Ep 234 Meet Dr Anita Heiss, editor of the anthology ‘Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia’

In Episode 234 of So you want to be a writer: How to give a bad author talk (yes a bad one!). You’ll hear about the Kids & YA Festival (now in its tenth year) and learn about The Business of Writing. Discover your chance to win a copy of Bridge Burning and Other Hobbies by Kitty Flanagan. And meet Dr Anita Heiss, editor of the anthology Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia.

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Show Notes


Chelsey Engel from USA:

I never log onto iTunes but I knew I had to so I could leave a review! I’ve been listening to this podcast since I finally started working on my first novel this past December (thanks to Val and Al, I finished the dreaded first draft already). I love podcasts, and anything really, with women voices, which is another reason I’m so happy I found SYWTBAW. I love their vibes together (they always have me laughing out loud on my way to work), Val’s Word of the Week (Al, you ready?!), and their writer in residence interviews. I learn such a variety of things in each episode, and I love starting my mornings off with “How are ya, Al?” I feel like I know these two amazing people because I’ve listened to every episode already. And I can’t wait for more.

Links Mentioned

How to give a bad talk

Kids and YA Festival 2018

Mum Lyfe

Writer in Residence

Anita Heiss

Dr Anita Heiss is the author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women's fiction, poetry, social commentary, travel articles and children's fiction.

She is a regular guest at writers' festivals and travels internationally performing her work and lecturing on indigenous literature. She is a lifetime ambassador of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central NSW.

Her latest book, of which she is the editor, is Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Australia, and it's out now.

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Interview Transcript


Dr Anita Heiss is the author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women's fiction, poetry, social commentary, travel articles and children's fiction. She is a regular guest at writers' festivals and travels internationally performing her work and lecturing on indigenous literature. She is a lifetime ambassador of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central NSW. Her latest book, of which she is the editor, is Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Australia, and it's out now. And welcome back to the program, Dr Anita Heiss.


Thank you for having me.


So welcome to the program Dr Anita Heiss. This is actually your second interview with So You Want to be a Writer. We spoke to you all the way back in episode three, which is about a hundred years ago, I think. But let's just recap a little bit for new listeners. Can you tell us, first of all, how you came to be a published author in the first place?


So I published my first book back in 1996. It was called Sacred Cows. And it was borne out of my time at university where everything I got off the shelf at the University of NSW during my undergrad degree related to anything to do with Aboriginal people, society, culture and so forth was written by a non-Aboriginal person, except for some work by Kevin Gilbert and Oodgeroo Noonuccal.

And I decided that I wanted to write a satirical social commentary basically being the Aboriginal anthropological observer's gaze into white Australia. So I looked at Skippy and Vegemite and backyard barbeque and so forth.

And I had no idea back then that my journey as a writer would be what it is today. I didn't have any aspirations of writing more than that one book, but it turned out it was the springboard to me going and learning about the publishing process in Australia. The Indigenous publishing process in Australia, but also the Maori writing and editing and publishing process in Aotearoa New Zealand, and Native American writing and publishing culture in Canada.

And I did my PhD which was then published as Dhuuluu-Yala, which is a Wiradjuri phrase meaning to talk straight. And then it sort of snowballed from there and I was asked to write a kids' novel for Scholastic on the Stolen Generations. And here I am. I think maybe sixteen or seventeen books later.


I was going to say, you are quite prolific. For someone who actually does a thousand different things, you are actually putting out quite a lot of books as well. Since we last spoke, you've actually brought out several new books across different age groups and genres. One of those was Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, which is obviously an adult book. And then you've also had Kicking Goals and Our Race for Reconciliation for children.

Do you find it difficult to switch age groups and genres? You seem to be working in a whole range of different areas across the publishing spectrum.


It's a good question. For me, every book has a specific purpose and a target audience. So some of those books I was asked to write. So I wrote to a brief and so forth.

The children's novels, I really, really enjoy writing. And I don't know, to be honest, I don't know why I don't do more of them. Because they are in some ways much easier to write. And they're enjoyable. Because I'm writing about young people having fun and fishing and skateboarding and so forth, even though there's issues woven in there. And you know, obviously writing 10,000 words or 40,000 words is much easier than writing 80 or 90 or 100.

