Writing Podcast Episode 16 Meet novelist Deborah O’Brien, author of ‘A Place of Her Own’


In Episode 16 of So you want to be a writer, we ask do you need to give away your secrets to succeed? Why you must know what an author platform is, how book launches have changed, the 14 stages to writing a book, is it time to stop blogging? Writer in Residence Deborah O'Brien, what happens if you lose your draft, and should you call yourself a writer if you're not yet published?

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Show Notes

Successful authors don't keep secrets

Author Platforms: Here's what the fuss is all about

How book launches have changed in the digital age

Tim Ferriss' pre-order campaign

The 14 stages of writing a book (or finishing any big project)

Why you need to stop blogging and regain your writing soul

Writer in Residence

Deborah O'BrienDeborah O’Brien is a teacher, visual artist and writer. Born and raised in Sydney, she majored in French and German at the University of Sydney where she also completed a graduate Diploma of Education.

She has authored a number of non-fiction books, contributed articles to a variety of magazines and written short stories. Together with her husband and son, she divides her time between Sydney and a country cottage on the outskirts of her own personal Millbrooke. Her latest novel is A Place of Her Own.

Deborah's website.
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Question From Catherine P:
I'm part of writing group for children and YA. Most of us are not yet published but hoping to be one day. We have been told to create online platforms by publishers in the past. My question is, when you're not published how do you refer to yourself? Are we writers, aspiring writers, authors?

Also what sort of content should we include on our social media platforms/websites? I can't help feel like a bit of a fraud, like I'm promoting myself before I should. Saying that I know publishers want to see that you have a presence online.

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Your hosts:

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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I’m delighted to be here, Valerie.

Tell us about your latest book, first off, A Place of Her Own. In case there are some listeners who haven’t quite read it yet, tell us about it.

Well, it’s a story about a woman of a certain age, I guess she’s much like me on a superficial level, building a new life for herself with all of its complications and eventually facing a crisis that she never saw coming. I’ve chosen an older female protagonist I guess because I think it’s really ironic that women of a certain age constitute a significant proportion of the reading public, yet with a few notable exceptions we rarely see ourselves depicted as major protagonists in popular fiction. In fact, we’re usually relegated to the sidelines playing supporting roles, often as stereotypes, dotty eccentrics, busy bodies, even that awful word — cougars. I guess I wanted to tell a story about a heroine in her 50s who’s a real person with aspirations and dreams, and who also has valuable insights to offer the world.

Now you’ve said that we’re often relegated to the sidelines, why do you think this is the case?

Well, I guess on one level it’s a kind of ageism thing. I think that increasingly we’ll see more older women depicted in fiction as the centre of the story. They’re always there on the sidelines as the best friends, or the advisor or the confidants, the grandmothers, the mothers and so on. And I’m speaking about women over 50. If you look at popular fiction you won’t find too many major characters in that age group. As the readership increases, we all have to age, I think there will be an increasing market for that.

Did you face any resistance from your publisher or people who were helping you out with the book or anything like that, to have a protagonist of this age?

No, nobody ever had an issue with it. In fact, it wasn’t raised at all. Of course I started with Mr. Chen’s Emporium, that had two storylines, one in the present and one in the past about two blow-ins to a country town. And the one in the past was a young woman, aged 18, and the one in the present day a woman of a certain age. That sort of set the tone for the other book. The second book is really about two women age 30 in the 1880s building a place for themselves and trying to create an identity in a society which was totally male-dominated. I don’t always write older women. No, there were never any objections, in fact I think quite the opposite.

This book is the third in the series, the first one is Mr. Chen’s Emporium and the second one was the Jade Widow, take us back to when you first formed Mr. Chen’s Emporium in your mind, because I understand at the time that you were and still are a visual artist, how did you go from painting to writing?

I’ve always been a writer and as a child I used to write stories in the back of my exercise books at school, and lavishly illustrate them. I wrote magazines for my family. I used to, through my teens, write — I don’t know that they were novels, but long chapter books, but I wrote in secret. I’ve always been a closet storyteller, but I also had a career — well, I had a career as a teacher, I’ve had an eclectic life. I taught French and German, I’ve worked as an artist, and I also had a career as a freelance journalist and writing non-fiction books in the lifestyle, art and design areas.

