Literary Mixers - Susan Midalia and Laurie Steed

Literary Mixers is an event pairing emerging authors with established authors as they talk candidly about their journeys to publication: their highs and lows, friends lost, and amount of wine and chocolate consumed during the writing process. Authors confess their innermost fears, share their vulnerabilities, and reflect on the joys of being a writer.

On the evening of 12 July 2018, local authors Susan Midalia and Laurie Steed shared some friendly banter surrounding their journey to publication, the highs and lows of the writing scene, and what makes a manuscript publishable.

Read a transcript below.

Susan:

Thank you. So, is everyone up for a bit of a read? Shall we start by reading something?

Laurie:

Sure. If anyone has heard this section before, I apologise in advance. I do tend to like reading it, although I think the last time I read it was on the other side of Australia, so if you have heard it before you’re obviously travelling quite a lot. Anyway, this is from the story Jay Begins and in the section in question Jay and his sister Emily have a bit of a break-down in their relationship due to a certain incident and Emily decides she’s going to try and make it better, but the problem with Jay is that he’s not the best in social situations so Emily decides she’s going to go to the movies with him, where he might meet a girl who’s there. Towards the end of the night, they’ve been to see the film Armageddon – which I cannot recommend at all – so they got through Armageddon and they’re at the point at the Innaloo Cinemas where it’s time to find your car…

Jay and Anna exchanged the odd smile. Snippets of conversation and in-jokes that Emily didn’t understand. They sang bits of Bon Jovi songs, acted out scenes from movies and it was clear that they clicked: key in a lock or fingers entwined. They walked out to the carpark, their breath making mist in the air. 

“You wanna catch up Tuesday?” asked Anna, “After the exam?”

“I don’t know,” said Jay, “Maybe”.

“Well, see you if I see you.”

Anna and Grace walked one way and Jay and Emily turned, about to walk the other way. Emily stopped, sensing an opportunity. 

    “Wait.” 

    “What are you doing?” said Jay.

    “Just wait,” she said, and jogged to Anna and Grace. “Hey,” Emily whispered.

    “Hmm?” said Anna,

    “Jay wants to catch up, it’s just he has a meeting,”

    “A meeting?” 

    “Well, kind of. It’s more an appointment, it’s hard to explain but he’s cool really. I mean, do you like Jay?”

    “What do you mean?” said Anna,

    “You know, do you like him?”

    “Em!” called Jay across the carpark, “What are you doing?”

    “Nothing!” called Emily. She took a scrap of paper, scrawled all over the chewed-up bit. “Here’s Jay’s number, I’d like, I mean I think he’d like to see you.”

    “OK,” said Anna.

    “Great,” said Emily, “Call him. Are you going to call him? Oh, forget it. Let’s just wait and see.”

    “Em!” called Jay.

    “Coming!” said Emily, “Christ!” She turned to Anna, “Better go.”

Emily jogged up to her brother.

    “What were you doing?” said Jay,

    “Loving you,” said Emily, “It’s a mug’s game, don’t you think?”

    “You’re such a weirdo,” he said. And though the words hurt, she grinned, counted days, ways to make things better.

 

Susan:

So, the piece I want to read is centred on…the novel’s partly about a female friendship, a long-standing friendship between Hazel, who’s the main character, and her friend, Beth. And this is a scene in which they’re both getting slightly drunk, they’re both in their mid-twenties and Beth is going on a bit of a rant, as she’s wont to do. And the advertisement that she refers to in the piece I’m about to read is something that I did actually see in a local newspaper – so I didn’t make it up.

Beth started waving her glass about because she’d seen something truly disturbing, she said, an ad in the local paper set out in huge pink font: ‘What’s the Designer Vagina?’ – This is true – She’d nearly toppled over when she read it, she said. All the stuff about tightening this and rejuvenating that, collagen in creams – making women feel even more ashamed of their bodies than they already did. Cosmetic surgery, she said, it’s-

“-Ideologically pernicious?” said Hazel,

“I’d call it a pile of crap.”

Almost spilling her wine now, denouncing all the women – thousands there were – having surgery on their bums because they wanted a perky one like Pippa Middleton’s. That kind of thing drove her nuts, she said. And who the hell was Pippa Middleton anyway? Hazel tried to explain but Beth said she already knew, and that’s not why she was angry. She was angry because Pippa Middleton was only famous for having a sister who was only famous because she’d married a prince, who seemed like a nice enough guy, cheering up disabled kids and all that but that wasn’t the point, was it? About the monarchy: an accident of birth, unearned wealth and privilege and the next girl who told her they ‘…adored Kate Middleton because she was so pretty and wore such stylish clothes and had such a cute baby’ was in serious danger of being punched. Hazel was confused for a moment because she thought Beth wanted to punch the baby and then she wondered aloud what they were going to have for dinner. 

