Annette Hughes: Memoir author and former literary agent

image-annettehughes200Annette Hughes wanted to be an artist, but married an art dealer and the art world instead.

After the marriage failed, she went into book publishing with an independent small publisher, then moved on to become first a theatrical agent, then a literary agent, mentored by veteran literary agent Rose Creswell.

In 2004, she threw it all in to move from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast to farm trees and learn about country life, vegetables and how to tend chickens. A far cry from launch parties.

Art Life Chooks is Annette’s first book.

Annette lives with her partner Geoffrey in the Sunshine Coast.

Click play to listen. Running time: 27.34

Art Life Chooks

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Annette thanks for joining us today.

Annette:
You’re welcome.

Valerie:
Now, tell us. You’ve lived in Sydney but you’ve moved to the Sunshine Coast. How long ago was that and why did you do it?

Annette:
I guess it must be about six years ago now. We did it mainly for family responsibilities. It was time for Geoffrey to come back to the family farm and the other factor was money. It was too expensive to live in Sydney.

Geoff actually said the other day, “Nothing’s changed. We’ve still got $5 in our pockets at the end of the week but we haven’t had to go out and work and 80-hour week to get there.” I was ready for a change I guess and took it when the opportunity came up.

Valerie:
Were you already writing or was the change something that helped you spur that on?

Annette:
I guess, I suppose when I look in the books of half-finished ideas and things to do one day there is quite a lot of writing projects in there. I just never had time to do it working full-time in Sydney. So yes, I suppose at the back of my brain there was always an idea but that I would sit down and write something one of these days. I just didn’t know it was going to be a memoir.

Valerie:
Tell us how that all came about.

Annette:
It actually started as a series of letters to girlfriends and one of those girlfriends was my publisher, Linda Furnell, and she convinced me to go ahead. I think that she flattered me into it.

But yeah, it was very difficult to find the confidence to do it as you can imagine. Being a literary agent and not really wishing to parade my inadequacies in front of the entire industry, but you get that.

Valerie:
How did you get over that hurdle because I can imagine it is quite difficult to make that transition?

Annette:
I don’t know whether it was just me being tragic and self-conscious but the thing that I found most difficult was to find that threshold between being a creative reader where you are looking for possibilities in the work and a critical reader where you are looking for the flaws. There is that point where you have to let go and leave the process into the editorial stage and just stop fiddling.

I found that very difficult because as a reader, as a agent, you sort of get the thing fully formed and then you’ve got your own bunch of ideas to add to it and how it can be fixed and how it can be made better and stronger. But when it’s your own work that’s awfully difficult to find that place.

Valerie:
So what about your experience as a literary agent helped you in the writing and what do you think hindered you?

Annette:
I think that it helped more than anything else. For ten years I was in a position to read some of the best contemporary Australian writing by the best authors in the business and I think by osmosis that kind of just rubs off on you. I would have to say that reading high-quality literature is the best thing that an author can do in terms of finding out what other people are up to, how they go about it, new ways of telling stories, interesting ways of telling stories. I think that more than anything it was a help rather than a hindrance.

Valerie:
You say that it started off initially as a series of letters to girlfriends, when did you decide that I’m going to transform these letters into a memoir or did you start writing a memoir from scratch? How did that all work?

Annette:
I also had a bunch of diaries that I kept for the garden quite detailed diaries because if you don’t you end up with a place where you can’t plant tomatoes for another seven years. And if you don’t remember those things you can end up losing crops. It was a combination of the two, the garden diary I found where when I went back through it had all of these little observations about things that I had never seen before and observations about growing things, and planting things and seasons. I hadn’t realized that I had been doing it and there was quite a lot of material there so I started merging the two. And then I kind of got to like it and I couldn’t stop.

Valerie:
So when you started sitting down and merging the two and enjoying it, did you then have a process or a rhythm or daily routine to actually then write the book?

Annette:
The trouble with my daily routine is that it always has a major task of avoidance process at the beginning of it. So by the time that I have done all of the approaching avoidance things like the washing up, feeding the animals, and planting things out by the end of the afternoon, because you can’t do that stuff after dark, the writing tends to be something that you can do after dark. So yeah, it would tend to be in the evenings that I would sit down and start work and get a few hours done. Daytime was difficult because it of always pressing other things to do on a farm.

