Ep 110 Turn your “off” writing days into “on” days and meet author of “The Paper House”, Anna Spargo-Ryan.

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podcast-artwork In Episode 110 of So you want to be a writer: The worst ways to begin your novel and things authors should know. Discover how to turn your “off” writing days into “on” days and how to refill your creative well. How a “mommy blog” ruined the blogger’s life. You’ll learn our word of the week: “avuncular” and meet author of “The Paper House”, Anna Spargo-Ryan.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents

5 Things I Wish Every Author Knew

My mommy blog ruined my life

How to Turn Your ‘Off’ Writing Days Into ‘On’ Days

Writer in Residence

Anna Spargo-Ryan

anna spargo ryanAnna Spargo-Ryan is a writer and digital strategist based in Melbourne. She writes about brains and love and people and family and food and creativity. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming from Black Inc. (From the Outer, 2016), The Guardian, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Seizure, Daily Life, The Age, the ABC and many other places. Anna’s first novel, The Paper House, is out now from Picador.

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Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@valeriekhoo

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podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Anna Spargo-Ryan is a writer and digital strategist based in Melbourne. She writes about brains and love and people and family and food and creativity. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming from Black Ink, The Guardian, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Seize Your Daily Life, The Age, the ABC and many other places.

 

Anna’s first novel, The Paper House, is out now through Picador.

 

Welcome to the program, Anna.

 

Anna

Thanks, Allison.

 

Allison

First of all I just have to apologize because I sound as though I’m talking to you from an echo chamber. I am in my empty office and let’s just say we need a bit more furniture to absorb the sound.

 

But, let’s talk about you.

 

Anna

If you want… I mean you can do the interview by yourself, I guess.

 

Allison

I could. I could do that, couldn’t I? But, that would probably not be much of a… mind you I could probably talk, you know, by myself for half an hour.

 

Let’s not go there.

 

Anna

I believe in you. Let’s not. Let’s talk about me though.

 

Allison

Let’s talk about you.

 

How did you come to write fiction in the first place? Like, have you always been a writer?

 

Anna

Yes. So I’m one of those very irritating writers who has been writing stories since she was a stupid age, like, four. And, it’s something that has always been compelling for me, like a way to process and express the kinds of things that I’m feeling. And, I always have done that. So, the first book that I remember writing was about a dolphin. The dolphin like went into the sea and it was in the sea and then I made it into a book shaped like a dolphin as well.

 

Allison

Oooh, nice marketing.

 

Anna

I know — well, yes. When I was about five and six I really fancied myself as a children’s writer and illustrator. But, I later found out that I’m a terrible, terrible drawer, so that was off the cards. But, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. And, I’ve always written stories.

 

Fiction… I took some time away from writing fiction when my children were smaller. I didn’t have the kind of creative imagination for it, amongst all of the other things that I was trying to do, like sleep and go outside ever and eat and stuff like this. I didn’t write fiction for probably… I reckon probably eight years I didn’t write any. And then I said… when I was doing that in 2012, with you, I said to my partner who I had then been with for five years by then, I said, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer.” And he said to me, “I’ve never seen you write.”

 

Allison
Really? That actually really surprises me. Like, I thought you would be one of those people writing angsty poetry, you know, all of the time from the age of six, or through the child birthing thing and everything. But, no?

 

Anna

No. I wrote a blog, I’ve been blogging since like the mid to late 90s. So, I was writing a lot of angsty blog posts, and I did blog throughout my pregnancies, about my stuff after them and pictures of my children and things, and this is going back to the early 2000s. But, I didn’t do any creative writing for all of that time. And then I wrote a newsletter at work, which was… that’s gripping sort of stuff. But, when I sent it people said to me, “The writing in this is really good.”

 

But, it’s about superannuation or something.

 

Allison

See, you know you’re a writer when you can make superannuation beautiful.

 

Anna

And that’s what I said to them, I was like, “Well, I mean I’ve always wanted to be a writer.” And that gave me a renewed interest that I haven’t had since my children were born, or I was just so tired that the idea of trying to also come up with a story was just so far beyond me.

 

And then once I started writing fiction again I couldn’t stop. And now I just do it all the time.

 

Allison

So that was… so, 2012 you thought, “I’m going to write a novel?” And you sat down to write a novel during NaNoWriMo?

 

Anna

Yes.

 

Allison

And is that the novel that is being published now?

