Ep 317 Meet Kirsten Alexander, author of ‘Riptides’.

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In Episode 317 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Kirsten Alexander, author of Riptides. Discover scientifically proven ways to beat writer's block and Allison has an exciting fundraiser announcement (and teaser for her next book). Plus, we have 3 copies of Platform Seven by Louise Doughty to give away.

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Show Notes

[EVENT] So You Want To Be A Writer? Join me for this fundraiser

10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

Valerie Khoo designed this Rooster as a public art installation as part of the Sydney Lunar Festival by the City of Sydney.

Writer in Residence

Kirsten Alexander

Kirsten Alexander is the author of two novels, Half Moon Lake (Penguin Random House, Aust & NZ, 2019; retitled Lost Boy Found Grand Central/Hachette, US & Canada, 2020) and Riptides (PRH, 2020). She is writing her third novel.

She is also co-founder of short story site Storymart.

Kirsten has worked as a nonfiction book editor, copywriter (inhouse four years for Aesop, also for Crumpler, M.L. Vintage, House + Universe), and occasional article writer (for the Age, the Daily BeastNotebook, the Melbourne Weekly, Atticus Review and many others). She’s worked as a reviewer for ABC Radio National’s The Book Show, a magazine section editorand content manager for several websites.

She was co-founder and editor of the three-volume digital journal Open Field.

Kirsten was born in San Francisco, raised in Brisbane, and lives in Melbourne with her partner, two sons and two dogs.

Follow Kirsten on Twitter

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(If you click the link above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

Competition

WIN ‘Platform Seven’ by Louise Doughty

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Kirsten.

Kirsten

Hi Valerie. It's nice to talk to you.

Valerie

Congratulations on your book, Riptides. For those listeners who haven't yet got their hands on a copy, can you tell us what it's about?

Kirsten

Sure. Um, it's a novel set in Brisbane, mostly in 1974. It opens with a car crash. And I won't give away too many spoilers. But there are two people in the car, a brother and a sister, both in their mid-20s, and they inadvertently force another car off the road and kill the pregnant driver. That's in the first few pages, so so far so not spoilery.

Valerie

Yes.

Kirsten

And then after that, they have to deal with the ramifications of their actions, which they try to keep secret. And as we all know, keeping secrets is fraught, they don't stay secret for long, and they eat at you, and maybe you should never have kept them secret in the first place. So that's the kind of moral territory.

And it's set in the mid-70s, which were a really interesting time in Australia, especially in Queensland. There were several natural disasters, there was a very radical Federal government in place, there was a lot of cultural change going on. And that's the kind of, not just the backdrop, but the life of the characters.

Valerie

So you live in Melbourne and you were certainly not around the age of 25 in 1974.

Kirsten

No. I am old, but not that old.

Valerie

Why Brisbane? And why 1974 in particularly? Like I know that you've mentioned that it was a time of great change in Australia. But what drew you to want to set a novel there?

Kirsten

The Brisbane part is because I spent my childhood there. I was actually born in San Francisco, and I live in Melbourne now. And I've lived in London as well, and a couple of other places. But my formative childhood years, right up til the end of Uni, was spent in Brisbane.

And it's a place I have a lot of fondness for and it also drives me nuts. It's like any other place in Australia and for that alone, the fact I know it really well and it's kind of quirky and… A lot when on there in slightly different ways than happened elsewhere in Australia. So the location fascinates me and I know it.

And the era, because um… I guess because I… The 70s were unusual and I think there were a lot of things that happened in the 60s and 70s that actually we should probably revisit. For example, it was a time of great environmentalism and there were a lot of people interested in the Australian bush and stories and identity, water conservation. There were a lot of naturalists on TV, which seems really weird now. Bush people.

And then in the 80s we kind of deep dived into capitalism and forgot all of the things we'd learned in those earlier decades. And I look at what's going on now in our country and think, I wonder if we hadn't have gone off the rails, where we'd be now?

So in my head, I'm kind of connecting the 70s with now, which is probably a big leap. But I did it anyway.

Valerie

And what did you do to get into the vibe and the spirit and the environment and the mindset of the 70s?

