Nick Earls: Award-winning fiction author

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NickNick Earls has written 5 adult novels, 5 young adult novels and 2 collections of short stories.

His books ZigZag Street, Bachelor Kisses, World of Chickens, and Perfect Skin, are about men – men who can’t commit – men who are bachelors. Then the men get older, fall in and out of love and finally settle down.

They’re humorous books with characters that many Generation X readers relate to.

His young adult novels, After January, 48 Shades of Brown, Making Laws for Clouds, Monica Bloom and his latest novel Joel and Cat Set the Story Straight deal with changes, choices and taking risks.

His first novel Zigzag Street is being developed into a feature film. It was developed into a play and has played 34 venues (106 performances) in every state of Australia.

Nick’s novels Perfect Skin, After January and 48 Shades of Brown were also developed into plays.

Click play to listen. Running time: 33.16

 

ZigZag Street 48 Shades of Brown Perfect Skin Monica Bloom AFTER JANUARY

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Nick, thanks for joining us today.

Nick:
That’s a pleasure.

Valerie:
Now tell us. You went from being a general practitioner, a doctor, to being a writer. Tell us about how this happened and that transition.

Nick:
It happened slowly. It wasn’t a transition I made in one step because I’m not a big risk taker, really, but I’d always wanted to write and when I was finishing school, even though writing was the thing that I most wanted to do, I couldn’t see any way of turning that into a job at the time. And there just weren’t as many creative writing courses around then as there are now.

And I’d seen my mother work in medicine and her father worked in medicine and I think both of them worked part-time, and I thought, from their stories, medicine sounded really interesting. And maybe I could have the chance to study that and do that as a job, but work at it part time and see if I could make something happen with the writing too.

So I did my medical degree and after a couple of years in a hospital, working full time, I went into part-time general practice and the rest of the time I started writing. So my writing got going in the time that I wasn’t working as a GP and I think having worked so hard to get myself a really good part-time job, I made sure I made the most of the writing time and I actually did sit down and write. I didn’t just sit down and watch daytime TV.

So I was a part-time GP for quite a while and then I became a part-time medical editor. My last medical job was editing a section of a GP’s magazine. So I could do that from home even though the magazine was based in Sydney and that job was really flexible and I could fit my writing in around that.

Then in 1998, I found myself in the rather unexpected position of people buying my books in a number of places and suddenly, writing became a full-time job.

Valerie:
And what was the thing that made you finally decide this is going to be full-time?

Nick:
Well, I think it was when Zigzag Street came out in the U.K. and Bachelor Kisses came out in Australia and I did book tours in both countries and that took me the best part of three months. And it was very hard to keep editing the magazine or the section of the magazine while I was doing that and I can remember I was taking page proofs on the plane on the way to England and correcting them and getting to the HOTEL in London and phoning Sydney with the changes that needed to be made. And it was quite stressful trying to keep all the balls in the air and I just thought, “I really don’t think I can fit this in anymore.”

And I mentioned that to my publicist and my agent and a few of the other people who had said to me for a while, “It’s so good that you’ve got this part-time medical job so that you don’t have to get stressed about the writing income.” And what they all said to me was, “I don’t know why you’re still doing that job,” and I thought, “You could have told me that that time had come before now. That the time had come when I could give that up and just be a writer full-time.”

So yeah, 10 years ago I let that go and adjusted to the idea that writing was getting to be my job and that I would sit at home and make up stories and that I would travel around on book tours and things like that. And in time, I adjusted to the fact that I wasn’t getting anything that resembled a regular paycheck and that money would come in in lumps and some months it wouldn’t come in at all, but as long as people are buying the books and other things are happening with them and you can kind of get a bit of ahead of the game, the pressure dies down after a while and you realise it’s what you’re doing.

Valerie:
And when was the last time you worked as a GP then?

Nick:
1994. So a while ago now.

Valerie:
Sure.

Nick:
That was the last time I did anything clinical and from ’94 until the middle of ’98, I was being the continuing medical education editor for Medical Observer magazine.

