I hope someone breaks your heart all at once

Life Love

I hope someone breaks your heart all at once

To my dear and beautiful daughters,

I hope that when someone breaks your heart (and they will), that they do it all at once. A bombshell. A bit of knowledge so exquisitely disarming that it shatters your heart to pieces in a singular moment and they are everywhere, and you have to go around to all the places they went and find the pieces and put them in a bag together. I hope that when your heart is broken it is an explosion, it is a catastrophe of emotion so profound you find yourself turned inside-out and upside-down and black and furious and tortured and dismembered.

I hope that when someone breaks your heart (they will, they will, not knowing you are the most important women in the world), they do it all at once and not systematically over ten years. Not piece by piece, pulling away your skin and then when your skin is all pulled away, taking apart your tendons and then when your tendons are all taken apart, tearing out your bones and then when your bones are all torn out, putting their fist into the space where your ribcage was and unstitching and unstitching and unstitching your heart.

I hope that when someone breaks your heart (fuck them) they do it all in a matter of seconds, standing in a field and telling you they’ve met someone else or they’re breaking off the engagement or they’re moving to China. Not minute after minute, standing in a kitchen and telling you you’ve got it wrong or that you ruined dinner again or that you’re imagining things or that you were a bitch to them at the supermarket and telling you these things until you — you — go back to them with your hands full of the porcelain pieces of your heart and you offer them up as an apology.

I hope that when someone breaks your heart (their unthinkable, terrible, reprehensible judgement) they drop it from a balloon or cast it into the ocean. Not hanging from a tree while the birds come and the possums come and the bats come and they all take a bit, barely noticeable, but they keep taking and taking it until half of it is gone and you didn’t realise. Not tied to a post with the wind beating against it until a hundred thousand hours of erosion wears it away but in each second the change is unnoticeable. Not a star in a galaxy that burns for several billion years until it becomes so tired without even seeing, just a little bit every day, just a minute, irrelevant, inconceivable bit.

I hope that when someone breaks your heart (those scoundrels, I will destroy them) it’s done in a flash, a spark, a ricochet, a shout, a nanosecond, a roar, a heartbeat.

M

Book club: The Healing Party

Books

Book club: The Healing Party

9781863958431 (1)Welcome to my first choice as new Head Coach of the Pink Fibro Book Club! Confession: I’ve chosen a book I’ve already read, but I’ve done so because all I could think while reading this was “this would be a great book for book club.”

Here’s what publisher Black Inc. has to say about The Healing Party:

When her mother is diagnosed with a terminal illness, Natasha returns to the home she fled many years before. But her father, a Charismatic Christian, has not changed: he is still the domineering yet magnetic man she ran from, and the family is still in his thrall. He comes home one night with astonishing news: he has received a message from God that his wife is to be healed, and they must hold a party to celebrate. As Natasha and her sisters prepare for the big event – and the miracle – she struggles to reconcile her family’s faith with her sense that they are pretending.

I’ll share my thoughts on August 1, but will say I found this to be a surprisingly light read with interesting insights into born-again Christianity, especially as a Chinese family living in suburban Melbourne.

Pop over and support the best bookstore in world, Readings, or buy/borrow it from your favourite place.

Not a member of the club? Come and join – there are hundreds of us!


 

My first book: one week on

Beautiful Things Writing

My first book: one week on

Good afternoon! I wrote a book! You might have heard, before you muted me on Twitter for being an Extremely Annoying Author.

Quite a lot of things have happened. Many of them involved me going to bed early and then not sleeping very much for the overstimulation. Having a book out means thinking. A lot. It means thinking about everything people might be thinking about it, and also thinking about how many people are not thinking about it. Worrying that no one is reading it. Worrying that people are reading it. Worrying that it was all a dream and you forgot to write it and actually you’ve missed your deadline and entered a dissociative fugue state because your publisher is shouting at you.

Fair warning, there are a lot of exclamation marks in this post.


 

The day before the book went on sale, I was having a long sit in my bed in the middle of the day. Not a sleep. Barely a sleep. During my mostly-not-sleep, I got an email from my publisher. The most wonderful email I’ve ever received.

Without ever being on sale to the public, my book went to reprint.

They had to print more, to keep up with demand. I had an actual meltdown, just watched Say Yes to the Dress with all the lights off for a couple of hours.

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It turns out, people have read it. Wonderful, kind and insightful people. People who say great things about The Paper House.

Books + Publishing, the industry mag, gave it four stars. You can read an excerpt of Portia Lindsay’s generous and thoughtful review, but here’s my favourite bit:

“… a strong debut novel from a fascinating new voice in Australian fiction.”

Fascinating. Me.


 

Then, bloody hell, Readings went and made it their fiction Book of the Month. Their reviewer, Annie Condon, called me “a young writer to watch”, which is nice on multiple levels, not the least of which is that I have been wearing a bucket over my head to hide the bags for several weeks now.

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(Here it is in Readings Monthly)


I did an interview with the Australian Women’s Weekly. The Weekly! Cat Rodie called it “a stunning piece of literature”, which I now use in place of my signature on things.

And here! Dymocks not only had me along as a guest on their podcast, but they also made it a top pick in their Sydney CBD store! Dymocks Sydney CBD is bigger than my house but has about the same number of books that haven’t been opened yet.

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Sunday Style said it was “equally heartbreaking, uplifting and insightful“, and these legends at Macquarie Uni called it “a book that is absolutely dripping with raw feeling, rendered in crystalline, fluid prose.

Not bad, right? I mean, for a thing I coughed out of my brain fluid.


Then, I talked to my friend and mentor Allison Tait, on the Australian Writers Centre’s podcast So You Want to Be a Writer? She asked me all kinds of questions, and I answered them, as is traditionally the format for an interview.

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I also chatted with the great folk at Writer’s Edit, where I said things like this:

[I have learned to] delight in patience. I have always been a very impatient person, but I have come to treat the downtimes of the process (between editing rounds, or waiting for proofs, etc.) as an opportunity to just imagine what a great success it might be. It’s a nice time, before the release, when anything is possible.

When anything is possible. Like, for example, your book being on the fucking television.

