Ep 261 Planning the next year. And meet Alice Pung, author of ‘Close to Home’.

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In Episode 261 of So you want to be a writer: Discover planning tips for the next year and meet Alice Pung, author of Close to Home. We have a HUGE stash of books to give away to one lucky winner. Plus, the Newcastle Short Story Award is now open and more.

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

Links Mentioned

2019 Newcastle Short Story Award now open

It’s That Time Again – Strategic Planning for Authors

Writer in Residence

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is an award-winning writer, editor, teacher and lawyer based in Melbourne.

She is the bestselling author of Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter and the editor of the anthologies Growing Up Asian in Australia and My First Lesson.

Her first novel, Laurinda, won the Ethel Turner Prize at the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Her latest book is Close to Home, published by Black Inc Books.

Follow Black Inc Books on Twitter

(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 our 12-book summer reading pack!

This podcast is brought to you by the Australian Writers’ Centre

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Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo

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Interview transcript

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Alice.

Alice

Thanks for having me, Valerie.

Valerie

All right. Now your latest book, Close to Home, for those readers who haven’t got their hands on it yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

Alice

Sure. So Close to Home is a collection of my nonfiction writing. I think it spans around 15 years from my very first published piece in the year, I think it was 2000 or 2001. Until a piece I wrote recently, just this year.

Valerie

And so what made you decide to compile a collection of your writing?

Alice

Oh, Valerie, it wasn’t my decision actually. So last year, my editor, Chris Feik, who’s been with me since my very first book actually, he emailed me and said, “oh, I think you’ve got enough stories for a collection.” Well, firstly, I think the first thing I felt was embarrassment, because I’d only recently read some great anthologies, including Helen Garner’s latest collection, Everywhere I Look.

And I emailed Chris back saying, “I don’t think I’m at the stage in my career where I…” Because Helen Garner has anthologies, not quite younger authors. But he said that I’d written quite a bit for The Monthly magazine. And so he and Julia from Black Inc said, let us put together, make a list of all the things that you’ve published and see how you feel about it. And I didn’t realise that I’d written so much over the years.

So this is Julia and Chris’s doing. I can’t take much credit for the great way they’ve put it together.

Valerie

And did you curate it in the order in which it has appeared? And then did you subsequently write some new material that was specifically for the book?

Alice

Oh, Valerie, it’s a great question. Because I was very lucky to have Julia and Chris curate the entire project. I wouldn’t know how to put my writing together because I’m too close to it. So the things that really embarrass me, I might have left out some stories that other people might have found interesting, just personally. You grow as a writer over 15 years. So I would have curated a very different and probably very inferior book.

So I didn’t curate it. But I did write one new piece for it. Because in the last section, to put it all together. Because when I read the manuscript about a month before it got published, I thought, oh gosh, I didn’t realise that the things I’d been writing had been telling a sort of narrative or trajectory of my life for the past 15 years. So there was one piece missing that I filled in the gap and that was it.

Valerie

Great. And by the way, I’m sure you’re selling yourself a bit short, Alice, by saying that you would have done an inferior job. Because you’re an award winning writer, you’ve had so much experience.

When did you decide that you wanted to write? Was it something that you always loved when you were at school? Or when did it develop?

Alice

I always enjoyed writing. The necessity of writing, I think, developed early. Not because I had a dream to be an author or anything, but because I was growing up in Braybrook and we didn’t have Facebook. And I’m the oldest. And with a lot of refugee families, the oldest looks after the younger kids.

And I was really frustrated. Really, really frustrated. I’d go to shopping centres and people would give me funny looks, dirty looks, like I was a teen mum when I was just the oldest sibling looking after the younger ones.

And, you know, I read a book called The Feminine Mystique, written in the 1950s about housewives, how they were all on Valium because they were really depressed. And as a teenager, I thought, I get this.

I wrote a lot out of frustration, actually. And it was quite a therapeutic thing. It was a wonderful thing, because I didn’t take it out on my younger siblings. And it was a way of – what do you call it? It was therapeutic. Before Facebook.

Valerie

So you mean Facebook has taken its place?

Alice

No, I’m barely on Facebook actually. I guess what I’m saying is today, if I had Facebook back then, I could have just written, “oh, I had to change my sister Lina’s nappy seven times today. I’m so angry.” And I would have got 17 people liking, or doing the sympathetic crying face. And I wouldn’t have felt so alone.