Valerie:
Right.

Your first book, Zigzag Street is about six weeks of Richard Derrington’s life. And he’s 28 and single and stumbles from one incident to another. Tell us about Richard and how he came about and how he became the lead character in your first novel.

Nick:
Well, I think a few years before he actually evolved as a character, I was living around the corner from Zigzag Street in Red Hill and Brisbane and occasionally, when I go to the shops I’d see the street sign there. And I’d think it was an unusual name for a street and it doesn’t actually zig and zag very much; it goes up and down a lot.

But anyway, somehow it got called Zigzag Street, back in the 19th century, and I thought that it’d make a great book title and one day maybe I’ll come up with a story that zigs and zags enough that I can give that street name to it as a book title and maybe – and it’ll have some connection to the street.

And I found myself, in 1993 and 1994, with my writing rather stuck, I’d written one collection of short stories that mainly my mother had bought, which is highly supportive but you can’t make a career out of selling to mum. So I needed something else to work for me and I think I’d been trying a lot of things that – well, I was trying to be clever, I think, with my writing and not quite being clever enough. What I should have been trying to do was connect with my characters and through them connect with readers; create something that people might actually relate to.

So I then sort of came upon this idea of a character whose life was a bit of a shambles and was zigging and zagging and who lived in Zigzag Street. He became this 28-year-old lawyer who’d been dumped and wasn’t coping with it very well. I started to accumulate ideas about the incidents that might occur and I realised I wanted him to be a nice guy but I wanted his life to be characterised by chaos.

So I thought about how that would affect the shape of the story and I thought I want it to become progressively more chaotic as it goes on and I want him – I want to kind of destabilise him and then see what he makes of it. And then I thought I want the answer to this, or I want his way out of this to come through chaos.

I don’t want it to be one of those stories where someone kind of redeems themselves through good work. So I want to – I want it to kind of feel more real than that. And I thought about models for chaos and I could remember, back when I was at school and at uni, learning about Browning and motion, where molecules bump into each other and move in really unpredictable ways.

And it seemed to be a really strong model of chaotic movement to me and I thought, I was just kind of thinking idly about that one day, and that’s when I came up with the idea of him meeting this girl through running through a mall in the middle of the city, carrying his shoe and the shoe flies out of his hand at the top of a travelator and sails down into the crowd below and hits someone in the head. And he takes her off to get her medical attention and maybe they end up together.

I liked – that idea really appealed to me and I just thought, “I don’t know if I can possibly sell this in a book,” so it just made me work really hard in the lead-up to it so that by the time it got to that most chaotic point in his life, people would go with him. People would believe in the chaos and then after they could believe that that could happen.

Valerie:
And your next book, Bachelor Kisses, focuses mainly on the character John Marshall. He’s a medical graduate. Is John based on you or people you know?

Nick:
Well, we’ve certainly got some common ground but I didn’t want him to be based on me too much but I figured after I had written Zigzag Street and I was thinking, “What am I going to write next,” I thought how I had those two years working in a hospital. “There’s got to be something there. There’s got to be material there.”

So what I wanted was, rather than to plunder my own hospital experience for stories, I thought I could create a hospital that would feel like the real deal, because I’d worked in one for a couple of years and I’d been a student in a whole bunch of other hospitals, so I thought, “I’ve got a good idea of how hospitals work. I should be able to use the hospital as a setting.”

So in creating the hospital and setting it back when I had been in hospitals, I figured I could get the medicine right and the thing about medicine is it gives you so much, in terms of story potential. There’s so much you can do with it, so it’s a really kind of fertile ground for storytelling and if you know how it works, you’ll come up with new stuff.

And at the same time, I was having John in a sharehouse and making a bit of a mess of things in ways that I may have done myself from time to time. And at that time in his life, he was really very kind of restricted, in terms of his kitchen repertoire, making a carbonara recipe that involved crushed Weet-Bix.