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That’s my book. Mine. On the ABC’s Book Club. You know, like on an actual telly. I usually watch it on iView the next day, because 10pm is late for people like me who sit at a desk all day and forget to eat lunch a lot of the time, so I was snug in my bed when people started texting and tweeting me about it. YOUR BOOK IS ON THE TV! they said, and I said, NO YOU MUST BE THINKING OF SOME OTHER BOOK! But lo, there it is! And honestly, Jennifer Byrne saying your name without it being because you’re following her down the street is really something.


It’s been surreal to see everyone’s photos of the book in stores, on beds, in cafes, on chairs, in paper bags, with dogs. All the wonderful people I have come to know through writing and through Twitter and through awkwardly engaging in real life have given me so much to be grateful for during this time. Here are some of the things they have said:

I like to bask in Anna’s reflected glory, thinking that one day, when her book has (inevitably) become a best seller, I will be able to say, ‘well, we used to own one of her family’s cats’.

But also things like this:

One of the most touching, heartfelt novels I’ve had the joy of reading in quite some time.
(Tonile on Goodreads)

A stand out novel, and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.
(Jodi on Goodreads)

I adored this, an incredible debut. I can’t wait to read whatever Anna writes next.
(Kirsten on Goodreads)

Anna’s relationship to words seems synaesthetic to me. There is something more magical going on here than just a good grasp of language.
(Torre on Goodreads)

The Paper House is a beautiful, tender book. Its heart beats with poetry. Anna Spargo-Ryan writes with depth, empathy, and insight …
(Katie on Goodreads)

What a bunch of bloody legends.


What’s next? Well might you ask! My official launch at Readings is on Thursday the 16th of June, at 6:30pm. I’m told there will be wine, and I am quite happy to maintain a healthy relationship of bribes and guilt, as is tradition in my family.

Then there’s a swathe of other interviews, podcasts, me looking awkward in photos and other treats to come over the course of the month.

If you’d like a signed copy, you’ll find them at Beaumaris Books and Ulysses Bookstore. After the 16th, they’ll also be available from Readings.

And in the meantime, I’m nearly at The End of my next book. The economic cycle continues!


Buy it from your favourite local independent bookseller, or any of these fine places:

Writing

Deleted scene: moving to Gran’s

Dad drives me to Gran’s house, even though it’s ten minutes on a bus and I’ve been there a million times.
It’s just for a few weeks, he says.
I’ve got two suitcases. One has my favourite jeans and some t-shirts and homework in it. School says I don’t have to do any. Special consideration, they said. But exams are in two months and like hell I’m going to end up working at Maccas my whole life.
The other suitcase is a little blue one I found in the attic room. It’s not a proper suitcase. Feels like it’s made of cardboard. I just put some stuff in it that I wanted to have nearby. Just a few drawings. A thimble. A bit of her hair. No one knows I’ve got that.
Dad gets the paintings from the car.
Gran comes out and she’s got mum’s jumper on. The grey one with holes where she put her thumbs. I hug Gran as tight as I can and all I can smell is her—mum, the salt and turps and sunlight.
I start crying, of course. I feel like a dickhead. Gran is really squeezing me but what can she do about it? Mum is still dead. I feel like stamping my feet. Like if I throw a bit tantrum, someone will fix it.
Kind of.
I feel other things too, while I’m breathing all of mum’s smells. Little bits of stuff I had pushed out. Like the time we stole a boat. And the time she found a stingray. And the time, and the time. I think about all these times at once and for a second I think I stop breathing.
Gran gets me started again.
Then there’s this part of me way way way down that’s nagging at me. It’s going, at least I can stop worrying.
Because that’s the thing, isn’t it.
I think about all the times I got to the front door and wouldn’t open it because I was scared of what I would find on the other side.
Dad goes home. He has to pack up the beach house so he can sell it. He says with Fleur gone and him offshore all the time there’s no point in having a big house like that. I haven’t asked him where I’m supposed to live but I guess he’ll figure it out.
Gran has a big lounge room with a piano in it. That’s my favourite thing about her house. I can’t even play the piano but I like the way it sounds when I click my fingernails on the keys.
She gets us some raspberry tartlets and we watch Catch Phrase with Baby John Burgess. Gran likes his moustache. I don’t get any of the catch phrases.
She asks me if I want any dinner but I don’t. I just want to go to bed. I’ve slept in the bed so many times it feels like my bed anyway.
The sun hasn’t set yet but she washes my feet and gives me apple slices with the skin taken off.
She says, She loved you so much, and I say, I know.

Mum is everywhere here, in Gran’s house. It smells like her. Like her skin is right next to me. Like rosemary and butter and turps. Gran’s closed off half the hallway but I see mum in there. Grey. Purple. Orange. When Gran talks I can hear her. Like genetics. Their voices are the same. If I called Gran it would be like mum was just on the other end of the phone. In the mornings I look in the mirror and I see mum there too. I blink at myself and my eyes go up and down like hers. Sometimes I squint and she’s there and I’m not. But she’s crying. Or I’m crying.
Gran doesn’t cry.
She didn’t even cry when I showed her the note. Even at the bit that said, Look after my girls. She just folded it and gave it back to me and I put it in the blue suitcase.
I make her green scrambled eggs and get them all the way on the plate before I remember they’re mum’s favourite.
They go in the garbage disposal.
I make a couple of pieces of Vegemite toast and take them upstairs. Sometimes I forget how big the house is. All the hallways feel like they’re going to suck me into them, like the emptiness of them will just swallow me up.
Gran’s room is on the second storey. It overlooks the park with the pond. Sometimes when I look out the window I see a woman pushing a girl on a swing and she’s singing, She floats through the air with the greatest of ease.
I was never even on a flying trapeze but sometimes it felt like it.
I’ve eaten one of the bits of toast. I feel sort of bad giving Gran the leftover bit but I look into her bedroom and see her there. Pressed against the wall in her pink nightie.
I made you some toast, I say.
She says, You don’t have to take care of me, Heather.
It happens all at once then. My whole chest constricts. Really, like there’s a snake wrapped around it.
Don’t cry, she says.
But I do. I look at the ceiling and she has her old hands on my shoulders and I pull on the windowsill and cry and cry until my eyes are burning and the air is coming into me in a big rush.
Gran goes, Shhh, and I exhale until I’m empty.
And I say, I’m just so relieved.
And I can hear it beating, the drum, the end.
And the paint is running.
And she says, There you are, my beautiful girl.
And here I am.

