Liz Byrski: Journalist and author

image-lizbyrski200Liz Byrski is a freelance journalist and author of 14 non-fiction and fiction books. Her latest novel is Bad Behaviour, a story of three women coming to terms with their past.

As a journalist she has over 40 years’ experience in the media, both in England and Australia. She worked on ABC Radio in Perth and went on to become an executive producer there. She has worked as a freelance journalist in Australia since 1981 and has written for many publications including The Australian, Homes and Living, Cosmopolitan and Weekend News.

Her first novel was published in 2004 and since then she has written three more books featuring older women as their central characters.

Click play to listen. Running time: 27.45

Bad Behaviour

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today Liz.

Liz
It’s a pleasure Valerie to be with you.

Valerie
Tell us when did you realize that you wanted to write and you wanted to make a career out of it?

Liz
I wanted to be a writer all my life really. When I was at school writing was the only thing that I was any good at so I assumed that I would be a writer. It was only when I told my parents, when I was 16 I told my parents that I was going to be a writer and they were absolutely horrified. It wasn’t a real job.

Valerie
How did you react to that?

Liz
I was shocked really because actually it was the only thing that I was any good at school and I was a great reader. To me people who wrote books must have a job. My father said that I would never earn a living and I’d be a burden on the economy. My mother said that nobody would marry me because women writers were bossy, interfering and opinionated.

It was quite crushing really and so I was offered that choice that many women my age were offered which was nurse, teacher or secretary. I picked secretary.

Valerie
How did you then transition into a writing career?

Liz
I was working as a secretary in England at Gatwick Airport and the writers, journalists used to come into our office everyday and use our phone to phone through his copy. It suddenly dawned on me that journalism was a job which involved writing. I thought maybe that I could do that because he was obviously earning a living. And other journalists were earning a living. So I asked him how you became a journalist.

He said well you could start by going out and doing a few interviews at weekends and seeing if you can sell the stories to the newspaper. Because of course in those days there were no university degrees in journalism. So I did go out and collect some stories at the weekends and I did manage to sell them to the local paper. Then after a few months of doing that and still doing my secretarial job I saw that the paper that I was working for, which was one of a group of papers, was actually looking for a journalist.

They kept advertising the position and advertising, and advertising, and clearly they couldn’t get anyone. So I applied for the job and I got it. I was very surprised. I was quite ignorant really. I didn’t really know anything about the media or about the principles of journalism or ethics or any of those sorts of things. It was all a bit of a shock to the system but that was how I got into it.

Valerie
Wonderful, so obviously you have worked as a journalist for about 40 years. What then prompted you to write your first novel in 2004 because that’s very, very different?

Liz
Yeah, it is very different and but of course it was what I had always wanted. When I told my parents that I wanted to be a writer I knew that I wanted to be a novelist. I think that I probably also meant that I wanted to be a rich and famous novelist but I don’t think that I actually said that.

So my first books were all sort of extensions of journalism because I was trying to earn a living. A lot of my life I have been a sole parent and most of my life in journalism I’ve been a freelancer and I believed that the way to make a living by writing was as a freelance writer. That meant non-fiction. So that was what I had always done and I never really had the time to explore fiction because being a parent and a full-time worker as well there just weren’t the chances to do that.

It was when my children had grown up and left home and I had more time to myself that I began to think about writing fiction and decided that I was going to try and move into the field of fiction.

Valerie
Was that a difficult transition? Did you have to retrain your brain into a different way of writing? How did that happen for you?

Liz
I did find it difficult. I have of course the first novel which is in a drawer in my bedroom and will never come out. I also have a children’s novel which is similar. I found it very difficult and even when I had written the first novel and it went out to various publishers. They all sent it back and nobody told me why. But finally one publisher did say why. What she said was, “Is this polemic or is it fiction because it can’t be both and at the moment it isn’t either.”

It was such a gift because it showed me what I had done wrong. It showed me that I had been trying to impose certain things on the readers, it had that didactic style that journalism and non-fiction has. Of course with fiction you need to let go of that you have to be prepared to let the readers make up their own minds about the story and the characters.

