Ep 126 What makes you stop reading a book? How to be interviewed as a writer. And meet memoirist Toni Tapp Coutts.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 126 of So you want to be a writer: The main factors that stop readers from finishing books. Effective strategies for surviving working alone. How to avoid being sued when writing your memoir. Finding good words for body parts. Meet memoirist Toni Tapp Coutts, how to be interviewed as a writer, and much more!

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.

Review of the Week
From samanthadennisonartist:

Thank goodness I stumbled onto this podcast via the Australian Writers Centre. I was hooked fI love this podcast. It has relevance and crossover for all Creatives – I listen to it while painting and find that so much of the advice and information is applicable to my own situation as an Artist. Allison and Valerie keep me thoroughly entertained and informed every week. It’s like having my girlfriends right there with me, cheering me on. Thank you so much, ladies. I can’t wait for next week.

Thanks Samantha!

Show Notes
The Main Factors That Stop Readers from Finishing Books

How to work alone

How Not to Get Sued for Your Memoir

Jen Sookfong Lee: ‘There are no good words for certain body parts’

Writer in Residence

Toni Tapp Coutts

about-toni-tapp-couttsToni Tapp Coutts, the eldest of ten children, grew up on the Tapp Family cattle station in the Katherine region. She has been a member of Katherine Region of Writers (KROW) for over 20 years and is a past board member of the Northern Territory Writers Centre. Toni has been published in Meanjin, NT Literary Awards, NT Children’s Anthology and has had her works performed on ABC Radio and Radio National. She has contributed to seven KROW anthologies. In 2010, Toni self-published the biography Bill Tapp Cattle King and was awarded a Varuna residency in 2009 to work on her memoir A Sunburnt Childhood, published by Hachette in 2016.

Follow Toni on Twitter

Platform Building Tip

How to Interview a Writer (and How to Be Interviewed)

Competition

WIN a ‘Figgy’ book pack (FIVE to be won)

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Toni Tapp Coutts is a writer and photographer who lives in remote Northern Australia. She’s also a local counselor and breast cancer survivor. Her first memoir, A Sunburnt Childhood, was published in April 2016 by Hachette Australia.  

Welcome to the program, Toni.

Toni

Thank you so much.

Allison

How about you tell us how your memoir, A Sunburnt Childhood, came to published.

Toni

Well, A Sunburnt Childhood was every writer’s dream. I entered at the North Territory Writers’ Festival two years ago. They ran a program called 15 by 15 by 15. And, the invitation was for 15 writers to submit 15 pages of their manuscript and get a 15 minute interview with a literary agent.

I did that and that’s where I met Sophie Hamley.

Allison

So you entered your 15 pages in that and you were chosen to be one of the 15 —

Toni

Yes.

Allison

— featured manuscripts, so to speak? OK, and so through that you met literary agent Sophie Hamley. Is that correct?

Toni

Yes.

Allison

And what happened from there?

Toni

She asked me had I ever submitted to any other publishers. I said, “No.” She said, “Why not?” And I said, “I didn’t think people really be interested, other than Territorians.” I had been sort of writing it more for a Territory audience, I guess.

And, anyway, she was very interested. And, it was quite a long wait and I wasn’t going to phone her because you sort of think, “Do I ask,” or, “Don’t I ask.” And quite a few months went by, and when I did call her, which she had said to me, “Ring me if don’t hear from me in four to six months.” And she said that she had left that job and was taking up the non-fiction publishing position at Hachette Australia and would I mind if she took my manuscript with her. And I was thinking, “Like I’m going to say no.” I said, “Of course, I would love you to take it.”

Time went by and I didn’t know the process at that stage. And then I spoke to her in January and she said to me that she was taking to acquisitions and she explained what ‘acquisitions’ was and she said, “I’ll call you in a couple of weeks’ time.” And she did. And she said, “You’re in.”

Allison

Wow, how exciting.

Toni

“We will offer you a contract.” It was so exciting.

Allison

At that stage of proceedings, how long had you been working on the memoir? Like, what kind of drafting process had you been through, you know, to get it to a point where you were happy to show 15 pages of it to an agent.

Toni

I had been writing it for 14 years. It started out as a short story that I entered into the Northern Territory Literary Awards in 2002. And the judge was Nicholas Jose, a South Australian writer.

And it just got shortlisted, but I was speaking to him after the function and he said to me, “This is a really amazing story. Is this your story?” Basically, “Is it not made up?” And I said, “Yes, it is my story.” And he said, “These stories are just so important, you really need to be writing them.”

