Ep 322 Meet Susan Francis, author of the memoir ‘The Love that Remains’.

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In Episode 322 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Susan Francis, author of the memoir The Love that Remains. Learn how to avoid social media burnout as a writer. Allison shares the cover reveal for her next book. Plus, there are 3 copies of Death in the Ladies' Goddess Club by Julian Leatherdale to win.

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Show Notes
Social Media Meltdown: Tackling Burnout (for Writers)

COVER REVEAL: ‘The Fire Star’, new from A.L. Tait

Writer in Residence

Susan Francis

When she was a baby, Susan Francis was privately adopted from a doctor's practice in Newcastle, NSW. She grew up and travelled the world, living in Southern Spain, England, Indonesia and the central west of NSW. The unexpected death of her husband in Portugal, in 2015, a man who was the love of her life, inspired her to finish her memoir, The Love That Remains, published by Allen and Unwin.

Susan holds a Master's degree in Australian literature and worked as a High School English teacher. Her only son Jonno is her pride and joy. Currently, Susan lives in her hometown of Newcastle, with no pets, too many books and an obsession to write about the truth. She is working on her second book, a crime novel inspired by the execution of the Balibo Five.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Susan.

Susan

Thank you, Valerie. I'm so happy to be here.

Valerie

Congratulations on The Love That Remains. It is just making headlines. Now, for those people who have not grabbed their copy yet, tell us what it's about.

Susan

I suppose, it's easier to explain it if I go structurally.

Valerie

Sure.

Susan

So it's in three parts and each section is a journey that I undertake to a different country. So the first section is Australia, the second section is Spain, and the third section is New Guinea. And each journey I suppose metaphorically represents me moving more towards my identity. But literally, it's the discovering of who my birth parents were, the love I experience with my husband in Spain, and then the secrets I discover afterwards which mean that I need to go to New Guinea.

Valerie

And so it is a memoir. At what point did you decide to write your memoir?

Susan

I suppose it was around about 2012. And it was on the heels of the adoption story. It was, well, my adoption story, I call it a story, it was a journey, it was a discovery, it was a detective story. I really wanted to grab hold of my identity and who I was and all the facts around me that had been withheld from me. And I thought if I could write it down, then that is… It's putting myself out into the world. That's me taking back what had been taken from me and was not easily given to me.

So I started writing down that story to write myself into the world, I suppose. That's how it started.

Valerie

But when you say that you wanted to write it down, at that point in 2012, or around that time, were you thinking that you were writing it down because you were compelled to write it for your own healing and benefit? Or were you intending always to write it as a memoir for publication?

Susan

Probably 90% I was thinking that I would like to get it published. I had read from a very young age. Some of my earliest memories are books and writing on a chalkboard. You know that moment when letters become words and words make sense? And I remember that moment when I was about four years old. And I remember writing stories at school and reading the Brontes and Anne of Green Gables and all of those.

And my dream was always to be a writer. And I kind of worked with words. I worked in advertising, I worked as an English teacher, I worked as a proofreader. But I never actually found a space within that busy work life to actually sit down. And also, I never really found something that I really, really wanted to write about. So it was a combination of both. It was that finally discovering that thing that I felt really passionate about that I really wanted to write about. But also finally having the time and the space.

Valerie

Yes. And so it's now 2020. That's eight years from 2012 when this seed was planted. And you obviously have travelled to various places and there's different parts of your life that have occurred since then. So when did you put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard to actually write it in the three act structure, so to speak, that it is now?

Susan

Now that was really recent. The book… I would say that was around halfway through 2018.

Valerie

Oh, right.

Susan

Yeah. So the first two sections had been written. And I was fairly happy with them. And I'd actually got an agent…

Valerie

So the first two sections were written in 2018?

Susan

No, up to 2018. So that first adoption story, probably I fooled around with that for maybe two and a half years, three years. And then when Wayne and I went to Spain in 2015, I really had the opportunity to write more. And then I had to write about what happened in Spain. And that took maybe another year and a half, two years.

