In Episode 248 of So you want to be a writer: Meet Penelope Janu, author of On The Right Track. Discover how to not irritate your local bookshop: a guide for authors and learn 1 simple tip to help you get more writing done. You’ll hear about how Graham Frizzell carves out a career writing about beer. We also have copies of Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan to give away.
Helen H Jin from Australia:
Thank you this podcast was so helpful and inspiring – very generous as always. I’ve taken a couple of of Pamela’s courses at the Australian Writers’ Centre and she is just as precise, helpful and thoughtful with her feedback as she was in this interview about her own writing. A great interview. Thank you Valerie.
Writer in Residence
A few years ago, after a fulfilling career as a lawyer and legal academic, Penelope Janu thought it was time to start writing the kinds of stories she’d always thought up but never written down. Not coincidentally, they were also the stories that she loved to read.
Her first novel, In at the Deep End, was released in January, 2017. The story is set in Sydney’s beautiful Northern Beaches Peninsula with Antarctica – and a few other locations – featured as well. Her second novel, On the Right Track, was published by Harlequin Mira (an imprint of HarperCollins) in June 2018. This novel, set in a rural area in NSW, was a joy to write, taking her back to her formative years where she was rarely seen out of riding boots!
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So Penelope, thanks for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
Now, congratulations on your new book, On The Right Track. Now if there are some readers who haven’t heard what this story is about, can you just give us a brief rundown.
Yes. Well, On The Right Track is a story about a woman who has sustained a life changing injury as a teenager. She is forced to reassess what she can do with her life. It’s about her connection to her late grandfather and her home.
The plot revolves around the horse racing industry and money laundering. She’s a speech therapist, so there are quite a few communication issues in there. And it’s a romance. So she falls in love.
So kind of adventure, romance. Lots going on! I like an exciting plot.
Yes. There is a lot going on. Do you have a lot of experience in the world of horse racing?
I grew up on a pony, more or less. That’s what I did, really, for the first couple of decades of my life. So that aspect of the horses, certainly I’m familiar with. But not so much the industry itself.
Except that, I guess I’ve always been aware of… There’s sort of two sides to the industry. You see the millinery and the champagne is one side. But for so many people, and that’s within the racing industry too, of course, it’s all about the horses. It’s just a love of horses.
And then you come across that of course in trainers, and jockeys, and so many others in the industry, stable hands, the strappers. They’re interested in the horses themselves. And I guess I come at it from that point of view.
I have a very dear friend, we used to ride together, who’s an ex-policewoman within the mounted branch. And she trains ex racehorses for dressage and so on.
So certainly the horse aspect. But the international law and the money laundering and that, I suppose, comes from my background as a lawyer, so that’s in there as well.
Okay, so now we’ve had you on the podcast before. When you released your first book. And that happened after you… Because you’re one of our graduates.
And we’re super, super, super proud of you and you are kicking it. So that’s what I want to actually talk about. Because you’ve gone past… Some people just write one novel and they’ve got it out of their system and that’s great. But you have not only written your first novel, you then ploughed ahead and you basically carved out a career. This is your new career. This is your second novel, but there’s more in the pipeline, I know.
So tell us what… Did you have a strategy or did you have some plans when you decided, you know, this is going to be my career now. What did you put in place?
I think with writing, it’s really difficult. Because I think with most writers, whether you write fiction or non-fiction or short stories or whatever your aspirations are, you don’t actually know necessarily that you can be successful at it, that you might be published, until you actually, you really have to put yourself out there. You have to do so much work in anticipation of getting published often.
And so it’s starting in that way. Writing, for me, it was writing creatively. And I worked really hard for a couple of years just on my craft before I was even confident really in showing anybody my work.
And I was lucky, because I was picked up to be published within a few years of starting to write creatively, which was fantastic.
But I guess because I’ve had a career and I’ve always really worked fulltime, I sort of do really see it as a career. And that does mean that you really have to work at it.