Kirsten

Well, the internet can be a terrible place, as we all know. But it's also a treasure trove of old ABC news footage. So I looked at a lot of that. I was able to access old magazines, and old newspapers. I watched some old 70s films. The late part of the 1970s especially was a heyday for Australian cinema. So even though my book's set in 1974, there were a lot of incredible films in the 70s. Picnic at Hanging Rock was one. And there were a whole bunch.

Valerie

But that's a period piece, though. You know what I mean?

Kirsten

Sorry?

Valerie

That's a period piece. Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Kirsten

It is. Sorry, sorry, that was a bad example. In fact, films set in the actual 70s didn't always say great things about Australia, but they were enlightening. Barry McKenzie was one example of a hyper unrealistic Australian character. But there was just a lot, a lot that I could dive into to see what people were wearing, what they were eating, what kind of slang they used. And I listened to a lot of music.

Valerie

Yes. Yes. Of course. Now, how did the idea for this book form? Was there a lightbulb moment? Or did it form over time? In terms of the actual premise and plot.

Kirsten

There was no lightbulb moment. It would be good if I had a story like that, but I don't. I think it was a combination of wanting to write about Brisbane and thinking the 70s was an interesting time and remembering that there was a big flood then in Brisbane. In early 1974 there was a massive flood which I don't think they've ever had one as big since. And thinking about the weather and change and family, because the business of keeping secrets and families and who do you trust is fascinating to me.

Valerie

And this is your second novel, because your first one was Half Moon Lake. When did you know you wanted to write novels?

Kirsten

Um… I'm not sure I did. It was more a question of life allowing me the space to try something new. I had no desire at all through my 20s and 30s to try anything like this.

Valerie

Really?

Kirsten

And worked hard and raised little kids. And it simply wasn't an option. To be honest, when my youngest son developed a chronic illness, I found myself at home a lot and the idea just kind of filtered into my brain that I might try working on a project that I could do from home, since I wasn't able to work in an office at that point.

Valerie

So can you…

Kirsten

So circumstances, I guess!

Valerie

Yeah. That's great. I mean, can you give us, just so people have some context, can you give us just a really quick potted history of your career up until that point? So they just know what you did before?

Kirsten

Oof. This will be very boring. I've only ever worked with words. I've worked as a subeditor and a copywriter and a freelance writer for various magazines in London and in Melbourne. I worked as a nonfiction book editor in Melbourne for about ten years, a while ago. I worked as the fulltime copywriter for a skincare company in house for four years. And there's only so much you can say about moisturiser, so that had to end.

Valerie

Yeah.

Kirsten

Even though it was very nice people, I worked with. I've done some freelance work on radio. Just book reviews and other bits and pieces. And I worked as a content manager on three different websites. Some websites don't last that long. I made a digital magazine for Care Australia, three issues of that, just one a year. And before my son became ill, I started a short story website that is currently on hold.

Valerie

That's not boring at all!

Kirsten

It's pretty boring. It's all words. I'd like to say I've been a painter on the Riviera or something.

Valerie

I think that… Okay, so you've mainly worked with words. And through that time it never occurred to you to write a novel?

Kirsten

I'm not sure if it's the case with other people who work as editors or copywriters, but the last thing in the world I wanted to do when I got home was write.

Valerie

Wow.

Kirsten

I actually had… And again, this maybe… Everyone's path in life is different. This was just my experience that that was my work. That was my paid work. And when I get home, I definitely didn't want to do it. I needed to not be in paid work with words in order for me to think about being creative with them.

Valerie

Yeah, right. Okay. So when this idea… Can you give us an idea of the gestation of this book? Like, when you started thinking, oh, I want to do something about secrets and family and Brisbane and the 70s to actually putting your fingers to the keyboard to the end of your first draft. How long that took.

Kirsten

Years. Years.

Valerie

Really?

Kirsten

And I don't believe I have any advice to give other writers. I really don't. Except for… Except I'll be their cheering squad if ever they need anyone to talk them through issues of failure or resilience or persistence. Because those are the only things I know about.

This book took years. Not years to write, but years to come to light of day. I started it maybe 2012, I think.

Valerie

Wow.

Kirsten

Started it, did a draft. Stopped. Gave up on it. Life got in the way. Did another draft. Mucked around a little bit just thinking, oh this is going nowhere, it doesn't feel right, I haven't got a spine to the story.

