Ep 141 Awesome hacks that will give you more time to write. And meet Kristel Thornell, author of “On the Blue Train”.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 141 of So you want to be a writer: Awesome hacks that will give you more time to write, famous typos from first editions, and discover how to set your writing goals for 2017. Meet Kristel Thornell, author of On the Blue Train. Also: why you need to do a social media audit and 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 Richard:

Great work Val and Al. Just loving the podcast. After 36 years with a telecommunications company, have now embarked on writing my first novel and find your weekly info sessions a great way to stay immersed in the place I want to be.

Thanks, Richard!

Show Notes

20 time-saving hacks that will free up hours in your weekly schedule

15 Famous Typos in First Editions

My Writing Goals For 2017

Writer in Residence

Kristel Thornell

Kristel Thornell was born in Sydney, Australia, and has also lived in Italy, Mexico, Canada, Finland and the US.

Her first novel, Night Street, co-won the 2009 Australian / Vogel Literary Award and won the 2011 Dobbie Literary Award and the 2010 Barbara Ramsden Award and many more. Thornell was named one of the Best Young Australian Novelists by The Sydney Morning Herald in 2011. Her short fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in publications such as Meanjin, Overland, Southerly and Mosaic. Her new novel, On the Blue Train, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2016.

Visit Kristel Thornell’s website

Platform Building Tip

Why you need to do a social media audit

Competition

WIN The Girl on the Train book and DVD pack!

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

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Kristel.

Kristel

Thank you for having me.

Valerie

Now, On the Blue Train. For those listeners who haven’t yet picked up this book – which they should – can you tell us what it’s about, in your own words?

Kristel

Yes. Well, it imagines the eleven days in 1926 during which Agatha Christie, at the age of 36, disappeared from the countryside near where she was living outside of London, about 30 miles outside of London, and went to stay in a spa town in the north of England under the pseudonym Theresa Neele. It was quite a mysterious episode in the writer’s life, and the novel reimagines it. I wanted to see if I could create, in a way, an internal landscape to match that very unusual psychological situation.

Valerie

Yes. Very unusual. But were you an Agatha Christie fan from way back? Or how did this form? It’s quite the specific thing.

Kristel

I wasn’t particularly. I’d seen adaptations on TV as a child and I’d read the odd novel here and there. But I hadn’t read a lot of her. So I came to her work, actually, more through this story. When I heard this story I was captivated and I began to read everything I could find about her. I read biographies, I read her autobiography, and slowly found my way into the research. But then came to the novels via that interest.

Valerie

So when you say that you discovered this story, and you were captivated, was it at that point that you thought – this is going to be my next book? Or did you just start researching it because you were interested in this strange disappearance?

Kristel

I think I did, strangely enough, think of it as being fictional somehow almost immediately. It’s hard to say why I knew that. I remember I was folding laundry, I was listening to the radio, and I heard the story mentioned on the radio. And I just came in – I was in the next room with the laundry rack – and I came in to be closer to the radio and just sat on the floor and thought, oh, that’s interesting. And I could see, it was very visual to me very quickly, almost cinematic. I could see the hotel, I could see the time, I could see her arriving in a very disoriented state at the hotel. So I think it took off in my imagination quite quickly as fiction, funnily enough.

Valerie

So apart from researching, you know, through the internet and just what was easily available, what other kind of research did you do? Because it’s set, you live in upstate New York, you’re from Sydney, you don’t live in a spa town in England.

Kristel

No, alas!

Valerie

So what kind of research did you have to do to make this authentic?

Kristel

Well, there were several stages. After I read the biographies and the autobiography and the early novels, I took my first research trip to the UK. It took a couple, actually. There I looked at old newspapers covering the disappearance. I spent a week with the archive of her professional papers at the University of Exeter. But I particularly focused on spending time in the places that were important to her development and to the story. Capturing a sense of place is always really, really central to how I work. So I spent time in Torquay where she grew up. I walked the streets of the town around where her house used to be, the beaches. I stayed in the Grand Hotel where she spent her wedding night in 1914. I spent time in Newlands Corner, the area from which she disappeared near the Surrey-Berkshire border, and walked around those fields and thought about how she might have walked on the night that she disappeared. Walked to the train, as she would have done. I went to Harrogate. So I went to the spa town where she spent those eleven days. And I stayed in exactly the same hotel where she stayed for exactly the same amount of time. The hotel fortunately still exists.

