Ep 137 Get this random writing prompt generator. And meet award-winning author Hannah Kent.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 137 of So you want to be a writer: Get a random writing prompt generator and have you heard about this writing award with a difference? You’ll also get hints on how to craft a good love scene, and unearth some great gifts for writers. Meet award-winning author Hannah Kent, discover tools for scheduling your social media 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 Jason Garand:

Hello from Massachusetts. I found your podcast when searching for ‘how to become a writer.’ You and Allison are a joy to listen to. The combination of Aussie wit and great advice is a wonderful balance. A REAL CRACKER! Sorry, probably shouldn’t have said that. Love the interviews. I get so much insight out of them. My favorite segment, of course, is the Word of the Week. Just joking, though the inerterplay is fun to hear. I’m hooked.

Thanks, Jason Garand!

Show Notes

Random Writing Prompt Generator with Google Sheets

“A plank stuck to her stomach:” What the winner of the Bad Sex Awards can teach us about good writing

How To Write A Sex Scene: Three Authors Weigh In

35 Gifts Under $35 for Writers and Book Lovers

Writer in Residence

Hannah Kent
hannah-kentHannah Kent’s first novel, the international bestseller, Burial Rites (2013), was translated into 28 languages and was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) and the Guardian First Book Award. It won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, the Indie Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year and the Victorian Premier’s People’s Choice Award, and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, The Good People was published in 2016 (ANZ) and 2017 (UK and North America).

Hannah is also the co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary publication Kill Your Darlings.

Follow Hannah on Twitter

Platform Building Tip

Is there one app that can manage and schedule your social media posts across most platforms?

Answered in the podcast!

Competition

COMPETITION: WIN the “Pilot 2017: A Diary for Writers” – two to give away!

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

Welcome to the show, Hannah. It’s very, very exciting to have you here, because of course your book, Burial Rites, was one of the biggest publishing success stories in Australian publishing in the last few years.  

Maybe you could start by, we’ll sort of work forward from there, but maybe you could tell us a little bit about how that first book, Burial Rites, came to be published?

Hannah

Yes, certainly. Burial Rites has a bit of a funny origin story, because I mean if I look back to where I first sort of got the idea of the book it was way back when I was sort of… I first encountered the events that it was based on when I was 17 years old. But, I didn’t really start writing the manuscript seriously until I was doing a PhD at Flinders University in creative writing. I sort of decided to do a PhD because I enjoyed the academic work and I also thought it would be a really compatible career if I wanted to also keep writing.

So, I was doing my PhD and I started writing the book that would become Burial Rites as part of my honors degree and realized basically that here I was trying to write this story about the last execution in Iceland. That I needed to do so much research, more research than I was able to fit into anything during the honors year.

So, I went on to do this PhD. And it was all part of sort of my scholarly research. So, even when I was writing this manuscript I always thought that probably about four people would read it, two of whom being my parents, maybe two examiners as well.

It was written for a thesis. It wasn’t written for publication. I never really entertained the thought that it would be published.

I do remember during the process of researching my PhD and writing this component of it, that I thought, “Well, maybe one day when I have the time down the track I might revisit this as a sort of an early draft and see if I can shape it up into a novel… I might then send it out.”

But, I didn’t really feel that it would ever be publishable standard. I was hoping that it would be high enough for me to sort of pass my PhD and get my post graduate. But, I never really thought beyond that.

And, of course, PhDs are quite intense years as well. I wasn’t thinking of where to go beyond that. I just wanted to get my thesis out of the way.

I spent about two years of my PhD doing research for this book. It involved a lot of translation. It involved me going to Iceland, specifically on a research trip to access primary sources there, census and microfilm and go to the national records and the national libraries and so forth.

One thing I did realize was how much I enjoyed research, which meant that I could endlessly procrastinate and put off the actual writing of the book.

But, the beautiful thing, of course, about PhDs, much like the book contracts, is that they come with deadlines. I think it was probably 2009… maybe a little bit later, I buckled down and I started to write a first draft. And I sat myself the routine of writing 1,000 words a day until I had the first draft out of the way. I thought, “At least that’s something that I can hand up, if I have time with my PhD.”

Allison

You basically did a couple of years of research before you started to write anything?

Hannah

Yeah. Absolutely.

Allison

And then your process was 1,000 words a day? “I’m going to get this thing done.”