So that was really a gift that one sentence in the letter. That was when I wrote the novel again and it was sent out again. But I still find from time to time if I feel particularly passionate about some aspect of the story that I’m writing  I tend to get didactic and my editor will very sweetly write back to me and say, “Umm, yes, look at this.” Just to let me know so I can see what I’ve done.

Valerie
Writing a novel is very different in terms of just its length because as a journalist there is a sense of instant gratification because you write a story and before long it’s published. But a novel has a much longer gestation period. Did you find yourself being impatient or not getting used to that really long period or how was that for you?

Liz
That was hard. You do get used to as a journalist and as a broadcaster in live radio, so you do get used to instant gratification or fairly instant. I’m not a patient person. So I’ve had to retrain myself to rest with it and let it go. And one of the things that I am trying to do at the moment is to change my responses to things around me that relate to my writing and allow myself more space and time.

I have gotten used to the long gestation period. I actually think that I need longer than I’m taking at the moment. But it’s been an interesting retraining and not a bad thing to do at my time of life really. I should have started it 20 years ago.

Valerie
How long is it taking you to write a novel?

Liz
It’s taking me now about 18 months because I work as well. I teach at Curtin University in Perth. I teach writing there two and half days a week. But I do like to get into a flow as much as possible and keep going quite quickly.

Valerie
Do you find that you can do that in your days off from teaching or do you also have to take a period off where you are not doing any teaching at all and you’ve just got a full time period where you can focus on your writing?

Liz
The teaching actually keeps me focused because I know that I’m there two and half days a week. It makes the best use of the rest of my time. I’ve once or twice taken like a month to finish something if I needed to meet the deadline. With one of the books I did that. Well actually with two I’ve done that.

But I actually find that the sort of creative tension that’s created for me by teaching as well keeps me very focused. I’ve got better as I’ve got older at writing in fragmented time. I used to think that I couldn’t write anything unless I had a day to do it, in a day period rather than in hours. Now I know that I can sit down and do an hour and then leave it and then go back to it. So I’ve got better at that I suppose as I’ve got older.

Valerie
Tell us more about your latest novel, Bad Behaviour. What’s it about and how did this idea come into your head?

Liz
Bad Behaviour, like my other novels, has older people as the central characters because I think that older women particularly are underrepresented. So I write about the lives of older people and particularly about older women. In this particular book the three women, well there are four women actually, three main characters and one less significant but important character.

They are all about coming to terms with there past. In this book which is a little different from the earlier books, I actually look at them when they were younger women. So look at the events of their lives that have brought them where they are today. The book begins in 1999 in western Australian and in England with two women who knew each other in 1968.

What I wanted to write about was the events of 1968 and the world in 2008. The way the events of 1968 shaped these women’s lives although at the time of that very turbulent political time, neither of them thought they were political and neither of them was particularly interested in what was happening in the world. I was wanting to say that our lives, whoever we are, our lives are influenced by the spirit of the times and that the decisions that we make and the bad behaviour of our youth is what often determines the rest of our lives. In 1999 the women are looking back and then the story goes back to the 60s and then it comes forward again to 2000 through 2008.

Valerie
When you were writing those story lines did you find it easy to switch between the two eras or did you write them both in parallel or did you write one and then the other. How did that work for you?

Liz
I started off writing it beginning in the 60s. I intended to write it chronologically but with a huge gap between the 60s and the turn of the century. And that was okay. But my publishers were concerned that because they felt my readers were always looking for contemporary stories about contemporary characters that starting with people age 19 and 20 might be a turnoff for them.

So they asked me to see if I could work it another way, to begin with  the mature characters so that readers got to know those characters and then would be interested to find out about their earlier lives. Initially it was written chronologically and then the structure was changed later.

Valerie
Do you find that there is much fiction out there with older female characters?

