Ep 301 Meet middle-grade author Pip Harry, author of ‘The Little Wave’.

In Episode 301 of So You Want To Be A Writer: You’ll meet middle-grade author Pip Harry, author of ‘The Little Wave’, and our Furious Fiction superfans. What does ‘prodigal’ really mean? (Possibly, not what you think!). Plus, there are three copies of ‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood to give away.

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Show Notes

Furious Fiction turns 21 and fans sign the card

Writers in Residence

Pip Harry

Pip Harry is a writer and editor. Her YA novels include I’ll Tell You Mine (2012), winner of the Australian Family Therapists Children’s Literature Award (2013). Head of the River was longlisted for the Gold Inky award (2015) and shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Literary awards (2016) and Because of You was shortlisted for the CBCA Children’s Book of the Year Awards, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and Queensland Literary Awards (2018). Pip lives in Singapore with her family and currently works as Editor for the Australian and New Zealand Association (ANZA).

The Little Wave (2019) is her most recent book.

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Australian author Pip Harry writes award-winning novels for young adults and children. Her YA novels include I’ll Tell You Mine, which was the winner of the Australian Family Therapists Children’s Literature Awards in 2013; Head of the River which was longlisted for the Gold Inky award in 2015 and shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Literary awards in 2016; and Because of You, which was shortlisted for a slew of awards in 2018, including the CBCA Children’s Book of the Year Award. Her latest novel is The Little Wave, a middle grade novel written in verse. Welcome to the program, Pip.

Pip

Thank you, Allison. I’m thrilled to be here.

Allison

All right. So let us just rewind back to the beginning, to the origin story. And can you tell us how I’ll Tell You Mine came to be published in the first place?

Pip

Okay. Well, I’ll tell you the slightly long version.

Allison

Oh, give us the story.

Pip

The whole origin story. I actually started writing a middle grade novel in the 90s when I was in my early 20s. And that book was signed to Australian Literary Management at the time. And was rejected by everybody. Which absolutely killed my confidence. And for about eight years, I didn’t write a single word of fiction. I concentrated on my magazine editing career and just turned my back on it.

And then when I turned 30, as you do when you have a big milestone birthday, I decided that I wanted to write another book. So I went back to university. I went to UTS in Sydney. And I worked on what would become I’ll Tell You Mine. So a manuscript about a lost angry teenage girl who’s sent to boarding school. And when I finished that, I sent it to a bunch of agents and signed with Cameron’s in Sydney. So I was absolutely thrilled. Got a bit nervous about doing the rounds again. And thankfully I got two offers and took an offer from UQP.

Allison

Okay.

Pip

And that was a joyous, joyous day. Lots of champagne.

Allison

So you wrote the whole thing as part of the course? Is that right?

Pip

I was doing it on the side. So I was kind of writing, I think I did another adult novel as well, I wrote 30,000 words of that and abandoned it. It wasn’t great. And I wrote a short story as well, for the anthology.

Both the short story, which was published in the anthology, and I’ll Tell You Mind, had teenage girls as protagonists. So I kind of knew that that was more my sweet spot, writing about teenagers and young adults. So I was writing I’ll Tell You Mine on the side. And just kind of ticking away at it as I was also doing my university studies. I was also doing screenwriting and a bunch of other stuff at uni.

Allison

Sounds like a great course.

Pip

It was cool, yeah. I’d like to go back and a masters or something else in writing. I really enjoyed it.

Allison

Excellent. So how would you describe your writing process? Are you someone who, like, do you draft a lot? Are you a plotter? Are you a planner? Are you a fly by the seat of your pantser?

Pip

100% pantser.

Allison

Right.

Pip

Hardly any planning. In fact, I’m sitting at a desk now with just papers everywhere. With little notes. And I sometimes write notes on my phone. But mostly it’s sitting down and just seeing where the story takes me. It’s a very stressful way to write. I kind of wish I had more plotting ability.

Allison

Have you ever tried it? Have you ever actually sat down and one, I’m going to work this out from start to finish?