So, time has gone on. I’ve been a member of our local Katherine region of writers called Krow for about 25 years. And I’ve been a member of the Northern Territory Writers’ Centre for about 15 years or so.

I always took advantage of the workshops, always attend all of the writers’ festivals in the top end, which is one every two years. But, the writers’ centre offers a lot of skills development writing workshops all throughout the year, throughout the territory.

And I sort of plugged away it, just writing and writing in between my life, you know, because I’m a small business owner and counsellor and all of those things.

Allison

Once you actually got, like, it went to acquisitions and you sort of began this process to publication, which as you say, was kind of a fairytale journey but 14 years in the making in many ways because you have been working on your story for a long time, was there anything that actually surprised you about the publishing process? Like, where you prepared for what needed to be done from that point onwards?

Toni

No, of course not. I had already done about 50,000-60,000 words and Sophie had said to me, “Just get it over 60,000 words and we’ll work on it from there.” And she was just amazing through the whole process.

Allison

Right, so you worked very closely with her each step through the publishing process?

Toni

It was a very great working relationship and I learned about structural edits and copy editors and all of those words, which is just amazing.

Yeah, it was really, really good. It was easy, because, well, even Sophie complemented me to say that it was, you know, it was already quite reasonably well written, but it did need quite a bit of structural editing because I had written it over such a long time and I was repeating things and getting out of timelines, where a fresh eye would see all of that.

So, yeah, it was fairly painless.

Allison

That’s excellent. That’s an excellent working relationship. I think to have that working relationship there needs to be a lot of trust, don’t you think? That you’re working with an editor who really gets what you’re trying to do and gets what your story is. Do you feel that that’s the case?

Toni

Absolutely. Sophie put a lot of time into me and she came up to the territory and came to Katherine and spent a few days with me and we did a big tour up to the Katherine Gorge, you know?

Allison

Yep.

Toni

It’s a pretty spectacular landscape that we live in. It’s harsh and it’s hard, and it’s hot and it’s dry and it’s also very wet, but it’s… I really wanted to make sure that you got a sense of the landscape I live in.

Allison

Yeah, well it’s an important part of that sense of place, it’s such an essential part of the book, isn’t it?

Toni

Yeah, yeah. And, I think when you have an editor like I had with Sophie she drew those extra bits out of me, the things that I saw. When I spoke to her about it she’d say, “You need to put that in there.”

Allison

Right.

Toni

You know? “You need to put… I can see how much you love the landscape, you’ve got to put that in there and tell us that.”

Allison

OK, so this memoir covers your childhood and it’s a very interesting story. You grew up on Killarney, which is a massive cattle property, 600 kilometres south-west of Darwin, which is pretty much the middle of nowhere, from what I can gather.

Toni

Yes.

Allison

So there’s no running water, you’re sleeping under the stars in swags. Like, when you’re sort of living this you’re not thinking, “I’m totally going to write this down at some point.” So, at what point did you sort of… was it just that short story experience that you made you think you had a story worth writing about? Or had you always thought, “I need to write this at some point.”?

Toni

I think I always knew that I would have to write it at some point because I am the oldest of ten children, and I was always prolific letter writer when I was at boarding school, and my mum was a prolific letter writer, so I always loved writing. And, I was on the school magazine committee and things like that. And over the years even living out bush, I used to run a little newsletter for the Isolated Children’s Parents Association.

So, I always liked writing, but one of the driving forces behind it is I wanted to honour those aboriginal people and all of those stockmen that I grew up with. Many of them are now buried in unmarked graves on cattle stations throughout the region. They don’t maybe mean anything to anybody really, because no one knows anything. But, to me they were really amazing people. So, I wanted to tell that story about those aboriginal people, and my own aboriginal mother and aunties. So, yeah, the stockmen and the crazy cooks and the alcoholic bull mechanics. And on top of that, of course, my pretty crazy family.

Allison

I think that’s one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about, because as you say, like, it’s a very personal story, what you’re writing, it’s your childhood, growing up on the cattle station, et cetera, but it’s also a story that belongs to a lot of other people, isn’t it? Like, you are the oldest of ten, so there are a lot of other people who shared that childhood in a way. And, I would imagine had thoughts on the book? I mean is it difficult to be the keeper of a story that belongs to so many people, but not just your own family, but also you said the stockmen and the people who worked on the station and all of that sort of stuff?

Toni

Yes, and that was a struggle for a long time, Al. It was — I couldn’t find my voice for such a long time, which is why I was tending to write it in a step back as short stories, I think, and not putting myself so much into it.

