Ep 316 Meet Sue McPherson, author of ‘Brontide’.

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In Episode 316 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Sue McPherson, author of Brontide. Learn why some people are calling for a boycott of the new 50 pence coin. Discover top ways you can reinvent yourself in 2020. Plus, there are three copies of Finding Chika: A Little Girl, an Earthquake, and the Making of a Family by Mitch Albom to win.

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Show Notes

Philip Pullman calls for boycott of Brexit 50p coin over ‘missing' Oxford comma

21 ways to reinvent yourself in the New Year

Writer in Residence

Sue McPherson

Sue McPherson is a visual artist living in Eumundi, Queensland. She was born in Sydney to an Aboriginal mother, from Wiradjuri country. Sue was adopted into the McPherson family, landowners from the Batlow area in New South Wales, when she was very young. A weekend writing workshop inspired Sue to join a writers’ group and commit to writing a young adults novel, Grace Beside Me which won the kuril dhagun Indigenous Writing Competition through the State Library of Queensland.

Her latest novel is Brontide.

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Sue McPherson is an Australian visual artist and author. Her first novel, Grace Beside Me, won the 2011 kuril dhagun Indigenous Writing Competition through the State Library of Queensland and was shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Awards in 2013, before being turned into a television series with a script by Sue in 2018. Her latest book is Brontide, a YA novel published by Magabala Books in 2018. Welcome to the program, Sue.

Sue

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Allison

Now this interview is a very long time in the making. Because I met you at the Brisbane Writers' Festival, whenever we did that. Was that like last year or something? And I remember saying to you at the time, Sue, I really want to interview you for the podcast. Because Brontide was out and I took it home and I gave it to Book Boy and he read it and he really liked it and he got very confused about whether it was real or whether it was a novel. And then it's taken us this long to actually get ourselves together. So I'm very, very excited to have you here for the podcast today.

So what we like to do is go all the way back to the beginning. So maybe you can tell us how the story of Grace Beside Me, how that came to be published.

Sue

Okay. So I just… I attended a workshop for writers who hadn't had anything published but were looking to just extend their own stories and see where they could take them. The workshop was run in Coolum by a lovely lady there called Rose Allan and she was fantastic.

I attended a workshop, I started on the story. It was crap. She told me it wasn't good, which was great for me and my ego. Haha! So I went home and by the next week, actually one night, Nan from Grace Beside Me came into my head and she was fierce. She was so fierce. And strong. Strong-willed. And that's when Grace Beside Me started.

And I started writing, never ever expected to go as far as it did. I never even expected it to be published, to be truthful.

With the support of Rose, the workshop facilitator, she told me that I should actually put it out there, because it's a good strong story. And I entered it into the kuril dhagun Indigenous Writing Competition with the State Library in Queensland.

So blow me down, Grace Beside Me was a joint winner in the kuril dhagun Indigenous Writing Competition. I couldn't believe it. I had some wonderful editors working on it with me. And I can't remember how long it took but we got it together and it was handed over to the amazing Magabala family in Broome. And that's where it was published.

So yeah, it was a huge… And it went fast. It went really, really fast. And I was wrapped up in a whole lot of things and words and sayings and trying to understand the industry that I had no idea about. So it was… It was really interesting and I'm very grateful for it.

Allison

So the story of Grace Beside Me, when you went to that workshop, you had been working on something at that point? Like you had obviously gone to that workshop with something written, had you? Or…

Sue

Yeah.

Allison

Or you went to the workshop and started from scratch?

Sue

From scratch. From scratch. I had something totally different. It wasn't good. It was a totally different story. And it was, you know, I think a week after Nan came to me and then I was off with that story.

Allison

Okay.

Sue

And it actually just blew up from there. It was an easy write for me. I'm not saying it was great, because we needed some editing. But the story was there. And I knew it was strong but never expected it to be published.

Allison

And so the story that you had written before that, were you someone who was always writing different things? Or was that a different story that you'd been working on for a long time so when Rose said to you, oh no, this is crap, you were slightly heartbroken?

Sue

She'll say, I didn't say it was crap!

So at the time, and I think this is what happens with me, I can read a book, let's say it was an old English book, next minute I have a voice that's old English.

Allison

Right.

Sue

And that's exactly what happened. And she picked up on it straight away. Sue, what are you doing?

Allison

So it wasn't your voice that she was seeing?

Sue

It wasn't my voice.

Allison

Right.

Sue

And she was very interested in what I had to say. So I disagreed with her at the time. But thankfully I listened and that's when Nan came through. So, yeah, she was right on the money.

