Ep 349 Meet Christie Nieman, author of ‘Where We Begin’.

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In Episode 349 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Christie Nieman, author of Where We Begin. Discover what you can learn from being an author-entrepreneur. Plus, we have 5 double passes to ‘The Translators' to give away.

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Show Notes

Lessons Learned From 9 Years As An Author Entrepreneur

Writer in Residence

Christie Nieman

Christie Nieman is an award-nominated author, essayist and playwright. Her debut novel As Stars Fall, about ecosystems and grief, was a Notable Book of the 2015 CBCA awards. Her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals and magazines including Meanjin, Canary, Overland and The Guardian.

She has been a contributing editor on a couple of prominent commercial feminist anthologies: Just Between Us; Mothers and Others; and now, most recently, #MeToo: Stories from the Australian Movement, which featured her short fiction.

Her critically acclaimed play, Call Me Komachi, received a Green-Room Award nomination, multiple productions, and publication by the Australian Script Centre. She lives and works on Dja Dja Wurrung country.

Her latest novel Where We Begin is out with Pan MacMillan.

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Interview Transcript

Allison Tait

Christie Nieman is an award-nominated author, essayist and playwright. Her debut novel, As Stars Fall, about ecosystems and grief, was a Notable Book of the 2015 CBCA awards. Her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals and magazines including Meanjin, Canary, Overland and The Guardian. Her critically acclaimed play, Call Me Komachi, received a Green-Room Award nomination, multiple productions, and publication by the Australian Script Centre. Her latest novel, Where We Begin, is out now with Pan Macmillan. Welcome to the program, Christie.

Christie Nieman 

Thank you, Allison.

Allison Tait 

So let's go back to your beginnings. We're gonna go back through time to your beginnings as a writer. Now, As Stars Fall, your first YA novel, was published in 2014. Tell us about your writing and publishing journey that brought you to that point.

Christie Nieman 

Okay. Well, I was a big reader when I was kid. And we lived in the country. And I spent a lot of time by myself. I think Margaret Atwood said at one point that writers tend to be people that spend a lot of time by themselves when they're kids, so tick. And then we moved to the city when I was about 15, and it was a bit of a shock, for me. It was kind of like my first heartbreak, actually, breaking up with the countryside that I came from. And my friends from back up the country gave me a notebook. And so I just started writing in it. And that was kind of it. That's kind of what set it off. I think kind of a marriage of the reading and having a heartbreak over countryside. And I think if anyone's familiar with my work, they can see that the landscape is pretty important in my work.

And yeah, I just kind of took off from there, which is possibly also why I think that first book, which came from an idea when I was 19 and wasn't published until I was in my 30s. So there's a journey. I think that's why YA was the mode that I went through for that first one.

Allison Tait

Okay, so you had the idea at 19…

Christie Nieman

And then through theatre, as well.

Allison Tait

Sorry?

Christie Nieman

Yes, yes.

Allison Tait

You had the idea at 19. You got published in your 30s. What were you doing from 19…? Like, did you… Were you… Because you've written a lot of short stories… I'm only asking because you've written a lot of short fiction and nonfiction and plays. So did you, were you sort of working towards a novel? Or was it just something that you were working on for all of that time?

Christie Nieman 

I was doing lots of little things. And that was one of the lots of little things. Theatre was a big part of my life in that time, and I was writing plays and working with a few theatres to write for them. I was writing stories. Everything was a bit piecemeal, though. I'm a bit of a late bloomer, I think.

I was writing all that time, but for some reason, it wasn't until I was in my late 20s, I think, that I looked at this idea again that I've had when I was 19. And it ended up being about a Bush-Stone curlew, but the idea was actually about a flamingo – you heard it here.

Allison Tait

A flamingo?

Christie Nieman

Turning up in… Yeah, turning up in a lake in the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. I don't know why, but that was just a little image that came to me when I was 19. It was just the bird out of place, was the idea, I think. And it just hung around. And so then when I went, “I'm going to finish something substantial and I'm going to write a book” – because theatre is wonderful, theatre is amazing, but it's so ephemeral and it kind of it feels like it slips through your fingers sometimes. So a book, you can, you don't need other people, you can just sit down and write. And it stays with you. It's something that you can hang on to. So when I made the decision, “okay, I'm going to do this book,” that was that was the idea that was still turning around.