 

Anna

Sort of. I started writing it in 2012. I did about… I think we all failed pretty dismally that year. I did about 15,000 words, I think. And it was pretty good. When I went back and read it, and even when I’ve gone back and read it now it’s not bad, but it wasn’t quite the story I was trying to tell. So, I put that in the bin and I started again in 2013, and that was when I really wrote it.

 

So, I’ve wrote most of it in November of that year, and then finished it off in December and sent it to my agent, or the person who became my agent in February, which everybody should never do, because your book is not finished, you write in December and send it in February. It’s — yeah, its bones are showing, let’s say.

 

Allison

And yet here we are.

 

Anna

Yes, well, yes.

 

Allison

With the book on the shelves, how exciting.

 

Anna

It was just so excellent it was hard for them to pass up.

 

Allison

Clearly. Yeah, clearly.

 

Anna

Yeah, which is why I have spent two years…

 

Allison

Very modest, Anna. Very, very modest.

 

Anna

I mean that’s what I’m known for.

 

Allison

Yes, of course.

 

So, let’s talk about your writing process then. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo have you done much planning before you sit down to write this thing, or are you just sort of writing in fragments, or are you writing from beginning to end? How do you go about the actual writing process of the book.

 

Anna

I don’t do very much planning. So, I’m definitely not a planner, as they say. I’m much more leaning towards being a pantser. But, I sort of do planning as I go along. So, I do write quite a lot in fragments. I have different scenes that will occur to me that I write then separately and know that later on they might show up in the book, which is helpful not just to get the words down, but also to understand the characters in the story better. So, some of that stuff doesn’t end up in the book, but it’s still been useful in terms of understanding what the book is for and what it’s about.

 

That gets me to a point where I will get 25,000 words into the book and think, “I have absolutely no idea what’s happening. I should probably figure it out before I go further,” because then I just veer off and I have to then do a u-turn and come back to where I kind of verged away from what I was actually trying to do and start again anyway.

 

I’m a big fan of a-1 one cardboard sheets that I then draw all over in different colors and do mind-maps and do character profiles and stuff. But, it’s more as I go than at the start.

 

And, I tend to write pretty much from start to finish, but then have these little bits that come in just… and they sort of appear out of nowhere. There the ones where you’re driving along, driving the kids to school or something and it just suddenly occurs to you that this thing should happen, and they come out… a lot of those that have remained in this first book came out the same way they appear in the final book, they’re just… those are those kinds of grabs that are kind of like ethereal come through you and you have to get them out before you forget them, and they’re sort of perfect the way they are, like a self-contained little bit of writing.

 

So, I was always grateful for those, but they rarely fit where I needed them to at that time. They were more like… yeah something that was going to happen later that I had to then try to piece together.

 

Allison

So, when you sat down to write The Paper House, or what became The Paper House, did you know what it was about before you started? Like, in the sense of, “I’m going to write a book about this?” Or did you start with a character, like where did you start that process? Did you start with a character, an opening line? What did you start with?

 

 

Anna

I started with this garden. So, it’s sort of got a magical garden in it. And I knew that I wanted to have this garden, and the epigraph is one of the first things I wrote down, which is actually a quote from The Secret Garden, and that was where I started.

 

So, I knew I had this garden. The garden was going to represent something and then I had characters in it that were going to be affected by the garden. The character of the husband in the book is the first one that I really understood properly, I think.

 

Allison

Right, that surprises me.

 

Anna

Does it?

 

Allison

Well, I thought it might have been her, do you know what I mean?

 

Anna

Yeah, she’s changed quite a bit, actually, throughout. I had this husband who’s always been called ‘Dave’ from that first NaNoWriMo in 2012 that I chucked in the bin. The only bit I really retained from it was him, and he has been the same throughout the whole process, whereas the other characters have sort of come and gone a bit.

 

So, I knew I had him, I knew I had a garden, then I had to figure out what I was going to do with them. I knew that the woman in it, Heather, the main character was going to be affected by some kind of traumatic experience, but I didn’t quite know what it was. So, then I had a really fun process of just trying to brainstorm heaps of horrible things that could happen to someone.

 

And once I had that figured out it gave me a bit more structure. But, the end story is even quite different from the one that I originally had sent to the publisher, or that my agent had sent to the publisher, that I had to rethink the story quite a bit. I knew what it was about much more than I knew how it sort of happened, how I realized that aboutness of it.

 

Allison

So, you had the theme and the characters and things, but the actual story itself took a bit more work?