Valerie

Oh wow.

Kristel

Yes. So that was incredible. And I really tried to – I was alone there – and I really just tried to enter the character that way. I felt quite possessed, really, when I was staying there. And I walked around the parks and I went even to the royal baths, and the Russian Vapour Room, and tried to sort of recreate the sorts of days that she might have lived.

Valerie

Did you, when you said you were sort of possessed a bit, it sounds a little bit freaky, were you being her as you did all of this?

Kristel

To some extent, I think so. Not in a particularly theatrical kind of way; in an internal way. But yes, I think I do really need to inhabit characters, or have them inhabit me. It’s quite an intimate sort of process for me. That seems to be the way that I need to work. I have to really feel that I’m inside someone’s mind.

Valerie

Wow. So can you give us some idea of some timeframes? Like, when you first heard of the story and started researching it, thinking this might be a novel, and then the timeframe for when you went to spend your eleven days there, and then how long it took to write the first draft, and so on. Just to give us some idea of what kind of time period this took in your life.

Kristel

Sure. So I think when I first heard the story, I was still working on my first novel. So at that point, the idea took root, but it wasn’t really able to get very far. It was there in my mind cooking somehow. And I’d written down some little scraps of voice, and I had notes from that time. But I didn’t come back to work on it seriously for maybe another year.

Valerie

After you finished the first novel?

Kristel

No. After I finished the first novel, probably once I’d finished with the distractions of the book coming out, I probably got down to work fairly quickly. I always like to be in the midst of a novel. So I started work on that as soon as I could once I’d finished with the first book. So the first stage of research might have taken six months, say, before the first trip to the UK, which is when I started writing more seriously and being more in a fictional space. I often find it quite tricky balancing research with actual writing. I tend to need to do the research then put it aside in order to write. And then maybe go back and check facts, do a certain amount of cross-checking. But different parts of my brain seem to work on those two different things.

Valerie

Sure. So your first novel was published in 2010. Presumably it was shortly after that you started working on this. So maybe it was 2011 when you went on your trip, do you think?

Kristel

That’s right. That sounds right. The first one, yes.

Valerie

So when you did your research then, speaking of that research and the fact that you feel that you need to kind of do it first, what form does that research take? Just on a practical level so that other writers can understand. Do you store it all in Word? Or do you have a Pinterest board? How do you actually collate everything?

Kristel

Notebooks. Yeah. Notebooks, I tend to use a lot, because I’m out walking and I like to be able to work by hand. I do have files on my computer. But notebooks mainly. I also take photographs which I look at quite a bit later. And sometimes even sketch a little bit. I’m not much of a drawer but I do do that. And so the early stages are fairly chaotic, and then I start sort of bringing things into a draft. But I re-write a lot. I should say that the process, so I maybe rewrote three times. And I also need to put novels aside and let them sit and come back to them. This one also took quite a bit of time because I would put it aside and work on another novel, just to give my mind a bit of a rest, and then come back and look again.

Valerie

So if your trip was then 2011, and you needed to have a little put that away and let it brew, did you start your first draft say in 2012?

Kristel

I would say so, yes.

Valerie

Right. That’s interesting. I’m just wanting to give people an idea of the gestation period of something like this. And when you did your first draft, say you’re ready, I’m going to do my first draft. Is it then a case of – this is my full-time thing while I’m writing my first draft. Or did you have to fit in other obligations and responsibilities?

Kristel

At that point, I’d finished a PhD and the first novel had been published, and from then I basically wrote full time. I did do some other bits of writing. I did some reviews and other things that distracted me and took me out of the novel and I had to go and do some publicity in Canada for the first book that came out in Canada. So there were things that took me away from the writing. But I was quite focused for large slabs of time.

Valerie

And so when you did that, when you were in your focused period, did you have a… Firstly, how long was that period, for your first draft? And also, did you have any set goals? Like, I’m going to write 1000 words every day, or anything like that?

Kristel

It may have taken, it probably took about a year to write the first draft. With periods of rewriting. It’s always very hard to map that in retrospect. But I didn’t think so much about how much material to get out a day early on. As I got going, I picked up speed and then I would often throw down a whole messy chapter in a day. But then go back and really obsessively rewrite. So it’s very hard for me to measure how much I’ve done each day, because some days I might seem to get a lot down, but then I’ll spend maybe a week cleaning up and polishing that.