Allison Tait 

So what was it about that particular idea – apart from the fact that you decided you wanted to write a novel to have something more substantial – what was it about that story that told you it could be a novel and not a play and not a short story and not a, you know, poem or whatever?

Christie Nieman

Um…

Allison Tait

I like a hard question.

Christie Nieman 

I think it was because it threw a couple of characters at me. And one of them was very internal. It was this internal voice. And it was very much the voice of me at fifteen feeling heartbreak from being removed from my beautiful landscape which I had absolutely bonded with. I was a bit of a wild child, wildness child, not tearing around in Hot-rods. Hot-rods? Did I just say Hot-rods? That's a strange word. So I think that that voice and that heartbreak were so internal that I felt it needed to be a book and it needed to be a book for that age group.

Allison Tait

Okay. All right. So talk us through your process for writing a novel. So you had the image of the bird in the Botanic Gardens which was a flamingo but did not end up being a flamingo. So from that point, are you a person who plans a novel? Are you a person who just starts writing? Like how did that novel come together? Where do you start?

Christie Nieman 

So that novel was actually a bit of a nightmare of pantsing like mad. Because I'd been wanting it for so long and I had gone off in 16 different directions. I got one of the first hot desk fellowships at the Wheeler Centre and sat down and tried to wrestle this thing into submission.

And it was, yeah, it was very hard. And I ended up having to explode the thing on my second last day there because it wasn't working that way. So I now, I'm a plotter, mostly because I had to be because in between that book and this book coming out, I had two babies at once. And there's no time. There's no time for when you have two newborns, which is too many, there's no time to write the imagination.

So I did some serious plotting with this second book. But and especially because I'd learned from that first one that not plotting at all, not thinking ahead, just kind of sitting down and letting it go in whatever direction – for me, I think my imagination can run a little crazy. So now I do, my process now is fairly clearly kind of a combination almost in alternating pantsing and plotting.

Allison Tait

You are a plantser.

Christie Nieman

So I'll let it go for a while and then I'll think about where it's going. I'm a plantser? There's a word!

Allison Tait

I think we had this conversation a few episodes back.

So that first, your debut novel was long listed for the CBCA Awards. Were you at that time, by the time that sort of all happened, were you working on a second novel? Or were you actually just working on babies at that point?

Christie Nieman 

At the launch of my very first novel I couldn't have a champagne because I was gestating the children at the time. So that was my great debut tragedy. And but yeah, so that, I was pregnant when that book came out. So it's been a bit of a road to this second one and thank goodness for two-book contracts is all I can say. I was beholden. There was no getting out of it. Which was good. I didn't want to get out of it. Yeah. So that was…

Yeah, I hadn't, I didn't get the idea for this one until the kids were about 18 months old.

Allison Tait

Okay.

Christie Nieman

And then I started plotting my way towards it.

Allison Tait 

Did you feel kind of like because, you know, six years between novels, particularly when you have a two-book contract is a long time. Did you feel pressured by that? Like, was there a, did you feel like you had homework your whole life because you had to, you knew it had to be done.

Christie Nieman 

That's what being a writer is. It's like there's no time off from writing. It's like you always have homework. There's always something to be written and if you're not writing it, then no one is and it's not getting written.

So, yes. Look, having twins is a thing. It's a thing. It takes you somewhere completely different for a little while. So I think we can write off two of those years as me just not feeling that pressure at all. But once I had the idea I started writing. It was pressure but it was kind of a good pressure. It made me dogged. In the face of some kind of serious life challenges. My mum was sick and she died when the kids were two. So there was a lot going on between those two books. So, yes, pressure, but also life and, I mean, you have to let yourself off the hook for those things, don't you?

