Ep 270 Meet author and musician Penny Flanagan, author of ‘Surviving Hal’ and one half of Club Hoy.

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In Episode 270 of So you want to be a writer: Allison and Valerie chat to author and musician Penny Flanagan, author of Surviving Hal and one half of acclaimed folk-pop duo Club Hoy. Discover your kid’s next read and we have 3 copies of Mr Bambuckle’s Remarkables: On the Lookout to giveaway.

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Show Notes

Links Mentioned

Your Kid’s Next Read

Writer in Residence

Penny Flanagan

Penny Flanagan is a writer and musician.

She is the author of three novels.

Changing the Sky – Hodder Headline, 1993 – (‘Older readers’ children’s fiction)
Sing to Me – Penguin, 1998 – (adult fiction)
Surviving Hal – Puncher & Wattmann, 2019 (adult fiction)
Surviving Hal is available to order here

Penny is a regular contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald and various other websites including, Newscorp, kidspot.com.au, babyology and Choice.com.au.

As a musician, Penny was originally one half of critically acclaimed folk-pop duo, Club Hoy and then a solo performer. Her music from both iterations was widely broadcast on the Triple J network.

She currently tours with her sister, comedian Kitty Flanagan, providing original music for Kitty’s popular stand-up shows.

Follow Penny on Facebook

Visit Penny’s website

(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.)

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

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Valerie Khoo

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Penny Flanagan is an Australian writer and musician. She is the author of three novels – Changing the Sky, Sing to Me, and now, Surviving Hal, recently released through Puncher and Wattman. Welcome to the program, Penny Flanagan.

Penny

Thank you.

Allison

So your first book was published way back in the aeons of 1993 and was a YA book. How did that novel come to be published?

Penny

I wrote it, I started it in a creative writing course. Just one of those continuing education things, and was encouraged by the tutor. When it came to getting it published, I just sent it to slush piles, and I sent out the first one and it came back pretty quickly with some pretty brutal feedback. Like, no page turning impetus.

Allison

Oh, that hurts.

Penny

I always get that. So I was really upset about it and I showed my dad. And dad hadn’t had a book published by that stage. But he told me a story about a writer – I can’t remember who the famous writer was – who had just made a list of all the publishers who existed, sent his book out, and just as the rejections come back, he said, you just cross it off and just move on to the next one. And that way you’re just moving through a list. It’s not personal. It just becomes this task that you’re getting through.

And that really just changed my hold mindset. So I had a list of seven publishers. And every time a rejection came back I just went, okay, cross it off, move to the next one.

And I think I was down to the last two on the list when I got a phone call from, I think it was Hodder and Stoughton, saying they were going to publish it. So I just created this methodical process for dealing with rejection, basically.

Allison

And we should probably explain at this point that your dad is John Flanagan, who is the internationally bestselling author now of the Rangers Apprentice, Brotherband, and other assorted books. So clearly an excellent source of advice from that perspective. Thanks dad. That was great.

Penny

Yes, exactly.

Allison

So that book is published. And then your second book came out in 1998. And now here we are, 20 years later, and your third book Surviving Hal is coming to us on the shelves. So have you been writing manuscripts the whole time? Or is writing something that… As a creative person, because as I said you are a musician, and we’re also going to talk about that in a minute, is it something that you dip in and out of? Or is it something you work on all the time? What’s the story with that?

Penny

I think what happens is with music and writing, when I was doing music and writing at the same time, doing the two things in tandem, it was a dip in, dip out thing. And it was again a way of dealing with rejection. So the two worlds are pretty brutal. The music industry is just brutal. The publishing world is pretty brutal as well. So it was kind of a way of me going, okay, well if music isn’t working, I’ll go over here and do this for a while and just put that aside. And then when this doesn’t work, I’ll just go over here and do music for a while.

Is that your dog? Is that Procrasti-pup?

Allison

Can you hear Procrasti-pup barking in the background?

Penny

I can!

Allison

I know. I was just slightly distracted there. Okay, so it’s something that you work on in tandem.

Penny

In tandem, yeah.

Allison

Because I was going to ask you about this. Because the process of those two… Let’s explain again that you are one half of the successful folk duo Club Hoy who were critically acclaimed and had quite a lot of success at one stage and you’re now back together and performing again, which is brilliant.

