Ep 194 Crime writer arrested for alleged murder admits his guilt. Meet Sophie Green, author of “The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club”.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 194 of So you want to be a writer: Discover lawyers who moonlight as romance writers. The intriguing case of a crime writer arrested for alleged murder, plus short story writing tips from Cathie Tasker. And meet Sophie Green, author of The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club.

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

Show Notes

These attorneys practiced law by day — and wove stories of seduction by night

Author Writing Book About Murderous Author Arrested for Murder

The secrets to writing successful short stories

Writer in Residence

Sophie Green

Sophie Green is an author and publisher who lives in Sydney. She has written several fiction and non-fiction books, some under other names. In her spare time she writes about country music on her blog, Jolene.

She fell in love with the Northern Territory the first time she visited and subsequent visits inspired the story in The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club, published in 2017 by Hachette.

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Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript 

Allison

Sophie Green is an author and publisher who has written several fiction and non-fiction books, some under other names. In her spare time, she writes about country music on her blog, Jolene. She fell in love with the Northern Territory the first time she visited, and subsequent visits inspired the story in The Inaugural Meeting of The Fairvale Ladies Book Club, which is out now. Now, first up Sophie, welcome to the program.

Sophie

Thank you.

Allison

So tell us a little about your novel. The Inaugural Meeting of The Fairvale Ladies Book Club, it’s a very long and involved title. Do you consider this to be your debut novel, for starters?

Sophie

Look, I don’t particularly, but I think from a publishing point of view it is a debut because it’s the first time I’ve written something like this. And it’s actually the first time I’ve written something in print, fiction-wise. So I think for all intents and purposes, it’s a debut, yes.

Allison

Does it feel, to you, does it feel like it’s got more weight to it because it’s a thing, or not?

Sophie

No, because everything I’ve written I’ve treated as having equal weight. It certainly is the longest thing I’ve ever written, because it’s over 100,000 words and I had to write those 100,000 words a few times. So it certainly does feel word-wise weighty, if that makes sense.

Allison

And have you been working on it for a long time? Is this a labour of love that has been coming for a while? What was the process of getting it to print?

Sophie

I had a few chapters that were taken to an acquisitions meeting. But from the start of the first draft proper to the end of the fourth draft was ten months. And that was last year. And that was in and around my day job. So it was not a labour of love and it wasn’t something that I had sitting in my brain for a long time. It was an idea that came upon me pretty quickly. And I moved pretty quickly. But that’s where the publishing side of things comes in. I didn’t feel like waiting and letting it ferment, as I often advise other people to do. But in this case, I just moved on it.

Allison

Okay, so how did it come to be published? Because you do work for Hachette, which is your publisher, you work as a publisher of nonfiction books for them. So, tell us first of all a little bit about the book, and then where the idea came from and what happened from that point.

Sophie

The book, at a top-level description is about friendship and books, and grief is also a major theme in there. And it’s about five women living in the Northern Territory. It starts in 1978 and goes through 1981. And so it’s about the friendships they form and books are the catalyst for those friendships. But the story is really about their friendship.

But it’s also about, I think, the importance of stories in people’s lives and how stories connect us, and how we use stories as a shorthand to form connections. You have books in common, or music in common, or TV shows or movies in common with friends. And that often forms as a shorthand to make a friendship and sustain friendships.

So really, I was interested in looking also at how families are made and not born. And I think friendships can form family units, particularly when there are circumstances like weather and distance, friendships are tested. And so all of that interests me. And I think living in Australia as well, distance and weather are such a factor in a lot of people’s relationships. A lot of us have friends who are all over the country and we can’t see them easily. And that’s still the case today, even though air travel is so convenient.

Allison

Okay, so what was the catalyst for it? In a sense of what made the idea, because it’s set on a station in the Northern Territory, predominantly, in the 1970s. So what was the actual catalyst for that setting? And this notion of bringing the books into it as well.

Sophie

So the catalyst for the setting was actually going to the Territory for work. And travelling to the town of Katherine and seeing the landscape between Darwin and Katherine. And I also, and the other catalyst for it was The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough. So I’ve long loved that book and been kind of obsessed with its role in our culture. And had often wondered why I had never seen anything like it again coming through, manuscripts that I’d read in the course of my job.