Hannah

It was. Yeah, it was.

Really I was very anxious about writing a book. I had never done it. I had written some terrible short stories previously. I actually really loved writing poetry, that was my main love. But, of course, I knew I had agreed to write basically a novel-length manuscript as part of this degree.

I actually went onto that wonderful site, I think it’s now defunct, but I think they’ve got the archives up there, the Guardian Books Writers’ Room.

Allison

Yes, they’re great.

Hannah

Yeah, so they take a photograph of their writers’ room or their working space, and then the writer talks about their process.

I thought, “Well, I don’t know how to write a book. I’ll go have a look at these writers’ room series and hopefully I’ll work out what the routine is. How do people do these things?”

And, of course, one thing that you soon realize after reading a whole bunch of these articles is that everyone has a different process.

But, I did stumble across Sarah Waters’ process. And, of course, she writes historical fiction based sometimes on true events. And I thought, “Well, there’s enough similarities there for me to basically pinch her writing routine,” which was 1,000 words a day.

And so I ended up writing the manuscript basically by doing that. And that did help me, I guess, from getting too bogged down in the detail. It made me sort of get a bit of momentum. I eventually had a very, very mess 120,000-word manuscript that had been promptly put into the drawer to get on with the other exogetical component of my research and my thesis.

And then I actually had a supervisor of mine tell me one day over coffee that there was a new award for an unpublished manuscript coming out, which was the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award.

She asked me, now that I had this shocker of a manuscript, a first draft in the drawer, if I would consider entering it. I immediately said, “Oh, no, no, no, no. It needs a lot of work. It’s over-written. It’s just a first draft.” And she said, “Well, you’ve got a week.”

I said, “No, no. I’ve got a review due. I can’t do it.” I kept on putting it off. She said, “How much are you getting paid for this review?” I lied, I said, “Twenty dollars.” I was actually just getting a free book, I was doing it for free. She said, “Look, why don’t you call the editor up and ask if you can get an extra week, push back on your deadline and instead focus on your manuscript. I think it’s time… use it as an opportunity to get a second draft down for the PhD.” I thought, “OK, yeah, fair enough.” I couldn’t really argue with that.

So I spent this week, I remember I went up to my parents’ house. It was basically like Howard Hughes, the later years. I didn’t emerge from my room. I spent the whole time working, just mainly slashing from this manuscript and trying to get it into a workable order.

I had never done a structural edit before, so I mainly just cut adjectives… and there were a lot of them in there, Allison. I think I cut about 20,000 words of adjectives. The deadline for the award was, I think, midnight on this particular night. I submitted it with 15 minutes to go.

Allison

Oh, you’re kidding. And your parents pushing food under the door, just to keep you going?

Hannah

Yeah, totally. I know. And reminding me to bathe if I got an opportunity, all of these sorts of things.

And then I kind of forgot about it. I was just really chuffed to have a second draft down. Then I was really fortunate that a couple weeks or months later I got a phone call and I was told that I was short-listed. And soon after that I was told I won.

Allison

Wow.

Hannah

And that was really, I guess, where the whole publication journey started for me. It was very much a hook turn that I wasn’t expecting, but one that I’m, of course, still hugely grateful for.

The prize came with a mentorship. They basically said, “Look, let us know which Australian writers you’d like to work with and we’ll approach them on your behalf.” It was out of that I managed to get a mentorship with Geraldine Brooks, which was incredible. She was so generous with her time.

It also helped me move back out of my parents’ house and bought me a little bit more time to keep working on the book. And that was the start of it. I ended up getting an agent and, yeah, continued to work on the book until the agent decided it was time to send out the manuscript.

Allison

So you had no sense at any time you were writing an award-winning book?

Hannah

Gosh, no.

Allison

The sort of thing that it became. Yeah.

Hannah

No, no. Not at all, which is why it was such an overwhelming and hugely wonderful, wonderful, wonderful experience. But, none of it was expected.

Of course, I always had the aspiration to be published before I was 30, which is such a dumb idea, really, in retrospect, because of course every book requires its own amount of time to write. But, this was the aspiration of a 21-year-old. And, so I did want to be published. It was very much something that I was working towards, but I didn’t think it would happen like that. And I didn’t think it would happen with that book.