But song writing, that very short form, and then novel writing, do you feel like they’re two entirely different skills? Or are there crossovers?

Penny

There are crossovers. I’d say they are symbiotic. So song writing is just a pure expression from your subconscious. You don’t even think about it. And it’s just an instinct. And if you think about it too much and try to craft it too much, for me, you just lose it. The song just slithers away and you can never get it back. So it’s almost like receiving a message from the ether. And the process of song writing is just sitting, it’s almost like mindfulness. It’s just sitting with a feeling and just allowing yourself to feel it completely and then expressing that in a melody and lyric. So it’s like this really pure creative expression that you don’t control.

Whereas prose, you can work with words, you can move sentences around, you can move the full stop, you can spend so much time crafting it – which I just love. And so I kind of love the two things in tandem.

Allison

So you don’t draft songs, so to speak?

Penny

Oh god, no.

Allison

It’s just, I’m going to sit here and… Do you start with words or do you start with music when you write a song?

Penny

You start with a feeling. So the feeling might be a melody. Sometimes the feeling is a phrase. And you’re looking for the melody that goes with the phrase. It’s just so intuitive, you can’t even break it down into components. You can’t teach it. People always try, use to try and get me to teach song writing at workshops. And you’ve either got it or you don’t, to be honest.

Allison

Yeah. Okay. So… I’ve lost… I’m so lost in the world of song writing I’ve completely lost the thread of what I was going to talk about.

Penny

I know, it is frustrating, isn’t it?

Allison

No, I haven’t. So when you write a novel, do you start your novels in the same way? Are you someone who creates… You said you can craft it and edit and go back and things like that. But are you someone who starts with an idea and starts writing? Or are you someone who plots a whole thing out before you start?

Penny

So I start with a voice. So I guess in that way it’s similar to song writing. So I start with the voice of the novel, is where it starts for me. And then filling that out around what’s the plot that goes with that and how can you find a story that fits with that voice.

And so in the early… The first book I wrote was very much I was writing the way I would write a song. So each chapter was a feeling and the voice kind of filled it out. And I knew where I was going, but it was quite intuitive, which is why… I think what I’ve learned is plot over three books. Because I was approaching it the same way as song writing for the first two books. And then when I got to this one, I thought, I don’t want to get lost in the story again the way I did with the first two. And I don’t want that feedback of no plot turning, no page turning impetus again. I want pull through, you know?

Allison

Yeah.

Penny

So again I asked dad what his best tip for plotting was. And he has a diagram that he works with. And he showed me the diagram. It’s basically the same as a scriptwriting act. You have three acts, and the big high point climax actually comes in the middle of the third act. So I would have, I was thinking it has to come in the middle of the book, but it actually comes quite late.

So I plotted Surviving Hal out quite strictly based on a diagram of how things were going to progress, which made it much easier to write.

Allison

Okay, that’s interesting. Well, let’s talk about Surviving Hal. Because I’ve read the book and I would have to say that you have created a very, very unlikeable character in this particular book. Which of course is the point. Because Hal needs to be survived. I feel like Hal needs to be survived for the reader as well as for every character in the book.

Can you tell us a little bit about it? But also, like I was reading it and thinking to myself, because you know, as an author, you live with those characters for a very, very long time. In your head, through the editing process, through the proof reading. And I’m just wondering what it was like, what it felt like to bring that character to life?

Penny

I think when I was… It was pretty cathartic. Because he’s based on a real person.

Allison

Wow. That’s pretty scary, really.

Penny

It’s really scary. And when I was writing it, I did think, oh people are going to think that he’s not bad enough. I actually thought, people are not going to be horrified enough by this character. So I thought people would tell me, well, he’s not that bad.

Allison

Okay!

Penny

So I have been really surprised by how shocked and appalled people are by this character.

Allison

I think it’s possibly…

Penny

That is mission accomplished.

Allison

I think it most certainly is.

Penny

Because I did want it to be horrific.

Allison

Yeah. And I think it’s…

Penny

And without… Yeah, sorry, you go.

Allison

I think it’s partly because everybody ‘s met some variation on this man. Maybe not all of him rolled into the one person. But I think that people might react to him as they do because there are things about him that you will recognise from people around you. And I’m wondering if that’s partly what the reaction might be.