And then when I did manage to pitch it to publishers, it was met with wholehearted rejection because the publishers very kindly said, Brisbane in the 1970s is not marketable. It's just not interesting. No one cares.

Valerie

It's not the French Riviera!

Kirsten

That's right. What a mistake I made investing years of my life telling this story.

So I said this before, and it's getting a bit stalky of me, so I have to stop, but I think I owe Trent Dalton a big thanks. I've never met Trent Dalton. But his book was set in Brisbane and made people realise it was kind of, there could be a popular interest in stories set in that particular city.

There's been loads of, and there still are, loads of amazing writers from Brisbane. But up until his book came along, I think it was a bit like setting a story in Adelaide. It didn't really… it didn't really necessary find a big audience.

So when the lovely publisher at Penguin Random House read Half Moon Lake, which I'd written, having completely given up of this book ever finding a publisher, she read Half Moon Lake, said she wanted to buy it, and asked if I had anything else. I showed her this and said, look, I won't expect you to like it. Nobody else has. And she said, oh, I'll take that for sure.

Valerie

Wow.

Kirsten

Which surprised me. Because I hadn't changed a word.

Valerie

Yeah, right. Okay. So when you were writing, I understand that obviously it took years and obviously you must have done it in fragments. Or was there a period that was a more intense period where you decided, I'm going to spend the next month and lock myself away and finish and write a whole heap. Or something like that? Or did you write it in bits?

Kirsten

Um… A bit of both. But you're quite right. There was a period of time where I thought, I'm going to knuckle down and read this from start to finish and try and make it the very best I can. And I would sit at my desk for hours on end, or go to our local library, which I love very much, especially because I've never asked them what their internet password is and never will. So when I'm in the library, I can't access anything. I have no choice but to write or read.

But there was a period when I did that, and it might have been three months… Three months where I sat with it every single day. And it's quite discomforting. Because every day I would sit with it and question that very activity. Why am I sitting with this? I'm not sure it's any good. These characters don't make sense. I should just be looking for work instead.

So it was an uncomfortable activity that I'm sure lots of your listeners will understand. Moments of just losing all faith and thinking, well I may as well just get to a finish line, I'm this far through.

Valerie

Right. So is that what kept you going? Just, I may as well get to the finish line? Because three months is a long time to sit there and wonder whether you're doing the right thing.

Kirsten

Oh, and longer after that. Because even when an editor, and it's gold to have an editor give you feedback, and when an editor does give feedback, then I questioned myself all over again. Thinking, look at all these things he's found that I should have found myself.

So it's a difficult thing to do, to sit by oneself with words that are invented, that no one's asked you to write, that no one may ever publish, and just stick at it.

Valerie

So what was your goal during that three months on a daily basis? Was it actually written and you were trying to make it better? Or were you trying to reach a word count?

Kirsten

Oh, um… I am in awe of people who watch their daily word count. I don't. I find that very intimidating. So I'm sure there are some days, again, I don't count, but there are days when I know I write very little and days when I think, gee, that seems like an awful lot of pages.

So I didn't watch the wordcount. I just knew that I had to get from page one to the part that was the very ending of the story. And I just chipped away at it. It was a very worker like approach that I took to it. Unpaid worker-like approach.

Valerie

And so when you were actually writing the first draft, did you already know what was going to happen? Did you plot it out? Or did you just see what happened as it came out of your fingers?

Kirsten

I did the latter.

Valerie

Really?

Kirsten

I wasn't exactly sure where the story was going. I knew there was a car crash and family and where it was set. But at the moment, I've started on another book and I have plotted it out to within an inch of its life.

Valerie

Oh really! Completely opposite?

Kirsten

I've done the opposite. And I don't know if that's just because I did make quite a hash of the first one. It really did take a long time. And if I had have been more methodical, it might have been quicker. Or maybe this more recent story just lends itself to me plotting it out. I'm not sure.

Valerie

Right. And so with this one, with Riptides, where you didn't plot it out, did you enjoy the unfolding, so to speak? Or was that painful?

Kirsten

Depended on the day. I've written it, it's written in two characters' voices. Not exactly alternating chapters, but some are told by the brother and some by the sister. And they have different natures and different voices and do different things in the story.