So, because I’m the bossy one, I’ll get us started. What made you want to start writing, Laurie? Was there a defining moment or did it just creep up on you?

Laurie:

Well, it’s funny, we talked about this a bit before and I had this event which did happen which was that myself and a friend were feeling particularly lost in 2002 and we decided that we’d create New Beginnings. I’m sure that watching a lot of infomercials and things like that got us onto the idea that we’d create our own cult, which we did: New Beginnings. And that involved predominantly jumping into the Swan River, fully clothed once. And it also involved these roadtrips in which we’d try to find ourselves when we drove up north. And all we really found was that we missed our ex-girlfriends who we’d broken up with and my friend would often call his ex-girlfriend at night after we’d had a couple of beers. And this one night I said, “Let’s not call her up, this isn’t going well for anyone.” So we went to the local pub, the Kalbarri Inn, I’m not sure if that’s what it’s called these days, and we watched ‘Chase the Ace’ take place and it was sort of something like ‘Gladiator’ or something similar so we wandered down to the shore and I turned to Chris and I said, “I know what I want to do, I want to be a writer”. But, in terms of this book, what’s really interesting is that I remembered that I also used to work at McDonald’s in Forrest Place in my early teens and there was a particularly dangerous spot on Wellington Street that you’d walk under to get to the busport. And one time, a guy came up to me and said, “Can I have some change?” and I said, “Yeah, of course you can have some change.” And he said, “Wait, I want to give you something,” and he started touching my belly and I said, “What are you doing?” and he said, “I’m giving you a snake,” and I said, “I don’t want a snake. Who wants a snake in their stomach? That’s not going to help,” and he said, “No, no, no, no it’s OK, it’s a good snake,” he said, “The snake will tell you whenever you feel like you’re going the wrong way in your life. It will arc up and it will agitate your stomach.” Now, the bad news about that is that it’s agitated my stomach for most of my life but it has guided me back to the page I guess at some point, while on the streets of Kalbarri and made me realise that I needed to write some of these things out. And I’ve never really found anything I guess except for maybe high-quality chocolate that has equated to the same rush as writing. How about yourself?

Susan:

Mine’s a much nerdier story. Because I didn’t start writing fiction until my fifties and it started because I was doing an academic PhD, so not a creative writing one and I discovered in the process of writing that I was actually more interested in words than I was in the argument that I was meant to be advancing. So I was less enamoured of ideas and I just enjoyed the process of mucking around with words and writing beautifully constructed sentences with lovely cadences to the point where I’d write a paragraph and think, ooh that’s nice and then I realised that it had nothing to do with what I was meant to be writing and I was really reluctant to take it up. And it was really just about the pleasure of what words can do. And the other, I guess it really was a defining moment, more so than that one was after my father died. I was still doing my PhD at the time and I’d had a very fractious, difficult relationship with my father. And after his funeral, you know that expression ‘I found myself’, I found myself sitting down and starting to write. So it wasn’t a conscious intention, ‘I’m going to write a story about my relationship with my father’, I just started doing it. And it had a kind of therapeutic value I guess, trying to sort things out. But I realise there was value in not just exploring my own feelings and my own relationship, but that story subsequently got published and I got responses from people. Not in terms of, ‘Oh that’s a great story’, it was actually about the things that the story had encouraged them to reflect on. I mean, that’s why I read and that’s why I write. It encourages self-reflection. Susan Sontag says that reading good fiction encourages inwardness. That capacity to examine your own motives, examine your own feelings and in the process, be open to other people I guess as well.