 

Anna

Yeah, and I would say that’s probably true of most of the writing that I do. I often start with characters, so I’ve written lots of stories where one character has just occurred to me, or I’ve seen someone on the street who’s made me think of some sort of… and I was reading something the other day where someone said, “I don’t think that’s a character, I think that’s a person,” and it’s not actually a character until you have a story to put them into. And, I think that’s what I do. I sort of conceive of these people and they’re in some way based on someone I know or someone I’ve seen or something I’ve seen, or some interaction that I’ve been involved in. And, then I have to come up with a way of putting a story around what I know of this person.

 

So, I’m writing a story that’s taking a very long time, about a man who loses his wife at sea. And, I know that he wants to get his wife back, and I know what his motivation is, and I know all about him, but I don’t know what the story is. And, that happens to me a lot. Like, how do I get this person from what I know about them to what I know about where they want to go. How do I connect those two things together.

 

Allison

And that process, as you said, that’s taking a while, does that process sort of take a, “I’m going to try this,” track and see how it goes?

 

Anna

Yes.

 

Allison

And, “Oh, that’s not quite right. So, then I’m going to go back and try this track and…”

 

Anna

Yep.

 

Allison

Interesting. All right. So, one thing that everyone agrees about your writing, and I know this because I’ve seen it everywhere, and it’s not just your fiction, but your blog posts and your tweets half the time, is that it is absolutely beautiful. It’s so beautiful. It’s lyrical and poetic and it’s like right now to where the full stops go.

 

Anna

Yep.

 

Allison

Are you a person who agonizes for days over word choice, or is this something that just sort of comes out of you like this?

 

Anna

It sounds so bad, but it really does just come out like that.

 

Allison

That doesn’t sound bad, that sounds good.

 

Anna

Well, I mean it’s good for me.

 

Allison

Positive.

 

Anna

It’s not very useful for other people, actually. Just think poetically and then it will come out like this.

 

Allison

Just vomit poetically onto the page. Beautiful.

 

Anna

Just, like, use poetry in your whole life and live as a poet and you can just write poetry like this.

 

Allison

Yeah, great.

 

Anna

It’s… interestingly for me, I don’t know if anyone else will find this interesting, I’m doing a poetic subject at uni at the moment, and all of the stuff that we’re learning about is stuff that I do in my writing, but I didn’t realize it was poetics. It had kind of poetic theory around it.

 

Allison

Wow.

 

Anna

So, I think that just comes from reading a lot of poetic literature, generally, over the course of my life. Like, I’ve always read a lot of magic realism and stuff that’s heavily allegorical and metaphorical and that kind of thing. And, that’s what I really like.

 

The other part of it is that I think mental illness is most easily explained through metaphor. I think it’s hard to use abstract words and ideas to describe the way that it feels in a common way. Like, here’s a way everybody can relate to it, I think using poetics and concrete language is a much easier way of relating the experience of mental illness to other people. So, that’s been part of it as well. Like, how can I explain this in a way that people are going to understand what I mean without actually saying, “I feel like dying… I feel like dying doesn’t mean anything,” but when you can put some metaphorical and concrete language around it, you give people an experience that they can relate to that is specific to them.

 

So, yeah, that was a different sort of question that I answered myself that you didn’t ask.

 

 

 

Allison

No, that was a very good question, but what you’ve just done is ruined my next two questions, because now I don’t know which order to ask them to you in.

 

Anna

Oh, I’m so sorry.

 

Allison

Do you know what I’m going to do? I’m just going to stick to my schedule and we’ll come back to the mental health, because that is something that I do want to talk to you about. I just want to finish this little journey we’re going on with your poetry and your literary stuff. So, two things I wanted to ask you, have you set out to write literary fiction, capital ‘L,’ rather than sort of genre or more commercial. Is that what you’ve always wanted to write, or is that just how it comes out so that’s what you write.

 

Anna

I didn’t know until a couple of years ago what literary fiction really was, I don’t think. So, I had read… I mean I used to read a very wide range of different things, and I try to now, but I just don’t manage to find time.

 

But, I didn’t understand the distinction between commercial fiction and literary fiction, and I mean in some ways still don’t really understand the distinction, but even the commercial fiction that I was reading, I was much more drawn to literary leaning commercial fiction, which they sometimes call high-end commercial fiction, which is a terrible way to describe it, because it’s not better, but it’s just more literary, it’s more thematic, or it’s got more poetic language in it, or it’s all of these things.

