Pamela Freeman: Award-winning author and AWC presenter

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image-pamelafreeman200Pamela Freeman is an award-winning author and one of our creative writing teachers here at the Australian Writers’ Centre. Pamela is author of 19 books and her most recent, Blood Ties, is an epic fantasy and originally started as the thesis for her doctorate in creative arts. It’s the first in a trilogy, with the second and third books Deep Water and Full Circle coming soon.

Pamela started as a children’s writer, and many of her books have been shortlisted for the State Literary Awards, the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards, and many others. Pamela is also an accomplished script writer and has taught creative writing at the University of Technology, Sydney; the University of Sydney and, of course, with us at the Australian Writers’ Centre.

She speaks at writers’ festivals around the world and is best known for her series of fantasy novels, The Floramonde Books, and a more recent book for young people, The Black Dress, a fictional account of the childhood of Mary MacKillop in Australia, which won the NSW History Prize for Young People.

Click play to listen. Running time: 35:23

Blood Ties Ember and Ash Full Circle The Black Dress Victor's Challenge

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
So Pamela, thanks for talking to us today.

Pamela:
It’s my pleasure, Val.

Valerie:
So tell me, how did you get so interested in the fantasy genre?

Pamela:
I think it was my local librarian’s fault when I was little.

Valerie:
Really?

Pamela:
She was very big on legends and myths, she had a lot of – a very big collection of folk tale and myth and legend and she also bought every year a collection, The Best of SF Short Stories, which was a very influential collection worldwide and unusual to find in the local library at that stage in the ’60s. So I was reading from quite an early age, I was reading a lot of fantasy associated things, but also the best of science fiction fantasy writers from around the world. So Mrs Wall is the person responsible.

Valerie:
So I understand that Blood Ties started off as the thesis for your doctorate in Creative Arts. So when did you first put pen to paper for that and how has this story evolved since you first thought of it?

Pamela:
The very beginning of Blood Ties, the very first chapter was actually a short story that I wrote in 1996.

Valerie:
Wow.

Pamela:
So it’s been a long time evolving. And, after I wrote that story, I was interested in the world that it was set in and I wrote another maybe another 10 short stories set in the same world.

Valerie:
Right.

Pamela:
And then I didn’t know what to do with them because it’s very hard to sell a collection of fantasy short stories when you don’t have a name already and I had put them aside. When I came to do the doctorate, I realised that the largest story that I was thinking about telling was in the same world, and so I began to integrate the stories that I had already written into the much larger narrative. So it’s been a long time evolving and it has certainly changed shape and direction and various writing. But it’s been going in one form or another since 1996.

Valerie:
So you’ve really lived in that world for the last 12 years, sort of.

Pamela:
No, because I had put the stories aside for quite a few years. And we’ve done a number of other books, notably The Black Dress, which took me to an entirely different world, the historical world of Australia in 1814 or 1816. But I discovered writing history is very much writing fantasy, and I think the work I did on The Black Dress helped me to write Blood Ties.

Valerie:
So tell us a bit more about The Black Dress, which is a story about Mary MacKillop; what inspired you to write that?

Pamela:
I was asked to write a children’s book about her by the nuns and I said no. But Sister Kath O’Connor, who is a very clever lady said, ‘Why don’t you come and take a look at the museum before you say no?’ And so I went and had a look and by the time I walked out of the museum I was just fascinated by her. She’s an extraordinary person.

And I’d been reading a book by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy fighter, and I’d been struck, in that book, by her lack of hatred towards the people who had kept her imprisoned for the last 20-odd years. And her attitude to the generals is very much they’ll discover that they’ve made a mistake and then will be able to work together for the good of the country. Mary MacKillop was excommunicated by the bishop in her early career and she had exactly the same lack of anger.

A letter to her mother talks about the poor dear old bishop has made a mistake. And that resonance between the two women fascinates me. The idea that there is no ego involved and what counts is other people and the cause rather than yourself, and so I got really interested in her. But I realised that the book I wanted to write really wasn’t for children. It was for young adults at the youngest, and I wanted to write a book about how her childhood had began; a saint basically. How did the child who influenced someone to the point where they connect so selflessly.

And I think that story is not a children’s story. It’s a story for older teenagers and adults and most of the people who have read the book have been adults, in fact. And I wrote it looking back so she’s actually dying over the course of this story and looking back on her childhood and particularly her relationship with her father. In writing history, you do have to create the world for your readers in the same way that you do when you’re writing fantasy, because it’s not a world they’re familiar with. And you cannot conceive any knowledge at all on the part of your reader, particularly if you reader might be 15. And so I think learning to write history did help me in creating the much larger world of Blood Ties.

