Ep 233 Female artists get paid less than males. And meet Robyn Cadwallader, author of ‘Book of Colours’.

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In Episode 233 of So you want to be a writer: Learn how you CAN write a publishable first novel, and how female artists get paid less than males – and what to do about it. Discover your chance to win double passes to The Bookshop. And meet Robyn Cadwallader, author of Book of Colours.

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

Shoutout

suz zee from Australia:

Love the banter between Val & Al!! I’ve learnt so much from this podcast, thank you so much for providing it and so much inspiration!!

Links Mentioned

You CAN Write a Publishable First Novel: 10 Tips for Writing Successful Debut Fiction.

Chart: Books are cheaper in genres dominated by women

Can you make a living as an artist in Australia? Yes, but it’s not as easy as it used to be

Writer in Residence

Robyn Cadwallader

Robyn is an editor and writer who lives in the country outside Canberra.

She has published poems, prize-winning short stories and reviews, a poetry collection, i painted unafraid and a non-fiction book based on her PhD thesis about virginity and female agency in the Middle Ages.

Her first novel, The Anchoress (2015, Fourth Estate Australia, Faber & Faber, UK, Farrer, Straus & Giroux, US, and Gallimard France) was received with critical acclaim: it ‘achieves what every historical novel attempts: reimagining the past while opening a new window to our present lives’ (SMH) and ‘leaves behind a deeper sense of the power of the written word’ (ABR).

It was awarded a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for fiction and the ACT Book of the Year People’s Choice Award, was shortlisted for the ABIA Awards (Debut Fiction), the Adelaide Festival Literary Awards, and longlisted for the ABIA Awards (Literary Fiction and New Author).

In response to the government’s policies on asylum-seekers, she edited a book of essays by prominent lawyers and activists, We Are Better Than This (ATF Press, 2015).

Her second novel, Book of Colours, was by HarperCollins in April 2018.

Follow Robyn on Twitter

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(If you click through the links above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

Competition

WIN double passes: What would YOU call your own bookshop?

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Robyn Cadwallader has published numerous prize-winning short stories and reviews, as well as a book of poetry and a non-fiction book based on her PhD thesis concerning attitudes to virginity and women in the middle ages. In 2015, her debut novel The Anchoress was published to great acclaim and her second novel The Book of Colours was published in April 2018. Welcome to the program, Robyn.

Robyn

Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.

Allison

All right, so we’re going to go back to the beginning of your novel writing career. How did The Anchoress come to be published?

Robyn

Well, it was a long slow process from my point of view. I had been writing a PhD, as you said, on virginity and women in the middle ages. And I was particularly focusing on a story about St Margaret of Antioch, who was a virgin martyr, who was swallowed by a dragon and burst out the dragon’s back. So she proclaimed herself a dragon slayer. Which was a remarkable thing for the middle ages.

And I became interested in why this story was being given to women to read. And in particular, it was being given to these women called anchoresses. Now, I’d never heard of an anchoress. So I investigated and discovered that they were women who sealed themselves away in a cell voluntarily, there to pray and to suffer with Christ, as the language was.

And I was quite horrified and fascinated at the same time. And I just kept reading. And the more I read, the more I just wondered who would do this and why would they do that? And what would the experience be like?

And I had been interested in writing, I’ve always written, but I was interested in writing a novel, not sure if I could do it. And I played around with – could I write a novel about this woman? But every time I thought about it, it seemed like it was just way too difficult. So I wrote a few bits and pieces and just didn’t know how to take it further, I think.

So anyway, I kept on writing, I wrote poetry. And then I left my position as a university lecturer and had some time to myself. And I thought, well, you don’t want to die wondering. So I just started writing. Entered a couple of competitions. Won a competition. I had only bits and pieces of this novel written, and entered a competition and won it to my absolute surprise. Surprise is probably too pale a word. I was amazed. And that made me think, right, you’ve got something here.