 

And, I was already more leaning towards that any way. So, I think really a lot of what makes my writing literary, in the sense that it’s been published by literary fiction publisher, is that’s what I’ve always read. So, I was just writing the kind of stuff that I liked reading, which happened to be that. I didn’t set out to… I mean, I have always said that critical acclaim is more desirable to me than commercial claim, but having said that I didn’t say, “I want to write a book that is a literary fiction book that people are going to take very seriously.” It was more, “I want to write a book that I think is beautiful and that I would like to read,” and that happens to be what I like reading.

 

Allison

 

Anna

Yeah.

 

Allison

So, one more question along those lines before we go to the mental health, because I realize I actually had two, not just one.

 

Do you find one of the biggest challenges of writing is actually just letting go of the work? Like, when you are trying to write something that you’re proud of and that you’re trying to write something that’s important to you, do you find letting go of it difficult?

 

Anna

Sometimes. And, I think that the trap for me is ruining it by not being able to let go of it. So, trying to make it better than it is, to a point where I actually go backwards and make it worse than it was, and sometimes I’ll go back and read the original iteration of something and think, “This is so much better than what I ended up with,” because I’ve chucked it out in kind of the way that it came out, and then I’ve tried to I guess intellectualize it, and sometimes that ruins it.

 

I’ve found letting go of… I’ve only written one novel to the end, this one, you know, to the very end, I did find letting go of that very hard.

 

Once it was finished and I couldn’t edit it anymore I suddenly found so many things in it that I wanted to change, and I then I just thought, “You could just do this forever.” You could really just go back and back and back to your novel and fix all of the… and it would come out as a completely different novel, because you would have changed absolutely everything in it. And I find it difficult to do things in the middle. So, I do a lot of stuff once, and a lot of the features and things that I write are first drafts. So, I’ll do it once, properly, or beat it to death.

 

Allison

Right.

 

Anna

I find it hard to find a middle ground. Like, I’ll do a first version and then I’ll take what’s good from it and I’ll make a better second and third version, and then I’ll stop and actually give it to someone who needs it instead of, you know, deliberating over it forever.

 

And my dad often just rings me with that da Vinci quote, I think misattributed, but da Vinci quote about art is never finished, it’s just abandoned. And I have to do that in a lot of my writing, actually.

 

Allison

Just abandon it at this point.

 

Anna

It’s probably fine. It needs to go somewhere else now.

 

And also just that as an emerging writer, now, I need to be able to get more and more stuff out. If I only… if labor over something for ten years you get to a point where you stop learning from it, I think. So, if you’ve been doing it for two years in conjunction with a publisher or with an editor or as part of a PhD or whatever, you’re still learning about what you’re doing. But, once it’s separate from the market and you’ve been removed from the market for a long time I think that you stop learning about what’s going on around the place with writing and with other things that other people are doing, and being a visible writer and all of these things that contribute to learning about writing overall. You sort of take yourself out of it, if you spend a lot of time just destroying yourself over whether or not something is perfect.

 

Allison

Tell us then, what surprised you most about the publishing process? Like, with regards to all of those sorts of things. Because I know with publishing there’s a lot of backwards and forwards and backwards and forwards and carrying on with books. Is there anything that surprised you about that process?

 

Anna

You had always said to me, “Publishing is really slow,” and I was like, “Well, how slow can it really be?” And, it really is slow. It’s slower than you can imagine. I mean it really… I learned so much from the process, but the main thing that I learned was that it is incredibly slow-moving. And, a lot of stuff has to happen, I mean reading takes time and writing takes time. And, I can understand to some degree why it all takes so long, but I had to learn a lot about being able to persevere through that kind of slowness.

 

So, I think what I mostly got out of it was learning that about myself, that actually even though each time I got a structural edit back, and I did a lot of structural edits, each time one came back I felt like I just couldn’t do it anymore, that I had got to the end of my ability to change this piece of writing and I didn’t have anything left me, it like drained my reserves of writing. And, then I did it anyway, and that was a fantastic thing for me to learn about the publishing experience. That it was about seeing through to the end, which I hadn’t expected. I sold my book quite quickly, you know I signed with my agent two months after I finished essentially the first draft, and then we sold it about six weeks after that.

 

Allison

Which is incredibly fast, really, for anybody.

 

Anna

Yeah, it was pretty fast. Well, yeah, and I mean I was so smug. I was like, “Oh, this is so easy. I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do this. It’s just so straightforward.” And then it took forever then after that. I then edited it with the publisher for two years, and it’s a much, much better book for it. But, I didn’t expect that at the start. I thought it was going to be, you know, my book is basically done… and other people, other writers seem to have these stories, some of them do, that, “It’s basically done, we need to do one structural edit and then it will be finished and then we can put it into the copy edit and then off it goes.” And that was what I expected it to be like.