Pip

I have. And those novels have tended to not fly. I did plot out a middle grade thing. And it had chapter one, two, three. And I just gave up on it. I think because there wasn’t that surprise element. I quite enjoy, oh, hang on, this character is making this terrible mistake. Or going down this path that I had not intended. It’s kind of exciting for me and feels a bit new.

Allison

Does that mean then that you have a lot of editing to do? Once you’ve got that first draft out?

Pip

Yes. Yeah. I’m sitting down to draft, redraft something at the moment. And it is such a mess. Because there isn’t that firm plan and things kind of go in different directions. So there’s a lot of deleting that happens for me. Or moving things around. Or finding the little pieces of gold and polishing up. Yeah. It’s a bit messy.

Allison

So that’s an interesting thing because one of the questions that comes up a lot in our podcast community Facebook group is this notion where authors will talk about how messy their first draft is and how terrible their first draft is and all that kind of stuff. But for new writers, there’s a question of – what does that look like? So for you, is that something that is like, you’ve written way too many words you need to delete? Is it that you’ve underwritten and you need to write more? Or is that you have to… You mentioned moving things around. Have you just got scenes in the wrong place? What does it look like when you describe a messy first draft?

Pip

All of those things.

Allison

All of those things!

Pip

Yes. So sometimes I’ll underwrite. And then I’m layering back through the work, trying to build. And for example, Head of the River, a YA novel I wrote was overwritten by quite a lot and I was pulling back from that.

So both. And then the moving around of scenes happens a lot as well. I tend to, I do have a process. I do tend to write the first draft, then print it out, and read it through and make sweeping changes through that printout. And then I go back and fix. So that tends to work for me.

Allison

Have you ever written one that’s kind of come out not too dissimilar to what the finished product was like?

Pip

Hm. Because Of You was really different. In fact, lost a major character and was completely different. I think probably the closest was Head of the River. And the reason that it was closer was because I was following an actual timeline of events that happens to school rowers every year.

Allison

So the structure was there?

Pip

Yeah. I knew that that’s when they did pre-season training. That’s when they would go to pre-regattas, that’s when the Head of the River was, so I knew that I had that timeline in place.

And also I was so familiar with the subject because I’d coached multiple crews and been in races myself. So that was probably the closest.

Allison

All right. So just moving on to that question. Your YA novels are heavily inspired by your own experiences, like school rowing in the case of Head of the River. And I think because you did volunteer creative writing workshops with the homeless. So when you get to the end of a novel, when you finish writing them, how much of you and your experiences are still in those novels? Or are they just a jumping off point for the characters to have similar experiences, if that makes sense? Does that make sense?

Pip

Yeah, it does. Yeah. So I don’t write exactly my personal experience. And the characters are very different from me. But you’re right; it is a jumping off point. It’s like I’m jumping into an area where I have some familiarity. And I’m sort of tied, my heart is tied to it, if that makes sense. I’m invested in it emotionally.

So I know I can write about sports, competitive sports, and legacy, and having a parent who’s really good at that sport and trying to follow in their footsteps, for example, for Head of the River. And Because of You, I definitely knew and understood what it was like to work in the homeless community. And also to run a creative writing workshop. And that was at the centre of the book as well. So I know those things going in. But then it often changes quite a lot and becomes very different from my personal experience.

Allison

So we come to The Little Wave. Tell us a little bit about your new novel.

Pip

The new one, the new baby. So it came out a couple of months ago. And it’s my first middle grade, first printed middle grade. And as you mentioned, it’s written in verse.

So I had been reading a lot of excellent children’s verse novels. So I don’t know if you know Kat Apel?

Allison

Yes.

Pip

Who is an Australian writer. She had a couple of books that I just loved, particularly Bully on the Bus. I was reading Irish writer Sarah Crossan’s The Weight of Water, and she has another one called One. Have you read those? They’re just so beautiful.

Allison

Sorry, what was the second one called?

Pip

Yeah. Her first is called The Weight of Water and the second one is called One.

Allison

Oh, One, okay.

Pip

Yeah. It’s about conjoined twins. And it’s just absolutely stunning.