Laurie:

Yeah, and I guess that point about self-actualisation’s a really interesting one too. Because I know the majority of my younger life, I had two older brothers and a sister and two parents and any time the real me showed up within that setting, it was like, oh, God what is going on with that guy…and I never had an outlet in which it would at all be sensible that that was what going on. And creativity’s a funny space in that, like you say, it’s an empathy space so if people are reading your work, they want to empathise with it whereas in a familial setting, it’s difficult because they have to live with you – they’re not reading your work, they have to meet you and spend time with you. So, I think the family space is one of extremes. I remember once, my mum had told the family that I had a very big boil on my bottom and that they must not mess with me. I was about nine. And so I knew I had this boil on my bottom and everyone else knew I had the boil on my bottom. And at one point, my eldest brother said, “Turn this over, I want to watch Salem’s Lot.” He’s very much into horror movies and true crime and stuff like that, and I said, “No, I’m playing a videogame.”(I believe it was Mickey Mouse and the Castle of Illusion, but I might be wrong.) And I said, “No, I’m playing the game,” and he said, “Change the channel,” and I said, “No,” and then he said, “Fair enough”. And he walked back two steps and then he went: step, step, jump and jumped onto the boil and I just screamed out in pain and I remember thinking that’s a different space to creativity, even as a nine-year-old-boy, I knew that jumping on someone’s boil could be good for fiction but it wasn’t the stuff that I wanted to write about. So, I guess when you’re getting boil-jumped you need to find a place to be yourself and that’s what I did.

Susan:

I’ve never written about boils. But I have had, how can I describe this? When my third collection of stories came out, I had three responses – three unofficial reviews. My younger son told me I had to stop writing about sex and I looked at the table of contents and I thought, ahh who’s he kidding? He’s exaggerating. And I thought, oh yeah that story, hmm, and that story, yes…and I suddenly realised it was a preoccupation. My mother told me that she was a bit alarmed by the bad language. I did have to assure her that they were my characters and not me, and it had no reflection on her parenting abilities. And my husband told me I had to stop killing off husbands. And I had to say, look this is a narrative expedient, sometimes you’ve got to kill off the husband. What it also does remind you is that writing is an unconscious as well as a conscious presence. There’s a lot that goes in that we’re not aware of.

Laurie:

I think that even  the educated reader does occasionally make that assumption though. I remember doing a reading at the fellowship for writers in Swanbourne, early on and I was with my then-girlfriend at the time. And the story was about a dad whose ex-wife was treating the child badly and as I read the story, I could sense some of the older women starting to stare at my girlfriend and go, you monster, what are you doing to this kid? And I wanted to stop and go, it’s not her, it’s alright it wasn’t her, she doesn’t exist – it’s fiction. So, you’re in that weird space with that and it sort of turned around by the end but even then it’s like, the reader wants to empathise with the work and identify it and sometimes they don’t know where the entry point is. So, at the end of that reading, an elderly woman just murmured to herself, “Oh, topical.” So, she’d seen the story as topical.

Susan:

I have to say, and this sounds very sniffy, but they question that least interests me is: ‘Is this writing autobiographical?’ Of course, all writing is autobiographical. But I don’t often transcribe directly from autobiographical experience. I’m not interested in doing that.

Laurie:

I think Tim O’Brien said that fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth, so it’s this incredible creation which goes around creating something that feels so very true. And I think that’s the challenge with people – how could it be fiction to the point that it’s not just true. Because ideally, you’ve created the space in which it feels very real for the reader. Occasionally, especially if it’s a strange kind of event, I feel like going, “It’s all true! It’s true, Goddamnit!” and just bursting into tears and then running off the stage and they’re like, “Oh, it was all true,” because it wasn’t, but it would make it easier for the reader…

Susan:

I mean, I do think that’s why memoirs sell so well. Or if it says, ‘based on a true story’. Because people really like that idea that somehow they’re getting direct access to the author instead of seeing writing as, you know, it’s an artefact, it’s a creation and it might draw on personal experience, but it’s always embellished, dramatised, distorted.

Laurie:

And should you bring something into the space. I know that a couple of people here remember the story, my mother read the book and she said, “Of all the things you could have lifted from real life, you had to mention the ham steaks…” which was what she used to cook when I was nine years old. And she said, “There are so many things you could have brought up, what about the time I did this and that and that.” And I remember working those ham steaks too, they were brown and leathery and the pineapple had the juice on it and she was just mortified that I could miss all these things but remember those ham steaks so perfectly.

Susan:

They were a symbol!

Laurie:

They were a symbol of something, for sure. I did write a piece of memoir once, and I felt obliged, I remember David Sedaris saying years ago that he shows every piece of memoir to his family and gets their OK. So, me being me, I took that on board and I took this piece of memoir to my mother and my sister and…ahh I think it’s probably fair to tell this story…there was one thing she said about that too. She said, “That used condom was not in the bathroom bin, it was in my bedroom bin”. And so, at that point, I thought memoir isn’t my game. I don’t think I’m in the pursuit of condom placement, I think there are more things I want to talk about than that. But, yeah, for me fiction feels like the gateway drug to emotion; the gateway drug to empathy and identification and you can create a world that’s familiar but at the same time you can tweak it, emphasise and heighten. Has that been your experience switching from the short story collections to the novel too? Did it feel like a bigger world? Were there different challenges?

