Ep 52 Meet Joanne Fedler, author of ‘The Dreamcloth’


In Episode 52 of So you want to be a writer: the origins of lorem ipsum, how social media started 2000 years ago, how to make friends with creative people, the news writing robots are here, the book “Spilling the beans on the cat's pyjamas: Popular expressions – what they mean and where we got them” by Judy Parkinson, Jane Friedman's blog, Writer in Residence Joanne Fedler, what the apple watch can do for you, how to write a powerful case study and much more.

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Show Notes

What we recommend in the podcast is out of love! If we are ever sponsored we'll disclose it.

The origins of Lorem Ipsum

Cicero’s Web: How Social Media Was Born in Ancient Rome

Sarah Tomp, author of My Best Everything, on making friends with creative people

In the future, robots will write news that's all about you

Spilling the Beans on the Cat's Pyjamas

Jane Friedman's blog

Writer in Residence

Joanne Fedler is an internationally bestselling author of eight books, including Secret Mothers' Business and When Hungry, Eat. Her books have sold over 600 000 copies worldwide. She graduated from Yale with an Masters of Law, is an ex-women's rights advocate, law lecturer, and was once made Asshole of the Month by Hustler magazine for her work against violence pornography. She is an inspirational speaker and writing mentor and takes women on writing retreats and adventures. She writes for various magazines and newspapers. Joanne was born in South Africa and now lives in Sydney where she is married to Zed, with two teenagers and two cats.

Hardie Grant on Twitter

Web Pick

The Apple watch

Working Writer's Tip

How to write a powerful case study

The second book is coming!

Anatomy of a Crime: How to Write About Murder

Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Joanne Fedler is an author of fiction and non-fiction. Her novels include the international best-sellers, The Dreamcloth and Secret Mothers’ Business, and her non-fiction works are about love, food and parenting, all the good stuff.


Her new book, Love in a Time of Contempt, was inspired by her popular columns about parenting teenagers for Sunday Life Magazine and is released in Australia and South Africa, and also to the UK and Germany, a bit further down the track.


That’s all very exciting. Welcome, Joanne.



Hello! Thank you, Allison.



Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, what’s your background that sort of led you into this writing career?



Well, Allison, I grew up in South Africa with an older sister who was born deaf. From a very young age, apparently from about nine months, I was the only one who could understand her speech. From a young age I was asked to translate and interpret what she was saying.


I’ve always had this thing about people’s voices and people being heard and people being able to communicate. That has always kind of followed me around throughout my life. I ended up being a women’s rights advocate because I studied law, I set up an advocacy centre to end violence against women in South Africa.


For a long time I used to tell other peoples’ stories, I used to try and make submissions to the government and to legislators. All the time I actually used to write stories of my own, but I never imagined that I could actually turn this into a career. It was a hobby and I had fun with it.


I then went and studied law at Yale. I did a master’s degree there. And while I was there I met a woman who was a writer for the Village Voice, an amazing writer. She was going to a writing retreat, an amazing place for women called Hedgebrook Women’s Writing Retreat. She said to me, “You should go there one day. If you love writing you should go there.”


I went back to South Africa and I had this thing at the back of my mind that I wanted to be a writer, but it felt almost like a shameful thing to admit, because it seemed like such a waste. I didn’t know that real people could actually do this.


I had these application forms up on my corkboard in front of my computer for Hedgebrook, and I used to go to writing groups and I was working on this little novel. And one day after reading a book, and I’m sure that most people have had this experience where you read something and you think, “You know what? I can write better than this.” And this is being published, right? I thought, “Well, you know, maybe I haven’t got really anything to lose. I’m just going to try.”


I submitted my best little pieces to Hedgebrook Woman’s Writers’ Colony, and I got accepted and I was there for eight weeks, where I spent —



Wow, I’m kind of jealous of that.



