Melbourne-born Karen Viggers is the author of three novels, the latest of which is The Grass Castle. Karen grew up in the Dandenong Ranges spending her free time riding horses and writing stories. Her love of creative writing was put aside in high school in favour of maths and science after being told it was too hard to make a living from writing. It was only after she completed vet school that she began writing again, though those works were mainly poetry and were not published. After years of working, studying and family life, Karen finally began writing fiction and, two years (and many drafts) later, her first novel, The Stranding, was published. The novel was well-received and Karen followed it up two years later with The Lightkeeper’s Wife.
Her third novel, The Grass Castle, has just been released. It follows the stories of two women in the Brindabella Ranges and their struggles to free themselves from long-buried family secrets.
Karen lives in Canberra with her husband and two children.
Tell us about The Grass Castle. Was there something in particular that inspired you to write it?
The Grass Castle is about two remarkable women and their tales of courage, forgiveness and acceptance. It’s set in the Brindabella Ranges where Miles Franklin lived, and the story weaves together the local mountain history of settlement and cattlemen and brumby-running with a contemporary tale of friendship and connection and kangaroos. Through an accidental encounter in a mountain valley, university student Abby meets old Daphne, the daughter of a pastoralist, who grew up in mountains. Though years and life experience separate them, they understand each other and a gentle friendship develops. Both women must help each other face the truth and release long-buried family secrets before they can be free.
When I first came to Canberra in 1992, I felt a bit lost. I soon gravitated to the mountains just beyond the city where I explored the scabby granite peaks and sat on the verandahs of fantastic old slab huts constructed by settlers and steeped in history. I couldn’t help wondering about the lives of the people who had lived there in earlier times. From this emerged the seeds that became Daphne’s story in The Grass Castle. Part of my studies in Canberra included radio-tracked kangaroos in the grassy valleys of the ranges, just like Abby in the book. Kangaroo management and culling is an annual media story in Canberra. As a veterinarian who has worked with people from many sides of this emotive debate, I decided I wanted to write about it: not to tell people what to think, but to delve into the complexities of the issue.
What’s the first thing you do before you sit down to write?
I make breakfast and lunches, listen to instrument practice, and then send my kids off to school on their bikes.
Tell us about your desk or writing space.
When I was asked to take a photo of my desk, my response was panic. The sad truth is that this photo is something of a lie because my desk is rarely this tidy. It sits at an east-facing window looking over our backyard of native plants, a dying lawn, a battered soccer goal, and a trampoline. My study is lined by bookshelves, and cluttered with photos of my family. On my desk is a computer, a handful of pens that mostly don’t work (that reminds me, I must throw them out!), a box of bulldog clips, a pile of notebooks, and cards made by my children.
How many words do you aim for in a day when you are writing?
Naturally, some days are better for writing than others. Mostly I try to have my bum on the seat for a number of hours rather than giving myself a word target. From Monday to Thursday, I try to write from eight o’clock in the morning when the kids leave for school to three-thirty when they come home for afternoon tea. Fridays I work as a vet to make a living.
Tell us about your typical writing day.
In the morning, once the kids are gone and I’ve hung a load of washing and shoved the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, I generally get straight into writing. It’s difficult to avoid being distracted by email and Facebook, so I try to deal with both of these quickly and upfront then force myself to log out so I’m not tempted to waste time checking for messages every five minutes!
I usually get started by going back over the last five or so pages to draw myself into the plot. Sadly, I’m not one of those lucky writers who write beautifully at the first attempt. Once I’ve enjoyed that wonderful surfing feeling of writing the first draft, most of my time is spent hammering words and sentences into shape.
I work flat out all day with minimal breaks for snacks and lunch. Then somehow time warps and the kids are back home, dumping their school bags in the kitchen and looking for food.
I don’t write at night because it interferes with my sleep (and I turn into a monster without sleep). Wind down time is sitting on the couch with the dog on my lap, chatting to my husband.
Tell us a bit about the editing process for The Grass Castle. Did the story change much from the first draft to the final one?
By the time I was writing my third novel, I thought it would be easier. But it wasn’t. After two years of work, I sent a draft to my publisher, only to discover that the book required a massive re-write. I fell in a heap, and several weeks passed before I could find the courage to go back and work out what needed to be done. In the space of a month, I came up with a revised chapter outline that my publisher liked. Then I rewrote the entire book in three months (about two thirds of it was new). After that I edited and re-edited, then sent it back to my publisher and it was accepted for publication. So, yes, The Grass Castle did change considerably in the editing and re-writing process. But it is definitely a better book, with significantly more layers and depth.
What are you working on now?
I’ve started another novel, and I’m having fun. I’ve chosen a great location for the story, which is important to me, and I’m just getting to know my characters and their lives. I don’t sweat over the writing early on, so for me, this stage really is the best part of writing a novel.
What’s your advice to up-and-coming writers who want to be where you are today?
Read the work of great writers and see how they do it.
Write something that you are passionate about because you are potentially going to live with your manuscript for a long time.
Don’t let your research overtake your story.
Read your work aloud and the warts will show.
Consider constructive criticism and be prepared to work with editors. Most editing input will improve your work.
Attend talks and seminars on how to write and get published, but in the end you have to find what works for you, and this will be different for everyone.
Enjoy writing. Do it because you love it, not because you must get published. Being published is a wonderful honour, but it is important to enjoy the process.
Get your bum on the seat and just do it!