The Creative Conversation #7 - Susan Choi (Best Of)

Susan Choi, photo by Adrian Kinloch

Download The Creative Conversation #7 - Susan Choi

On her MFA experience

You know, I would hope that it’s less and less common that people go straight into grad school, but in my experience as a teacher, it seems more and more common. I’m always begging my students not to go straight to graduate school, begging them to not just take a year, but take a few years, or even four, five years. I mean, I definitely went into graduate school way too soon, but I didn’t realise that until I got there. I had no overwhelming need for graduate school when I went. I didn’t know what kind of writing I wanted to do. I didn’t really have much of wealth of experience besides being a student to put into my writing. It’s regrettable because I feel like, had I gone later in my twenties, or even just like altogether later in my life, I might have made more of it. And I think at the time I think I expected it to make more of me. I had sort of a passive, overly receptive attitude. You know, I was rudderless and confused, and I thought, ‘oh I’ll go to grad school and it’ll straighten me out.’ And you can’t go with that attitude. You sort of have to know what you want.

I think for my own part I went to graduate school because there was a lot of buzz from college, and it was something that you knew existed, or at least something that I knew existed, and because graduating from college is scary and everybody always asks you what your plan is and I had no other plan. You know, I had dinner with a bunch of my own undergraduate students last night and I was so excited to hear that some of them had no plan for after graduation, and you know I kept saying ‘That’s really fine. It’s really okay for you not to have a plan.’ I mean, it’s good to have a plan for income, some kind of income. But I was like, don’t feel as if you have to have the rest of your life all mapped out, because I feel like that pressure to have it all mapped out is what drives a lot of people into grad school because it’s a respectable next step. It’s a way of feeling as if you’ve got it under control. You can say to parents or family or friends, ‘oh, you know, I’m going into this graduate program.’ But you know, it can also be a way of deferring that inevitable moment where you go, ‘oh my god, what now?’ And for me, that’s what it was. I got out of graduate school at 25, and had equally no idea what to do than I had had before.

I have real ambivalence about the grad school path in general. I don’t understand what the utility is exactly, and I know what I think it should be, which is that I think it should be a time of incredibly focussed peace and solitude where you can work on your writing in an atmosphere that’s really supportive, and hopefully supportive financially, above all. I don’t think that’s necessarily what it is for a lot of people. And you know writing is different, because other programs are pre-professional training, you know, to be a doctor or a lawyer. Are you really in training to be in one of these programs? Not in my experience. I feel like it’s more, almost like a fellowship program. Like, ‘go off and do some writing like you already know how to do.’ And I feel like if you don’t already know how, you won’t necessarily learn, but yeah, it does have some new role now I think in terms of the professionalised aspect of writing. I think people will say, oh if you don’t have an MFA you can’t get a job teaching writing, which in my day wasn’t true. I don’t think it was true. I think that if you did have an MFA maybe you would get a job teaching writing and if you’d published a book, you’d have a much better chance. If you’d published a book and hadn’t got an MFA, it was just as well. And nowadays people will say, oh no, you can’t just publish, you’ve got to have the MFA too. I don’t know if that’s true.

On writing her first novel, The Foreign Student

I’d spent some time in grad school struggling with a certain little vein of material that I was interested in, but I could never figure out what form to put it in. And once I was done with grad school, I did go back to that material and started working on it in this completely new situation of living of my own and having a forty hour a week, really demanding job, and never having enough money. I was fact checking for The New Yorker and I was living in Upper Manhattan with housemates and you know, was broke all the time. And at the same time I was really having to fight for the time to write. And that was a really different feeling from in grad school having more time than I even wanted to write. You know, in grad school I felt like I was constantly fighting for something else to take up my time. Like, ‘is it time to go to a bar yet? Is there a new movie in town? I mean, it was really not a good atmosphere for me. I felt like a certain amount of pressure always helps me more.

So when I went back to writing in New York after ‘failing’ in grad school, it felt really different. I had to fight for every minute. I valued the time that I had to write in a way that I had never valued it before. And you know, it might also be coincidence, it might just be that I was much more ready to work on this project than I had been.  

Once I was out of grad school and not thinking in terms of a workshop any more, which I think was another part of the problem for me, you know, thinking in terms of like, god, I need twenty pages to show people...Once the writing was really just mine to do whatever I wanted to do with, and no-one was going to see until I wanted to show it to them, all that stuff [the pieces she had been playing around with in grad school] started coalescing into a bigger, more multi-faceted mess than it had ever been allowed to do. And then I realised, all these bits and pieces that never took on a nice shape were actually all meant to be one bigger thing. And then I didn’t know if that would take on a nice shape either. It was a while of letting it grow without trying to think like, ‘oh, is this a novel’ and psyching myself out.

I wrote that book [The Foreign Student] in a really different way than I’ve written my subsequent books. It was very elliptical, because I think I was still in recovery from the grad school workshops! You know, I’d concentrate on one scene, then I’d sort of drift away and take up another scene. The action of that novel is divided between two places both geographical and chronological and I’d paddle around in one place for a while, which was Korea during the war, and then when that started going poorly I’d ditch it and I’d go to the other setting which was the American south in the 50s, after the end of the Korean war. And so it was really disorganised, and really elliptical and really hard to tell if it was going to come together as a book. And it’s funny, because when I glance at the book now, I’m sort of appalled at how elliptical it is. But it worked out in the end, and at the same time I now write my books completely differently. I now try to write them in page order and I try to have a little more narrative coherence from the start, because that book was like a patchwork.

On getting an agent

I remember showing [the manuscript of The Foreign Student] to a bunch of agents, including a very famous agent who called me back, you know, she called me at my work number and I picked up and she said 'This is,' you know, and uttered that name, that I was like, oh my god, she's calling me! And she said, 'I'm going to give you five minutes of my time,' and I like grabbed a pen 'cos I was really good at notetaking for my job, and then she just ripped my book to shreds in five minutes, which I think is one of her special skills. And then at the end of the five minutes she said, 'I don't get it. Don't you want to write a good book?' And I was like...that was kind of a really fantastic experience ultimately. [...] I mean, it toughens you up, right? [...] There was a small thrill in being cut to pieces by someone that well known, but also I think even though I was devastated and embarrassed, she had good suggestions and I used them, and ultimately I thought it was better to be taken seriously by someone who knows what they're talking about, even if they're cutting you to pieces!