Penny

Yes. A lot of people have said, yeah, I feel like I’ve met this guy and I know that feeling of… I wanted it to have that feeling of you know how women are just continually told not to speak up and not to react to someone like that?

Allison

Yes.

Penny

Yes. So my arc was around Nell continually being told – don’t react, don’t react, don’t react.

Allison

Yep.

Penny

Until it kind of comes out and, you know, the consequence of bottling up something like that.

Allison

Yes. As everyone does. So as far as then living with the character, were there times when you just thought, I need to get this guy out of my head?

Penny

No.

Allison

No? Okay. That wasn’t the expected answer.

Penny

I know. I know. It’s so… I think because he’s based on a real character, and I lived a lot of that at the time, and everyone around that character made you feel like this was normal. So I think I got almost kind of gaslighted in a way into thinking this isn’t that bad. So that when I was writing it I thought it was funny and I didn’t take into account that it would be very shocking for other people.

Allison

Right. Okay. Because I guess that’s what we do, isn’t it? And that is actually, you even address that within the novel, when you look back on it in hindsight you make it into a funny story because that’s the way to deal with it, isn’t it?

Penny

Yeah.

Allison

Okay. Well, that was actually a question I was going to ask you too. Because you work as a freelance writer and you write a lot of articles. And often that freelance writing has a strong comedy voice. It’s a very funny, satirical, sardonic take on normal life. So that’s obviously something that you explore within your fiction as well?

Penny

Yes. And particularly with this book, I think, what I wanted to do is I wanted to write in my own natural voice. Which was almost going back to my YA novel was very much me as a 12 year old. And I just so enjoyed writing in that voice and I felt like it was really representative of me.

Whereas with Sing to Me, I kind of went into this literature kind of dreamy almost trying to copy Helen Garner kind of thing that wasn’t really representative of who I am as a person. Because I’m a bit lighter than that.

So I really wanted it to be a really colloquial voice on the page as opposed to a literary voice, if that makes sense.

Allison

That does make sense. So you also said that the book was inspired by a family wedding, by a person that you knew, but it is not about that wedding or about that person per se. Now your own family are a very creative and successful bunch. As we mentioned, your dad is John Flanagan, your sister is Kitty. How do you think that impacts on your own work? Coming from that sort of background?

Penny

Um, it’s pretty inspiring. And it also means that this is what I think a real job is. So I never…

Allison

[laughs]

Penny

So I have never thought, the thought of going and working in an office and sitting in a cubicle, to me, is just, that’s like failure to me. So it makes me think that this is normal. Which is great.

And then spending a lot of time with Kitty just feeds into everything I do. Like, we’re just constantly… When you’re on tour with a comedian, it’s a lot of time spent in vans, just sort of talking rubbish, talking about ideas. Do you know what I mean?

Allison

Yeah.

Penny

So you just get to do all of that talking about, what do you think of this idea? What do you think of that idea?

So it’s fertile, I guess, is what I would say.

Allison

And how do you make it all work from the perspective of, as you say, you don’t work in an office, per se, but you do have a day job in the sense that you’re writing, you’re working as a freelance writer. You also have a family. How do you make all these different… Because musicians generally work at night. How do you carve out the time for a purely creative project like writing a novel, which is purely a speculative thing?

Penny

Yeah. I know. I don’t know how I do it each time. But somehow I just… I actually don’t know. I just kind of…

Allison

So you don’t have a routine? There’s not sort of like, “I get up at 5 and write for two hours Allison”. None of that?

Penny

Um… It’s dip in, dip out. It’s when… And I find that, because I’ve got an idea for a book at the moment, and every time I get pulled into it, it’s just so all or nothing for me.

I get completely consumed by a book. Which I guess everyone does. But in the way that I can’t go, well, I’ll write the book on Fridays. Because once I start, I just can’t stop. So I have to be really careful about when I start otherwise I literally start haemorrhaging money when I think about writing a book.

Allison

Yeah, well, you do, don’t you? Because there’s all those hours that you spend doing that that you’re not actually actively earning an income.