Susan:

Oh absolutely, yeah. I should say by way of encouragement to any aspiring writers here that I’d had two attempts to write a novel before this one got published. They were both spectacularly unsuccessful in terms of finding a publisher and, looking back on it, I think the reason for that, there were several reasons, but probably the main one was that I wanted to write a novel for the sake of writing a novel because I’d written three collections of short stories and I thought, I need a challenge, I wanted to do something different. But I wasn’t really invested in them in the sense that they didn’t matter. This book matters to me because it’s based on things I care about: it’s based on contemporary Australian politics, it’s based on love, it’s about reading and the value of reading it’s about family, it’s about a whole bunch of stuff that matters to me. And it was generated by, seeing a memorial in Canberra the memorial to the SIEV X, I don’t know if any of you know about the SIEV X, yes nods around the room. Lots of people have heard of the Tampa but the SIEV X was in the same year, 2001. So, a boatload of asylum seekers heading for Australia, over 400 people on board and three hundred and fifty three people drowned, were killed. And the government took no responsibility. There’s a lot of evidence to show that they knew the boat was in the area – no one came to their rescue. So, to cut a long story short there is a memorial to these three hundred and fifty three dead in Canberra on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin and it’s three hundred and fifty three poles, white poles, one for each of the dead and they’ve got children’s drawings on them and the names of people. And they wind up like a wave on an incline and it’s the most moving, moving memorial. And I saw this about four/five years ago now. And I just remember seeing this, being moved to tears and thinking, I’m going to write about this, I have to write about this. And it ended up being about lots of other things as well but what it made me realise was that there’s kind of no point in writing about something if it doesn’t matter to you because if it doesn’t matter to you, it’s probably not going to matter to anyone else. If it’s just a kind of technical exercise: ooh I think I’ll write a novel because I’m done with a short story… I don’t write because I think these books are going to change lives, because books rarely do. I do it because it’s immensely pleasurable. I can think of very few things that are more pleasurable than sitting down to write. But it’s got to matter, it has to be meaningful in some way.

Laurie:

I think so. I think, just briefly touching on Susan’s book, what I really liked about it is that often, when you read short stories for competitions and things that deal with a political motif, particularly any sort of refugee-based subject what they do is they personalise it to one person and it becomes like a stereotype of that and it’s an overtly political story that feels like they’re ticking off the points they want to make. And it’s really more poignant in this one that they are the numbers – they are the nameless. And it’s sort of really powerful when you humanise the characters in Perth but you also have this other dialogue and it’s part of the fabric of the overall story. So, I guess in terms of other writers I thought that was really powerful – that you can make a political story without it being overtly so.

Susan:

That was the biggest challenge, writing a political story that didn’t preach. What was the biggest challenge for you?

Laurie:

I guess, I’ve had an interesting life. When I was writing this book, when I went to Iowa, the facilitator of the workshop said why wouldn’t you write this story as memoir and I said because it’s not this story, it’s a different story and the stuff of my life is sometimes better, sometimes worse. It’s not the stuff of fiction, it’s sort of something that you think about sometimes and it’s like a flashback like you go, wow, that really was like that wasn’t it? So, occasionally when I meet up with my family, we’ll talk about things that aren’t in the book. So, what was funny is that in a way, my family feel quite disassociated when they read this because my impetus wasn’t so much to recreate that family but to talk about certain things that stayed with me in an emotional sense. So there was always this idea of: if you were the family member that didn’t quite fit in, and what you’d do about that and how you’d find a place to belong in that space. So, this started from a short story called The Doppler Effect which strangely had a spaceman in it – that slowed me down in terms of getting that into anything meaningful! But there was an astronaut, up in space and he was talking to his dad who worked at NASA and it was intercut with a woman and a child in the park which actually makes it into this story. And I was just intrigued as to why a son could both want to be close to his family and yet feel the need to be so far away from them. And I felt like I guess in parallel or in contrast to the idea of toxic masculinity, which is quite stronger at large kind of stuff where there’s heavy drinking and there’s overt violence and things like that, there’s an inner space of the kind of lost male. Which is a different space. And I wanted to explore that but I also wanted to explore, I guess how most families are a bit like the Slaters in certain ways. Just the mess you make of a family when you’re all there, you’re all showing up because you love each other and yet sometimes, you wouldn’t think so. It’s amazing what you’ll do to your family and you have to keep coming back because they’re your family. So you have these strange feelings of disconnection and connection. I remember a friend’s mum saying to me once, “You can’t have a family if it’s poisoned at the roots,” and I thought yeah, but it’s still the roots. So what do you do with a poisoned tree if you’re part of that family and how do you make any sense of it? So that was kind of part of it but the other thing was that – and this is very nerdy – I just loved the ‘80s and the ‘90s. I just thought it was an amazing and tactile time of cassettes that you’d rewind and you’d tape your own stuff off the radio and it was a very day-glo time as well, everything was very colourful. And for about five years in the ‘80s, it seemed like the land of opportunity, the sense of wonder of the early ‘80s – anything was possible. Bands were dressing like pirates and the new romantics and it just seemed like the most amazingly optimistic, hopeful time. So I kind of wanted to contrast that as well: what you do after the party, so to speak and how people make their way through the world. And I also got to know Perth a bit more after I got back from the Eastern States and I really liked it in a way I never had. So I thought, how am I going to write a family love letter to a city I have a conflicted relationship with. And so I tried it, that’s why it took eight years, I think. Probably should’ve written a story about a man who loved whales or something.