On finding her way into novels and her differing processes

It took way too long [starting her second novel, American Woman] and it still takes me way too long. I mean, at the time I would have said I didn’t realise, that you know, while you’re waiting for a book to be published, it’s really imperative that you start something new because when the book comes out it’s so distracting. This is still true. And I would have said, like, oh now I know. But the truth is that I’m actually really slow, now that I’ve published four books, it’s just the same as it was the first time. [...] I mean, no time is wasted I guess as a writer, you can always argue that year you spent lying on the couch weeping was going to be really useful for your novel later, and American Woman came out of my piracy research, so the piracy research wasn’t all awash. I was reading about pirates, and then I was reading about kidnappers, because I thought, well, pirates kidnap people, and I was reading about Patty Hearst, and I thought, oh god, this is what I want to write about, not pirates at all. So once that happened the whole idea of the novel crystallised really quickly, actually, but getting started again took a painfully long time, and that’s, you know, when we were at that PEN workshop the other week [Susan and I met at a PEN Festival workshop], I was talking about how I had my characters and I had my situation and I kind of even had my plot, but I could not write the first scene, I kept writing scene after scene after scene after scene that just wasn’t…I mean, they just all sucked. And I kept going, this is not the beginning of my book, I wouldn’t read this if this was page one. And you know, it wasn’t until I walked into this house in the Hudson Valley, completely by chance, because I was with my boyfriend doing something for the weekend, that I thought, this is where my character lives. And so I started writing. And so I was walking around with that idea for, I don’t know, months. When I realised what the first scene was, when I realised where she was, the story just started to unspool.

Even then I wrote American Woman out of page order. I knew this chunk is happening here, this chunk is happening there. There’s stuff in California, there’s stuff happening in this farm house, and I would just sort of pogo around, that book moves around in time, and there are flashbacks, so even that one was a patch work too. I remember getting so confused about what I’d written that I had to take a week off to create this insane post-it note map of the book on a wall because I had no idea what I’d written or what remained to be written or what order the scenes were happening in, I mean, I just lost total control. And after that, for my third book, you know, partly because it had been so confusing to me, and also partly because I had a child, I had so much less time to write than ever before, I wrote my third book in page order, I just started at page one, I was like, I’ve just got to write it straight through. Front to back, before I get totally confused about what’s going on. That was the first time I did that, but it’s kind of how I work now, or at least how I try.

With A Person of Interest, which was the third book, I did a fair amount of research - that’s not even actually true. I started writing, and then when I realised what I was writing, I stopped and did some research, and then I kept going and then realised I needed to do more research and so I was sort of doing research and writing simultaneously and when that became difficult, I just ploughed through and finished a draft without doing the research that I needed to do, just to get the plot in order, and sort of hoping that I could just go back and retrofit afterwards if there were research issues, which is sort of what I did. [...] It’s weird to say I faked a bunch of the story and then went back and kind of fixed it, but it was more efficient in a way, I have to say, because I had enough of a sense of what I was talking about to feel like if the research proved that my plot was completely untenable I felt like I could go in and do the repair work internally without actually dismantling the whole shell of the plot.  

Now my preference is to do just enough research to fake it, and then fake it for long enough to get a draft, even if the draft is a disaster. Researching on the basis of a draft is so much easier than researching on the basis of an idea. ‘Cos when you’re researching on the basis of an idea you could research forever, you know, you could truly come up with an infinite amount of things that you don’t know. But if you have a draft you can think like oh I didn’t need to research that model of powerboat, cos no-one’s going to drive that powerboat in my book, as it turns out.

On writing from the Asian American perspective

I’ve written the four books I’ve been able to write, and if I could have written more, I would have. So in that sense (writing from an Asian American perspective) is not calculated at all, because they’re the four projects that I was able to finish. It’s definitely true that because of who I am I’m attracted to certain subject matter and I also am capable of completing certain subject matter.

It's interesting, race and ethnicity are a huge piece of all of us, but not the only piece. But it’s the piece that everybody asks about.

On the assumption of 'whiteness' in literature

It’s the privilege of people who possess a whole pile of quote unquote mainstream characteristics that none of them have to mean more than any of the others. You know, if your name is like, Craig Jones, your privilege is to walk around not really thinking particularly what your name Jones means, or what your white skin means. I mean, it is a mainstream privilege, I think, and it’s one I’m constantly wanting to give my characters. Like, guess what, her mother was Asian, her life isn’t all about that. Like, her life is actually about this extramarital affair that she’s involved in. That’s what matters to her.

On being led by her interest

I’m always led by my interest in everything. You know, with American Woman, I was really interested in the Patty Hearst kidnapping and even more interested when I discovered this person at the margins of that story. She’s at the margins of the story in the way it’s told in newspapers and histories, who turned out to be this Japanese American student, and her surprising presence in this story that I had always assumed was about these middle class white kids was really what drove my fascination with that story. It wasn’t that I thought, I really want to write about an Asian American character and her relationship to radicalism. But definitely, because I was so, not even just surprised, but I think it was really empowering somehow to find her there.

On her writing schedule

Whenever I’m not totally immersed in a project, the writing piece of my life gets softer than all the other demands. They get harder and push their way into the space and push the writing out, and I’m constantly having to redress the balance. Family life takes up potentially all your time, and I teach and that takes up a bunch of time too, so I feel like I constantly have this ideal writing schedule that is battling to exist against all of these other demands. The ideal writing schedule would be that I would get up in the morning, take the children to school and go straight to my desk, and sit there until it was time to pick up my children from school again, and that would be six hours, and I would do nothing else except eat and maybe brew a pot of tea. And the number of days on which that’s the way my day goes? Currently - none. It’s sort of a possible dream to have a routine, I don’t know who does it.

I need to be not in my own home. So I don’t write at home. I’ve never written at home, even before I had children, because I’ve never found it to be a productive way to work. Actually, that’s not true, my first novel I wrote in my apartment in New York! But for the most part now, that life is so full of complication and interest, I can’t write in my house, and I can’t write in cafes, so I’m constantly coming up with some stratagem. For the past couple of years I’ve had this workspace, which is a shared workspace with a bunch of other women writers which I just love. It’s kind of like a private library, is kind of how it feels, because it’s a big quiet space, and we each have our own desk and have rules that we made for ourselves and we like them! Before that, I worked in libraries a lot, I did a lot of writing at the library just a couple of blocks from here. I’ve worked in other people’s homes. I’ve worked out strange arrangements with other people where when they leave to go to work, I let myself into their house, like a ghost. Not strangers, but people I acutally know! They knew I was there...But you know, I had good friends with office jobs, and I would go let myself into their house as soon as they’d gone to work, and I would sit in their house and write, because it wasn’t my house. It’s always got to be some place that’s not my place.