Listen, definitely something that you need to do in your lifetime. I’m lucky I did it before I had kids, because I know it’s a really difficult thing to do once you have a family. And, I would love to go back, but obviously I’m waiting for my children to leave home.



We’ll talk about that later.



Yeah, we get to talk about that later.


I stayed there for eight weeks and I wrote the first draft of my first novel, The Dreamcloth. And, I came back to South Africa and it still, even having done that, it still took a number of years of me then having children and immigrating from South Africa to Australia and not knowing what to do with myself and not wanting to re-qualify as a lawyer in Australia.


My husband just one day said to me, “You know what? Just finish that bloody book that you’ve been working on for the past ten years.” I was in my early 30s and so I sat down and I finished that book. And that was the beginning of my writing career in Australia, because I then got an agent and the book was published. I got an advance for another book.


Since then, the last ten years, that’s what I’ve been doing full time, is writing.



Interestingly though, so you began writing fiction, and your first novel, The Dreamcloth was published in 2005. All that time it was fiction that you were working on, the stories and things that you submitted to Hedgebrook, that was all fiction?



Yes, it was.



At what point did you switch to non-fiction, because your most recent books have all been non-fiction, correct?



Yes. Secret Mothers’ Business, actually, which was my second book, my first Australian book, was published by Allen & Unwin as narrative non-fiction. So, it was based on an evening I had spent with seven girlfriends one night when we’d all drunk too much and all had small children and we were having a sleepover and we started to talk honestly about motherhood. They’re based largely on the conversations that happened that night, but I did have to fictionalize some of the content.


It came out as narrative non-fiction here, but it was published in Germany as fiction. It sort of straddles that interesting gray space where you’re not quite sure what it is. But, I definitely loved the real stories that make up people’s lives. I find them so intriguing and so interesting. And you just have to watch reality TV to understand that stories that we make up are actually stories that happen all the time around us.


I’m busy reading Helen’s Garner new book called The House of Grief, about the trial where that father drove his car and his three young boys died. You couldn’t make this stuff up that she’s writing about. It’s so interesting.


Then as time has gone by, and drawing from my own life, because I’m not one of those people who are out in the world traveling and having these massive adventures, those were all done in my youth. I’ve been mothering for the last 17 years, so the dramas and the tragedies and the curiosities and the things that intrigue me are the small mundane things of my ordinary life and the lives of the people around me. It’s trying to make that stuff into the stuff of reading material that I’ve had to draw on.



I guess you’re like everyone, you’re kind of constantly trolling for ideas and you’re looking at the pool around you, basically?



Yes, absolutely.


My book, Things Without a Name, is my other novel, and that is fiction, but it’s drawn from my experience working as a counselor of raped and battered women when I used to work in that field. A lot of the stories that actually happened in that book are based on the real stories that happened, the things that I saw and witnessed during that time.



That line between fiction and non-fiction, as you say, can be quite a gray area. How do you decide if those stories are fiction or non-fiction, or non-fiction with fictionalized bits? Is there an actual process for that, or is that just something that occurs during the writing?



I guess it starts off with deciding at the beginning whether I am going to write a book of fiction or non-fiction. I have to say fiction is my passion, and I think certainly if I look at my books I think that The Dreamcloth and Things Without a Name are my most beautifully written books. I would love to be able to write more fiction for that reason.


I have a lot of people who say to me, “Why don’t you write more fiction? But, I’m also extremely practical and pragmatic about it, and I just know that non-fiction sells better than fiction. I’m not one of these people that wants to spend my life writing books that sell a couple of hundred copies, or a thousand copies here and a thousand copies there. This is how I make my living, such as it is.


I want to make sure that if I’m writing something that there is a real market out there, and it’s kind of hard to test what the fiction market wants, because what is fashionable now is not fashionable tomorrow and you can never test the temperature, I think, of the fiction market. You just don’t know.


