Ep 273 Double your freelance writing income. And meet Karen Viggers, author of ‘The Orchardist’s Daughter’.

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In Episode 273 of So you want to be a writer: We chat to Karen Viggers, author of the bestselling book The Lightkeeper’s Wife and The Orchardist’s Daughter. Allison goes surfing (yes, really). You’ll learn tips for doubling your freelance writing income. So you want to be a writer is going to be at Vivid Sydney 2019 and tickets are now available. Plus, we have a book pack to giveaway and more.

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Show Notes

So you want to be a writer at Vivid Sydney

Double Your Freelance Writing Income: 5 Ways to Make it Happen

Creativity Chat with Valerie Khoo

Writer in Residence

Karen Viggers

Karen Viggers is the author of four novels: The Stranding, The Lightkeeper’s Wife, The Grass Castle and The Orchardist’s Daughter.

She writes contemporary realist fiction set in Australian landscapes, and her work explores connection with the bush, grief and loss, healing in nature, death, family, marriage and friendship. Her books tackle contentious issues including choices at the end of life, whale rescue, kangaroo culling, scientific research on animals and logging of native forests.

Karen is a wildlife veterinarian who has worked and traveled in many remote parts of Australia, from Antarctica to the Kimberley. Her novels are known for their evocative portrayal of Australian people and landscapes.

Karen’s books have been translated into French, Italian, Norwegian, Slovenian and Spanish. Her work has enjoyed great success in France, selling more than 800,000 copies to date.

Karen was a Bundanon Trust Artist-In-Residence in 2018.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Karen, congratulations on your latest book, The Orchardist’s Daughter. For those readers who haven’t read your book yet, can you tell them what it’s about?

Karen

Yes. It’s a story about three outsiders who are struggling to belong in a small Tasmanian timber town. A national parks ranger, a young woman who is being strictly controlled by her brother, and a ten year old boy being bullied at school. It’s set in the tall old growth eucalypt forests of southern Tasmania and the vast rugged mountains around there. And it’s about trees and secrets, friendship, oppression, and finding the strength to break free. That gives you a little outline.

Valerie

Yeah, absolutely. Now there’s a real sense of place in this novel. You’ve chosen to set it, as you’ve said, in Tasmania. Why?

Karen

Well, I have long passionate connections with Tasmania stemming back a good 20 years ago when I went down twice to Antarctica from Hobart. And before going south as a volunteer vet, working on seals in the pack ice, and afterwards, I spent quite a lot of time in Hobart. And I have some strong friendships down there. I love Mount Wellington. I’ve spent a lot of time walking in Tasmania. Hiking. The natural environment really speaks to me. I’m a person whose whole psyche is embedded in nature and in wild places.

And I love the history, the fascinating history of Tasmania and the beautiful light. The long grey light. I don’t mind bad weather. Not that it’s bad weather all the time. It was obviously not the other day when it was very hot. But there’s very much that I love about Tasmania and I love to go back there.

Valerie

You obviously don’t mind being cold, either!

Karen

Well, look, I think if you wear appropriate clothing, it’s really not an issue. So I’d rather be cold and rug up than be hot and try to cool down.

Valerie

So tell us about how the idea for this book formed. The premise of this and the themes. What formed in your head first? That you were going to explore certain themes? Or you had an idea for the story?

Karen

Well, there were certain themes that I wanted to explore, which were belonging, really. And how loneliness develops if we feel like outsiders. And I think at various stages of our lives, we all have a sense of being an outsider. And we work through those things usually and find a way to fit in. Or later as we get older, it doesn’t seem to matter as much. We can accept ourselves as we are and be gregarious at times, and not at others, and not worry about it.

But I’m currently on the journey of shepherding my own teenage children through to adulthood, and I can see it’s quite an issue for them, trying to work out who they are and where they fit and how they belong and how to break from those ties of family. And how to define themselves.