Allison

Okay. So once you actually tapped into your own stories and your own voice, that's when it really took off for you?

Sue

Yeah. Absolutely.

Allison

Okay.

Sue

And at times, writers will understand this, anyone I guess connected to being creative would understand it, when you're connected you just connect. And before you know it, it's written itself in some degree.

Allison

Yeah.

Sue

I'm not saying all of it. But there are parts, and I remember writing, and I looked up and you know, two hours had passed and the boys were ready to be picked up from school.

Allison

Yep.

Sue

At that time. So yeah, it was an easy write at times.

Allison

Okay. So you said that once it kind of blew up for you like that, you then had to jump into this whole world of publishing that you didn't know anything about. Was there anything about that publishing process that really surprised you? Like as far as it went?

Sue

A lot of things surprised me. I guess, I mean, it's beautiful collaborating with beautiful people. I love being pushed and pulled. That's how I work, that's how my work improves. I need to be pushed and pulled. So that was great.

The editing part was interesting because at the time, electronic editing had just come in. So that was, you know, for old girl here, that was a big thing for me to understand! How to… Well, to understand what to do there. But I got through it. So that was a good thing.

So the main thing was the editing. Yeah. It was lots of things to learn from that. But I must say, I'm better for it. I'm not saying I'm great at what I do, but I certainly learnt a lot from it.

Allison

So was writing something that you had always done? Because I know you do have a visual arts side to you as well. Was writing something that you always did? Or was there a time where the visual art side took precedence?

Sue

No, writing was never a big part of my make up at all. Storytelling, absolutely. But not writing. Visual art, I just, you know, anything to do with my hands, making, weaving, painting, drawing, all of those things. I just love those. But everything that I made had a story and that was important. Everything that I made had a story.

So I guess it was a natural progression to actually move into writing. It was just, I was doing it all along anyway. So…

Allison

And then you became drawn to actually the written form of the story?

Sue

That's right. That's right. That's when I thought, well, I don't have to try and sell this painting with this story. I can simplify it by just telling the story because that, you know, the story has always been the biggest thing for me.

Allison

Okay.

Sue

Visually, I love beautiful things. Don't get me wrong there. But it's the story that's most important.

Allison

So how do the two aspects of that, of your creativity work together these days? I think you said before we started the interview that the writing has definitely taken over from that visual stuff these days.

Sue

That's right. I mean, it's still there. You know, I could pick up… Like, I'm working on a basket at the moment. And I could pick up a brush at any time. It's just that the story, it's just… It just weighs bigger at the moment, and that's what I'm working with.

The other things are definitely still there. And I dare say after I'm finished the story that I'm working on at the moment, I will definitely get back into something else working with my hands more so.

Allison

Okay. So all right, let's talk about your writing process, then. Do you write every day? Are you someone who plans a story out in advance? Do you just kind of like, as with Nan, do you just get a voice in your head and start writing a story? How does the process work for you?

Sue

I'm not a planner. I have the basis of the story in my head. And then it just builds from there in my head. And sometimes, most times, it will build for up to a year before I even put pen to paper. And I always put pen to paper first, I don't just throw it down, start working on a computer. It's important…

Allison

Oh! So you write it out longhand first?

Sue

Yeah.

Allison

Okay.

Sue

No. Just to start with. Just notes. And then maybe just the start of the story or the end of the story. Maybe it's the middle of the story. But I have to write longhand first. And then once I… I don't know. It's just an energy thing. Once I feel it's right, then I can turn on the computer and away I go.

Allison

Okay. And how do you know that you've got to that point? Like, when you know enough about the story? Is that what it is?

Sue

Yeah. When I know enough. And don't forget, you know, it has been percolating in my head most times for about a year. So by the time I get to writing something down, a lot of things are already there. And I usually have an exercise book and I just jot lots of anything to do with that story down in that book, including the colour. Every story that I write has a colour attached to it.

Allison

Right.

Sue

I know you think that's weird.

Allison

No. I'm always interested.

Sue

For some reason, every story I have has a colour. And it has a tone, a certain tone. So if I can keep that colour, that tone… And every story also has a song. Or a piece of music. So if I can keep that tone, that song, that colour locked down, hopefully by the end of the story, it's all flowing. It's all good.

Allison

So what colour was Grace Beside Me?

Sue

I knew you'd ask me that!

Allison

Of course I'm gonna ask you that!