I was always writing, and I love the writing. What I didn’t realize was that I actually loved it more than the painting. That’s something that didn’t quite dawn on me until fairly recently. I did have that background and I was a closet storyteller, so although I was out there publicly writing non-fiction I didn’t really let on that I still wrote stories mostly in my head by then, I wasn’t writing them down anymore. Do you know, Valerie, when I give talks — and I tell people I was a closet novelist — at the end at least one person, usually a woman, will come up to me and confess that they’re a closet novelist too. I do say, “Do you think it’s time to come out of the closet?” Or, “Are you happy doing that?” I think it’s quite valid to do that.

The difference between writing for its own sake, which is very pleasurable, publishing or being published is a different thing altogether.

They maybe happy doing that or they may be apprehensive about coming out. Hearing my story, I hope, gives them some confidence to perhaps just show their work to other people, that’s the first step.

When did it dawn on you that you actually preferred the writing to the painting? Was it at a particular point?

Yeah, I think it actually was. That’s a really good question. What precipitated the writing was really my mother, who has always believed in my storytelling ability because she used to read all those stories that I wrote as a primary school study and then in my teens. She was the only one I showed and then after that I didn’t show anyone. She always said to me, “You know, you should write a novel.” I said, “Mom, I wouldn’t have a clue how to do that.” I read widely, but I had no idea, something that was 90,000 words to me seemed absolutely daunting. I said to her, “I can only write fact.” Then about five years ago, Valerie, she said to me, “When are you going to get around to writing that novel, I’m not getting any younger, you know?” When your mom says that to you…

That evening I just went to my laptop, 4:00-5:00, with a glass of wine, and I started typing. I literally haven’t stopped since.

Wow. When you started typing did you start typing what was then to become Mr. Chen’s Emporium, or was that something else?

I’ll let you into a secret, it was something else. That’s the book that’s been going for 4.5 years and it’s my baby and I love it. But, I started Mr. Chen soon after. Being someone who has always multitasked, and that’s what women do anyway, I usually have a couple of projects happening at the one time, so that if I go stale on one or I have problems with a plot point or I just run out of ideas I put it aside for awhile and I go on with the other project, so I never have writers’ block, because there’s always something to go on with.

I started Mr. Chen because I was agonizing over the other book, it was keeping me awake at night, it was making me unhappy. I thought, “I don’t think writing is supposed to do this to you.” I started Mr. Chen and it was a joyful book to write, even though there are dark moments in it. I just really enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I asked an editor friend whether it should be like that, because I thought writers were supposed to agonize, and we hear about Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald and so on, writing for them was always a challenging experience, although they produced magnificent work.

I thought that was the way it had to be and he said, “No.” He said, “Often the most successful projects are the ones that go smoothly during the writing process.” That was very encouraging to me.

I went between the other project and Mr. Chen.

Tell us about Mr. Chen then, because prior to your mother saying this you had not written a novel before. With your first book how did that idea come into your head, how long did it take for you to write, and then take us through the process of the publishing journey, because as a first time novelist at the time I think a lot of people would find that process interesting.

I think having read really widely over the years I had internalized some aspects of novel writing in terms of structure and characterization. I think that’s why reading is so important for an aspiring writer. I had that background.

I was quite inspired by a tree change we made where we had been looking for years for a country weekender and finally found one on the outskirts of an old gold rush town, a little cottage that lies on the banks of a creek frequented by platypus.


It’s beautiful. I wrote a lot of Mr. Chen there, but that really gave me the idea for a woman in the present day who’s a blow in, much like me, an artist who runs classes from home and is rebuilding her life in that country town. That was the initial idea.

Then I thought, “I’m not sure that this is enough.” I started researching some history related to gold rush towns and I decided that I would have a blow in, a heroine, in the past who comes to live in this town — it’s a dusty little place in the 1870s. She’s quite disillusioned by it until she steps through the doors of Mr. Chen’s Emporium, which is a treasure house of possibilities and meets its handsome owner, the Chinese merchant, Charles Chen, and her life changes forever.

Once I had those two storylines I was right, it just went from there. I actually wrote it — I’m not an organized person normally when I write, but I wrote it sequentially, one section after the other, and I would write about the woman in the present day and think, “OK, we’ve reached a point where I can pause here and move back to the past,” and vice versa.

Did you know what was going to happen to your characters before you put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard, or did it just come out and you kind of figured out what happened as you went along?

