Sunday, July 01, 2007

Wet Ink magazine - Interview - and Kirsty admits to crush on Chas from the Chaser




Wet Ink interview - www.wetink.com.au

You’re in a position that many writers would love to be in—on your second three-book deal with one of the world’s leading publishers. You started out studying visual arts and journalism. What drew you to fiction writing, and crime fiction in particular? Have your studies added to your writing in any way?

I still have to remind myself how lucky I am. The photo above, of me at the incredible gorgeous Coorong in South Australia, is the 'white' to my 'black', which is me going out 'researching' the urban aspects of my books - as seen in the other pictures. The writing for my novels is usually done in the white place. Or that could just be my mind post 'research' in the black. Frankly, I'm pretty happy being in either spot.

I have always loved writing and reading and have rarely been happier than when I have a good book. Discovering new writers is wonderful. I think one of the reasons I wanted to write a series was because I’ve always loved reading them, from Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven to Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. I think any creative field needs a lot of discipline, love and commitment to succeed, so when I found my style and voice after years of writing, I found I spent a lot more time writing because I enjoyed it so much more. When I was studying, I couldn’t find a creative writing course, so journalism was the closest, and also promised to allow me to write professionally. The problem was, I hated current affairs and pushing myself into people’s lives. I discovered that it’s the people who don’t put themselves in the spotlight who I’m interested in. After I graduated from journalism, I studied the TAFE Advanced Diploma in Professional Writing. I already had the contract to write Hitching: Tales from the byways and superhighways with Wakefield Press, which made me feel a little more confident. I learned so much in that TAFE course but I do believe the very best training to be a writer is to read and read and read, and write as much as you can too. It’s the trial and error, the ‘bum glue’ that helps you uncover your story eventually. And if you write what you love, you’ll have a much easier time of it.

When you start each novel, do you work out every detail of the plot, or do you have a few scenes in mind and just go from there? How does the process unfold for you?

I come up with titles and a back page blurb I love before I start writing. It’s a strange way to work but it gives me guidance and goals to accomplish, although sometimes I don’t know how I’m going to get there. If the scenes and situations I want to have happen in the book are there as a blurb, they exist as inspiration as well as a guide. Then, with my stack of notes and notebooks beside me, I review where I want to go and let my imagination go a little crazy.
I love painting my characters into a corner and trying to work out how to get them out. Making things tricky, throwing curveballs at them, ensures there are no dull scenes, and if I can think of the worst thing to happen at a certain point, I try to do it (cruel I know) and then see how they cope.

Many say that the first novel is the hardest, but I imagine that writing a series has its own challenges, particularly in keeping it fresh. What are the main challenges you face when writing your next Cassidy Blair book and how do you overcome them?

I think in the first few books anyone writes, they write all the many things they’ve been thinking, dreaming, wondering about and the scenes that have played out in their minds, the people they create. Then, as the series goes on, you mine a different place of information. I have found it both harder and easier writing a series. I love meeting my favourite characters again and giving them new adventures but also delivering new aspects that have arisen from writing. This can be a trap for young players, however. There is the old cliché that the first book anyone writes is mostly autobiography and the second is about someone who is a writer, because the person writing is writing purely under the rule that you should ‘write what you know’. I think sometimes this is a useful plan, as it helps you deliver something that is convincing but it can also be hopelessly boring and pedestrian, so I mix up aspects of what I have known and experienced with things I’d like to know, and people I know with people who live purely in my imagination. My office is crammed with boxes of material I’ve collected—photos, stories, images, poems, other books, music, and all the things that inspire me to write. But I know where a book is heading and who the people are, I can write anywhere. Some of the best bits of my books have come from being in a hotel room, eating sandwiches and reading, mostly at interstate writers' festivals (see attached pic of me and Tara Moss and Jane Clifton at the Melbourne Writers Festival) not having anything else to distract me from writing. It can also go the other way and be very unstimulating, so you have to get to know yourself well, learn how to overcome your bad habits and work out ways to generate the good ones. Music is one for me. The other is re-reading what I’ve already written, getting back into that world.

Cassidy Blair is typical of a lot of modern-day heroines, in that she is a type of anti-heroine—she has bad social skills, a fierce independent streak, a fiery temper and she embarrasses herself on a regular basis—and yet she still manages to catch the bad guys and get the cute boy. What is it about characters like Cassidy that you think appeals to readers?