Valerie

And are you the sort of writer, did you plot what was going to happen from the beginning? Or did you just see what was going to happen as you started writing?

Kristel

More the latter. I’m always very guided by voice and a sort of intuitive sense of rhythm. With this, I knew that I had eleven days to work within, so there was a kind of a minimal structure, if you like. It felt a bit like a film, or like a play, to me in some ways. Something sort of circular about it. But I had to work within the facts. So with this novel I tried to keep the facts as they’re known as much as possible. I almost didn’t change anything, or if I changed things they were very subtle. There were subtle changes that didn’t seem to alter the meaning very much. But I invented within the gaps, within the gaps. And I think that evolved as it was happening, I invented a character completely. I invented Harry, an Australian character, for example. And he just sort of developed, he wrote himself to some extent.

Valerie

When you’re writing something like this, a reimagining of something that’s kind of a fictionalised account of a factual situation, what do you need to consider to be responsible, in a sense, to facts?

Kristel

It’s a really interesting question. I thought about it a lot because I had similar questions to consider for my first novel which was inspired by the Australian landscape painter Clarice Beckett and her art. And with that novel, I really wanted to be quite loose in the way I worked with biographical fact. I wanted to do something stylistically that in a way mirrored what she had done as a painter. Because she focused on light and shade, rather than detail. There was something very impressionistic about the way that she worked, and I wanted to do something equivalent to that in my fiction. With this book, I really wanted to just imagine within the facts that I had. Because they were so compelling, and in a way quite spare anyway. They gave me a lot of freedom within that eleven-day period. I had to…

Valerie

Yeah, go on.

Kristel

I had to encourage myself to feel free, I guess, to invent. And to really see it as a novel, to see it as a blending of fact and fantasy and fiction. I guess for me, novels are always that. But I had to remind myself that that was the case sometimes with this.

Valerie

Yeah. I would find that so hard. Did you have any particular techniques or anything that you did to enable you to do that?

Kristel

It’s a good question. I don’t know. I suppose just really trying to inhabit the character and trying to imagine how I would have felt in that situation. Sort of come at it in quite a, by a very intuitive sort of route. Try to trust the process, let that be my guide.

Valerie

Now, your first novel, Night Street, was the co-winner of the Vogel. And it was released in 2010, as I mentioned. Did you always want to be a writer? From when you were little? Or did you discover that later?

Kristel

I did.

Valerie

You did?

Kristel

I absolutely did. Always. I also sort of fancied the idea of being a detective for a while. But I always wanted to write, always. And I always wrote little scraps of things, and thought I was writing stories or novels. So that is very much something I’ve always wanted to do. And I can’t remember not wanting to do.

Valerie

Wow. Do you remember when you wrote your first novel? Whether or not it was published, you know what I mean, your first effort at a long thing?

Kristel

I remember something quite long that I did in primary school. Maybe in third grade.

Valerie

Are you serious?

Kristel

Yeah. Which had some mystery elements. But I don’t think it had much going for it, really.

Valerie

Wow. What did the Vogel do for you?

Kristel

I guess it was encouraging. I mean, I felt enormously lucky. But it was very surreal. I had sent the manuscript to the competition really just sort of thinking that there was no chance that the manuscript would be chosen. So it was a huge shock. And of course it brought publication with it. So it changed how I wrote, and it changed my writing life in that sense in a radical way. It created a relationship with Allen and Unwin and it brought the book into the world. So it did really change my situation a great deal.

Valerie

What do juggle writing with now? Do you write full time now? Do you do other things? What is it that you do there in upstate New York?

Kristel

At the moment, yeah, at the moment I am writing full time. I’m trying to write the next novel as fast as I can. In the past I’ve taught languages and yoga and done various bits and pieces. But at the moment, since the PhD, actually, I’ve tried to focus on writing full time. Which feels like an incredible mad luxury.

Valerie

So you mentioned that you kind of like to have a couple of novels going at once. So what other novel did you have going while you were writing On the Blue Train?

Kristel

So the one that I’m working on now, that’s the one that I’m still working on now. It’s set, more or less, in the present day, although there’s a section of it that takes place in the early nineties. And it’s set mainly in Australia, in New South Wales. Also a little bit in the US and in Italy. And it looks, there are five friends at the centre of the book, and it explores the complicated connections, the friendships, the romantic longings between these five people over quite a long period of time. It explores expatriate life a little bit, and nostalgia. Nostalgia is something I’m really interested in. How we dream of places and remember them. And all of the characters are very marked, if you like, by nostalgia. Their lives are shaped by that. It’s difficult to describe.