Allison

The response to it was amazing. And, of course, was there not a bidding war and all sorts of things? There was a huge amount of press. It got amazing reviews.

I mean were you overwhelmed? How did that feel when that sort of all unfolded in front of you?

Hannah

I think I was in shock. All of it is wonderful. And like I say, all of it is something that I’m so appreciative for, because it has allowed me to now write more than I ever thought I would be able to. But, certainly at the time, because it was so unanticipated and because it was so unexpected, it was really disorientating.

I had a few moments were I was just like, “What is going on? What even is this world? I know nothing about the industry. I know nothing of how to even be a published author. I don’t know how to go and give book talks or do any of that.”

And, you know, I had experience of people reading my work, but that had all been confined to the university workshop context. So, getting used to the idea of strangers going and picking up your book, and also people passing judgement on it, being reviewed, all of these sorts of things was… it was an eye-opening experience. But, I’m so happy that it happened the way it did. It was also incredible.

I remember pinching myself. In fact, I still do. I pinch myself constantly about it. It feels like the Sliding Doors moment where really I shouldn’t have that kind of life, that’s something that could have happened, but I don’t know. I feel like it’s a bit of a dream come true, to be honest.

Allison

What happened next? Because it sold into a lot of territories. Were you suddenly doing a lot of travel? Obviously you’re finding yourself on panels talking about writing it, various different things. I guess what my question would be, you found yourself as a published author, you’re doing this job, you’ve got to then — what? Produce another book, how did that work for you?

Hannah

Basically when Burial Rites was sold to a publisher it was sold to different publishers. It was sold into separate territories, not a global rights. The nature of when the manuscript was being sent out to publishers… it had leaked overseas, which is why I was simultaneously signing a deal for Australia and US and the UK. And, then soon after in translation as well. Which meant that from the start it felt… it was a bit intense.

I think even the editorial process… I was working with not only my home editor and publisher here in Australia, but also they were incorporating feedback from overseas. And that intensity continued as the book was sort of published. And then publicity became a big part of it. It was released first in Australia, but then shortly afterwards in the UK and the US.

I started basically with a national tour here in Australia talking about the book. I found that I really enjoyed talking to readers. It’s such an incredibly, like I said, gratifying experience that people not only put aside a few hours of their life to pick up something that you’ve created in isolation, but then will come, you know, on a Wednesday night when it’s pouring down rain and hear you speak.

Of course, people who love books are generally wonderful people. So, I really, really started to enjoy it. But, it was also a very, very different experience for me, being quite an introverted person and quite shy. It was something that I had to get over pretty quickly and get used to public speaking.

I started doing an Australian tour and I was overseas in the US doing pre-publication publicity, speaking with booksellers there. And then going later to do a hardback tour in the UK, then a hardback tour off the back of that in the US. Coming back and doing more events in Australia.

And then as people responded to it, there was a bit of a slow burn in some places. I think people came to read it often through word of mouth, which meant that the invitations for events were on a pretty perpetual roll, which is wonderful. I mean how fantastic. But, it did mean that I was away from the desk a lot, and there was a huge amount of traveling involved. Which, again, fantastic experience. So grateful and appreciative of it.

But, when I sold Burial Rites it was part of a two-book deal, so at the back of my mind when I was traveling around, I knew that I had a deadline for this next book and it had been set for three years after the publication of Burial Rites, because that’s how long it took me to write that first book and that’s what I had asked for, which I know is actually a really long deadline, compared to a lot of other writers who are sometimes expected to produce a book a year, particularly with genre fiction.

I went and did a lot of different travel and was doing some writing at home. And, of course, I also work as a publishing director and editor for Kill Your Darlings, so managing a lot of that work and teaching in workshops and so forth.

Then the last time I toured with Burial Rites was last year in 2015, I went to a series of Canadian writers’ festivals. And then after that I thought, “No, I have to write. I’ve really got to work.” And that was the last thing I said ‘yes’ to. Throughout 2015 I set aside a month to go to Ireland, where I knew this next book was set, to do research. Prior to that all I had been able to do was read. I hadn’t really been getting very much work down.

So, 2016, the latter half of 2015, earlier this year I just — I have never worked so hard in my life. I think I just… I had a terrible draft. I had about 50,000 words when I went to Ireland, which was just all kind of ad hoc, it wasn’t in a linear narrative at all. And then, of course, what often happens when you do research, I came back and realized I couldn’t even use it. And so I ditched the 50,000 words.