On her advice to young writers

Have some other marketable skill that doesn’t take up a lot of brainpower is the advice I wish I’d given myself! I’ve this like running joke that’s not a joke that I wish I’d trained to be either a plumber or a licenced electrician. Seriously, I wish that I had some sort of manual skilled vocation something that didn’t involve my brain or language or reading that paid rather well. I mean that kind of sounds joking but it’s serious, too. I remember when I first came to New York, I really wanted a job as the assistant to a fiction editor, for example, or at a publishing house, and a friend said, if you’re going to have that kind of job, have a job that doesn’t touch on fiction at all. And in fact, that’s how I ended up fact checking, because this friend was like, fact-checking, because it plays to your skills, it’s reading and writing, but it’s not about fiction, you’re not reading other people’s fiction, and that was such great advice.

I love to teach. I love teaching fiction to my students and I learn from them, but it’s really hard to keep in proportion with my own work, and I do sometimes wish that what I did for a steady income was really different than what I do for the most part, which is most novels.


The Creative Conversation #7 - Susan Choi

Download The Creative Conversation #7 - Susan Choi

Photo of Susan by Adrian Kinloch

Hello folks! So after a bit of a break I managed to pause long enough in the US to interview the very lovely American novelist Susan Choi. Susan is the author of The Foreign Student (winner of the Asian American literary prize), American Woman (nominee for the Pulitzer Prize), A Person of Interest (winner of the PEN/W.G. Sebald award) and My Education, which comes out in paperback in the US on May 27. She is also a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Endowment of the Arts, and teaches undergraduate students at Princeton University.

During our conversation, which was conducted at Susan's charming home in Brooklyn, Susan was kind enough to share with me her side digressions into acting, what her experience of a fiction MFA was like, taking her time with developing ideas for her novels, how her writing process has changed over the years, and what she thought about the current landscape of publishing. Susan was intelligent and warm, and after the interview, was kind enough to chat for a bit in the hallway, beside her new paperbacks lining the walls, before I ventured off into the rain.

One of the things that struck me most about Susan were her comments about research. Although her earlier books were research heavy, these days she tends to stick to finishing a draft first before completing research, for a more efficient pass at a draft: 

It’s weird to say I faked a bunch of the story and then went back and kind of fixed it, but it was more efficient in a way, I have to say, because I had enough of a sense of what I was talking about to feel like if the research proved that my plot was completely untenable I felt like I could go in and do the repair work internally without actually dismantling the whole shell of the plot.  

Now my preference is to do just enough research to fake it, and then fake it for long enough to get a draft, even if the draft is like a disaster. Researching on the basis of a draft is so much easier than researching on the basis of an idea. ‘Cos when you’re researching on the basis of an idea you could research forever, you know, you could truly come up with an infinite amount of things that you don’t know. But if you have a draft you can think like oh I didn’t need to research that model of powerboat, cos no-one’s going to drive that powerboat in my book, as it turns out.

As someone who is knee-deep in the quagmire of research, this approach was very novel to me, and gave me a lot to think about as I sloshed my way to the subway.

As always, please share or like on Facebook or Twitter. And although I will still be moving around over the next few months, if there are any guests you are keen to have on board, let me know in the comments or online!

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The Creative Conversation #6 - Jennifer Byrne (Best Of)

Download The Creative Conversation #6 - Jennifer Byrne

On falling in love with journalism

So it was just what do you do to fill in a year, oh well, I’m really good at English, so someone suggested I apply for this cadetship. [...] (And) for reasons I will go to my grave not really understanding, Grahem Perkin, legendary, he was like Perry White in the Superman books, he was just an amazing guy, and he took five people, there were hundreds and hundreds, and even back then it wasn’t easy back then, and so he took me on, and to this day I cannot explain why. But that’s what happened. I was going to do a year, and I deferred my law degree, which is what I was going to do, and I don’t know, I just fell into, I discovered the thing that had you spent all your life searching for the thing that would best suit you. The answer would have been: to become a print journalist. And there you go, I just found it.

It was a really heavy drinking, heavy smoking, late night environment, it was full of men, there were women then, and they did have equal pay, even then, this is the early 70s. But I found that absolutely incredible, it was like being in a movie. I was sixteen years old, and I felt like I'd walked into a movie set. So I fell in love with just the whole atmosphere and the excitement of it. It was like one of those old front page type, you know, people yelling, there was still hot type, the smell of the printers, it was just wildly exciting to me. And also, I was a very curious person, and I loved the fact that you had an excuse to go out there and ask questions, and having always been told ‘that's enough,’ you know, or ‘be quiet’ or ‘don’t ask any more questions’ it was great, I loved it. So I didn’t have quite a high minded: ‘I’ve been called to this.’ I just thought ‘what fabulous fun.’ And it was a particularly golden age at The Age. So it was just the thrilling nature of it. And you’ve got to remember the context, the Watergate burglary had just been blown away by Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward, this was the year Gough Whitlam came to power, life was exciting, and you were at the centre of it. 

On her career development and following your interest

And I will be honest – it was not always convenient to me, but I was approached to do a number of things, just like writing the introduction to a book called 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, for instance, and I didn’t have time, and my mate said, ‘Well you’ve got other things to do more relevant,’ and I thought no. Because I want to be the person they come to. I didn’t know I wanted to have a book show. I didn’t plan it. But I thought, I’m going to put myself in harm’s way. And when I look back at it, you know, when I left 60 Minutes for radio, yes they came to me, but if I really think about it, had I not put out the signal to friends, to people in the industry, yes I had, I decided to leave 60s, it was fabulous, it was seven years, it was enough. And so it’s that old thing, serendipity. I don’t know – I’m a bit more cunning than I think! But my recollection is, these things have just happened.

It’s also following your interest. Because if you want an interesting life, if you want an interesting range of jobs, because I think it’s really important not to just have one job – I mean, I’d love to say I was a genius, and I knew, I knew the print industry was in trouble! – it wasn’t that. But I knew that after ten years it was time to learn something new. You can’t just get good at something and squat down and do it over and over. So if a challenge comes, the more nervous you feel, the more seriously you should take it. Because it means you’re going to learn something. You’re not promising to go in at the very top. But it’s really important to say yes to the random things, the incidental things, cos out of things will come people who open the pathway to you. At the very least if it doesn’t do anything for your career, it keeps your mind active, you remind yourself. You know, I went up to the total solar eclipse, late last year. Now, it was nothing to do with work, I wasn’t writing about it, I just thought, that’s an experience I wanna have. And I know somewhere somehow, that will be quite useful. So all this stuff is incredibly thrilling, I mean I love it. I love the fact that I have these ridiculous passions for cosmology or water life or rare books or whatever. Its keeps your life vibrant, and that’s when people are going to come to you, they want your energy, they want your enthusiasm. And they know, that each time you change your job, you’re going to have to learn.

On making the change to hosting The Book Show

People think that you aren’t still a journalist, that you’ve become something else. It’s just a name change. I’ll never not be a journalist. I will die a journalist! And probably underneath my skin I was born a journalist. Because of the fact that it’s suited me so well from day one. And I just thought: what a blast. 