Valerie

Sure. So if you’re doing something like that, you’ve got five friends, as you said, do you fully flesh out their characters before you start writing and have, you know, dossiers on each of them of what they look like, what they like, what they don’t like, what they’re into? How do you create them?

Kristel

This time I pretty much have, yes. And I have a lot of detailed notes about their back stories, about their childhoods. I do know exactly what they look like. They’re quite vivid to me. A lot of the detail of their lives comes from things I remember from childhood. So there’s been a real process of reconstruction for me in that, remembering things. Even remembering down to really fine detail, like remembering types of chocolate bars, and things like that. So I’ve really thought a lot about the material world that they’ve come out of. More than I’ve done before, I think.

Valerie

Why is that?

Kristel

I don’t know. Maybe because they’re from a time that I remember very well.

Valerie

That you were in?

Kristel

Yeah. Possibly for that reason.

Valerie

Now you say that you kind of have this luxury of writing full time. Do you have structure to your day? Like, can you take us through whether you have some kind of writing routine? Like, you do this in the morning, and then you do this and this?

Kristel

Sure. Yeah. That’s really important to me, actually. I have to be incredibly strict with myself. I work, I try to work six days a week. If I have a deadline sometimes I’ll even work on Sunday, but I try not to. If possible, I sit down at my desk right after breakfast. That works best for me. And if I sit down with a cup of tea or coffee, then it’s a bit like a treat. I sort of look forward to that. And I like to begin that way, because I’ve sort of begun working when I’m still a little bit, not entirely awake, and I find that I’ve eased myself into it before I quite realise what I’m doing.

Valerie

Which part is the treat? The writing or the tea?

Kristel

The caffeine.

Valerie

Oh okay!

Kristel

A bit of both. A bit of both. They work off each other.

Valerie

Okay.

Kristel

But that sort of feels like a nice ritual to me. And I always start by going back to a part of the scene, to a scene, say, where things seem to be flowing. So I come in where I had a sense of, at a point in the novel, where I had a sense of movement, so I can step into a flow, if you like. And then I go forward from there. If that makes sense.

Valerie

That makes a lot of sense.

Kristel

That really helps me. And so then I try to get a couple of solid hours done before major distractions enter, before I will think about email too much, or research, or other things that I have to do.

The other thing that’s really important to me is – well, two things I might mention, actually – one is that I have repetitive strain injury from computer use. So I find that what works well there for me is to do 25-minute computer sessions. So I’ll do 25 minutes and then I’ll get up and walk around. I might put the kettle on, or I might do some stretching, just get the blood flowing, go and look at the sky or something and come back to my desk. And that actually I find is really good. When I first started having to do that, when I had some pain in my hands, I thought, oh no, this is going to really break my rhythm and my concentration. But I’ve learned to work that way now. And I actually like it. I find that it sort of wakes me up. And then when I am sitting at a computer in a session, I feel really focused for those 25 minutes. So I quite like working in that way.

And then I will always do something like have a swim or a walk later on. And that’s also really important to me, I think, just to sort of stay healthy. And also to keep my mind healthy. I often do useful thinking about the work when I’m swimming.

Valerie

Now you said that sometimes you might write a whole slab, and then you might spend the next few days rewriting it. There are a lot of people who often say don’t rewrite as you go along, just get it all out. Do you find that that works for you? Or do you find that sometimes it holds you back, because you’re being distracted by the rewriting instead of keeping the story going?

Kristel

Yeah. Sometimes, I think it depends. Sometimes I really like to feel that I’m creating something quite solid as I go. I really pay a lot of attention to the language and can do a lot of fine editing over and over and over again without being able to move very far forward. Sometimes that can feel a little bit frustrating and you can feel that you don’t have the momentum that you’d like. But I sort of try to balance the two things. So I’ll rewrite certain sections, but I’ll try to keep running forward also with other bits, if that’s clear?

Valerie

What do you mean?

Kristel

So I’ll try to, there might be some sections that I come back to and edit, almost as if they were poems, just over and over and over again until they really get to where I want them to be. But at the same time, say on the same day, I might also be working on a much looser section of a chapter, where something is quite chaotic and all over the place, but I’m producing material quite quickly. So I try to do both things.