Allison

Isn’t that a devastating moment? Like, when you just sort of go, “Ugh.”

Hannah

You know it was, but I had already slashed those 20,000 adjectives from Burial Rites. So, I didn’t know that it could… a book.

Allison

Yeah.

Hannah

I think sometimes… you know, I knew what story I wanted to tell, but I didn’t know which way to tell it. I didn’t know which character I needed or what voice. And, so a lot of my time in anticipation of writing this book was spent playing with these different entry points into this particular kind of narrative.

And when I came back from that research trip I was going over these 50,000 words thinking, “I like you, I think you’re well-written, but you’re not the right way into this…” there was no heartbeat, there was no pulse.

Allison

Right.

Hannah

And so to throw it away and start afresh actually felt quite liberating.

Allison

Let’s talk about your second book, it’s called The Good People.

Hannah

Yeah.

Allison

Tell us a little bit about it. So, you said you had the idea for it even in the midst of this whirl of all of these things going on. Where did that idea come from? And then what happened next? What was the writing process for this one, and was it different to the first one?

Hannah

Absolutely, I actually, when Burial Rites was being applied by publishers, I was asked if I had a second novel in mind. I immediately, sort of, my mind’s eye went through my notebook where I write all sorts of ideas that I get for various stories. Some of them are terrible, some of them have got legs.

And I remembered one in particular that I’ve always been sort of fascinated with. Way back when I was researching Burial Rites, the manuscript for Burial Rites had not even been written. Like I said, I had to do so much research, and so much of that research involved translating Icelandic documents and then working out whether or not they were relevant to what I was doing.

So it was very, I have sort of mediocre fluency in Icelandic, but it’s quite another thing to sort of research historical documents and translate those. And it was really, really tedious most of the time.

I remember one afternoon, I was at university and just sick to the teeth of just sitting there with my dictionary translating these boring Icelandic historical documents. And so I felt like, “Oh, I just really want to take the afternoon off,” but I felt like I needed to keep appearances and give the illusion of doing work.

So I decided to see… read some English for a change and see if I could find any mention of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was going to be my protagonist in English newspapers, any accounts of her executions or the crimes of which she was accused, as I sometimes did. Oftentimes English newspapers reported on foreign events like this, in instances of capital punishment particularly.

Anyway, I was flipping through these old English newspapers, and I couldn’t find anything about Agnes Magnúsdóttir, but as I was reading them and just skipping through the various articles, I happened upon this, quite a short little description of a trial which had occurred in 1826 in the southwest of Ireland, in County Kerry. And the journalist described the trial of this woman who he said was of advanced age, which could have been 45 in contemporary standards, called Anne Roche, who had been accused of quite a serious crime. And I won’t say what it is to give away any spoilers, but she’d been accused of something quite serious.

But, it wasn’t so much the chargers which fascinated me, because I was up to my elbows in these sorts of stories at that time. It was her dissent, she said she couldn’t be held accountable for what happened because she was a fairy doctress, and all she had been trying to do was banish a changeling.

Now I had already encountered changelings, as part of my wider and long standing interest in fairy lores from when I was a kid. The changelings are fairy imposters. Sometimes the fairies like to come and abduct humans, often young children, often young women or new mothers, and they take them away, but not to arouse the suspicion or the anger or the ire of the families from which they’ve stolen them, they leave a fake in the place, which is the changeling. It’s an imposter. It might be an old fairy whose magic would make it sort of resemble the stolen person, or it might just be an old log.

Anyway, I had heard of these stories, these changeling stories. And often the stories talk about attempts to get the original back from the fairies and to get rid of the old fairy imposter amongst them. But, I had never ever heard of any instance where someone actually believed in real life that someone was a changeling.

So, this just fascinated me, this intersection between fairy stories and reality in such extreme circumstances that I felt, “Who is this woman? Who is Anne Roche and what led her to do this thing? And dis she really believe that this person was a changeling? And if so, how? How can she sustain that kind of belief?”

So, I remember I had wrote it down in my notebook and then when Burial Rites was being acquired I thought, “Well, what is a story? What is something that I know I wanted to write about that I could sustain curiosity about for three years?” And I immediately thought of Anne Roche. I pitched it then and there.