I have to confess that I’m one of those wayward authors who doesn’t plan. I do have a premise and I have that in my head as I go, and that book was always two women, one gold rush town, then and now — and that’s actually the tagline on the cover. That was always my premise. I had that and I had a structure in that I worked according to the seasons and I also alternated between the present and the past. So, that kept me under control to some extent.

In everyday life I’m a really organized person. I have agendas and checklists, but what I love about writing and what’s so liberating for me is that I don’t do that when I write. If I had to prepare chronologies ahead of time and character cards and plot outlines I wouldn’t write because it wouldn’t be fun. For me, it’s the journey of discovery. I do let my characters lead the way, I understand that I’m writing them, but a lot of that is coming from my subconscious, and so I live the story along with them. Sometimes I’m surprised by the decisions they make and the things they do. That sense of surprise is what makes writing so special for me. When you have those magical moments when something happens that you weren’t expecting it gives you goose bumps, and that’s what I love.

When you let your characters surprise you and you let their lives unfold sometimes they can unfold into areas where it’s very hard for you to kind of progress them out of a corner, or, you know, it just doesn’t quite work. What proportion of your time or your manuscript would you end up throwing out completely because their life took a turn that just didn’t really lead somewhere.

I think, Valerie, I have to rein them in. They’re not totally free rein. I rein them in when I can see that it’s going too far, but in a first draft I might just let them go and see what eventuates.

When I do cut, and of course we know about killing your darlings, well, sometimes we have to cut the writing that we think is our best. I have what I called a deleted scenes file. It’s not like actually killing them, it’s just moving them into deleted scenes. That’s reassuring because I think that I can maybe go back and put it in again later if I need to. Having said that, I can’t recall a time when I’ve taken something from my deleted scenes and put it back, which I think is quite interesting in itself.

I tend to do that as I go, and I tend to edit as I go as well. I guess that comes from magazines days where we really had tight deadlines. I present my publisher with a reasonably polished product, so it’s only a very light copy edit.

You tend to edit as you go, which is really interesting because every writer is different in how they approach that. Tell us then, let’s go back to Mr. Chen’s Emporium, how long did it take you to write? Then what was your process of finding a publisher?

It was probably about a year in the actual writing, because remember I was doing the other book at the same time, so I was alternating. Then I was writing basically because I wanted to give this book to my mother, I wasn’t writing with publication in mind. I know that sounds disingenuous, but that was the way I felt at that time. In fact, I didn’t want to show it to anyone, it was my husband who persuaded me to show it to a neighbor who’s a book club coordinator. She was very kind about it. I thought, “Well, maybe it’s not too bad.” I went to a manuscript professor and they loved Mr. Chen, which gave me confidence. At that point I thought, “Well, look, I’m really happy with that, an objective expert likes my manuscript.” Then a friend said to me, “Look, you really need to take this to an agent or a publisher.”

I guess, to me, fiction is something where your emotions are quite exposed, and I was worried about showing it to anyone beyond the circle that I had shown my manuscript to. But, she convinced me to phone an agent who said she loved the title, and would I send her the first three chapters, which I did. A couple of weeks later I received an email saying she would like to read the full manuscript. At that point I had no idea that reading a full was a significant thing. I sent it along to her, first thinking that maybe she sent that email to the wrong person. Then a couple of weeks later I heard from her saying she’d like to represent me. Well, I was over the moon. I said to her, “Well, this is the pinnacle for me, having someone like you who wants to champion my book and thinks the writing is good.” So, I thought that was it, basically, I was just happy. She said, “No, this isn’t the pinnacle, we have to get you published.”

I thought that would be a very long time, that it would give me a period in which I could kind of acclimatize to all of this, but within two weeks she was getting back to me and saying that Random House loved the manuscript and wanted to publish the book.


That was wonderful news, but it was also quite daunting, because it was going to be out there — people were going to be reading it — the wider public was going to be reading my book. That was quite overwhelming for me. I did feel very exposed at that point. I don’t think I enjoyed that news as much as I should have. As it happened, of course, it all worked out well.

From that point it was a structural edit, which was actually quite a light one. I had a wonderful publisher, who is also my structural editor, who just gives me ideas that enhance the book, so she would just suggest something and I would run with it. I loved that period, I loved to collaborate. Writing, as you know as a writer, is such a solitary process. It’s lovely to get to that stage where you’re collaborating with others and getting feedback on your work, and they’re offering ideas that are inspirational and lead you in new directions.