Allison Tait 

You do. You really do. Alright, so six years later we have Where We Begin. So tell us about the book. Tell us a little bit about Where We Begin.

Christie Nieman 

So Where We Begin is the story of a young woman who leaves her home in inner city Sydney in a bit of a state of distress, which we find out about during the course of the book. She leaves her parents' house, she leaves her boyfriend. She leaves everything she's ever known. And she travels through the day and the night into countryside central Victoria to grandparents she's never met.

And throughout the course of her being in central Victoria she becomes enmeshed in both family and historical and even landscape past, the past that she never knew about.

Allison Tait

And where did this story start for you?

Christie Nieman

It's got some serious nods to the Gothic.

Allison Tait

Definitely.

Christie Nieman

This story started as I was driving across, there's an area of landscape near where I live which is a fairly striking landscape, the plains, it's a very high volcanic plateau. It's completely deforested and it has big wide-open spaces and the sky is really close and it's between my house and one of the better supermarkets.

So I was driving with my two wee ones in the back and trying to entertain them whilst going across this plateau, this big long straight road. And on this straight road is a building that I've seen many times before, but something about this day, I don't know, maybe I was just ready to think about writing again, it's a two-storey, bluestone, old mansion. And it's a ruin. It's completely rundown. It has no eaves. It looks like a big old bluestone box that's just been dropped in the middle of this plateau. And kind of the gothic suggestions of it were quite overwhelming to me because, you know, I grew up with, I grew up reading a lot, and Jane Eyre was one of my favourites, and Daphne de Maurier and Jamaica Inn and Rebecca.

So I just had the single idea of someone who's not from here coming and staying somewhere where they have a view of that building and seeing the light on at night there.

And from there, that kind of just led me into the place. With me when I write, place seems to be the thing that puts words on the page for me. So the place and its history and who might have lived in there coupled with this character's own life. Just kind of putting them together and seeing what happened.

Allison Tait

So when you set out, because the sense of place in this book is, as you say, it's almost like a character in itself. I can see that, you know, it would have been a really interesting starting point for you. When you set out to capture a place like that, how do you try to draw the reader into it?

Christie Nieman 

Um… How do I try to draw the reader into it?

Allison Tait 

What are you doing to evoke a sense of place? To bring that sense of place to life?

Christie Nieman 

I think everything to do with how I experience it, and I think that might be to do from having been a kid who ran around in landscape a lot. Everything about it all at once. I kind of see a place as not just a picture. But it's like it's the ultimate kind of intertextuality I suppose of like… There's a uni word, sorry. It's about the enmeshment. It's about the relationships between everything in that place, between the stones that have been pulled out of the ground, between the people who live there and the native animals that are there, and the … that are trying to get back on to this land called ‘paddocks'. It's kind of this really quite dynamic thing.

I did a graduate certificate in Environmental Studies at one point. I thought I was having a bit of a direction change in my life because I needed to earn some money. So I was looking at going into land management. I soon discovered that I loved learning about all the ecology and the relationships, but when it came to writing scientific reports, I'd sit down and write a story instead. So there's something hardwired there. This is just what I do.

Allison Tait

Fair enough.

Christie Nieman

So, yeah, so I think when I start writing about a place, of course, it starts with what my eyes are seeing. But then everything I've learned or heard, or someone has said, or everything I've felt, or every animal I've seen living a little life in the corner of it kind of finds its way in somehow. I don't know.

Allison Tait 

No, no, I think that that explains it really well, because I think that that's the experience that you get as a reader of this story, which is a, you know, it's a really interesting book. It's very intense, but the voice is also very engaging. So Anna, the narrator of the story, is an engaging voice and a really interesting point of view from which to see all of these things that go on. But I can see that it might have been also quite a difficult book to write in some ways, because there are a few scenes in it that I would imagine you would have needed to steel yourself for.

Christie Nieman 

Yes. And I remember that distinctly. There are a few scenes from the past and the present that kind of cascade on top of one another. And I wrote them all in the space of two days, really.

Allison Tait

Right.

Christie Nieman

Yeah. That's not something that you should do to yourself.

