Ep 156 Lessons from a debut novelist’s journey in book marketing. And meet Caroline Baum, author of ‘Only: A Singular Memoir’.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 156 of So you want to be a writer: Lessons from a debut novelist’s journey in book marketing, beliefs that will hold you back as a freelance writer, and what to include in your author bio on your website. You’ll meet Caroline Baum, author of Only: A Singular Memoir. Plus, Gmail add-ons that will make your freelance writing life easier and much more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Review of the Week
From Owen:

I listen to a number of writing podcasts and ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ has the ability to cover a diverse range of topics while maintaining a consistent standard. Well done!

Thanks, Owen!

Show Notes

Her Debut Novel Just Turned 1. Which Marketing Tactics Worked?

5 Beliefs That Held Me Back When I Started Freelance Writing

Your Author Page: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

Creative Writing 30-day Bootcamp

 

Writer in Residence

Caroline Baum

Caroline is a well-known journalist and broadcaster. She writes about books, food, travel, the arts and aspects of contemporary life.

In 2016, she contributed to the Rebellious Daughters anthology, edited by Lee Kofman and Maria Katsonis, published by Ventura Press.

In 2015, Caroline was awarded the Hazel Rowley Fellowship and is currently working on a biography of Lucie Dreyfus.

In 2013, she contributed to  My Mother, My father: On Losing A Parent, an anthology edited by Susan Wyndham for Allen & Unwin. She has had several autobiographical pieces published in Good Weekend magazine.

Her latest book is Only: A Singular Memoir published by Allen & Unwin in February 2017.

Follow Caroline on Twitter

Visit Caroline’s website

Visit Allen & Unwin’s website

Platform Building Tip

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Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Caroline thanks so much for joining us today.

Caroline

It’s a pleasure, Valerie.

Valerie

I feel really strange Caroline because usually I am watching you as the interviewer or hearing you as the interviewer, because you have interviewed so many authors in your life. You’re very active in the publishing industry, certainly at every writers festival. And I have thoroughly enjoyed many of your chats with other authors. So I find it just a little bit, you know, strange. It is a bit of an out-of-body experience asking you the questions.

Caroline

Well, if you think it’s strange, let me tell you, I think it’s strange too.

Valerie

It must be really weird, right? Because…

Caroline

It’s…

Valerie

It’s just, you know, you’re the one who usually gets to ask all the probing things and now you’re on the other end.

Caroline

Well I can tell you, Valerie, I feel much more comfortable here, not being in that situation. Because, you know, asking the questions, particularly when it’s live on stage with someone where you’ve done an enormous amount of work and it’s not working… That’s when you’re really sweating and your stress levels are going through the roof. I hope you’re not going to feel like that today. 

Valerie

Oh I hope not. I hope not. But I knew I had to talk to you because as soon as I saw this book I thought, “Oh my God, I bet you this is going to be fascinating. I bet you it’s going to be awesome.” And it certainly didn’t disappoint. Now, just for the readers and the listeners who haven’t read your book yet, can you tell us what it is about?

Caroline

Okay. So, it’s a memoir and it’s a memoir I suppose taken through the lens of being an only child, because it seemed to me that that defines you in a very particular way that goes beyond childhood. So the funny thing is the way the word ‘child’ kind of sticks to you in adult life. When you’re an only child it’s as if you never grow up. And I wanted to look at that arc of growing up as an only, in a fairly singular way, with a very particular set of parents who’d been affected by tragedy. But I also wanted to go through the complete arc, if you like, and get to the other end of what it feels like to be an only child when you’re the adult and suddenly you became acutely aware of the responsibility that you have as the only person to look after your parents.

Valerie

Yes. Absolutely. Now, I really relate to this because I am an only child as well and…

Caroline

Oh!

Valerie

And it was really interesting because as I was reading it, I was just thinking that I resonated with so much in it. And I know that people are going to resonate with so much in it regardless of whether they’re an only child or not. But there are certain things that I was like, “Oh my God, yes I did think that as well.”

Caroline

Oh I’m so glad to hear that Valerie. And I’m also really glad that you’re pointing out that you think it will resonate with non-onlys.

Valerie

Oh absolutely.

Caroline

Because I think, you know, there’s an awful lot of other stuff in there about parents with trauma, family secrets, what it means to think of yourself as a good or a bad daughter. Because there are a lot of other things that I explore along the way. It’s just that, obviously, the only way I know how to see the world is as an only child.