At the time did it, even in the back of your head, did you think, “There’s another two books in it.”?

No, I never planned to write a trilogy.

Tell us when you started thinking, “Actually, I’m not ready to leave the country town of Millbrook alone.” When did that happen?

I think the response to Mr. Chen, that people fell in love with this town and wanted to move there, wanted to know where it was, and people have been convinced it’s a range of towns. I remember a journalist from the Mudgee area who told me that she was certain the Millbrooke was really Gulgong. Someone else said, “No, it’s Beechworth.” And somebody else said, “No, it’s in central-western New South Wales.” It was that response to the town.

I also had an idea that was living in my head for a long time about the girl from the past and picking up her life twelve years later, in 1885, that’s a period that really excites me in Australian history because we had the advent of the railways and we have a submarine cable system that links Australia to the rest of the empire. We have all kinds of interesting characters that I could have making cameo appearances in my book, like Sir Henry Parkes, the five time Premier and famous artists and so on. Also the catalyst for this book was Australia’s first foreign war in 1885, which was a very brief campaign in the Sudan, but it was important because it was a precursor of bigger, deadlier wars to come — the Boer War and the first World War.

I really wanted to write something set in that period, so that gave me the second book, and I had the title before I started writing the book, that was The Jade Widow.

When did this particular book, A Place of Her Own, come into your head?

A Place of Her Own was really gestating through all that period, because, again, people were saying to me, “What’s going to happen to that woman in the present day who’s called Angie Wallace?” I thought, “I really have to write about her,” because the end of Mr. Chen’s Emporium is a little ambivalent and open as far as she’s concerned. In fact, I find it very difficult to write tight endings. I hope I make them satisfying, but I can’t do happy ever after very much — sometimes I do, but not often. I thought, “I need to resolve this woman’s life…” so that’s how A Place of Her Own came about.

Then I decided it was a really great opportunity to explore the concept of place, both in a real sense, so we have this town where she’s escaped to, it’s her refuge, her bolt hole, her safe haven, and she’s starting a new life there. There’s also the house that she’s renovating, which was the old [inaudible], which is my wishful home, it’s my dream house. That’s also a significant place, and there’s also the sense of place as a psychological theme in terms of being in the right place emotionally, and then at times this female protagonist is all over the place, psychologically. I really wanted to explore that concept in the book.

Can you put people’s questions to rest and actually say what town inspired Millbrooke?

I can say that it’s composite of many towns, and it has aspects of my own, but there are certainly strong aspects of Beechworth, because I did a lot of research there. My grandmother grew up in the central west of New South Wales in the gold rush era, her family had settled there during the gold rush itself. She had lots of stories she used to tell me, some of which I’ve incorporated into Mr. Chen’s Emporium and The Jade Widow. It really is a mythical town, I think that’s why people like it so much because it is quite idealized. In A Place of Her Own we also see the dark side, and the fact that even the nicest town has its secrets.

You’ve written three books, three novels now, but in that time you’ve also at the same time have been writing this other book, the one that you first started when your mother kind of gave you that prod. Tell us where you’re at with that book and has it been an interesting journey? Has it been a frustrating journey that these other three books have come out in the meantime? Tell us how you feel about that book?

I love this book, and I think because I’ve had this very long journey with it I do like it. It’s an illustrated love story that shifts in time between in the 1970s and 2010, and I got to set it in some interesting places, it’s set in London and Canberra. I think it’s about unresolved dreams and unfinished business that really interests me and that’s both on a personal level and on a political level. Although there’s not lots of politics, I cut most of the political stuff, because I did have some information dumped in there.

It’s a bittersweet story and there’s a knock-you-for-six twist at the end, and I don’t normally write things like that, but this isn’t just a twist to pull the rug out from under you, it’s a twist that reveals the implicit prejudice that all of us have. It’s basically finished, but I’m a serial tweaker and I’m still revising, editing and polishing it.

While you’re revising, editing and polishing that have you started another one, as a multi-tasker?

Yes, of course. Yes, I am a multi-tasker. There’s another one that’s almost finished. It’s a novella and I don’t really want to pad it out. It’s about a quirky collection of characters who are drawn together by a common interest, and I think that’s all I can say at this stage. It’s engaging and funny and sweet, it’s just a gentle little book.