On her preparation for interviews

I prepare enormously. That is my process. I immerse – here, which is a fantastic thing about crossing the corridor from News Caf, is that I get a really big research brief, which I work with the researcher to – I’ll say I’m particularly interested in this, or whatever, and she does a fantastic job. And I just basically work and work and work. And I go on the net, and I go on Youtube, and I talk to people and I ring up their sister, if they’re around, I find that is the absolutely, I know that sounds so obvious, but you would be amazed how many people, their idea for preparing for an interview is just to say, well I’ll wing it. The day you wing it, the day you die. Absolutely as much as you can do. I would have rung up people, you know, if I was doing it for a big thing. You just work and work and work and work. And invariably, the interview follows a different path. But I absolutely believe, with every fibre of my being, the day you don’t do that work is the day you’re going to need it. 

I remember what Sam Chisholm used to say, which I thought was a great bit of advice too: ‘When your mouth is open, your ears are shut.’ And I thought that was excellent advice. So you listen. You prepare and you listen. And then it’s really easy.

On learning from her mentors

Robert (Hawke) was an incredible personal mentor, and he used to give me incredible advice like: ‘When you have a child, don’t buy a dog before they’re seven, because otherwise they could die when they’re in their late teens, and that’s a very vulnerable time for a kid.’ Brilliant advice!

On feminism

Look, feminism next to journalism is one of the most important things in my life. I was passionate, and I remain passionate. And it grieves me sadly that is seems an archaic term almost nowadays. I totally believe in it. I have a different way, probably, than some would. I haven’t been a great believer in quota system, to take an obvious example, but I’m beginning to think when it comes to women on boards...maybe! Look, I think gender is important, and what I learned very early being in a very male newsroom, though having equal pay, was just deal with your job. And I went through a phase, I was mentioning it to you, when a lot of young women used to write to me when they were – this was in the 60 Minutes days – and want you to answer these various assignments they had, all of which resolutely dedicated to insisting that women never had a chance, you were hampered from the beginning, and I used to write to them painstakingly and say to them ‘Look, don’t make excuses for your failure now. If you find it’s held you back, fine: reflect on it, we’ll talk about it. But I’ve got to say, that was not my experience, and I would really advise you to not focus on gender as a blockage until it becomes a blockage. You are at this stage still learning about media, maybe you should spend a bit more time on your essays!’ And people get really cross with me. But I think it is really relevant, but I also think there are huge advantages to being a woman and I really hope it will stop being in people’s minds as a problem because I don’t think it’s a problem for journalists, and that’s the only field I know about. 

I think it’s important to cling to the theory (of feminism). Cling resolutely. Never be deterred from knowing that women are as good as men. Always. Always. And you get hopeless women and hopeless men, and brilliant ones of both. But it is no drawback ever to be a woman. It is a mighty thing to be a woman. 

On her advice to careerists

On work things, I know it’s such an obvious thing to say, but however hard you think you’ve got to work, do it twice as hard. Just work. Work, work, work, work and you will prosper, in my opinion.

Never be afraid to fail because to stay static is for me a form of early warning of failure because you’re not challenging yourself, and you’ve got to challenge yourself.  That was wait I said [to 60 Minutes] when they said ‘But you’ve just learnt it, you’ve just got it, this is the wrong time, this is the perfect time!’ And I said, ‘I know. That’s why I’ve got to go. I know how to do it now. I’ve learnt how to do it. And my job isn’t to continue the same thing, my job is to live life.’

Never be afraid to ask. People want to tell you. I wish I had – no, I was going to say I wish I had helped more but the thing is, people have to make their own path, I understand, but sometimes it’s really smart to attach yourself to someone who’s really good and just hang out with them. 

Absolutely say yes. In the slightest doubt, say yes. Because as my father used to say to me, it’s not the things you say that you do that don’t work that you regret, it’s the things you never tried. And I really believe that. You’ve got to say yes, as a default position.

Follow your passion. Do what you love. It’s hard to do because we don’t know which one’s going to pay off. 

Don’t be linear! 

On getting into work early

I truly believe that getting into work early was the best thing ever that could have happened. You know, I did not have happy teenage years, I hated school, I was fine, I mean I got through, but I hated school, I hated being locked up, I hated being in a boarding school, I hated being a conformist, you know, I wanted to be – I wanted to chase a life. And I wanted to be grown up. And I found myself in this extraordinary world, which was even wilder and richer and better than I could dream about when I was in my dormitory at boarding school. 

On who she most admires

I really admire Quentin Bryce. For her originality of thought, the dedication that she brings to her job, she works so hard at her job. Because she has had children and never complained about how hard it must have been to do all things. She’s retained her family connection, she loves her broader family, she’s still with her husband who’s a great guy. Because she’s run a life that I look at and I think that is rich and rewarding, and you will do something interesting after being Governor General, too. You will stay interesting and interested. I really admire her.

The Creative Conversation #6 - Jennifer Byrne

This month's Creative Conversation guest was the journalist, broadcaster and book show host Jennifer Byrne. Jennifer is a prominent Australian journalist who has reported for eminent establishments such as The Age and The Bulletin, as well as the television shows Sunday, 60 Minutes and Foreign Correspondent. She is currently the host of The Book Club on ABC as well as its spin-off program Jennifer Byrne Presents.

During the conversation we sat in Jennifer's office in the Arts and Entertainment quarter of ABC studios in Sydney and mouthed off about Jennifer's heady days as a print cadet at The Age in Melbourne, the importance of following your interest and how to prepare for a prickly interview. Jennifer is incredibly passionate and inspiring and spoke to me at length about advice on life and work. Some of the most vital stuff that stuck with me was what she said about taking up new challenges:

If a challenge comes, the more nervous you feel, the more seriously you should take it. Because it means you’re going to learn something. You’re not promising to go in at the very top. But it’s really important to say yes to the random things, the incidental things, cos out of things will come people who open the pathway to you. At the very least if it doesn’t do anything for your career, it keeps your mind active, you remind yourself.  

Of course, please let me know of your suggestions for future guests. I can be found in the comments on this blog, the Facebook page, or on Twitter.

And if you like the podcast please don't forget to subscribe to iTunes and/or to the RSS feed!

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Download The Creative Conversation #5 - Jennifer Byrne

The Creative Conversation #5 - Nick Earls (Best Of)

Nick Earls

Download The Creative Conversation #5 - Nick Earls

On the challenges provided by writing

One of the things I really like about being a writer is that I’m 18 books into my career now and I know that I haven’t learnt everything, there’s more for me to learn. Any time I sit down to write a new book, it’s a new puzzle I haven’t learnt how to solve yet. I’ve got to come up with new stuff for it. And I like the way it stretches me in that way. All I’ve got to keep worrying about is for people to keep buying the books so that I get to keep doing more of them.