Valerie:
Did you find that you could sustain that and maintain a concentration and be inspired after working hard all day?

Annette:
Well, yeah, you’re not unless you like the conversation of cows, which I do. They just don’t say very much back so it leaves you with a lot of thinking time and that’s really important regardless of the fact that you’re doing something with your hands. You are actually engaged with the book in your mind so you don’t lose the headspace that you set up to write with. You know what I mean?

You’ve got to find to find that place where you have no other distractions intellectually and if find that works perfectly well with being on the land. You don’t need to be engaged in the thing that your hands are doing.

Valerie:
You sounded almost a little surprised earlier on that you’re first book was a memoir. Was it a surprise? Did you anticipate that you would actually be writing fiction or something else?

Annette:
I always thought, yeah, that I would write short stories or fiction but as it turned out a memoir is just as fictional as anything else because it’s all getting filtered through your own consciousness. Who knows what’s true?

My sister actually was the most terrifying audience. She’s the one of us who remembers everything in minute detail. And I was very surprised that I actually managed to get some of our childhood stories straight according to her.

But yeah, I don’t know that there’s really that much difference between memoir and fiction in that respect because you’re making yourself up as you and trying to find connections between the way that you perceive the world and the way that you think the world actually is. So I guess in that sense a memoir isn’t a biography as such. It’s much more of a meditation on life and who cares if it’s true. It’s my truth. Who’s going to know except me and the cows?

Valerie:
Memoir can be a difficult thing for some people to write because they often struggle with, “oh, but is this interesting to people” or but “is this part interesting to people”. Did you go through any of that at all?

Annette:
I did have to say that in the beginning when Linda said that you really should write this into a book I just went “Who cares, Linda? Who’s going to want to know what I feel about things?”

And of course, that’s not the point. Once you get into it and you find that you do feel quite deeply about certain things. If you can tell in a way that it takes people with you then it becomes their story too.

And the things that I’m dealing with are the things that everybody on some level does. Where am I going and what am I doing here? Most people confront those questions in their lives at some stage. So it’s quite a general audience.

Valerie:
So are you working on another writing project now?

Annette:
Yeah, I liked it so much I think that I’m doing a prequel which takes me up from the mode of my marriage to the art world and having a career in books and to the moment where I meet Geoffrey. So it’s that stage of my life which is a little bit fraught. I don’t know whether it will get through the lawyers but anyway I’m just going to write it, so. It’s quite a process.

Valerie:
When do you hope to complete that?

Annette:
Well you know, its one of those things where you, I’ve got a lot of approach avoidance happening at the moment. But I think there’s about four chapters of it sitting there and I’ve just got to sit down and plan the rest of it into a book.

I think that was the most interesting part of the process was that you can’t just tell a story from the beginning with the middle and the end. It’s got to be, it can’t be sequential like that. It’s got to be interesting and finding a way to frame the story is the challenge I think.

I’ve found that one of the largest images that kept coming back was the imagine of the snake and I have to admit that I did have the drover’s wife in the back of my brain when I was writing that part of the story so it did occur to me what I’m doing here is that I’m telling yarns aren’t I. And so I guess that I kind of took the tools that were in that awful story and applied them to my own work and it is a bit of a yarn.

It’s a bit of a circular thing. It starts at the beginning and goes and spins a whole pile of anecdotes and brings it all back to the beginning again at the end. So I kind of like that form and it’s our form. It’s an Australian form.

Valerie:
It sounds like you have really enjoyed the process of writing. Apart from what you are writing now, have you had a chance to cast your line forward say five years whatever on what you’d like to, other things that you might like to write?

Annette:
Yeah, I have that old adage that “you write what you know”. I’ve got a long, long history in the art world so what I know is Australian art and artists. I don’t know whether that’s going to take the form of fiction or non-fiction but there are a lot of writers of art criticism in the world. But there aren’t very many people who write about the art world as part of the story that they’re telling so.