Penny

Yeah. And I find it really hard to switch… Yeah. So the last thing I did was I wrote a short story. I thought I’ll just set myself a small goal that’s achievable. And so I wrote I think it was a 5000 word short story to enter into a competition. And I wrote it when I was in Adelaide with Kitty at the festival. So we had two weeks in Adelaide, just sitting in a hotel room, usually doing nothing. So I thought, I’ll just myself that task.

And that was a really intensive period of just working on this one piece of writing and just working on it every day and I loved it. And that’s probably the last time I really threw myself in and got totally absorbed by it.

Allison

But how many hours a day would you do it? Let’s just look at, let’s imagine that you’re going to start your new novel, this new idea that you have, you’re going to start on Monday. What’s it going to look like from there?

Penny

It’s going to be start in the morning. Morning is the best time for me. If I leave it to the afternoon, I just don’t do it. So I just start in the morning before I do anything. Don’t think about anything, don’t answer emails, don’t do anything. Just put everything aside and try and hit a word count.

Allison

Right. So you set yourself a word count on a daily basis?

Penny

Yeah.

Allison

And how many words would you aim for to do on a daily basis?

Penny

I think ideally 2000. But generally about 1000. Anywhere between 1000 and 2000 I think is doable.

Allison

Yep. And then so once you’ve hit that word count, that’s when you move on to other things?

Penny

Yeah. Just move on. But you have to do it at the same time every day, I think.

Allison

Okay. Now let’s just talk about the performing versus writing aspect of your life. Because one of the things that most writers will tell you is, what they like about writing, is the fact that they can sit in their office and they don’t have to speak to anyone. And they certainly don’t have to stand up in front of people and sing at all. Whereas you’ve got that side of your personality and obviously of your creative make up, as well as the writing side. How do you find those things? When you’re performing as a singer, is it a completely different thing to, say, you had to get up and give an author talk or something like that?

Penny

Totally different!

Allison

Okay!

Penny

Completely different! Almost… Performing music, for me, is like an alter-ego. And it’s like my best self is up there. That’s when I feel like I’m my best self. I don’t know if it’s because I started early and I did so much of it. I just feel really good at it. That sounds up myself.

Allison

No, no.

Penny

I feel good about it.

Allison

No, it doesn’t sound up yourself. It sounds like a level of confidence that you’ve achieved over many years of doing it.

Penny

I feel confident, yeah.

Allison

So that makes a difference. But is there a level of extroversion in that? Because often performers are quite introverted people. Like when I talk to my son about performing – now my son is 15 and writes, works as a songwriter and stuff. And I’m often astounded by the fact that he has no qualms about getting up in front of 500 people and singing his own very personal songs. Whereas if I put him in a room with 20 kids his own age, he is really shy.

And I have often, I said to him, “how do you do that?” And he goes, “mum, there is more space up there than anywhere else in the room.” And I think I get that. However, they’re all looking at you!

He feels more comfortable up there than he does with the 500 people looking at him. Is that you? Is that how it works for you?

Penny

Yeah. Because you’re not connecting with people but on your own terms, I guess, is what it is about performing. He’s right. This is my space, here, and you’re all invited in. And these are the terms.

Whereas if you’re in a room full of people, there’s just so many variables, you know?

Allison

Yeah. So how does that work then with putting yourself on a page and sending your writing out into the world in book form? Is it similar?

[silence]

Have I asked you a really hard question?

Penny

That is a hard question. Um…

Yeah, it’s daunting. And I think I just… What I do to not worry about that is I think to myself, no one is going to read this.

Allison

That’s helpful!

Penny

It actually is helpful! Because then you kind of loosen up a bit. Do you know what I mean? If you think about people reading it, then you constantly worry about every single thing you’re putting on the page. Whereas if you just go, don’t worry about it, no one’s going to read it – you’re just more inclined to do it.

Allison

That’s true. That’s very true. So when it does come time to promote your work, what are some of the things that you’re doing to kind of put yourself out there as an author and to get your book out there?

Penny

Oh, I’m pretty hopeless at that.

Allison

Okay. Good.

Penny

I guess it’s because with music, it’s so easy with music. Because all you have to do is you can take the product out and two people, do you know what I mean, you can take the song out and have people experiencing it in a room with you.

Whereas with books, it’s such an interior thing. People experience a book so personally. And it’s even their own voice as they’re reading it. So even readings I find unusual.

