Susannah Fullerton: Literary lecturer and author

image-susannahfullerton200Susannah Fullerton is a popular literary lecturer and author. She is a leading authority on 19th and 20th century writers with a special interest in Jane Austen – she is president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia. She also leads literary tours to the UK every year.

Her latest book is Brief Encounters: Literary travellers in Australia 1836-1939. It’s an often humorous look at the experiences of many of literature’s greatest writers when they visited Australia. The book features writers such as Charles Darwin, Robert Louis Stevenson, DH Lawrence and Mark Twain.

Click play to listen. Running time: 23.16

Brief Encounters

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
So thanks for joining us today, Susannah.

Susannah
Hi Valerie.

Valerie
Now you have written two books about Jane Austen and you are also president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia. Why? What is it that you love about Jane Austen?

Susannah
I just think that she is the greatest novelist of all time. I love her humour. I love the style of her writing. I love the romances in her novels. And I think most of all I love her understanding of human nature. She’s just got such a wonderful grasp of what makes people tick and that is there in all of her novels. They are still so modern and relevant today. So I love her for lots of reasons.

Valerie
How did you get into it in the first place? What age were you when you discovered Jane Austen?

Susannah
My mother read me Pride and Prejudice when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I was completely hooked from that moment. I was very lucky that she read to me during my teens so she introduced me to a lot of the great English classics when I was still very young. She could always stop and explain a word if I didn’t quite understand or discuss it with me afterwards. I think Emma gave me the most marvellous introduction to the great novels of English literature. So I was very lucky indeed.

Valerie
So apart from Jane Austen do you have any other favourite writers that you love just as much?

Susannah
Well, nobody that I love as much as Jane Austen. She is definitely up there on a pedestal of her own and of course Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time. When you read Shakespeare you realise that he is in a complete class of his own.

But with other novelists I’m very fond of Anthony Trollope, of Dickens. I love Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. It’s one of my favourite novels of all time. George Eliot. Many of the great writers of the 19th century and at the moment I’m preparing a big course that I’m going to be teaching at the art gallery on great European literature. Of course there are absolutely marvellous novels there as well. I’ve been really enjoying the preparation for that course.

Valerie
It would be safe to say that you have probably read several Jane Austen books multiple times. Which book have you read the most? And how many times?

Susannah
I’ve probably read Pride and Prejudice the most although Emma is my favourite novel of all time. I usually reread each of the six novels every year. Sometimes it might be a year and a half or something. But round about every year I reread all six.

I particularly love listening to them on audio book unabridged of course. I can’t bear abridged versions because you lose too many marvellous lines. But as I’m driving in the car or cooking in the kitchen I can listen to Jane Austen being wonderfully read by Prunella Scales or Juliet Stevenson or one of those great English actresses. That is a fantastic way to experience the novels.

So I reread bits that are fun so I might just pick up a Jane Austen novel and read a favourite ball scene or a picnic or a proposal. But generally I do go through all six of them at least once a year.

Valerie
So when you reread or re-listen do you actually get more out of it at that time or more information?

Susannah
I think every single time that you go back to a Jane Austen novel you learn something new every time. Especially if you are hearing it read by somebody else. You think oh, that gives a whole new meaning to that sentence if the emphasis is put on this word or that word. You pick up different nuances as you listen to somebody reading it.

Jane Austen is a writer who never wasted a word. Every word is there for a purpose in her books. And that is why you can just go back to them again and again and still get something new every time that you read them.

Valerie
Now your latest book focuses on writers visiting Australia between 1836 and 1939. Why this particular period?

Susannah
I think that it is an interesting period because there was such a change in Australia during that time. Charles Darwin is the first of the writers that I discuss in my book and he came here on the Beagle for scientific purposes. The journey took months and months. In fact he’d been travelling for over four years by the time that he arrived in Australia.