And so these were themes that I wanted to explore in this novel. And I chose to centre it around young people in a small town. Firstly young people because, as I’ve said, I think it’s quite hard for them, harder for them often than adults to find that sense of belonging. And secondly because I think a small community offers you the opportunity to study human behaviour and human psyche with a really close lens.

In cities, there’s a certain degree of dilution. When there’s troubles that arise, in cities, people often don’t know that somebody is in trouble or having a struggle. But in a smaller community, where everybody knows each other, it’s harder to hide away from those things. And I wanted to ask, you know, if somebody is suffering from some sort of domestic abuse, not necessarily physical – in this novel I wanted to shine a light more on other types of more subtle types of abuse, like psychological oppression and bullying – if that’s happening to somebody in a country town, whose responsibility is it to reach out? What does it take for us to offer assistance to people in those circumstances? Or do we ignore, because it’s more uncomfortable, because we know people.

So these are things I wanted to explore.

Valerie

And one of the things about that is the characterisations in this book. Can you talk a little bit as to how you developed the main characters? In terms of did you let them unfold on the page as you wrote? Or did you really flesh them out in your brain before putting pen to paper, so to speak?

Karen

I think it’s a little bit of both, Valerie. One of the main protagonists, who is the orchardist’s daughter herself, is Michaela. Micky, who is brought up isolated and home schooled on an orchard in Tasmania. And the idea for her came from having observed some friends of mine who I hadn’t seen for many years who had elected to home school their children for reasons of trying to protect them from the world. And then they layered religion over that. And when I met these children, they were in their late teens, not quite 18 and independent, but you could sense their desperation to engage with the world and to go out there and make friends. Like, they had no friends other than their immediate family. And I wanted to give voice to that restrictive life that they’d been experiencing and try to put myself in their head space and think about what they might want to say and what they’d like from the world. The ways they wanted to engage from the world.

So that came first. And then the character of Leon who emerged in The Lightkeeper’s Wife as a fully formed character with a strong voice. I wanted to take him leaving him home environment where he had stayed to protect his mother and moving to a country town where a parks ranger is not welcome because most of the community are loggers. And to see the ways in which he might try to fit in.

But Valerie, I wanted this to be a positive book, a book of hope. So it’s really a story of the ways in which each of those characters finds to be powerful and take steps towards acceptance and belonging.

Valerie

So you mentioned that you were a vet. So you were a wildlife veterinarian – I’d rather just say vet. But you have written hit after hit after hit in terms of your novels. Can you just take us back to when you were being a vet and you thought, oh, I might write a novel now. How did that happen?

Karen

Well, Valerie, I still work part time as a vet. I think that’s really important to keep me in touch with the real world and it stimulates a different, the diagnostic and decision making side of my brain. And it keeps me in touch with humans and humanity and observing that important animal human bond, or human animal bond, that I explore in each of my novels.

So I was also working, I did a PhD in wildlife health and I have worked continuing, to a small degree in recent times, as a wildlife vet supporting other scientists in their field research. And what I like to do is work with animals in their natural habitat. I had the option to become a zoo vet, but that’s not where I wanted to work. I wanted to see animals where they belonged and help scientists to further their understanding of those animals.

And so it was really around that life changing time, when you have a young family, and it was difficult for me to compete as a female scientist working part time. So at that point I’d always loved writing and had always wanted to write novels. And my husband said, well, why don’t you – this always makes me laugh – why don’t you work part time as a vet, look after the family, and write in your spare time.

Valerie

Because you’ve got so much time to do all of that! Because looking after your family doesn’t take much time at all!

Karen

Exactly. So what I normally do these days is I write four days a week. Just within school hours. And then I work a day, a big long day as a veterinarian in domestic animal practice. I look after the Governor General’s kangaroos and keep them healthy. A few times a year I go in and take care of them. And then if I get the opportunity, I accompany other scientists out into the field.

Valerie

So I’m still fascinated about the transition. When you decided I’m going to try writing novels, had you done… You said you loved writing, but had you done much up until that point?