So I just kept writing with actually very little sense that I could ever really get it published. But I wanted to finish this story. And then when it came time to send it out, there were, you know, I tried the pitches, the Monday pitch, and the Friday… Whatever they’re called. Where you can just send in a couple of chapters. Didn’t do very well with that. So I tried for an agent. Got myself an agent very quickly, which was again a huge surprise, because everybody told me they were almost impossible to find. And she was very excited. And took it from there to the UK and the US as well and to France. And managed to find publishers.

So it was a remarkable journey and one I had not imagined in my wildest dreams would happen. My little book, you know, I thought. So yeah, it was very exciting to go from not knowing whether I could even write a story, create a story, to the point of being published.

Allison

So how long did all that take? How long was that process from that sort of start of the idea of “could I do this?” to “oh my book is selling all over the world”? How long did that take?

Robyn

I reckon about 12 years.

Allison

So persistence was part of this journey, right?

Robyn

Yes. You know, I was writing little bits and pieces but nothing much.

From the time I sat down and said, okay, I’m going to give this a shot, I think it was probably about five years. There was one large gap where a publisher showed a bit of interest and then held onto it for seven months without letting me know anything.

Allison

Isn’t that frustrating?

Robyn

Yes. And a woman in the industry said to me, “for heaven’s sake, write and ask them what’s going on.” And they just wrote back and said, “no, we’re not interested.” So they could have told me that seven months earlier which would have been handy.

But apart from that, it took me two or three years to write, and then editing and all of that took another year or two.

Allison

So given that the entire book is set within the confines of a stone cell measuring seven paces by nine, that’s a very restricted setting, shall we just say that? How did you work both with the restrictions and within the restrictions to tell the story?

Robyn

Well, there are a couple of things about anchoresses that open out the story a little bit. She has two maids who don’t live in the cell with her but live in the little room next to her. So she has contact with them. She has a confessor who comes to see her most weeks. And so she speaks to him and confesses her sins, whatever. Though she doesn’t look out. So she must never look out her window. She has a window with a curtain. She must never look at that window. But she has contact. And she also has contact with women in the village who come for counsel.

And the other thing, one of the things that most fascinated me is that this cell is built next to the village church. And you might know that village churches, particularly, or town churches in the middle ages, were the centre of social life as well as religious life. Everything happened in the church. Meetings happened in the church, because it was often the only place that was dry and large enough for people to meet. Celebrations, all their celebrations were focused around church festivals. May Day, All Saints, Yule, Michaelmas, all sorts of festivals happened there.

So there was an awful lot going on just the other side of her wall. Because the cell actually was attached to the side wall of the church. Plus, she’s right in the middle of the village. So everything is happening around her.

And as I thought about this woman in her cell, I realised that she would be… She couldn’t see out. And what I hear from people who are sight-impaired is that once one sense is dulled other senses are heightened. So I imagined that her sense of hearing, she would hear what’s going on all around her. She would hear people arguing, people talking, people harvesting. All sorts of things happening. People arguing, people in the church next door. People having sex in the church next door at night, because that’s the only place they could go. All those sorts of things.

And so while on one hand she was counselled to custody of the senses, she had to contain her senses, and she has a rule which tells her that she is to contain every single sense. It goes through chapter by chapter telling her all of this. But at the same time, her senses are actually being heightened because she’s there in this cell by herself. All she has is her own body. Her sense of taste and smell and hearing and touch I imagine is really heightened. So that in itself offers, along with the people outside, all of that offers much more happening than just a woman sitting praying doing nothing.

Allison

Yeah, it’s fascinating. And it’s such an interesting point of view, as a narrative device, it’s a really interesting point of view. To be in the middle of it, but to be unseen. And to be unseen is a really interesting point of view.

Robyn

It is, yes. And that was the one, really the thing, the sort of central idea that carried me through the whole story.

And I knew that I needed to maintain a sense of almost claustrophobia. But I knew that I couldn’t overdo that otherwise people would simply give up reading it.

So the other element, the other thread in the story, is that her counsellor who comes, because his own journey is a significant part of the story as well, and his story is told in 3rd person but very limited to him. So it’s a very close 3rd person account. So we do get outside the cell in a limited way through her counsellor. So it kind of gives us a bit of fresh air.