So there were times where it felt just easy, for example, to write the brother's bit where he's surfing in Bali. I thought, I've never done that, but that feels like a really easy day's work. And other times where I thought, no, I need to actually stop and think about how they'd be feeling about this terrible thing they've done. And then it was quite unpleasant.

Valerie

And so what was the most challenging thing about writing this book? And what was the most rewarding thing? And please, don't say, you know, getting to the end.

Kirsten

I think that the most challenging thing is being an unpublished writer with no contract, and no expressions of interest, and still sitting down at the desk every day and thinking, I'll just go a little bit further. I'll just write some more. And see where this takes me.

Because I don't think I'm the world's most confident person. And it really is an act of great confidence. So that sat poorly with me, to just keep going.

And the reward is… Um… Knowing in a strange way that it frees me to do it again. Writing a third book now, I don't have a contract for this book. I haven't discussed it with a publisher. And it may go nowhere. But I think, I've done this before. I know I can do this. However badly, I can do this.

Valerie

And so it sounds like you were writing them, this one and the previous one, Half Moon Lake, at the same time.

Kirsten

No.

Valerie

No?

Kirsten

No, I shelved Riptides.

Valerie

Okay.

Kirsten

I thought, the publishers, like I said, had been kind but very clear they weren't interested. So I thought, well, I just have to listen to what I'm hearing and put that on a shelf to gather dust and try again.

And at that point, I was home a lot because of my son, and knew I wasn't in a position to take a fulltime job. So I thought, well, I'll try again. Try better.

Valerie

And since the feedback was, you know, Brisbane in the 70s was not the most exciting, you know, that was their feedback, did you think, oh well, I'll take this premise and I'll set it in the French Riviera, or wherever? You know what I mean? Just change the setting.

Kirsten

No. No, I really did honestly just give up on that story. And by happenstance, I heard a podcast on NPR that told the story of the missing boy Bobby Dunbar in Louisiana in the 1910s. And it was the nonfiction account, the factual account. And it veered off into territory that didn't, that's not what I'm interested in. But the kernel of that story set me off on the second book. So it was quite by happenstance.

Valerie

Wow. And so now when you're writing this next, the third one, what kind of writing routine do you have? Do you have set days? Or set goals? Or anything like that? What's your writing process and routine?

Kirsten

Currently there's none. And I'm looking forward to there being one again. Riptides was released yesterday. And so my lovely publicist at Penguin Random House has me speaking to a lot of people like you and writing articles and letting people know the book exists, basically, and talking about it.

So for this month, I haven't, I won't be doing any writing at all. It's frustrating.

Valerie

But when you will, what's a typical routine?

Kirsten

Then I make sure there's at least three days that are untouched. I'm hoping to keep this. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I like to go to a local library and turn my phone to silent, unless my family desperately needs me. I sit in the library with no internet, surrounded by books, and other people who are working. And I stay for as long as I can bear it.

And the library doesn't open til 10…

Valerie

But typically, how long is that?

Kirsten

It could be… It could be up until two or so in the afternoon. Three, sometimes.

Valerie

Okay.

Kirsten

It doesn't open til 10. So I know a lot of people get up at the crack of dawn and start work right away. I don't do that. But from ten til, I don't know, three, maybe.

Valerie

Okay.

Kirsten

Which is not always productive, but I force myself to just sit and see what happens.

Valerie

And how long do you think this will take you, if you commit to your three days in the library?

Kirsten

I think this one's going to take me a wee bit longer because I'm going to have to do more thinking and more research than I had initially thought. But I love doing that, so it's not a bad thing. So I would hope halfway through next year to be done and dusted. But don't hold me to it.

Valerie

Is this one set in the past?

Kirsten

No, this one's set right now. But one of the characters has a backstory that's set at Greenham Common. I'm not sure if that is a place you've heard of?

Valerie

No.

Kirsten

No? Greenham Common, and I won't say too much, but this is a real live place in the UK where there was a women's peace camp that lasted for 19 years. And it's an incredibly amazing bunch of women. I swear to god, if men had've done this, we would all learn about it at school.

There was an American military base that a lot of local women objected to on the grounds that it was quite dangerous and shouldn't have been in the English countryside. And they surrounded the perimeter and camped there in very rough and cold conditions. Some of them brought their kids with them. And they shut it down. And it took them 19 years.

Valerie

Wow. Okay.