I’m always attracted to the flaws in people and intrigued by the sad, worried and nervous. I follow people, I eavesdrop and I try to work out what’s behind. Because a lot of people, including me, hide stuff, try to muck along with the rest of the world but really don’t feel like they fit in. Sometimes it feels natural, sometimes it’s so hard to pull off I stay home a few days, just regathering myself. This personal emotional minefield is what interests me in other people—how they hide it, if they do, if they genuinely don’t have vulnerabilities or fears, if they spend their lives covering them. To me, Cassidy is someone with some level of self-denial but she can also accept a lot of flaws in herself, and her friends love her despite and because of them. There is a very high level of understanding and compassion amongst them, even though they come from very different walks of life and have very different lives when not together. They don’t show this in a touchy feely way, they help each other when they can and there is a lot of courage and indignation if one of their own is in trouble. It’s a loosely created gang that has formed around Cassidy and they all have a sort of role to play. I used to think Cassidy’s role was simply to get into trouble but I’ve found she has developed great skills to get herself, and others, out of trouble. She doesn’t rely on her friends to save her, but it’s nice if they can help. This can also be great for action, humour and relationship development, as well as character development. While I don’t do this consciously, I find that characters reveal themselves through conflict, so as soon as things get dull, I have to mess things up a bit.

You’ve stated that you and Cassidy share a love of parrots, expensive lingerie, ‘bad’ music and Diet Pepsi. How much of yourself is in Cassidy, and how much to you draw on people you know (consciously or unconsciously) when you’re writing?

These books are a fun way to use some aspects of my life, but not many of them. I don’t live all that exciting a life; I love my birds (I now have three) and some of their behaviour does influence the relationship between Cassidy and Jock, but I love animals anyway and I know there is no room for being too sentimental in stories, well, not for me, anyway. So I use these vulnerabilities of the animals, of Cassidy’s love for them, as ways to express love, care and family in the books without doing it in a sooky or traditional family way. I wanted to explore the options available to people now; how many people have family who are really friends, have animals instead of kids, all out of choice. How interesting life can be if you just sit back and accept yourself. I know that sounds like some lame fridge magnet, but I spent a lot of years in a quandary between conforming and being myself (definitely two different things). In writing, I can be myself through these characters, and through writing them, I’m a lot more comfortable with being myself in real life too. The great response I got for these books was a surprise—that they responded to these characters and lifestyle—but also that they loved them enough to want more and to contact me. It made me realise that there are a lot of people who feel life is a little weird and that they don’t fit in and that it’s nice to read about people who are not fitting in all that well either, but who are doing pretty well and enjoying themselves anyway, having relationships and lives that suit them. I actually think there’s more of me in Neil, and some of my wish fulfilment in Cassidy. I let Cassidy do the things I can’t, she’s braver, cooler, more independent and more relaxed than I am. She’s a lot of fun to write and I hope that translates into being fun to read. But I temper the fun with things that are important to be, the way people deal with trouble in their lives, their relationships, money, work, fear, danger, friendship, all sorts of things that impact on me and the people around me. So I try to write books that entertain, are endearing and feature characters the reader enjoys discovering and who allow them to explore something about themselves, and also to connect with the reader about things in life. I think there certainly are aspects of these books that I like to write because I don’t see them being discussed in mainstream media, and when I was younger I felt quite alone, and reading gave me comfort. I hope that by exploring some of these issues I can bring something to other people. I think reading encourages empathy and compassion and there can never be too much of that in the world.

Your books are very funny. I’ve read reviews that describe them as ‘laugh out loud’ funny. Is this something you have to work on or does it come naturally?

Sometimes I study humour but humour on stage, in a sitcom, on the page, in the pub, are all very different. Some of my friends are very funny and I steal from them, but sometimes the characters stimulate the humour. If it doesn’t come naturally to the scene, then it’s just stand up. A lot of manuscripts come through Driftwood where there’s been an ‘insert joke here’ bit and the joke doesn’t back up the character or situation and isn’t consistent with how that character really feels. Humour can be a great way to reveal character and it can also really get in the way. Surprise is the best humour; writers like Sue Grafton manage to slip a tidy little joke in here and there and it’s wonderful, it relieves tension, endears the characters,and does a lot very simply. But then very little in writing, especially good writing, is simple. It can be wonderful fun, and better than pretty much anything else in my life, but there is always an aspect of difficulty and hard work, whether that’s getting up and going to work in front of the computer, or doing edits, or working through the night on overdue chapters. I’ve done all of this but it all pales in comparison to the times when it’s so great you feel high as a kite. When things are working, characters are being consistent, alive, funny, clever, and pushing my own boundaries too. Then it’s a profession I’m very proud to be involved in and is a lot more exciting than, say, seeing your book in the shops or on a poster (but I can’t underestimate the joys of those, either). Basically there’s just a lot of good stuff if you are determined to write and love it more than anything, because you really have to love it in order to put those hours into research, editing, drafting and daydreaming. The latter, of course, being the most fun.