The writing, I love. But there are other sides to the industry. Like, there’s social media. And after 20 years of telling my children, now don’t you go on Facebook, or watching what they’re doing and then suddenly you have to embrace that certain aspect of marketing and so on. So that was something that was a bit out of my comfort zone. And just putting yourself out there was uncomfortable.
But yeah, I do treat it like a career, because I love to do it. But I think you have to look at all different aspects of writing. Or most people as writers do.
So what proportion of your week, when you are writing a book, what proportion of your week is taken up with writing?
Oh, I write every day, much to my family’s consternation sometimes. Because these characters are in my head whether I’m actually writing or not.
So for me, I like to write every day. I mean, some days I’ll write for eight or nine hours, perhaps. Other days, it might be for an hour or two. I’ll get up at 5 in the morning and I’ll do a couple of hours. And then if I have other things on during the day.
So I do write every day. That suits me. And it is a discipline.
Yes. So do you try to achieve a particular… With this book, a couple of things, did you try to achieve a particular wordcount because you had a deadline? Or even if it was a loose deadline agreed with your publisher. And did you plot out this story beforehand, or did you just kind of go, oh, this is how I’m going to start it and we’ll see what happens?
Well, I had, because I’m signed with Harlequin MIRA, or HarperCollins. So the first book, In At the Deep End was published at the beginning of 2017. And I knew that they would, subject to them liking it, take another book.
So really, all through 2017 I wrote On The Right Track. And I kind of had a deadline. I wanted to get it to the publisher by November. So I guess it was 11 months in the writing. And so then in that way it was good. It was a loose deadline. But it was certainly a deadline. I wanted to get that, it was about 95 or 96,000 words, I wanted to get it done by then.
So that was good for me in a way. Because it really does force you to write. I’m not a particularly fast writer and so I think that’s why it takes me a long time. I have to write every day.
And I’m not much of a plotter. And I know some people are plotters and some people aren’t. I’m an organic writer. I think that’s the new way of saying you write by the seat of your pants. I knew something about the outline of what I was writing. But a lot of things happen actually as I’m writing.
But I’m kind of a neat writer, so I write a chapter, and then I might spend another four or five days going over that chapter. And as I’m going over that chapter and editing, I’m really thinking about what’s going to happen in the next chapter. So to that extent, I probably plot. I’m not someone who sits down…
As you know my daughter Tamsin is a middle-grade children’s writer. She’s amazing. We go away on holidays and she sits down and writes, starts in the first chapter and writes all the way through. So she does 20,000 words all in a row and then she goes back and does her edits. So I’ve see how that works. But that’s not me. I’m a bit slower than that.
So your daughter is Tamsin Janu, and after she did a course at the Australian Writers’ Centre, that seed of an idea that she started that weekend turned in to her first book. And not only has she written several books since, she’s won all these awards and she’s obviously going really well.
Do you compare notes? Or do you ever decide to co-work together and write at the same time or anything like that?
No. Look, in my acknowledgements in On The Right Track, actually, I thank all the children, because they’re all really supportive. All my kids. I’ve got six of them.
But with Tamsin, I said, well, thank you for sharing my writer angst. And I think that’s what we do. We share writer angst. Because it is hard if things aren’t going that well. And I think as another writer, that’s what we really understand with each other’s work.
Tamsin’s great. She lets me read her first draft. She doesn’t share her work really with anyone before it goes to the publisher. Except I get to read it a little bit, which is good. And certainly with my kids, I suppose I might ask them questions. And Tam will have a look at what I’ve written. But I really think…
And that’s I suppose, that’s why it’s fantastic doing a course, where you meet a few people. It’s the writer’s angst. And I think writers understand each other’s angst. No matter what you write, there is that insecurity of putting yourself out there. Which a lot of us, it is something difficult to do.