So, I always knew the second book that I would write, I just didn’t know how I was going to tell the story. I didn’t know whether it would be like Burial Rites, where I had a huge amount of research informing the narrative. It was very much a sort of a mudding between fact and fiction, or whether it would be more inventive.

So, yeah, that was my starting point, just this tiny little 100-word newspaper article.

Allison

OK, and then what was your process for writing it from there then? Because obviously you did a huge amount of research with Burial Rites, several years’ worth. And I suspect that research is actually, you know, I get a sense that you really enjoy that and that can be often difficult to know when to stop when it comes to that, when you’re enjoying it.

But, what was the process with this one? Because obviously this was a slightly different situation, you were fitting it in around a whole bunch of other things.

Hannah

Yeah, absolutely. My first step was to do as I had done with Agnes Magnúsdóttir, and see if I could find Anne Roche in the historical records. I knew that I could easily find out more information about her or about this particular occurrence in 1826 without necessarily telling myself that I needed to be faithful to those facts in the story. I just wanted to know more about what had happened in I guess the wider context of these events.

And so I started with doing some genealogical research. I mean Ireland, there are so many — the Irish have descendants everywhere around the world. So, there’s actually huge wells of genealogical databases.

And so I tried to find her in many of them, and I kept up coming up with nothing. And this went on for some time. So, I thought, “Well, I can’t waste much more time just searching for her. What I need to do,” was again what I did with Burial Rites, “is learn more about the world in which she lived.”

So, I started then to do a lot of reading, really wide reading as well, about what it was like to be an illiterate peasant woman in County Kerry in 1820, before the famine.

And that wasn’t necessarily easy coming across that information either. The famine was of such significance that it really kind of cast a shadow over everything that happened before in the 19th century, outside of a political environment and the emancipation of Catholics.

And especially when you’re looking for the kind of domestic detail that you want to portray, particularly in the lives in women in the historical context. You’re not often reading about it, it’s hard to find out what clothes people wear and what sort of chores they did and how their days were occupied.

But, I read a lot of fiction, I read a lot of travelers’, outsiders’, travelers’ journals to that area.

I was fortunate in Killarney, the area where all of this was set, was still a tourist attraction back at the time, so there were a lot of people arrive there and commenting, you know, in really derogatory terms about the peasantry.

Allison

Yeah, yeah.

Hannah

And you sort of read through the bias and try to find out about their lives.

I also was doing a lot of research about, obviously, these fairy stories in Irish folklore. But, also the role of women like Anne Roche, within the particular communities that held those folkloric traditions.

I was reading about the keeners and the midwives, and the wise women, and the … and lots of things they did in these communities, and where they were positioned within these communities.

So, even from the start I was getting a sense of this was an outsiders’ story. This was someone who was marginal, but not in necessarily a way that meant that she was powerless. Indeed she would have been quite a powerful woman.

And then I was looking at why people would have feared and respected her. I read a lot of stuff about Irish folk medicine. In fact, I got really into it, it’s fascinating. You should see my herb garden now, it’s just wonderful.

So, I was really trying to get a sense of, “OK, if I can’t find Anne Roche in the historical record,” which inevitably I couldn’t, “I need to know an approximate… I need to understand what a woman like her… what her life might have resembled.”

At the same time I was trying to also find out anything more about this particular trial. When I went to Ireland it was specifically to try to find out other newspaper records, insight about what had happened.

I had this uncanny experience at the National Library in Dublin where I had found a local paper, which had been reproduced on microfilm, from a particular time. I had an article from the trial, and what I was looking for was hopefully something that had been when the actual events had occurred. I thought, “Well, if it’s going to be anywhere, it’s going to be in this local paper.” And I spent three days scrolling through this tiny print of a microfilm newspaper and I was getting closer and closer and closer to the trial date, and I knew that something would pop up eventually.

And then all of a sudden the record just jumped forward six months and I was devastated.

Allison

Oh no!

Hannah

I had spent all this time trying to find it. So, I went into the toilet of the Dublin library and cried out of frustration. And, then came back and just at random picked the next closer paper that had been preserved from that time, which was… it was a completely different county, it was County Cork. And I’m just not even zooming in on this print. I’m just scrolling through these articles, I don’t know, trying to find out the price of potatoes or something from this time. And when I saw just out of the corner of my eye the words ‘Anne Roche.’ And I wound back and I zoomed in and the article that was missing from the first record had been syndicated in this one.

