How to Become a Writer: Donna Mazza

This series is based on an early short-story by Lorrie Moore called ‘How to Become a Writer’, a wry account of all the seemingly random events, choices and missteps that led a young woman to dedicate herself to a life of putting words on paper. This is a subject I’m fascinated by. Whenever I talk to authors, read their interviews or hear them speak, I’m struck by the enormous variety of routes there are to the same end-point.

There are those who come to writing through study, others are self-taught; some begin early while others are ‘late-bloomers’; some are lucky enough to find mentors, others go it alone; some begin as teachers, editors or in other word-related professions, others come from lives as accountants or sheep shearers. I take tremendous comfort in knowing there’s more than one way to pack a sack; that just because you haven’t done certain things (like gone to university), doesn’t mean you can’t become a writer; we must each find our own path to the writing life.

My guest on this edition of How to Become a Writer* is Donna Mazza. Donna is an award-winning author of poetry, short fiction and novels. Her debut novel, The Albanian (2007), won the TAG Hungerford Award and she was the Mick Dark Flagship Fellow for Environmental Writing at Varuna, the National Writers House, for her short fiction. Donna teaches literature and writing at Edith Cowan University and lives in a small country town in the South West with her family, including many chickens. Her latest novel is Fauna, published by Allen & Unwin.

I first met Donna in a creative writing class at Edith Cowan University and was beguiled by a short story she read aloud. We were in a writing group together and commenced our PhDs in writing at the same time, with the same supervisor. Our paths have crossed many times over the years and I’m delighted to feature her on the blog, and can’t wait to read her new novel, Fauna.

Set seventeen years into a very recognisable future, Fauna is an astonishing psychological drama with an incredible twist: What if the child you are carrying is not entirely human?

Donna Mazza, photo by Sarah Mills

Grandmother of Letters
My writing career began with my grandmother, Jean Hainge, who was a prolific letter writer and an unpublished poet. Most of her poems poked fun at quirky events in her own life – one tells of the anxiety of having a mole removed from her stomach where her concern over the generous contours of her own figure revealed to the doctor far outweigh the potential diagnosis. I walked around the corner to her house to come upon her reading, writing letters or poems, or painting. She told me family stories, tinted with a bit of artistic license and took me to the second hand bookstore in Bunbury where she let me choose ANYTHING. So at 11 or 12, I read astrology, Stephen King, and Nostradamus but also Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, and Henry Lawson.

One of the most memorable was Alive, the true story of a plane crash in the Andes where the survivors eat each other to survive. Shortly thereafter, I became vegetarian.

Sister of Letters
Sister Mary Cabrini was five foot tall and formidable but in her English Literature class at Bunbury Catholic College she was alight and inspiring. My imagination grabbed hold of Eliot’s poetry like one starved. But the hook, line and sinker for me was Wuthering Heights. Out on the wild, windy moors I formed as a writer and all my work owes a debt to it. In my writer consciousness, landscape and character are knitted together, and my own heroines are a bit rash thanks to Emily Bronte. This early grounding in the Gothic drove my literary tastes while to most people my age, Gothic was more about black eyeliner than literature.

Letters after my name
I did a lot of travelling as a young person. Finishing an Arts degree with an English major and honours took me a while, in between visits to the landscapes of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels, and I eventually made a commitment to write. At thirty-one I started a PhD and grew in confidence as a writer thanks to the mentorship of Richard Rossiter and my PhD friends, including Annabel, Amanda Curtin and Danielle Wood. My PhD novel, The Albanian, won the Hungerford Award and was published in 2007 by Fremantle Press, when I had a six month old baby, a six year old, a stepson, and was helping build a strawbale house and support our family as a sessional academic.

Letting it go
So life got in the way of writing. I started a new novel in 2008 with the help of a modest grant from the State Government but the idea for it was structurally complex and I had divided attention. It took me years to finish some semblance of it, between work as a full time academic, and even then it was very short, just a novella. Dark Little Ghost was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award in 2015 but it isn’t published and I had to let it go. I did something quite against my nature and gave up on it. This was, really, very difficult because I loved the characters and felt very attached to them after working on it for so many years, even if it was intermittent.

Short Fiction & Poetry

Released from its grip, though, I was free to focus on other things and wrote poetry and short stories, which I felt was more within my capabilities with the work and kids. I had some wonderful residency times at Varuna, The National Writers’ House and I entered into a more liberated form of writing, unhindered by reality. Here, in a more dystopian space, I have still sought a truth-effect but it is more of an imaginative wild-land. Some of these stories are published and one, ‘The Exhibit’, was joint winner of Westerly’s Patricia Hackett Prize. This encouragement, and the response to the story of a woman carrying a genetically altered child, led to Fauna

The vital experience of writing shorter fiction has made me a better writer and I know that, in the writing time I have, I am building the foundation for the next work. 

A Sabbatical

This new novel would not have been possible without a six-month sabbatical from my day job. I have a strong commitment to my students at Edith Cowan University in Bunbury, but finding enough focussed time to write is difficult. There are 13 years between my published novels but the creative development did not stop in between them.

I read, research and hone the writing skills I need for those weeks when there is silence and I stop counting the days I have free from work, and there is time for imagining.

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2 thoughts on “How to Become a Writer: Donna Mazza”

  1. I am halfway through Fauna, which I first read and was entranced by in its short story form, and it’s beautiful – the baby is mesmerising and the medical staff are very unsettling – want to read it slowly to let the suspense build, but also want to rush to find out what happens, but also want to linger on the sentences….

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