When you’re writing do you have a routine? Every writer is different, do you start the day with your cup of tea and then you do this and do that and reach ‘x’ number of words as a target? What’s your routine?

I don’t really have one, Valerie, except when I’m in the country. When I’m in the country on my own, say in the winter, I might have two weeks there, I usually have the cup of tea, but I start writing before breakfast and I’m in my dressing gown, and then lunchtime comes and I miss lunch, and I just keep writing and I will write until the early hours of the morning, I know that’s not a healthy thing to do. But, I did that for Mr. Chen. I wrote a lot of Mr. Chen in the country and I always miss breakfast and what I noticed happening in the book was there are many descriptions of delicious breakfasts in that book, which led me to write a blog article called Never Write When You’re Hungry, because it was almost like a menu at times. I did have to cut that. That just reflected the fact that I hadn’t eaten.

You were hungry!

Yeah. I’m sure that happens to other people too.

I do have bad writing habits when I’m on my own. When I’m in Sydney and I have family issues to deal with I fit in writing whenever I can. I love writing because it’s flexible and it’s portable, and you can do that. Painting is different because you’ve got to set up, you’ve got palettes and easels and paints and then you’ve got to clean up afterwards. I can just go to my laptop and play for an hour and it works.

For those people who are listening who are at the start of their writing journey, they haven’t had their Mr. Chen yet, what’s your advice to them?

I think every writer is an individual, so the sort of advice I that I would have to give would be the general things.

As I said before, read widely. I know that’s a cliché, but as far as I’m concerned a solid background in reading is the foundation of good writing, and you don’t find too many good writers who aren’t also avid readers. I would suggest reading all genre, not just the one that you’re intending to write, because I’ve found, for example, in A Place of Her Own that there are kind of suspense and thriller elements in that book, and I wondered where they came from, and I think it’s the fact that I love reading thrillers. Those sorts of structures where internalized and came out in that book because I certainly didn’t plan it.

A good tip for anybody, this is a practical tip I used to give my students when I was teaching high school is to read your work out loud. Jane Austen used to do it to her sister, and my poor husband has to suffer this all the time, he just goes to sleep. I’m sitting at my laptop and I don’t see that he’s just collapsed in the chair. It’s the actual act of reading it aloud, it’s a great way of finding typos and clunky language and eliminating them. For me, I can also hear the rhythms, the cadences of the prose.

The musicality of prose is very important to me, even though I’m hopeless at music. I can’t sing, I can’t play a musical instrument, but I do love music. Those rhythms are like the soundtrack of a movie. The musicality of the words and the phrases and the sentences will reinforce the mood and the pacing. I’ve been known to change a word from one syllable to a synonym with two syllables or to add an extra word to get an extra beat in the sentence to make it flow properly. I would recommend if you get to proof reading stage I always read the book aloud at that stage, just to check for final errors — it’s a great way of finding them, if you just read it you can easily miss them.

I guess, finally, I know this sounds perhaps a bit perhaps a bit twee, but I really recommend that you write from your heart. Obviously once you have a market then perhaps you have to be in that marketing mind, but you also have to balance that with being true to yourself. I would say don’t try to be someone else. For awhile when I was writing that first book I was trying to be Ian McEwan, I was an incredibly bad Anne Ian McEwan. I decided I better be myself, even though that might be mediocre it was better than inferior, and I learned as I went along with that. Be yourself, write things that matter to you, that you’re passionate about.

I love a quote from Wordsworth that I always remind people about, he said something to the effect of, “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” That just gives me goosebumps because I think when you write from your heart, from your emotions, it almost always works. When you write from your head maybe not so much.

The other thing I’d say is to any aspiring writer is if you want to write don’t procrastinate. I have people who come up to me after a talk and say things like, “I’m going to write a novel when my kids finish school…” or, “…when I retire.” I say to them, “Please, it’s never too early to start.” Perhaps not a 90,000 word novel, if you don’t have the time to devote to that, but pen a blog, write a journal, write articles, short stories, just write. The more you write the more confident you’ll become. George Elliot said, and I’m probably paraphrasing here, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been, but I would say equally it’s never too early to start working on that dream that you have.” I really believe start writing now, don’t put it off.

Brilliant advice. On that note thank you so much for your time today, Deborah.

You’re very welcome, Valerie.

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