On his writing process

For me, that’s one of the advantages of having planned to write something. Most years I’ll think, there’s the novel I’m going to write that year and then something else comes along, and much as I’d love to rush at it right now, it’s actually better if I don’t, better if I give it time, better if I allow other ideas to come along and add themselves to that. So for me the process begins small, and I don’t lose the small ideas now and I think that’s crucial. So I’ll write it down on a scrap of paper, the back of an envelope, a boarding pass. It feels better to write it on a scrap of paper rather than something I paid money for, because if it’s a terrible idea, nothing’s wasted. Okay, so I do occasionally now type it quickly into my phone. So I do do that. But the problem is that the phone doesn’t follow with my age old system that follows this: so then, new ideas come along and I think, hey that’d be an interesting fit with that idea I had whenever, and I go to my random ideas file and I’ll find it. And often it’s not a perfect fit, which means I’ll have to build a third idea to fit them together.

So then I have three ideas to fit in together, so that is when I pull in the technology in a big way. I use a paperclip. So, a paperclip, patented in 1867 and still does the job binding ideas together. And so the paperclip starts to get a bit stretched, and then I gotta go for some updated technology: the manila folder. 1898. And the manila folder was invented after the invention of the filing cabinet. So that means someone invented the filing cabinet and then someone thought ‘oh! We’ve got to put something in there! Can anyone invent a manila folder? It actually came just after the invention of the filing cabinet, so yeah, someone decided instead of shoving just random bits of paper in there, why don’t we invent something that fits. That’s clever! So I go for that next.

So then I have my pile of notes in a manila folder, with all kinds of junk tossed in there that might end up in my story, and it gets fatter and fatter and then some point I think, you’ve got enough junk now, so look at this and I think divergently at first, I’m adding anything that might be possibly right for the story. Then I have to think convergently. I go back to my pile and I go, ‘Who is this about? And what is my story?’ And I try to draw my story out of my pile, my massive pile of notes. I work out what my main story line is, I think about what my subplots are, and how they push the main storyline along. And I start writing kind of scene notes there. And in the case of something like a novel like The Fix, I think I nded up with something like 65 scene notes, with many of them for the main storyline but also three subplots. And I knew the order, and then I experimented with the order of each of those scene sets of scene notes for each of the plot lines and then I put them out on the floor and then I merge the plot lines together. I pick them up, and that’s my outline. And then I can write my novel.

On his gathering process versus his writing process

The gathering process can be several years and the making-sense-of-the-folder-contents process is typically a month or two. And I’ve got those – and they’re those kind of different tools I use, with the scene notes on the floor being one, because everything’s still up for grabs then. I can walk around it and go actually, that incident there, will be better if it pushed the story rather than came in after it, so I can move that there, what consequences does that have. It’s all very fluid then. I also draw up a time line, things like that, fiddle around, they’re all just tools. Not one of them is binding.

So that process takes a couple of months, then I flesh out an outline, so typically, for an 80,000 word novel, I’ll have a 20,000 word outline that includes all the scenes I need and chunks of dialogue. So then the thing to do is sit down and write the novel, and because I put so much into the process before then, the writing of the novel, the first draft will typically several months rather than taking several years, cos I’m not having to find things as I go. If I do – if I find new stuff that’s great, if it’s working for me, I don’t block it out, but I don’t need it to get up in the morning and write the novel. So it means I don’t get blocked very often, because things that might have been blocked for me have come up two years before and I’ve found something that will get me through. And I prefer to go through that process in the planning stage rather than in the writing stage because I know too many people who have got to like the 45,000 word mark of their first draft and then worked out the unsalvageable plot flaw and then had to walk away. I like to walk away much earlier before I put all that effort in. 

On his daily routine and on the publicity side of writing

Because I’d had years to work out my process, and because a novel can’t be written from beginning to end just fueled by pure inspiration and excitement alone, I can work with that. There have been times when I’ve written a short story where I got excited about the idea and that excitement has carried me through the whole day, and by the end of the day I’ve got a draft of a short story. Can’t do that with a novel. So that’s why it helps for me to have a lot that I can turn to, because I’m going to be waking up on plenty of days not feeling inspired and picking up the clothes I dropped on the floor next to the bed the night before and putting them on and then going to work.

So I do have a process that I get to work in the morning – if I’m actually writing a novel, I get back work in the morning, and I get back to the document where I left it the night before, probably go back a few pages, read through, and then push on into the outline, incorporating whatever’s there that needs to be incporated and fleshing it out and writing the story. Then after that’s done I’ll put that away for a month or so and go back to it with a slightly clear head, work out what my agenda needs to be for my next draft, try and do that, and then go through that process another time, maybe, send that to the publisher, then get editorial feedback and take it from there. So that’s kind of a big part of the job. But the other part of the job is the opposite part of that, the opposite of being shut up in a room at home alone in bad clothes shaving every fifth day and talking only to yourself. The other side of it requires a different personality where you go to writers festivals, you go on book tours and you have to find an engaging way of letting people in to the story behind the story. And you become this kind of touring anecdotalist, which is not what you were to write the novel, but I like the mixture. I think if I stayed at home and my every working day was me sitting there writing more fiction I think I would be sad. You need something. You need to see other things and you need to get away from your story sometimes in order for your story to be better. But if I did nothing but tour the world talking about myself, I would also go crazy that way. So what I’ve got to try to do is balance it all over the course of a year so that I’ve got my writing time, and that works one way, I’ve got my event and media and touring time and that works another way.

On the changing face of the Australian publishing industry

Australian publishing opened up to writers outside of Sydney and Melbourne twenty years ago and found me. Then along comes email and the Internet and it’s much easier to manage a writing career wherever you want to live, and to be in contact with people wherever you need to be in contact with them. So the world has changed since then. But back when I started, it was practically impossible to know how to get started, and impossible to know who to talk to. And you did end up doing what Jonathan Swift did with Gulliver’s Travels 300 years ago, you kind of tie it up with brown string and mail it off to someone and hope for the best! And you don’t know who to pick and you don’t have anyone to give you advice, but things changed a bit for me at the end of that decade. But I think now it’s a bigger industry, there are more people in it, there are more ways to connect with it, but at the same time I’m not saying it’s easy, cos there are lots of people wanting to do it. There will always be more people wanting to do it than there are spots available, but I think it works better as an industry now, so people can find ways in. 