But when you’re in this concrete house by yourself as a teenager, with lots of kids, you really feel quite alone. So writing was a way to make me feel better. Not to make anyone else feel anything.

Valerie

Wow. And so did you have influential people at school or teachers or authors that impacted, that influenced the fact that you wanted to write?

Alice

Oh, I did in primary school. I had this emergency teacher named Mr Galloway, who would only come very two or three months. And he didn’t even know my name; he called me Elizabeth. But he always said, “oh are you writing, Elizabeth? You’re going to burn a hole through the page.”

So if someone had said to me back then, “oh you’re so great at maths” maybe I would have gone in a different field. But I remember him so well.

And then my first author visit was an author named Arnold Zable, who you might know, might have interviewed. He spoke to our school when I was 16. And he was so honest and such a wonderful storyteller. And he did tell us that writing didn’t pay very much, but it was his life. And sometimes he’ll see people reading The Age and putting their coffee cup on his article, leaving a mark. And I really thought, this man is an extraordinary storyteller. And it was the first author I’d ever met.

Valerie

Wow. And so you were born in Australia, in Victoria. But your parents migrated here and they were refugees here from Cambodia. And a lot of the stuff that you’ve written – and you’ve written a lot of memoir – has centred around that experience. The fact that you have that Cambodian background and how that’s played out.

Why do you want to write about that?

Alice

Oh, I think it’s the material I know best. I didn’t start off, when I wrote my memoir and my nonfiction pieces, I didn’t start off thinking that I had something very specific to say. I didn’t start off politically, which is what I’m saying. I didn’t even have a clear understanding of politics at 20 when I started writing my family stories. I just thought that that was the material I knew well.

And in fact, in my first creative writing class at university, I felt intimidated. People had been overseas. They had life experience. We had an older mother. And I started just writing about my family, and people seemed to find that funny and interesting. So that’s how I continued.

Valerie

And so recently had a baby, your second baby, and we might even hear him gurgling in the background in this episode.

Alice

He’s fallen asleep now.

Valerie

But apart from that, when you’re not nursing a brand new baby, you have a fulltime job, is that right? Or a part time job?

Alice

Oh, it used to be fulltime, Valerie. It’s now three days a week. Well, I’m on maternity leave at the moment. But it is usually three days a week at the Fair Work Commission.

Valerie

Where you work as a lawyer?

Alice

A legal researcher now. So I’ve been doing that for over ten years.

Valerie

So you combine that with writing, right?

Alice

Yes. Yeah, I do.

Valerie

And so what proportion… So do you… How disciplined are you on the days that you’re not doing that? How disciplined are you in being committed to your writing? And what goals do you have in terms of using that time? Do you aim to get a certain number of things published per quarter? Or how does it work so that you have a forward momentum and that you’re not wasting those two days?

Alice

That’s an excellent question. Because on those two days I have my two boys with me. So one is three and a half, and one at the moment is a newborn. So in between time, which is very scarce actually, at the moment.

I don’t have a goal. I don’t think every quarter I should publish this amount of articles. I always say yes to commissions or to people who ask me to do work.

But I do have long term projects. So at the moment, I’m working on a young adult book. And I have wonderful publishers. So they let me take my time. So I set personal goals, of course. I say, oh maybe in two years I’ll have a first draft or something. So I don’t have very specific, you know, 500 words a day goals. But long term goals, I do.

Valerie

Sure. You do write a lot of memoir. And it’s a balancing act when anyone writes memoir to make sure that you’re telling your story obviously truthfully and authentically, but in a way that’s really engaging. Because sometimes what’s engaging to us and our family isn’t necessarily engaging to other people.

Alice

That’s so true. Yes.

Valerie

So how do you make… What kind of criteria do you have, or how do you determine, “you know what? I’ve gone too far in that direction.” Or what sort of rules do you have for yourself when you’re writing memoir?

Alice

Look, I have rules in regards to the stuff I write not hurting other people.

Valerie

Right. Sure.

Alice

For instance, years and years ago my sister’s guinea pig died and she was a lot younger. And I thought I’d write about that as part of something else. And she said, “I don’t want you to write about the death of my guinea pig.” Which is something really small, but it was her first death.

