I’ve always writing a bit short anyway, but maybe I’m a little bit more parsimonious in the way I write now.

Valerie
Do you think you will explore other genres?

Alison
No.

Valerie
No? Happy you to stick with fiction?

Alison
Yes. When I was very young, when I was a child, I used to write poetry, but I think it’s too difficult. I think I like doing what I’m doing at the moment.

Valerie
What sort of books and authors inspire you? That make you go, “Oh my God, I am not worthy,” do you know what I mean?

Alison
Yes, I know exactly what you mean. Yes. I think Patrick White is one who, every time I read and reread Patrick White, every time I think, “Oh, if only I could write like that.”

Valerie
I know what you mean.

Alison
Yes. And then Toni Morrison I love. I love Kate Grenville’s books. I really like Peter Carey’s latest book, Parrot and Olivier in America. I read extremely widely, actually. What I’ve read recently Rose Tremain’s books. I’ve just discovered Rose Tremain. I’ve just finished reading Music and Silence, which I really loved.

I read very widely, and many of the books I read I think, “Oh my goodness, I wish I could write like that.”

Tim Winton is another one.

Valerie
What would your advice be to budding writers out there, who not necessarily young ones emerging from school or university, but people who are professionals like yourself, who are successful in their careers, they’ve got this novel in their head, or perhaps even in their bottom drawer, what’s your advice to them?

Alison
I think to keep at it and have faith in it. If it’s in their bottom drawer and they don’t think it’s going to go any further, to put it aside and start on another one. I really do think this is a very long apprenticeship, fiction writing, at least going from my experience it’s a long apprenticeship. I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to, but others I’m sure would disagree to spend too long on one thing if it’s not going anywhere, but to maybe move sideways and try something else.

And, not to be put off by rejections, because I think that in part creative writing is to satisfy yourself. I think there are also fashions in what publishers will take. I think in a way I was lucky that 1957- when I first started writing a couple of people said to me, “Don’t do the 1950s. No one is interested in the 1950s.” But I think that’s wrong.

Valerie
Of course!

Alison
I don’t get put off by what anyone says as well.

Valerie
No. I mean look at the success of things like Mad Men; extreme popularity.

Alison
Yeah.

Valerie
What would your advice be, also, because you were able to hone and polish your manuscript further through your agent, but for people who won’t have an agent yet, what would your advice be to them to hone, and polish, and improve their writing?

Alison
I guess writers’ groups, and getting friends to read it- friends they trust.

Valerie
Did you do that? Did you go to writers’ groups and have readers?

Alison
I went to one writing course run by Maggie Hamand. She wrote Creative Writing for Dummies, which was published nearly two years ago. There were a lot of cancellations just before that, there were supposed to be six people going. I ended up being the only- there was some event, I think it was the July bombing, or something. Some awful event and there were cancellations. I ended up being the only one. I was very lucky.

I had Maggie for one week reading my manuscript, and making some fantastic plotting suggestions, because plotting is the area that I’ve found quite difficult in maintaining six stories. I found it very difficult. I was very lucky with that.

I’m sure there’s lots of course like that where it might be possible to get good advice. Of course there’s the writing centres as well, like yours.

Valerie
With your six stories, did you do anything in particular to really get into the different points of view? Because that’s a very hard thing to do.

Alison
Yes. If I felt there was some distance developing I would change the person to first person from third person and put it in the present tense. If you do that, if it gets first person/present tense, “I am ‘such and such’…” you immediately move into their head. So, there you are with the closeness that you want.

I do think Maggie Hamand’s book is a very good one for people to look at.

Valerie
In terms of the plotting you were saying that can be challenging, did you actually plot it out? Because some writers they don’t plot it out, they see where the muse takes them.

Alison
Yes, I’ve spoken to writers like that. I can’t do that. I need to plot it out beforehand. I do a table with six columns, if there are six points of view, then I do the timeline, the rows across it. That also allows me to write only for an hour a day, because then I can just pick a cell and write in that, so I can keep track of the whole thing. But, I’m sure some writers would find that awful, because it would stifle creativity.

Valerie
It’s very systematic.

Alison
It’s very systematic, yeah that’s the economist working.

Valerie
Is that on an Excel spreadsheet?

Alison
No, actually, I do it in Word.

Valerie
OK.

Finally fast forward maybe five years. Paint us a picture of what you’re doing, what you’re writing, how you’re juggling, if you’re still juggling your academic work and your writing. 

Alison
To be honest I can’t bear to think of that, because in many ways I feel that I’m just keeping on top of what I’m doing now. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the first draft of the final volume. If I start coming out of that and thinking of any future work I lose the  impetus to finish Volume 3. I’m preferring not to think about the future at all.

Valerie
Fair enough, but I’m sure it will be great.

On that note, thank you very much.

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