Susan:

That’s been done! I’m feeling and showing my age now, Laurie because I have no recollection of the ‘80s because I was helping to raise two children and I didn’t go out for five or six years!

Laurie:

Well, I feel your pain now! I know what that feels like now! And I think that’s the other thing about the early stages of parenting. I mean, I cut a lot of it out of You Belong Here but there were chapters upon chapters of that strange, sinking feeling one gets with very young children and that total obliviousness to anything. I think that might have been an editorial comment at some point from Caroline – cut back on the baby poo and the nappy changes and the sleepless nights! There was a particular scene I remember, when Steven gets his hand in the nappy. That was one of the sad losses along with the My Little Pony scene which had to go as well. These things happen!

Susan:

Well, that raises the interesting issue of editorial feedback because I know, with this I was very happy with what I’d done. And I don’t always feel that but I thought, I’m pleased, I’m satisfied. I knew it would need work but it was pretty much done. And the first comment I got back from the editor at Fremantle Press, Georgia Richter, who’s a wonderful editor, was: yeah, it’s good…but it takes too long to get going, it takes too long for there to be a point of change. I think it didn’t happen until chapter four and I remember feeling really huffy and indignant. I felt she’s wrong. She’s wrong and I’m right. I’m writing a Virginia Woolf novel here where nothing very much happens, it’s all internal. It’s all interior monologues and in terms of external action there’s not a lot going on. So, I walked round the house fuming for a bit and thinking, this isn’t going to work. I thought, I reread it and she was right. It takes too long. But on that issue too, Laurie because we’ve talked about this before, have you ever changed anything in anything you’ve written to please an editor or a publisher? Against your own inclinations?

Laurie:

No, not to please them. I tend to assess feedback as it comes in. So, if someone’s giving me an idea about how to sharpen the saw, I’ll always take that on board, because it’s manna from heaven, you know. But during the writing of this book, I had some very gigantic suggestions on how I might remodel the world of the family. So, it was suggested that I make it one character, who walks through the family – they’re the protagonist, the focus never shifts. And I had all kinds of advice on the back of that. And weirdly enough, it sat on my gut like a stone, the thought of changing that. I didn’t want to write that kind of a book. Even if it was the book on bus billboards, it wouldn’t have been my book that I had intended to write, I always knew that I wanted to write sort of a mixtape book, but also a family love story. I’d written three manuscripts before You Belong Here, each one dealing with a family and each one trying to fit what I thought a novel was. And then I made this huge mess with this book and all these chapters and it felt really good to be that messy and to be that unpredictable and not sure how it was all going to come together. You mentioned about caring and being really sort of deeply into the work you’re working on, well what was happening with me was the characters I really liked in those first three manuscripts, but it was like I was performing cover songs so it was like: “All right, coming up next is Young Boy Goes Through Family! Young Boy, Family!” And then the next one I was like: “All right, Loss of a Parental Figure! Loss of a Parental Figure!” So, I did these three manuscripts, I’m so glad they don’t exist in the real world. And so when it came to the fourth one it was like OK, so you want me to do another cover version. This is not going to cut it. If I start down that slope, it’s going to end in a really weird space where I’m going to be talking about a book that I’m not that big on and that I’m not that proud of in terms of the way it got shaped. So, for me it was really important and I guess in terms of thoughts of any writer about to have their first book out, I think it’s easy to think that you need to be with a certain publisher or with a certain journey and I think the one thing you should do is hold onto your work and find the right space for it. Because the right publisher won’t want to mess with your book to the extreme unless you’ve done a very poor job. The right publisher will get what you’re trying to do and why it matters and then editing becomes quite easy because you’re both on the same page and you both want the same kind of book. So, I would say that my road with Caroline was a relatively long road – anyone who thinks nepotism happens in publishing, I was originally on the editorial board and I stepped away to submit the book and then the first time it came up, Caroline and the editorial board said, “Yeah it needs work, are you willing to do some work?” and I was like, “OK,” and luckily I had someone like Susan as well, helping me with that side of things. And then the second time it came up it was,  “Yeah, it still needs some work.” So, by that point it had been about nine months, but it had been a good nine months because they wanted the work to be done that would make the book better. They didn’t want me to have a vampire who was in love with a werewolf…just these weird…not that it would happen in this book. But you get what I’m saying it’s like, when people…that idea of drama. In your case it worked because you wanted to hit that point earlier but if they’d said, “It needs a tidal wave,” or “It needs a locust swarm,” you’d go, “That’s not the book I’m writing.” So, I think there are some very smart people who work in publishing, but certain publishers are in a different paradigm, they think about different things, other than the story. And that’s OK, if you’re writing the sort of book that is thinking about different things other than the story, but if you’ve given your heart and soul into the book, you don’t want it to shift so much.

Susan

Well, neither of us are writing bestsellers, are we Caroline? No, we’re writing literary fiction which, by definition, is not mass market. But the thing about writing a novel that really was difficult for me as opposed to writing short stories, was that it had to have a plot. Short stories can focus on a moment. That’s it, just a moment. But you can’t write eighty thousand words without there being a story. And I have to say that when I read too, as well as when I write, plot is the part that least interests me. So, I have to find a way of hanging all my interests onto a story.

Laurie

So, what was your key catalyst for that? Because I found that it flowed really well, but I was curious, having read your short story collections as to whether you consciously laid out something.

Susan

I didn’t consciously do it. I was talking with Michelle earlier about whether we plan our work or not, and we don’t. You know they say, ‘plungers and planners,’ so, the planners are people who methodically say: chapter one, this happens; chapter two; chapter three, character develops in this way; chapter four… I don’t think that’s how creativity works, it’s about plunging into a book without really knowing where it’s necessarily going to go. And that’s one of the great pleasures of writing, encountering the unexpected. But what solved this problem for me, this problem of plot – I think it was E.M Forster who said, “Oh dear, yes the novel must tell a story” – was that I decided to base it, in part, on my experience as a door-knocker for the Greens political party. So, a lot of things come together in the scenes in the novel, or the thread of the plot which is about the main character, Hazel, and the man she falls in love with, a much older, considerably older man (she’s twenty-five and he’s forty-five) which for a lot of twenty-five year old women would be, eugh, yuck, horrible! But that door-knocking campaign that they go on together brings in a lot of the issues that I wanted to write about which were: asylum seekers, climate change, the terrible political indifference and cynicism and self interest which is currently pervading the country. And it was also funny! I mean, you can… I wanted to write, in some ways, about my disillusionment. It was a very disillusioning experience, going door-knocking, I have to say. But I wanted to make it funny and I wanted to use the humour to make political points as well. Because it is a comic novel and humour is a great way of making political and social comments. It makes people think. I used to say that to my students. “Can’t we read something funny?” they’d say, “It’s all this grim and bleak stuff,” and I’d say, “OK, we’ll do a comedy, but comedy is a very serious form of literature,” and they’d groan. But I wanted to write a book that made people laugh out loud in places. My younger son said it made him laugh out loud, so I was very pleased with that. So, yeah the plot hinges to a significant extent on the door-knocking but then also, the second part of the novel hinges on the plot of Hazel, who is twenty-five, aimless, lost, unemployed, has quit her teaching job but then goes back to teaching and discovers she loves it.

Laurie

And there’s that lovely bit, he’s kind of the wrong guy in terms of the Austen narrative but there’s also a very slight comment on gender politics as well.

Susan

Slight?!

Laurie

Yeah, you can tell I’m living in the dominant…

Susan

Mr. Patriarchy.