 

I didn’t expect it to almost be an apprenticeship in novel writing. Like, I had such great insight and guidance from these really excellent editors who helped me to understand what my weaknesses were, where I could improve, what my strengths were as well, and how I could sort of highlight them and just the volume of stuff that I got out of it. Then when I sat down to write my next book it all came out. Like, the stuff that I had learned was all there. And I would write something and think, “Oh no, last time I wrote that I had to spend three months fixing it, so maybe I won’t write that this time.”

 

Allison

You are changing things, you are going about writing this in a different way.

 

Anna

I think so. Slightly differently, yeah.

 

Allison

Yeah, cool. OK.

 

Alright, now we’re going to get to the mental health section that we talked about getting to about ten minutes ago.

 

Anna

Let’s.

 

Allison

You’ve become something of an advocate and commentator on mental health issues. You’ve had many well-received articles. I’ve seen viral blog posts, it’s all very exciting, about your experiences. And you also co-host an acclaimed podcast called the —

 

Anna

I said that, I called it acclaimed.

 

Allison

I know, I just think we should, you know, we should disseminate that message, don’t you? It’s an acclaimed podcast called The Anxiety Shut-In Hour.

 

Anna

Yeah, I have acclaimed my own podcast, The Anxiety Shut-In Hour, yes.

 

Allison

I’m acclaiming it now too, so that makes two of us.

 

Anna

Oh, great. Thank you.

 

 

Allison

So, it’s doubly acclaimed.

 

Anna

Excellent.

 

Allison

So, how has that all evolved? Like, is that something that… did you… is that something… is it just that you decided you couldn’t keep quiet on this stuff? Or is it position that you took? Or is it just something… like, how does it all come about?

 

Anna

Yeah, it’s a weird one, because for a long time I didn’t talk about mental health at all. I’ve had anxiety and depression since I was a teenager, at least. I was embarrassed by it for a long time and I remember when I had to tell my parents about it because there was something that we were doing that I just didn’t feel like I could do because of my anxiety. I sort of felt like I had to come out to them about it and really confess to having mental illness.

 

It wasn’t something that I felt good about at all for a long time. And then when I started writing again in 2012 it was quite a difficult period for me mentally, and so mental illness is one of kind of only things that I could think to write about. I was so consumed by how bad I felt that when I then sat down to write, that was what came out.

 

Then people started to really relate to it and I sort of then realized that there weren’t that many people talking about it and that the people who were talking about it were maybe not doing it in a way that people found that was empathic or relatable or… a lot of the feedback that I started to get on the writing I was doing was that, “I’ve always tried to explain this to my family…” or, “… to my husband…” or, “to my children…” or, “… my friends…” or whatever, “… I haven’t been able to articulate it, but what you’ve said is exactly how I feel. So, now I can just give them your article.”

 

And that was really affirming. And then I sort of started to feel like, “Well, actually maybe I am contributing some value, not just lamenting how bad I feel, but actually giving other people a tool to be able to talk about it themselves and within their own communities.”

 

That seemed like a valuable thing to do, like a good way to spend my time, in a way that was helpful for other people. So, that’s what I did. I mean after that people started approaching me for articles about mental health and I then became quite wary of becoming like ‘mental girl.’

 

Allison

“Here’s ‘Mental Girl’…”

 

 

Anna

She doesn’t have a cape because she’s too sad. You know?

 

Allison

She should have one to hide behind. Come on.

 

Anna

Just an invisibility cloak, “Don’t look at me…”

 

Yeah. So, I didn’t want to become known only for writing about mental health, that was very important to me. But, I was glad that it was useful to other people. And, also I find it quite… now that I’ve sort of let everybody know that that’s what I am, that I am a person who has depression and a person who has anxiety and this kind of thing, now I enjoy writing about it. It’s a good way for me to process stuff, it’s a really cathartic kind of thing for me to do.

 

So, as I said at the beginning, writing has always had that kind of effect for me to process stuff and to let stuff out, and that’s still what it does. So, to write about the mental health stuff does have that sort of impact on me. It makes me feel lighter to let some of it out. If I didn’t write about it I think it would all just kind of be crunched up in side of me and that’s probably not very good.

 

Allison

That wouldn’t be…

 

Anna

No.

 

And then the podcast was actually… my friend Erin Van Krimpen, who is my co-host on that, she had a dream. We didn’t really know each other then either. I only knew her on Twitter. She had a dream that we started a podcast called The Anxiety Shut-In Hour, and she tweeted to me and said, “Ha-ha, I had this dream we started this podcast.” And I said, “Well, why don’t we do it, though?” And so we did.