Allison

Wow.

Pip

Yeah. And then I was reading a writer called Thannai Lai’s book called Inside Out and Back Again, which is set in Vietnam. And all of them made a huge impact on me at the time. And when I sat down to write The Little Wave, it came out as verse. And I don’t know why. Maybe because I’d been reading so heavily in that area.

Allison

Right.

Pip

Yeah.

Allison

So it wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing of, I’m going to write a verse novel therefore I’m going to read a whole bunch of verse novels to get an idea of what these verse novels do and are, and then I’m going to sit down and do my own. It wasn’t that?

Pip

No. I’m drawn to reading verse novels, and I really enjoy that style. And then later my book came out like that. Yes. It also felt quite like almost like stream of consciousness at the time. At the time I started writing it, I wasn’t feeling very well. I had acute sinusitis and was actually convalescing down by the beach. I had a beach house and was trying to feel better. But I was very dizzy and wasn’t sleeping well. And was really struggling to recover.

And so I was writing The Little Wave I think to feel better or be in a different world. And so it was very, very dreamlike at the start and very spare and quite lyrical and poetic. And very different from my contemporary realistic YAs which were quite straightforward in the language.

Yeah. And then I’d written half of it and kind of kept going with the verse. And then around 20,000 words I thought, oh my goodness, I’ve just written a verse novel. Is it any good? Is it actually verse? So I sent it away to a specialist verse novelist in Japan. Her name is Holly Thompson. And I’d heard her speak at the AFCC Children’s Literature Festival in Singapore. And I literally was like, I am sending it to her. And I did.

And so she gave me an appraisal and said, look, it’s really good. And I think you can move forward with this as a verse piece. So I did.

Allison

All right. So let’s just talk about a verse novel. What exactly – for someone who has never read a verse novel – what is it? I mean, obviously it’s a novel written in verse. But is it structured the same as a novel and it’s just all written in poetry? Is that how it works?

Pip

You know, it’s similar to a novel in that it tells a story in that way. A three act structure, beginning, middle and end. But the language is a lot more playful. And you can place words anywhere you like on the page. Like you could do a shape poem, for example. Like, I could have written some of it in the shape of a wave or across the page. Things like that. Which I really enjoyed. It was very fun to write.

Verse actually has no formal rules though, which is what drew me to it, I think. So there’s no rhyme or rhythm or any of that sort of stuff. So I could do like one line on its own and then I could do a stanza, a traditional stanza. So it just gave me a lot of freedom as a writer, which I think I was really looking for at the time.

Allison

Yeah, fair enough. Well, it’s very beautiful. So when you are, from the perspective of… Did you always know it was going to be middle grade rather than YA? And how did you know that?

Pip

I didn’t really know that, except that the voices of the two characters that I started with, which was a boy from the bush and a boy from the beach, I just knew that they were younger. Their voices came to me as ten or eleven year old boys. So at that point, I was like, I think I’m writing something for a younger audience here.

The other thing was, I’d just written three YAs that were quite emotionally taxing and dealt with quite heavy relationships and things like that. And I think I was enjoying with The Little Wave dealing with perhaps less complex issues. And then when I got to the end of it, I realised I’d written a book with quite complex issues in it anyway. So that’s what I do. Yep. Yep.

Allison

So if I was a parent, which I am, clearly, but if I was a parent and I came up to you and I said, okay, Pip, you’ve written a book in verse. What’s it about? And how do I sell it to my kid? What would you say to me?

Pip

Oh, the elevator pitch?

Allison

Yeah. Give me the elevator pitch. How am I going to convince my twelve year old boy, for example, Book Boy Junior, to read a book written in verse?

Pip

Well, I think just stick with it after the first page or two because it’s different. It’s fantastic for reluctant readers, for sure, because there’s less words on the page. But if I was trying to get a boy of twelve to read it, I would say there is lots of surfing and there is lots of cricket and sporty things like that, if it was a sporty person.

And then there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s fact-based. Like, amazing facts about insects and things like that, which I think kids find really interesting.