Valerie:
Did you feel a greater responsibility in creating that historical world?

Pamela:
Oh so much more. It was very scary. It was scary on two levels. Firstly because I was writing from the first person and so I had to pretend to be a saint. And I’m not the devil, but I’m not a saint and finding a voice that was believable was a very difficult technical problem. But also, I knew that this was a book that would matter to people, that there were people that believed passionately and cared deeply about Mary MacKillop, and that for them it had to be, it had to be truthful.

But also quite often a person’s first encounter with her might be through the book. And I felt a great responsibility to her, to portray her as faithfully as I could without making it a neutral hagiography without making her look perfect, because she wasn’t perfect, she had faults in which she acknowledged. And to make her real, to make her come alive for the person and still stay faithful to what we know about her, that was quite difficult and it took me five and a half years to finish the book because I just, I just didn’t get it right.

I rewrote it completely five times before I felt that I was any bit close to getting her right. And you know, people have been the nuns and people who have studied her have been good enough to say that they feel that it’s a faithful representation. But it was tricky and quite challenging.

Valerie:
So when you start writing, particularly in the fantasy genre, what typically comes first for you – the character or the plot or something else?

Pamela:
It’s something else for me. For me, it’s the rhythm of the first line.

Valerie:
Right.

Pamela:
Which is not an easy place to start from.

Valerie:
I know.

Pamela:
But Blood Ties, the first line just popped into my head. The first line is, ‘The desire to know the future gnaws at our bones.’ And that is the line that came into my head because I was waiting for my flat to be auctioned the next day. And I was walking around the flat going, ‘Oh I just want to know what’s going to happen. I just want it to be over and just know what’s going to happen.’ And the line ‘The desire to know the future just gnaws at our bones’ just popped into my head and I stopped right in the middle of my entryway and thought, ‘That’s a good line, I’d better write that down’. And sat down at the computer and typed that in and then just kept going.

Valerie:
Right.

Pamela:
And the story, this story just happens. And that happens with me with short stories in particular quite a lot, that it’s actually the rhythm of the sentence that creates the world for me.

Valerie:
Wow.

Pamela:
And don’t ask me how it happens because I have no idea. But then of course once you have that, then you have to start working on your plot and your character. And you still have to put all the work in about those things as you go, but the place that I start is usually with the rhythm of a particular sentence.

Valerie:
Now we did mention that you have your doctorate, a PhD in Creative Arts, why did you decide to undertake that? And do you think that’s an essential part for a writer’s journey?

Pamela:
No, it’s by no means essential in any way, shape or form. I decided to do it for two reasons, and one was very practical and the other one was artistic I guess. The practical reason was that I was at home with a young baby and I was no longer doing the consultancy work, which had paid the mortgage. And we didn’t need my full-time job anymore, but it would have been nice to have a bit more money, and they give you a scholarship to write a book and if you did a doctorate, they pay you. And so that’s the practical reason why I did it.

Valerie:
Sure.

Pamela:
It’s a great deal for a writer, because you get paid to write a book that you probably would have written anyway and at the end of the process you get to sell the book.

Valerie:
Fabulous.

Pamela:
And the university loves it when you sell the book because then they get extra research points. So it’s a very good deal for a writer, and if anyone’s in the position to do a doctorate I’d really recommend it, just on the practical terms.

But I also wanted to make, I wanted to write this larger story set in the domains and I knew that I would have some difficulty making the transition from children’s writing to writing a very big story. I mean, we’re talking eventually 450,000 words to complete the story. Whereas my longest book up until then had been The Black Dress at 60,000. Well in fact I hadn’t even written The Black Dress at that point. My longest book up until then, had been 35,000. So I thought it would be useful to have some guidance in making that transition.

I was lucky enough to get Debra Adelaide as my supervisor, who is a wonderful writer in her own world, but also a terrific editor. And she pushed me very hard in directions that I needed to go, and I am very grateful to her for that. So it was two reasons, you know the money and the guidance.

Valerie:
Sure. And it is a book for adults and as you say it’s your first book for adults and you’re about to release your second book in the trilogy, so how did you – was it difficult to switch your mindset from writing for younger readers to now writing for a much older group and is there one that comes easier to you?

Pamela:
It was harder than I expected to make that transition, and I was very glad to have Debra there. My attention span is about eight years old, and I want to have things keep happening. That’s my instinct is to have short scenes and lots of action and let’s keep the story moving. And Debra encouraged me to slow it down and to pull it back and to give more to character and more depth and more reflection.

