Ep 278 Why kids should keep journals. And AWC alumna Tania Blanchard, author of ‘Suitcase of Dreams’.

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In Episode 278 of So you want to be a writer: Meet AWC alumna Tania Blanchard, author of Suitcase of Dreams. Why you should encourage your kids to keep a journal. Is it ‘just desserts’ or ‘just deserts’? Plus, we have 3 copies of The French Photographer by Natasha Lester to give away and more.

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Q&A: Just desserts or just deserts?

Creative Writing Quest for Kids

Writer in Residence

Tania Blanchard

Tania Blanchard was inspired to write by the fascinating stories her German grandmother told her as a child. Coming from a family with a rich cultural heritage, stories have always been in her blood. Her first novel published by Simon & Schuster Australia, The Girl from Munich, was a runaway bestseller, as was the sequel, Suitcase of Dreams published in 2018. Tania lives in Sydney with her husband and three children and is working on her third novel, Letters from Berlin, to be published in 2020.

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WIN Natasha Lester’s latest novel ‘The French Photographer’

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Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Tania.

Tania

Thanks for having me, Valerie.

Valerie

Congratulations on your latest book. This is so exciting. For readers who haven’t read it yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

Tania

The story follows Lottie and her family as they migrate to Australia in the 1950s. They leave post-war Germany behind and all the chaos. But as they come to Australia with their hopes and dreams for a future for their children, they realise that it’s not all that they thought it would be. And they live life as new Australians in a strange new country with all its ups and downs.

Valerie

Now, in case some of our listeners aren’t familiar with the start of your own personal story into the world of writing, your debut novel was The Girl from Munich. And a lot of that was inspired, as you’ve mentioned in a previous podcast with us, from stories from your grandmother. So can you just give us a brief run down on your career until you got into the world of writing?

Tania

Yeah. I was a physiotherapist to start with. I always loved writing as a child, but I went into physio as a career. And I worked in that for many years. And it wasn’t until I actually came home and spent some time with my children after they were born that I started writing again. And I wrote stories for them.

So I was working part time and writing part time. And decided that I needed writing as more fulfilling in my life. And tried to follow the path of possibly being published one day.

Valerie

And you did it! So The Girl from Munich is brilliant. And now you’ve Suitcase of Dreams. And then you’ve got a third book in the works which already has a name, hasn’t it?

Tania

Yes. Letters from Munich.

Valerie

Letters from Munich.

Tania

Sorry. Letters from Berlin. Not Munich.

Valerie

Letters from Berlin. Okay. So there’s obviously a strong German influence in all of this. Tell us a little bit about why.

Tania

Well, when my grandmother died she left a lot of documents, photos and memorabilia behind. And obviously that’s what I based the first two stories on. And this third one is also based on a letter that she received from a family member who was obviously still in Germany during the war time. And this story actually is based on this letter. About a family member with a Jewish mother and a German father and what happened to this family during the war time years and also in the aftermath.

Valerie

And so this is your second book. And people often talk about the pressure of the sophomore act. The second book syndrome, kind of thing. Did you experience any of that? Because you do spend a lot of time polishing your first novel, and then suddenly you’ve got to write your second novel. And what many authors find is they don’t necessarily have the same timeframe to get the second novel out. And they feel a lot of pressure for the second book to be as good as the first one. What were your experiences?

Tania

Yeah, I certainly did feel that pressure after the first book was successful. But luckily I already was familiar with the characters in the story, so that helped a lot in being able to get into the second book. Certainly the writing time I had to structure a little bit more carefully because I was a little bit more time poor. So I found that that made a bit of difference, by just watching the way I used my time. I had a lot of research there ready to go. And so that certainly made the process easier, to get the book finished in a tighter timeframe.

Valerie

And so with this third book that you’re currently writing, do you already know what your fourth book is going to be? Is it going to be along a similar vein with a bit of a German influence? Or are you going to try something completely different?

Tania

Well, I’m not actually sure, to be honest. I could go one of two different paths. I could write another German story. But there is another post-war story, or war time story that I’m looking at. Possibly from the shores of Italy. My father is of Italian background. And so there are stories in his family as well that I’d like to explore. But whether I do this for the fourth book, I’m not sure at this stage.