On his advice to writers

There’s two things to look at [when becoming a writer]. One is: connect with the industry. Work out who’s who and what’s what, join writers centres and things like that, get a sense of how the industry works. The other is do the writing. A lot of that starts with reading. Working out what kind of writer you’re going to be and working out how to do things. So I think: do the industry part, do the writing part, and if you’re doing the writing part right, the industry part will give you a sense of where the opportunities might be. 

The Creative Conversation #5 - Nick Earls

This month's Creative Conversation guest was the very funny, very awesome novelist Nick Earls. Nick is the author of the novels The Fix, Welcome to Normal, Zigzag Street, 48 Shades of Brown, Monica Bloom, Perfect Skin, World of Chickens and the new childrens series Word Hunters. The latest Word Hunters book, War of the Word Hunters, came out on 26th June.

During the conversation we hid behind the bookcase in the writers' green room at the Sydney Writers Festival and chatted about Nick possibly going to childcare with Eddie Izzard, working as a storytelling armchair (and diagnosing a heart failure in the process) and using paper clips to hold together his story ideas. Nick is a very funny and entertaining talker and happily went along with my attempt to 'throw the baby out with the bathwater.' He's a very experienced and generous writer and some of his advice was invaluable, especially his advice on the business:

There’s two things to look at [when becoming a writer]. One is: connect with the industry. Work out who’s who and what’s what, join writers centres and things like that, get a sense of how the industry works. The other is do the writing. A lot of that starts with reading. Working out what kind of writer you’re going to be and working out how to do things. So I think: do the industry part, do the writing part, and if you’re doing the writing part right, the industry part will give you a sense of where the opportunities might be. 

Of course, please let me know of your suggestions for future guests. I can be found in the comments on this blog, the Facebook page, or on Twitter.

And if you like the podcast please don't forget to subscribe to iTunes and/or to the RSS feed!

Download on iTunes

Download The Creative Conversation #5 - Nick Earls


The Creative Conversation #4 - Craig Pearce (Best Of)

Craig PearceDownload The Creative Conversation #4 - Craig Pearce

On his writing process with Baz Luhrmann

The process has of course evolved and grew up organically but it does stem back to our NIDA days and our actor training because the thing that you’re doing as an actor, you know, if you’re studying the Stanislavsky method is that you’re saying ‘What is my objective? What is my character trying to do? What does my character want? What’s the obstacle to them getting what they want? What actions are they going to play to get what they want? And that’s what makes drama and what makes a scene active. So you sort of do the same thing when you’re writing but you do it for all the characters, plus you think about the overarching themes and what you’re trying to say.

We’d work out the structure, you know, we’re always very big on structure. And of course, movies are structure, to a large extent. And we’d always be big on charts. We’d make, you know, CHARTS! We once even took a piece of cardboard to France from when we were writing Moulin Rouge! so we wouldn’t waste time buying cardboard in France! That’s how insane we were. And you know, we’d write up, on the bit of cardboard a line, a hundred lines, however long a movie is, and we’d go each little bit on that line represents a minute and so we’d go okay, well, what happens in the beginning, what happens now? Then they all become scenes and we’d scribble notes, and then the horrible moment comes when we’ve actually got to start writing. And we'd try and delay that for as long as possible! And then you know what it’s like, you actually have to go and write a scene, and it’s like, I’d rather go and stick razor blades on my tongue…

It’s great to have a partner in crime and a fellow traveller and someone to share the pain with. So eventually we go, you write this scene and I write this scene, and we scurry away with this horrible little deadline hanging over our heads and it’s kind of like ‘meet you back here in three hours’. And we kind of write a scene and come back. We used to burble on for about fifteen minutes saying ‘okay, well, it’s not really, but, you’ll see,’ but now it’s just, like, usual excuses, and we read the scene to each other. So I’ll read my scene with Baz and he’ll give me notes and I’ll you know, argue back and forth a little bit and then he’ll read his scene and I’ll do the same thing. And then quite often we’ll go away and rewrite each other’s scenes. And that process goes back and forwards, back and forwards and the script builds out and out and out. We really try and blur the line of okay this is my scene, this is genius, you can’t touch it, you know, we try and make the scene a third thing that exists between us. We can’t remember who wrote what and we don’t care and it’s not important. And then as soon as we’ve got a big enough chunk that will tell us something we’ll read the scripts aloud. It started off as us both reading it aloud but it’s just evolved that now I just do it. Cos I’ve been doing it for so long I’ve got really good at it!

On the next step in translating the story to the creative team

So the first person we generally get in is CM, Catherine Martin, his wife, genius production designer. And often Anton Monsted, who now runs Bazmark, Baz’s company, and then you know, progressively, people who are working on the creative team. And it’s very instructive both for us as writers, because as soon as you have an audience in the room, it might only be an audience of one, you immediately see the work more objectively, and stuff that you thought was okay you think, ‘that was totally not okay, that was terrible!’ And also people tell you, they give you really constructive notes. They make suggestions. CM can kind of see what we’re thinking and so she can start to evolve her design, she can feed back to us and go ‘hey, what about blah and blah and blah and blah,’ and it really shares it with the group, kind of in the way that you would with a theatre company. And eventually I’ll read it to the studio heads.

On writing Romeo + Juliet

We wrote the first draft in Miami. We originally set the world as a heightened version of Miami, so it was Verona Beach. Cos we said to ourselves okay, what did Verona mean to Shakespeare? Shakespeare had never been there, but for a Shakespearean audience, Verona was this hot, sexy, violent, Catholic place, and you know, Catholicism for a Shakespearean audience, whoa, they were all kind of, out there, you know, and strange and weird. And so we thought what could our Verona beach be? What could our Verona be? And we thought, well okay, Miami. So first of all we broke the play down, before we even got to that point, we read the play aloud to each other in American accents, because we consciously wanted to break all the preconceptions that people had of Shakespeare. I mean, we wanted to open it up for a younger audience, and one of the ways of liberating it was an American accent. And indeed when we did research, we found the way that people spoke in England then was more like American, that rolling R sound. It wasn’t that very, you know, received, BBC, Oxbridge kind of thing, that was a later invention, that was only invented at the beginning of the 19th century, kind of as an affectation of the upper classes. So we thought that had validity. And then we went to Miami in summer, whenit’s like really, really too hot, and Miami’s bonkers and crazy and wonderful and out there, and we wrote the first draft there in Miami. And then we retreated back to Australia and Baz always thought that Leonardo always would be an incredible Romeo. And he was a star, but he hadn’t done Titanic so he wasn’t a massive massive star. But Leonardo’s always very considered about what he does and he was even back then, when he was really young, and so Baz, Leonardo was like ‘oh, I don’t know.’ So Baz was like, so come down to Australia and do a workshop with us and convinced him to do the part. And so he came down and the script was pretty bonkers at that point, you know, the priest was a heroin addict, you know, Capulet and Montague were running for mayor, and we had all these adverts in it, trying to explain why people were speaking in Elizabethan, because we didn’t trust, we were trying to work out, okay, how can we create a world that feels modern – people drive cars and shoot guns and wear suits but everyone’s speaking a 400 year old language?