Valerie

Right. So back to On the Blue Train, what was the hardest thing about that process? If you take the writing and the research and whatever, just producing this book, what was the hardest thing about it? The most challenging thing?

Kristel

Maybe balancing those two things. Having to be in two parts of my mind, like that, in parallel. And letting myself forget about one while I was in the other. That was probably one of the main challenges, I would say.

Valerie

What was the most rewarding thing?

Kristel

I loved the travel, I think. That really helped me. Yeah, I did. But it really helped me to find the voice somehow, just being in those landscapes. I love sort of connecting deeply with a voice while I’m in a place that seems to be helping to shape that voice.

Valerie

I just love the idea that you spent eleven days at that place, and you did all of the things that she may have done, or you went to the places that were important to her. I just think that that’s awesome. Are you doing a similar thing with your current novel that you’re working on?

Kristel

Not yet. I might down the track. At the moment, because a lot of it’s taking place in Australia, I’m having to do that via memory. But once I have a more solid draft, I think I’ll then go and spend time in the places and sort of compare the landscapes I’ve created by memory with the real ones. And I’ll do the same with the Italian section. The Italian section will be set in Trieste.

Valerie

Oh, that’ll be tough.

Kristel

I know! You have to make sacrifices.

Valerie

Yes. Definitely. What do you find most rewarding about writing? And when you’re writing, what’s the feeling? As in, do you feel liberated, do you feel like it’s wading through concrete? Can you describe it?

Kristel

It’s quite addictive for me, I think. I feel restless and a bit unanchored when I’m not doing it. So I have a real compulsion to be doing it. Which is not to say that it’s always easy to be doing it, or pleasurable. I’m often, there are always lots of challenges. But I feel much better when I’m in the flow of writing, when I’m in the process, when I have a book sort of on the go. There’s something that really brings me back every day to wanting to be in that space.

Valerie

And what’s the most rewarding thing about writing? Not specifically this book, just the writing process?

Kristel

Just in general?

I think it makes you think very deeply about things. When you have to describe something in a way that will make it feel vivid to a reader or make it ring true, you have to go very deeply inside the actual experience and analyse for yourself the components, the subjective components of an experience. So you’re having to be quite, very, very mindful, very awake to sensation, to all the subtleties of thought and feeling, I think, in order to be able to portray them in a way that has some life to it.

Valerie

Interesting. Okay. And finally, what is your advice to aspiring writers who are listening to this and hope to be in a position like you one day where they too can write full time and have their novels published?

Kristel

So how many pieces of advice? Just a few?

Valerie

Well, maybe pick your top three.

Kristel

I would say, finding a routine that works for you is really central. Something that is doable. Don’t set yourself up to feel like you’re not achieving your goal. So figure out something that you can actually achieve, an amount of time at a certain time of day when you know you’ll be able to actually get that done. And try to have it balance self-discipline. There needs to be a sense of a reliable structure that will support you and that will keep you in place, and make sure that you get something done. But you also need to enjoy it as much as possible, I think, otherwise you won’t stay with it. And the processes are so long and you need so much patience, that you’ll have to have something that both supports you and helps you to discipline yourself and will not feel like suffering. So I’d say that, the routine. Secondly, and I’m sure everyone says this, read. Stay surrounded by books that inspire you. But I might extend that, I might say books, and also other forms of art that speak to your imagination. So perhaps movies, perhaps music, visual art. Whatever stimulates you and feeds your creative imagination. And maybe other experiences, too. Perhaps swimming or bushwalking or whatever seems to help you to think creatively and support your creative thought. So make sure you stay inspired in a broad way. And lastly, I might just say, have notebooks with you. Have them around. Have them in your bag, in your coat pocket. Maybe on the kitchen counter. The kitchen counter is important for me. Maybe beside your bed, beside your desk. And whenever you have a scrap of dialogue, an idea, an odd word or an image, or anything that comes to you that you think you might be able to use at some point, do jot it down. And that will help you to feel that you’re sort of in the flow of a creative process. Even if you’re not really at your desk, working in an obvious way, you will be visiting that creative room in your mind and it will help you to feel connected to the process, just to have those notebooks around. Even when you’re not using them.

Valerie

I love it. That’s great advice. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today Kristel.

Kristel

It’s been really lovely, thank you.

 

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