And that now seems – that now seems absurd, I must admit but it’s possible I had a recipe kind of like that at the time. All I can do is assure you that in the 20 years since then, I’ve learned a great deal and my kitchen repertoire is just infinitely more varied and sometimes quite successful.

Valerie:
Well, John obviously learned a great deal as well because you followed up Bachelor Kisses with Perfect Skin, which is John 10 years on. At the time of writing Bachelor Kisses, though, did you know that there was another book in John or how did that come about?

Nick:
No. Well, I didn’t know there was another book in him and I think that’s a really interesting way of looking at it because it’s sort of natural now that both of those books are out there to see Perfect Skin as the sequel to Bachelor Kisses.

Valerie:
Yes.

Nick:
But I didn’t write Bachelor Kisses thinking I would do more with that character. I left him at a time when he still had a lot to learn and when, a few years later, I started thinking about this new potential story idea of this single father with a 6-month-old baby, about who this person was, why he was single, what his past was like.

I started thinking further back into his past, about him in the present and decided he’d be a laser skin surgeon and I realised that I was – that in setting it when I did and making him 10 years older than John Marshall in Bachelor Kisses, that he would probably have gone to uni with him and – because he would be about that age now I thought, “Wait a second. Why don’t I look at the idea of it maybe being him 10 years later.”

And as soon as I did that, it felt like a really interesting thing to do because where we find him in Perfect Skin is a plausible place for him to be 10 years after Bachelor Kisses, though not the obvious place to be.

Valerie:
Right.

Nick:
And because of that, it meant that I immediately knew his past but knew that a lot of stuff must have gone in that intervening 10 years and that just gave me so much more for Perfect Skin. But because it came along as an idea that I wanted to write in its own right, it sort of ended up as a stand-alone novel as well so that if people just – I mean, Perfect Skin has come out in America and in Italy and Bachelor Kisses hasn’t come out in either of those countries. So it can be read independently but if you happen to read both books, then it gives you something else as well.

Valerie:
But because it can be read independently, when you were writing it, did you actually find it useful or constraining to have that background for John’s character?

Nick:
Mostly useful and it meant that I didn’t have to put a lot of effort into creating a new back-story for the character that wouldn’t appear in the novel anyway. I like to have a good understanding of my character’s back-story, even if I’m not going to use a lot of that in the novel.

Anytime I’m creating a character, is I want to know them well. I want to know a lot about them but if I know 100 things about them, that puts me in the position to come up with the best three or four to use to represent them well. But it’s quite a lot of effort to go to to come up with that material and I’ve got to do that anytime I make a character.

In this case, I had a character who had quite a bit of that stuff there and there were very few times when it limited me. Mostly, it meant that I knew him well or he was like someone I’d known a few years before and was bumping into again, a few years later. So mostly it felt like a very good thing.

But the good thing is that when I’m writing a novel, I don’t plunge into the writing straight away. I do a lot of thinking before hand and I play around with the possibilities in the ideas. So if there were times when it presented me any kind of obstacle, there was usually some kind of creative way around that gave me something new for the story anyway. So it wasn’t a problem.

Valerie:
Now also, you’ve spent the few years writing fiction for young adults so what was it like switching gears and why did you want to write for this age group?

Nick:
Well for me, it starts with the characters and the story and I’m not usually thinking so much about who might read it in the end and I think there are some stories that really suit ages like 16, 17. It’s a really interesting time of life; it’s a time of life when it feels that there’s a lot at stake, where a lot of things are kind of sharply in focus.

When you’re making the transition from being a child and adolescent into being an adult and we all make that in different ways and we all go through different things while doing that. So I guess I want to write about that time of life because it’s an interesting time and because it’s a natural home for some of the story ideas that I come up with.