I mean, there is a sense in which the cell feels almost stuffy and smelly and overwhelming. So moving outside with the counsellor, seeing him walk through the village, is actually a kind of… It is as if you can breathe.

Allison

Breathing space.

Robyn

Yeah.

Allison

Well, it sounds fascinating. So clearly that’s now on my list. But your affinity for medieval history and literature is obviously very, very strong. Can you imagine yourself writing any other kind of story? Would you have been a writer without that deep knowledge of those things?

Robyn

That’s a good question.

Allison

Oh, I love a good question.

Robyn

So do I. But I have to answer it.

Allison

I’m glad I don’t have to answer it!

Robyn

I think I would. Um… I think the reason that I… I mean, I love medieval stories because they’re, despite probably their bad stereotype, is that they have such life and such… There are fairy stories. And it’s not just simply knights and ladies. But they have a sense of another world just living right next to people and I think that’s what I love about the medieval world. And that’s what kind of fires my imagination when I read medieval literature.

But I think I would have written anyway. I think what The Anchoress offered to me was that it tapped into my poetic sensibility about taking a moment, or taking a small space in time, or taking something that limited and exploring it. A little bit of, you know, see the world in a grain of sand. You know, Blake’s idea.

Allison

Yeah.

Robyn

And so what The Anchoress offered was the chance to take this small cell, this woman in this small cell, and explore what else could be there, to open it up and see so much more in it. So I think that’s why I began with… Well, The Anchoress was the reason that I began with medieval history.

I’m not a particularly… I’m not a huge lover of historical fiction itself. I know that there are some historical fiction writers who only write historical fiction. I’ve never thought particularly that I was writing historical fiction. More that I was writing fiction, really. It just happened to be set in the middle ages. I’m not a kings and queens type person. I’m not interested particularly in the goings on of kings and queens and politics. I’m much more interested in ordinary people.

And in that sense, I’m intrigued about the idea of how people in the middle ages lived within their belief systems and the limitations of their technology, their cities, their health system, their philosophy. So I do hope to expand beyond the middle ages at some point.

Allison

At some point. But not yet. Because of course The Book of Colours which I have read and just loved, because you’re speaking my language, is again we’re in that world. But it’s a bigger world. And it’s a more kind of from the perspective of the setting, the whole bit. But do you want to tell us a little bit about The Book of Colours and then I’ll go into asking you some minute questions about it.

Robyn

Sure. Well, The Book of Colours is set in the 1320s, in 1322 in London. And at that period in England and across Europe there was a really severe famine which lasted for seven years. And so it left people without crops, without homes, because everything flooded. It was a really very difficult time.

It was also a time of political unrest. The country on the brink of civil war and actually moving into civil war. So it’s actually a really different setting from my little village in The Anchoress.

But the story focuses on a woman of the aristocracy who commissions a book of hours, which is a prayer book, to be copied and decorated for her use to pray, but also as a sign of status, really. These expensive books were a sign that we have money, we have prospects, which was so important for the aristocracy.

And so the book is decorated by a group of limners, as they were called, or illuminators, living in Paternoster Row which is right next to St Paul’s Cathedral. And the story tells of these, there are four limners and a young apprentice.

And as the story goes along, you get the sense of these people painting and they’re painting religious paintings, substantially, but as they engage with the pictures, their own lives, their own memories, their own concerns come, sort of slowly emerge. And it becomes apparent that at least three of them have stories, secrets from their own lives that they are not telling others and that really impinge on the book and on the process of the book being completed.

So that’s probably about as far as I can tell you without spoilers.

Allison

No, that’s excellent. And I’m sure that regular listeners will now understand my deep interest in this particular novel.

I was dazzled by the detail in it. There’s a lot going on there, but quite precise. Like, it’s a very precise building of a picture, which is pretty much what illumination is. So I would think the difficulty for you, given, I mean, I can feel the knowledge that you have and I know that with most of this stuff – it’s the iceberg thing, isn’t it?