And look, to be honest with you, I really would like to just find one genre that I can do exceptionally well. Really, really well. So I've written, as you say, historical fiction, kids' fiction, commercial women's fiction, and I enjoy it and they do well and I get good reader response. But I think it would be wonderful just to say – this is my thing. Because I don't know that I have a thing.


What would it take, do you think, for you to find your thing? In a sense of, what do you think it would take for you to go, oh, so this is it. This is my thing. This is what I need to be doing.


I don't know. I honestly don't know.

People judge their own personal success in so many different ways, I guess. So whether it's through numbers of books sold or being reviewed in the New York Lit Review, whatever. I guess my measure of success, and I should listen to myself as I say this out loud to you, is that when I go into communities in particular and they say, “oh, that was my story.” Or, “thank you for telling our story.” And so forth.

I mean, we're going to talk about it shortly, but even with the new anthology, I mean, I didn't write so much of that as pull it together. But the impact that that is having is extraordinary. So maybe my thing then is actually providing that space for other people to have voices.

But having said that, editing any literary project is so much harder than writing your own book. Because you are dealing with, in that case, 52 different people. And it's really, really a hard thing. Because everybody has their own deadlines. And when you're writing your own book, you are just working to your own deadline. And obviously your publisher, and so forth.


Well, that's interesting. Because I did want to ask you and obviously we're going to talk about that. The book is Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Australia and you edited it as you said. Where did the idea for this book come from? Was it your idea? Or were you approached to pull it together?


Oh, I wished I was smart enough to have this idea! No, I didn't know it was going to be such a fabulous outcome that we've had.

So December 2016, I had already made a decision that last year was my year off from writing and so forth. But what happened was, I got an email from Aviva Tuffield at Black Inc Press. And they've said, “are you interested in editing this anthology?” They'd already done Growing Up Asian in Australia, which had launched careers like Ben Law and was a huge success in the classroom as a resource.

And I looked at it and I just thought there is no way that I can say no to this. Because it's not a project, really, it's an opportunity for many, many Aboriginal people to have a voice in a space where we have long been voiceless. It was an opportunity to showcase our skills as storytellers. It was an opportunity to have a springboard for talking about our pride and identity and so forth.

So I saw this more as an opportunity for me to participate in something that could make real change, particularly in the classroom where the work is targeted. So it's targeted for years nine to twelve. But most of the response I've had to date has been just by your average punter and readers. Just librarians and teachers and people who are just interested. Because it's only been out a couple of weeks. And hasn't had a chance to have an impact in the classroom yet.


So what is the role, what is your role as an editor of something like this? What's your job? As far as – they said, would you like to edit this. Did you know what you were taking on, A? And B, what exactly did you take on? What were you doing?


Well, it's interesting because obviously editing as the skill of editing is very different to being a writer. I mean, there's one in-joke, if you can't write you edit.

I love going through the editing process myself, when my work is edited, so I can see how to improve it and so forth. Which lots of authors don't like that process.

My role, I didn't necessarily do all the… I didn't do the actual tangible editing on the page, as such. I went through the edits that Aviva did. We talked about things.

My job, I read all the contributions that came in. All the submissions. There were over 120. And the hardest part of that whole process was not being able to include everybody. So that was really difficult. We could only include 52 because of page constraints.

And I will say that because I was so concerned about not everybody having a platform, I had a meeting with Aviva, with Kerry Kilner of AustLit about what might be possible for AustLit to publish an online version for the works that could not go into our book. So everybody who submitted, who was unable to be put in the anthology, had the opportunity to have their work published online on AustLit in the BlackWords research community. So they're now online as well. Those people who chose to do that. And that will grow. And that's called Growing Up Indigenous.

So my job was to read and cull and look for… And when I was pulling it all together, how do we pitch this to a general reading audience? How do we pitch this to teachers so they know that they can use this in the classroom?

