Ep 3 Interview with Dr. Anita Heiss, author of ‘Tiddas’

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In Episode 3 of So you want to be a writer, parents and lawmakers fear cursive writing will become a lost art, we tell you our favourite inspirational blogging quotes, we chat about Hazel Edward's new book Authorpreneurship, you tell us your word crushes, we interview Dr. Anita Heiss, and more.

Click play below to listen to the podcast. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher Radio. Or add the podcast RSS feed manually to your favourite podcast app.

So you want to be a writer is a weekly podcast from Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait. Valerie is an author, journalist and national director of the Australian Writers’ Centre. Allison Tait is an Australian freelance writer, blogger and author, with more than 20 years’ professional writing experience. She is also a presenter at the Australian Writers’ Centre.

Each week, they explore the world of writing, publishing and blogging to bring you news and opportunities, advice on how to succeed in the world of writing, interviews with top writers, and much more.

Show Notes

Parents and lawmakers fear cursive writing is becoming a lost art

Feel happier writing using Evernote

Authorpreneurship: The Business of Creativity by Hazel Edwards

Allison's blog interview with Hazel Edwards

Inspirational blogging quotes

Anita Heiss-0797 with credit Amanda JamesWriter in Residence – Dr. Anita Heiss (pictured)

Anita's latest books:

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You told us your word crushes

You’ll find your hosts at:
Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo

Australian Writers' Centre


Dr. Anita Heiss is the author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women’s fiction, poetry, social commentary and travel articles. She’s listed as #27 on the Booktopia list of Australia’s favorite novelists. In 2001 was the first Aboriginal student in the history of the University of Western Sydney to graduate with a PhD in communications and media. Anita is also a regular speaker at writers’ festivals and events. Her latest novel is Tiddas, a story about what it means to be a friend.

Welcome to our show, Anita.

Thanks for having me, Allison. I’m very excited.

Very excited to have you here.

You write everything from chick-lit to poetry, do you find it difficult to switch between genres and styles?

I think that’s a really good question, first of all I have to say I don’t really consider myself a poet, per se, because I read good quality poetry and mine are more like social observations that are short and punchy and don’t go to the end of the line. So, it’s not quite poetry.


But, it’s a real good question because someone who writes poetry well may not be able to write a novel, for instance. And writing a memoir is not the same as writing for TV, so switch genres is — they are different skill bases and I’ve tried and I’ve attempted poetry and I’ve written numerous novels, and I’ve written a memoir, and I’ve tried writing for TV, and writing for the theatre, as it were, and I’m not great at that. I’m quote verbose, and writing novels and so forth requires you to write every detail. I’m very big on using the senses and I love writing about what my characters can smell and taste and see and so forth, but for instance when you’re writing for the screen or writing for the stage you don’t write all of that detail because that’s acted out. And so it’s that pairing back of details that I find quite difficult when I have to switch between genres, because I like writing detail, because I like researching the novels and so forth.

With all of those different things, and you obviously enjoy the challenge of writing different styles and different genres and things, how do you decide which format an idea should take?

I think, for me, it’s the story I want to write and the audience I want it for. That is what determines the genre and will determine the voice and the style and the format.

When I wanted to write about women’s stories, about relationships, for instance, and put Aboriginal women on the literary radar, it was, for me, it was a normal fit for commercial women’s fiction, I didn’t know at the time that it was chick-lit, because I didn’t read in the genre, but I knew that it was fun and quirky and that there was a commercial mainstream market for it. So, the format and the style of writing fitted the story.

Now, writing for young people, so upper primary, writing about the Stolen Generations and so forth in a diary format fitted well the story of the Stolen Generations, Who Am I? The Diary of Mary Talence. I wanted to write about also the kids out at La Perouse, and put them on the national identity radar, but put them on the national literary radar, so I had to write in a story, in a format that they would read themselves, so obviously that determined the voice and the style for that novel.

And as I’ve mentioned I don’t really call myself a poet, but there are things I want to say in short, punchy pieces which don’t fit prose, which look like on the page they’re poetry, but I would prefer to call them something like social observations. And that’s kind of what I’ve attempted to do in my collection titled, “I’m Not Racist, but…”

So, it’s quite deliberate with you, isn’t it? Like, you seem to take an idea and plot it out, like, knowing what that voice is — you know, just sort of like, “I’ve got an idea to write about the Stolen Generations. I’m going to sit down and see what comes out.”

Oh, no.