But it was a long, dangerous, tedious journey. He was seasick a lot of the way. When he got here of course it was very remote and cut off. It was still the days of the convicts. It wasn’t terribly civilized when it came to things like bookshops and that sort of thing. He found it in many ways a pretty primitive sort of place and was delighted to go back to England after being in Australia.

But just over 100 years later H. G. Wells came to Australia and the purpose of his visit was to come for a science conference. Conferences were being held. There were science institutions of course and universities. He arrived on a fairly comfortable ship although he complained that the showers were not quite what he wanted. When left at the end of his visit he left on an aeroplane. It was a slow trip home with lots of stops at different places for refuelling but from that time writers began to come in much larger numbers by plane.

So that was where I decided to cut my book off because I wanted to show an era when it took a real effort to get to Australia. They needed to really want to come for some reason or another. So that was why I chose that period of 1836 to 1939.

Valerie
Out of all of the writers that you cover in that period who do you think had the most interesting or unusual experience here in Australia?

Susannah
It’s very hard to select one because they all quite a range of different experiences. Mark Twain lectured and made everybody laugh so much it hurt them. Jack London saw advances at Rushcutters Bay that when he wrote articles about it for American newspapers caused race riots in America. H. G. Wells had a very public fight in the newspapers with the prime minister. There were all sorts of interesting experiences. Arthur Conan Doyle tried to convert everyone to spiritualism and they weren’t terribly interested.

So a great range of experiences and it is very hard to select what I felt was most interesting. I just became fascinated by each of the eleven writers in my book and looking at why they came here, what they thought of us and what we thought of them and then how they put Australia into the books that they went on to write after their visits and how they showed Australians to the rest of the world in the literature that they wrote.

Valerie
How did you go about researching these eleven writers? What was the primary source and how long did it take?

Susannah
I guess I can say that it really has taken most of my life because I’ve always been so keen on most of those novelists that I have been reading them for almost as long as I can remember. Kipling and Trollope and Stevenson and Mark Twain and Agatha Christie and the other writers. So it’s really a lifetime of reading their works and in many cases reading biographies about them.

But obviously when I approached this book I had to read several biographies of each of the authors in the book. I had to read any letters that they wrote while they were in Australian describing their experiences and giving their reasonably unguarded impressions of Australia.
I had to look through old newspapers to get press reports if any of the visits were recorded in the papers. Obviously any journals or anything like that that they wrote about the time that they were here. Then I needed to read all of the books that they had written after they had been in Australia to see what references that they had made to Australia. So in some cases it was quite a task because some of them were very prolific writers. Really I guess actually working on the book was a couple of years but as I say behind that was pretty much a lifetime of reading their books.

Valerie
I make the assumption that you must really enjoy the research process.

Susannah
I love the research. It was huge fun.

Valerie
Do you enjoy it as much as the writing? How do they compare?

Susannah
I think probably that I prefer the research. It can be very daunting to sit in front of a blank piece of paper and know that somehow you have got to put words on it. Sometimes making a start can be very hard and often it is best to just start with something so long as that piece of paper is no longer blank and you can go back later and scrap the whole lot. But at least you have got something started and then the creative processes then sort of start to flow and you end up with a finished chapter.

The thing that I find hardest of all is rewriting. But I have been really lucky with Picador. I had a great editor and on the whole loved all the suggestions from the editor so that smoothed that process considerably. But rewriting is what I find hardest of all.

Valerie
So you write a lot about other writers. Is it then difficult to find your own style when you are writing about literature’s greatest writers?

Susannah
I don’t think so. Because I have spent most of my working career as a lecturer giving talks about famous writers I have found my own style in my talks. A lot of people who have read my books say that it sounds just like one of my talks so I think that I’m imagining my audience as I write just as I would be giving a talk to an audience somewhere in Australia. So no, I don’t think that has been a difficulty at all. I love talking about my favourite writers. I’ve made a career out of that that is tremendous fun. I say to people that I am paid to talk about my favourite subject so it is great.

Valerie
What a wonderful place to be.

Susannah
It is.

Valerie
Have you ever been attracted to writing fiction or other genres?