Valerie

Sure, significant to her.

Alice

This is coming from someone who writes about genocide in Cambodia. And I stopped and I thought, I can’t write about my sister. I don’t have permission from her. She may be a minor, she may be 12 or something.

So these are the rules. If people don’t want me to write about them, I don’t.

In terms of my own life, I don’t write about things that I don’t think are insignificant, just to get laughs or that I think might be of cultural interest to other people. I’m more about… I write to get to the emotional heartbeat of a situation or a circumstance. So I guess those are my unspoken rules.

Valerie

You made reference to genocide in Cambodia. And obviously your parents left Cambodia during a difficult period. At what age were you when you started to understand what they actually went through? And how did that affect you growing up in beautiful safe suburban lovely Victoria?

Alice

Oh, so I’ve always grown up knowing that my parents survived war. Even from the youngest age possible. They would say things over the dinner table, not to shock, but it was part of their conversation, because it was a part of their life. Just as people who grew up in the 70s in Australia talk about their first Abba concert or something.

My parents would occasionally say, “oh remember, Needle? She was so clever with a sewing machine. Too bad they smashed her.” And these were people I’d never meet.

And so we grew up knowing that there were these bad guys called The Black Bandits, which were what my parents called the Khmer Rouge. And that they killed people in all sorts of different ghastly ways. But we also watched a lot of martial arts movies. So we could see that violence was part of my parents’ wartime experience.

I think it really hit me when I was 16 and 17, when you do history projects and you have to interview your relatives. And that was when my dad told me what happened in Cambodia. And I lost a lot of sleep then. I thought, wow, I can’t believe I have these parents.

Valerie

Yes.

Alice

They’re not abusive. They’re very loving. They’re funny as. And they survived this. You know?

Valerie

And have you spent much time in Cambodia? Since you weren’t born there?

Alice

Not very much, Valerie. My father always prevented us from going there. He said, “you can visit anywhere in the world but there.” But then I had to finish a book when I was 29. And I asked him if he could come with me to Cambodia. So we spent about two weeks there. So that was the first and only time I’ve been there.

Valerie

Wow. Okay. Okay.

Alice

Yeah.

Valerie

And so with what you’re doing now, what’s your plan? Is the plan to continue working part time in legal research and writing on the side? And what’s the next big project that you want to take on?

Alice

I do always want to work part time. Because I find I’ve never been a fulltime writer. And even when I’ve gone away on residencies, just spending seven days a week writing, it doesn’t bore me or anything, but it feels really selfish.

Valerie

Really?

Alice

And I don’t think I could do it. Yeah. Yeah. I guess, I don’t know. It feels really insular. And I get worried and anxious about what people think of my writing.

So having a three days a week job where I don’t concentrate on myself and I concentrate on solving other problems, really helps me as a writer. It makes the writing lighter, if that makes sense. Not lighter as in diluted, but it makes it not all about my ego and how I would feel if someone gave me a bad review or if the book didn’t do well.

Because it also provides a separate income from the writing. So it makes it freer.

Valerie

Now if you did have a project… Sorry, no you continue, please.

Alice

Oh no, you go.

Valerie

If you do have a project, like you said, “I’ll deliver this manuscript in two years” or whatever. Even if it’s a vague future deadline. How do you then structure that to make sure that it happens? You must have some kind of process or timelines? Or something to make sure that you do deliver that manuscript in two years? Or you can’t write it all in the final week!

Alice

Oh no. No, you can’t do it. So for example, I’m working on a young adult book, which is taking about two years. And I did say I’d deliver it hopefully by the end of this year.

Valerie

Is that fiction?

Alice

Yeah, it’s a fiction. So how do I do that? I don’t know, Valerie. I have a hunch that I’ll get it done. And usually it does get done within the time. So maybe a few months earlier or later, but things eventually get done. Lucky I don’t have pushy publishers or a pushy agent saying, you have to deliver a book every two years or whatever.

Valerie

Do you carve out a specific time? Like, Sunday afternoon, I’m just going to write. Or do you have any of those sorts of parameters?

Alice

No, I don’t. But you’re right, when I do have a deadline, I’m very lucky, I have a very supportive husband who will take my son, back then there was only one, out for half an afternoon so I can work on a Saturday morning. Or things like that.