 

And that’s really the whole story.

 

And we didn’t know each other, we didn’t…

 

Allison

See? Twitter, amazing.

 

Anna

Oh, Twitter is — I mean if I could live inside Twitter then I would, but…

 

We didn’t know if we had any sort of chemistry or whether we could really have anything to say, or whether we knew what we were doing at all. But, luckily we do, and it’s been a really positive experience for both of us, I think.

 

Allison

Terrific.

 

Anna

Yeah.

 

Allison

You’ve been blogging since you were a child.

 

Anna

Yes.

 

Allison

And as you’ve said, you would live in Twitter if you could.

 

Anna

Yes.

 

Allison

So, you have a strong online presence, shall we say? Very strong online presence.

 

Anna

You mean I’m loud?

 

Allison

I’m sorry.

 

Anna

Do you mean annoying and loud? Is that what you mean by ‘strong’?

 

Allison

No, just solid. Solid. I’ll say ‘solid.’

 

Anna

Solid, OK.

 

Allison

Is it something that you spend a lot of time on? I guess would be the question I must ask? Do you actually live in Twitter? I do wonder sometimes.

 

 

Anna

Yeah, of course I do.

 

Allison

Oh, of course.

 

Anna

That’s the whole answer.

 

Allison

That’s it? The whole answer? Perhaps you’d like to expand on that a little?

 

Anna

I’m actually not a person at all. I’m an AI, like a program that’s running.

 

Allison

All right, you’re a bot.

 

Anna

Yeah, I am. That’s right.

 

Allison

The AnnaBot.

 

Anna

Yeah.

 

Allison

Excellent. You’re very good.

 

Anna

Yeah, I know. I mean they could have programmed me to be a bit less like panicked and sad, but it’s pretty good, it’s pretty life-like, I think.

 

Allison

So you clearly do it because you really like it?

 

Anna

I really do like it. I am a… I mean as you said at the start, in my bio that you read to me, I’m a digital strategist, so my background is web-development. And, because I’m also a writer, social media was a good combination of web development and text stuff and writing. It’s really — I mean it didn’t exist when I first started working as a web developer, but I was very glad that it came out of what was happening in digital marketing. And, just in the way that online communities were being built.

 

And, so I’ve been working in social media for about seven years, seven or eight years. And as a web developer for 15 years. And, I have spent, for my job, most of the time on the internet. So, almost all of my jobs the last five years have been on social media.

 

Allison

Wow.

 

Anna

So, I spent my whole day on social media. And, that is now just the way I function, kind of.

 

Allison

I can hear all of those authors out there who hate social media just shuttering. It’s just like this collective, “Oh, no.”

 

Maybe we can use that to assist some of our listeners, because I know that there are a lot of people who are a little bit hesitant about the whole author platform thing. But, what do you think are the three main things that you bring from your career as a digital strategist to your author platform? Like, what are the three things that you sort of, like, I don’t know, use as the tenets of your platform?

 

Anna

I think the one that I do across my author platform, which I mean is what has become, but not what I started out doing, I guess, and also for all of my clients is the importance of authenticity in social media. So, if you’re someone who just goes onto self-promote or you’re someone who just posts, you know, marketing material, or someone who doesn’t engage with an audience, that’s a social media failure. You will never succeed if all you do is go on and expect people to just kind of engage with your sales marketing channel. That’s not what it’s for.

 

I mean social media is a community of people who have common interests or have, you know, things that they all want to complain about at the same time, or just, you known, dank memes or whatever.

 

If you aren’t someone who is sincere in your engagement in that community, the community won’t care when you have something to promote to them. So, for me, now that I have a book coming out, I think my community… it’s still really irritating when people just post links to their… I mean I feel irritating every time I post to buy my book. But, my community of people who I’m engaged with will tolerate more of it because I’ve cared about what they had to say before now. So, I think… and that leads me to the next thing, which is not to start when your book comes out.

 

You start building a platform well in advance of what you want to sell, because it has the same issue then. Like, “Here’s my platform, I signed up to Twitter yesterday and my book comes out next week, where’s my platform? Why aren’t people retweeting my tweets about how to buy my book?” And that kind of thing. And, that’s about… it’s the same, it’s about authenticity as well, but it’s about a slow burn. You know, if you don’t build an audience organically then they are not going to care what you have to say. And that’s about, you know, thinking about it well in advance, and then engaging with people that you are actually interested in talking to. And, then giving them a reason to care about what you’re saying.