Valerie

So you obviously enjoy writing historical fiction. What kind of research did you have to do for this book? Because obviously you weren’t around then! So what sort of things did you have to find out? If you can talk a little bit about your research process.

Tania

Yeah, sure. Well, as I say, I was very lucky to have documents, photos and memorabilia from my grandmother. And they were from the war years in Germany and right up until the present. So she was a great keeper of all of these treasures. So they were very helpful as a first point of reference.

Of course, I had the stories that she had given me as well, growing up. So between the information that she gave me and the stories that she also gave me, I was also able to scaffold the story.

And between those points of course there was a lot I didn’t know. And so then it was a case of doing research by reading firsthand accounts, watching documentaries. Just researching anything I could about the era. Any little points that she might have brought up in her documents or in her photos that were useful, or in the stories, I researched further. Reading online and books as well. And any people that were around that I could talk to about that time, even those that had lived through it, certainly I followed up on those sorts of things too.

Valerie

And can you give us some concrete examples of some things that you might have researched? Like, you thought, oh, I need to find out more about X. And what was the path? Actually take us through first I looked up this, then I looked at this at the library, or read this book. You know what I mean? Just to get some concrete examples.

Tania

Well, I suppose with Suitcase of Dreams, I was really fascinated to understand the life of immigrants when they came in the post war period. It was a difficult time because they didn’t expect to have the difficulties when they arrived here.

So what I wanted to find out, I knew that my grandparents suffered some difficulties. My grandfather couldn’t work in his profession. And they took a while to find their feet. So what I wanted to do is find out how migrants were involved in shaping Australia at that time. How someone like Eric in the book might have vented his frustrations. And I discovered that migrants were very involved in the trade union movement.

So I found some really great information online from firsthand accounts of those that had been through that time. I researched and read some historians’ accounts as well about the history of the trade union movement in the 50s and 60s. And it was very heavily involved with migrants lobbying for equal rights, for migrant rights, and for a better Australia.

And in the process, I found some really fascinating information then also online, but also I found documentaries also. But this particular information was about the role of communism in the trade unions. And how ASIO was watching certain people who they thought had communist background or leanings, particularly in the trade union movement. And these people were almost black banned, on a black list.

So it was really fascinating to discover that sort of information. And then be able to weave into the book the threat of the communist movement at that time. It was real reds under the beds. And how I could weave that into the story. So it came from lots of sources. Letters my grandparents had written. But then most of it was then research by historians’ accounts and firsthand accounts of that time.

Valerie

And so did you do any library research? Get your hands dirty in the library?

Tania

Yeah, absolutely.

Valerie

And what were you looking for? Were you looking for specific things? Or did you turn up at the library and go, oh, I just might research this era?

Tania

Yeah, no, I knew that I was looking for the post war period. So I was looking for accounts by migrants of their time. And that actually provided a really valuable source. And that was another jumping off point for more heavy historians’ books. So I went from there then to reading some historical books on the period, particularly in regards to communism and trade unionism. They were a bit more heavy going, of course, but that gave me the really good background that I needed from the firsthand accounts from the books that I found in the library.

Valerie

So on a practical level, let’s say you are reading some of the firsthand accounts, or some of the historian documentation, obviously there’s stuff that comes from many different places. So on a practical level, how did you store this research? Did you read it and keep it in your head and let it absorb? Or did you copy it and paste it into something? How did you actually wrangle it all?

Tania

Yeah. I used a couple of different methods. And I’m not sure to date as to which is the most useful or beneficial. I actually read everything that I could and wrote notes as I went. And with the online stuff, a lot of it I then actually copied into documents just as far as being able to keep them under headings, so I had the information all in one place.

But I think I have found still writing things out by hand the most useful way of doing things. I think somehow it sticks in my head a little bit more. I was then able to categorise the information using highlighter pens and work out what information was relevant to which book to which part of the story I was writing. So I had areas of social change, I had sections for communism and trade unionism. I had sections for what was happening in the migrant camps at the time, what people were wearing. Even small things like that, what they were listening to, what things were on at the movies. So all of that had to come into it and they were all under different categories.

So when I came to writing, I think I had a lot of that information in my head. But it was often, if I was writing a scene and I was stuck, I would go back to that information. Otherwise it was second draft, I would go back and then work out what I had missed of that really rich information that I had. And pop that into the second draft.