And especially because there are many talented writers out there. And you spend a long time writing. It doesn’t mean that you’ll be published. And that’s not because you’re not talented. It’s just that perhaps that’s not the right time for your work, perhaps. But it’s easy to become discouraged, obviously.
But despite that, and despite the angst that can come with writing, how does this career compare with your career as a lawyer? Is it something that you enjoy more, or the same, it’s just different? How do you feel about this career compared to how you felt about your career as a lawyer?
Look, I love writing. There’s a real joy in writing. When you’re in the middle of a scene, or you know it’s going well. Or just the fact of those characters being in your head. That’s really, really special.
And I feel… I mean my legal career, and I worked as an academic for many years because I had the children, and so that was always a juggle. You’re just juggling family and work and house and mortgages and all sorts of things. That was really that time in my life.
And for me though now, it’s a real freedom to have, to be able to write. Because it does take a long time. And I think I might have started late because for me, I think it would have been really hard to juggle writing with having all those other things in my life.
So now it’s easier to manage, I suppose, because I have less immediate commitments.
Yes. And so for this book, what kind of research did you have to do into the world of money laundering and all of that?
That’s the trouble! I know so much about money laundering, but of course that doesn’t, people don’t want to read, understandably, it’s all boring and dry stuff, a lot of it.
Because my hero, Tor Amundsen, is a UN diplomat and he works for a UN committee and they carry out investigations into money laundering. And look, the money laundering isn’t particularly attached to the horse racing industry at all. Of course, it goes on in all different ways.
But the reason he, sort of the trigger, I suppose, that he’s looking into the heroine Golden’s past and some connections that her family had, and this is going back 10 or 15 years with her family, to a certain investment that was made.
So yes, I had some legal background in it, but that doesn’t really transfer to the book. It’s a matter of doing an awful lot of research, and then taking out the bits that aren’t necessary to tell the story, keeping in those bits so it all hangs together.
Yet the driver of the story is really the story of Golden and her connection to her home and her community. And also obviously her relationships with her friends and family and ultimately to the hero as well.
Where do these characters come from? You say you live with these characters in your head and your family kind of has to live with them as well. How do they form in your head? How are they birthed?
I have a general idea. As soon as I start writing, and I seem to get a voice. And I have written three full length novels now, and each of my characters have a certain voice. And I guess that really helps. Even just in the first chapter, and maybe that’s why I take a long time over my first chapters, just really establishing the voice of the character.
Once I have that, I know that there’s certain, there might be difficulties in the character’s background. Or just the way, like we all do as individuals approach things differently.
So my character Golden has had a really difficult upbringing, and so that obviously reflects itself in the way she thinks about things, and the way she thinks about people, whether she’s distrustful. The way she might approach certain situations.
My heroine in the last book, In At The Deep End, was probably essentially a more optimistic out there character, and that carries on into the story. And I suppose that’s usual with how I write, as well. Because how would a character faced with a certain situation respond to that? And how the character grows over time, as well.
So now that you are… Well, these characters are on the page now, they’re out there. What are you working on now?
I’m hoping next year to have another Harlequin MIRA title out. And that’s another one, that’ll probably be set in New South Wales in a country area. And I have a heroine with a really interesting career, which I don’t even want to say anything about, because I think that is such a good idea! Why hasn’t anyone written that yet?
So that will be my project for next year. But another… Look, I love writing heroines, and I have four daughters in their 20s at this moment, and being an academic the women I teach are in their 20s. I love that kind of late 20s age group. I think they’re independent and thoughtful and smart. They really dig deep to resolve issues at that age. They don’t rely on the hero to do that.
I just like that age group, and I really like the way they approach things. So certainly the character I have in mind is someone else in that age group. But it’s also how those characters relate to their friends and their family and the people in their life.
That’s an interesting point. You’re drawn to writing that age group, young women in their 20s. What do you do to get into that mindset? I mean, obviously we were all in our 20s once, so that’s kind of obvious. We have that lived experience. But in terms of what… But society does change. In terms of what people at that age group are into now, or how they interact, how they communicate. Do you have to do anything to make sure you’re up to date, in a sense?