And I just thought, you know, I think we need a bit landscape story for Australian women. Because there are landscape stories, but I don’t often see a lot of women in those stories. And I also thought about what could bring women together in a landscape as challenging as this one. What bridges distances? And the answer was The Thornbirds, actually, and that is the first book that the book club reads.

So from that idea of The Thornbirds it then became a question of, well, these books are a great device to bring these women together and I think that’s true to life as well. That as I said previously, books bring people together. So that’s how the idea of a book club came about. Probably not historically completely accurate, that people had book clubs then, but who knows? We just may not have known about them.

And then the catalyst for getting it into publication was actually that I had written two Home and Away tie-in novels in the course of my job here.

Allison

As one does.

Sophie

And so the publisher of those novels, Rebecca, when I had this idea for Fairvale, as I like to call it for short, it was natural for me to talk to her about it because we already had that working relationship. So that’s who I went to. It went into the process at Hachette without my real name on it, so that people could feel free to say no to it if they didn’t like it. So very few people knew that it was me when it went into that meeting.

Allison

Okay. So you went to Rebecca and you said to her, I’ve got this random idea about book clubs in the outback, and she said, that sounds great, whip me up a couple of chapters and I’ll take it to acquisitions. Is that kind of how it worked?

Sophie

Yes.

Allison

Okay.

Sophie

Well, I wrote storylines first, and she and I did discuss those. And that’s one of the wonderful things about having the opportunity to collaborate, is that I did get incredibly high-level feedback. And by high-level I mean high quality, because she has so much experience. So I was able to discuss storylines with her and characters. So it took some shape early on and then I wrote a few chapters and that’s what went to the meeting.

Allison

Okay, terrific. So would you consider your writing process, then, you’ve written the Home and Away books, and you’ve written other things as well. Is your process generally to outline? To get a sense of where you’re going before you start?

Sophie

Yes, these days it is. When I first started, quite a few years ago, it was more, oh let’s just write and see what happens. But now, I think, also because of the time demands, like I can only write on public transport, really. And so I’ve got 20 minutes at the start of the day and 20 minutes at the end of the day, and I need to be really structured. I can’t use that time to sit and wonder what might happen. I need to sit and actually do something.

And even if I’m doing it at home, again, it’s not a huge amount of time. I’m not someone who can sit for hours and do it. I go in fast and get out fast, and so I need that structure. Which does not mean that the structure doesn’t change along the way, because it has to, because things happen in the story that I didn’t expect. And so I need to be able to adjust where I’m going with the story to accommodate that. But I do like having that structure.

Allison

So one of the questions I was going to ask you, given your background in publishing and also being an agent in the past as well, one of the questions I was going to ask you was did you set out to write a book that would fill a niche in the market? Or did you simply write something you felt you had to write. And I feel like in the conversation we’ve had, you’ve produced something that’s probably both, haven’t you?

Sophie

Yes. I mean, certainly I needed to write something that was meaningful to me, because I think readers can always tell when something is done cynically. But also I did look around and think, well, yes, as I said, where is the big landscape book?

And by big, I mean, it is those big themes and not being shy of being ambitious, as well. And it’s something that I’ve long thought about and talked about with writers is, in Australia in particular, is being ambitious. Be ambitious for a big readership, be ambitious for the scope of the story, be ambitious about the themes and emotions you’re addressing.

And that’s why I said grief is a subtheme. Because it has become clear to me over time that so many people live with so much grief, and it determines so many of their actions, and they don’t even necessarily realise it. And I think it is actually a huge factor in human society generally. Grief, as an actor and reactor. And so that’s a big theme. But it’s a universal theme. And it’s also an intensely personal theme.

So I think, having that ambition to go for a big theme, but also trying to make it a story that people can relate to is part of the eternal challenge of writing.

Allison

It is. It is. And it’s interesting that you talk about writing, being ambitious with a theme. Because do you think most writers sit down and think about what their themes are going to be in advance? Or do you think that they’re something that kind of develop and evolve as a book is written?