And then I got an agent on the back of those two sections. So the book was not finished, but I thought it was finished.

Valerie

Right.

Susan

So those first two sections, a lovely agent took the book and started sending it out. And it got close, you know. It got into quite a few acquisition meetings and with some big publishers. And then… I don't know. We got up to about ten publishers and the way the agent worked was she would send it to one publisher and we would wait for three months. And so it was a very long process.

And in the middle of this process, I discovered the third section of my book. I discovered what it was that I didn't know about my husband. And I talked… It took me a little while to really process that and understand it. And I talked with my agent and said, you know, should this be part of the book? Because at that stage we hadn't parted ways. And we went backwards and forwards about it.

And then one publisher right at the end of that process said, I think you should put the third section in.

So 2019 was writing the third section. And then I got an agent almost straight away at the end of 2019, a different agent, whose process was very different. He would send it to six big publishers at the one time and back in six weeks, we had to know. And I got, yeah, I got a lot of interest and I eventually settled on Allen & Unwin because I thought they were the most sensitive and understanding about the story, and the nuance of the story. Not just trying to sensationalise it.

Valerie

And so what was the most challenging thing? And there must have been so many! So feel free to mention whatever comes to mind about this process.

Susan

Definitely the most challenging was, well, two things, really. Trying to decide whether or not I would write that third section. Because in some ways, it's an appropriation of my husband's story. And I was worried that it wasn't my story to tell.

Valerie

Yep.

Susan

And I suppose the other part of that was it's a difficult and challenging and confronting part of the story and did I really want to put that out there. So that was quite difficult.

And the other thing was, the other thing is being out on submission. That twelve months with my first agent and you'd be walking up a hill thinking, gosh, such and such publisher is having their acquisitions meeting today, what is the news going to be? I found that so difficult.

Valerie

So apart from the third section where you were struggling with should I tell this story, should I put it all out there, obviously there's a lot of ‘should I put it all out there?' in the whole book, of your whole story! There's a lot of, for it to really resonate with readers and for you to really tell your truth, you have to, in a sense, bare all, or almost all. It's really your thoughts and deep emotions.

Was that difficult? I mean, some people don't find that difficult. But I know I would. Was that a difficult thing to do from the start?

Susan

Some things were more difficult than others. Some subjects. So the subject of my adopted, the people who put me out for adoption, that was not difficult for me at all. Because when I was writing that, I was furious.

Valerie

Yeah.

Susan

And it was all about… You know, I had this compulsion to get me back into the world and say, this is me! You can't keep me from me.

So that was not difficult. That first section is probably the rewritten section because I wrote it earliest and I'd been over it so many times. And in fact, I think it's probably the weakest section of the book, interestingly enough. I think maybe I overworked it.

The second section with Wayne and what happened in Spain, that wasn't difficult either. I've said to other people what happened that morning in Lisbon with Wayne… Afterwards, it was like trying to capture the Northern Lights in my head. The whole scenario, that whole day would just kind of flit around and I just couldn't seem to control it or to grab it and put it into the one place where I could look at it and reflect upon it and examine it. And I really desperately wanted to do that because I felt so guilty about not being able to help him.

So I really wanted to be able to look at it in one, you know, like a paragraph or a page. Just to have it captured so I could go from here to here and look at it with a very objective eye and really decide for myself if I'd done the right thing or not. And I just could never do that. I could never get it in my head. I could never hold it.

So putting it down on the page for me was a relief and it gave me a sense of control.

Valerie

Right.

Susan

Yeah, that was amazing. The third section was very difficult. I really wrestled with that ethically with myself. But writing it was probably the easiest, because that section is written in the present tense and I was writing it as it happened and I wanted it to be more immediate and more free because I didn't know what I was going to find either. And I wanted people to be with me as I was discovering. And I literally did not know what I was going to find.

So that last section was more difficult in terms of how I felt, but probably the easiest to write because I just wrote it on the run.

Valerie

And in terms of the ethical dilemma that you faced, how did you resolve that with yourself? What conclusions did you come to?