Every single book has a defined audience before I start, whether it’s commercial women’s fiction and I go, “18-45 year old women, generally buy in this genre,” and I learnt that when I wrote my first one for Random House, Not Meeting Mr. Right. My publisher there used to be a buyer Dymocks and she explained to me who the buyers were. So, I came to understand when I was writing who’s the audience — it’s women sitting on the train, along the beach, reading these books.

The stolen generations book was about Mary Talence, that was a defined audience as well. So, I’m not someone who sits down and looks out the window and lets the words flow. One, I don’t have the time to do that, I’m quite strategic in my writing, and what I’m writing, who I’m writing it for, so every single project is well and truly determined before I sit down to the keyboard.

OK, so have you always worked like that? Do you remember writing your first manuscript? Like, did you have this thing of, “I’m going to sit down and write a book?”

Well, there’s two parts of that. I did have this idea, I wanted to sit down and write a book, and that was born out of I was working at Streetwise Comics at the time, writing comic strips and I wasn’t very good at that because comic strips have very few words, with one message per page, I’m verbose, so that didn’t work.

But, I wanted to write this book. I wanted to write one book, which turned out to be Sacred Cows, and I remember sitting in Canberra over the summer of ’94-’95 with no structure really outside of me giving myself ‘x’ amount of hours each day to sit and write. So, I had lot’s of chapter headings and lots of ideas, and lots of bits and pieces, but essentially no other structure to how I would continue to write each chapter, and they were more essays, I guess you’d say, within an attempt at satire in them.

My process now is completely different because, and I’m thankful for that, because I am what as known in the industry as a plotter as opposed to a pantster. A pantster sits down, it’s organic, and they fly by the seat of their pants, they let the characters drive the story, for want of a better word, and I’m a plotter, which means that I map out the entire book, whether its memoir, or kids novel, or adult’s novel.

I map out the entire novel before I sit down to write any thoughts, so I’ll do character breakdown. So, for instance, for Tiddas there’s five main characters, I sat down and I developed each character’s profile, their back story, their quirks, what they look like, what they eat and so forth, before I ever sit down to write the novel, so that I know fully what a character is going to say, whether there’s a certain terminology they use, whether they swear a lot, or whether they have a lisp, or what they’re going to wear each day, because they may just wear gray, back and white. So, I know the personality of each character before I start writing.

I do chapter breakdowns, like an essay plan for every chapter. For me, that means by the time I sit down to write the novel or the memoir I can write 80,000 or 90,000 in eight weeks, because I know what’s going to happen next.

If you can do the writing in eight weeks, how much time do you spend on the plotting?

I’ll research, and when I’m researching I’ll be mapping out, and I have a white board — for Tiddas I had a big white board up at QUT and there was quite a structure to that book because it’s set around a book club. So, each month they would have a meeting, so I’d go, “Right,” I mapped it out all, and I’m mapping out, “OK, this is June, what’s the weather like in Brisbane in June?” So, I’d have key points to consider in terms of writing about it. “What book are they doing?” Each book would lead to whatever the theme for that chapter, because the book was a springboard to talking about the things that mattered for me.

So, the research whether it was, you know, going to Manhattan for Manhattan Dreaming, and going to Canberra, because it was set in Canberra and New York, and Canberra and Paris, with Paris Dreaming. Also, part of that was set in Deniliquin. So, for me the big work is in the research, because the research informs everything that I write. So, I spend, two, three, four, five, six months researching and then I can knock the novel out in eight weeks, because the entire time I’m writing up scenes, little vignettes and so forth while I’m in a coffee shop where my character will be sitting. I’m taking notes the whole time and by the time I sit down I may have 19,000-20,000 words worth of notes.

It’s like method writing, isn’t it?

I am a method writer, so I get into —

You put yourself right in it.

Yeah, so my character in Manhattan Dreaming, I mean I did things that 30 year old Lauren did that Anita Heiss wouldn’t do today, you know? I have no desire to go the Sex Museum in New York, but character had never been to New York before, goes on a date within somebody who’s in this PhD about sex and the arts. So, I do these things, I think, “What would my character think the first time walking down 5th Avenue?” And she’s from Goulburn, like, she’d be in awe.

How did you become a published author? What was your process from having that idea for that first book to actually, you know, getting a contract?