Kirsten

Yes. So I'm reading a lot about that. And that is one of the character's back stories, but it's not the main spine of the book. But I'm looking forward to doing more reading and research. That's fun, I like that.

Valerie

And when you do your research, do you do it in that library that you go sit in? Or do you do other things?

Kirsten

I read in bed at night. And I read in the library. And I listen to as much as I possibly can on my headphones when I walk my dogs, because it can be really boring walking the same streets. So I listen to a lot of audio books. They're gold.

Valerie

So when you listen to audiobooks, actually, do you listen to the genre in which you are writing? Or do you specifically try and listen to other kinds?

Kirsten

In this instance, as soon as I can, I'll be listening to a lot of nonfiction. And I also would like this time, because I want to set the story in Yorkshire, and I'm not from there, so I need to listen to people's voices. So I might see if I can find a local radio station or something.

Valerie

What do you think… This book, as you've said, is about, well, it's about many things, but one of the themes is secrets. And what was it in your life or in your brain or the story that entered your consciousness that made you interested in secrets?

Kirsten

I have to tread lightly here, because not every story is mine to tell. Maybe none of them are mine to tell, I don't know. My parents come from the United States. My father is from Los Angeles, an area called Watts, that is known now I think as being a fairly dangerous area. When he grew up, it was quite a Hispanic and African American area, even though he's white. So he speaks fluent Spanish and grew up quite working class. He married my mother who is quite middle class. And they left the country with two young children, no work prospects, and no money, when we were very young. And they won't discuss it.

Valerie

Oh.

Kirsten

So I have heard various reasons about why they might have chosen to come to Australia. Everyone here speaks English, most people speak English. My mother insisted on that, because she does not speak Spanish. But I guess my own family has some unanswered questions so I've always been keenly aware that not everything is always on the surface.

Valerie

Wow. Are you… Do you explore that?

Kirsten

I think my parents… They're still alive. And I need to be very careful about…

Valerie

Yeah.

Kirsten

…like I said, telling their stories. But it certainly sits in my head. I think about it. I have collected as much information as I can. At some point, I'd like to put it on paper, when it's okay to do so.

Valerie

Yes. Oh my goodness. That is going to be absolutely a fascinating journey for you. And a fascinating story.

Kirsten

Maybe they could write it down, I'm not sure.

Valerie

Oh my god. And that's going to be a fascinating story if you document your journey. Okay. There's a whole other, whole other book and everything…

Kirsten

Sorry, long answer there. Yeah.

Valerie

…waiting to come out. Okay, so now that you have moved into the world of writing novels, are you also doing the other work with words that you were doing in the past?

Kirsten

Um… Not right now. But at some point I will, yes. Partly because I enjoy it. And freelance work can be really satisfying if you have the right clients to work for. I'd love to get my short story site up. But there's just a few glitches with that. But I still love the idea of having an online short story site. And so many writers have trusted with beautiful material that I'd love to make public.

Valerie

Great. And so you are planning on basically combining your career as a novelist with your career as a freelance writer?

Kirsten

I'd like to. And again, I'm sure all of your listeners understand what a tricky juggle it is, unless you're a billionaire, yes, I'm going to have to tap into other sources of income for sure.

Valerie

Sure. And finally, what are your top three tips for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position where you are one day?

Kirsten

Oh! First of all, you don't want to be in my position. There are much better, there are many other better positions than this one. But three… I don't have any advice.

Valerie

I'm sure people would disagree, but anyway.

Kirsten

Okay. The advice again is more on the emotional range of things rather than the practical range of things. Which would be to persist, even when you might doubt yourself, just persist. Get to the finish line. Because you can't pitch an unfinished object. So get to the finish line. Persist.

And try to look after yourself. And not let doubters or negative comments get under your skin. They're very unhelpful and you don't need them.

And the third one would be to not think about your age.

Valerie

Oh, okay.

Kirsten

Whether you're too young or too old or whatever. I think often, maybe things are changing, I'm not sure, but I've got two grown kids so I thought for a while, I'm too old to do this. Like, I should have done this when I was in my 20s. But like I said, my 20s didn't allow that.

But you're not too young and you're not too old. If you've got a story you want to tell, then please tell it. Because I'm a reader and I'd like to hear it.

Valerie

Wonderful. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today. And best of luck with Riptides.

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