I think non-fiction is slightly more reliable in that sense in that there are real problems in the world and real issues that different audiences have. If we are writing non-fiction we can tap into those questions and those issues and respond to them.


I’ve become quite practical and pragmatic in my approach, and I think you can write very beautiful narrative non-fiction that still satisfies the writer’s need to create and at the same time, hopefully, sell more books, because that ultimately is my aim.



I read with interest, in your latest book, I think it’s in the acknowledgements, about the fact that with Love in a Time of Contempt that the publisher, Hardie Grant, approached you to write a book about parenting teens. How did that come about?



I had been writing little articles for Sunday Life Magazine for the Sydney Morning Herald for a couple of years, just on moments that you have as a mother with these creatures that are becoming no longer these little people, but they are really starting to confront you and cause you to have a crisis of identity and wonder who you are and what your role is about. And they actually are hilarious. Teenagers are hilarious, and they make you so ridiculous. They offer a lot of material.


I was writing on and off about these little interactions I was having with my teenagers and examining myself and looking at myself. I had written a couple of articles for the Sunday Life magazine. Then Fran Berry who is a commissioning editor at Hardie Grant approached me and said, “We love the articles that you’ve been writing, would you be interested in writing a book on the topic?”


I was very quick to let her know that, of course, I don’t feel like I’m qualified to write about parenting teenagers, since I’m not an expert. I’m just a mom, I have no degrees or qualifications in psychology or education, I’m not a doctor of anything, I’m just an ordinary mom and I’m making a lot of mistakes.


She was like, “That’s exactly why we want you to write this book,” because there are too many books out there by experts and we’re looking for something different, and we love your writing voice, we think that it connects to the ordinary mom.”


And that was how it began, then I wrote the book for them and it was great fun.



It’s an interesting thing too, because there is a lot of you in the book, obviously, because as you say you’re writing about your experiences. But, there’s also a lot of your kids. With this kind of personal style of narrative I think you have to be aware that you’re carrying everybody along with you. How do you decide what to put in and what to leave out? Do you have to walk a fine line there a bit sometimes?



Absolutely. I mean that is always the question when you are writing non-fiction and memoir. You’ve got to think so carefully about the people you’re implicating, the privacy issues, especially like when my kids were younger and they couldn’t consent.


There are many things that I’ve done in writing this book. The first one is that I don’t use my children’s real names in the book, they have these pseudonyms that I’ve created. So, they’re sort of avatars of kids. Although, a lot of the things that they say in the book and a lot of the interactions are actual interactions I’ve had with my kids.


I also say in the acknowledgements not all of the stories have directly come from my experience with my kids, because what I did in the writing of this book was I spoke to many, many, many parents. So, there is a way in which I’ve sort of blurred those lines sometimes, where you’re not sure whether it’s actually my kid or whether it’s somebody else’s kid and I’ve just taken the story and have written it as if it were mine.


I feel like when you’re writing this kind of narrative non-fiction you are almost a caricature. One is almost a caricature, and your teenagers are caricatures of kids going through things.


I was very careful about the issues that I wrote about, and trust me, Allison, there are many things, many, much funnier, but far more private stories that actually happened to my kids that I would never have written about — never, never, never, never, and such good material. I promise you, such good material. But, I couldn’t have done it to them.



Save that for another book.



I can’t. I could never write about them.


The other thing was I asked both my children to read the book.



That was one of my questions.



Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.


My daughter, she read the book and she was very unhappy initially with the chapter on periods. She said, “No, you can’t write that.” So, I had to rewrite that chapter, which I was happy to do.


The truth is whenever I use anybody’s story I always send them the draft of what I’ve written. I ask them if they’re happy with how I’ve expressed it, if they would like me to use their real name or to change the name. And then I always incorporate the changes.


And if anybody said to me for any reason, even if they had shared their story with me willingly, “I’ve changed my mind. I just don’t want that in…” or, “Could you leave that out…” or, “That is very hurtful…” without a doubt I would just remove it, I wouldn’t ask a question. I wouldn’t argue to keep it in. I’m so conscious of those issues.