But at the same time, I do know that if I’m writing a story with a teenage central character, it’s very likely that any publisher is going to see people that age as the main kind of readership for the story and it will be marketed as a young adult novel. And I’m quite happy about that. I mean, if I write a story about a 17-year-old, I’d really like it to be in the hands of some 16 and 17-year-olds because I think it’s quite important that – that we get to read contemporary stories set in our own part of the world and get to have lives like ours validated in stories.

That kind of regular teenage lives are worth reading about and worth writing about. You don’t have to have some of the big issues that go on in other books to make it worth writing a story. I think life, itself, can be a big enough issue.

Valerie:
So you say that it’s driven by the story and the characters in the story that’s better suited to that audience, but do you have to actually switch gears in terms of the way you write or anything like that?

Nick:
I don’t think I do that. I don’t consciously do – if I do that at all, I don’t think I’d do it much. I think that probably writing for 12-year-olds that might be different – or 10-year-olds but since I’m imagining that my young adult stuff is likely going to end up in the hands of people who are aged, say, 15 to 17, I don’t feel the need to write any differently for people that age. I don’t want to patronise readers that age by thinking that I need some different kind of fiction to people who happen to be older than them. But I do have to think quite a few things through because as the years go by, the gap between my teenage years and the present really starts to kind of widen and I think a lot of the concerns of a lot of people of that age are common across various times.

But some things do change; the gadgets change enormously. Mobile phones, Facebook, Myspace, iPods, all that stuff is out there now. I mean podcasting. What was that when I was at school?

A pod was something peas came in. It’s all very different now, but the way people feel about things is often still the same so it means that sometimes, if I’m going to write a story with a teenage character, I think I can set it now because I think I can kind of maneuver my way through the technology well enough to do that.

But on some occasions, I might not do that. For example, with Monica Bloom, where I had a story that I really wanted to write but part of her, at the heart of the story was the difficulty that the central character had in contacting Monica Bloom. And it was necessary that he only actually have contact with her on a few new occasions.

I couldn’t work out how to set that story out so in the end, I just thought, don’t set it now. Set it back when you were that age yourself when he couldn’t email her and when she didn’t have a mobile phone and when the contact wasn’t easy. And once I set it back there, it was a lot easier to write.

Valerie:
And your book, 48 Shades of Brown, deals with 17-year-old Dan, who has to make some major decisions in his life and he feels he’s not being listened to. It also won the Children’s Book Of The Year: Older Readers Award from the Children’s Book Council of Australia in 2002 and has reached young men who are full of angst. Have you received much feedback from young men for – about the book?

Nick:
I have over time and that’s been a very nice feature of putting this book out there. I think that’s one of the really rewarding things about putting any book out there is that sometimes people will really want to track you down and tell you that it’s connected with them. And it’s very interesting seeing the different ways that people read books and it’s kind of reinforced to me how individual the process of reading a book is.

I mean, what we take away from a book is very much influenced by what we bring to the book in the first place and what we need to take away from it. And since reading is different to watching a movie or watching TV, where you’re given the pictures and you’re given all the sounds, reading you do so much of that in your own head, so it’s interesting to see how differently people read some things.

So I have had quite a few emails from people who are the age of the central character of 48 Shades of Brown, who have said things like, “It’s like he’s got into my head and you think just like me.” And they have felt a bit better about themselves and their own totally understandable anxieties that are things that we don’t usually talk about. And I think it made them feel better to know that they weren’t alone with that.

But it’s also interesting to see the range of people who send emails like that. I remember one – I was getting a bunch of emails at the time from young guys saying, “This guy’s life is just like me.” And so the central character, Dan, he’s in his last year of school, he’s in Brisbane, he’s in a house with his mother’s sister and another uni student and one of those emails that said, “This guy’s life is just like me,” in the same email, the guy had described what his life actually was like.

And he’s 18 and he was living alone on a massive property in central Queensland because his parents had gone away for three months, so he was managing the property and at night, he was going out shooting feral dingoes that were killing the sheep. And during the day, he was reading my novel about this guy in his last year of school in Brisbane, and he was going, “This guy’s life is just like mine,” and I was thinking, “I can’t see one way that it’s like yours. But I’m really glad that you connected with the character. That’s a very nice thing.”