But basically it’s about a Manly school in the city near the beach that bring a country class out for a visit. And they also write pen pal letters to each other. So that’s kind of fun, as well. So the kids get to know each other through pen pal letters.

Is that enough? Will he read it, do you think?

Allison

I think he’d have a crack at it. You’re going to have to work on that a little bit, though. I want you to be able to give me the 30-second, this book is about blah blah blah.

Pip

It’s amazing and life changing!

Allison

This is what happens!

Was the writing process then, given you said you kind of just started and you realised that you were writing middle grade because you had these two boys. So the writing process for this was similar to your others in the sense of you just kind of like worked it out as you went along?

Pip

Yes. So I did add a girl character. Her name’s Lottie. And she came in about halfway through. And as if my job wasn’t hard enough already, with pen pal letters and two voices and verse, which I’d never done before, and middle grade, I then added a third poem voice.

But she just wedged herself in there. And so she was a little girl whose father is a hoarder, who’s dealing with grief after losing his wife. And I just saw this girl in a house full of junk. And I knew that I had to rescue her. Which sounds… Yeah. Which gives me goose bumps, actually, but I knew that she was going to have to be in it.

And in fact when I sent it to UQP later, I had discussions with my publisher about whether we would take Lottie’s story out and make it another book. And then in the end we were just like, she has to be in The Little Wave. So there she is.

Allison

So there she is.

Pip

But the writing process was the same in that I just had to sit down on my bum in front of my computer and do it. Like, first drafts are always hard. I always find them really difficult.

But the editing was quite a bit harder than my YA novels, which I found to be a bit of a surprise. Because I thought, well, The Little Wave is only 22,000 words. I thought it would go quite quickly and it would be ready and I wouldn’t sweat so much. But I sweated over every word, every white space, every full stop and comma. Yeah. It was tough.

Allison

Was it? So it was tougher in some ways than a prose novel?

Pip

Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s because there’s only words on one side of the page. On the left hand side. So you can see every flaw and every repeated word. And it’s really there. So through read-throughs, and I did hundreds, I would just keep seeing problems. And repetitive language. So I drove my publisher crazy because I was really sending so many emails saying, change this, oh whoops, can you change that? Sorry, one more change!

Allison

And you would know how annoying that would be, because you do work as an editor as well as a writer.

Pip

I do. Yeah, I do. I’m on both sides of the fence, for sure.

Allison

How do you manage that? As far as the rhythm of that then? And when you’re writing, how do you keep the editor out of your first draft?

Pip

Ooh, good question. Um… Yeah, I try to be quite free in my first draft. And I try not to read back over what I’ve written. I don’t know if you do that as well. But I think if I go back and start reading what I wrote yesterday or today, I will start to edit along the way.

Allison

Yeah, I do. I just go forward. Always forward.

Pip

Yeah. Forward, forward, right? It’s the best way. So what I tend to do is I write for the day and then I leave a bunch of notes on the end of the document. And rather than coming back the next day and reading what I’ve done, I just go to those notes and keep moving through the document, keep writing.

Allison

Brilliant. Well, that makes perfect sense. That’s exactly how I work as well.

Pip

Yeah, it’s the best way.

Allison

Usually I don’t even read back over it until I’ve written about 20,000 words.

Pip

Seriously?

Allison

And then I’ll have a bit of a look at it and think, yeah. Because by that point I’ve suddenly realised that I need an additional character, or I need some other thing. So I make a note. Rewrite this section, including new character!

Pip

Oh wow. Yeah.

Allison

Stuff like that. Anyway, that’s a whole nother ballgame.

So you also have a family, you have a job. How do you fit the writing in to your life? How do you make that work?

Pip

So I do have a job. So I’m working in Singapore. So I’ve been living in Singapore for about four years. And naturally I got a job as an editor on a magazine, because that’s kind of my background. And then I found that I was editing and writing most days. So that makes it tricky to write at night or on my weekends. So I tend to push it to the side.

So I’ve actually come back to Australia to do a three week writing residency to try and sort of kickstart a new project.

Allison

Right.