Yes. And I wonder whether it’s because I started writing later. I mean, at my age, in my 50s, I should be writing about heartache and divorce and all sorts of terrible things. But I think maybe I have to wait until in my 80s and then I’ll be writing about women in their 50s.
To an extent, yes and no. If it’s something to do with tattoos or ear piercings or social media or something, I’ll make sure I check to say, is this right? And does this work like this? And that’s sort of easy fact checking stuff.
But I think essentially, I mean, when you think about – not that I compare myself at all to Jane Austen – but I mean people, women written in the 17 and 1800s, they’re certain characters and they’re optimistic or they’re this or they’re that. And I don’t think that changes in many ways. Human personalities and character.
And so then I think if you can tap into a character that you’re writing and they have certain qualities, it’s kind of timeliness, I think. And romance and relationships, and relationships with your children and with your family, your parents. That’s timeless to an extent as well.
I mean, I’m not… I’m careful, I think, because I wouldn’t want to… It’s sort of not me, I suppose, and that’s where people in my… Sex scenes in a romance novel and they say, oh, whoa, whoa, wink, wink, nod, nod. And I think, that’s got nothing to do with me. That’s my character.
And it really is like that, writing. If I write a character who is in their 20s I think, yeah, well… I don’t know. I have my various responses to people who say things like that. Like, she’s 30 years old. Didn’t you have sex when you were 30! And so on. It’s a character.
Do people say things to you? Do people make comments about such things to you?
Oh yes. And I think, that’s the sort of… It’s easy… And I write commercial fiction, women’s fiction, yes it has romance. I love an uplifting ending. I love the fact that my women in my novels, they’re prepared to fall in love. But they’re not willing to settle for a man who’s not worthy of them. And they don’t rely on the hero to fix their problems.
But that’s to me, it’s uplifting, it’s what a romance is all about. And I enjoy writing that. And part of that dynamic, and for me, yes I write love scenes, just as appropriate, not at all erotic or anything, although there’s obviously a market in that too. But that intimacy between characters, it’s a really important element of the relationship. And often it’s a way to show how the relationship develops, I guess, through writing that. And that’s an essential part, in many ways, of romance.
And that doesn’t mean that it’s… Having sex can be the brush of a hand. As we all know. If it’s somebody that you first know and it’s exciting just when your arm touches theirs and you’re at the movies.
So yeah, I think that’s really important to what I write, and that’s an important way to show how the characters are relating to each other. And how there might be some deep meaning in the way they relate to each other. Even though they might have to wait for 80 or 90,000 words for that relationship to actually happen.
Do you read in your genre? Or what do you read? What do you enjoy reading?
Oh, I read all sorts of things. I don’t, I really, I can’t… Look, I read the odd crime novel I guess. But I enjoy reading romance. I love reading historical romance. For me, that’s a wonderful escape. So I read lots of regencies and things.
I think the rural… This book I’m writing next year and this one too has an element of rural romance in it as well. Tricia Stringer writes wonderful rural romance, but she writes commercial fiction. I mean, so many people who are – not pigeonholed – but they might be categorised as a certain sort of writer, Rachael Johns is another one, that write in all different sorts of genres.
So I read a lot of commercial fiction. And yeah, romantic comedy. It used to be called chick-lit. I hate the expression chick-lit, because I think chick, I mean, I’ve never described myself as a chick or anybody else.
But yeah, the romantic comedy. But I think in some ways that can often be just the voice. If it’s a lighter, brighter voice in a novel, it might be categorised as a romantic comedy. But with a romantic comedy you often have just as many challenges and… Actually, even more so. Whether it’s Bridget Jones or Sophie Kinsella’s work.