Liz
No there really isn’t. I think that we are being terribly badly underrepresented. There are older characters in fiction but there aren’t books or television drama that is centred on the lives of older people, particularly on older women. When I first started looking for books like that to read myself about ten years ago I couldn’t find anything at all. It seemed that all the characters that were older were maybe as stereotypes really sort of to disrupt the lives or the storylines of the other characters.

There are some from England and some from the US but frankly not very many. I couldn’t find anything Australian at all. I’m actually just completing a PhD on this subject at the moment so I have now made a much closer study in popular fiction in Australia since the mid-90s. There are only about four books in which the characters are older than me and the story revolves around those people.

Valerie
Why do you think that is?

Liz
I think that it is just the way that older women are viewed. Older women will tell you themselves, you know, I’m 65 but women once they get past 50 will tell you that they feel invisible. We have actual physical experiences of being invisible of when people just do not see us in a queue or waiting somewhere, something like this.

But we also feel invisible because we are not visible in the culture because there is a sort of representational flattery about seeing yourself constantly portrayed on television or in fiction. Fictional characters are very powerful in that way. So if you don’t see those you feel invisible. I think that we are a culture that is obsessed with youth and beauty and sex.

Older women obviously aren’t young. They are not considered sexy or sensual unless they are trying to look much younger than they are. Older women are not considered to be beautiful because these days to be beautiful you have to be youthful and shiny and golden and glossy, have no rolls of fat.

Valerie
Was it a conscious decision to revolve many of your stories around women of a certain age? Is that just what came out?

Liz
It was a conscious decision. I couldn’t find the books that I wanted to read and as a freelancer you make your living by finding a gap in the market and filling it. I thought I’ve always wanted to write fiction and this is an obvious gap and maybe I can write fiction about older women. The amazing thing to me is my first novel came out in 2004 and it went really well.

Women were writing to me and turning up at functions and so on and saying, “Nobody’s writing about our lives. It’s so good to read about women like us in fiction.” I thought now that this is started other people will start doing it, but they’re not.

Valerie
That’s great for you.

Liz
It is great for me. I’m not sure that it is great for the whole idea of trying to make older women more visible but it is certainly great for me.

Valerie
How does that make you feel when people respond in that way and they tell you what a great impact that your books have on their lives?

Liz
It’s very exciting obviously and it’s very gratifying to find people feel really emotional about the fact that somebody is identifying in print with their lives and with the issues that they are concerned about. They say that you make me feel I’m not mad because other women feel like I do. I can see that from the books. So that is incredibly gratifying.

But it also sometimes people do tell me and quite often actually of things that they have done because they have read the books. That is also pretty exciting but it also feels like a huge responsibility because that honestly never occurred to me that people might actually change their lives because of what I wrote.

Valerie
Like what? What has happened?

Liz
One woman for example went to Peru for six months to work in an orphanage. It was something that she had always wanted to do and she read my first novel, Gang of Four, and felt that was what she was going to do. It was in mid-life and the characters in the book were going off and doing things that they had always wanted to do. So she went and did that.

I was talking to a woman in Sydney last year after a talk that I had given and she told me she had been a corporate lawyer all her life. When she read one of the books she gave it up and she retrained as a swimming teacher because she had always wanted to be. She had been a state swimming champion when she was a teenager and she’d always wanted to do that. But she’d been pushed into the law by her family and so she gave it up and retrained and was having a wonderful life being a swimming teacher.

Many women have told me they left their marriages. I had to say that wasn’t my intention. But what they felt was from reading the books the could view mid-life as a time when they could follow a different direction. If they were in relationships that weren’t working out then it wasn’t that there was no choice. There is life after 50. That’s what older women and younger women write to me about that they feel so much more positive about life after 50.

Valerie
I presume obviously that you draw inspiration and ideas from your own life but also that of your friends and your peers to get into the heads of other women who are around you and their lives and their choices. Do you feel a sense of responsibility or a bit scared that you might be drawing too much from the lives of your friends or peers in your books?