And in this particular newspaper article two other women were mentioned. There was a grandmother called … and there was also a servant. And I had done enough research by now of Ireland at this time to know that the servant girl mentioned would have indeed been a girl, she would have been a teenager. And, that’s when I thought, “Oh, this is interesting. Now I have three women, not just one protagonist. I essentially have three leads.”

And that was all I ended up having, these two newspaper articles about this event.

Most of my research, and I probably spent about 18 months doing it, was about the times that they lived in, but also specifically about these folk beliefs. So, the writing process was very much… you’ve got the ending, now you have to work out how you start it, and you’ve got to work backwards, which is another challenge.

Allison

And would you consider yourself to be an author who… like, when you say you had the ending and you had to work out what happened beforehand, do you outline before you start? Or do you just start writing and then wait for it to unfold as you go, like once you’ve got your characters and obviously your setting is very, very important. So, once you have those two things do you just start to write? Or what sort of… how much plotting goes into what you do?

Hannah

I do both. I do both. I find it hard to plot without knowing my characters. So, I think probably the first 30,000 words that I write is really just introductions. And often I end up throwing out a lot of that. But, it enables me to become familiar with my characters. And then I find what I can do is with that familiarity I can put the characters that I know intimately into situations of conflict and the plot will unfold from there, because I know how those characters are going to react to those situations.

And from that point on it becomes quite easy to map out a book because I know the various things that need to happen and I can anticipate the responses that my characters will have to those situations and then how those responses will perhaps then lead to further situations of conflict.

So, I work very much, I think plot in tandem, you know, you can’t untangle the two. And, for me to, I guess, believe in the world that I’m creating and the story that I’m creating, I need to see the relationship between plot and character.

So, the first things that I do will just be to write… it might just be little scenes that come to mind, it might be a lot of description. And then when I feel that I’ve got a sense of who these people are I often go back and cut a lot of that.

And I’ll start with a couple of events, often with a novel I’ll know the ending. I know what’s going to happen in the ending. So, in this case it was a matter of me… I actually worked in a three act structure, and I have this sort big, blank wardrobe in my office and I get Post-Its and I sort of mapped out the various things that I knew needed to happen, these various points of crisis within a third act structure and then I plotted out some of them.

But, also then I would just write stuff for the joy of writing it, just because I knew I wanted to be included it, or I was sitting at the computer and I just… something would occur to me.

So, in some ways it’s a little bit like, yes, the plotting will lead the process, but then writing will just overtake it and I just follow the writing to where that wants to go, and then I try to catch up in terms of structure. So, it’s a little bit of both leading and being led, I suppose, which is a very sort of unclear… it’s hard for me to discuss that particular kind of process. It was a new one for me with this book. And, I’ve only written two novels, but the more that I write the more that I feel that every book does require its own particular kind of process.

Allison

Yeah. So, the whole time that you’re doing this as well you’ve got various things going on for Burial Rites, but you’ve also got… I mean the success of Burial Rites was an amazing thing, but it must have also added a certain level of pressure to the second book. Did you have that second book syndrome feeling?

Hannah

Yeah, absolutely. And it was probably intensified by a lot of people coming up to me, or writing to me saying, “Oh, new pressure. Second novel syndrome.”

Allison

Oh no.

Hannah

You know, they meant very well. But… it didn’t necessarily make me feel any better about it.

Yeah, of course, you know, I’m human and I feel pressure like the rest of us. And, certainly… I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I wrote Burial Rites for four people, and really only two of them. I was hoping my parents would like it.

But, with this book I knew that whatever I wrote would be read. And, so there were probably a few months where that was really a source of quite — not inconsiderable anxiety for me, because I thought, “Well, what happens? What if they hate it? What if I never get to write another novel? What if my publishers drop me? What if…” there’s endless what-ifs, if you want to think of terrible situations.

And then I basically just had to give myself a little talking to, and reconsider it from a different perspective. So, by that I mean actually recognize that to have a people who, like I said before, want to spend some hours of their life with something that you have written by yourself, you know, alone in my room with my cat and my pajama pants, you know, that’s a gift. What a wonderful thing that is. There’s nothing bad about that. This
is — what a wonderful thing.