Yeah, so people like, oh what’s that gorgeous girl’s name who writes about artists? It’s some Victoria, I’ll think of it in a minute. My mind is not working at this hour, daylight savings, Janine Burke. That kind of book, I like her books, yeah.

Valerie:
Will that be fiction or will that be, yeah, you know?

Annette:
Hard to say, I’ve got a lot of notes and information about the process of making art so it will probably be fictionalized but it will be true in a sense that it’s about being an artist. So yeah, we don’t know yet. That is in the box of “things to do one day before dying”.

Valerie:
What else is in that box?

Annette:
All sorts of things in that box, it’s full. Full of half-finished things, at a certain point I realized that my life is half-finished. Everything in it was half-done, my son was half-grown, my house was half-renovated. My novel is half-written and I have to say that writing this book was one of the few personal creative things that I’ve actually finished and it was such a pleasure to get to the end of it. Oh, look at that. I can finish things. It’s not my problem at all!

Valerie:
And when you did finish that book, your first draft, did it then have to go through quite a bit of revision and redrafting process or was it near the end already? What was the experience?

Annette:
I can’t tell you how hard it was. Because I don’t know what I was thinking as an agent but I just thought that these drafts that landed on your desk were a relatively easy thing for an author to do. After all that was their job.

But having to do it myself, oh, my God! It is the hardest thing that I have ever done in my life. At a certain point I was sitting there with the page proofs open and going through all of the corrections and writing up to the editor’s suggestions. And it’s just covered in pencil scratchings and chalk droppings and I looked up at Geoffrey and said, “God, just imagine being a beginner at this. How soul destroying it must be.”

He said, “Well, your own writing, you don’t look like you know what you’re doing either.” And I had no idea how hard it was going to be.

Valerie:
In the volume of changes or in the type of changes or what?

Annette:
In learning the craft of how to do that next transition in the process of turning it from a book which is a bunch of loose ideas into a really seamless thing that reads well and hangs together well and takes the reader into accounts. That’s one of the processes that the editors do. It’s amazing. I don’t have the eye for detail for it.

I’m sure that I could learn it eventually but I’m very old and life’s too short. There are professionals to do these things. But I’m absolutely in awe of their craft. It is the most difficult thing to do, to manage and juggle all those different time scales and characters and stuff into a seamless whole. It’s an amazing thing, yeah. That was an eye-opener.

Valerie:
And how different was the final product to your initial first draft?

Annette:
I haven’t gone back and slapped myself over the head with that, no! No, but I did get a phone call from Linda on the day that the book arrived. I think that I was up to page 150 and I couldn’t put it down because I was so delighted to see it in print.

I’m a tragic person on your book. Linda said, “Oh God no. Everybody does.”

Valerie:
I imagine so. I mean you have it in your hands and it’s finally there and all that hard work is yeah.

Annette:
That mad thing and suddenly it’s a multiple and its going to be out in other people’s hands and you can imagine your work sitting in the hands of others in that format. You can’t imagine it in a manuscript. And that’s scary.

And then you walk into bookshops and oh, my God, there it is. Wow! So yeah, I’m still basking in the pathetic glow of the first-time published author. I’m sure that it will wear off eventually.

Valerie:
I hope that it doesn’t.

Annette:
No, neither do I.

Valerie:
And so have you had much response from people? Have people written to you or given you their response to reading the book?

Annette:
yeah and that’s the thing because all throughout my career as an agent if I read a book I would write fan letters to authors because authors don’t get many fan letters from some reason. People I guess feel weird about writing to an author. But I always did because I knew that they didn’t get much feedback and that was before festivals had become a big thing. The author was pretty much left in their own bedroom suffering over a hot manuscript and without very much feedback at all.

I always did write fan letters. And when people wrote back it was great. And I do the same thing.

You have two days with somebody’s book and you’re in it and you’re of it and it’s a part of you. And make all of the connections and blurt it out to the author, it’s kind of cathartic. I just love reading those responses. Oh, my God, wow, that’s great! I’m not the only one. They feel the same as me.

Valerie:
What’s the most rewarding part of this whole process? The writing, the seeing it at the end, the responses, what aspect of it is the most rewarding part for you?