What part of the writing process do you most enjoy? And what part do you struggle with the most? Has it gotten easier the more you write?

I love writing scenes, conversations, developing character and thinking about what’s going to happen next. I hate editing, which is why I often just do a complete rewrite. I just can’t like going over and over things. You can improve your work through redrafting, but intensive fiddling with words and sentences, redrawing and shifting about of scenes etc can just as often kill the spark that made it great. Having said that, of course, one of my favourite computer keys is the delete button. I write what I love and then cut back a lot of it. I edit as I go, which keeps my confidence up, because what I’ve written is good, and also keeps me up to the mark in tone and direction. If I edit as I go, I rarely drift off into flabby unnecessary tangents (another of my bad habits). Redrafting and editing is a very fine line to tread. I know my worst habits are playing around with characters too much (ie, having fun with them) and not getting on with the over-arcing plot. Plot can be tricky but it usually works itself out. There are times when it hasn’t, of course, and those are times I’ve found writing to be hard. When it’s all working out, the characters, the scenes and the over-arcing plot just seem to play out on the page.

You often get feedback from your readers, which must give you an amazing insight into how your characters are perceived. Does this ever colour your writing, though, and how do balance staying true to what you want to write and what the market is asking for?

Feedback is great, it’s useful, and it lets me see what’s going on on the other side of the fence. I’ve had some really happy days, meeting excited fans, seeing my books all tatty and read in libraries with a list of fifteen people waiting to read them. It sometimes helps me see what’s working, because readers who’ve taken the time to write to me are people who’ve given my books serious thought on some level. I ask readers to send me feedback so I do enjoy hearing what they have to say; otherwise it’s just me and my laptop (and the damn cockatiel sitting on my head).

You’ve talked about how much support you receive during the editing process and are helping to dispel the myth that publishers don’t put a lot of effort into editing or nurturing writers. What do you gain from the editing process?

My worst habit is not to focus on plot, but on characters, dialogue, dynamics, etc. I am best at helping writers who have the opposite problem—great plots but weak characterisation etc—so I mark where they need to build character or create a ‘hotspot’—something that defines the characters involved in the scene or exchange, and also the dynamics and relationship between them. My editors have always worked with me in building plot. The first book somehow escaped this problem, I was lucky not to have to work on that much except for a rigorous copy edit. Now my focus is so much on characters that I have had to reel myself back in and realign my focus in this next title The tequila bikini, because I can be having a ball with my characters and forgetting one of the fundamental aspects of writing, that each scene should advance the plot. So you never stop learning, and my amazing editors at Hachette have pointed me in the right direction to make sure I keep focusing on this. Editing and having a great publisher has made me a better writer, but I still read a lot of ‘How to’ books and am constantly looking at how I can improve my writing, because sometimes you can get lazy, and sometimes you can just lose the plot (ha…) and sometimes you can just get caught up in what the characters are doing and not why they’re doing it.

In the notes for THE MILLIONAIRE FLOATyou thank John Birmingham for his ‘wise words about reviewers’. Are you able to share them with us, and how have they helped you?

JB’s been a pal for a long time and he called me after I got my first nasty review. He just talked to me about how reviews don’t really effect sales, that he never reads them anymore, and that he was putting that particular reviewer on his list of people to have cruelly mutilated in one of his airport novels, so I cheered right up. He was kind enough to let me be a character in one of his books, and even though I died, it was with some grace and remorse.

With so much focus on literary writing in Australia (and the so-called death of it), genre-based authors are often called on to justify themselves, as if writing popular fiction isn’t a serious occupation. What do you say to such critics and where do you see crime/chick-lit fiction sitting in Australia?

My friends who are ‘literary fiction’ writers say the same to me, that literary fiction is dead, they can’t get on the shelves, they wish they wrote commercial/popular fiction, whereas I wish I won prizes or got to sit on the shelves of some of my favourite bookstores, but my pink covers and blatant references to undies and drugs seems to keep me in a certain part of the shop. I read very widely, so I don’t think there’s anything to worry about in writing, we’re not competing. I’m very lucky to write genre fiction because I get to go to very supportive, professional and fun conferences and festivals that deal with the genres I love, such as crime fiction and romance. The Romance Writers of Australia and the Sisters in Crime have been a terrific support and a great source of professional help, information, resources and old-fashioned enthusiasm. If you write, say, chick lit, then the other chick lit writers are pals, their books sit alongside yours, and readers usually read both. I love meeting up with other writers and talking to critics. There are a lot of great reviewers out there, especially for national newspapers, who are really supportive of love writing and we’re very lucky to have them.