So I was looking for common themes that I could talk about. And they were themes largely around identity, stereotypes around identity, how Aboriginal people identify themselves, challenges to identity and so forth. Lots of obsession, white people's obsession with skin colour comes through the stories. There are a lot of common themes around racism, particularly in the education system, which is quite sad. And also the fact that there were generations of racism that hadn't seemed to have changed to the present day. And common themes around Stolen Generation, family, country and connection to country, and there's also a bit of sport in there.

The interesting thing for me as an editor reading was the diversity of voice and the way stories were told, are told. And for your listeners, so they understand the breadth of experience, our youngest contributor is 13. She's a young girl in the inner west of Sydney. Our oldest is in their 70s, up here in Queensland. One contributor is currently incarcerated and he was assisted with someone, a local Aboriginal writer in South Australia who helped him get his story together. Over 50% of the anthology are by female contributors.

Now, I wasn't looking at all these statistics. All that was, we worked all that out once everything was compiled and were literally going to print. And reviewers pointed out some things to me in terms of the gender balance.

The one thing I was hoping to do when reading stories was to try and have a good cross-section of rural, remote, coastal, urban and as many countries as possible. But that didn't define whether or not someone got chosen. Because there are, I think, three contributors who are Gunditjmara, for instance, because their stories were very, very strong and they stood out.


Because that was going to be one of the questions I was going to as you. How do you choose these stories? Particularly given that it was a submission process and you got twice as many as you needed. I would imagine that the most difficult thing would be deciding who to leave out rather than necessarily who to put in.




What do you think actually makes a successful anthology story? For people out there who are writing, and who may have an opportunity to submit to something like this – because there are call outs for different things that go on. But what makes it work for an anthology, do you think?


I think people need to understand that regardless of the theme of the anthology, whether it's an Aboriginal anthology, or women's writing or the environment or whatever it is, there still has to be a level of skill in the way the story is told.

So people weren't chosen just because they were black, for instance. Obviously, they couldn't be because there were so many to choose from. So when I'm reading, if the story is well written, that puts them in front of someone's story whose is not well written.

And in publishing today, obviously there's so much competition. I know editors get things on their desk all the time. They are looking for things that are almost close to publication. Unless it's an extraordinary story.

And so I think with our stories, there is a need to provide extra assistance for particularly older people who haven't had access to the education that younger people have. And so there were some stories that required quite a lot of editing. And there were other stories by people like Tony Birch that required virtually nothing, because he's a writer.

And I do need you to know that we did ask, we did actually approach people to submit. So there were people that we did commission to write. So Tony Birch and I believe Jared Thomas, and Terri Janke, Miranda Tapsell. So people we knew who could already weave a story together, had a story, could weave it together and the idea was that emerging writers could stand alongside these established writers.

So I think, if your listeners are submitting to an anthology, stick to the brief. So we said non-fiction; people sent us fiction and poetry. That was not the brief. So stick to the brief. Stick to the word count. Because we need, the editor, the publisher, they need to know that you can tell your story in 3000 words. So stick to the word count. And each sentence should progress the story in some way.




And as a tip, this is a writing tip – oh, I'll save that for my writing tips, I think. I don't want to give it away too soon.


Don't want to peak early, no.


Don't want to peak, that's right.


But it's true, isn't it? Because you want to give your story the best possible chance, so you at least tick all the boxes and follow the rules, and then you jump off from there. Would that you be your advice as far as the anthology stories go?


Well, it's really basic though. And I say that because so many people don't. They just submit something because they want to submit their story, but they haven't actually read what's required of them. And you don't send it in on fancy paper or anything. Just be honest in your story, be authentic, particularly if it's non-fiction, be authentic.

I'm quite often conscious of audience. And all my writing is targeted towards a particular audience. So be aware. Be aware of who you're writing for. If it's for young people, be conscious of the language. And I don't mean profanity, but be conscious of that as well, I guess, but be conscious of the lingo that young people use today.

So be aware of who the audience is that you're writing for. And I say that because so many people go, “oh, I just want to be organic, and I don't care who reads my work.” And it's easy to say that. But if you actually want to be read, you should care. You should care who you're writing for. And if you don't want to be read, that's fine. But I don't know a lot of people, particularly people listening to your podcast and going through the Writers' Centre, that aren't writing for the purpose of being read. So just be aware, I think, of who you're writing for.