Well, I mentioned I work with Streetwise Comics, so that was my first job out of uni in 1992, and it was a not-for-profit organization, and we produced comics for young Australia with a low literacy levels, so rural youth. We did the world’s first comic for deaf people, young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth and so forth. And we wrote about legal rights and health information, the environment and so forth. It was during my time there that I started building up my publications list, writing articles for youth magazines, and I had columns in a couple of youth journals, and while I was doing it I really loved it, I really loved the ability and the opportunity to write creatively about important issues.

During that time I wrote my first piece of paid journalism in a magazine called Habitat. And, while I was there I thought back to my time at university and how all of the books on the shelf that I had read about Aboriginal society and culture were written by non-Aboriginal people. There were a number of examples, I read a book by somebody who had never been to Australia, wrote a book about Aboriginal people being cannibals, based on a letter that he read by somebody in New South Wales. And, I thought, “history and perceptions create books and literatures everyday and we need to be writing our own stories. We need to be giving our own versions of history as well.”

I had this idea about writing something called Sacred Cows and looking at Australian sacred cows like the backyard barbeque and Skippy and vegemite, and I had all of these great ideas — Mardi Gras, the men’s shed, the garage, and so forth, the RSL Club. And so I wrote what I thought was an attempt at being funny with these collection stories, and I sent it to every single major publishing house in the country, and I knew enough to say, “You send yourself a copy, and you don’t ever open so you’ve got proof if someone rips off your ideas and so forth.” And I got a knocked back from every major publishing house in the country, which was debilitating at the time, but I’ve since learned that even the best authors get knocked back. And it’s about finding the publisher who recognizes your voice and believes that they can do you justice, whether it’s chick-lit, or YA, or sci-fi, or whatever. And, then I got picked up by Magabala and that came out in 1996.

Now, for me, I was just going to write this one book. It was meant to make a point that we can write our own stories and we can look at white Australian culture and turn it on its head as well and say, “You know, the men standing around the backyard barbeque while the women are inside, you know, making drinks can look quite ridiculous as well. But, interestingly, that came out 18 years ago and last year I had a school in Queensland order a set of 40 to use in their satirical English class, or something or other. So, it still has the purpose of it or the style and voice still has validity in 2014.

I didn’t know I was going to write anymore books at the time, I just wanted to do this one book and make a point.

How did you then go from that to writing fiction?

From that I actually wrote a collection of poetry called Token Koori and I self-published that, because I wanted to learn about the process of publishing. I was doing my PhD on literature and publishing at the time at UWS. Literally just before I submitted my PhD in 2000 I was approached by Scholastic Australia, you have the My Australian story series, and it looks at different moments in Australian history, federation, the plaque, the women’s movement, the Rum Rebellion and so forth. They approached me and said, “Would you write a 45,000-word novel for 8-10 year olds about the Stolen Generations?” And I had never written a novel before. I was in a complete non-fiction frame of mine, having just written 100,000 words of a textbook on Aboriginal literature and publishing for my PhD thesis. But, the good thing about this was there was a structure given to me straightway, 45,000 words, it’s in a diary format over 12 months, and it’s in the voice of a 10 year old. So, I was given a structure, which I think made it much easier for me.

I wrote that rather quickly as well. I did lots of research, obviously talking to people who were from the Stolen Generations, who had lived in Bomaderry, the aboriginal children’s Home. And so I think the process was more of an easing into writing fiction. And that book has gone onto be taught nationally. It’s been translated into Spanish, French, Farsi, and Kevin Rudd wrote the introduction to the Mandarin version.

There you go.

While I was writing that, or that’s in at the publisher, I’m lying down on the beach down Ruby Beach reading fantastic Australian fiction by people like Linda Jaivin, and Rosie Scott, and Georgia Blane, and I’m thinking to myself — these are friends of mine as well — and I’m thinking, “Where are the women like me? Where are the women like me that I went to university with?” And so I saw this niche, this gap that needed to be filled and that’s when I started writing commercial women’s fiction.

It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? Because you write so many different things what do you think of idea that an author needs to have a brand, because it’s quite a big thing in publishing at the moment, is it something that you work on? Is it something that you think has just developed naturally for you? What do you think about that idea?

I think it’s an important thing for people to consider. I don’t think that everybody needs a brand, I think it depends on the author, what they do and why they’re doing it and who they’re doing it for.