Writing

Deleted scene: the snow

We’re going to the snow. Gran took us to get snow jackets. Mine is blue and it’s got a kitten on the back. Fleur wanted a black one but Gran said they don’t make snow jackets in black so she got a yellow one.
She looks like she’s trying to glow in the dark.
Dad gets the car all packed. I’m taking my fluffy slippers and six books because dad’s promised we can have as many hot chocolates as we want. Mum likes hot chocolates even more than I do.
I’ve packed a special book for mum to read with me.
It’s called The Tiger Who Came to Tea.
It’s too babyish for me now but I like reading it with her. She says Sophie is just like me. I think the dad is just like my dad.
When we have all the stuff in the car, Gran comes around to see us off. We’re going for four nights so I bet she will miss us.
Mum’s got her dressing gown on. I think that’s pretty clever. Dressing gowns are like blankets you can take around with you. She will definitely be warm at the snow in her dressing gown.
Fleur gets in the car and starts listening to her Discman before we’ve even left the driveway.
Dad says, Say goodbye to your grandmother!
Bye, Fleur says.
I give Gran a big hug and hide inside her green coat for a minute, and I can hear her breakfast gurgling down her body.
Bye Gran! I say. I’ll miss you!
She sneaks a bit of chocolate into my pocket. Fleur doesn’t get any, which serves her right.
Come on mum, I say. Say goodbye to Gran.
Mum sort of smiles but only with half of her face.
Have you got all your clothes packed? I say. We’re going for four nights!
Then some wind blows past and her dressing gown moves a bit and I can see her PJs underneath.
Mum, I say. You’ve still got your PJs on.
She ties her gown up again and doesn’t say anything.
Dad comes around to my side of the car.
Mum can’t come this time, he says, and kisses me on top of my head.
Why not? I say.
She’s not feeling very well.
I say, Why doesn’t she have some medicine?
Then mum starts crying and dad tells me to hop in, and I do hop in even though I don’t want to.
We drive off and I watch out the back window the whole way down the street and mum is standing there waving and Gran is putting some bags in her car.

It takes nearly all day to get to the snow. We go up a winding road and it must a good snow because there are kids everywhere with their mums and dads.
I get out of the car and make a snowball and throw it at dad.
He makes a snowball too, and he throws it but he pretends to miss me.
Mum likes the cold. I wonder why she didn’t want to come to the snow.
Fleur doesn’t even look out the window. She just sits in the car and listens to her Discman.
When I go back to the car, she turns her music up so loud the people in the next car can probably hear it.
Dad says, Schnitzels for tea?
I don’t really feel like anything but I say yes anyway.
Then I think about Gran’s green coat for four days. When we get home, I give her back the chocolate. It’s so cold at the snow that it hasn’t even melted.

Quite a large box + signed book giveaway

Book Writing

Quite a large box + signed book giveaway

Today, I got up and I had a shit morning. It was just rotten. So I went to the supermarket and bought some Smarties and decided I would go to bed when I got home and I would not come out until tomorrow.

I was getting into my bed leggings (as distinct from house leggings and, I’m sorry to say, outside leggings) when I saw a person on my verandah in a hi-vis shirt. The unfortunate thing about people on verandahs in hi-vis shirts is that often they leave notes instead of parcels, so I ran out there with my bed leggings half-off and signed to take possession of a box.

A big, heavy box.

I hadn’t been expecting it, on my shit morning. I had been expecting to watch the latest episode of Million Dollar Listings and eat so many Smarties I had to vomit into a clearing I’d made in the mess on my floor. I had not been expecting a heavy box with Express Post stickers and no return address.

The contents were immediately clear, of course. It was just the right shape. I could feel them in there. The way they vibrated, the way they shouted: “Anna! It’s us, your childhood dream!”

I opened it with a knife, which seemed the right approach to a childhood dream. To attack the childhood dream. Thirty years of waiting deserved the kind of pomp that only comes with a knife or maybe a large sword. I sliced open that box and my childhood dream was screaming at me and there they were, in their neat rows, like teeth.

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My books.

I was sort of breathless for a second, waiting to see what I would feel. I had imagined being overcome by emotion and feeling utterly fulfilled in every way a person can, but I must reiterate that my morning had been so shit and I had already been crying into my bag of Smarties so I wasn’t sure if I could muster up any additional emotions.

I slipped one out. A book. And then an emotion.

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This is my book. Not another person’s book. Not my future self’s book. This isn’t a book I might have written if I’d found the time, or a book I might always “have in me”, or a book someone else wrote while I was fucking around on the internet. This is my actual book. I wrote it and wrote it and wrote it some more, and then today, on my terrifically shit morning, it was in a box instead of in my head.

I sniffed it, obviously. It smells like a book, like print and paper and glue. I called my dad and he came all the way to my house to witness its actual, literal bookness. And to read the dedication, which I’d managed to keep a secret from him this whole time, even though I can never keep any other kind of secret for even the ten seconds it takes you to tell it to me.

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I put my book in my shelf, to see how it looks with other books. Then I put four of them together so I could see how it looks with its own books. Then I put one in my bed, to see how it looks when someone takes it to bed. Then I put it back in the box, to remember what it was like thirty minutes ago when I had never seen it before.

And I thought about what my younger self would say. My six-year-old self. And I guess I realised, for the first time, that I am my six-year-old self and that this is not “my childhood dream” but just my dream. I didn’t do it “for both of us”, but just for me.

Now I’m in bed, eating Smarties and watching Million Dollar Listing. But my book is here too.

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I’m giving away a signed copy of this book to one lucky(?) Australian or New Zealand resident. All you have to do is pop over to Facebook and tell me a story about a house. I really like stories, and my book is about a house. My team and I will choose the one we love best, scribble a signature in a book, and send it out.

A bit of author Q&A (part 3)

Writing

A bit of author Q&A (part 3)

 

Do you consider story structure, or just let it flow?