Karen

Well, I’d had a lifetime of jotting down ideas for novels and stories. And writing terrible poetry and keeping journals. So I kind of really figured that my training ground, though, was in the science writing field. Because when I did my PhD, a thesis is in some ways like a novel. And the important things I learned from doing that was how to complete a major project, how to edit my own work, and how to accept and work positively and constructively with criticism. Which has really helped me working with editors when I shifted to writing novels.

But I did have to make that shift from writing the really rigid structured way that you do for science.

Valerie

Yes, it’s very different.

Karen

Yes. Into writing fiction. I mean, I think the fiction writer is the stronger part of my personality compared to the science writer. But I did spend six months just loosening up, doing stream of consciousness writing. Using in fact the book Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

Valerie

Yeah, right.

Karen

That was really useful for me. And then crazily, after six months of that, I thought, right, now I’m going to dive in. And so I’ve always been a big project person. I’ve not ever really been a short story person.

Valerie

Wow. Okay. So this book then, you’re generally writing these days about four days a week, combining it with your vet work. So on those four days, how structured – I suspect I know the answer here – but how structured are those days and what does that structure look like. And what do you aim for on each of those days or week or whatever?

Karen

Well, I tried… My children are now, I’ve just had one leave home, sorry, leave school, so things have shifted a little in that I have one that’s around though he’s working at the moment. But generally I would, as soon as my offspring leave in the morning for school, I do a quick whirlwind through the house, not aiming for perfection but for tolerably neat, hang a load of washing on the line. And then my office is down the end of the house. I would sit down there, disconnect the internet and try and go for it.

The internet is incredibly distracting and I am as susceptible to getting caught up in social media as anyone else. So what I like to do is have another computer on down the end of the house, so if I need to check my email, I have to think twice about it to get up and walk down the other end of the house.

And then I usually go for it. Often I get stuck and at that point I’ll take my little dog and go for a walk up in the bushland up behind our suburb. Which is funny that, how you get out walking and get out in some fresh air and nature and suddenly all those knots you’ve tied yourself in start to fall away and you can work out what you need to do to fix things.

But it’s taken me a long time between novels this time. It’s five years since my last novel came out. And it has been quite a journey. This novel, after I presented it to my publisher at Allen & Unwin, the wonderful Jane Palfreyman, who is the one who knows, I knew it wasn’t working. And I gave it to her and she said, yep, it’s not working. And these are the things that you need to focus on. And so I completely rewrote the novel.

But of course that original material wasn’t wasted. It was the foundation upon which I could start to rebuild the novel and redefine the characters in a more positive light and find the heart of the novel, which is so important if you want to connect with your readers.

Valerie

So did you really disconnect the internet? That’s something that’s such a foreign concept to me! I need to clarify that. Do you really do that?

Karen

In my office, I do not connect to the internet. But the other end of the house, which is not a massive house, but I have to make a decision to stand up and walk down there.

Valerie

That’s amazing.

Karen

It’s so easy to check your email, and see what somebody said in response to a comment that you made or a post that you put up. And you know, it’s easy to waste so much time that way. And I haven’t really got that much time.

Valerie

Sure.

Karen

So I try to be fairly strict with myself, yeah.

Valerie

So with the five years between The Grass Castle, which was 2014, did you at any point feel anxious? Or the pressure of getting a book out?

Karen

Oh yes. What I did feel pressure about was in that interim time, my books had an amazing success in France. And that changed things in my head, as well. Because everyone was saying, oh, The Lightkeeper’s Wife, The Lightkeeper’s Wife, it’s gone crazy in France, sold 100,000 copies in the first month, sold now in excess of half a million copies in France. And it’s like, well, what did you do? How did you do that?

And even now when I look at The Orchardist’s Daughter, I open it and I think, how did I put that all together? It’s one of those mysteries. It’s a lot of hard work, obviously. But yeah, that was quite cramping. And the anxiety of needing to try and get something to fruition.