Valerie

Absolutely. Now, many people know you as a journalist or a presenter, as we mentioned before, a lover of books. And you’ve read so many books. And you’ve decided to write this memoir now, and you’ve explained what you wanted to explore, but why now?

Caroline

Good question. Look, I’ve been writing fragments of this book for probably ten years and only in the last five years did things start to gel and make me think that those little scraps that I’d been writing could be made into a quilt of sorts. I think that’s a technique for writing that Sue Wolf and Patty Miller, who are both great teachers of creative writing, have advocated. That you don’t necessarily have to have a linear approach to the way you assemble a book. And that appealed to me very much, I think, because as a journalist you’re always writing scraps and fragments. You know, you’re writing short pieces and you don’t ever really think about how they might all join up.

So, I had written biographical fragments, which had been published in the Good Weekend. I had written longer biographical pieces for an anthology called My Mother, My Father – On Losing a Parent, which was edited by Susan Wyndham. And it was really when Susan asked me to contribute to that anthology, at first I said to her, “But I haven’t lost a parent. Both my parents are alive.” But she said, “Well, actually you’ve lost a parent to dementia. You know, your father is no longer present.” And… So, that piece sort of gave me the courage, if you like, to go further. Because I think, you know, you mentioned the reading and there’s a funny thing Valerie about reading for a living, reading professionally. So, I was reading, for Booktopia I was reading up to fifteen books a month. Before that, I’d been reading for various jobs at the ABC, et cetera. And sometimes it’s like clogging your arteries with fat. You fill up your brain with other peoples’ voices and you absolutely manage to convince yourself that the last thing the world needs is another book or to hear from you. So, I had to do a kind of detox and I think that I could only write this book now because I had started to wean myself off jobs which caused a kind of binging reading disorder.

Valerie

Yes.

Caroline

And once I started to read more in a more targeted way and started to read memoir, I started to think, “Is there a chink in the canon of memoir where I could contribute something?”

Valerie

Wow. I love how you say you needed to go on a detox. I know how you feel sometimes. It’s a…

Caroline

Well, of course you do.

Valerie

So, when you say that it was written in fragments over, you know, nineteen years or whatever. When you started weaning yourself and reading in a more targeted way and thinking this might work as a longer piece… On a practical level, how did you start weaving those fragments together? Or did you start again? Or, you know, what actually happened?

Caroline

Oh, well I went trawling back for the original piece that started all of this was a piece that was triggered by an exercise in a life-writing class with Patty Miller, where she asked us to bring an object into class one day, that had some kind of potency or resonance for us. And I went home and I looked and I thought, “I don’t have anything. I don’t have anything. I don’t, I don’t have anything that’s giving off that kind of energy to me.” Until I realized that at the back of a desk drawer I had something that I had completely forgotten, which was a little envelope with a black edge around it with an extraordinary name on it, which was that it came from the office of Jacqueline Kennedy. And it allowed me to tell a story from my childhood about how I reacted at the age of five to the news of JFK’s death and the impact that that had on my parents and why I came to be in possession of that envelope. And… So that was the sort of cornerstone. And of course, when you’re growing up, you think that your childhood is normal.

Valerie

Yes.

Caroline

And so it was only when I read that piece in the class that I got the reaction that made me think, “You know what, that’s not so normal. That is not normal.” And so then I went looking for other instances and moments where I thought, “Is that a typical childhood? Maybe it’s not so typical that this happened and that happened.” And also you are encouraged, aren’t you? Over dinner, when you tell a story about your life and people keep saying to you you’ve got to write a book, half of the time you discount that and you go, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” But then, you know, there is a sort of a seed planted and I thought, “Well, okay, I’ll have a go at it.” And so I was looking for a shape. I was looking for a structure. And as my father tragically became ill I realized that his illness gave me a kind of climax to work towards and a sort of resolution.

Valerie

Now you talk about that letter from Jackie Kennedy and how… About the story from your childhood and there’re many very rich and wonderful stories from your childhood which are so clear and so vivid. How did you go about making them so vivid? How did you go about remembering them? Is that something, is your childhood still really fresh in your brain or something?