But what I’ve done with this one is, so far, I’ve tried to just send it to people who might talk about it. Because I know that word of mouth is a huge thing with books, and especially I think it’s a good book for women. And women are readers, they talk about books, they pass them on. So that’s been my strategy so far.

Allison

Okay.

Penny

I’ve been putting…

Allison

I know you have a presence on Facebook, because I see you there. And you do have a website. So you’ve put some of the basic things in place because of your freelance writing, do you think? In the sense that you’ve set yourself up with a writerly profile because of your freelance work?

Penny

Yes. Probably. The other thing I do is at the end of all my articles that I have published online I get them to put the tag in of ‘Penny Flanagan has a novel out’ with a hyperlink.

Allison

And is the kind of thing that you… Is that something, is content market something that you’ll think about doing for this book in the sense of perhaps writing articles around that theme that we talked about? Of women who are taught to endure Hal as opposed to calling Hal out or causing a fuss. We’re all taught not to cause a fuss, right? So will you write articles around those sorts of related topics?

Penny

Yes. I’ve got a couple in the works that are all pitched around what the novel’s about.

Allison

Fantastic. I’m only asking you about it because obviously when our listeners are listening to these interviews, they’re always trying to pick up as many tips as they can. And one of the things that we always say is to use the skill, think about what skills you have and how you can then use those to actually get the word out about your book, sometimes in quite creative ways.

It’s difficult, particularly with some books, it’s a very difficult thing to actually get people to talk about the book. So you’ve got to think about what the book’s about and what the story is that’s attached to the book and then figure out how you can get that message out.

Okay, here endeth the lesson.

Penny

We all need the lesson, Allison.

Allison

I was just listening to myself rabbit on there. Sorry about that, everyone.

So you said that you’ve got a new idea for a novel that you haven’t started yet. So you’re not actually actively working on any other creative writing at present?

Penny

No. The only thing I’m doing is my articles, I guess. I’m dipping in and out of the book idea. When I have time I kind of just go, I’ll just do a little bit of work on it. And I’m just kind of working on it very slowly, slowly, catchy monkey so as not to frighten myself. Because it’s such a huge undertaking to think – I’m going to write a book!

Allison

Another book.

Penny

That you just block yourself out of it. You just go, oh, it’s too hard. And so I’m just going, okay, I’ll just every now and then I’m just going to look at it. Put things down.

I love the way Helen Garner wrote The Children’s Bach, where she just did little, she would just basically write character things down, and then she taped them all together in a notebook and it became a narrative. I think I’m taking that approach at the moment.

Allison

Okay. That sounds like a good approach.

Penny

Yeah.

Allison

All right. So let’s finish up then with your top three tips for writers. Penny Flanagan, what have you got for us?

Penny

Okay my top three tips are things I’m not sticking to at the moment, but anyway.

Allison

That’s okay. You just have to be able to say it. You don’t have to do it.

Penny

My top three tips are: just do it. Just put something on the page. Don’t be afraid of the blank page. Just put rubbish on the page. It doesn’t matter. If you just spend the morning putting rubbish on the page, there’ll be something in there. Just do it. Just sit down and do it. Just write.

My second tip is same time every day. Whatever time works for you. Whatever time you find the muse visits you. Make an appointment with your muse. Because your muse will show up if you do it at the same time every day because it’s habit forming. Every day, just write, even if you just write a paragraph. Same time, every day. Sit down, do something.

And my third one… Is um… Sorry.

Allison

That’s all right.

Penny

I’d say have a plan.

Allison

Okay.

Penny

I’d say do some plotting. Even if it’s just a basic skeleton of how the character feels from one moment to the next. From the front of the book to the end of the book. Even if it’s just – at the front of the book the character is this, by the end of the book the character is that. And just a basic skeleton of how she’s going to get from this to that.

Allison

Fantastic.

Penny

Just so you have somewhere to go every day.

Allison

Fantastic. All right, well thank you so much for your time today, Penny Flanagan. You can have a look at Penny’s website at PennyFlanagan.com. And of course her book Surviving Hal is out now. Go meet the odious man that we have been discussing. No really! Do! And thank you very much. And best of luck with it all.

Penny

Thank you, Allison.

 


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