Sophie

I think perhaps the latter. And maybe it’s also dependent on the stage they’re at in their writing career. So with a first novel, you’re probably just going to write whatever comes out. And then as time goes on, and also that need for structure that I mentioned that I have, that also determines whether or not you go for a theme. I needed a sense of what my story was about, and that helps me solve problems in it. Not just at the writing stage but in the redrafting stage. Because if I think that this story is about friendships, books and grief, then that’s what I have to keep in mind the entire time. And so I think that that probably comes more with experience.

And that’s why often in the industry we advise people to put those early manuscripts in a bottom drawer. Because you do learn things doing them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right for publication. Because what you learn from doing them informs later manuscripts and makes those later manuscripts more mature.

Allison

Okay. So given your longstanding background in publishing, because you’ve done pretty much all of the things, haven’t you? You’ve done book selling, you’ve done agenting, publishing, writing, all of the stuff. How do you think that background informs your writing?

Sophie

Bookselling, I’ve always maintained, is the best education any of us can have, working in the industry. Because that’s the part of the industry where you are dealing with readers the most. And I also, just knowing, my parents are the most voracious readers I know, and eclectic readers, and I have friends who are great readers. And none of them chooses books according to a category or a genre. They all want a great story. They want to be entertained, is the other thing.

And so I’ve formulated an idea for myself that I wanted to do something that was entertaining and meaningful. And I also have to say that comes from my country music life, as well. Because I have spent the last six years writing about mainly Australian country music. And I realised that what country music artists in Australia do extremely well is create songs and performances that are both entertaining and meaningful.

And I think being entertaining is my obligation to the reader. I don’t want someone to have wasted their time. If someone is going to spend ten hours with a book that I’ve written, I want them to walk away thinking, I forgot myself for a while, or I forgot the time for a while, or I had a smile. Or whatever it was, that they felt entertained. And I don’t think that’s cheesy or an invalid motivation, to want to entertain. And again, I credit country music with that. Because the most meaningful music in my life is Australian country music, and there are so many artists who are doing it so well, and they are all great entertainers.

Allison

It’s an interesting thing to do, though, isn’t it? As an author. Because I don’t think it’s something that a lot of writers set out to do, to entertain. Because it’s a really difficult thing to do. It’s actually a really difficult thing to do. So how do you know if you’re being entertaining?

Sophie

I think it comes back to a writing rule, actually, which is that every sentence has to advance the story. And that you need to deliver information to the reader when they need it as they need it, no more and no less, and you need to keep that story moving forward.

So if you can keep those rules in mind, you are then always serving the reader and serving the story. And that’s how you can keep it entertaining. It’s when things drag, or when you think you can go off on a little indulgence, as a writer, and maybe engage in a scene that doesn’t really do anything much and doesn’t serve the characters and doesn’t serve the characters’ stories, that’s when it’s not entertaining and that’s when readers can feel like maybe they don’t want to proceed with this story, or maybe they lose interest altogether, or come back to it, or whatever.

So I think that comes back to the discipline of being a writer, and it is that practice of looking to the audience and saying, I’m here to serve you, and I want to deliver something that will be fun, well, not necessarily fun for you, but that will not waste your time. And I’m really, really conscious of that.

But that’s a commercial fiction imperative, I guess. And again I mention country music because that’s where I really learnt it, was that sense of always looking to the audience. Country music artists, to a person, every time I’ve interviewed them, are so mindful of their audience, always, and looking to serve that audience. Far more than they’re serving themselves.

Allison

Is that perhaps what you would, is that how you would describe the difference between commercial fiction and say literary fiction or something like that? Is it about whether it’s about serving the audience or serving something else?

Sophie

Well, maybe it’s… I think all storytellers want to serve the audience to an extent. I think in commercial fiction, it’s just a stronger motivation because that’s the pop song of fiction, in a way. I’ve loved Abba for years. I think the equivalent of writing an Abba song in novel form is basically you get the beautiful harmonies, the lyrics that mean something, you’re out at the end.

Allison

The hook.

Sophie

The hook. And then you’re out at the end and the reader will think fondly of the story, hopefully, but they don’t necessarily drag it around with them for years to come. And that’s fine. I think it’s also realising that there are many, many stories out there. The best thing for us as an industry is Australian readers reading a lot of Australian stories, and that’s the best thing for us as a culture, as well. And so I’m one of many people seeking to entertain Australian readers. And if I can do that, and they can move on to another Australian story and enjoy it, perfect. That’s my job done.