 

And, so I guess that leads me into the third thing, which is to offer good value. So, you’re a person in social media and all you do is, you know, tweet about what you’re having for breakfast or whatever, which I think people do less now, but…

 

Allison

You went through a phase of that, you had a whole blog related to what you had for breakfast. I remember.

 

Anna

That was a great blog.

 

Allison

That was a great blog.

 

Anna

And that was because…

 

Allison

I cared about your avocado on toast — I did.

 

Anna

Oh, thanks.

 

The reason I had that blog, which ties into this, is that I wanted to demonstrate that I had stuff to say and that I was a good writer, but I didn’t want to have to think about what I had to write every single time. So, I thought, “What’s a way that I can have a blog, but not have to come up with new material all of the time?” And so what I did was then I go and eat breakfast, which is my favorite thing to do.

 

Allison

Apart from eating chocolate, which is your other favorite thing to do.

 

Anna

But, I have chocolate at breakfast.

 

Allison

Oh, yeah, true.

 

Anna

You know… I’ll tell you a story about that later.

 

So, what I then had was a blog where I didn’t have to come up with new stuff all of the time, but I could still demonstrate my writing chops. And actually I got quite a lot of work out of that blog, because it was funny and it was engaging and the photos were good and people could see that I was, you know, I was approaching it in a way that was valuable, and that might be… as a social media user, you might contribute value in all kinds of ways. So, you might be someone who curates other people’s content. So, you’re someone like Asher Wolf who just repurposes and curates and cultivates a community of people who want information from, you know, different industry bodies and from reporters and from people on the ground.

 

And then you become almost a news source, or you’re someone who is funny and engaging, or you’re someone who writes beautiful things, or you’re someone who, you know, has a lot of recipes. Whatever you are that you’re not someone who posts links to themselves all of the time. That’s not valuable, unless you’re contributing value in other ways.

 

Allison

I foresee of proliferation of emerging author breakfast blogs. I don’t know how you feel about that.

 

Anna

It would be a great honor.

 

I found three breakfast places that I really love and I just go to them now. So, I can’t do it anymore, because I go through this grieving process of… I went to this new place, but I really wish I had gone to the place that I know that I love. So I think, “But, I really like their hash browns.” Yeah.

 

Allison

Alright. So, I guess then the other question is… because you do have a family, and you also have a job.

 

Anna

Yes.

 

Allison

You have to make a living and do all of those things. How do you fit it all in? How do you make it work?

 

Anna

So my mum is also a person who has jobs and things to do and a family. And, she said to me when I was starting to try to forge my way as a writer, she said to me, “The thing that you have to remember is that if you try to do everything at the same time then you won’t do any of it well.” And she doesn’t mean not trying to have it all, or any of that, you know, that kind of crap that gets posted on terrible websites. But, that actually in an hour just do one thing, you know? Like, if you have to do stuff with your family…

 

Allison

[gasps]

 

Anna

If you’re obligated by law to do stuff with your…

 

Allison

If you have to speak to them at least once a day.

 

Anna

But, just do that. And, then if you’re writing just do that. And if you’re working, just do that.

 

And what I had been trying to do was write around my children, or write, you know, while they would then… you know, I would write for a period of time where they would be sitting in my office shouting at me and I would be like, “Why isn’t any of this writing very good?”

 

Well, it mean it might be because your children are shouting at you.

 

And then I would try to do my real work and writing at the same time. So, I’d go, you know, I’d do ten minutes of work and then try to write 200 words and then… it was all jumbled up. And, the only way I ever managed to get actual stuff done was to separate them and to go, “I’m just not going to do writing for the next six hours, because I have to get this work done,” or because I have to go to parent/teacher night, or I have to…

 

And, I had to separate it all out.

 

And, that was probably the best advice she has ever given me — except the other bit of advice she’s given me, which is to be — and this is related to social media as well, is to forge sincere relationships with people at the start, because they’re the people that will be standing next to you at the top, and that peer support, and I think that’s what social media is about.

 

But, that otherwise this is the best bit of advice she’s ever given to me.

 

And she’s an incredibly successful woman. It’s because she, like, treats each thing as a discreet thing to do, instead of trying to do them all at the same time.

 

Allison

All at the same time.

 

 

Anna

And when my children were little that meant that I couldn’t write at all, because I just was too tired and they demanded too much of me, so I didn’t. And, I was — like, I was sad about it. I felt like my arm had fallen off, but it meant that I didn’t, you know, just have a nervous breakdown because I couldn’t do everything at the same time.

