Once a lawyer, then an actor, now a writer, it’s fair to say that Australian author and playwright Sofie Laguna has worn plenty of hats over the years. And even within her writing persona, she has never been one to stick to the same thing – bouncing from picture books to plays, young reader series to adult novels.
With such an interesting journey to date, we figured she’d be an interesting person to chat with – especially with the release of her latest adult novel, The Eye of the Sheep. And we weren’t wrong.
Hi Sofie, let’s launch straight into it. For those readers who haven't read your book The Eye of the Sheep yet, tell us what it's about in 181 words or less.
It’s the story of a boy called Jimmy Flick. Jimmy is a speedy, anxious, quirky boy who sees the world in unusual ways. His mother, Paula, manages him best, slowing him down, containing him. But her fierce love costs Jimmy; it alienates him from his father, Gavin. Gavin has the potential to be a loving good dad – but he drinks, and when he drinks, he becomes violent. Gavin knew violence in his own childhood, and he hasn’t learned other ways to be. Jimmy longs to be closer to Gavin, he wants to be in a world of men, and is frustrated with all the ways he is different to the other kids. Jimmy knows he is both too fast and too slow, too quick and yet behind, sees too much and doesn’t see enough.
When life changes for Jimmy, unexpectedly and tragically, he must find a way to survive.
The Eye of the Sheep is a book about the cyclical nature of violence; it is a story of courage told in the voice of a lovable, precious and profoundly insightful child.
Wow, that’s quite the description. With a story like this, how did the idea come about? Was there a lightbulb moment or did the idea evolve over time?
Over 10 years ago now I wrote a dramatic monologue in a playwriting class at RMIT, where I was studying writing at the time. The character was called Pete Flick and he eventually found his way into a radio play that was broadcast on Radio National for the ABC. I loved Pete – he was manic, he was institutionalised, he was charming and funny and romantic and I couldn’t forget him. I had always wanted to investigate his childhood, so many years later, at a point where there was room in my life for a new book to write, that’s what I set out to do.
So how much of that original Pete made it to the book?
Pretty soon I discovered that the novel was going to be completely different to the play – the boy was his own character, not really Pete at all. He was real, less stylised, so I had to change his name. He became Jimmy, and I left the monologue, and Pete, behind in order to tell his story.
Sounds like a great book! So, you’re well and truly a writer these days. But did you always want to be a writer?
Since I was very small – about five – I actually wanted to be an actor. I was certain that would be my path; I loved playing other characters, dressing up, writing plays and being in them. I was always in the school productions, I went on to study acting at the Victorian College of the Arts, and to work as an actor for many years. So it is a surprise to me that I have happily, now, left acting behind to write books. I did always love writing, and I always kept a journal, but it took me until I was around 30 to realise I was best suited as a writer. Having said all that, I was reading over one of my diaries – the one I had when I was 12, and it said ‘When I grow up I want to be a movie director or a poet’. I guess I wasn’t too far off!
Not too far indeed. What steps got you from there to here?
After acting for many years I found that the reality didn’t often live up to the dream. I had to deal with unemployment, with much struggle, with failure and frustration. Working on collaborative projects was often difficult. I began to study writing as something to do ‘on the side’ – then after a tough and tiring year working in children’s theatre, touring all over the country, I decided I would put more energy into my writing. I organised a writing group of friends I had made at my writing course, and in our very first meeting I wrote a story called ‘My Yellow Blanky’. As soon as I finished it I knew something had changed in me, in my writing, that something was somehow ready.
How did you go with that story?
I worked for many months on the story, asking my friends for feedback, badgering teachers at my course for help, and when I thought I couldn’t take the story any further forward I submitted it to five publishers. Over the next five months I received four rejection letters and one acceptance. That acceptance letter was the most important letter I have ever received. It marked the beginning for me. I instantly forgot a lifetime’s dream. Acting ceased to matter. I wanted only to write. There were countless stories and characters waiting for me. From that moment I never looked back. Books and writing flowed easily and naturally for me. I didn’t meet the same obstacles I met as an actor.
Okay, now you’ve written books for adults, children and also picture books. So what do you do to ‘change gears' for such different audiences?
Essentially I think the writing comes from the same place. If I unpick the stories there are common themes that run through them. When I am writing them it doesn’t feel too different – my task is to be in the voice of the character and tell their story. That’s what I have to do. It soon becomes clear whether a story will be suited to an older audience or not. If a book is for adults, that is, a character’s journey is challenging, particularly dark, difficult, it means I can tell the absolute truth even if it is a terrible truth. It means I can investigate complex ideas, even if it is in the voice of a young person. But writing books for children – some of my picture books for example – it feels the same. It feels like the creative ‘engine’ is the same one. The gears aren’t different – the characters are different, but not because of the age of the readership, if that makes sense.
It oddly does. So, a typical day… do you have a writing routine?
I used to and then I had a child!
I used to sit down at the same time ever morning and check my clock and keep the same hours, as if I was still at school with a strict teacher watching over me. But since having a child, I write whenever I can, in short spurts, in cars, in play centres, in my head, whenever. And strangely, I like it that way. Which is lucky since I am about to have another child!
Well that answers the ‘what next’ question probably…a new addition to the family.
And we have moved house, so my creative energy is going elsewhere for the moment. Over the years I have learned, and continue to learn, that there is a kind of flow to the writing life for me – and that I can trust that flow. That there will be a natural time to push the pen across the page, and to do it often, even if it means getting tired, and that other things are neglected – and there is a time to reflect on what has been written, in preparation for what is to come. I do get scared at those times, scared of not writing, but writing is always there, bubbling, waiting.
A bit of writing yin and yang. Nice. So, any advice for aspiring writers hoping to make it a full-time gig like yours one day?
If you are really serious about writing, write as much as you can, and read as much as you can. Studying writing is great in that it can give you a writing community, it can give you some structure, a place to share your work, a place to be validated until your writing takes off and does it for you. Keep a journal, tell the truth in it, and allow yourself to really explore with courage. Get hold of some good writing guides and use their tips and exercises, take part in master classes, prioritise writing in your life, share your work with friends, send it off, push. But if you are a true writer you will do these things anyway – you will be tenacious, determined, and probably obsessive about your work. You need to have a degree of faith in yourself I think – the faith to keep going and keep pushing and to put writing at the top of your list. There won’t even really be anything else on that list if what you want it to write for your life.
Wow, great advice!
If you’d like to read more words from Sofie, you’ll find her latest book here, or visit her website for all of her marvellous and varied titles. And if you want to get started on your own novel, our course in Creative Writing (available online and in the classroom) is a great place to start.