Liz
No, not really. All is seed capitol for fiction and I never model any character on any one particular person. I haven’t used any events that happened to friends of mine. But as you know, you’re a journalist and a writer, over a period of time and I’ve been working for a very long time, you meet an awful lot of people. You interview a lot of people. You read a lot. You see a lot of people in different situations and drawing on the lives of my friends any more than I do on the lives of any other women whom I’ve never met but might have seen in what places or on the television or whatever. None of my friends has ever thought that I have modelled anyone on them or used an event from their life.

Valerie
That’s good. When you are in your writing mode, when you are actually writing a novel do you have a routine, a daily routine that helps you get the words out?

Liz
Yes, I do. I am fairly disciplined actually because for so much of my life I was a freelancer and I had children. If you don’t stick after it you don’t get paid and children don’t eat. I suppose I’ve gotten thankful for that background. I don’t write on the days that I work at Curtin. I’m usually too tired when I get home but other days including weekends I will sort of get up, go for a walk and have coffee and read the paper.

Then I’ll start writing. I prefer to start around 10:00 or 10:30, something like that. I’ll work through possibly to about 4:00 or 5:00. I might have a break then, a cup of tea and something to eat. Then I might go back and write some more or I might go and watch the news later on and something on television. But I do work fairly consistently.

Valerie
Do you have a goal of a word count or anything like that?

Liz
No, I don’t have a goal on the word count. I’m simply slogging through the story and going where it takes me. Some days I might spend a lot of time writing 500 words and then another day I might write 3000 or 4000 or more.

Valerie
So what happens the next day? Do you just pick up where you left off or do you review and edit or what happens?

Liz
I review. I always go back and review the work that I did the previous day. I then edit it and that gets me back into writing nearer the end.

Valerie
How far is that off?

Liz
I think that they will probably bring this one out maybe before Christmas next year.

Valerie
So you are sort of at the early stages of it or?

Liz
Yes, it’s the early stages, yes. So it will either be sort of pre-Christmas next year or maybe just after Christmas next year.

Valerie
Is it daunting for you or exciting?

Liz
It’s very exciting when it’s still an idea in your head I find but when you start to write it it becomes daunting because for me I find that the characters come alive. I get terribly agitated about whether they are going to actually work out into a story or not, whether I’ve got  too many viewpoints, and whether the very, very vague storyline in my head is actually going to be strong enough to sustain a novel.

Valerie
And typically is it?

Liz
We have been so far, as she says crossing her fingers.

Valerie
Finally what is your advice for aspiring writers out there and want to do what you have done and publish their novels?

Liz
Two pieces of advice I suppose. One is don’t wait for inspiration because it probably won’t ever come. Some inspiration does come but it comes once you get started. You have to sit down and start writing and keep writing. Even if you know that it’s not very good the only way to get it good is to keep at it. So take the plunge. Put words on paper and hang in there.

The other bit of advice and I think that this is really important, don’t show your writing to the people you love and ask their opinion on it because depending on how they feel that day, that’s the reaction you will get. I would say this even if you are living with a writer or have a parent who’s a writer their emotions about you will always affect the way they respond to your work. That’s the first thing.

And the other thing is that if they are not writers the fact that they like it or don’t like it doesn’t actually mean a lot. It doesn’t mean if your children or your partner think what you have written is wonderful it doesn’t mean that it is wonderful. It doesn’t mean that a publisher will want to publish it. So protect yourself. Take it to someone who knows, a manuscript assessor, an agent, a professional editor. Base the changes that you make and the decisions that you take on what they tell you.

Valerie
That’s great advice. Actually I always ask that question and I don’t think that anyone has ever said that before. So yeah, I really like it. Not the bit about taking it to an agent but don’t show it to the people you love because you know what, they love you so they are going to say…

Liz
They really do love you or that particular day they don’t love you as much as they usually do. It’s really, really difficult to read and critique the work of someone you love or who loves you or both.

Valerie
Wonderful advice and on that note, thank you very much for your time today Liz.

Liz
It’s a great pleasure Valerie, lovely talking to you.


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