With my daughter, I changed the chapter that she wanted me to change. And I offered it to my 14-year-old son who was like, “Yeah, no. I don’t have time for that.” I got my husband to read it on his behalf, to ask him if he thought it was OK, if I had violated my son’s privacy too much. And he was fine with it. He said, “It’s perfectly OK.”



Even though you state that you think that you’re a better parent than he is? That made me laugh so much.



No, I never said that I’m a better parent than he is — did I say that?



There’s a line in there that made me laugh so much, and it was the business with the fevers and things like that. I was like, “OK, yep.”



Absolutely. No, I’m not saying I’m a better parent than him.



Of course not.



I just notice things that he doesn’t notice, that’s all.



That’s all, that’s exactly right.


You talk about the fact that you fictionalize some of the situations in the book, which I found really quite interesting, because I guess my question with that too is how do you know how far to go with that? In the sense that, like, when do you stop making stuff up? Like, how do you know where the boundaries are of the fiction and the fact?



I wouldn’t say that I’ve actually ‘made stuff up,’ all of the interactions, all of the stories, that I share are true stories, the question is did my daughter exactly use those words when she spoke to me? Did she do exactly that? That’s where the fiction aspect comes in. It’s more bringing the whole story to life, it’s more, perhaps, conflating two events when they happened in separate time zones, they didn’t happen exactly in that order, that sort of thing more than actually just making stuff up. I mean I don’t think I would just suck something out of the air and then claim that was true.


For example, there are chapters there where I have attributed things to my children that have happened to other people’s children, so that it seems like that happened to my child and vice-versa too. There are things that have happened to my child where I’ve attributed that to someone else.


Just for the sake of protecting people’s privacy, so that it doesn’t become that everybody gets to feel like they know me or my children, which is what happens when people read a book like this. They really do see it as if they’re — they feel like they’re looking straight through a clear glass at you and they know who you are, without understanding, of course, that any writing is a construct, it is not a true representation of the human behind it, it is a crafted piece of writing. So, there are things that I hide. There are things that I reveal, but it’s not always the full picture.



That’s a very good thing for people to remember, I think, particularly those who read blogs.


With this book you’re also branching sort of out from the page and you’re creating a Facebook community. Can you tell us a bit about that?



Well, when I was writing this book I — I always learn so much when I’m writing a book. You always start off with an idea of what you think you’re going to do, but you don’t realize how much you change in the writing, which I always find while writing a book feels like such a self-help course, in a way. You really do get to explore yourself. While I was writing this book, of course, I did so much research on what’s going on for teenagers these days, and became more and more convinced as I was writing this book that parents are absolutely crucial to help our children survive and navigate this terrible kind of cyber world that they seem to be so locked into.


A friend of mine, who I write about in this book, Kate, whose 14-year-old son, JP, committed suicide, she has been a great teacher, for me, during the writing of this book about what goes on for parents and how easy it is for a teenager to really just decide they don’t want to be here. I think our kids are a generation of sad, lonely and anxious kids.


I almost became a little bit evangelical about this belief that the answer to so many of the issues that our kids are facing, whether it is depression and anxiety and eating disorders, the answer is that we as parents need to be more connected, we need to be more grown up. And, the more research I did and the more I looked at myself and the more thinking I did about it I became kind of convinced of this fact.


But, I also felt that parents are quite disconnected from each other, we’re all working, we’re all sort of sucked up in our own worlds. I wanted to create an online community where people could feel connected to each other and be reminded of little things that we all can do to stay connected to our teenagers.


I launched this campaign called ‘A Million Connected Parents’ and I’ve got various projects that I’m trying to set up around that as well, where I’ve had little bracelets made in South Africa that have a bead on it that say, “One in a million,” and, “Always be connecting,” and the proceeds of those bracelets will go to the women who make those beaded bracelets, as well as to a foundation in South Africa that supports teenagers at risk.