Robyn

Yes.

Allison

You’ve got the bottom and you’ve got the top and we just need to see the bits we need to see. So I would imagine for you it would have been about choosing which details to use and which to leave out. Is that the case?

I mean, did you find yourself having to think about how much you were, sort of like, how much description, how much detail, how much you were putting in there and maybe think about paring it back in places or building it up in places? It’s important for the pacing, isn’t it, as far as how much detail you use and how much you don’t.

Robyn

It is. Yes.

Allison

Was it difficult?

Robyn

There were points where I did need to pare back. But I have a very strong… It’s not actually a discipline but more it’s a way of writing, that everything that happens that I include, and any detail that I include, has to be there because it is significant for that particular character.

So in The Anchoress, there are points where I needed to, say, describe the cell. And I wanted to be very clear about not adding bits and pieces of information that would be outside my anchoress’s immediate concerns. So it’s a matter of slowly building a picture, then.

And in the same way with this, that I made every detail something that that character would think about or would be doing or be concerned with, if that makes sense.

Allison

That makes perfect sense.

Robyn

So I stopped myself adding stuff in. And every now and then it would create a bit of a problem because I’d need to communicate some information so that the reader could make sense of what’s going on. So I had to be very careful about crafting the material that I had strictly to the characters and their experience.

Allison

So how much research do you do before you begin? Have you done everything you need to do? Or are you still researching as you go?

Robyn

I do enough research to feel comfortable and to begin to place my characters inside the situation.

Probably the most significant moment for me was when in 2013, actually, when I was in the British Library…

Sorry, I’m going to have to have a drink here.

I was in the British Library doing research and I was reading an academic book about art history. And they were talking about illuminated manuscripts and they can actually distinguish different painters according to the style and the colour and the way they go about shaping their figures, whatever.

And there was a detailed description of one particular manuscript. And I discovered that the library held that manuscript, the actual original 14th century manuscript. So if you’ve got enough credentials you can actually ask to borrow and look at these manuscripts. So I sat with this original manuscript and the description of the different illuminators and how we can tell that this is Artist A because the shading is so good, the colour is this and that. We can tell this is Artist B because there’s such a good sense of depth and energy in a crowd. We can tell this is Artist C because the hands are too big, and that artist clearly hasn’t had enough training in this and that.

And as I sat there, my characters just started to emerge. And even though the book that I describe being created is very different from the one that I looked at in the British Library, that was the moment where they began to appear.

So I had this sense of them in this little room working, but I didn’t have all of the detail about how they would paint, I didn’t have London outside the door, I didn’t have the politics. So I did huge amounts of research on all of that. I found myself a reconstructed map of London in the 14th century. And I read manuals, guides for illumination. I read current contemporary writing about what the pigments and things would have been like in the middle ages. Because they didn’t write a lot about it, back then. Or we don’t have that material. So I was reading back about the science of pigment and painting and style.

And there was a point where I just told myself I had to start working or I would research forever.

Allison

Forever!

Robyn

And I felt… I was so conscious of how big a project it was that I was a bit nervous. And that held me back from writing for a little while until I finally wrote a paragraph in the voice of my illuminator’s wife, Gemma. And it was then, I can remember the moment, and I thought, oh, hallelujah. I have Gemma’s voice. And from there I could start to write the others. And then it took off. But I did a lot of research as well along the way.

Allison

So had you planned the story as part of that research? In the sense of, I’m trying to get a sense of what your writing process would be. Because the book itself, The Book of Colours, feels very precise and considered. And I can’t imagine it kind of pouring out of you in a rush. Or is that how your first drafts work?

Robyn

No, they don’t pour out in a rush. Sadly. No.

Allison

Wouldn’t that be easier?

Robyn

They kind of eke their way along. I don’t plan. I had a sense of the beginning and I had a very vague sense of the ending. But I didn’t know how I was going to get from one point to the other. And I just wrote.