I have no idea how to consider story structure. I wrote about this for Overland a couple of years ago. Structure does not come naturally to me, and I had to work hard at it. In a sense, I let it flow to the point where I was writing a very long prose poem, then was assisted through creating a story later on. I’ve not had the same experience while writing my second book – that one is much more story driven, and sometimes the characterisation and themes have come out of the plot points. But I haven’t done that deliberately; it just came to me as a complete story, so I wrote it down. This might never happen again (it certainly isn’t happening for the third book — yet).


 

How do you know when to stop editing?

I only knew when to stop editing because someone (my editor) told me I was finished. It could theoretically go on forever. As Leonardo da Vinci allegedly said: Art is never finished, only abandoned. I feel this way about editing. You do the best you can until you have to stop, either because your time is up, or because you simply cannot do it anymore without having a nervous breakdown. I think there’s a great skill (one I am yet to master) in knowing when you’ve done enough without continuing to feel compelled to make it perfect.

Interestingly (?) I don’t feel this way about writing. All of my writing comes to a natural and absolute stop. I think I’m good at endings. I usually write the final line of something (a blog entry, a short story, a chapter of a book) and feel totally at peace with its completeness. It’s extremely rare for me to change my endings. Most of the chapter endings in The Paper House appeared in the original draft.


 

How do you stop asking yourself why you’re doing this?

I don’t know if you do. I haven’t. But for me it’s been counterbalanced by how fucking great is it? at other times. I find writing so rewarding. And honestly, the validation of having it published and fulfilling a lifelong dream is incomparable, and I hope will remain so even if it is universally panned.


 

I’m always curious to know how much of the original MS made it to the book – how much did it change along the way?

It changed enormously. I’ve said this before, but I wrote more than 200,000 words to find the 73,000 words I kept. There are five different and complete versions. I wrote two entirely different (unfinished) stories before this one, and just kept taking the bits I liked and cramming them into new and better stories. In the second iteration, I had a bizarre and hilarious old couple who didn’t belong in the story at all, and I removed them to save for another book (I wrote about this experience here).

There’s a dad in the version my publisher bought who wasn’t in the first version. There’s a little clutch of funny elderly women in the first version who didn’t make the final cut. They moved from one side of the peninsula to the other. A psychologist appeared. I’ve made all kinds of changes. Really the only thing that’s remained the same throughout the process is the main character’s husband, Dave. He was in the very first version, which I wrote about a third of for Nanowrimo 2012, and he is more or less exactly the same in the version you will (hopefully) read.


 

How on earth do you keep sentence variety and maintain flow?

I think about this a lot. I also worry about word choice, and the size of my vocabulary (tiny), and how people will notice that everything I write sounds exactly the same. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be conscious of it, but I do think it’s valuable to be able to ignore it while you’re writing the first draft of something. Read lots, and widely. I don’t do this, obviously. I read narrowly and write the same things over and over.


 

Do sprints play a role in your novel writing process? If so, how?

Honestly, most of my writing is done in furious blurs, rather than in an ordered, well-paced way. I only write if it’s a race. Sometimes that means racing against other people, and sometimes it just means a last-minute dash to get an assignment done, but it’s always a race. I write best under pressure. I type fast (I was once a radio transcriber), so I throw down a solid 1000 words in 30 minutes, if I’m racing. If I’m not racing, and therefore there is no potential to “win” (and, more importantly, “be the best”), I will not do this.

I wrote both of my books for Nanowrimo (The Paper House in 2013, and this new one, The Gulf, in 2015). That is the only way I know how to write books. I have to throw every bit of energy I have at it, or not at all. Writing sprints were what got me over the line in both of those Nanos – the mad scramble at the end of the day, when 1667 words had not been written and I was in danger of falling below the curve.

Doing sprints with Twitter folk has been a great way to continue this beyond Nano. #500in30 is a great hashtag for pushing yourself to write as much as you can in 30 minutes.


 

How do you choose character names?

I just flail around until something seems right. There is some symbolism in the names in this book, and I think people are either going to think it’s lovely or extremely trite. The main character, Heather, used to be called Meg; her sister, Fleur, was once Sarah. I did think about the time period I was working with, and the names of people I knew at school. Their mother is Shelley, their dad is Bruce. I’m still not sure that’s their mother’s name, but I actually rather like the idea of her having an alter ego. I named the local shopkeep after my dog, Rupert.

Some of the names were ones I chose at random, but which then turned out to have serendipitous meanings. Ashok, their neighbour who is joyful and kind, means “without sorrow”. Sylvia, the matriarchal character, means “from the garden”, and the book is about a garden. That was simply fluke.

Again, the only one who’s had the same name since the beginning is Dave. It’s probably no coincidence that David is also my dad’s name, and he’s been my reliable and solid rock throughout the experience of writing this story.


 

If you have questions about the process of writing a novel without running away to sea, please ask it in the comments!

A bit of author Q&A (part 2)

Writing

A bit of author Q&A (part 2)

How do you stop yourself from throwing it in the bin when it gets too hard?

Firstly: I never throw any writing I do in the bin. I have learned that it is hardly ever as bad as I think it is. That even when I literally forget how to speak English while I’m typing, it’s never as bad as I remember. (This is lucky, because I often think it’s terrible.) So the most important thing is, don’t throw it in the bin. Don’t ever throw it in the bin. Put it in another folder or hide it in your drawer or tuck it under an elephant, but never, ever chuck it out.

Secondly: if I really am truly distressed by the devastatingly appalling writing I’m doing, I try to find some perspective. It helps me to read past things I’ve written and liked, to remember that it is actually a skill that I have and something I’ve been working on for quite a lot of years. Then I read the emails my agent and publisher have sent me, telling me how much they like it, and how much they are definitely not taking the piss and how much my mother hasn’t blackmailed them into publishing my book. Before I had a book contract, I spent a lot of time lamenting to other distressed writers, to remind myself that we all have this common experience, that we are all insurmountably shithouse at writing and therefore it can’t possibly be true.

And also, I daydream. For three months I was so strung out about the structural edit I was working on that I had to imagine myself winning the Man Booker prize just to get to sleep. Now that my book is finished, imagining winning a prize sends me into such an intense panic spiral that I have to put my head in a cupboard, so I daydream about icecream.


 

 

Were you trying to impress someone while writing it (non-cynical question)?

God, yes. I did the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, which is to write and write without ever considering your audience. I thought about my audience constantly. I thought about how I could be inclusive, about how to use language that was sensitive to diversity and ability but still truthful, about being considerate and insightful with regards to people and the way they are with each other.