And so I think in some ways it’s easy for me to write for children in that the pace is more natural to me. But I am enjoying writing for adults, because you can do stuff that you can’t do with kids stories, things that they would be bored by. And of course, it’s a much more complex much larger story than you can do for children. So I enjoy both of them and I intend to do both, to continue to write for both children and adults. But probably naturally, the kids stuff comes more easily.

Valerie:
Right. Well you’ve mentioned one of your books, Victor’s Quest, is one of your favorites. What kind of feedback has it received and why is it one of your favorites?

Pamela:
Well it’s my favorite because of Victor, who is a lovely character. He’s a very sweet, kind, gentle and very stupid boy, young man. And the feedback that I get, I mean it was a short-listed book, it was a Book Week book and so it’s in all of the libraries and it’s often used as a class text. And I get a lot of letters from these [year] three and four kids who love him because he’s stupid. And a lot of feedback from teachers saying that the boys who don’t like to read, sit up and pay attention when Victor comes on the scene. Because stupid is a word that’s used in the book and it’s a word that you’re not allowed to use in the school, you know it’s one of those politically incorrect words.

But everyone knows that the kids who are stupid know they’re stupid. And when they hear that word or they read that word, they can’t believe that an adult is using it. And they really get involved in the story because Victor stays stupid all of the way through.

Valerie:
Right.

Pamela:
You know he doesn’t miraculously turn out to be bright at the end and just misunderstood. He is in fact a stupid person. But he’s a very kind, truthful, brave, stupid person. And those qualities are what make him a hero. So kids really do like him for that reason and I think teachers like him because he’s so sweet. But it’s certainly been the most popular of my books, it’s been reprinted quite a few times and we’re about to have a new edition coming up in September.

Valerie:
Right.

Pamela:
With a new cover with Walker Books, which I’m very pleased about. And the sequel next year, Victor’s Challenge.

Valerie:
Great. You’ve written about so many different types of things. Now you’ve got a book, Scum of the Earth, about dumping toxic chemicals, which won the environment prize from the Wilderness Society. Now what kind of research did you do for this book and why did you pick this theme to write about?

Pamela:
It was part of a series called the Network Mysteries and the theme of that series, there were three books in that: Hair of the Skeleton; Scum of the Earth; and A Trick of the Light. And the theme of that was networking in the sense of both community networking and online. And it was a lot of high technology there, kind of Famous Five meets high tech.

Valerie:
Right.

Pamela:
And we had three kids who were very involved in things like robotics and I wanted to have a series that used cutting edge technology. Like things that weren’t going to be commercially available for several years, but which were in development in universities. And I’m a New Scientist reader and I just kept my eye open for things that looked interesting. And Scum of the Earth comes out of research into using bacteria as bio-sensors of pollution, where they genetically engineer particular bacteria to turn different colors depending on what chemicals are in the liquid, I mean the water. That’s at early stage of research. Now it was even earlier when I actually wrote the book. But that’s where it came from, it came out of that research.

Valerie:
You’re obviously very well read. What are you reading now?

Pamela:
I’m reading a mystery story set in World War II in New York called The War Against Miss Winter.

Valerie:
Right.

Pamela:
The main character is Rosie Winter and it’s set in 1942-43, something like that. I read a lot of – when I’m writing, because I’m writing the third book in the Castings Trilogy at the moment, and when I’m writing fantasy, I can’t read fantasy. So I read a lot of mystery stories while I do that.

Valerie:
Why can’t you read fantasy when you’re writing fantasy?

Pamela:
Well, it’s a bit like going to another country and starting to talk with their accent. I end up writing a pastiche of whoever I’m reading at the moment.

Valerie:
Right.

Pamela:
And that’s not good, obviously you want to write with your own voice. So I’ve never been able to finish a Proust, for example, because his style is so strong that no matter what I’m writing it ends up sounding like a bad Proust. And there are a number of writers who affect me like that, that I just cannot read at all when I’m writing. And at the moment I’m writing a lot so I don’t get to read them. But I find mysteries to have a much plainer style. So it doesn’t tend to affect me in the same way.

Valerie:
Now you’ve written other books, a series of books such as The Murderers’ Apprentice in the Quentaris Chronicles. What’s that like when you’re actually joining in something that’s already been created?