I have a brand because I’ve been working on a professional strategy for myself for over a decade with a life coach. My books really are the springboards, for me, to talk more widely beyond the reading community about issues that are important to me. So, Anita Heiss is the brand, and those who buy into or want the Anita Heiss brand know what the brand brings. So, my brand brings books and commentary related to Aboriginal society, discussions about identity and national identity, because I talk about those sort of things in my work, and also my passion for literacy. But, my overall brand is really about communication, whether it’s stories, published stories across genres, books, whether it’s public speaking, or whether it’s broadcasting.

And I think the difference for me I am a full time writer, writing is my business. I made a decision a decade ago I would follow a path where I would only take on work, paid work, and even my love jobs, which are voluntary jobs, that actually further my writing career or publishing career in some way, so working in schools and so forth. I created a brand really, because writing is not my hobby. I’m not on a salary, I don’t write on weekends, I’m not an accountant or a lawyer, or a hairdresser, or whatever who, you know, has this as an aside thing. This is my everyday thing, so I created a brand, really, from my passion from writing it, but my desire to make a living out of what I love doing most.

You mentioned it yourself, you actually do quite a lot of public speaking, you speak regularly at writers’ festivals and other events. Is that something that you enjoy or something that you’ve learnt to enjoy? Because I know a lot of writers find the whole public speaking putting themselves out there thing quite difficult.

There’s people who find it difficult, I think it’s a valid thing to say. But, I’ve also met writers who say, “Well, I wrote the book, I don’t need to do anymore,” and I think that’s quite an arrogant way to consider or speak about people who are loyal to you, that’s your readers. I like meeting my readers. I think festivals are a great way to do that. It’s a great way for me to — and for readers to engage with you and want to learn about why you do what you do.

It’s absolutely exhausting. I’m going through periods of time where it’s been hard to enjoy because you’re so tired. You’re just tired. Sometimes there is no boundary between — people read your novels and they think they you know personally, when in fact they don’t know personally, they know the characters, or they know what you choose to put in the public domain. For instance, this year my travel is absolutely crazy, but I understand that’s the choice that I’ve made and part of the job of being a writer is going to festivals. It’s not a game, and it’s not enough in my mind to think you can just write a book and do nothing else. And, I want to respect those who are loyal to me, my readers, and doing events and festivals, to me, is about giving back something to them.

What are you working on at the moment? What are we going to see from you in 2014? Apart from it sounds like a lot of travel?

Well, I’ve decided that my new book Tiddas is something that I just love, and I want to really enjoy its birth, generally when I have a book coming out I’m working on another book, and I’m sitting in my hotel room in between events working on the edits for the next book. So, I’m just excited that 2014 will be about enjoying all the travel and all of the interviews I have to do for Tiddas, and talking about the main themes of that, friendship and sameness and so forth. But, also catching up on reading, because I don’t read when I write and I’ve got so many books I need to review, so catching up on reading, and blogging. I want to get back into my Gratefulness Blog.

I’m going to have an attempt at writing a short story about love for an anthology that I’d like to submit to, and that will be a challenge for me because it’s easier for me to write over 10,000 than 3,000.

I guess this year you’ll see lots of little bits and pieces, I don’t have an idea for another big project at the moment.

I think that creative space is just as important in many ways as continuing to be productive all the time, isn’t it?

I agree. This is my fifth novel since 2007 and I had a memoir come out and book of poetry in between that time, and two YA books. I think it’s OK.

I think you need a good lie down, Anita.

You know? Give my brain a rest.

Good idea. Just to finish up, what are your top three tips for aspiring authors?

I think it’s really important for writers to know why they’re writing. To sit down and go, “Why do I want to write this book? Why do I want this book out? What’s its purpose? What’s the goal?” And I think that will help to determine and harness their motivation and their determination to finish their project.

The next tip would be — and these aren’t in any particular order — to read widely, because it will help you find your own voice, what you like to see on the page, what you react to as a reader, but you will also help you understand what’s in the marketplace. And if you want to be published and read by the broader community you need to understand what’s in the marketplace and what the competition is there.

With that in mind, the third tip is if you want to be published you need to find the niche, where is the gap that needs to be filled? How will you fill the void, because that’s what I learnt most about why my work was so successful, because the market is flooded with chick-lit, but what’s missing? So, find the niche? What story hasn’t been told? There’s only ‘x’ amount of stories, what’s the new twist that you can bring to the literary community?

Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time today, I really appreciate talking to you. I think your entire schedule sounds completely exhausting, however, I’m sure it’s going to be a fantastic 2014 for you. Thanks very much for talking to us, Anita.

Thanks for having me.


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