Laurie

Oh? Yes? Is something going on with that? I didn’t really know…

Susan

When my first collection of short stories came out, I had this gig in a bookshop and the bookshop owner (who wasn’t a reader, he was an accountant) came up to me and said, “You don’t really like men very much, do you?” and I was really tempted to say, “Yeah, you’re a really…”

Laurie

But I just thought that was interesting that, again, it’s quite a heavy thing. And it has surfaced since, probably since the writing of the book, but it was still present within the text that he goes in for a sniff, is that what he goes in to do?

Susan

Don’t give it away! That’s the key plot!

Laurie

Oh, sorry. You’ve all read the book, right? If not, the film is coming out soon. It’s got Colin Firth playing the older gentleman, as he always does…  No, I know for me, my trick with the plot was quite sneaky, just writing those fifty-two chapters and then if it felt novelistic, it was often the chapter that had to go because there wasn’t a lot going on. So, in fact the key incidents sort of sculpted the narrative, by default. So, there’s a chapter called The Knife, which became a pivotal point in terms of Alex’s journey. And almost every character had one of those short stories which ended up becoming a plot point of the novel. It’s probably a cheeky way to do it. And I can’t believe that was the only way I could write a novel, like bluffing my way around writing a novel. Like, I tried to write it three times, and then it was like, if you write fifty-two short stories, you can get a novel out of there!

Susan

Well, you know Kate Grenville’s first novel, Lilian’s Story, which I still think is her best novel, she was really frustrated, it wasn’t working and what she did was she cut out bits of the manuscript and she laid them all over the floor and she just kind of jumped… I mean it’s still a chronological novel, it’s sequential, it’s chronologically sequential but it’s told in a series of fragments. So, that released her from this tyranny of having to make transitions and logical connections and it’s wonderful. I thought, I’m going to try that next. That’s the novel I’m going to write next.

Laurie

Well, I mean, things are moving too in terms of internationally, there’s a lot of books doing all kinds of different things with the novel. It’s a bit slower in terms of locally, but things are happening and sometimes the books just don’t get the attention, but they’re doing amazing things for narrative and I think it’s that sellability thing and in lit-fiction, you have to write how you’re going to write and do things with the narrative that you want to do. It’s just that if you enter another space, they’ve got all their boxes ticked. You talked earlier in another session about the Mills and Boon kit that one gets when one wants to write a Mills and Boon and all the things you need to do at exact points within the narrative. Why would you want to tell the same story, over and over? I’ve never understood that. Why would you set yourself up to do the same story?

Susan

Well, there is the theory of narrative which says that there are basically seven stories to tell and they all follow the same plot trajectory and everything else is a variation on that. So, I think a genuinely original book is a rare beast. All books are derivative, to some extent.

Laurie

But I guess it’s just that uniqueness of voice, that uniqueness of experience.

Susan

It’s the language and the voice, yeah.

Laurie

I think that’s the funny thing I’ve found, certainly when I was on the editorial board, and even for competitions, you can tell a story that’s trying to be a story and it doesn’t work and if someone just has to put this thing down on the page and they’ve sculpted it as best they could, it almost always flies off the page better. Because there’s a rawness to it, there’s a velocity of voice that comes through. So, it’s really funny when you get threads of a type of story and you realise if they went away from the similarities of experience to the uniqueness they’d have a really interesting, different specific space to work from. So, I know that’s the thing that I focus on when teaching a lot, is voice, because that’s the thing that’s going to make you stand out from all the other stuff going in.

Susan

The big question, I think, is: whose voice? And are you going to use a first person narrator, or a third person…?

Laurie

The specifics of voice, yeah.

Susan

And I like third person limited because you can see it through the eyes of one character and create the complexity of that character, but the third person limited gives you the flexibility to use language that is perhaps more sophisticated than that character, you don’t have to speak in the voice of a first person narrator.

Laurie

And it’s particularly – I mean, Susan helped me a lot with reframing some of the first person, originally there was first and third in this book, and she suggested working towards third for the whole book – and I was terrified because first person always felt like a great way to sort of punch someone in the guts and I was worried the third person would feel so cold and distant. And what was funny was that the emotion remained within the story, even though it had switched to third. So, for me I found that third person limited worked really well once I had gotten away… And it’s funny even with this chapter in this book, the other thing that happened with ZZ Packer was there was a coder to this chap with a knife that said, “Yeah, you know, this is what I’m trying to say, this is what you need to feel when you’ve finished this chapter,” and she said, “This is the worst thing in the world, why are you doing this?” and I said, “Because I want people to think about it,” and she’s like, “If you can’t make me think about it by the end of your story, then you’re in more trouble than I think you are, you’ve got to try and get this done in the chapter. And show me.” So, that was good advice too. It pops through occasionally, especially in an earlier draft. It’s that scaffolding of putting exclamation marks on things and stuff like that.