Allison Tait

No, I don't think so.

Christie Nieman

I think in a way I had to. I didn't have a lot of choice because what I was trying to work with, with this idea that the past is never gone, it's not redundant. Stan Grant has a really wonderful quote about it that the past is not redundant. It's here and in each and every one of us. So that's what I was trying to go for. So yes, I did feel that that was the best way to go about it. But you're right, I was pretty haggard by the end of it because the intensity kind of all comes all in a rush, which is pretty typical, actually, of a gothic kind of tradition, which is what I was playing with as well, that kind of slow build tension and just that unsettlingness of not actually knowing. And that's what I was trying to do.

So there's this transition from not knowing, to knowing, inside the different facets of this young woman's life. Like her country's history, her family history, her own trajectory through life. And yeah, so having them all collapse on each other at once like that.

Allison Tait 

I think you can feel that as the reader as well, I can feel that as the intent, as the book built, and those scenes all, as you say, cascade on each other, it does feel like the urgency of you writing them has been there. Because there's a couple of timelines in the book, did you manage those by writing them like chapter after chapter after chapter? Or did you write one timeline and then the other? How did you manage that?

Christie Nieman 

I think I… Because there was a lot going on when I was writing the book, and I plotted this book quite heavily, actually, it ended up being exploded and rewritten a number of times. So the plot that I plotted is not necessarily the plot that was ended up with. But putting Anna on the page and her trajectory through the book – and actually I abandoned another… When you asked if I'd started writing the novel previously, yes, I had, actually, but I'd abandoned it because it was really complicated, and I was in a place in my life, it's that interaction between art and life, really, where I just couldn't do a complicated plot, because everything was quite complicated in life. I plotted it out. So those other timelines that are aside from that main one, I dot pointed them a little bit.

Allison Tait

Okay. Yeah.

Christie Nieman

And I came back and wrote them later, except for those cascading intense scenes which kind of got written all together. And, yeah, so I got everyone to that point, that you're talking about, that really intense point. And then I wrote the rest.

Allison Tait 

Okay. So when you're dealing with darker themes, which you are in this novel, where's the line that makes the story YA and not adult?

Christie Nieman

Um…

Allison Tait

Or is it just the viewpoint that makes it YA and not adult?

Christie Nieman 

That's what I think. I think that if you can put something in the point of view of someone in that age group, and I actually do think that this is trending older, this YA, I think it's that 15, so I think adults would have not much problem reading this book.

Allison Tait

No, I agree.

Christie Nieman

So, yeah, I don't think I paid a lot of attention to that line as I was writing. I think it was enough for me to choose Anna, and have Anna be walking through this story for me to consider it YA.

Allison Tait

Okay. That makes sense.

Christie Nieman

I think I thought about that a lot more in the first one. In As Stars Fall.

Allison Tait 

All right. So the novel has Aboriginal characters and experiences in it, and your author's notes show that you received permission from the – and I'm going to get this wrong but I'm going to try – Dja Dja Wurrung Aboriginal Clans Corporation to use Dja Dja Wurrung words in the novel and that you worked closely with Aunty Kerri Douglas to, as you put it, keep you over the line. Can you just explain a little bit about how… I liked that phrasing. Can you explain how this worked and how that connection came about?

Christie Nieman 

I read a lot when I was writing those Aboriginal characters. I read a lot of opinions by First Nations writers about being white and approaching Aboriginal content. I wanted to be the most respectful I could be and I have always maintained that my focus has never been on anything to do with Aboriginal culture, or anything else. My focus is actually on Australia's white history and I don't think you can talk about that without including some Aboriginal content.

So that's how I wrote them. I wrote them by thinking and thinking and thinking and reading and listening a lot to many, many Aboriginal people and the work that they'd written, rather than, you know, saying, “Hello, I'm a white writer, pay attention to me. Come and educate me and tell me how I should do this.” I kind of took it upon myself that if I was going to do this, the responsibility really needed to rest with me. But I also really took to heart that Own Voices movement of “Nothing about us without us.” So any cultural material that I was going to use in the book, and that included language, and there's only one word in the book, I really wanted to have permission from the Elders to use that word.