Annette:
I think personally it’s actually coming up with an explanation of yourself to yourself. That sounds a bit like therapy, but writing as therapy. But until you sit down work out what you do think about things and what you do feel about the world, it’s kind of just a nebulous thing that sits at the back of your being.

But when you write it down and you sit there and you work it out, it kind of grounds you I think in your life. And then you can move on. Okay, I know what I’m all about there. I understand where I’m coming from. This is what motivates me and I think that it makes the rest of your life choices after that point a lot easier because you have sorted yourself out.

I guess that it’s kind of like when you get to adolescence and out the other end of it, you’re an adult. Writing a book makes you able to slough off a part of your life that you don’t have to deal with anymore. You don’t have to live with it anymore. It’s outside you and isolated, and on the shelf.

Valerie:
So the interesting journey when you write the memoir for the next part of your life, which as you say was a bit fraught. It will be an interesting journey to sort out that part I guess.

Annette:
Well I guess it’s the interesting thing about the book. I didn’t think that my life was particularly interesting to other people, but the response has been that it is, I guess. And I have lived a fairly interesting life compared to what most people do, right in the centre of the art world.

I kind of think that I’ve got a responsibility to talk about it because it is a privilege position. Not very many people get to be in that place. So yeah, it’s one of those things that you want to share what you know with other people.

And make it easy for the kids coming along behind you in art one day. Okay it get it now. And then they can get on with their lives within those circles but I don’t know. It’s just one of those things, I guess. I’m an egomaniac.

Valerie:
You went from the art world, and then into book publishing, how did that happen?

Annette:
I was married to the art dealer, Ray Hughes, who’s rather well-known down in Sydney. But we began up in Brisbane. And when the marriage failed I lost the art world in the custody case. And I had to find a new job and Rose Creswell rescued me and gave me a place to be.

Before that I had been with a person that Rose had put me onto and did about a year and a half as a small publisher with Kerr Publishing. And Kerr was fantastic. He had come out of [Highman] and had done the bestsellers, opened up his own little house which only did bestsellers.

Which was fantastic because that is what he did, he the Fred Hollows book which sold thousands of copies. And he encouraged me to sign up books as well. It was a terrific grounding in the business and practical side of things.

I was responsible for every aspect of book production. So when I came to the agency I had all that experience which then Rose was able to kind of hone down into the business side of things, the contract negotiations and stuff.

Yeah, I just applied all of the things that I knew about looking after artists to looking after authors. Which authors are the most special people rocking your world at the moment and everything that you do is on their behalf.

Valerie:
So those people who aren’t published authors yet, but they are aspiring writers, so what would your advice be to them who are on their first draft of their story at the moment and they are trying to break into the industry. What would your advice be?

Annette:
Don’t give up. As Frank Moorhouse says, “It’s log jammed out there in the big wide world.” And just keep going. It’s eventually going to find its audience, even if its only one or two people its not a waste of time.

If it’s a story that suits a commercial market then it will no doubt be picked up but the most important thing to remember about the publishing industry is that it’s a commercial industry. It’s not fair to only look at truth, beauty and gorgeousness. It’s there to make money. And if your book doesn’t suit a commercial market, it’s not personal and it’s not about you. It’s about the marketplace.

I’m a total sucker for beautiful literature. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of money to be made out of that because there are only so many readers of it out there in the universe. There are very few publishers who can take on those books because they have to have Harry Potter there behind it in order to be able to have the luxury of publishing it.

It’s one of those things that something that you write this week and send to a publisher may not be commercial. In ten years time the wheel might have come round. So don’t chuck those manuscripts out.

Keep them in the bottom drawer and keep rotating them. Keep honing them and getting them as beautiful as they could possibly be regardless of whether they are commercial or not they still have to be good things that you don’t waste people’s time with them. They’ve got to be worth two days of someone’s life.

Valerie:
Great advice.

Annette:
Thank you.

Don’t give up, just keep giving it, keep writing. If you are a writer you won’t be able to do anything else anyway. So let’s have a day job.

Valerie:
Great advice. Thank you and on that note, really appreciate your time today Annette.

Annette:
Thank you.


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