Caroline

Not as fresh as I would like. And in fact if I had to subtitle this book or give it another name, I would call it I Wish I Had Paid More Attention. Because, you know, you think that you are noticing things and you think that as a journalist you had been trained to notice things. And then you can’t remember vital details. So what I did have access to, which was incredibly valuable, was I had my angsty teenage and in fact pre-teenage diaries and they were excruciating to read. So I even had the diary that I had when I was eight or nine when I had a ghoulish fascination for disaster and whenever there was a plane crash I used to note in my diary the number of bodies retrieved from the crash site. So that took me back into the sense of having this rather dark consciousness as a child and asking myself did I get that from my parents who were both carrying so much trauma in their past which they kept from me.

Valerie

Yes. Yes.

Caroline

But was that somehow transmitted to me subliminally? And then I also have a box of over 300 letters from my father which he started writing to me I guess back when I was at university and then wrote to me for all the years that I’ve lived in Australia while he was back in England. And those letters were really valuable and really precious in reminding me of how much he infuriated me and how much he tried to control my life. But it was also, you know, salutary and a reminder of how refined and cultured he was. What an enthusiast he was. How much he wanted to share the things he was passionate about with me. So those letters were very, very valuable. I’ve only quoted from them very sparsely, but they were a really good resource.

Valerie

And when you decided okay, the seed was planted, you know, people… You had your fragments of stories and people told you at dinner parties, “You really should write a book.” When you decided “Okay, I’m going to do it,” did you… Tell us about that process. How did you start thinking… I mean, did you think, “I’m just going to, I’m going to write chronologically. I’m going to find the key moments in my life.” And did you throw yourself into it full time? Because as you said, you’d weaned yourself off a couple of your responsibilities where you had to read so many books. Tell us about the practical aspect of and process of getting x number of words into a manuscript.

Caroline

Okay. So this is the thing with a journalist. You know, I’m always fascinated by journalists who write long-form, whether it’s creative non-fiction or novels. But I think we are all addicted to the sort term instant gratification of seeing our by-line relatively quickly.

Valerie

Yes.

Caroline

And long-form presents a huge challenge. So I had to trick myself into switching from being a sprinter to a marathon runner. And the way to do that was to write episodically, was to write as if I was setting myself journalistic assignments of about 2,000 words for a chapter, and then just seeing if I could string them together. Now, originally, the first draft was not chronological and I attempted probably for a beginner an overambitious structure which did a lot of flipping backwards and forwards in time and place. And when the structural edit remarks came back from Ally Leveaux who was the structural editor that Allen & Unwin assigned to me and I was really, really grateful to have her because she had a great reputation. She identified the structure as problematic and said, “You know, you can go with this, but you are going to have to do x, y, and z to sort of bolster it. Or you could go for a more conventional, more chronological, more linear timeline.”

And I thought to myself, given that I’m a novice, I think that maybe going in a more straight line might make the material stronger and not detract by forcing the reader to ask themselves where are we now and why are we jumping backwards? And I haven’t written it in an absolutely strictly chronological order. It is still, as you would know, there are moments which are quite sort of impressionistic, but I do think that in order to go the distance… You know, in the end I have come to the conclusion that stamina is as important as talent or imagination or style or uniqueness of voice, because you just have to keep going to get to 80,000 words. And you have to be able to chuck out 10, 20, or 30 thousand of those words. You’ve got to be absolutely brutal with your own copy. Which of course as a journalist, the good training about being a journalist is, you have probably successively learned not to be precious about your copy.

Valerie

Yes.

Caroline

And you are prepared to be ruthless.

 

Valerie

Now you said that you needed to trick yourself and write episodically. What other structures did you put in place to help you get to your 80,000 words? Did you, you know, I’m going to write six hours today or I’m going to write 2,000 words today? Or, you know, like, anything like that to actually keep you on track and disciplined so you can have that stamina?

Caroline

No. In a short answer, the word is ‘no’. I lacked the kind of discipline that I fantasised about having.

Valerie

Right.

Caroline

And what saved my bacon was that I did sign up to do two writers’ retreats with Charlotte Wood. So Charlotte ran two retreats by invitation for a small group of friends that she has in the writing community which involved going away for a week at a time and really working in an intensive way so that we would start every morning with a sort of objective and goal-setting conversation after breakfast for about 10 or 15 minutes, just seven of us in a room. And then we would go and write all day and at the end of the day over a delicious dinner cooked by Charlotte we would tell each other what we’d achieved, what problems we’d encountered, and what we were hoping to do the next day.