And it was the first time I’d understood writers block. Because usually I can sit down and write something. But for me, in the journey of this book, the real issue was working out how to unstick myself when I knew it wasn’t working, but I didn’t know how to fix it. And that was a form of block in itself. I just could not see the way through it.

And I tried all sorts of things like writing out the different scenes on bits of paper and trying to shift them around. And thinking more about the characters. And it really wasn’t until my publisher rapped me over the knuckles with a rod… Not that I wasn’t being lazy, I was just so stuck, you know? And then she said, start here, then go there, and make it more positive. Think about how you want your readers to feel at the end of the novel and rebuild it.

And once I… It’s funny that I sort of collapsed in a heap for about a month, six weeks. And then I pulled myself together and started again. And it came together. I think it’s a much stronger book.

Valerie

So it was your publisher who gave you the clarity to get you unstuck, is that correct?

Karen

I think so. I think sometimes you have to descend to a certain depth of despair in order to recreate yourself, rebuild yourself, and find the way out. And I even came to the point of saying to her, is this idea worth pursuing? Or should I just throw it away and start something else. And she looked at me like I was crazy.

I kind of understand. I went to a talk by Alex Miller, and he was talking about Coal Creek and how that novel came to him in the space of ten weeks. He just – bang – wrote the whole thing. Six to ten weeks. And he said, though, at this talk that whether it takes ten weeks or ten years, there is just the work that needs to be done. And I found that really reassuring and really calming. Because great writers, greater writers than me have had difficult experiences as well and worked through them.

And I think sometimes that is the journey towards actually nailing it with a book is to do that hard work. And sometimes, I don’t know what the final answer is but little bits of distance, setting it aside and coming back to it, that does help as well. Suddenly the warts all appear in your previously perfect manuscript.

Valerie

So until you got that clarity from your publisher and after you got over falling in a heap, because obviously it was a challenge and you were stuck, did you at any point in that period, even after three very successful books, one ridiculously successful, but three very successful books, did you at any point kind of go, can I do it?

Karen

Yep. I definitely did. And in fact before I wrote this novel, after The Grass Castle, I got 300 pages into another novel and then I just got to a point where I thought, it’s not working. I don’t know what to do. It’s funny. It was just a point I had to come to in my career. And I thought to myself, I’m done. I actually don’t have another book in me.

Valerie

No!

Karen

I don’t have another novel. I did.

Valerie

You really thought that?

Karen

I did. And it was incredibly liberating. And I slept well for the first time in weeks and months. And you know how long that lasted?

Valerie

How long?

Karen

About two or three nights. And then I woke up and I thought, oh, I have to go back and take Leon’s story and now I remember what I wanted to do with that home schooling thing. And I started again.

So now I’m going to gather the courage to go back to that other novel and see if I can fix it.

Valerie

Wow. Good on you for, yeah, going back to it.

Now when you first started writing, did you ever think you would spend 42 weeks on the French national bestseller list?

Karen

Absolutely not. That was just a phenomenal out of the blue unexpected experience. And you know, I think you do have to have a good book obviously that somebody takes up. But there’s obviously an element of luck and good fortune as well. And just the right person finding your book at the right time. And there was a publisher in France in a small publishing house that came across The Lightkeeper’s Wife, which the French actually renamed The Memory of Ocean Spray.

Valerie

Okay.

Karen

And put a non-gender specific silhouette of a lighthouse on the cover. And they really got behind the novel. And this quirky French book commentator, who is also a bookseller, went on French TV saying, this is one of the top ten books of the year. And it just went boom! It went gangbusters. And that’s what everyone dreams of.

But it just still seems surreal. I still feel like earthy normal me who sits in my office with my blankie around my legs and my thermals on in winter, and struggles away with writing.

Valerie

So when that went crazy and sold 100,000 copies in the first month, did you at any point sit there and analyse what was the winning formula? How can I repeat the formula in the next one?

Karen

Yeah. Well, I think my publishers did that too. But I think that’s the wrong way to go about writing another book.