And my son, when he’s in childcare, I get to write. Well, I was working at the Fair Work Commission, but I’m on maternity leave. So I do get some time to write when he’s in childcare. Because a baby sleeps quite a lot.

Valerie

Yes. Always handy. What’s the most enjoyable thing about writing? And currently, because you do write a lot of nonfiction, but now you’re writing this young adult fiction, which do you prefer?

Alice

I think the most enjoyable thing about writing is I write to figure out things I don’t understand myself. And I think one of my favourite writers, John Marsden, also does exactly the same thing. He said exactly the same thing, actually.

And I’d never put it in so many words until I read something where he said, “I write to try to understand things I don’t get.” So I never really have an answer when I start to write. And it’s discovering, by the end of what you’ve written, that you don’t really have a complete answer, but you’re closer to some realisation than you were before.

Valerie

What’s an example, before we move on to that other question. But what’s an example of something that you figured out as a result of writing?

Alice

Okay. So about three and a half years ago, when I had my first baby, I was really dreading my parents coming to visit. Because they’re overly anxious, overly protective. And they have this idea that a woman who gives birth, they have to spend a month in confinement. I read about it. You know, you don’t take showers for a whole month.

Valerie

Yeah, nuts, right.

Alice

And I thought, oh no, they’re going to enforce that on me. And they didn’t. Because my baby was born premature. So it meant that I got out of hospital before my son did. I wasn’t really worried, because the hospital took good care of him. But I wasn’t confined because I had to walk to and from hospital every day.

And what I discovered was that my mother, she was wonderful. And even though I scoffed at this practice, she made all this food, she said, “this will warm the blood, this will help produce breast milk, this will do this and that.” And I thought, oh that’s just, you know, superstitious.

And it actually worked. And then I thought, oh, she actually, even being illiterate, not being able to read labels on food packets, she knows much more about natural things, child birth, intuitively how to look after a child, than I do with all my book learning. And all my writing.

Valerie

And you wrote about that?

Alice

Yeah. Yeah I did.

Valerie

And so let’s move on to, do you prefer fiction or nonfiction when you’re writing?

Alice

I do both. And I do them both at the same time. I might be writing a nonfiction article and then working on this young adult book that’s fiction at the same time.

Valerie

But which is more enjoyable?

Alice

Which is more enjoyable? Oh, they both are for different reasons. The challenge with writing nonfiction is to make it interesting it has to read like fiction. Otherwise it just reads like a history book or reporting facts.

And with fiction the challenge is, because I can’t make up science fiction or fantasy, to make it sound like it’s nonfiction. To make these characters sound like they could actually exist. So there’s a paradox there.

Valerie

I love that observation! That’s great.

Alice

Oh, thanks.

Valerie

And what do you find the hardest thing about writing? Or the most challenging thing about writing?

Alice

Oh, just writing about people I know and people I love. That’s really difficult, because you want to portray them in as accurate a way as possible. But you don’t want to lionise them, or you don’t want to demonise them.

People you love are the most interesting people to write about, because there’s that conflicting emotion there. So I think that’s the most challenging thing about writing.

Valerie

Okay. And what is the most rewarding thing?

Alice

Besides writing itself, I get a lot of letters from young adults, usually female, from all demographics and all nationalities, saying that what I’ve written – and sometimes I don’t even know – that they can really identify with.

Valerie

Fair enough. And what would be your top three tips for aspiring writers who hope to be doing what you are one day?

Alice

Oh top three tips? I think the first one is the 90s slogan. Just do it. Because a lot of people, they talk about it a lot but they don’t really sit down and do it. So you’ve just got to sit down and do it.

I think the second tip is not to edit or not to show anyone, unless you really trust them, until you have a first draft. Because if you show the wrong person, you can get easily discouraged. It’s a very fragile time when you’re writing your first draft, as a first time writer.

And the third tip, it’s not the opposite of the second tip, is that there’s a bit writing community out there. A huge writing community. So you’re not really alone. You can get tips and advice from other writers, from Facebook groups, and things like that. So you don’t feel so isolated.

Valerie

Wonderful. Great advice. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Alice.

Alice

Thanks so much for having me, Valerie.


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