And the important thing is that unlike the models that some retreats, including say retreats run at Varuna and at other places, we had a very, very steadfast rule that we would not read our work aloud because we thought that that might be premature or unhelpful or set up something competitive or a dynamic that would not be beneficial.

And so I found that those two separate weeks undertaken a year apart were absolutely critical. The first one I went to when I had just come back from my father’s funeral and I was a sobbing mess and the poor people on that retreat had to put up with that and were incredibly kind and very understanding. And a year later I was working on another draft and was in more robust shape and was doing a lot more of the kind of reworking, filling in gaps, that kind of stuff.

Valerie

Now, you have used a couple of words in our conversation that kind of make me smile and are slightly hilarious, because you referred to yourself as a beginner and as a novice. And when you are reading this, oh my God, they are the two furthest words because this to me is the work of a master. I’m not just saying it, but as I’m reading and I’m just letting the words wash over me.

I mean, the story of course and the insight is certainly very interesting, but for me it’s the writing that keeps this, that makes this so compelling. And so, what’s the word, a rich experience for the reader. So, when you… What are your influences then in terms of your own writing? Because you would be one of the most widely read people out there.

Caroline

Yes, but that’s the trouble. That’s the trouble. You know, it’s very intimidating, because you’ve been reading a lot and also you’ve been published a fair bit as a journalist and so there might be expectations out there and you have to set those aside. You don’t want to be derivative. You don’t want to imitate anybody else. And you know, you laugh possibly at me calling myself a novice and a beginner but the fact of the matter is that I’ve been trained as a journalist not to use the word ‘I’.

Valerie

Yes.

Caroline

And not to, you know… Most of your bread and butter journalism is interviewing other people or writing about places or writing about some particular situation. And so the whole business of placing yourself at the centre of the story feels completely not only counterintuitive but it sort of feels wrong. You feel like you’re doing something you’ve been told all your professional life not to do.

Valerie

Yes.

Caroline

And so I’m not being falsely modest. You know, I saw myself described somewhere as an established writer and I thought, “This is my first flipping book. I am an emerging writer, thank you very much. I may be fifty-something, but I do not feel like I’m an established writer.” And for guidance… Look, I read the inspirational books that were in the genre that I was writing that had a very strong and clear voice. Richard Glover’s Flesh Wounds was important. Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning. Mary Karr The Liar’s Club for me was the book that pushed me over the edge into understanding that you had to be able to write viscerally and make people feel things physically in their guts and that you had to be prepared to face shame and embarrassment if you were going to be truly authentic. You know, that you just cannot quarantine or try and protect any part of yourself because the reader will know.

Valerie

Yes. What was the most challenging part of writing the memoir?

Caroline

I suppose the bits where I don’t come across as a particularly nice person. Look, you know, one of the things I understood Valerie is that I think that you don’t write memoir to be liked. I think you do write memoir because you hope to be understood. And I feel that as someone who came to this country 30 years ago with a particular accent and a particular background of privilege that I was often misunderstood and I think that I’m offering this book up as a way… Well, as a plea if you like, to say, please try to understand that I am the way I am because of this background and this unique set of circumstances.

So I think that there’s a chapter in the book where I write about estrangement, about walking away from my parents in my forties and not speaking to them for three years. I think that was very difficult to write despite the way that chapter resolves. A spoiler alert. No, I’m not going to say anything about that bit, so… You know, there… And obviously, obviously, given that you’ve read the book you would understand this. There was an enormous amount of diffidence that I had in writing stories that don’t belong to me. So a story about my mother and my father’s infidelity. Writing those parts of the book really forced me to address ethical questions. And you know, my mother has a sense of privacy that belongs to her generation that is not the same sense of privacy that Millennials have. And so that was quite difficult to navigate.

Valerie

Take me back to, you became a journalist when, when you were… Just, if you can tell people, when did your love of writing or words or journalism and subsequently books, how did that all form? Perhaps you can just tell listeners?

Caroline

Well. Well, I suppose I grew up in a very, very bookish household and we read the papers compulsively and obsessively and we discussed the papers all the way through my childhood. That was the sort of favourite kind of fairly neutral ground actually compared to the sort of more combative conversations at home. And then I entered a competition when I was 16, I think, in London at school. And the prize for the competition was… It was a competition that was set by Vogue magazine and the prize was a year working for the magazine. And I was the youngest winner in the UK.