And I did think about people who had read other writing of mine, and what they might expect from a full-length version of my babble. I tried not to let that influence the story too much, but there were times when I thought, “Will people who like my other writing be disappointed by this?”

My next book is much less like this, and I think it’s obvious. In a lot of ways I feel that The Paper House was a book I had to write, like a gigantic, poetic purge, and now I can write about other things. I did think on multiple occasions that it would have been strange for my first novel not to be about mental illness; like if I’d written a thing about a boy who lived under the sea, people might have wondered why I didn’t write about mental illness. So in that sense, there was definitely an element of (subconsciously) trying to preempt readers’ expectations of the kind of story I might write.

But I mean, ultimately, if that had been even my secondary motivation for writing this, I would never have finished it. I was trying to impress myself, just by being able to finish it at all and by being able to write something I loved (at least some of the time), and then I was trying to impress my parents, by not being a hypothetical author forever. All of these thoughts came a fair way after that.


 

 

What do you do to make a sentence interesting to read, but not confusing to understand?

I’m not sure if I’m the right person to answer this! The main thing I focus on is the rhythm of a sentence. I’ve written about this before, but the musicality of writing is very important to me. A sentence can be very long and still perfectly clear, if the words have a tonal quality that is easy to follow. Using a variety of sentence structures also helps. If the reader’s mind is awake and stimulated by variety, the content will also be easier to understand. I read aloud a lot. I want the beats of the writing to fall where the most important information is. Having a good rhythm to writing is like putting the pertinent parts in italics.


 

 

Do you ever write comical or bizarre stuff as filler eg. when fleshing things out, or connecting things?

Yes! Admittedly, I don’t do this as much as I used to or even as much as I should, but writing nonsense always helps me to work through my writing, especially when the subject matter is heavy. It’s not always connected to the actual writing. For example, reviewing all of this chocolate helped me to recapture the word flow I had lost.

I like to use comedy in dialogue. Although The Paper House is a Very Sad Book, there are funny parts in it, and they often occur where characters are riffing off one another. I also wrote part of this book from the perspective of a young child, so there were opportunities to express comic relief through the function of naivety. My next book has a young lad in it who tells tall tales. A lot. The book itself is grim in a lot of ways, but having this character gives me lots of chances to create bizarre and peculiar stories that break it up, both for the reader and for me, as the writer.

This is hugely important to me. One of the most long-standing bits of feedback I’ve had about any of my writing is that it’s funny even when it’s monstrously sad. I want to be able to write about the bad stuff without losing the light and shade of what it is to be a person having a shit time.


 

Did you start at the beginning?

I think so. I didn’t have a clear idea of exactly where the beginning was, but I did know what I wanted to happen at the start. I went through five or six beginnings. Because I wrote it for Nanowrimo, I sort of just ploughed through it. Sometimes I wrote scenes that I knew would happen in the future, if they came to me (sometimes they did, in one big gulp), and stitched them in later on. But for the most part I just wrote and wrote and tried to keep moving the story forward.

And then I knew what I wanted to happen at the end, so I wrote a bit of that, too. I went through about ten endings, until I found the one I loved (I really knew I loved it, too. As soon as I’d written it I felt utterly resolved.).


 

Were you conscious that you were writing or did you feel like you were in a ‘dream state’ (inspiration taking over etc)?

I think I answered this a little bit in part one, but I felt all kinds of states of consciousness while writing this. Sometimes the writing poured through me as though the gods themselves were typing it. At other times, I really had to work to both figure out what I was trying to say, and then figure out how to say it. To be honest, I don’t love that feeling of deliberateness in writing, and that’s because I’m a child who wants everything to be right the first time. I often eject writing from the vomitous bowels of my person, and once they’re out, I sometimes find them hard to redress.

For example (spoiler alert? it’s in the first chapter), in the opening chapter of the book there’s a scene where the main character finds out her baby has died. Two years ago I wrote a piece about when I found out my baby had died. It was possibly the most spiritual writing experience I’ve ever had. I felt it bubble up in the magma-crusted guts of the earth, and I grabbed the words as they went by and threw them at my computer. But in doing so, I sort of expunged it. When I tried to write it a different way for The Paper House, I couldn’t write anything that was as close to the experience as what I’d written about my own miscarriage. So I repurposed it. That was ‘dream state’ writing. That was the kind of writing I’d sit around and wait for, ‘inspiration’ writing. It’s a luxury. A beautiful, magical luxury.

I found the more conscious writing to be in the editing. There’s no time to wait for inspiration when you’re editing. There were times when my publisher needed a replacement scene that same day. That was deliberate writing. That was: look at what’s been written, figure out what needs to go in between, write the most appropriate words (even if they are not the most beautiful), read it again for flow. There are parts of the book that are functional instead of beautiful, which is something I had to learn was not only okay, but actually right.

 


 

Again, if you have any questions about writing a novel that you’d like me to poop all over, please leave them in the comments!

A bit of an author Q&A (Part 1)

Writing

A bit of an author Q&A (Part 1)

teehee, author! Now that my book is at the printer, I’m supposed to write about what it was like to write a book. I’ve written a bunch of things about what I’ve learned about writing, but this is the first time I’ve been at this end of the process. So I did a little callout on Twitter, to see what people were interested in knowing about shoving a novel into existence.

(There were a lot of questions, so I’ve broken this up into a couple of posts.)


 

Do you have an agent? If yes, what process did you go through to find an agent you could trust?

I do have an agent! I’ve had two, actually.

My process was a bit unusual. I’d spoken to Sophie (Hamley, who became my first agent, now non-fiction editor at Hachette) before, after she contacted me via my blog (this is a thing that happens, naysayers!). At that time I hadn’t written anything remotely like a book. I wasn’t sure I could write a book, actually. So we talked a bit about the kind of writing I like to do, and I said I’d get back in touch with her if I ever managed to write something longer than 3000 words. Eventually I did, so I sent it to her, and she called me and we talked about all kinds of things, but mostly writing I suppose. I write kind of peculiar literary fiction cum magic realism, so it was very important to me that an agent I worked with understand what I was getting at (especially, especially when I didn’t). I was looking for an editorial agent, though I didn’t know what one was. I signed with her that week. She did genius things and was generally a goddess and sold my book.