Sue

It was green. It was green. The colour was green. The song, for goodness sakes, I can't remember the song, because I'm about six stories in now with other songs.

Allison

Well, you probably don't. That's fine. But the colour was green. Okay.

Sue

Clair de lune. Clair de lune.

Allison

Okay.

Sue

The classical piece, yeah.

Allison

Okay, cool.

Sue

And you'd think, gee whiz, that wouldn't, that doesn't seem like that would go. But in my head and in my heart, it did go. It does go. So that's what I work with.

Allison

All right, so you also… Obviously, Grace Beside Me has been on the television, which is very exciting.

Sue

I know!

Allison

Was that strange? Like, to watch these characters that you'd invented come to life?

Sue

You know, I still don't, I still can't deal with it that well. It's so overwhelming for me still. It's still very overwhelming.

Allison

Did you watch it?

Sue

I did watch it. And I have all of the episodes. The beautiful Lois and Dena, the producers, sent me the actual full season through to me, which is wonderful. I have watched them all through. It's just very surreal, I tell you. It's crazy surreal.

Allison

And did you work on the script for that, as well?

Sue

Yes, I worked on two scripts. So I was co-writer on two scripts with the wonderful Sam Carroll. She's the script editor.

Allison

How exciting.

Sue

And yeah, we worked together well. She's brilliant. And I learned a lot from her. Yeah. Very interested in writing for screen.

Allison

How did you find that process differed from creating the story in the first place?

Sue

Wow. Um… It's simplified. It's simplified. The writing is simplified. But you have to say everything possible within a short, within a sentence sort of thing.

Allison

Yeah.

Sue

Say as much as you can without going on and on and on. Which I tend to do. I'm quite good at that. I'm quite gifted!

Allison

Haha.

Sue

So yeah. Sam had a, she… She was really helpful. And was really lovely. Yeah.

Allison

Did you… Do you think that the visual aspect of your brain came in handy when it came to actually creating a script? In that sense of having to visualise what was going on?

Sue

Absolutely. Absolutely. And I encourage all writers to think about scriptwriting. Because you just don't know if you may be good at it or not. And it's surprising. It's a wonderful medium to work in. Yeah. Just go for it. Absolutely. You'd have to give it a try, at least.

But yeah, I find it reasonably easy. I can see things. It's easy for me to do in that regard.

Allison

Okay.

Sue

I'm not saying, again, I'm not saying I'm good at it. But I enjoy it. I enjoy it. And I think I get it, to a degree. I think I get it.

Allison

Okay. Well, let's talk about Brontide, which I actually found a really interesting book. As I said, Book Boy read it, couldn't decide if it was novel or nonfiction. As it does read very true. It also almost reads like a script. Like, it's got that script feel to it, to me.

Sue

That's right.

Allison

So what's the story behind that book?

Sue

The story… These boys… I know this is another weird thing about me. My characters come to me, and they always come to me with a story. So Brontide boys, the Brontide lads came to me with their story. And I knew it was going to be full on. I didn't expect it to be so full on.

Allison

Yeah. Tell us a bit about… For people who haven't seen it or read it, like we have, tell them what it's about. What is Brontide all about?

Sue

Okay. It's a ___ four boys. Four boys living in Taralune, which is a little coastal, wee coastal town up from Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. And they just get up to no good. Which, you know, we all did. I shouldn't say we all. Okay, so I did! Haha.

And they played around with a term they call tarping, or tarpin, where they jump in the back of somebody's ute without the owner knowing. Getting under the tarp and seeing how far they can go. They have to go to the next stop. So sometimes the next stop could be, you know ten minutes up the road. Sometimes the next stop could be two hours down the road. So you just don't know where you're going to get to. And that's all part of the bet, their dare. So the dare. So that's what they were playing with.

And it sort of works from there. But everybody's story, the four lads in the book, everybody has their own story. So you learn who they are, who they really are.

Allison

And is it… Like it's the kind of thing that… So where did the idea of it come from? Like where did you, did you hear about tarping and then think, I need to write a story about this? Or did you meet a character in your mind? I mean, how did it all come together?

Sue

So hubby and I were returning… We live in Eumundi, so we were returning from Noosa one day. And we actually drive, at the time it was a Navara. So we had a tarp over the back. But we were following a Hilux ute. And it had a tarp over the back. And wherever we go, we have this crazy game where somebody says something and we start a story from it.

Allison

Okay.

Sue

And the other one bounces off it and we go from there. We bounce backwards and forwards and before we know it we've got a story and, you know… I know it's a bit silly. But sometimes…

Allison

Sounds great.