Pamela:
Well it was lots of fun. Paul Collins and Michael Pryor approached me to do it, that’s how you get invited into Quentaris. And they had come up with such a great concept, I mean, the idea is that it’s a medieval city and outside the city are a number of caves called the Rift Caves which take you into other worlds. So you can go anywhere. You can have a fantasy story, there is magic in Quentaris, but you can also have a science fiction story, which is what I ended up doing. And so you have enormous flexibility. And a lot of the hard work is establishing place and character, has been done for you. So, it was actually a lot of fun to do.

And I used to work at the Powerhouse Museum and wrote scripts for the audio visual productions that they have there. One of which was about the steam engine and I did a lot of research then into early industrialisation, steam power taking over in England in the 1700s and early 1800s. And I used that research in writing The Murderers’ Apprentice. So the world that they go to is a world where this is just starting to happen, where the factory system is just being set up. So that was nice using stuff that had interested me for a long time.

Valerie:
Now you mentioned that you are writing the third book in the Castings Trilogy. Have you thought beyond that yet?

Pamela:
Yes, my publishers and I have agreed that my next book will be a stand-alone book, not a trilogy, but it will be in the same universe.

Valerie:
Oh I see. So are you going to continue the story ?

Pamela:
No, no it’s a new story. You certainly can read that book without having read the Trilogy. It’s got a couple crossover characters but they are minor characters. So the major character, there are two major characters, one of which is a baby in the Trilogy and the other hasn’t been born yet.

Valerie:
Have you already thought it through? Do you already know what’s going to happen?

Pamela:
Uh, no.

Valerie:
Have you got the first line?

Pamela:
I’ve got a title, I’ve got a theme, I know what the book is about. Because it’s come out of issues that are raised in the Trilogy, although it doesn’t directly have anything to do with the events of the Trilogy.

Valerie:
Right.

Pamela:
So, something has happened in the writing of Deep Water and I’ve thought that’s something I’d like to explore further.

Valerie:
Right.

Pamela:
But it’s not relevant to this story.

Valerie:
Are you always writing, like once something’s over are you straight on to the next one or ..
.

Pamela:
Yeah, but usually not the same – like writing the Trilogy has been interesting because I’ve had to start writing again straight away just to make the deadline. But what I would normally do is work on a different project, so it would go adult, kid book so in the gap between the second and the third book I worked on the first draft of a children’s story.

Valerie:
Sure.

Pamela:
But yes, I am always writing.

Valerie:
Now you also teach creative writing at the Australian Writers’ Centre. What do you enjoy most about teaching, because I know you do enjoy it?

Pamela:
I do, I love to teach. Partly, I think it’s sharing the enthusiasm of the people who come. And we get a lot of beginners, people who really don’t know anything about writing at all, often people who have never finished even a first short story. There are people who are interested and think they would like to write and they’re scared of starting and so they seek help.

And I think possibly the most rewarding is by the end of the course, to see that they are in fact writing. That they are going home and not just doing the exercises that I sent them, but actively working on stories of their own. Quite often they will talk about something taking off of one of the exercises and turning it into a story that has a good life, and I think that’s very exciting, to get people going, to see their satisfaction in the creative work they’re doing.

And the other thing I really like is getting out of the house and talking to grown-ups. Because as a writer and a mum, mostly the only adults I see are the children’s mothers or fathers when you’ve got to pick the kids up. So I really do enjoy getting out of the house and talking about something that I’m really interested in and that other people are interested in, too, that doesn’t have to do with domestic affairs or what’s happening at school or soccer. I’m being quite honest, that’s actually quite a valuable part of being a teacher to me and I do enjoy it.

Valerie:
Now as a writer, who has approached all sorts of writing from non-fiction, young adults and now adults, what advice would you give to people who want to follow in your footsteps really, who want to write?

Pamela:
Well they should come to class, obviously.

Valerie:
Well, of course.

Pamela:
I guess in the sense that is my first advice, because whether it’s a class at the Australian Writers’ Centre or a local workshop group or a group at your library or you know somewhere. The first advice I would give to you would be to find a community. Because I think it’s very, very difficult to write in isolation.

I have a workshop group that I have been working with since 1994 and that was part of my Master’s Group. We were – it was a requirement of the Masters that we form a workshop group and it was so valuable to all of us that we kept it going after we finished. And these are all published writers and people who take their craft very seriously. And we all believe that workshopping helps us enormously. So my first advice would be to find people who take writing seriously and who are interested in writing as a craft.

And it is hard to do that among your friendship group. You do need to look out past there. So part of that is starting to go to events like writer’s festivals and programs at various places or getting involved in a course or getting involved in a local workshop group or getting online. There are various online groups and finding people who can say more than, ‘Oh, I really liked it’, or ‘I don’t like it, but I don’t know why’. And I think the great advantage of doing a class together is that you come out the other end with a common language and a way of addressing problems that make sense. So that you can talk about it being a structural problem or you can talk about it being a problem of characterisation.