Things I think are vital in an agent are:

  • Generally good chemistry – feeling comfortable chatting, being on the same page, having the same kinds of ideas about how to approach things, both being enthusiastic. That kind of thing.
  • Mutual respect and interest – something a lot of people say about their agents is that they don’t want to bug them, or they’re afraid of annoying them, or whatever. Your agent isn’t doing you a favour by taking you on as a client. You shouldn’t be scared of your agent.
  • Open communication – knowing what’s happening, whether you’re between books or on submission or waiting for feedback or writing something new.
  • Common goals – understanding your career objectives, having a plan, knowing what needs to happen to achieve the plan.

 

How did you start? Did you just sit down and bang out some words or did you do up a plan first? Do you have ‘the ending’ sorted before you start. An outline?

I did just sit down and bang out some words, to begin with. I had this idea about a sad woman with a kind of magical garden. I didn’t know what would happen to her, exactly, except that the garden would be there and the woman would be there, and everyone would be sad. Then I had this notion that there was a character who was important to the garden, who would relate to my main character somehow. I had no plan. I started writing the saddest thing I could imagine, which was that she would lose her child, so that she could be sufficiently sad to cop the weight of the rest of the story. I just wrote whatever occurred to me, and eventually I had enough words down to be able to look over them and see what was there. After that, I made a kind of outline, and then I did a six-month “novel writing course”, which was entirely about outlining. Most of what happened there was that people shouted at me for having too many feelings and not enough plot (I wrote about it for Overland).

I always knew what the ending would be, even before I had the specific mechanism. I like endings. If I could just write endings all the time, I’d be very pleased.


 

What was the a-ha moment that you recognised “there’s a book in this”?

I had a very clear a-ha moment, writing in bed one Saturday night. I can’t remember which part of it I was writing at the time, but I had this ridiculously wanky moment of just being overwhelmed by knowing I had moved from “writing some words and putting chapter breaks in between” to “writing something that would be a book”. I knew then that it was Not Terrible.

I’ve written another book since then, and although I didn’t have the same kind of idiotic Spiritual Moment as with the first one, there was definitely a point at which I thought “yes, this is a book”. It came through minor resolutions in the story, where I was able to see the whole spread of it instead of just the paragraph I was working on at that moment. So, you know, that’s why he has that tortoise, and that’s why the footy tour is important. Resolutions. Endings are my favourite thing about writing (not just the end of stories, but all the little inbetween endings) and the satisfaction of getting them to hang together was a big part of learning what my book was about, and that indeed it was one.


 

As you wrote, did you know instinctively whether what you’d written was good, or did you bounce it off a “brains trust”?

Sometimes I knew. There were moments of absolute writer lucidity when I got to the end of a scene and thought, fuck yeah! A few passages came to me fully-formed, and I had to scramble to get them down before they disappeared (I quickly learned to take my laptop everywhere), and those are almost all still in the book in their original, first-draft form. I knew that the writing itself, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, was good. I knew the structure of it needed a bunch of work, and actually, it was harder to be objective about what was wrong with it, because people always tell you it’s your inner editor, or your brain is lying to you, or you’re “too close to it”. I’d find things that definitely were wrong with it, and start telling myself it was just my inner editor talking, even when it wasn’t.

I had a brains trust as well. I worked on quite a lot of the first version of it with Bethanie Blanchard, via a Writers Victoria mentorship program. That was hugely valuable, and really got me moving forward instead of just constantly beating around sideways. Then I asked Allison Tait if she would mentor me, and she had a misfire in her brain and said yes, so that was also an enormous help. And then my dad has read every single iteration of it, and talked me through plot issues and characterisation problems and structural edit woes; he also came up with the title. I was very lucky to have this clutch of wonderful people.


 

Did you find you were stronger in one area than another?

I am definitely strongest “on the line”, as they say in the biz (sentence by sentence), and weakest in story. We cut great swathes of beautiful sentences because they contributed absolutely nothing to the overall reading experience. That’s something I went on to really internalise, so now I’m working on undoing it. My next book is much more plot-driven (although it’s still primarily a character story) and it turns out I don’t always suck as much as I believe I suck. Finding a balance between “needing to work harder at it” and “being eternally bad at it” has been a challenge for me, mostly because I found it frustrating to feel like I knew exactly what I was doing in some respects, but then that I was a flailing infant in others. I assumed that to be “a good writer” was to be able to do all of these things equally, and probably effortlessly.


 

Did you ever have a dissonance so strong that you loved your book and the opportunity to write it, & hate it simultaneously?

God yes. I battled this constantly, and still do. I have completely given up on the idea of being able to assess my books objectively. I would read the whole thing one day and think, Christ, this is so good! and then read exactly the same book the very next day and think, What kind of gutter trash is this? And you know, neither of those things were really true, because there were still many ways to improve the text, but it wasn’t terrible either.

The “opportunity” bit is different. I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to write books, even when the books themselves seem bad. It is such a pleasure to think of an idea and start to plan it out and not feel like you’re being ridiculous because who would ever publish it, and I’m not a real writer, and no one will read it, and I’ll never finish it. I found great value in just finishing the first draft of a complete novel. Before that, I had no evidence I could ever be an author, other than a long-standing wish to be one. Before you’ve completed a full draft, there’s only one direction you can go, as a novelist, and that’s through the first draft. After you’ve written it, you know you can, and then a whole thing opens up – what will I write next? should I keep working on this one? should I query it? should I put it away and write something new? Suddenly all of these things are a possibility, instead of the tremendous hurdle of not knowing whether you can even find 80,000 words to put down.


 

How long did it take to come up with and/or settle on the opening line or paragraph?

I actually have no memory of writing the opening line we ended up with, but I guess I must have. My original opening line was: On the day Barack Obama was sworn in, I came home with a box of sticks. The whole opening scene was about her peeing on a pregnancy test and becoming three people. It’s not in the book at all now.

This is the final opening:

My heart fell out on a spring morning—the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west. I had imagined it happening, of course, given as I was to paranoia and unease, but it had come as a shock nonetheless. I lay on the empty apartment floor for hours, awaiting the tapping of her feet or the pulse of her breath, but heard only the rush of blood in my ears and shouting on the street.