Valerie

And so when you were writing your notes, were the notes about that piece of history? Or were they notes like, oh maybe Eric can do this?

Tania

No, it was more about…

Valerie

Eric being your main character in the second book.

Tania

Mainly notes about what had happened at the time. But if I found something particularly relevant that I really wanted to use, I’d write in big red letters at the top of the page.

Valerie

Sure. Okay. So when you were in the depths of writing your first draft, tell us what your typical day would be like. Did you try to smash out a certain number of words? Or did you just go with the flow?

Tania

I always set out to get a particular number of words done each day. And depending on the week that I had, usually I would try to work four days a week and write somewhere around 1700 words a day. And sometimes it didn’t always go to plan. Usually at the beginning of the day I had an idea of where I wanted to go with the story. But by the end of the day, sometimes I would be in a totally different direction to what I thought. Or sometimes I would need to stop halfway and do some additional research for something that had come up that I hadn’t expected.

So I was generally working school hours, pretty well. I’ve got three kids still at school. So it was my quiet time in the middle of the day to work.

Valerie

And on a practical level, again, how many hours really were you at your computer during those school hours? Because we can always be tempted to do the laundry or things like that when we’re at home.

Tania

Yeah, for sure. And that’s a real challenge. But I was pretty diligent that I would sit down at my computer by 9 or 9:30 at the latest each of those four days. And generally I’d be able to work until about 3:30.

Valerie

That’s pretty good.

Tania

And in between I would have maybe a half hour break.

Valerie

That’s great. So how far into your third book are you?

Tania

Yes, that’s a very good question. Probably not as far as I should be! I’m about realistically about half way.

Valerie

Okay, that’s pretty good.

Tania

I’m a little bit behind time at the moment. But I’ve just recently gone back after the Christmas break and edited what I had already written against what I have said that I don’t do that. But this time I felt like I needed to get my head around where the story had started and where it was going. So I did some pretty heavy editing for a couple of weeks. And now I’m back on track. And I feel like I can write forward again and know where I’m going.

Valerie

And so writing your third novel is very different to writing your first novel, because you’ve learned so much more about the entire… Not just the writing process and creative process, but the publishing process. So can you talk to some of the things that you’re doing differently now that you were doing the first time around?

Tania

Yeah, well, for sure. The first thing would be I’m not writing as many useless words! I’m trying to be a lot more thoughtful about how I’m using description and narrative. I know a little bit more about how to write good dialogue, how that can be a lot more useful to get information across than writing long paragraphs.

This time around I’m also able to work out my structure of my story better in the first draft so that I’ve got a better sense of where I’m heading with the story. And again, that helps cut down on the unnecessary writing. And I found that really useful. So I’ve got some sheets of paper next to me with timelines of where I’m going, the historical events happening around that time, and what personally needs to be happening in the story as well.

So that’s helped quicken the process up quite dramatically this time around.

Valerie

And finally, well, not quite finally, I want to just mention you have done, you did an online course at the Australian Writers’ Centre. What did you find beneficial about that?

Tania

Yeah, they were fantastic. I did the Writing for Children and then the Advanced Fiction Writing course. And it just helped me understand the writing process a lot better. I learned lots about characterisation and dialogue. They were the two areas I really needed to understand.

And just understanding the flow of writing. I found the online tutorials really helpful and the follow up with the tutors as far as individual writing exercises went as well.

So that sort of put me in a good space to know how to write properly. And then I could move forward from there and just begin my own process.

Valerie

Well, congratulations on this book. I can’t wait for the third one to come out now. You’ve carved out a fantastic career as a writer. As a novelist. What’s your top three tips for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position where you are one day?

Tania

Yeah, sure. Well, I think the first thing is to write what you love. If you write what you’re passionate about and what feels authentic to you, I think you’ll believe in what you’re doing and it will come across really well.

I think the second thing would be stick to your daily or weekly word count. Just write even if you think that it’s no good. Because it’s the only way that you’re going to finish your story and move forward. And then you can always go back and edit later.

And the third thing I would say would be don’t overcomplicate your story. That’s something I’ve really learned over the process of the last two books. Try and keep it simple. And don’t get bogged down in unnecessary subplots or side stories. So they would be my top three points.

Valerie

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

Tania

Thank you very much for having me, Valerie. It was great.

 


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