When did you first start writing? What did you first write? When did you decide that you wanted to ‘be a writer’?
Well, I think I will skate past the 15-page ‘novel’ I wrote when I was 13. My English teacher was justifiably underwhelmed and suggested (quite tactfully) that I should in future avoid plot contrivances like gypsy fortune-tellers. And maybe I’ll continue skating past the song lyrics I wrote in my 20s. So I began writing seriously when I took creative writing classes as an undergraduate in the 1990s—not with the intention of writing but because I thought it would make me a better editor if I experienced what it was like on the other side of the red pen. In the process, however, I discovered what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Who would you say are your writing influences?
I once heard an interview with Christos Tsiolkas in which he differentiated between writing influences and writing inspirations, saying it was only possible for other people to identify influences. I think I agree with him. Writers who have inspired me include Gail Jones, Jessica Anderson, Michael Cunningham, Anne Michaels, Cate Kennedy, Edith Wharton, Patrick Süskind, Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Simone Lazaroo—an eclectic mix, and only just a few of so many.
You worked for many years as an editor before beginning to write. How does your editing experience affect your writing, and vice versa?
The editor in me is a mixed blessing—useful during the later stages of redrafting and analysis and with all manner of technical aspects but a damned nuisance when I’m writing a first draft. She says unhelpful things like ‘So what?’ and I have to send her away. I hope my writing experience makes me a better editor and better able to help other writers. It’s certainly given me greater understanding of creative processes.
Your first novel and many of your stories are set, at least partially in the past, and/or engage with ideas of history. What is the fascination of history for you?
I’ve edited a lot of history during the course of my career, and when I began to write, things I’d read about years before would often filter into my thinking about people and places and issues. The past often feels present to me, by which I mean I’m interested in museums and archives and art galleries, old books, old jewellery, old houses, photographs—things that carry with them tangible traces of what’s gone before, what’s brought us to where we are now. And I think sometimes my writing reflects this: the past alive in the present, the present seen in relation to the past, a kind of porousness between the two.
You’re currently writing a second novel. From a writing perspective, how do you feel about the novel as a form, compared with the short story?
I like both forms, both as a reader and a writer. The short story is the perfect form for some ideas, and you have a lot of flexibility in approach and structure. And often it’s what you leave out that makes the story; you play with space, with air, with subtlety, so that the reader has a role to play in creating meaning. The novel can, of course, use similar manoeuvres, but while the short story involves a tension between compression and expansion, the novel is weighted I think in favour of expansion; what you create is something enveloping, an experience readers often refer to as ‘immersion’. And the creation of that experience—a world, a cast of characters, a place, in which a reader can feel immersed—is a joyful and satisfying (and sometimes painful!) process. The commitment of writing time is also a significant factor. The novel feels like a marathon; the story, a sprint (well, often a longish sprint). In the course of the second-novel marathon, I’ve found it stimulating to be able to focus on some shorter projects, too—and oh, the joy of being able to finish something! But the world of that marathon is always going seduce me, as does the challenge of the sprint, so I won’t be giving up one genre for the other.
What are your writing habits?
When I have whole days in which to write, I think I write better in the afternoon, and, occasionally, very late at night. I’m more likely to spend the morning editing what I’ve done the day before, perhaps doing some research, writing endless notes to myself on post-it notes, giving the editor something to do so she’ll go away, satisfied, and leave me alone for a while. I write in longhand and on screen, usually starting in longhand.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? And if so, how do you overcome it?
I’m not sure. Not those legendary blocks you hear about when a writer feels they can’t write for months or years. I often don’t write for months but it’s because I’m doing something else. If I just can’t get started on something, I’ll keep trying different ways into it until I find something that works. Or I’ll promise myself a Mars Bar if I find a solution. Or I’ll give up and eat the Mars Bar anyway.
Have you had any interesting reader responses to your work?
At festivals in Perth and Albany I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting people who are descendants of some of the nineteenth-century Albany identities I wrote about in my novel The Sinkings—for example, relatives of Horace Egerton-Warburton, who was the last person (other than the murderer) to see Little Jock alive, and the Garretty brothers, who found Little Jock’s bones. That brought home to me again that sense of having made, in The Sinkings, a small memorial to an ‘ordinary’ life (even though this one may have been utterly extraordinary) that would otherwise have gone unremembered.