Susannah
I did once try, many years ago when I was at home with young children, tried to write a romance but I just didn’t feel that it was successful and I never went any further with that. I think that my problem with that is that I spend my working life and my relaxation as well reading some of the greatest writers of all time and so the standard is just so incredibly high that anything that I write in the way of fiction is going to seem dull and pale and pathetic in comparison.

Valerie
Somehow I doubt that.

Susannah
But it sort of puts me off writing fiction. When you have got Jane Austen so firmly in your mind you are just never going to compare.

Valerie
You spend a lot of time on the lecture circuit and also hold annual literary tours overseas. You’re a busy person.

Susannah
Very.

Valerie
Where does your writing fit in? Is it something that you block out time for or you do it a bit here a bit there? How does that work?

Susannah
I’d say yes, a bit here and a bit there. I’m very much a morning person. I work much better in the morning so I begin my day with a walk in Centennial Park with a friend and by nine o’clock I’m back home with a cup of coffee ready to start work. So I try to make sure that the morning time is the writing time.

And then in the afternoon I do the mindless tasks like grocery shopping or the ironing or boring things like that that don’t take so much creative energy. I’m a very organized person so I think that helps. I just pack a lot into every single day.

Valerie
You say that you have made a career out of talking about something that you love. Do you find that a lot of other people share this kind of passion already or is it something that you manage to inspire and instil in them?

Susannah
A lot of people who when they come to my talks say, oh I wish I had had somebody like you teaching me English when I was at school. But I think that I take it at a slightly different approach. Schoolteachers obviously have to teach the text and bear in mind that kids have to do an exam and write essays and things like that.

I give my talks partly to instruct of course but also to entertain. So I tell people all the juicy details about the life of the writer and how a particular incident in their lives might have affected what they wrote. I do dramatic readings from the novels because I have done drama training. So really I’m entertaining people making them much more aware of great works from literature. Hopefully encouraging them to go away and read a lot more. I always tell people that one of the best biographies or critical works to read if they want to explore that writer further.

I don’t think that I’m alone in my passion. There are many wonderful literary societies in Australia as well as the Jane Austen Society. There’s a Dickens one, a Bronte one, a Sherlock Holmes one, a Byron one, a Dylan Thomas one, a Dr. Johnson one. So all sorts of different, great literary societies and those societies are groups of people who love to read, who love the great English classics and it’s those sorts of people who come to my talks.

But also I think people from a great range of life experiences who perhaps have spent their lives working in science or medicine or law or whatever and just think right that’s something that I want to learn more about is literature. So when I give talks at the State Library or the Art Gallery of New South Wales I get hundreds of people coming along who just want to learn more about great literature. I’m just very lucky that is something that I love doing and they are all happy to come and listen to my talk.

Valerie
Now in the age of My Space and Facebook and texting people do you find that younger people respond to Jane Austen in the way that you did when you were younger?

Susannah
They do, slightly different ways of course from when I was younger. When I was growing up there was one film of Pride and Prejudice and that was pretty much about it. These days of course young people are greatly influenced by the movie versions. I think the movie versions, the most of them have been really good. It’s wonderful if they encourage students to then go away and read the book.

Personally I think that it’s nicest to read the book first and then watch the movie afterwards. But if that  is the way that they are brought to Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility or Emma, then that’s great. I’m not going to complain about that.

In that way I think that it is different. But I give  a lot of talks at schools and at libraries and I’m always delighted at how many young people turn up to hear more about Jane Austen and her life and times and are so enthusiastic about doing the books at school. It’s fabulous. I know a lot of boys struggle with Jane Austen at school. I don’t know that it’s always  the wisest choice to give them an Austen novel when they are 16 years old. But fortunately many men do come to her novels a bit later on in their lives and discover what a wonderful writer she is.

Valerie
You spoke before about listening to audio books and enjoying audio books. Now I love audio books but some people say that it’s not really reading. What’s your comment on that?