Susan

Caroline said at the beginning that this is going to be warts and all and you’ve just talked about someone telling you that your writing’s rubbish, or a certain section of it.

Laurie

We got married later, it’s fine.

Susan

Have you got other humiliating experiences that you’d like to share with the audience? Because I have.

Laurie

I’ve got one from this book, actually, sadly enough. Due to a lack of fact-finding on my behalf, I ended up at a better-living seminar at the showgrounds.

Susan

I can’t imagine you in that context.

Laurie

And it was deeply kombucha and yoga and stuff. And I have no problem with any of this stuff but it was all that… and me. And so, as it came closer to the event, I just said, “Oh, I just want to check in on some things,” and they’d done a podcast as well, like an audio podcast and I thought, oh, maybe it’s alright. And I talked to them briefly about the event and I started to get my spider senses tingling and I thought, there’s a lot of Yakult and this is very not my space and I don’t know why I’m on this program. And it finally got to the day at the showgrounds and they’d said please don’t park in the normal parking because this event is going to go off, this is going to be massive, this event – please park on the oval. And I got the oval and there were three other cars there. And I thought ahh, this is not great, I can tell that this is not great. And then I got to the front reception and I said, “Hello, my name’s Laurie,” and she looked at me and she looked on her phone, she scrolled about and she went, “You’re not on the list,” and I said, “Really, because I’m presenting,”  and she goes, “Well you’re not on the list,” and I said, “I guess I’ll just go, may as well just go,” and she was like, “You’re not getting away that easily…” and I went, oh no… And I made my way through, you know, there were some neck pillows, and some software evaluation tents and things like that. And I went upstairs and I met the founders they said, “We’ve got one hundred and twenty bookings,” and I thought, wow, that’s one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever read to! And we went in, and there were three. And it remained three. Except for one person from the seminar, they were filming it, so they were filming the four of us to the three people on video and so, what they needed to do was have someone from the seminar pretending to be different people in the audience to ask questions as they went on. So she’d be like, “I’ve got a question!” So, this endless hour, with us four on there. It just kept on and on. And the emcee, bless her heart, she said to us at the start, “You’re just going to talk for ten or fifteen minutes,” – she didn’t say this prior – she just said, “You’re going to talk for ten or fifteen minutes, it’ll be great.” And I introduced myself first, and it got to the end and she goes, “That was amazing,” and then she looked out to the three people and she went, “Any questions?” And the lady ran to the seat and she was like, “Yes, I’ve got a question!” So, that was my most recent and most embarrassing.

Susan

Oh, that was recent?

Laurie

Yeah, that was like three months ago. So, in the midst of some of the greatest events of my life, I’ve managed to have this comic gold.

Susan

I’ve done gigs where three people have showed up. I’ve turned up for a photoshoot on the urging of the publisher and got there and been told, “Who are you?”

“Well, the publisher sent me here,”

“Well, I don’t know anything about you. What’s your book?”

So, I told him, “…and I’ve got three collections of short stories, all three shortlisted,”

“Oh,” he said, “Everyone gets shortlisted…”

No, seriously! Apart from being rude, it’s also really demoralising. I once was invited to be a facilitator at a writers’ festival, I won’t tell you which one. And I emailed back and said, “I’d love to be a facilitator, but I’m also a writer. If you can find a space for me on a panel, that’d be really good.” I get an email back saying, “Well, I’ve never heard of you.” So, it’s unprofessional and disrespectful but it’s also humiliating.

Laurie

But it’s also hilarious.

Susan

It stops you from getting a big head. It does, because you’re reminded that very few people read your stuff and what does it matter. What matters are the responses, the nice responses.

Laurie

Of course. And my dad did me a great service. So, at that very reading, he’d given me a present to celebrate this first entry into the literary world. And that was a book called, Mortification, Writers’ Most Embarrassing Stories which was a great start. From there on in, I knew it was coming, I knew at some point that there would be events like this. And it wasn’t long after that, I remember once, there was a short story writer called Laurie Clancy as well, and a couple of times I would write an article for somewhere when I was freelancing and it would say, “…and I would like to point out that following… blah blah blah blah blah…” – Laurie Clancy. And I would go, well, he’s a good man, I guess that’s him. 

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