Allison

Okay, so given your background as a publisher, and particularly as a literary agent, you’ve seen the best of writing, but you’ve also seen all of the mistakes that new authors make along the way. Like, all of them. Does that make it in some ways more difficult to put yourself out there and show your work to professionals in your industry? Because I think, to a degree, I would probably find all that knowledge and trying so hard not to make those mistakes almost paralysing. Or do you not feel that?

Sophie

I think I don’t feel it anymore. But it’s also because this is not my first rodeo. And also, I don’t feel it because I’ve been writing about music for so long. So I’ve had six years of a regular writing practice. And that is also still about serving that audience. Because I’m very aware that I have readers out there, a lot of them in the United States, who are reading about Australian country music. So I’m really conscious that I’m writing to people. And I’m also conscious about honouring the artists I cover, and honouring the audience by producing regular content. So that’s kept me sharp, in a way. and if I hadn’t done that, I probably would have felt much more nervous about writing books.

But I didn’t stop to think about mistakes I might make. I kept my mind and my focus on what I needed to do and what the job was. And as far as I’m concerned, to borrow a phrase from Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 7, the mission is what matters. And I stayed focused on that.

And it’s physically demanding, writing a big book, particularly when you’ve got to redraft a lot of times in a short period of time. And I had to keep my mind on that. And that was the mantra: the mission is what matters.

Allison

Do you have that stuck above your desk? Is that how you work?

Sophie

No, no. Buffy resonates with me quite a lot. We’re both upholders in the Gretchen Rubin Four Tendencies framework.

Allison

Buffy is always with me. That’s hilarious. So I find it really interesting, because you talked about the fact that you write your books on public transport, twenty minutes here, twenty minutes there. Now, I find it that I can write a draft like that, and in fact that’s pretty much how I operate as well, not necessarily on public transport, but in those bursts. But I find it very difficult to redraft like that. Like I actually do need intensive periods of thought time, and sitting in front of the computer to get the redraft done. Given that you were redrafting four times, how did you get that done? How did you fit that in?

Sophie

So, and you’re completely right. I could not redraft as well on public transport. I had to do that at home. So that meant that I had to get up extremely early in the morning. So that was the way I decided to do it. I always exercise in the morning, so I had to get up an hour before that to make time for it, to make sure I was awake. And often I was getting up really early, doing the exercise to wake me up, and then allocating 45 minutes to an hour to do it.

And there would often, it would start with maybe me crying. Which can happen, because it is quite confronting. And it feels, when you’ve got to delete tens of thousands of words and start again, or do something that you don’t necessarily love in a redraft, it can, as I said, it’s physical. It’s physically painful, sometimes. And not to say that – to put it in perspective – this is not a terrible burden. But in the moment, it’s physically painful.

So that’s often how I would start. I’d have a little cry. And then I would get to work and then I would get myself into the office, and I really tried by the end of the day to not do it at night. Because my brain was more tired from having done other things. And I couldn’t concentrate as well. So I would do early mornings and then some weekends. And I would just, because I tend to write in short bursts, I would just sit down for half an hour, do something, give myself a break for half an hour, come back. Do that kind of rhythm. And I just set aside the time when I knew I had deadlines to do it.

Allison

See, I find it interesting, too, because you say it’s physically painful and there were times that you cried and all that sort of stuff. Because you’re also the person who directs other persons to remove entire scenes in the middle of their book that they thought were really important, that you said were not. And I’m not speaking from personal experience on any level here! At all! But so does it make it easier to wear it as a writer when you know where it’s coming from, do you think? Or not?

Sophie

Absolutely not. And I’m always cognizant of when I’m asking other people to, I am completely cognizant of how painful that can be. And I was before this, I have to say. Because it’s particularly confronting with fiction. Because this is a world that an author has created, and it’s a world in their bodies and in their minds. Whereas with non-fiction it’s a little more straightforward. So I don’t think as a non-fiction publisher I’m causing as many tears as I might as a fiction publisher.