Susannah
Well, of course it’s reading. What else is it? You are going through a book from the first word to the last and you are taking it in. So whether you take it in through your eyes or your ears, you are still reading the book. It is a slightly different experience of course because you are listening rather than your eyes passing  over the page. But it’s a fantastic experience and it makes all the difference to a long car trip or to boring cooking jobs in the kitchen.

I can’t recommend audio books too strongly. I think that they are absolutely fantastic and these days libraries are wonderfully stocked with a really great range of good audio books. So for those people out there who haven’t tried them they are missing out on a real pleasure  in life.

Valerie
I love them. I can’t live without them.

Susannah
Poetry is just superb when read. You listen to a great poem read by Richard Burton its just one of life’s greatest experiences. To listen to poetry rather than read it is absolutely marvellous. And there is a great selection of poetry now on audio. It really is absolutely fantastic.
People tend to be a bit frightened of poetry and think oh, I’ll never sit down and read a book of poetry. But get out an audio CD of some of the great poems and listen to Richard Burton reading The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, some of those things. It’s absolutely marvellous.

Valerie
I agree.

Susannah
I just can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Valerie
You spoke about the blank page. What do you do when you are faced with that blank page? You’ve had your morning walk, you’ve had your cup of coffee. Do you have some techniques or tools to help you get writing?

Susannah
I’ve found that with my chapters on the great writers coming to Australia that they way I wanted to start off each chapter was by telling some entertaining little anecdote about their visit. I would try and find a really good anecdote. For example with Mark Twain I begin the chapter there by telling about  a talk that he gave in the little town of Horsham in Victoria which was supposed to be one  of the best talks that he’d ever given in his life.

I describe the atmosphere in the hall before Mark Twain comes on stage and then I talk about the long pauses where he gets everybody almost at fever pitch waiting for him to start. Then in the slow southern American drawl he begins to tell a story. By the time that he’s finished with that audience buttons have burst off clothing from people laughing. Their ribs are aching because they’ve been laughing so much. And Mark Twain has them exactly where he wants them. He just plays his audience like a skilled angler playing with a fish.

It’s a wonderful scene. I started my chapter with that anecdote and then I went on to explain why he came to Australia, what he thought of it, what he did and what else he wrote as a result of that visit. That’s really the technique that I use in my lectures. I often begin my lectures by either doing a dramatic reading from one of the works or telling some entertaining little anecdote.

That way you get your audience interested from the beginning. You don’t start off with a whole lot of boring facts and figures where you might lose your audience or your reader to quickly. I’ve found that the technique that I’ve used in lecturing worked really well in the book. Several reviewers have commented that they liked the anecdotes that begin each chapter. It gets you interested in the individual from the beginning of the chapter.

Valerie
Hook them in.

Susannah
Hook them in.

Valerie
So what are you working on next?

Susannah
At the moment loads of publicity for the new book with talks, my usual range of lectures. Another project that I have been busy on recently is creating an audio CD. I was asked by a recording company in the UK to create a CD about the life of a New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield. I wrote a script for that and recorded it when I was in the UK recently. That will be commercially available in September.
That was great fun. I really enjoyed that project. I do have several ideas for new books so those I need to discuss with my publisher. When I can find a spare five minutes in my day I’ll do something about making a start and writing another one.

Valerie
And there goes another two years of your life I suppose.

Susannah
I do have another literary tour coming up in two weeks time so I will be in England for three weeks leading a group of Australians around some of my favourite literary places in England. So that is something to look forward to.

Valerie
Wonderful and finally what advice do you have for other writer’s who might be interested in writing non-fiction just like yourself?

Susannah
I think that it’s being organized and filling that day with the right activities. There is a wonderful line in Rudyard Kipling’s poem If.

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,”

He then goes on with the rest of the poem. But fill that unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run is really probably the best advice. Just keep at it. Keep busy. Keep working at it and in the end you will have the right product.

Valerie
Beautiful and on that note thank you very much for your time today Susannah.

Susannah
Thanks Valerie.


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