Once I realised it could only be my story, someone said to me, I think I went to a Patti Miller workshop or something…

Allison

Oh yes, she’s amazing.

Toni

She’s amazing. I got a message from her after my book came out to say how thrilled she was.

Allison

Oh great.

Toni

Which was lovely.

It was in one of her workshops when we were discussing the voice and I was saying, “I’ve got so many stories and so many people to consider, and I just don’t know how to do it.” And when she said, “It can only be your story,” it all fell into place, because then I realized, I said, “I can’t write my mother’s story, I can’t write my father’s story,” he was an alcoholic and drank all the cattle stations, three cattle stations into a $14 million debt.

Allison

Ew, right.

Toni

But, I could tell it from my perspective.

Allison

Right.

Toni

And once I got through that… yeah, I was able to start to develop my own voice.

Allison

Do you think that’s the most difficult aspect of writing memoir is that notion of having so many people sort of sitting on your shoulder the whole way through?

Toni

Yes, and in the end, I also decided through that process that I would just have to take whatever came to me, that I wanted to write the book. I didn’t show it to anybody. My mum read various bits of the drafts and she was wonderful. She’s 80 years of age and still lives in Katherine. So, I was able to check on a lot of facts and things with her…

Allison

Oh great.

Toni

… times, which is pretty lucky.

Allison

Yeah.

Toni

So, that was really good.

But, yeah, in the end, I thought, “I just have to own it, otherwise it’s never going to get out there.”

Allison

So, it takes a lot of courage to do that, doesn’t it? Like, I think if you are really serious about publishing a memoir you do have to be aware of that, don’t you? That you do have to own it. It’s your story, you own it and you also own whatever comes with the putting of it out into the public?

Toni

Yes, yep.

Allison

And were there any dramas? Did you have any problems with that? Or was it essentially a well-received by all nine siblings kind of event?

Toni

Yeah, well, interestingly I’ve got six brothers and I don’t think any of them have read it.

Allison

That sounds about right.

Toni

They go, “We’re not readers… we don’t read.”

But, my sisters-in-laws, most of them said, “Oh, it’s just absolutely fantastic. And I’ve read bits out to Ben or Joe,” or whoever… yeah.

My mum says she loves going to Woolworths shopping because she’s now the mother of a famous writer.

Allison

Fantastic.

So, when you actually sat down to write the book, when you started writing it, did you sort of pick a starting spot and go forward from there? Or did you have bits and pieces that you had written, like fragments of memories and stories and anecdotes and then you had to try to weave those into some kind of narrative?

Toni

Yes, I did. I wrote little pockets of stories and then started to… actually through my writers’ group when I enlisted a couple of my friends to try and critique it a little bit and they were saying, “You’re still writing too much in a sort story mode. You’ve got to make it flow a bit better.” So, that was really good support that I had through them.

Allison

That’s important, do you think? That support from other writers as you’re sort of going through that process?

Toni

Oh, absolutely, because it’s really scary, as you know, to offer your writing and bare your soul. Yeah, it takes a bit of courage to do that as well, I think.

Allison

Yes, it does.

Toni

And because I live in such an isolated area, I mean our writing group is our support group, so we really try… and a few of us are quite experienced now to be very fair. We only critique fairly. We don’t… of course you can’t, you know, make any personal complaints, personal observations and just help that you’re helping each other move along.

Allison

Writers’ groups have different sort of benefits and rules and things like that as they go, but yours is obviously quite established. So, is it mostly to keep the forward momentum of the projects that you guys are aiming at? Do you sort of set rules out? How does a writers’ group work for you?

Toni

We’re a hobby group only, like we’re not a proper incorporated body or anything like that. We’ve actually written seven anthologies over the last 20 years.

Allison

Oh wow.

Toni

I tend to do the covers and a bit of the layout and stuff and we self-publish on Lulu.com

Allison

OK, cool.

Toni

And the whole philosophy for ours is to finish stuff. And so by doing the anthologies it’s like you finish stuff, you put that away or take it onto the next step if you want, and it gives everyone an opportunity to put their stuff out there.

Allison

And make progress.

Toni

Make progress. And we have friends, writer friends in Darwin, you know, well-published writers who often do proofing and a bit of grammar checking for us and stuff like that. So, we have really good support.

Allison

Excellent.

As you say, you live in Katherine Northern Territory, which incidentally is also where I spent part of my sunburnt childhood, so I find it quite fascinating. But, do you think that writers in isolated areas, like Katherine, or even the Northern Territory in general, as you say there’s a writers’ festival every two years and you’ve either got to fly interstate for other things or not, do you think they face particular challenges of their own? And if that’s the case what do you do to overcome them?