I wanted parents to be able to buy a little bracelet for themselves and one for their teenager, just as a little act of connection with their teenagers, because one of the complaints that I heard so much from parents is how difficult it is to connect to their teenagers, how their teenagers push them away and there’s just no way in.


I just think small little gestures, like leaving a little bracelet on somebody’s bed or at their computer, something like that, it’s such small little things, but they’re just ways of helping us to stay engaged with our kids and for them to remember that we’re there for them and we have their backs.



Which is amazing, that sounds terrific, but I wonder too with that sort of thing, because that’s obviously going to take a bit of time to manage and organize. I guess you’ve also got promotion for the book and various other things that you do. I know that you do teaching. How do you balancing writing time with all of those other things?



I don’t know, Allison, that is such a good question. Last year I did a business course. I had a book that had come out in 2012 with one of the top international publishing houses that absolutely bombed. It was a disaster. I swore that I would not go through again, that I would not spend two years of my life writing and trying to offer the world something of value only to have it sort of die on the shelves. In fact, it didn’t even make it to the shelves. It was like you couldn’t even find the book when it came out.


I invested in a business course last year and I decided that if I do anything it’s got to have a life. It’s got to have a way of supporting me and my family. And that’s what I have been doing. I spend, say, a year writing and then I’ve realized that in order for us to get our books into the hands of readers we cannot rely on publishers, it has to be author-driven.


This is one of the things I actually teach other writers is how to drive your own process and how to make sure your book gets into the hands of as many readers as possible and not to rely on publishers and to see what it is that you can do, because the whole model and the whole way of the publishing world of working is changing. It’s no longer that publishers are the king. I believe readers are the king. The way that we get our book into the hands of readers is to connect with readers as much as possible.


The authors who think, “I’m just going to write a book, get a publisher and that’s how it’s going to be,” like I used to think, I think that is a very old and it’s a dying model. If we want to be authors in the new awakened social media world, we have to get new skills and we have to spend some time writing and we have to spend some time connecting with our audience. And, that’s what I’m doing for the next six months.



With that, because people talk a lot about the idea of the author platform and that kind of stuff, is your idea of connecting and promotion, is that an online thing, or an in-person thing? I mean what sort of things will you be doing? I mean beyond the Facebook community, obviously, which is a massive thing. Do you blog? Do you talk? What do you do?



I don’t blog, that is one thing that I don’t do. I don’t have my own blog, I blog for blog called Mind, Body, Green, which is an American blog which has a huge readership, which I think is one way of building up our networks and that sort of thing. I do think it’s worthwhile doing some form of blogging, even if it’s not one’s own, and to choose one social media platform that one likes and enjoys and feels really connected to. For example, like I can’t Tweet, I don’t understand Twitter, I’ve tried.


I love Facebook, Facebook is something that I relate to. I connect to it and I connect to people through that. And, through that I actually ran what I call an early adopter campaign for the release of my new book, which is where I put a call out to my community and said, “I’m looking for 200 readers who would be interested in getting a free copy of my book the month before it comes out, and who will then write a review of the book before the book comes out so that when the book comes out it’s almost like there’s a bridal party waiting to greet it rather than the bride pitching up and there being nobody there, which is normally what happens when a book comes out.


Because I had this very connected Facebook community, of not that many people at this point, but it’s about 2,500 people that I’ve developed over the years, I had 200 people put their hands up. I convinced my publisher to give them all a free copy of the book a month before it came out.


Then by the time the book came out there were about 78 reviews on Amazon, and for that reason the book went to #1 and it has been sort of just hanging around #1 on Amazon Kindle for the last couple of weeks, and that has something to do with, not to do with me, but to do with the engagement that I was able to get from my Facebook community around this book.