Susan

Look, I don't know if I have, I don't know if I have resolved it. Part of me still thinks that it wasn't necessarily the right thing to do. The other part of me thinks it brings the story full circle and brings closure to the story. And it also, that last part definitely was the part that made me me. And that was an important part of the story.

So the story isn't whole, I don't think, without it. But so as a writer, I think it's very necessary. As a human being, as a person, as a widow, I still am conflicted about it.

Valerie

In terms of when you write a memoir, there is sometimes a tendency to write everything that ever happened, kind of thing. What did you do to kind of identify the things that just didn't need to be there?

Susan

I had very good editors at Allen & Unwin. I remember, not just the things that didn't need to be there, but my adjectives.

Valerie

Oh, yes, right.

Susan

Three adjectives in one sentence is way too many, Susan. Question if you even need any adjectives, and if you need any adjectives, only use one.

And when I'd, you know, and she's absolutely right. She's a beautiful editor. And when I went through the whole thing and took all the extra adjectives out, I actually think I was… I can't be 100% certain, but I actually think the word count went down by several thousand words!

Valerie

Oh my god!

Susan

So having a great editor is a wonderful thing. That really helped me to not have the things… In fact, I remember the publisher, Annette, at Allen & Unwin said, you know, that first section, we've really got to push that together because otherwise there's not going to be enough room for the other two sections. And we all understood that all three needed to be there, but if I'd spent too long on one section or it had been too drawn out, then the story wouldn't have had the pace. And it has a very fast pace.

So yeah, I suppose it was discussion with publishers. And I had a writing group and they were really great as well. Not so much my decisions; what other people were saying to me.

Valerie

And so you say you've always wanted to write and now you've written this incredible memoir. But I presume that you're already writing on your next project. What can you tell us a bit about that?

Susan

I can tell you that I've written 50,000 words, which…

Valerie

Really?

Susan

A very good friend of mine, Wendy James, who is also a writer, she said to me when I started the process, really, in 2018, she said to me, you need to make sure that your next book you've got a lot of words written. Because otherwise at the end of the promotion of your first book – so she had a lot of faith in me! I didn't have a lot of faith, but she did – at the end of that first round of promotion, people will be starting to talk about your next book. And if you haven't got anything written or no idea what you're going to write about, it's going to take you years to get something else written.

Valerie

Yep.

Susan

And I took that really seriously. Because I don't want this to be my only book. And so, yeah, I'm really happy I've got that 50,000 words in the bank!

Valerie

And it's a crime novel, right?

Susan

It's a crime novel. It's a faction. Some people call it faction. So it's, yeah, the background is true. It's the execution of the Balibo Five in Timor in 1975. And the story, the fiction story is weaved in front of that, really. That's the backdrop to the story.

Valerie

How did this idea come about?

Susan

I know. It's… Well, I was actually living in Indonesia in 1980. And I was 18 years old. So it was five years after the Timor incident. And I remember, I would walk into rooms and people would shush each other and hide newspapers. And parts of the newspaper were completely blacked out, so the government censorship, big black boxes across the page.

And I figured out after a little while or somebody told me that it was still the news about the Balibo Five and Indonesia's role in that and Australia's response to that. And nobody wanted me to know because I was Australian. And it just stuck with me. It stuck in my heart. And then I read recently that Jill Jolliffe, who was a journalist who kept this story alive and dedicated her life to this story, now has Alzheimer's. And, you know, it's about that idea that when somebody dies their story dies with them. Or the truth dies with them. And I don't want this truth to disappear. So it's quite an important story to me.

Valerie

And you've done some courses at the Australian Writers' Centre. Crime and Thriller Writing, which hopefully feeds into this, what you're writing now. And How to Write About Murder. How have they been helpful in what you're writing about?

Susan

So I also did the Short Story Essentials.

Valerie

Yes, Short Story Essentials.