But no, it doesn’t make it easier, knowing that this is the process. Because I think you can’t control an emotional reaction. And you can’t necessarily predict it or prepare for it, either. So I didn’t know how I was going to react until I was sitting down in front of it.

Allison

Yes, I feel your pain. Trust me. So the other thing I would ask you, too, is you’re seeing a lot of manuscripts, non-fiction now, but as an agent you were seeing a lot of manuscripts for fiction as well. Reading so many words, is it difficult not to be influenced by other people’s writing? How do you maintain your own voice in the midst of all of that?

Sophie

I think it comes from getting older, actually, and being more confident in my own voice. And more confident about who I am just in terms of the voice in my head, for lack of… I’m not saying this very well. I didn’t ever doubt that what I was hearing was me, or my characters talking to me. And again, that’s probably something to do with that regular discipline of writing about music. Because I had to develop a voice for that. And I have my voice for writing about music, and that’s distinct from other writing I do.

But I didn’t doubt the integrity of that voice, if that makes sense. And you do have to bring to this process a certain arrogance in that you’re saying, well, I’m the best person to tell this story. I am sitting here writing these words and I believe I’ve got something that’s worth listening to. And I think we can often shy away from that and say, oh well, you know, I don’t want to say that about myself, or I don’t want to own that kind of authority, but we have to. Because if I can’t stand there and say, you need to read this, or I think this is worth reading, then how is the reader meant to trust me? If I can’t have confidence in what I’m doing and who I am, then I can’t expect them to, either. And I can’t expect the people who publish the book to.

So again it comes back to the mission being what matters. Of course I have doubts, of course there are moments when it’s difficult, but I have to keep my sights on what I set out to do, which is to convey an Australian story to Australian readers.

Allison

So on a day to day basis, you’re publishing non-fiction. What are you looking for in those manuscripts that are submitted? Does that come down to voice as well as story? Or just story?

Sophie

Well, because I’ve published a variety of non-fiction, so some of it is memoir, but some of it is, like, I’ve got a couple of parenting books. And I’ve got books of affirmations, and a book about bull riders that’s just come out.

So in memoir, it’s story and voice. So I think if I think about a whole lot of memoirs I’ve looked at recently as submissions, I’m thinking of four as an example that came in fairly close to each other, there’s one out of those that’s terrific, and that’s because even though it’s at an early draft stage, the author has a great prose voice, and a great sense of structure of the story. And she’s obviously clear from the start what that story’s going to be. Whereas the others are still finding their voice, not just in terms of prose but in structure of the story. And so it can look messier. And when it’s messy at that early stage, even though with nonfiction we can get things through at acquisitions process without it being necessarily finished, I could see in those manuscripts that they were going to have to finish them to sort out what they were doing. Whereas with that one that was working, I didn’t need to see the rest. She knew what she was doing. And anything else that came afterwards could be managed.

So with memoir, often the trick with memoir is how you make the personal universal. And that requires a level of skill and judiciousness and restraint, and also that sense of audience, again. Of thinking, right, okay, my story deserves to go to a big audience, how do I get it there.

Allison

All right. Now given that you’re writing under a pseudonym, what steps have you taken to build a profile and get yourself out there?

Sophie

I have a Facebook profile and a Twitter profile. And I have for the last few weeks scheduled content for both to build the world of 1978, basically. And I’m also quite fortunate, because Sphere in the UK is publishing this early next year, so I was able to pick up some followers from the UK side of things. And my colleagues at Hachette have been wonderful, retweeting and liking and all sorts of things. So it’s small but growing. But it obviously wasn’t considered necessary for me to have it before they decided to acquire it, because I didn’t have it.

Allison

No, clearly.

Sophie

But I’m conscious that there are a lot of readers online, and I always think it’s good to have a place for readers to find you if they want to find you. I’m not interested in over burdening anyone with a lot of content. And I also do have the country music website and so I didn’t really want to be running another website. Because I feel that that’s there and I have my commitments to that and that takes up a fair bit of attention. So just trying to balance all the time is the key.

Allison

Will you use Jolene in any way? Will you talk about the book on that at all?

Sophie

Oh, I’ll put it in my bio, I think. And I might do something on the Facebook and Twitter briefly. But I’m not going to use it as a promotional platform. Because it’s related, but it’s a different audience. But I’ll put it there.