And so that process, the Dja Dja Wurrung Aboriginal Clans Corporation has a really great, a really great process that anyone wanting to use any part of their language can go through. So I had to put in a proposal to them and outline my book, and kind of state my position and they double checked their dictionary with the word that I had found, and they gave me their version of the word. I'd found it an old white guy's historical document which there's a really interesting relationship between Aboriginal languages and the white documentation of them because in some ways, that's how a lot of them have been retained. So, just finding that line of where you're getting that source from. And then writing the Aboriginal characters, the whole first stage was really schooling myself and really keeping a very close eye on my own internalised racism and whiteness that we're all swimming around in in Australia. And making sure that someone… So Aunty Kerri Douglas was fantastic and she's from that area around Maryborough and Moonlight Plains and she worked in education and she just seemed like a really perfect fit to be the person to look over what I'd done, and just make sure that I wasn't stepping anywhere I shouldn't be stepping or doing any harm in representations or blundering into my own blind spots.

Allison Tait 

Yeah. Okay. Excellent. So obviously a very useful process, you know, from your perspective.

Christie Nieman 

Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. Yeah. It's a thing to go there, but I think being afraid of going is not the answer.

Allison Tait 

No. That's right. All right. So now begins the work of promoting Where We Begin, which is, you know, out on the bookshelves. And you are in Victoria, so you are not out on the bookshelf, so to speak. So what kinds of things are you doing to help spread the word about your book?

Christie Nieman 

Well, I'm moving to another state. No, I'm quite comfortable with being online. I'm a bit of a homebody, actually. So not standing up in front of people is not a bad thing for me. I'm writing lots of things which, hopefully, little pieces which will hopefully get out and about, just about the process of writing this book. And about Australian Gothic and the history of Australian Gothic. I'm doing some author talks and workshops through libraries. I'm having an online launch at Readings in Carlton, which, which you know, it's not in Carlton, it's in the ether. So that's going to be interesting on the 27th of August. So yeah, lots and lots of online stuff. My voice and my written word is pretty much.

Allison Tait

Well, that's all you can do, isn't it?

Christie Nieman

Yeah, it's interesting times.

Allison Tait

May you live in interesting times, as they say.

Christie Nieman

Because I can't wander into a bookshop and say, “let me sign some copies.”

Allison Tait 

All right. So where can people find you online if they would like to have a look at your work and your other books and obviously, you know, Where We Begin, where can they find you? What's your website address?

Christie Nieman 

Okay. So I have a website, which is Christienieman.com. So that's not very hard to remember. I've got a Facebook author page, which is Christie Nieman Author, I'm on Instagram and Twitter, as well. So I'm under my name on all of those platforms, yeah.

Allison Tait 

Excellent. All right. We'll find you, don't worry, we'll track you down. We're gonna finish up today with our final question that we ask all of our authors, which is for your three top tips for writers.

Christie Nieman 

Okay, so the first one's a bit controversial, because I know a lot of people go exactly the other way. But I think you should say that you're a writer, because once you put it out there, you kind of, you've got to put your money where your mouth is, really. So that was a big one for me when I was younger.

Read lots. Just read lots and don't be a snob about what you read. Just read everything, see what's working, see what appeals to you. That's where you find the best tricks of the trade, I reckon, rather than reading about writing. Although that's useful.

And the third one is really just do it. There are bits of it that aren't fun. But you can see where you want to get to. And so just do what it takes to get there. That's it. It's not very magical or inspiring, but it's the plodding philosophy. Just keep going.

Allison Tait 

Valerie and I talk regularly about the fact that, you know, there is a lot about it… Talking about writing is so much more fun than actually doing it most of the time.

Christie Nieman

I know!

Allison Tait

Just do the work.

Christie Nieman

Just sit down. Pick up the pen. Shush.

Allison Tait 

All right, well, thank you so much for your time today, Christie. Much appreciated.

Christie Nieman

Thanks. Thanks, Allison.

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