Because a lot of the time people look at their work and they know it’s not working and they don’t know why because they don’t actually have the tools to analyse what they’ve done. And really that’s what we aim to do in that introductory course is, primarily give people a way of thinking about writing that lets them look at what they’re doing so they can figure out what might not be working. And also ways of approaching tasks within writing that might jumpstart them or get them over the hurdles or get them passed a problem. And I think that this is much harder to do on your own. So my first advice would be to find a community.

My second advice would be to listen to what people are saying about your work. And if people are not understanding your artistic vision, that’s your fault because you are the artist and it’s your job to communicate your vision. So if six people read your work and five people tell you that your character is not believable, it’s because your character is not believable. And you need to take that on board and not blame other people for not understanding what you haven’t managed to achieve. And that sounds harsh, but that objectivity is the best tool you can have as a professional writer. You know, in my last book I had to throw away you know, 10,000 words at the request of my editor.

Valerie:
Is that difficult?

Pamela:
It was difficult because, of those 10,000, I really liked about seven. And I said to her, ‘I think I know how I can solve the problem without losing this fiction. Can I have a go at that?’ She said, ‘Certainly.’ So, I had a go at that and then they came back and said, ‘No, that didn’t work.’ So I had to lose a section that I really liked of the book. But she was right.

Once I had rewritten it according to her advice, I realised that it was a stronger story as a consequence. But you have to listen and you have to be prepared to accept that somebody may see the story more clearly than you do.

Valerie:
And be prepared to let go obviously.

Pamela:
And be prepared to let go. That’s a point, I tried to fix it first, you know. But it is a question of finding people you trust as well, obviously, and I trust my editor. But people think that once you’re a writer, you don’t have to rework your stuff. That once you’re a published writer, you do your first draft and off it goes – and that’s not the way it works. You have to rework everything and you would expect to do an absolute minimum of three drafts and that they might be quite substantial drafts.

Valerie:
Because it’s not just about waiting for inspiration to hit, it’s a lot of discipline, isn’t it?

Pamela:
It is. Inspiration will get you the first chapter but it won’t get you a book because inspiration is the easy part. Getting the idea is the easy part. Every writer I know has half a dozen stories that they have ideas for but you have to choose the ones that you’re prepared to work on for two years. A novel will take you two years of work, generally speaking, as a minimum. The Black Dress took me five and a half, Blood Ties from the beginning to publication was 11. And by the time that story is finished, which is the end of the third book, it will have been 14 years. You’ve got to be prepared to put in time and effort and sweat. It is one per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration.

Valerie:
Sure.

Pamela:
The way it works. And it’s as true for writing as it is for any craft whether you’re making a table or building a house. It takes time and it takes effort and it takes redoing.

Valerie:
And then finally on that note, because it sounds like such a long process and quite a hard slog. What do you love about what you do?

Pamela:
I get to play for a living. Basically, what I do is play on paper. I watch my son, he’s six, and I watch my son and his friends play volcanoes or Super Mario Brothers or whatever out in the backyard pretending to be the characters and it’s the same process.

Valerie:
Right.

Pamela:
But the difference is that when my son plays with his best friend, they’re both there together and I’m playing with people I don’t know. I’m creating a game for somebody I’ve never met to enter into. But I have to remember that they’re there, they are the reason for the game.

Valerie:
Yes.

Pamela:
So, I do love that. I love that sense that I get to play for a living and to follow my deepest interests, I guess. Because that’s where you should be writing from, the things that matter to you the most. When people email you and come up to you at a session and say, ‘Oh, I love that book.’ There’s no feeling like that. The idea that you can connect with people across the other side of the world. I’m getting emails from people in the States at the moment because Blood Ties has just come out there and I got a lovely email yesterday from somebody who said, ‘Since the last Harry Potter she hasn’t been able to get into any book and now she’s found Blood Ties and she’s really happy.’ I thought, ‘Oh, this is wonderful.’ To have made a difference to somebody’s life across the other side of the world, to have made someone happy is a wonderful thing. A good book brings people all sorts of emotions and being able to make that connection with readers is the best.

Valerie:
That’s the magical part of writing isn’t it?

Pamela:
It is.

Valerie:
Thank you very much for talking to us today, Pamela.

Pamela:
My pleasure Val. It’s nice to talk to you.


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