Susan

Yeah. And that one, that one helped me 100%. That idea that you can… And so I do write short stories. But I just haven't had a lot of time in the last six months. But that idea that you can start in the middle of the action was something very new to me. And I love that idea, that you can just start in the middle of the action. It takes people right into the story straight away. And so I use that, not just in short stories, but also in this novel.

And then I did the Crime and Thriller Writing with L. A. Larkin. And I've got on my little whiteboard that I bought from Officeworks, all the notes that she gave me. And I've plotted it out. She kind of gave us a… What do you call it? Like a blueprint, I suppose, to follow. And I'd never written a crime… I mean, I love crime fiction. But I've never written a crime fiction. So yeah, that was a great weekend. I found it very stimulating.

Valerie

Fantastic. And so this novel that you've got 50,000 words, so this is obviously being written in a shorter period of time than the very long memoir, because the memoir kind of had to be lived as well, at the same time. So for this novel that you're currently writing, do you have a writing routine? Or anything like that, where you aim for a certain number of words per day? Or that you set aside a particular time of day or week or whatever in order to get the words out?

Susan

There's two things that I really do that I find have helped, both with the memoir when I was finishing that off or editing it, and with this book as well, is when I get up in the morning, I stay in my pyjamas or my dressing gown, I go and get myself a cup of coffee, and then I sit at my desk and I wrote. I don't have a shower. I don't clean my teeth. I pray that nobody will come to the door!

Valerie

Haha!

Susan

Because I'm still in that kind of… I don't know. It's like a half-waking state.

Valerie

Really?

Susan

And you're not real sharp. And the other thing is if I'm doing editing, because I do a little bit of professional editing on the side, I always have a shower because I have to be sharper and I have to be more alert.

Valerie

Yes.

Susan

So I sit at my desk until about 12 o'clock. And a good day is a thousand words and a not so good day is 500 words for me.

Valerie

Okay. That's… Yeah. And do you write every day?

Susan

I do try and write every day. I haven't written for about three months because of the book and everything that's going on.

Valerie

Sure.

Susan

But when the promotion finishes, I'll get back to writing every day. I really, really, really believe that. It's like a job, for me. And it means getting up, sitting down, and writing. And within an hour, I'm off. And I feel more comfortable. And the flow is going. But if I don't do that, then it doesn't get done. How can you finish a book if you don't write?

Valerie

So I have to ask, you wake up and you start writing. Not the editing, but you start writing. At what point do you get dressed?

Susan

Not til I've finished.

Valerie

Really?

Susan

I can be sitting here at midday… That's why I pray that nobody comes to the door!

Valerie

Okay.

Susan

I can be sitting here until midday. And that whole morning is just given up to writing. And then I have a shower, I have something to eat. I go out and do something to get me out of the house, and I tutor of an evening or I do a little bit of editing. So my day is kind of I suppose structured the opposite to what most people might…

Valerie

Yeah, right. But what do you do if you haven't got your thousand words and it's 4 o'clock in the afternoon?

Susan

Oh no, I can't actually go for longer than about five hours, or four hours even. I think that then everything just disappears and nothing is really worthwhile.

Valerie

Right.

Susan

And it's too much for me. I couldn't go for past 12 o'clock, pretty much.

Valerie

Okay. So what is the grand master plan? As in, you've written the memoir, you're writing a crime novel. Is the plan to continue to write crime novels?

Susan

Um… That's a really interesting question. I was thinking, already, about maybe what will happen after the crime novel. I could go back to a non-fiction book about what it's like to be my age now and what it's like to be nearly 60. There's some interest there, lines for me there. But also, dependent on how the next book goes, I wouldn't mind doing another one of those either.

So the girl in the story, the character, she's really intriguing and very interesting to me. So just see how this next book goes.

Valerie

So with the next book, what kind of research and where have you researched for it? Because with the backdrop of the Balibo Five?

Susan

Yeah, massive research. You know, I've got about 20 books here. I've gone to speak to a lady who worked in Timor as a volunteer in the early 90s and she gave me a lot of insight, day to day insight.