Valerie

Yes.

Karen

Because I think that if you try to recreate what arose spontaneously in another work that you’re just going to fail at it. And so I think what I’ve had to do is go with what’s in my heart, and write what’s true to me and my love of nature and my love of Australian landscapes and my fascination with human relations. The baggage that we inherit from history or from our families and how that shapes us and takes us into the future. Those sorts of things are what my strengths. And writing dialogue and nature. And then hope that I can find a narrative, that the narrative finds me, and that my characters take me there.

Valerie

Speaking of writing dialogue, what do you do to make sure… What are some of the steps or techniques that you employ to make sure that dialogue is really authentic to that particular character? Because I’ve read quite a number of manuscripts in my time, and the story and plot can be really quite good, but I don’t believe the dialogue. So what do you, what are some of the tips that you can share with the writers on writing dialogue that works?

Karen

Okay, that’s a good question. So initially I overwrite. Definitely overwrite with far too many words in my dialogue. And I try to sort of hear the conversation as I go, but I am a bit of an overwriter.

But then it comes the paring back and the making things crisp. And reading aloud really helps too. And making sure that you have the voice of that character, have the voice of that character nailed as best you can. I think, for me, that’s really important. And I think I’ve done that best in The Orchardist’s Daughter, of all my novels, is getting the individual voices clearer. And getting the language of the novel in fact clearer.

So reading aloud helps. Paring back, paring back. I think if it’s short crisp clear dialogue, that really helps as well. And I don’t try to describe exactly what the character is doing all the time as they speak. That can get a bit mundane. I like to make it clear who’s speaking next. But sometimes just a he said, or she said, or a small action can help to carry that dialogue through. Or a facial expression, I guess. Don’t know if that’s really very clear.

But I like doing dialogue, and I seem to hear it fairly clearly in my head. But I think that’s part of knowing your characters quite well and hearing their voices.

Valerie

What dare I ask are you working on now?

Karen

Well, it’s been quite a hectic month just doing the promotions and the publicity for The Orchardist’s Daughter. But I have just started to contemplate what I’ll do next. And I have about four ideas lined up. A couple of which are partly written. And so I’m trying to decide whether to go back to one of those. Like the one I said I was 300 pages in and whether to start that again. I wasn’t happy with a couple of the characters so I need to think them through a bit more. But it’s a good premise, so I might go with that. But I can’t talk about it.

Valerie

That’s all right. So maybe you can tell us what fills you with more excitement or anticipation or happiness, the idea of going back to something that you have already started at some level, or starting with a fresh clean slate?

Karen

Something new is always more exciting. Always. And that first draft, once you get rid of your inner editor, and allow your creator to take over and just go with it and forget about the clichés and forget about the overwriting and the horrible language that you dump on to the paper, that’s always exciting. But eventually you’re going to have to come back and do the work.

And so I will… I think I’m starting to mature a little in my understanding of the work required. So I think I’ll go back to this one, it’s set in the Kimberley which is a wonderful landscape that I love as well, I’ll go back to that one and see if I can start to nut through how to rethread it and rebuild it, I guess.

Valerie

And finally, what’s your top three writing tips, or top three bits of advice, for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position where you are one day?

Karen

I’d say get it down and then get it right. And I’ve learned that from my scientist husband who has written 700 scientific papers and 47 books. And he’s amazingly productive. Well, he gets it down. And then you’ve got something to work with. And that’s… Everyone has a different way of doing it. But that does work for me as well.

Learn to work with editors. Because even if you don’t agree with everything that they say, they have some distance from your work and can cast different eyes on it and see what is and isn’t working and advise you on that.

And the other thing is to write what you love. Because for me you’re going to be with that idea for three to five years. Or longer. Things germinate even further back for me, often about ten years before something comes out. Write what you love. Because then you are going to write from the heart and write what is true for you and that will bring the writing to life.

Valerie

Wonderful. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Karen.

Karen

Thank you, Valerie. It’s been lovely to chat.

 


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