Can you ever see an end to the Cassidy series? What would you love to see Cassidy do that she hasn’t yet? And what do you think you’d like to write in the future?

I would be very sad if there were no more Cassidy books. Their popularity is growing but there’s a lot more to the publishing industry than die-hard fans. There has to be really impressive sales and that can take time to build. I’m currently working on plans for another series, and also a series of books for young adults. I keep writing blurbs and making plans for these books and then realise I am getting too distracted by new characters and am behind schedule on the ones I’m actually contracted to write, so I’ve had to put a lot of ideas on the backburner.

Who are the writers that you most admire and how have they inspired you?

I really loved the work of Anne Tyler and Sue Grafton. I have written to both these amazing women and they have replied with enormous grace and kindness. I have rarely been so excited as when I got these letters (Anne Tyler’s was handwritten on Baltimore-style notepaper and it just made her amazing books even more real to me). I’ve not really been keen to hear or meet writers I admire, because it’s the books that I meet them through, that intimate moment between writer and reader. But I wrote to these authors because they had such an impact on my life, not just on my writing.

Kirsty’s top five mistakes many new writers make

1) Not reading everything in your genre to see not just what you love, but also what you hate, and why for both.
2) Thinking agents and editors are against you, when really they love books, the writing and publishing industry, and genres as much as you do. Thinking they don’t buy your work out of stupidity or elitism. Editors, agents, publishers are DESPERATE for good books, and writers just need to write them to get published. There are no secrets, and if you know someone in the industry, it won’t get you published but it might get you read sooner. It’s not the author on the shelf, it’s the book. If you write a great manuscript, something that engages the reader and is new and wonderful, any good editor or agent will spot it and snap it up. It’s got nothing to do with who you are when you’re starting out.
3) Writing and rewriting the same book, rather than moving onto something new, where you can apply what you’ve learned from that manuscript on a fresh story, not just a fresh draft of the old story.
4) Not taking yourself professionally enough—not researching your genre, seeing who else writes like you and working out how they have done it so successfully. This means learning from those who are masters in their craft.
5) Reading, writing, reading and writing. I meet a lot of people who want to write who don’t like reading, and so their idea of writing is putting something out there that they think should be read, but they don’t understand the process of reading. They don’t love books, they just love their own book and what they have to say in it. It’s arrogant and doesn’t show any understanding for why the publishing industry exists; it’s for the pleasure of readers, not writers. It’s great if you’re written a book, but then you have to work out if that book is something anyone other than your mum would want to read.
6)Doing too much research, not enough writing it all down"

Thank you to " Syke Harrison who interviewed me for the March edition of Wet Ink MAGAZINE - www.wetink.com.au.
It's a highly regarded (not because I'm in it, in fact they might have lost a few readers) Australian literary magazine and I was pleased to be featured within its pages. You can learn a lot about writing - your own and others - through reading such excellent journals. Take a peek at the website to see why.


* See accompanying pictures. top and bottom of post. Truly these have been interesting times... Being a writer is fruitful. The sixteen notebooks I have beside me prove it. Now, to start writing...

Listening to: ABC podcasts, The Virgin Suicides soundtrack and Morphine 'Cure for Pain'
Eating: Um, not a lot. I had some demonic food poisoning. Friday I might have had some ice cream... sort of.
Thinking about: Chas from the Chaser. He has a great smile. No one smiles in this post 911 John Howard funeral world. There should be a billboard. 'Blokes! Smile! You might get laid". I bet it's working for that freshly baked treat, Chas.
Watching: Um... Chas? And the other blokes. They're good too, I guess...
Wearing: My 'Free Chas' T-shirt. No, actually not a whole bunch, but I am home, sick and I can promise you this is not a sexy thing. See above.
Reading: 'A Life Apart' by Chas. No, actually, I'm drowning, quite pleasantly, in five different weekend papers. I love them (except for the crappy local papers and sunday editions of anything except the Age - Oh why can't South Australia have a paper not written for kids under twelve. They already have the Angelina Ballerine colouring books after all - rants 'Furious of Norwood'), except for that bit about the Spice Girls reforming which nearly seared the contacts from my eyes. Why does that nasty little bit, Posh Space, look like the (still dead) Paula Yates stuffed with Goofballs?

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