On the influence of drama school on his writing

When you’re at drama school you’re reading the great writers, you’re studying Ibsen, you’re studying Chekhov, you’re studying Shakespeare, and then working as an actor you’re reading a lot of scripts, you know, and you read a lot of bad scripts. At first when you’re a young actor you’re like ‘Oh I don’t really get what’s going on here,’ and then you see the film and go ‘No, actually, it just wasn’t very good!’ And so you sort of start to develop a feeling for what works and what doesn’t.

On his writing routine and schedule

I do treat [writing] like a 9 to 5 job, I mean it’s never 9 to 5. But I go to the office every day.

I think you have to treat it in that structured way, otherwise you know, nothing gets done. You just have to keep giving yourself deadlines. So generally I wake up, and also because I’m now executive producing Will, generally I wake up and tend to look at all the emails that come in from overnight from the UK or the US or wherever and deal with that business stuff and when I’m done with that I actually do the writing. But I’m basically in the office, like any other working person every day, 6, 7, 9, 12 days a week.

I give myself hours more than word counts but if the deadline is approaching I’ll do a schedule like ‘I’ve got to get this done by this day, I’ve got to get this scene by this day’, I’ve got to get to page whatever. Then the hours get much longer as you approach the deadline inevitably. At the beginning of the process it’s more hours because a lot of the time is thinking time and you know, sometimes you’re just stuck on something so you have to go for a walk. Sometimes if I’m feeling really kind to myself I’ll grab my board and go for a surf, and often the solution to the problem does come to you when you’re not thinking about it in the forefront of your brain, it sort of comes from your self conscious. So I think it is important not to get too locked in and when you’re stuck, just do something else for a while. I think all writers and creative people live on that sort of knife’s edge of prevarication versus procrastination. Because prevarication, as this crazy friend of my dad’s called Lester once told me, who’s this South African alcoholic I’m sure, Asperger’s type genius, prevarication is the positive form of procrastination. It’s where you’re putting something off for a good reason.

On his advice to writers

Work on your craft. Because writing – obviously you have to have a talent for it, you have to have a facility for it, but it’s also a craft, and you can really get better and better and better just by doing it over and over and over again. Listen to people’s notes. Don’t necessarily do every note that everyone tells you but people are often responding to something when they give you a note, because there’s something not working. They generally don’t have the solution, but really listen to what they’re saying and think why are they saying that, is there a problem there, and really be brave enough to rewrite. Writing is about rewriting, it’s about doing it again and again and again and every time you do it, you just make it better.

Read great literature and great playwrights. Because it’s considered great not because it’s just on the syllabus or whatever, but because people love it through time and geography, down through the ages, people come back to it. And there’s probably a reason why they have, there are lessons there in that great material that all writers, that I, everyone continue to learn from.  

The Creative Conversation #4 - Craig Pearce


This month for The Creative Conversation I was very lucky to interview was the very charming, very loquacious BAFTA and AFI award winning sceenwriter Craig Pearce. Craig is the co-writer of Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and The Great Gatsby, and wrote on the film Charlie St Cloud. He is currently working on the musical adaptation of Strictly Ballroom as well as showrunning the new TV show Will, for US cable network Pivot, about the young William Shakespeare's life in Elizabethan England.

During the interview we talked about process of writing The Great Gatsby with best friend Baz Luhrmann, doing a movie with Brooke Shields, and what Shakespeare the rockstar would have been like in Elizabethan England. Craig was a remarkable storyteller, very generously sharing his experiences as a young actor and later as a writer. Here's a few thoughts on his approach to writing:

I think all writers and creative people live on that sort of knife’s edge of prevarication versus procrastination. Because prevarication, as this crazy friend of my dad’s called Lester once told me, who’s this South African alcoholic I’m sure, Asperger’s type genius, prevarication is the positive form of procrastination. It’s where you’re putting something off for a good reason.

In all honesty, I'm not sure whether I enjoyed his funny voices, his encyclopaedic knowledge of Shakespeare or his capacity for irreverent conversation more!

Of course, please let me know of your suggestions for future guests. I can be found in the comments on this blog, the Facebook page, or on Twitter.

And if you like the podcast please don't forget to subscribe to iTunes and/or to the RSS feed!

Download on iTunes

Download The Creative Conversation #4 - Craig Pearce

The Creative Conversation #3 Transcript - Tony Ayres (Best of)

Every film is traumatic in some way. 

Tony Ayres 

On the success of The Home Song Stories

Even though Home Song Stories was a critical success, it wasn’t a box office success – not many people saw it […] you really need people to see your work, that’s kind of the, one of the reasons you’re doing it, and so I moved towards television.

On the fiscal reality of filmmaking

I was making very good money when I was writing for television, and when I was directing a film I was probably broker than I’ve ever been.

On his writing process

When you’re in the writing process it’s very hard to see so it’s about immersing yourself in the writing process and trying to understand the characters and where they would lead you and then stepping away and seeing what you’ve got. It’s always this in and out process for me.

The rule I have is that I start the day and I have to get a certain amount done, now matter how long it takes. And sometimes it’ll only take three or four hours, it’ll happen really easily and quickly, other times it just doesn’t come at all, but you’ve still got to do a certain amount a day, and if you do that every day, the script will be done.

Rewriting is easier than writing.

On making it in the film and TV industry

The most important thing is actually having something to say – having a vision of the world, and having the skills to communicate it. And if you have those two things then I think they’re very useful and people will recognize it.

There’s a whole substrata to our industry which is about people looking for talent, and if you can persist and prove to people you have talent, then you’ve got a good shot at making a career.

 I would say short films are useful if you can get one that’s seen. […] Once you’ve shown people [what you do], generally there’s quite a bit of interest.

The Creative Conversation #3 - Tony Ayres

This month's Creative Conversation guest was the multi-hyphenate, very busy and very lovely Tony Ayres! Tony is a writer/director/producer for film and television.  His 2007 feature film The Home Song Stories, premiered at Berlin and won 23 Australian and international awards including 8 AFI Awards.  His first feature Walking on Water won the Teddy Award at Berlin in 2002 and 5 AFI awards.  In 2008, Tony directed the television movie, Saved, for which Claudia Karvan won the Logie for Best Actress.  In recent times he has become a producer of television, producing the comedy series Bogan Pride and the arts doco series Anatomy (the latter now going into series 4).  Tony was the showrunner and one of the directors of The Slap, the 8 x 1 hour TV adaption of Christos Tsoilkas’ novel.  The Slap won 5 awards including Best Miniseries or TV Movie at the inaugural AACTA awards. He is currently working on the upcoming ABC series Nowhere Boys.     