Some of it was writing bits. You know, like a chapter here, I just want to write about this. Sometimes it was, I want to write about that particular illumination or that particular bit of decoration or whatever. But I try… I try to keep it chronological, I think. But it didn’t always work. And there was a huge amount of reorganising. Particularly because I have two different timelines running through it.

Allison

Yes, it’s all very complicated, really. I mean, when you read it, it doesn’t feel complicated. But when I actually think about the various bits and pieces that you’ve got going on. Because it’s also about, I mean, it’s about a book, obviously. But it also contains a book within a book.

Robyn

Yes.

Allison

Excerpts of which are at the start of each chapter and inform the reader as we go. So we’re learning as we go about various aspects of the craft, which is very helpful.

So how did you manage the process of those excerpts? Did you write all of those separately and then bang them in at the top of the chapters where they fitted? Or did you know… I mean, how did you do that bit?

Robyn

It was a combination of both. Some of them… The early ones particularly I wrote to… Because the theme of these little excerpts kind of picks up the theme of the chapter. And the early ones, particularly, which were the philosophy of, in many ways, the philosophy of illumination, substantially… But I wrote them to fit the chapter, as I wrote the chapter.

Some of the later ones I wrote separately. Sometimes I would just sit down, I can’t, I don’t know where to go with this story and I’d write an excerpt from the book. And I actually loved writing them. They were such fun. I had to do quite a lot of research. But writing in that kind of style of – I am the expert telling you about…

Allison

Instructional?

Robyn

Yeah. I just really enjoyed doing that. And getting a little bit of the, I hope, the flavour of the language of the time, or the language of that style of book.

And I’m fascinated with the process in itself. Of grinding… And I think we tend to, well I tended to assume, that you grind up a bit of rock and get the right pigment and you put a bit of water and a bit of whatever else and off you go and you’re fine. But the little details like how much you can grind, and don’t grind too much, and you need to put urine in this, and you need to put apple juice in that. I loved those little details. I just, yeah, they were just full of…

Allison

Maybe you can just produce that as a little leather-bound book. As a special, just for those of us who might be interested.

Robyn

I could actually.

Allison

Just for those of us who might be interested.

When you’re working on a manuscript, do you write every day? Or do you write every day as a matter of course? Or what’s your routine, per se?

Robyn

I do write every day. When I’m working.

It’s interesting, at the moment, I’m not working on anything yet and I’m doing a lot of marketing and other bits and pieces and admin. And I’m a bit grumpy, and I realise that’s because I’m not writing, and I want to be back creating something.

But when I’m working on a project, I write every day and try to keep myself to a reasonable timetable for the day. I’m not a particularly structured person in that sense. But I do, I get to the point where I just feel like I have to be back there at the desk. And maybe, you know, as I said, it can happen really slowly and I can get stuck. But I absolutely agree that you just have to get something down on paper. You have to get something written.

Allison

How long would it take you to do a first draft, would you imagine? Just the writing bit, leaving the research aside, which is obviously months.

Robyn

Um… That’s a really good question. I reckon about a year. Yeah. I think. This took me three years altogether. And it probably… Yeah, I’d say about a year.

I did get to a point where I was just… I’d kind of run out of steam and direction and I sent it off to my agent who wrote back to me with some pertinent questions. Which was basically what I needed. I just needed a bit of a nudge. Yep, you’ve got some story but you need to kind of fill it out. And that was really helpful.

Allison

All right, well switching gears a little, you’ve recently put together a new website, which is lovely and based on the cover of The Book of Colours. I get the feeling that the whole idea of an author platform doesn’t altogether come naturally to you. Just a feeling I’m getting!

Robyn

Whatever gives you that idea!

Allison

They didn’t do it back in the middle ages. But is it something that you’ve learned to embrace over time?

Robyn

It is. I was one of those people who just said, why should I have to do this? And nobody wants to hear what I have to say anyway. And why would I spend my time doing that? It’s just going to go out into the ether and nobody’s going to look at it.

And I did start a blog and it kind of fizzled. Sadly. Probably because of that. Because I just wasn’t sure what I was doing. And whether anybody was going to read it.

