Lisa Venables is an Australian Writers’ Centre graduate and newly published author. She lives on the NSW Central Coast with her husband, her 16-year old son and six-year-old daughter. It was her daughter, Zali, who provided the inspiration for her first book – a memoir recounting Zali’s diagnosis and recovery from a rare form of cancer within the first two years of her life.
Lisa’s book, Saving Zali, confronts the subject of child cancer head on – a story she felt needed to be told. “It was a way to formally acknowledge that we went through a difficult time, but that despite the odds, we had come through it.” We spoke to her about her journey from completing Creative Writing and Life Writing courses, to how she found the publishing process as a first-time author.
1. When did you decide to write Saving Zali – and did you have a particular audience or message in mind?
I started writing about Zali’s incredible recovery from LCH, a type of cancer usually fatal in the under-twos, about a year after she had recovered. At first, it was for my own reasons; I needed to process what had happened because I didn't understand it myself. I knew that we’d been incredibly lucky, and that her recovery was groundbreaking, but my understanding of it was jumbled and confused. Writing the book gave me some closure on my feelings.
The other reason I wrote the book was because childhood cancer is such a taboo subject. The disease is so undeserved and the thought that a child could die is just so awful that it’s not talked about at all. Because of this taboo, when we told family and friends that Zali had cancer and was unlikely to live, it was very hard for them to talk with us about it. My target audience was middle age mums like myself.
2. You’ve graduated from two courses at the Australian Writers' Centre. Did you have any other prior writing experience?
Before doing the courses I was a passionate creative writer, but hadn't done anything professionally. I was actually a NSW Police Officer for 10 years, serving in local stations and Organised Crime Drug Squad, but left in 2010.
The Life Writing course with Patti Miller helped me put Saving Zali into a shape that made sense. Patti’s lessons in memory, structure, chronology and research were invaluable – particularly chronology.
I also did the Creative Writing Stage 1 course online for a historical fiction manuscript I was writing. This is now with my agent and looking promising.
3. How did you find the book writing process?
I loved the book writing process. It was cathartic and liberating and gave shape to what had been very dark shadows in my mind. Many hours were lost happily typing away.
I also think it’s very necessary to do a course to learn the skills to be a better writer. There will be days when you look at a blank page and think “what do I write?”, or days when the manuscript doesn't work and you can’t see how to fix it. When you do a course, you learn those skills that help shape how your writing comes out. It’s the difference between just your mum knowing what you meant to say and a commercial audience understanding what you've said!
4. How did the book deal for Saving Zali come about?
A friend I had met on the Life Writing course told me about a freelance editor she was using and suggested I try her. So I went through the editing process, and then that editor got in touch with her friend, literary agent Selwa Anthony. I nearly choked on my prawn salad when Selwa called me and told me she liked my work and wanted to represent me! Within about a week, Pan Macmillan was interested and about a month later I had signed a contract for my first book.
5. Wow. And how was the publishing process?
It surprised me with how rigorous it was! The only way through it was to simply follow the instructions Pan Mac gave me. These people are professionals; they want your book to be good. It’s in the best interests of all for it to do well. So I placed trust in their ability to do their work, and just did what they asked of me. I made sure to have my edits thorough and in on time, taking each opportunity to make the story better.
Basically, once you hand over your manuscript to an agent or publisher, it’s gone. You just have to be professional about it and do the work that is necessary. This professionalism sets you up later for more work if you can show that you'll do what it takes for your book to be a success. The reader wins because they enjoy the story, the writer wins because their work makes an impact and the publisher wins because they make sales.
6. How has your book been received so far?
As far as I can tell, the book has been well received so far. It’s already gone into a second print run which has been pretty exciting, and people have been sending me messages saying how much they've liked it. I find out the official sales figures soon.
7. With Zali now heading towards her five-year remission mark, what are your plans for the future?
Zali will be five years clear in November – on her seventh birthday. And that will be a momentous occasion for us. The only thing I want for her is to have a normal, happy, joyous life.
As for my plans? Of course, I want to be a writer! Most mornings I write for about two to three hours, averaging about 1500-2000 words a day. In the evenings I do research on my work, and follow up on promotion for Saving Zali for about an hour or so. As with all things, the more often I write, the more easily it comes!
You can buy Saving Zali by Lisa Venables at all good bookstores or online from Booktopia.
If you’re interested in writing fiction or writing from your own experiences, check out our Creative Writing and Life Writing courses. You can do Life Writing in Sydney and Melbourne, with Creative Writing courses available in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Online.