Did you find… So you decided you were going to take last year off and suddenly you're editing this book. Did you find that it was quite a consuming project for you? Did it take up a lot of your headspace and time?



So you do the read through, usually twice. So there's quite a few pieces of writing to read through. Then sitting down and trying to three piles – absolutely yes, maybes, and absolutely no.

And then there's the process of going through that and then having the conversation with the publisher to see that they'd had a read. And to see whether or not they agreed. And not for, I mean, I had the last say, but to have a conversation obviously with somebody else around that.

It is emotional, because some of the material is very emotional. So that takes time to process what you're reading, as well. And there were things that shocked me that I read.

And also the book's out now and I'm still working on it. I'm still working on it.

And I've always said, because I've done a number of anthologies, “I'm never doing another anthology.” Because you can't please everybody. It's like being a ref at a football match; you can't please everybody.

And just another tip for your listeners, you can submit something to an anthology and not be selected. We've all done that. I've been knocked back many, many, many times. And you need to understand that it's not necessarily your piece; it's just how it sits next to everybody else's piece on the day. And it might not be right for that anthology, but it could be perfect for another anthology.

And actually, Liza-Mare Syron, who is one of the contributors, we did a panel at the Sydney Writers Festival and she was saying that she'd written this piece and had nowhere to place it. And then the call out came and she virtually made no changes to it because this was the right place for that piece. So keep looking around. There's loads of opportunities. So if it doesn't fit somewhere, just wait for the right opportunity for your story to fit in.


Okay. So as well as writing all these books and doing a lot of speaking and all of the different things that you do, you also have a day job, right? Because you're with the Epic Good Foundation.




Can you tell us a little about what you do with them?


Sure. I manage the Epic Good Foundation which is a philanthropic national organisation but based out of Brisbane. And co-founded by Cathie Reid and Stuart Giles who are local philanthropists and pharmacists by trade and also co-founders of the Icon Cancer Group, which is the largest cancer care provider in the country.

So they use their skills and interests in the health sector to support a number of programs through their foundation, largely health related. One of their key areas is the desire to close the gap, gender equity in health, and education.

So they support the Hawthorn Indigenous Program which does outreach, which partners with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation as well. And they do literacy projects as well as other educational projects and getting young people in remote communities to have access to things that in the city we take for granted, like libraries and so forth.

They also support Indigistream which is an Indigenous production house that creates online health documentaries. Also big supporters of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. May have had my hand in that introduction.

But yes, so they're doing lots of good work. TRACTION, which is a local youth organisation here in Brisbane that supports young people who may not be thriving in school, but can go and participate in a workshop on how to build bikes in a group atmosphere and that's counted as part of their schoolwork as well.


Okay. So that's not a small job that you're doing there. How do you manage to fit writing, editing, speaking, etc, all in around that?


I'm not quite sure. I don't know how I'm doing it.


I think you must have a 26 hour day.


No. I don't have a man and I don't have kids. So I've probably got a lot more hours than a lot of people. But I'm anal about schedules and organisation. I write, I'm quite structured in writing. So I haven't written for a little while now because I'm also studying. I've enrolled to learn the Wiradjuri language at university.




But when I'm working on a project, when I'm working on a novel for instance… So Our Race to Reconciliation came out in May last year, and I wrote that, I think I wrote that over about 28 days. And I literally got up every morning and I wrote for two or three hours, sometimes from five in the morning before I went to work.

I prefer to write in the morning. I'm not a night time person. If it's not done by five, it doesn't get done. And so I write in slabs of time.

My adult novels, like Manhattan Dreaming and Paris Dreaming, I wrote those in eight to twelve weeks, just every day living on Red Bull and chocolate. I was so unhealthy back then. I wasn't running marathons.

But I write in slabs of time, and I'm very structured. I'm a plotter. So I map everything out. So by the time I sit down to start writing my novel, I know where I'm going, I know where the story is going, I've got a plan to work to.


All right. Which is pretty much the only way to do it when you're as busy as you are, right? You've got to basically put the time aside, you've got to know exactly what you're going to do when you sit down and you've just got to get on with it.