And I also, the government released some documents from 1973 to 1976, which was all of the telegrams, the communication between Parliament House and the embassy in Jakarta over what was happening in Timor. So it was during the time when Gough Whitlam was being dismissed. And so those documents, they're fascinating. Like, you really understand after reading those documents that everybody knew what was going on and it was a really… It wasn't a good time. And still, up until this very day, Timor's had a fairly bad end of the stick from Australia. So I think it's quite pertinent to write about it.

Valerie

And in fact, just in case there's some particularly young people listening to this episode, if you could just give some context to the Balibo Five?

Susan

Yes. So in Timor, Timor was actually conquered by the Portuguese. And in Timor, in Portugal in 1974 I think it was there was an overthrow of the government. So all of a sudden, who was going to run Timor? Who was going to be in charge of Timor? And there was a whole lot of debate about whether they could run themselves, or whether Australia would step in.

And then Indonesia didn't actually have the right to conquer or to govern West Timor or Timor-Leste as it is now called. And it was literally, I consider it an invasion. Most people consider it an invasion. And there were some western journalists there covering that story in 1975 and they were executed by Indonesian troops. And no one has really found out exactly why. There's a lot of theory going around as to why they were executed. And then a fifth journalist was shot on the wharf.

And Timor was shut off from the rest of the world for about 30 years. And the atrocities were appalling, what happened to them. So that's what I want to write about.

Valerie

That's going to be quite emotionally draining, I imagine.

Susan

Yeah. I think it's a story that just needs to be lived in our… It needs to live in our memory, and it needs to be kept alive because people don't understand what it was like for the Timorese people, how badly they were treated. And so that deserves to be told, I think.

Valerie

So when you got the news from your agent, I presume, that this was going to… And then you got to, you decided on Allen & Unwin, how did you feel?

Susan

Wow. Um… I didn't really feel it until I went down to Allen & Unwin and I met Annette, the publisher, and I met the salespeople and we had a big meeting around a big table. And I came out from that meeting and I remember I was walking down that main street in Crow's Nest and it just hit me like a rush. And it was like, my god! I'm going to be published! I just could not believe it. It was amazing. You know, all those years I'd been writing, all those years I'd been dreaming, yeah, it was amazing just standing on the street corner there, you know, under the traffic lights. And it just kind of hit me all of a sudden.

And the other amazing moment was when all the books turned up from the publisher. My copies. And you open up the box and there are all the books. And I was so lucky with the cover. And the cover is just stunning.

Valerie

It's beautiful. Beautiful. So perfect.

Susan

And that, I suppose that was another highlight too. I was sitting at the computer and Annette sent me through an email and the subject line said, ‘a mock-up of the book cover'. And so many people had warned me that…

Valerie

Yeah.

Susan

And I just sat there and I couldn't literally open it because I was so afraid, what if it was terrible?

Valerie

Oh wow.

Susan

And then I opened it. And I literally, I just burst into tears.

Valerie

Oh wow.

Susan

I really did. Because it was so beautiful.

Valerie

It's perfect.

Susan

And it was so reflective of what I felt the book was about. So that was amazing, too.

Valerie

That's fantastic.

All right, and so now you're, you've got this book deal that you had been chasing for so long, you're already underway with the second book. What's your advice then, for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position where you are one day? Where they can sit in their dressing gown until midday or whatever?

Susan

Haha.

Never ever give up. I remember thinking people would… People never took me seriously. Oh, Susan's sitting in her dressing gown writing a book. Nobody really, I think, ever believed it was going to happen other than my best friend. And me. I just said to myself, I'm just going to keep working at this book and making it the best it can possibly be. And if I keep working at it and making it better and better and better, some day, somebody is going to want it.

And so I went, joined a writing group, I took courses. I worked a lot with people at Varuna. And just kept working, working at it. And that is my advice. You've just got to keep working AT IT. And separate the writing from yourself. Make sure you understand that it's something that is not an emotion. It's something that you have to… It's a job. And you have to work at it and make it the best it can be.

Valerie

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

Susan

Thank you so much, Valerie. I really appreciate it.

 

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