Valerie:
Yeah.

Nick:
I’ve also had emails from a few of the mothers of some guys of that age who have emailed to say, and it’s surprising it’s happened a number of times, emailed to say that they’d run into a difficult patch with their relationship with their son and then both of them had read 48 Shades of Brown and they’d been able to talk about it and it had actually brought them back together.

Valerie:
Wow. I bet you didn’t expect that, or did you?

Nick:
Not at all. Not at all. Exactly. It’s a huge thing to hear that from someone. It feels really good but you can never write a book expecting that that’ll happen.

Valerie:
No. Geez. So tell us about the character, Meg, in your book The Thompson Gunner, who gets troubled by flashbacks and dreams while traveling as an A-list comedian at festivals. How did that come about?

Nick:
Yeah, Meg was around a different character for me and I think, in a way, I’d sort of been holding her at arm’s length for a long time, without even realising it. I was born in Northern Ireland and I migrated to Australia shortly before I turned nine in the 1970s and it was very strange moving here because life in Northern Ireland was very different then.

In some ways, it was like really normal. I’d go to school, I lived on a farm, farming things happened, but also there was conflict in the place at the time and that had an impact on a whole lot of aspects of life, so that when I moved to Australia and tried to adjust to being a grade four student in Brisbane. I like – I spoke English with an accent and it took me a while to learn how to swim and to play cricket and a few other things.

But other than that, people I don’t know realised how different aspects of my life had been. So in order to fit in here, I kind of blocked them out for quite a while and what I found a few years ago was that when I was at writers’ festivals, I was avoiding the Irish writer’s sessions because they’d tell their version of Ireland and the conflicts they had been through and sometimes I got a sense that it was rather different to mine. And I’d think, “But I was there too,” and I just found it easier to avoid that.

And I also realised that I’d written, I think, seven books at that stage and completely avoided it.

Valerie:
Yeah.

Nick:
And then I thought, “Why have I shut that out?” And now I realised I had actually shut it out a long time ago and then it became something I wanted to explore but because I do what I do, I didn’t want to explore it as me.

Valerie:
Yeah.

Nick:
I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if I gave this to a character”? So I thought, “I need a character who I can tell myself is not me if I’m giving her these peeks at me or giving that character these peeks of me.” So I thought, “I’ll make the character a woman and I’ll make her a comedian and then I knew she wasn’t me.”

And because she was a comedian, I could send her on tour and I was on a book tour at the time, so I thought I’ll work with that. And it can be kind of destabilising going on a tour; you’re away from home, you’re out of your normal rhythms and routines. I thought, “I’m going to push her. I’m going to send her on tour. I’m going to destabilise her and this is the time when her past in Northern Ireland really comes to the surface and she actually has to deal with it.”

So I created a fictitious past for her; aspects of her story are definitely not mine but it was a really interesting experience for me working through all of that stuff. And because I’m a novelist, the way I would work that through is I would write a novel.

Valerie:
So did you work through it?

Nick:
More than I’d expected to, actually. I didn’t know if it was really such a slight move at the time and I know that when I was planning the novel, I would have some of the nightmares that I’d had intermittently for decades, to do with my childhood in Northern Ireland that I gave to Meg, the character. I just gave her my nightmares. I thought, “Why not? This is going to be really tough when I write the book, because a lot of this stuff is probably going to come to the surface,” but at that stage, I just couldn’t resist writing it. But what I actually found was, and this sounds like one of those kind of therapeutic things that people go through and talk about to Dr. Phil or something. When I actually wrote about it, I stopped having those nightmares and I haven’t had them since.

Valerie:
Really? Fascinating. As a full-time writer, tell us about your typical working day when you’re writing. Can you describe that to us?

Nick:
Well, if I’m writing a first draft the day is very much about the writing. I work in a separate building that’s out the back of my house. It’s 10 meters away from the rest of the house so that means that all my mess is confined to one place and that’s good for everyone.