And so in my gap year between school and university I went off to Vogue House in Hanover Square and was plonked in the middle of the Features department and given a job as the assistant to an extraordinary clutch of women; very, very high powered and very talented women who went on to write great things and edit great things. Women like Lucy Hughes-Hallett, she’s a fantastic award-winning biographer. Polly Devlin. Joan Juliet Buck, who became the editor of French Vogue.

And so I just soaked everything up through every pore in my skin and I knew then and there that I didn’t want to do anything else ever.

Valerie

And so, what are you working on now? Are you working on another book? Or now that you’ve, you know, you’ve written this…

Caroline

Yes.

Valerie

Yes?

Caroline

Yes. I was very lucky. In 2015 I won the Hazel Rowley fellowship. I had interviewed Hazel Rowley a couple of times and was a huge admirer of her work as a biographer. And so I’m writing a biography of a relatively obscure 19th/20th century French woman Lucy Dreyfus who was married to a man called Alfred Dreyfus who was the cause or the trigger of the biggest political scandal in France when he was wrongfully accused of treason and exiled to Devil’s Island.

And it had always fascinated me in this story and the way it’s been told, because there’s an enormous literature around the Dreyfus’ case and what it came to symbolize in France and in Europe in terms of anti-Semitism et cetera. But Lucy Dreyfus was always, always left out of the story and I always wanted to know how did that woman endure the scandal, the suffering, the separation from her husband and what was their life like when he came back. So I had been using the fellowship to research her biography. So the focus of attention will no longer be me, it will be somebody else.

Valerie

So for those people who were listening and are currently writing or intend, hope to write their own memoir, having gone through the process now yourself and I would say, gone through it successfully, what would your advice be to them in terms of things that they might not, to be aware of? You know, because they haven’t written it yet. So things to be aware of when they’re going to go through the process.

Caroline

Well look, I do think that one of the things that really helped me was thinking about having a thematic kind of organising principles. So mine obviously was the singularity of being an only child. And that was brought about really by reading Sian Prior’s book Shy and I had a sort of moment of writerly envy when I saw that she’d chosen to write her story through the prism of her particular form of social anxiety. And I thought that was really original.

So if you can find a sort of, a sort of a lateral way into memoir… Memoir is such an overcrowded field that you’ve got to find something that is unique and distinctive to you that will cut through the noise in the genre and make people go, “Oh, now that’s a story I haven’t heard before.”

And the other thing that I learned from Magda Szubanski and Richard Glover is that if you have a story that’s painful and if you have a story that does contain hurt and grievance, you have to find a way to tell your story and take bitterness out of it. Because bitterness I think alienates the reader. And I asked Magda about this at the Byron Writers Festival. I said, “How did you do it?” And I asked Richard as well. And actually, Rosie Waterland was on that panel as well. And they all sort of said the same thing, if your manuscript contains bitterness it means that you haven’t done enough work on yourself and you haven’t done enough work on your manuscript. And I found that such valuable, valuable advice.

Valerie

Wonderful. So, did you find that in your first draft that the bitterness was there and subsequently realized you needed to work on yourself?

Caroline

Well the short answer to that Valerie is yes. And that did involve taking out some adjectives. And I think that when you take the adjectives out that are sort of loaded and freighted with you know, your resentment, again you’re not leaving the reader room to make up their own mind about what they think about the scene that you’re painting. So, yes, there was a little bit of a nip and tuck that went on there.

Valerie

But apart from the nip and tuck to the actual manuscript, did you find the process therapeutic and did it change you?

Caroline

I think it really has. I think, you know, this is not, I really want to emphasise this, this is not a book that’s been written as therapy. I really, I hope it doesn’t read that way anyway.

Valerie

Oh no, it certainly does not come across that way.

Caroline

But. But, having said that, I have to say that I feel lighter. And I feel that in the process of writing the story I understand myself better. I understand my parents better. And I feel like I’m letting go of an enormous amount of baggage.

Valerie

Incredible. Okay. Well, this is an incredible book everyone and you should definitely read it. It’s, it’s just beautiful. It’s just beautifully written. Thank you so much for your time today Caroline.

Caroline

It’s an absolute pleasure Valerie and you asked brilliant questions.

 

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