 

How often do you check your word count? What’s your writing beverage? Funniest typo/language misuse/mistake?

At the end of most paragraphs. I wrote this book during Nanowrimo, so I was totally preoccupied with my word count. Once I got to 60,000 words, though, they seemed to come much more easily. I spent a long time convinced I would never reach the word count summit, that I only had 40,000 words in me. It was a great relief to realise I was going to at least reach novel length, even if the novel itself was garbage.

My writing beverage is water. Sorry, that’s so boring. My writing food is chocolate, preferably the kind that’s already bite-sized so I can eat it one-handed.

I don’t know that I had any funny typos, but I did have an aunt appear in the book with three different names. My editor came back to me with a note like, “Hi, please choose just one name for this poor woman.”

 


 

Read part two »

If you have a question about writing a book, please post it in the comments.

 

Allison Road

Patreon Storytelling

Allison Road

In 2001 I moved back to Melbourne from Adelaide and found a room to rent in a California bungalow in Elsternwick. I went to the interview in a tight shirt with the top buttons popped open, and the three men who lived there looked me up and down. “Do you do drugs?” they said, with their eyes narrow. I wasn’t sure which answer they wanted. “Yes?” I said, though “do drugs” was definitely hyperbole, but I was 19 and ready to be a real person.

It was a beautiful house, with its Elsternwick verandah and its Elsternwick peppercorn tree and its Elsternwick lead lighting. In the front yard I found a spot under a weeping branch and put myself into a wicker chair and wrote song lyrics (but never music). In the back yard I stretched out on the grass and looked at the sky and thought about what a very, very long time I had ahead of me in which to do everything.

My room was bright and a blow-up mattress on the floor made it “furnished”. I found a metal frame in hard rubbish, draped a few dresses on a single coat hanger. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I’d got a refund on some flights to England and that covered the bond and the first month’s rent. I was sure a job would materialise by the time the next month rocked around. I could type fast and I was pert and pretty and men liked to hire me to sit at their desks.

The mattress was hard. I lay on it and rolled cigarettes and watched the way the sunlight jumped at the cornices. Each day the three guys went to their city jobs and I sat on the couch and watched DVDs from their small collection. In the mornings, I sat under the wooden pergola and tried to blow smoke rings around vine fronds. I went on the internet and ordered Shrek, Empire Records, 10 Things I Hate About You, and they came from the US and I put them on the shelves because it was my house too.

The lease belonged to a guy who, at the time, seemed a million years old but I suppose was in his late-20s. Let’s call him Simon. He had a tattoo of the Gatecrasher lion, which I recognised because my previous boyfriend had forced me to listen to his late-night hard trance DJ sessions. That earned me some cred. Simon and I saw eye-to-eye on nothing at all, but he would stroke the back of my neck in the kitchen and sometimes he’d roll a joint and we’d sit at the Bunnings outdoor setting and talk about what a great dancer he was.

The second weekend I was there, Simon threw a party. I had a new dress, a blue mesh thing, and I paired it with silver Royals that glowed under UV light. We covered the floor in beanbags. The living room flickered with black lights and rental strobes. The month before I’d thrown the filthiest party I’d ever been to and I was smug, certain nothing could top the dozens of cones we’d packed into brass or the keg I’d been brewed by the love of my life. I’d passed out at 10pm, but had the foresight to remove one earring before collapsing on that side of my head.

In his room Simon had a silver jewellery box with stained glass edges and jewels on its lid. I gave him $20 and he gave me a pill with a Mitsubishi logo on it. I’d never seen one before. “Can it seep into my pores?” I said. I’d heard about that, with acid – the guy with the sheet of tabs under his shirt, trapped in a storm and psychotic forever. He laughed at me, at my naivety. The doorbell rang.

“Are you ready?” he said.

“Sure,” I said, as a person who’d partied so hard she’d slept in the Adelaide parklands, a person who’d partied so hard she’d once bought every single thing in the uni bar vending machine.

People poured in, plastic jewellery to their elbows and pants six sizes too big. They moved in ways I’d never seen, making patterns in talc and shifting air with their hands like belly dancers. I watched them and they ignored me. Someone strung a blue fishing net from the ceiling and the living room became an aquarium and they danced in it with their faces closed. In my bedroom, strangers faces caved in, needles still in their arms, and I met a boy with crystal eyes.

“Let’s go to the puddle room,” he said. “P.L.U.R.” He spoke a different language. I waited outside in my wicker chair for the sole friend I’d invited, dripping vodka into my throat. She’d come in 20-hole Doc Martens and lashings of black eyeliner and I thought of the people inside with their iridescent arm candy and my chest tightened. We put our pills under our tongues. The house moved under the throng of people. We sat beneath the clothesline with our backs pressed against the rendered wall and waited. Waited. Waited some more.

“I just feel like I’m not tired,” I said.

“These pills are shit,” she said.

I was embarrassed to come inside without being off my face, so we shared a skinny joint and rubbed our knees.

“Anything?”

“Nothing.”

I found space on a beanbag, crushed between a square-jawed baby and the chap with the eyes. He was a private school boy and his dad was a doctor. He liked things and disliked other things, but he especially liked political activism and especially disliked not having his hand in my dress. I couldn’t remember what I liked or disliked. My friend kissed a girl in reflective pants and hi-vis braces. The room swan dived. Collided. The silver jewellery box threw rainbows on the ceiling.

It was election day. Someone drove to the local church and we stood in line with our gums shredded. Some of us voted for Kim Beazley. Some of us drew dicks on our ballots and showed them to each other and laughed. We fell out of the building and the sky was as blue as I’d ever seen it, and someone threw around some fire pois in the park and we sat between the roots of the Moreton Bay figs with our eyes closed.

For a week of days I left my mattress in the lounge room and wrapped myself around the crystalline boy. His skin was soft against mine, downy. We watched Empire Records with the subtitles on. He kissed me. My face was rubber. The Elsternwick house cupped us tight in its fist. In the afternoons we walked to the playground down the street, sat at the lip of the slide and smoked his poorly-rolled cigarettes and I wrote his voice to my memory.