I do that, and, of course, I do lots and lots of speaking. I respond to all of my emails, I respond to all my Facebook messages. I spend quite a bit of time connecting with people, because you simply need to have a handful of true fans who love what you do and who will help you spread the word, we can’t do it on our own. So, you have to write stuff that connects with people and you have to connect to those people and they become part of your tribe, you know? Seth Goden’s tribe, I’ve learned so much from him.


I think that is the key to getting your book into the hands of as many readers as possible. And not even necessarily if they pay for it. I don’t mind giving stuff away, I think it’s part of it. We gave away 200 free copies of the book in the hope that those people will then go and tell other people about it and hopefully some people will buy the book.



Which is a great idea, and that’s obviously paid off really well, it’s working beautifully.



In this specific situation hopefully it has, although we haven’t got figures yet on sales, but it certainly has helped with the Amazon ranking. Of course, all of those things count. I think one has to have a very broad view of all of the different things that one should attempt and get out of one’s comfort zone, because I’m so — all of this stuff, can I just say, is so far out of my comfort zone.


I don’t love doing all of this stuff, I do love connecting with readers, but I have learned that this is what is required and it’s part of the job of being a writer, doing all of this kind of stuff, putting yourself out there and thinking in a different kind of way about my books, because I would rather that my books, and the message of the books, spread rather than people are going to buy, actually spend the money on the book. I would much rather that the message of the book was spread, and that, in turn, creates a sense of your presence and your profile and your personality online. And that, in turn, down the line, can get you a speaking gig somewhere.


These things are not really measurable, so I’m not obsessed with the numbers and all of this kind of thing, but I think one has to have kind of a big vision about how all of the pieces fit together and to spread yourself over those pieces so that you are spreading your message, not just through your book, but through some social media platforms, through speaking engagements, and engaging with people in a real and vulnerable way.



Let’s finish up with top three tips for people who want to be writers, who want to have a writing career.



Well, when I take people on writing retreats the only thing that I really care about by the end of the time that I’m with them is that the understand this concept of your writing voice. And I believe that the start of writing a fantastic book, a book that hasn’t been written before is that you have to nail your own writing voice. And, you have to do whatever it takes to find that and that means that you have to have courage, you have to have the courage to be vulnerable. You have to have the courage to go as deep as you can inside yourself and to not necessarily write about your pain, even if you’re writing about fictional characters, but certainly to write from that place, because that is what makes your voice utterly unique.


That would be the first thing that I would say. The second thing would be that it is really important to get feedback and support during the writing process. It is all to easy to sit for years and years and years and rehash and reedit the same stuff over and over again, but if you don’t ever get a mentor or somebody who can give you constructive, helpful feedback about what works, what doesn’t work, where your craft needs to lift its game, how you can engage emotionally better with your characters, you’re just going to be treading water, I think. I think getting feedback and support is so important for writers.


Finally, I would say that the most important thing is to simply commit to the process and to be contentious about learning the craft, because it’s something that can take a long time and not to ever give up. It can take a long time before we ever get a lucky break.


I would also say don’t regard getting a publisher as the be all and end all of your writing career. The way the world works these days it that there are so many ways for you to get your writing out there, social media and the online world means that we have numerous platforms for getting our writing out there. And, that the book market is changing. Be at the forefront of that change. Don’t get hung up on any one thing, do the work, and good luck.


I think people who preserve and people who really stay with the process, I mean just my dad spent 20 years writing his book. He got rejected by many publishers and finally, after 20 years, he’s finished his book and his memoir has just been released. I think that’s the kind of commitment one needs if you’re going to write, just keep at it and know that this is something that you have to do. There has to be a hunger inside of you that’s never going to be satisfied until it’s done, and that’s what is going to carry you over the line.



Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time today, Joanne. I really appreciate it. Best of luck with the book and getting the message out there and all of the other things that you’ve got going on.



Thank you so much, Allison. I really appreciate being part of this.

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