 

So, yeah, I categorize now.

 

Allison

That’s very, very good advice. Thanks very much, Anna’s mom.

 

Anna

Thanks, my mom.

 

And also, the other thing I did was get divorced.

 

Allison

OK, we’re probably not going to recommend that as a necessary thing.

 

Anna

No, it’s not necessary, but it does mean I have half of my week where my children are not here.

 

Allison

Ah, yes.

 

Anna

And that has actually made… I hope my children never listen to this, because I love them dearly, but it does mean that for half the week I have time to write.

 

Allison

Fair enough. OK.

 

There’s some interesting advice from Anna Spargo-Ryan.

 

Anna

It’s not the first time anyone has ever recommended getting divorced? In this podcast, anyway.

 

Allison

It might be.

 

Anna

Yeah.

 

 

Allison

It might be, yeah. I’m just trying to think back. There might have been one other. Just… I’m not exactly sure.

 

There’s been 108 of them now, you know? It’s a bit hard to keep track.

 

Anna

Someone has bound to have recommended divorce before now.

 

Allison

Someone has bound to have.

 

Alright. So, we’re going to finish up today with our famous — I’m going to call them famous, like your acclaimed podcast. I’m going to call them our ‘famous’ three tips for aspiring writers.

 

Anna

Yes.

 

Allison

So, what have you got for us, Anna. I know you have prepared…

 

Anna

I actually have written words in a pen.

 

Allison

Ooh.

 

Anna

Yeah. The first one I have is the villain — you’ll know this one. The villain is always the hero of his own story.

 

Allison

Oh, now this was excellent advice that was given to me in a moment of crisis. I believe I rang you from the university of Woolongong, “I can’t get this right. What am I doing?”

 

Anna

Yeah.

 

Allison

And we had the conversation and it all became clear. Perfect, thank you.

 

Anna

Yep.

 

And then the second bit of advice that I always… because people ask this a lot, no offense. The second bit of advice I always have is that writing is not for wizards. It’s not, like a secret club. And I spend a lot of time worrying about whether I could be a successful writer if I didn’t have like the code words.

 

Allison

The key?

 

Anna

The key. How do I get in? How do I get in? And I would be standing at the edge of the writers’ dome going, “I don’t know how to get in to the writers’ dome.” When actually it’s…

 

Allison

Banging on the glass? Face pressed up.

 

Anna

“Let me in!”

 

That’s not how it works.

 

Allison

So, how does it work?

 

Anna

Well, and so my third one is that you just, unfortunately, have to do it. I’ve wrote a whole thing about this the other week. I hate it when people, writers, say, “You just have to get on with it,” but you really do. The only way that you get writing done is to literally write the words down and it’s… you can spend a lot of time lamenting, not being writing, or not being a writer. And, it makes absolutely no difference. You know? You’ve just got to get on with it.

 

And now that my book is coming out, a lot of people have kind of come to me and said, “Oh, you did it! How did you… I’ve always wanted to do it.” Or, “I’m really so jealous that you have a book coming out.”

 

Allison

“You’re so lucky!”

 

Anna

Yeah, “You’re so lucky.” And writing has nothing to do — I’m making like a weird thing with my hands right now.

 

Allison

I can hear it, yeah.

 

Anna

Nothing to do with luck. And, very much everything to do with perseverance. And, it’s hard. And the thing is that it’s hard. So, it’s easy to stop. It’s so easy to stop writing, to just go, “It’s too hard.” So, the bit that actually gets the work done is perseverance.

 

Allison

So true.

 

Anna

So, villain, wizards, perseverance. Those are my three tips.

 

Allison

We could totally write a fantasy novel about this — we’re onto something here.

 

Alright, well, thank you so much for your time today, Anna. It’s been a lovely interview. I think possibly one of the more entertaining we’ve had, ever, of course. It goes without saying.

 

Anna

Yeah, I mean…

 

Allison

Clearly, yeah.

 

Anna

I can’t believe I’m speaking to the Al Tait.

 

Allison

The one and only.

 

Anna

For me… the one and only A-L/Allison Tait.

 

Allison

Look, I had to sit here and listen to you now for 41 minutes. So…

 

Anna

I know.

 

Allison

Alright. Thank you so much, Anna. And best of luck, The Paper House is out now, and it’s receiving extremely excellent reviews and there’s a lot of talk about it. So, you should get yourself a copy and have a read.

 

Anna

Thank you.

 

Allison

Bye.

 

Anna

Bye.

 

 

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