You know, talking about women sort of moving on and taking charge of their lives or changing their lives. It’s just done in a certain way where it might be categorised as romantic comedy, but it really is a story that can relate to many people.
Now apart from writing, as you say, there’s other aspects now that this is your career. There’s the marketing and the social media and stuff like that. And there are also author talks. Is that something that you enjoy? For example, the author talks?
I haven’t done a lot of that. Now, this is my second novel, and it’s been really nice. With my first one, I used to just sort of sidle into bookshops and say hello! I’ve written a book.
Whereas it’s nice now, because I know certain people have enjoyed my first novel and so I’ve got feedback. So I’ve got a little bit braver, thinking it’s really nice to see some people are engaging with and enjoying what you’re writing.
So I’m much more confident, I mean, sort of go to the local library, so doing a talk at my local library in Mosman at the end of September. Then the library invites people to come along. And I love to talk about writing and the writing journey. And readers are often, they’re fantastic. Whether they’re… Obviously, all writers are readers as well.
But it’s just really nice. You get emails and you get messages and people speak to you at author events and say how much they’ve enjoyed your work. And that’s such a lovely part of being a writer. It really is.
Yes. Very much so. Because it’s not… Because it’s not really… I mean, you obviously want an amount of people to buy your books. But for me, that’s more about, I want to continue to be published. So you want people to read your books.
But really, the people you have contact with, whether it’s 10 or 20 or 50 people, it’s just really nice that they engage with your work and they read your work. I’m forever telling people, oh, go to the library. You can, any book can be ordered in the library. And that’s good for writers as well. I mean, it’s not that you have to always buy the book. You can borrow it and read it, enjoy it, recommend it to your friends or buy it as a gift or something.
But I don’t know that I’ll be a… I don’t know that I’m a great marketer. I love to read and I love to write.
I have no doubt that you will be published again and we will be having another conversation next year.
But let’s wrap up then on what would be your top three tips for aspiring writers who want to be in a position like you are one day?
Um… Well… Finish the book. If you’re writing a book, if you’re a novelist, or whether it’s an article, whatever. I think you just got to get it down there. And that might take a year or two years, or it might take a few months. But once you’ve finished it, you’ve got something to work on. But you just have to get it done. And that’s really important, and it’s really difficult, but that’s a really important first thing, I suppose.
For me, that means write a little bit every day. Even if it’s, you know, whether it’s only a paragraph or anything. For me, keeping the characters in your head.
The voice, I think the voice. Everybody has their own voice. And I sort of work with a few aspiring writers. And that’s something that nobody else has. It’s absolutely unique to that writer.
So even though they might say, oh, I’ve got a lot to learn, and then obviously there are courses you can do at the writers’ centre or whatever, and that helps you to learn your craft so you’re better at putting words on the page or better perhaps at communicating what you want to say.
But your voice is your own. And that is your voice. And so have trust in that. Have faith in that. And all you really need to do, you just need a publisher who recognises that, or they really like it, and then hopefully it will be picked up and it will be published.
But it is your voice, and it is unique, and it’s something really special and really unique. Whether you’re an artist, or any sort of person or an actor or whatever else you might be, it’s kind of a different thing, that voice.
But yes, that’s important.
I suppose and being critical, I guess. When you finish writing your first draft, then to go back and to look at it again, to have a break from it. That’s really important too.
And also to engage with others in your writing or reading community. And that’s something social media or doing online courses. And that’s really important, I think, because it does validate what we’re doing. And it sort of keeps you company. Otherwise writing can be a lonely pursuit.
And it’s something that only… I mean, writers understand other writers. And I don’t mean necessarily published writers. But people who are aspiring to write. And much as we love our friends and family and things, it’s hard for them to understand what we do in that way. So it’s really nice if you can find a group of other writers, or do a course. You automatically then will find other writers that you can speak to, relate to.
For sure. Find your tribe. Awesome. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Penelope.
Thank you, Valerie. Thank you for having me.