Sue

Yeah.

Allison

Good game!

Sue

Well, it worked! So hubby said, you know, I wonder what's under the tarp? Cos we were following, you know, this Hilux ute. And I said, well, maybe it's a person. And he said, well, would it be a male or a female? And I said, I don't think a girl would be under there. I'm pretty sure it'd be a young fella, cheeky bugger.

And that's how it all started. And then hubby, I can't remember if it was hubby or I who said, but why? Why would they get under the tarp? Why would they get under the tarp?

And that's where we agreed that it would be because of a bet or a dare.

Allison

Yeah, okay. That's great. So it's an interesting story. It does, as you say, the four voices are very important. The characterisation of those boys, and the fact that it comes through in their voices, in their stories, was that difficult to get right? Like, in the sense of making sure that those voices were all… Because the difficulty you have when you've got four people who are essentially from the same town and stuff is that making those voices different is actually a real challenge. So that you know who's talking. So was that aspect of it difficult to get right?

Sue

Well, to start with it was, because it was, to start with it was actually written… No, let me go back a bit. It was actually written as it was now and for some reason the voices were reasonably clear for me. I had to tweak it here and there just to make it really work, that the voices were really separate. But mostly, they were there to start with. Because I knew these kids. I knew enough about them over thinking about it for a year that I'd written down everything afterwards and I knew who they were. I could feel them. I knew the song, I knew the colour. I just knew, I knew who they were.

So I actually took… I asked somebody to have a look at it and they suggested that I actually write it into normal book form, format.

Allison

Yep.

Sue

I tried it. I actually did it. I actually, yeah, I actually rewrote it back into normal format. And it, gee, it was boring as. So I said, nup. This is not gonna work. You know when it doesn't fit.

Allison

Yeah, I do.

Sue

And so that's when I returned to what I knew and what the boys wanted, I believe. And they were much happier and so was I.

Mind you, Sue wasn't… Because I actually have myself in the book. I don't know…

Allison

Yeah.

Sue

I wasn't in the book to start with. It was another girl. I think her name was Jenny, god love her, Jenny.

Allison

Poor Jenny.

Sue

And Jenny was boring too. Because she just wasn't game enough to challenge the boys. And when the boys challenged her, she, well, she cried and ran away. So I thought I need something, I need to change this. And I thought, because these little buggers, you know, they were actually, can I say shit? They were actually giving me the shits. So I thought, who am I going to put in there that's not going to take their shit. So that's when I thought, well, how about I just throw myself in? And that's how I came to be one of the characters.

I don't know if it was a good move or not, but anyway, there you go. That's how I came to…

Allison

Well, I think that's where it got confusing for Joe. I mean, it was actually a really good, you know, touch. Because that's where he got confused about whether it was real or whether it wasn't. Because it was written like it was you there doing the thing and having these conversations. So I actually think it was a great idea to put yourself in there.

But are you, so given the characterisations and things, are you like me, are you someone who just spends a lot of time listening to the people around talking? So that you do pick up on the different dynamics of the ways that people speak and the different languages that they use and how they talk and interact with each other? Are you a secret eavesdropper like I am? Or is it just me out there?

Sue

Oh bloody oath I am. Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's made me a better person for it. Because I can listen to people now, I can actually, I don't hear, I don't just stop and hear, I stop and I listen. And I think that's a good thing. And I think that needed changing for me.

So yeah. That's what I do. Same as you.

Allison

Tuning in. Tuning in, I call it.

Sue

Yeah, that's it.

Allison

All right. So you've written three novels to date, is that right? You've got the two, you've got Grace Beside Me, Brontide, and then you've also got a children's novel, is that correct?

Sue

Yeah. Caught Me a Wish. Yeah.

Allison

Excellent. So are you working on something at present? And is it in the same sort of ballpark? Children / YA stuff?

Sue

No. It's for anybody, actually. And it's a feature film, my first feature film.

Allison

Oh!

Sue

Yeah. And I'm really excited about it. It's been a long time coming because like I said, I think a lot before I even hit the page.

But this is, it's really important. I pushed down ___ like most things I do at the moment. A lot of, you know, some people will be happy with me, some may not. That's okay. It's the story that's important. So..

Allison

Okay. And is that as much as you're allowed to tell us? You can't tell us much about what it's about or anything?

Sue

It's about a woman dealing with her big life. And she's a had a very big life. And it's… There's dark bits in there. It's a road film.

Allison

Right.