Toni

Yeah, well I think it is a challenge. When you don’t get much exposure and the ability to mix with other writers at the level that you’re at, maybe… you know in our group we’ve got a couple of fabulous poets. One of our writers, a doctor here in town, has won the Short Fiction NT Literary Award three times. So, you know, we have really good writers, but, yeah, you still need that exposure, you need to be able to go and talk to people, go to those workshops and panels and things I think, and listen about what people are doing.

Allison

And is that a matter of you having to actually just, like, make the time to go? Like, do you have to fly into state every once in a while just to go to a festival or whatever is on?

Toni

Well, I haven’t. I always go to the one in Darwin, it’s called Wordstorm. I think being such a small festival, I mean I’ve met Germaine Greer and Christoph…, or however you say his name. I was on a panel with Magda Szubanski early this year.

Allison

Wow, what fun.

Toni

Yeah, talking memoir. And of course she’s gorgeous. She is what you see is what you get.

Allison

Yep.

Toni

But, again, then you get that exposure with someone like Magda, who tells you her story of writing this book. She said she wrote almost 250,000 initially because she just had to keep blurting it out and she had done all of the research and been back to Poland, et cetera, et cetera. And then how it comes back down to being a memoir, I think about 100,000 words. And you want to hear that. You want to hear that whether you’re Magda Szubanski or whoever you are, it’s a lot of work and you can’t give up. 

Allison

And you’ve also, I think, spent time at Varuna, which is the writers’ house in Katoomba in New South Wales while you were writing the memoir at some stage in that proceeding, is that correct?

Toni

Yes, and I had submitted a couple of those short stories, which they are all in the book. Peter Bishop was amazing in his support.

Allison

And how important is an experience like that, like to just be able to immerse yourself and spend time in an environment like that? How important is that for someone who writes essentially in isolation?

Toni

Oh, it’s just so important. And it’s sometimes really good just to get out of your home and your routine. I think that’s the best thing about it. At Varuna there were only six of us and to have that evening where you’re only talking to writers, poets, essay, memoir, and… yeah, just pick up all of that really good support, good vibes, good…

Allison

It’s very energising, isn’t it? Spending time…

Toni

Yes.

Allison

Yeah. Yeah.

Alright, so you have a busy life, as you’ve said, you’ve got a small business, you’re a counsellor, you’ve got a family, you’ve got all of these sorts of things going on, when do you fit the writing in? How do you make time for it?

Toni

Well, I had been faffing around for 14 years, so I had quite a…

Allison

But, you were still doing it, weren’t you?

Toni

And so when I got the contract with Hachette I then had to obviously work a little bit faster. So, I dedicated every Sunday. I would get up in the morning in my pyjamas and drink endless cups of coffee and virtually just write at least through until lunch time and often midafternoon and then I would have a glass of wine. I’d usually have a shower. Put some other clothes on.

Allison

I’m glad you were fitting that in as well, excellent.

Toni

And I had dedicated Sundays to that and people got to know not to come by, because I was working full time. But, since I’ve gotten the second contract I have given up work.

Allison

Oh right, OK.

Toni

I still have my counsellor duties and I’m on the Northern Territory Writers’ Centre Board and I’m on the Katherine Museum Board and I’m on all sorts of things.

Allison

Right, so you’re pretty busy.

Toni

So, I still lead a busy life. Yeah.

Allison

That leads me to my next question, what are you currently working on? Because as you said you do have a second contract, so what are you writing at the moment?

Toni

This is more or less a follow-up, A Sunburnt Childhood was very much about my childhood, though it does have a couple chapters saying what happened to the family after all of these things happened. And so the next one is more my adult life of getting married and then going to live on a cattle station, McArthur River Cattle Station, which is down at the gulf of Borroloola. And that was a whole different life to what I had grew up in. The country I grew up on was dry and sparse and there were no big rivers, and moving down to the gulf country were these massive big rivers and crocodiles and barramundi and buffalos and all of the things that I didn’t grow up with.

And a whole suite of other amazing characters and interesting stories and survival and all of those sorts of things.

Allison

Gosh, well that sounds like a good read. So, we’ll be looking forward to that one.

In the meantime what sorts of things are you doing to promote your books? That can be another difficulty if you’re… you can’t just pop along to a library talk in a different Sydney suburb every week, can you? So how do you promote your books from Katherine? What are you doing? Are you active on social media?