Pip

Yeah. So I’ve been working on a new book here, and trying to just get my head back in the game. Because for about a year or so, I haven’t done a lot of writing.

Allison

Okay.

Pip

Yeah. I have got a writers group in Singapore. It’s a YA and children’s writing group. We tend to meet and share pieces, like about 1000 words of what we’re working on. And sometimes we will also go away. So about six months ago I did also go to Bali on a little writing retreat.

Allison

Nice.

Pip

Yes! Because it’s only an hour and a half flight! So we were like, why not?

Allison

Yeah, why not? That sounds brilliant.

Pip

So I got some work done there. But I tend to work in bursts. So I’ll do a 5000 word day. Or I’ll do a 10,000 word weekend. Or whatever. Yeah. And once the words are on the page then it becomes a lot easier. I tend to quite enjoy the editing process. The redrafting. That’s my happy space.

Allison

Okay. So for you, it’s more like you need to carve out a little chunk, get a whole bunch done, and then wait for the next chunk to come along.

Pip

Yeah, I don’t sit down every day. I’m not one of those writers, and pretty much never have been. I wish I was. I think that would make it happen a lot quicker. But I take a few years between books anyway. And I’m not writing series. I don’t have a huge amount of pressure to deliver the next thing. So yeah.

Allison

So you said you’re here on a fellowship for a few weeks working on something new. Was that something that you applied for? Was that an application process to get that?

Pip

Yep. So I’m here on the May Gibbs Literature Trust. It’s a residential fellowship. So they put writers into accommodation for about three or four weeks. And that’s in Adelaide, in Canberra, and in Brisbane.

Allison

Wow.

Pip

And I think it’s nine writers or illustrators for children that they choose each year. And you do have to submit an application form and put forward the project you’re going to work on and take it quite seriously.

Allison

And then they just give you time to go and sit in a place and write stuff?

Pip

That’s exactly right. It’s the gift of time. You know, one of our most beloved children’s writers and illustrators, May Gibbs, what a great legacy she’s left for the children’s writing community.

Some people don’t know about it. It’s definitely worth seeking out and checking out. And if it fits into your life then it’s a great thing to do. Because we all get so busy, don’t we? Life is busy. Family life. And it’s hard to find time to concentrate on creative writing.

Allison

I have to confess, I do have to confess, that I’m not entirely sure what I would do with three weeks to write. I kind of wonder if I would end up reading a book and binging on Netflix. Are you allowed to do that? Is that in the agreement?

Pip

There’s Foxtel. But when they checked me in they were like, you can close this cabinet and not see the TV if you don’t want to be distracted. And they left behind a rather thick thesaurus. And I’ve got a desk here and things.

Yeah, look, I’ve done that, I’ve read. I’ve read other books. And been out and about and I’ve met people in the industry. I met students, talked to teachers. So I think that’s also part of it, is not just lock yourself in a room and work. It’s also develop connections. Especially within those cities.

So for me, I’m in Brisbane, so I’m making connections in Brisbane where my publisher UQP is. And it’s been invaluable.

Allison

That works out brilliantly.

That was a question I was going to ask you, actually. Because you are based in Singapore at the moment, but you’re publishing in Australia, obviously. Do you have logistical issues with that at any stage?

Pip

Yes. Well, I mean it’s just…

Allison

Yes, now that you mention it!

Pip

Definitely. Because my books are not sold in Singapore and are not available in libraries. So that can make it difficult. I can’t see my work and I often can’t recommend my work. If I do school visits there, I can’t say well, you can buy this book at the bookstore. So I’m not very visible as a children’s author. So that can be difficul.t

And also, there’s just the logistics of, well, I’ve got a book that I’m launching, so I have to fly out to wherever it’s being launched. Or have to do bookstore visits and come and stay with people. So I stay with my mum sometimes, with my sister. Get a little car from the airport and try and do as much as possible while I’m in Australia.

Allison

Will you just kind of…

Pip

Yeah. I tend to come out, once or twice a year I’ll come out and I’ll do school visits. And I’ll visit bookstores and all that sort of stuff. Yeah. Yeah. And I wish I could do that more often. Sometimes you really miss it. When I’m overseas I really miss it.