That's right. I don't have time to… I've tried to do the whole pantser thing. And I don't have time. I have to get a book out, I've got a deadline, this is the window of time I've got. Bang.


Okay. And as you said, you're actually still really working on your latest book because you're promoting it everywhere. Your promotion schedule looks absolutely punishing for this. Do you take time off your day job to do that? Or how do you fit that stuff in with everything else?


Well, there's a couple of things there. So Epic Good is three days a week, which is completely flexible. And Cathie and Stuart being the entrepreneurs they are, they understand that I'm trying to also run a business as a writer and they support everything I do. Which is great. So if I have to go to… Next year I'm going to India for festivals; that's all fine.

So some weeks I might work eight days straight or ten days straight. And then I'll take a week off. So we've got a big month coming up with Reconciliation Week and so forth and our activities. And then I think I fly back to Sydney on the Saturday after speaking at the Wheeler Centre, and then I might even take Monday and Tuesday off, and I'll go to a day spa and I'll do my washing and pay my bills and vacuum and do all those sort of things.


What kinds of promotional stuff do you do when you're not actively launching a book? Like, are you online? I know that you have a blog and you've been posting a happiness photo each day. Are you sort of actively always trying to keep your website active and stuff like that?


Yes. So I do, I'm on x amount of platforms. I'm on Twitter. So I have I think 22 or 23,000 followers on Twitter. So I manage that account and I also manage the Epic Good account. So I'm doing stuff daily there. Most of that is around… It's book related, maybe some running, and Indigenous affairs.

I have an Instagram account and most of that is really about #livingthebestlifeican – that's the hashtag I have. And running and book events as well.

And I have a personal Facebook page. I have an author page that was set up by a young student many years ago that I now manage.

And I'm on LinkedIn, but I use that less so because it's really, I guess, if I'm ever looking for another job I'll be on there like everybody else, sending emails.

But I think an online presence for any author is essential. And I think what people need to understand is it's not meant to be an information dump; it's social media. There's meant to be a social engagement. Particularly if you're an organisation, you need to understand that you need to engage with people who follow you and be sharing other people's information as well.


Very true. All right, we're going to finish up with the top three tips for writers that I know you've been thinking about for at least 20 minutes now.


Okay. Right. So my first tip is you have to read. I meet so many people who go, oh yes, I'm going to write a book, and then they tell me they don't read. And I say, well, what makes you think somebody's going to be interested in your book if you can't be bothered reading somebody else's? That's one thing.

But the idea is you need to be reading across genres, you need to be reading across gender and geography and cultures. And to get a feel for how stories work on the page and how you want to tell your stories on the page.

And to know what's in the market place. To know what's in the market place. So I recently pitched something to publishers and they said, oh, we've come out the other side of the tunnel for that topic, which was a bit sad for me. So know what's in the market place.

Secondly, for writing, one of the greatest tips I was given by two people, and that was Linda Jaivin and Kathryn Heyman, was to use your senses in your writing. So when I run writers' workshops now I always have an exercise where I get the people to… Even if you just look around the classroom, how many different colours can you see? And not just it's red, what kind of red? Fire engine red, lipstick red, prostitute red. I don't know. Whatever red it is. Flame red. Is there a prostitute red?


There is now. We've just invented it.


Maybe delete that. It's not a bad thing. I'm just thinking of lipstick.




So use your senses. What can your character see, smell, taste, touch and hear? So that your reader can experience that. And is that two?


That's two. Last one.


Finally, write every day. I know that I don't write every day. But I don't have to. I've published 17 books. But if you're starting out, you write every day.

So Julia Cameron has a great book, The Artist's Way, it has exercises in it and so forth. Get that. That was like a bible for me when I first started. And I think she was saying the three pages; write three pages every morning. They don't have to mean anything. It could be about what you dreamt. Just to get in the habit of writing every day.


Terrific. Thank you so much for your time today, Anita. Really, really appreciate it. I hope… Well, I've seen so much press around Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia in Australia. I hope it's a huge success and that it takes new stories and new voices and all of those things to a whole range of new people. So best of luck with it. Well done for fitting everything in. And hopefully we'll talk to you again in another 200 episodes' time.


Thanks very much for having me.

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