I come down here by eight o’clock in the morning and I write a lot. In the cooler months of the year, I’ll go for a run before lunch, in the warmer months, I’ll go for a run late afternoon. I might buy some groceries but really, I will have my head stuck in my story for the great majority of the day and I will be worse company than usual the rest of the time.

So that’s how it is writing a first draft, which is why I try to spend only a few months each year writing a first draft, because I do like to have a life as well. A lot of the time, I’m taking care of business, organising things, I’m planning the next story or I’m writing the third draft of something, which doesn’t need quite that same level of attention, or I’m out doing events.

I might be on a book tour or going to writers’ festivals. The way I plan my year is I’ll block out times of a few months when I will sit at home and write and I won’t do events, because I actually find it really hard to change gears from the writing mode, when everything is in my head and intense but quiet, to the public mode where I’m standing up in front of audiences and talking about things.

I find that really hard to do in one go, so what I try to do is have a few months of writing time and then batch the events that are coming up so that I’ll have 10 or 20 things that I go and do, schools that I go and talk at, fundraising events that I do for things or conferences that I speak at. So then I’ll sit down and I’ll write all those talks, then I’ll go off and do the events and by the end of that, I’ll have talked about myself enough and I’ll be very keen to get back into the next lot of writing.

Valerie:
So when you are in that writing mode, do you have a quota for yourself per day or anything like that, of what you need to achieve? Like whether hourly or words?

Nick:
Yeah, yeah. I try really hard not to because otherwise, you can get obsessed with the quota but it’s sometimes really hard to avoid it, particularly now that I use software that tells me exactly how many words I’ve got, all the time. So it’s not like I even have to do a word count and there are times when I might write a few thousand words a day, but I’m only able to do that because I’ve got a year of preparation for the writing before I actually sit down and do it.

Valerie:
Right.

Nick:
And so the first draft often comes quite quickly.

But I can only write them because I write them into the outline document that’s about a quarter of the length of the draft anyway, and then I go and do something else for a month and then I come back to them and do another draft before anyone even sees it.

So there can be days when I write thousands of words but there aren’t many of those days in a year. They might all occur in a period of a few months but, I don’t think I could do that five or six days a week for 50 weeks a year or anything.

Valerie:
And then, finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writers, for people who are wanting to basically turn writing into a full-time career?

Nick:
What I’ve learned is that some people actually get the chance to do that and when I was an aspiring writer, the first thing everyone said was, “Don’t ever expect to make a living out of writing,” and now I know that sometimes people can. Many people don’t though and it’s not an easy career choice to make so I think the people who should be doing it are the people who can’t stop themselves.

I think the aspiring writers who are going to get through to the other side of it, get books published and maybe make something of it are the kinds of people who are the way I was in the 1980s and the early 90s, who while they might rationally be able to say to themselves, “Maybe the odds are against this and it isn’t such a smart career choice, but I just can’t stop myself writing the next story.” Those are the people who have the best chance of making it, I think.

And I think what those people should do if they can’t stop themselves writing the next story is they should find some way of earning some money in the meantime so that they take the pressure off things like food and rent and all that, because if you’re under stress from those things, it’s a lot harder to write.

So get yourself some good kind of work that means you don’t have to worry about money and – but ideally gives you some time to attend to the writing, and then make sure you do the writing. Don’t be one of these people who talks about wanting to be a writer someday. Read a lot, for sure, but make time to write and when you write, when you’ve written something, sit back and take a look at it and think, “Is this going to connect with readers? How do I make this connect with readers?” And I think anytime we’re writing something, we should think about that.

Writing something is not our best chance to show off to our friends how smart we are. It’s a chance to invent something that means something to other people and I think we’ve got to keep remembering that. Think, “Am I doing what I need to do to connect this with readers?”

Valerie:
Great advice. And thank you very much for your time today, Nick.

Nick:
Thank you. It’s my pleasure.


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