But I think actually what’s helped me is that I have been on social media, particularly on Facebook and on Twitter, and I’ve really enjoyed conversations with other writers and with readers. And I found that while I entirely understand the drawbacks and the dangers, I also really have just enjoyed it as a place to have a conversation.

Particularly, if I’m here by myself, you know, all day every day writing, there’s something really nice about just being able to go online and say, this chapter just will not work. Or whatever it is and have someone write back and say, yep, know how you feel. Those kinds of things.

And I like discovering that there’s a very friendly world out there in social media. And being an introvert, that idea doesn’t come naturally to me. So that has helped.

And I realised that second book coming out, there’s not going to be quite as much energy from the publisher as usual, as there was with the first one. And I need to be getting out there. So yeah, I’ve even published a newsletter.

Allison

Ooh, look at you go! You’re on fire.

Robyn

Which was… I was resistant. I can remember having a conversation with you about that Allison, saying, but I really don’t want to do it! And I did it. And thought, actually, this is quite fun. I get to tell people about our alpacas and their impending birth. And their babies that are due to be born any day now. And what books I’m reading. A friend wrote to me and said, it’s so good to hear what you’re reading at the moment. And that kind of interaction is really nice.

And I’ve discovered that once I get myself set up it’s not quite as time consuming as I thought it would be, which is good. And I did my website substantially by myself with some input from my son and quite a bit from the friendly people at WordPress, who sat there patiently and answered all my questions.

Allison

They’re very good, aren’t they?

Robyn

They were excellent. I didn’t, cynical as I am, I didn’t expect them to be as helpful as they are. And I now have a little list of questions to ask them to finetune the bits and pieces on the website that aren’t quite right.

But for me, being a non, you know, I’m not particularly happy with technology, generally, I felt quite proud of myself that I’d managed to get this website together and even have people say, wow, it’s really nice. So that’s been, it’s actually been a very positive journey.

Allison

Fantastic. Well done. All right, we’re going to finish up today with our famous, infamous, last question. What are your top three tips for writers?

Robyn

My top three tips. My first one would be be really wary of advice. There are just so many people out there who will say, you can’t be a writer unless you do this or do that. And a writer will only do this or that way, or you have to write every day, if you don’t write every day, you’re not serious. You know, all those kinds of bits and pieces of advice that I think you just have to be really wary of. I’m not saying that there isn’t good advice. But pick and choose where you take your advice from. And be wary of the absolutes. The people who have an absolute, that will sort of tie you down. I think you’ve got to…

Which leads on to my second point which is to back yourself and your own voice and what it is that you want to do. It was Steven Carroll that said to me, you’ve just got to back yourself. And that has just echoed through writing both novels, his voice just saying, back yourself. You have to trust in what you’re doing when all the voices tell you otherwise.

And my third one is obviously read and then write. And I know that’s, you know, everybody says it, don’t they? But everybody says it because it’s really good advice.

Allison

Because it’s true.

Robyn

Yep.

Allison

If you’re going to pick only one piece of advice, choose that one.

Robyn

Yes. Exactly. Just read. And read broadly. I tend to think of myself as a non-fiction reader. And then I realise that I actually read a huge amount of non-fiction in my research and I love to read any kind of fiction. The broader the better, I think.

And write. Don’t fuss around waiting for something. Just write anything.

Allison

Fantastic. All right. Well, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been absolutely fascinating. And I do recommend the book, The Book of Colours. I really, really enjoyed it. And you guys can find more information about Robyn in the show notes or at… What is your website address, Robyn? Your new brand new spanking website?

Robyn

It’s just Robyncadwallader.com

Allison

Fantastic.

Robyn

But you have to get the spelling of my name right.

Allison

Oh yes. Do you want to spell that out for us?

Robyn

The tricky thing. It’s C-A-D-W-A-L-L-A-D-E-R.

Allison

Fantastic. And we will of course put the link in the show notes, which you will find at writerscentre.com.au/podcast. All right, well thank you very much and best of luck with the new book.

Robyn

Thank you very much. I’ve had a wonderful time. Thanks.

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