Toni

I’m really prolific on social media and always have been.

Allison

OK, so what are your favourite platforms?

Toni

Particularly Facebook, but once I started out on this book I did Twitter, which is where I picked up all of your stuff and the Australian Writers’ Centre.

Allison

See it works, doesn’t it?

Toni

It works, it works.

So, I made the Facebook page before Toni Tapp Coutts Author. I paid for those boost posts. I then got my website done and I’m sure that… my Facebook has been incredible. Just the feedback I get, I know it sells lots of books.

Allison

Yeah, and you’re seeing the conversations on Facebook, I guess. Because that’s the thing with Facebook the conversations tend to hang around longer, whereas Twitter is so quick, isn’t it? You’re sort of like, you blink and you miss the whole thing.

Like, this obviously sounds like something that you quite enjoy, you don’t find it a difficulty to do social media?

Toni

No. No, I think it’s really important. And actually one of the first podcasts of yours that I heard was with the guy from Booktopia — what’s his name?

Allison

John Purcell.

Toni

John Purcell.

Allison
That was such a good interview and I think anyone who hasn’t listened to that particular episode should have a listen to it, because he had so many good things to say, didn’t he?

Toni

It was amazing and how he talked about that you’ve got to get out there and sell books yourself as well. If you’re an author and you want to be out there you have to — well, you don’t have to, that’s your choice, as he said, but it is better if you are on Facebook and Instagram and all of those things.

Allison

So, you’ve taken all of that onboard and you’re running with it, basically?

Toni

Yes, absolutely.

Allison

Go Toni.

Well, we’ll finish up our interview today with our famous top three tips. And so I guess my question to you would be your top three tips for anyone considering writing a memoir?

Toni

OK, other than the write, write, write and don’t stop writing because you can’t edit an empty page.

Allison

Yes.

Toni

For me, quite a bit of research as in just going through photos and jogging my memory, because I’m a fairly prolific photo taker. I’ve also kept lots and lots of paper clippings because my mother does it, she’s a bit of a hoarder. I’ve got all of these arch lever files dating back now to 1996 and I just throw in anything in there of interest.

My family is quite well-known, so they’re often in the media, so there’s lots of paper clips and stuff like that.

But, also for this particular book I’ve kept a lot of on like counsel work. So, talking to people, which I have the ability, of course, to do as well with my mother here and my big family.

Allison

So you’re interviewing the resources that are available to you, basically?

Toni

Yeah.

Allison

To help sort of fill in any gaps of dates or exact times or anything like that?

Toni

Yes. Yep.

Allison

So keep records, I guess, is one thing. Talk to the people around you is another.

Toni

Yes, yeah. I think I have a couple of books and it’s only in those books that I write bits of stuff if my mother says to me whatever, starts to tell me a little story. I might only put down six little dot points, but at least then it jogs my memory.

Allison

And with regards to finding your voice, which you said was one of the most difficult things to actually do, beyond the idea of actually remembering that it’s your story that you’re telling and not everyone else’s story, it’s actually yours, how did you drill down into that voice that is only Toni’s and not the short story writing voice?

Toni

A lot of coaxing from Sophie, who pushed me over the edge and kept saying to me, “You’re a great story teller when you tell stories. You now need to tell it that way.”

Allison

Right, so use your voice.

Toni

Put your personality in it. Use your voice.

Allison

Yeah, because I think that’s a mistake a lot of people make is when they sit down to write something they think that they need to be a writer with a capital ‘W’ and somehow that is a different form of expression to how they would actually just tell the story, whereas in many cases tapping into your own voice is that notion of writing the way you speak, but better, obviously, because you’re going to punctate it properly and you’re not going to do ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ and all of those sorts of things. Would you agree with that?

Toni

Absolutely spot on.

Allison

Alright. Well, Toni, thank you so much for your time today. Your fabulous memoir
A Sunburnt Childhood is of course available now and you’re working on the second one, which we’re all waiting for. And we will look forward to seeing you around the social media traps.

What is your Facebook page, is it Toni Tapp Coutts?

Toni

Toni Tapp Coutts is my personal and Toni Tapp Coutts Author.

Allison

And what are you on Twitter? What’s your Twitter handle?

Toni

My Twitter is Ladybat7.

Allison

Ladybat7? That’s unusual. OK, I wouldn’t have found that.

Alright, well thank you so much. We’ll put those details in the show notes for anyone would like to connect with you on social media. And thank you very much for your time today.

Toni

Thank you for the opportunity, it’s wonderful.

 

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