Sue

It's a road film. It's hard to say a lot without saying anything.

Allison

That's okay. I won't…

Sue

But it is a road film. And it's a reconnection with her great-grandson, actually. And it's a reconnection with herself. So she finds herself without sounding a bit of, I don't know, that just sounds a bit, I don't know… What does it sound like?

Allison

I don't know. I think we're all searching for ourselves, really, aren't we?

Sue

I know!

Allison

Aren't we? All right. So switching gears a little bit, what kinds of things do you do promote your work? Like, are you someone who is active on the internet, social media, that kind of stuff? Are you doing a lot of speaking? Or are you sort of like writing your stuff and putting it out there and then getting on with the next thing?

Sue

Yeah. I write my stuff, I put it out there. If I'm asked to do something like the Brisbane Writers' Festival, or something like that, if I'm able to I go, I do it. I'm not on Facebook or Instagram or any of those things, on Twitter. I think it would mess me up too much if I was. I prefer to put all of my energy into story and my characters. So that's just more important for me.

Allison

Do you enjoy the speaking stuff when you do it? Or is it something that you really have to kind of steel yourself to go and do?

Sue

Oh my lord, I'm just… I'm a shocker. I… It's not joy for me beforehand. But once I'm out there and I'm doing it, yeah, I loosen up and it's better. I have a problem with… I have a few problems, probably! But I do have a problem with remembering things. So for me to actually get up for, you know, 40 minutes, 45 minutes and speak just out to everybody and remember everything is a no go zone.

Allison

Okay. Yeah.

Sue

I just can't recall information. And I know there's others out there who are like me. So I read. I do the best I can and read and show some works, some short films and things like that, and hopefully, and put it all together that way.

You know, it would be wonderful if I was able to just speak normal, like a normal person. But I just can't do it! So… They have to put up with me reading!

Allison

But I think that that's just about learning to play to your strengths, isn't it?

Sue

That's it.

Allison

If you understand how you best work, and then you put together a presentation that goes to those strengths. I think that that's all any of us can do, really.

Sue

Yeah. That's right. Yeah. So that's what I do. You know, like it or not, that's what I do. And you know, it works, so, yeah.

Allison

Fair enough. All right. So we're gonna finish up today Sue with our top three tips for writers. So what have you got for us? What are your suggestions for what people aspiring, emerging, wannabe writers out there, any of them, what tips have you got for them?

Sue

Okay. So read, read, read. You can't write without reading.

The next one is… And to read beyond what you normally would read. You know, read comics, read, just read everything. And you don't have to finish the book, just read something. Scripts, movie scripts, just have a play and read.

The next thing is listen and to really listen. Yep. Yep.

Allison

How do you do that? Like how do you, because you know, the thing is, I think everyone would say, yeah no, but I'm a really good listener. But in actual fact, most of us are not actually good listeners.

Sue

Yeah.

Allison

So what do you reckon as a writer, how do you tune into that? How do you tune into listening well?

Sue

Okay. So… For me, my… I've learned a lot about listening and not being triggered. This is a big one. And I'm, you know, probably people won't be happy with what I'm going to say here either. But it's so easy to be triggered by things, by what people say. And that's when you turn off.

Allison

Yeah.

Sue

You close down. So what I had to do is to listen and not be triggered. Or be triggered, let your ego go, let it listen, and let it get pissed off. I'm saying some things that probably I shouldn't. Let it get angry, but keep your ears open. And let it go. And eventually you'll get triggered but that time where you get triggered and you want to close down, it won't happen anymore. You'll just stay open. everything will stay open. And you continue to listen and take in the information. Because that's where the gifts are. If you can do that, if you can break through and not be triggered, that's where the gifts are.

Allison

Okay. That's very good advice. All right, and your third tip?

Sue

Third tip is step outside your comfort zone. Yeah. Yeah. Challenge yourself.

Allison

Try something different.

Sue

Try something different. Yeah. Listen to someone different.

Allison

Listen to someone different!

Sue

You know, if you don't agree with someone, don't… Once again, it's easy to just turn off. But if you put yourself in the position and you are actually there and you have to listen, or they come to you, you don't walk away, you just listen. Yeah. So step outside your comfort zone and do something, challenge yourself.

Allison

Excellent. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Sue. It's been absolutely lovely having a chat with you. I really appreciate it. Good luck with that feature film! I'm hoping that we will hear some more about that in the future. And we will very much look forward to seeing what it is that you come up with next.

Sue

Thank you so much, Allison.

 

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