Allison

So is that the kind of stuff, is that the way that you promote your books? Is that your chunking that, as well, basically?

Pip

Mm.

Allison

And are you also active online? Do you do a lot of online networking connections, that sort of stuff?

Pip

Yeah. I mean, that’s a good point. I think I keep in touch online. So I’ve got my own website and I’m on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and all those different places. So I can answer, right away I can answer questions or chat to readers, and things like that. So that makes it a lot easier. And makes me feel connected, as well, to the communities. Like LoveOZYA, LoveOZMG. Stick that hashtag on the end of a tweet or something and feel like I’m connected with that community, which is great.

Allison

And are you just Pip Harry on all of those things? I know you are PipHarry.com, if anyone would like to have a look at your website.

Pip

Yeah. I’m actually not Pip Harry, because there was already a Pip Harry. So I’m Pip Haz.

Allison

That’s right. Pip Haz. Look at you.

Pip

Very Aussie. It’s because when you’re called Harry, it gets shortened in Australia to Haz, Hazza.

Allison

Hazza. Beautiful.

Pip

Yeah.

Allison

All right. Well, thank you very much for that. Now we’re going to finish up today with our usual three top tips for writers. And I’m sure you’ve got something amazing for us, Pip Haz.

Pip

I do. I thought about this earlier. So I think my three things would be, number one, get a good writer’s group and meet regularly with them. I think workshopping with other writers is the best way to see where your story might not be working. Or maybe where it is working. And also just a good thing so you’re not alone on the journey. Because it’s extremely lonely to be in your writer’s cave all the time. So often I just go to writers’ group, honestly, just to have a glass of wine and a chat. And then I’m like, oh, wait, yes, I did bring something to read and to workshop. But it’s mainly about that connection with other people trying to do what you’re doing.

And the second thing would be do retreats. And get lots of words out of your system. So when I’m not doing organised retreats like this one, the May Gibbs one, I do my own. And I tend to invite, like I invite another writer. So sometimes my brother, who is also a writer and editor, or just someone who’s interested in coming along and doing a bit of writing, I find that super helpful. And if it can be in a beautiful but slightly remote setting, I think that’s good.

Allison

Don’t you get distracted though and just want to sit down and chat about… Because I would just want to chat about writing and drink wine. I would be terrible.

Pip

No, no. There’s rules.

Allison

There’s rules?

Pip

Yeah. Nine and five is writing time. The minute it ticks over five, it’s wine time. That’s how I tend to do things anyway.

Allison

Okay.

Pip

Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s good. Okay.

Allison

You sound like a real task master.

Pip

Yeah. It’s like, you’re not going to the beach, you’re not going for a bush walk, you’re sitting here and you’re writing. Yep. I sometimes go also in wintertime. So I’ve done two retreats in wintertime where it’s not, like, you do want to cosy up inside and write and put on a fire and that sort of thing. So it’s been really good also.

My third thing would be don’t hold on to a story for too long. I know writers who tend to polish and polish and polish and they hold on to it. I think just let it go and have a couple of people you can send it to who are really trusted critique partners. And so that probably isn’t your mum or your boyfriend or your girlfriend or whatever. It’s more than likely going to be someone who can tell you that it’s not working in places, or you need to rethink this, or this character’s flat. I always look for those people. So I’ve had critique partners who are also, they work for agents, literary agents. They’re also editors for magazines or newspapers. And they’re not afraid to tell me like it is, what’s wrong.

Allison

Excellent. That’s fantastic.

Pip

And there’s always lots of things wrong.

Allison

There are always lots… Look at you, you sound so cheerful about that! There’s always lots of things wrong!

Fantastic. All right, well, Pip Harry, that’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you today. I hope The Little Wave goes gangbusters for you.

Pip

Thank you.

Allison

I will give it to Book Boy Junior and I will report back on how we go with the cricket, the insects, and surfing. You might get him in with that, I think. But yes, best of luck with it and enjoy the rest of your fellowship.

Pip

Thank you so much, Allison.


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