Allison

And is the profile or platform, is that something that you look for in the books that you publish by other writers?

Sophie

Look, it’s nice if it’s there. For me, it’s not a deal breaker, because it also depends on what the book is. So nonfiction, quite often, these are books that people are finding when they need something on that subject. So it’s irrelevant if the author has a social media profile, because that person will be in a bookshop thinking… I published a book called The Anxiety Book. And someone will go to a bookshop or they’ll look online for a book on anxiety. And as long as the author’s bio is solid, and this author’s is, that’s what they’ll look for. They’re not necessarily going to look for her to have a big Facebook following.

So I think non-fiction can function a bit differently. But I have a colleague who publishes cook books, and some of them by people who are high profile, or lifestyle books by people who are high profile, and that’s different. That’s a different sort of audience and a different book. And so that’s great, if they have a big Instagram following, perfect. So that suits that kind of book. So nonfiction has really got so many different aspects to it that we have to look at that book individually and take it from there.

Allison

Okay. What about are you working on a new novel? Is Sophie Green bringing out a second book?

Sophie

Not yet. I have had other things to do since I finished this one.

Allison

No, really?

Sophie

So I haven’t… I certainly have some ideas. But I think I’ll see how this one goes and then we’ll pick it up a bit later in the year.

Allison

A bit later in the year? So not like, next year or anything like that?

Sophie

Well, I think it depends. If my publishers would like another book from me, they’ll let me know when they would like that published and I will have a deadline.

Allison

So you’re not giving up your day job any time soon?

Sophie

No. Look, I’m so lucky because I love my day job. It is so incredible to me that I get to publish other people’s stories, and other people’s books about all sorts of things. And one of the reasons why I love nonfiction is that it’s so diverse. And I can take something to my colleagues with an idea. It doesn’t happen very often, we often need more than an idea, but it can happen. And I get to be in contact with a whole lot of different people from all over Australia. So that’s a big reason why I love nonfiction. It’s a very creative type of publishing, because I’m often working collaboratively with authors. And I get to foster careers where that author wants one. So that’s exciting too. And that means that I get to talk to them about what they’re writing next. Which happens with fiction publishers, as well. But, no, I love nonfiction publishing.

Allison

All right, so let’s finish up today with your three top tips for authors, as we like to do to every single person we speak to.

Sophie

Okay, so the number one tip which I’ve had for a long time is, don’t be impatient. And the reason for that is that as an agent and a publisher, so often I see and have seen people who send, they get so excited, they’ve finished a draft and they send it in straight away. And that draft you’ve just finished for the very first time is never going to be the best representation of your work. So it’s better to just sit on it for as long as you can bear, and have another look at it and send it in. Because when you send it to an agent or a publisher they will only look at it once. And rarely will they look at it twice. But that’s the only shot you’ll get. So try to be patient and breathe. And then keep moving, get other ideas, keep those going. So that’s my number one tip.

Number two tip is that thing I mentioned earlier about every sentence having to advance the story. I think that’s a very hard discipline but it’s a crucial one. And that doesn’t mean that everything’s quick in a story. It just means looking at every sentence you’re writing and thinking, is that necessary? Am I wasting someone’s time by putting in that detail? Is that something that only I should know as the author but the characters can’t know, or the narrator can’t know?

And the third one, which should be the most important one, is read. Read as much as you can. Read – if you’re in a specific genre, read in that genre. I’ve quite often come across people, for example, who might be writing crime books who don’t read crime. So I think it’s good to understand the context for the stories that you’re telling. And that’s your broader Australian cultural context, and then the context of the genre that you are in. And it’s also good as a form of market research. You know, what else is out there? And that’s where libraries are great. You can go to the library and borrow a whole lot of books in your genre. And you might start them and think they’re all ridiculous. And that’s good, because you can just take them to the library. So, I think reading is key.

Allison

Reading is key. There you go. Well, thank you so much. Best of luck with The Inaugural Meeting of The Fairvale Ladies Book Club. I hope it goes gangbusters.

Sophie

Thank you.

Allison

And we shall look forward to seeing what Sophie Green does next.

Sophie

Thank you very much.

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