At the end of the week Simon came in, stormy-faced, coming down. “Got your rent money?” he said. I’d been to an interview in the city, done a couple of nights of data entry at a factory in Brunswick. Bought a gram of weed, midnight McDonald’s, a ticket to Welcome 2002. The money was gone.

I couldn’t find a job. I spent my last $20 on a pouch of tobacco and sat in the driveway with my hands around it, listened to the sounds from the park. My suitcase was still open. The mattress wasn’t mine so I propped it up against the wall and found two dollars underneath, used it to buy a train ticket home to my parents.

Stephen Fry is not a mental illness ally

Mentals

Stephen Fry is not a mental illness ally

People talk a lot about intersectionality in feminism at the moment (this is a good thing). Without trying to insult your intelligence, what that means is that the pursuit of women’s rights incorporates a multitude of issues that require awareness and understanding of overlaps with feminism and racism, ability, class, gender identity, sexuality and so on. There is wide criticism of women who purport to promote feminism as a concept, but do so with complete disregard to the many external factors that exist.

In a few weeks, you’ll be able to hear my interview on Just a Spoonful, with the excellent Kaitlyn Plyley. While admittedly we mostly talked about Norman and chocolate, we also touched on the internalised bias that exists within people who have mental illnesses.

Internalised bias happens when you’ve been socialised into believing something. For a lot of people, “mentally ill” comes with a pretty gross stereotype of insane asylums and people muttering to themselves on the street. Thankfully, we’ve moved on from this in a lot of ways, and mental illness has found more and more truthful representations in the media and in society. But we’re still living generations of people who were raised with this kind of attitude on the TV, in movies, in newspapers, spewing forth from our parents’ mouths. It is reasonable to expect that some of this bias has been retained.

The thing is, it exists inside people with mental illnesses, too. Kaitlyn and I talked about the fact that having a (pretty serious) mental illness myself doesn’t stop me from thinking, “Just get on with it!” when I see other people struggling with their own illnesses. What a dickhead, right? I expect people to understand when I can’t get out of bed, but I also think other people should just get out of bed. This is me engaging with my internalised bias. The part of me that thinks mental illnesses are laziness, because that’s what I was taught to believe.

This is pretty normal. I mean, I did first-year Sociology, so I know pretty much everything about what it means to be socialised in a privileged developed country run by twat Liberals. It’s normal to have conflicted ideas about what’s right and what isn’t. The problem is not that we have internalised biases, but that we don’t recognise them as such and therefore don’t work to understand why and how they can be unwound. We understand our own experiences, but we have to learn to extrapolate them to better understand the experiences of others. And what that means is that we run the risk of ignoring the intersectionality in mental illness.

People often talk about mental illness as “not discriminating”. That it exists among all social groups, in all countries in the world, in every socioeconomic situation, in every gender, and so on. And it’s true, it does. But the rates of mental illness are much higher in Indigenous groups, in lower socioeconomic groups, in LGBTQI-identifying people, in people in remote areas, and all kinds of other groups.

One of these highly at-risk groups is trauma sufferers. Violence and sexual assault.

Stephen Fry, who has long spoken of his battles with bipolar disorder and other mental disorders, is one of these people. He has written beautifully about what it’s like to live with his specific mental illnesses. He has been a vocal (and loud) advocate for people with mental illnesses, on the surface. But his concern is with his own experience of mental illness. He is a supporter of White Men With Bipolar Disorder. He is not open to conversation, he is not apologetic for his problematic language, and he is not interested in the vast, diverse experiences of people with different kinds of disorders with different kinds of presentations.

Take, for example, the blog post he wrote when he quit Twitter. In the biz, this is called gas-lighting – making someone doubt their own behaviour for reasons of delusion or insanity. It was not his fault, he seemed to imply, that the people of Twitter are lunatics. It is not his fault that they are peculiar enough to believe their own convictions about what is right and what is wrong. In fact, the only way for him to escape the crazy people of Twitter was to quit all together. To do so is his prerogative. No one is entitled to an audience with someone. But to play into the mental insecurities of others, and to speak in this kind of derogatory and mentally abusive way, is a clear indication of the contempt with which Fry holds people whose mental illnesses don’t align with his own.

Today, this man, this very same man who has been so articulate in describing what it’s like to live with a brain that is also your enemy, said this:

“It’s a great shame and we’re all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place – you get some of my sympathy – but your self pity gets none of my sympathy.”

On the television!

There are obvious and immediate reasons why this is abhorrent. The language is mocking in its tone. He is dismissive of the experience of being “touched [in your] nasty place”. But mostly, he is attempting to police the way people process and deal with trauma. Trauma that can be a contributor to mental illness, and that can have an effect on the likelihood of continued trauma in subsequent generations. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not “self-pity”. Depression and anxiety caused by sexual assault and violence is no less legitimate than Fry’s bipolar disorder. It doesn’t deserve less. The people who experience it don’t deserve less.

According to a study in 2009 by the NSPCC on young people aged between 13–18, a third of girls and 16% of boys have experienced sexual violence and that as many as 250,000 teenage girls are suffering from abuse at any one time [in the UK].
Source

Stephen Fry’s mental illness is not better or more important than theirs. In making this statement, he has dismissed and invalidated the experience of a vast number of people. Not quietly, on his Livejournal that no one reads, but with his big, loud, public voice.

Being a person with a mental illness doesn’t mean you can ignore the many contributing factors to mental illness. Being part of a marginalised group (in Fry’s case, a gay man) doesn’t exclude you from the consideration of these factors. He has failed to recognise the role of intersectionality in the advocacy of mental health. He sees his own mental illness, expresses the same kind of “self-pity” he so loathes in others (which is not self-pity, but just talking, just working through the many challenges of being a person with a mental illness, especially an acquired mental illness like PTSD). He doesn’t see the overlaps, where factors he considers to be part of some other problem — where “the word rape now is even considered a rape” — are furnishing a generation of potential ongoing mental health issues.

Having a mental illness doesn’t make Stephen Fry a mental illness ally. In speaking this way, he discredits the many millions of people who are currently living with a mental health concern that’s not White Men With Bipolar Disorder. He makes a mockery of the challenges of continuing to thrive post-trauma. He makes himself an enemy of the mental health advocate, sectioning off different kinds of suffering instead of using his profile to help the public to understand how they intersect.