Allison

Yeah.

Hannah

And so I began, rather than feeling anxious about it, I started to feel grateful for it.

And then the other thing that I was also doing was to say, “Look, you can’t control how anyone responds to your work, you really can’t. And if you worry too much about that you’re going to hamper the creative process. So, Hannah just write for the love of it. Just write for the same reason that you’ve always been writing.”

Like I said, I always wanted to be published, but I would have kept writing if I had never been published. And if I never get published again I’ll still keep writing, because that, to me, is a source of joy. That’s what I love, is the actual act of writing.

And so I thought, “Well, just do that and enjoy that and don’t worry too much about it.”

Allison

Cross your fingers.

Hannah

So, I did. Yeah, cross your fingers and also just leave it up to the fates a little bit too. But, just try to do your best.

And so I actually, with that, that was actually a really good way to think about it, because I thought, “Well, OK, what do I want to do with my writing? I want to improve. I want to try these new things like writing in a three-act structure.” And so I thought, “Well, let’s use this as an opportunity to develop, and if everyone hates your book and you have to move country, well then you know at least you’ll know that you’ve developed in this way. Or, you gave it a go.”

So…

Allison

When you’re hiding in your cave in outer Mongolia.

Hannah

Exactly. When I’m scraping moss of the walls for sustenance I can think, “Oh well, I gave something a shot.”

Allison

“I gave it a go.”  

With all of that in mind have you actually begun writing a third book at all?

Hannah

Yeah, I have. I’m actually working on a quite a different project at the moment, which is… I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to work two producers based in Melbourne. We’ve received funding through Screen Australia Gender Matters. And so we’re working on the first sort of concept stage of a feature film, which I’m hoping to also write down the track. And, I’ve never written for screen before. So, this is a very, very different process for me. And, I feel like quite a novice, but I’m also relishing that process of learning all of these different skills too. So, that’s what I’m currently doing.

Allison

Fantastic.

Hannah

But, I do know what my third book would be. So, hopefully I’ll get started on that next year.

Allison

Excellent.

Alright, well, just to finish up for today, I would like to ask you the question I ask all of our authors, what are your three top tips for aspiring authors?

Hannah

It’s a good question. I can only ever really do — I can only really ever pass on the advice which I received and found useful. So, I’m certainly not the origin or the source of this advice. I think much of it is commonsense.

I think the first one is to read. I remember when I was teaching at university there would be some people who really, really desperately wanted to be writers, but just wouldn’t read. And, I don’t really understand that. I think the best way to learn how to write and how to improve as a writer is to read. Read stuff that you don’t necessarily want to write, but read widely, read different genres. Find out what it is that you do enjoy and why you enjoy it. So, read just for the sheer joy of it, but also read closely.

Also, when I’m stuck in my own work I’ll return… I read a lot of poetry when I’m writing. And, often that’s because I’m struggling with my own… I can’t communicate this idea that I have. And, I really admire poets’ way of conveying so much in so few words. I love their concision, and the precision of their work.

So, by going away and reading poetry I will be both inspired, but I will also study it as a technique.

So, reading, definitely. Just read.

The second thing is that I think don’t wait until you’re ready, because I think so rarely do we feel ready for anything in this life, writing included, particularly creative projects which necessarily… you’re operating in an atmosphere of uncertainty. That’s what makes it original. You have no guiding light, you have no sense of how it’s all going to turn out. It’s mysterious, but that can often mean that we don’t really know where to begin.

I think the best thing to do is just begin. Just start. Don’t wait until you feel ready for it.

Perhaps third would be to just work and trust in the process. I mean talent is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t actually count for much in the long run. I think what counts is showing up, having a writing routine, sitting at the desk, even for just 20 minutes a day, or whatever you can manage and working, and writing when you don’t feel like it, but just showing up. I think that’s how books get written.

I don’t think books get written through muse, muses or gifts of talent or genius. I think books get written by people who read and start when they’re not even sure what they’re going to do and who just keep showing up and keep on doing it. I think that’s the secret.

Allison

I have to agree with you on all of those things.

Thank you so much for your time today, Hannah. We really, really appreciate it. Best of luck with The Good People. It’s been really well-received and I’m sure it’s going to go gangbusters for you. And also best of luck with the screenplay, fantastic.

Hannah

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

 


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