During the interview we talked about Asian Australian diversity on television screens, how to get your start as a filmmaker and the success of Matchbox Pictures/NBCU. One of my favourite quotes from Tony is about what he thinks you need to develop a career in the film and television industry:

The most important thing is actually having something to say – having a vision of the world, and having the skills to communicate it. And if you have those two things then I think they’re very useful and people will recognize it.

Of course, please let me know of your suggestions for future guests. I can be found in the comments on this blog, the Facebook page, or on Twitter.

And if you like the podcast please don't forget to subscribe to iTunes and/or to the RSS feed!

Download on iTunes

Download The Creative Conversation #3 - Tony Ayres

The Creative Conversation #2 Transcript - Hannie Rayson (Best of)

For those who don't have time to read the whole thing, the best of my interview with Hannie Rayson, super adventuress creative lady, can be found below.


Click on the image for the podcast interview with Hannie RaysonOn the success of Hotel Sorrento

The lesson I think for other people about this [...] is that Hotel Sorrento took me about five years to write, and I had a baby in that time, and lots of things happened to me. It was such a voyage of the soul, it was a such a creation of just passion and commitment and love, that play, and I suppose it’s over twenty years ago that I wrote it, but it’s still being performed, and those royalties just drop down out of the sky. So sometimes I think it’s my version of having written ‘Happy Birthday.’ 

On her love for playwriting

I love [the theatre] and the fact that the words can also be beautiful on the page. That’s a bit different to the current aesthetic where the words be literary is somehow sort of to be old-fashioned in some ways, for some people. But I actually think that the meaning and the power of the work comes from the words and that you want it to be theatrical and wonderfully realized in the space. I’m big on the actual words.

On the fiscal realities of being a writer

I’ve had this sort of notion about myself as a writer that the money doesn’t relate to what I do. There has been a downpipe that has come into my house and that’s been money that’s come down that, not a huge amount, but enough has come down that - but it’s had no bearing whatsoever to the actual work I do at the word processor. So it doesn’t matter if the person is commissioning for a lot or a little, the job is the job and that’s what has to be done, and then if there’s not enough money there then you have to do something else to sort of supplement it.

On her daily routine

I walk every morning early, I walk in with my husband to the ABC where he works, every day. And then I walk home and then I start, really. Routine wise it’s better for me not to do emails, and all the other stuff, cos it is running a small business and there’s a lot to do. [...] And it depends what stage I’m at with the work, with the plays, or anything else I’m doing, writing articles or writing speeches, I do a lot of public speaking now, and they all have to be prepared. But you know, the great thing is to spend as much time as you can immersed in the world of the play because it takes a while to get in there, and the minute you’re out for a couple of days you’re really out, and then you have to take two, three days to get back. So I try and be very immersed in it.

On creating characters

Obviously I’m basing it someone I vaguely know or I’ve met, and you make amalgams of characters and all of that. So I’m dreaming myself into the character, I’m creating very elaborate backstories and elaborate biographies which I write down. So even I’ll know what kind of brand of cigarettes the man smokes, or whatever. I know the music that the woman listens to. I just try and know everything I can so that they are totally and utterly real. So that the exciting thing for me is that I get up in the morning and I feel that those people live inside my word processor. And it is actually a weird process of having imaginary friends, which is peculiar. 

On first drafts

I really do believe that the first draft is the draft which is the anarchic draft where you just sick ‘em onto each other and see what happens, cos they will be surprising. [...] It really takes ages to get [a first draft] out of me.

On the drafting process

Really what I’ve learnt as time’s gone on as a writer is that I would get sick of it after having finally finished the first one, and I have to keep bash myself up to keep drafting and redrafting, and not writing a new play each time. And I feel my latest play, Extinction, which I’ve written for the Manhattan Theatre Club, that really taught me about the discipline of draft after draft after draft, and what that can, and how that yields a better, better, finer polish. 

On writing and adventures

Even when I was in my twenties, there was a great friend of mine, and she had a business card and it said ‘Wendy Harmer: Adventuress.’ And I thought, I really want that business card. And I think part of being a writer is, you know, if you’re a writer who is committed to this, is to have that as your business card. Because it does give you a licence to be an ‘adventuress.’

On her advice to young writers

I think being curious is the most important asset anyone’s got, and once that’s gone you can roll over and die. So it’s really important to keep grilling and asking yourself and other people about life and meaning and power and all those important questions about how the world’s organized and how human beings function in it. That and everything else. And tenacity. Really, truly, being an artist in any media is about the last man standing. Everyone falls over along the way cos they want to do other things and we can all start out with great expectations, but you know, it’s tenacity and self belief and great doubt that makes you, as well as great faith of course. But on a practical level [...] people who are likable get work. And people who are pains in the arse don’t. No matter how good they are. Especially in the theatre because it’s such a social medium. It’s such a collaborative workplace. And you know if you are difficult and a pain in the arse, it’s harder to get work. The other thing that’s good too is to the ability to talk about what you do, because that’s the package now. Everybody wants people who can spruik.


The Creative Conversation #1 Transcript - John Collee (Best Of)

So I finally found some time to sit down and transcribe my interview with John Collee from earlier in the year, and it's proved to be equally as enlightening in written form as it was in audio. If you'd like to read it in full, please go here, otherwise the best of his advice is highlighted below:

Click on the image to download audio for interview with John Collee On writing

As I see it, you start off with a global idea of what the story is, this is how it will start, this is how it will become complicated, this is how it will finally conclude. And then, as you think about it and research it and talk about it, you gradually build it out from the middle outwards, so that all of these areas become more and more complex, and so you finally build up to a detailed synopsis of the film or the novel. 

As you know I’m a big believer in using real life experience. When people talk about writer’s block they’re often talking about just having running out of things to say, things they know, things they care about, things they have research. And so you’ve got to do two things simultaneously as a novelist or a screenwriter: one is to be planning your story, and the other is to be loading up your mind with all the elements that would go into that story. There are often parallels in your own life and your own experience and other times you’ve just got to go off on your own and research, and so you’ve got to be doing both of these things at once.

On the differences between types of writing

Unlike a novel, which is completely immersive for a long period - you know, you become, when you’re writing a novel, a little bit like a heroin addict, in that you’ve got your real life going on in parallel to this fantasy life that you’re sort of, living in, thinking about the book almost continuously, cos you really do have to create this whole fictional world. And with a screenplay, because it’s shorter, and because screenwriting is basically more collaborative, it’s more of a social kind of writing job. And so, having tried journalism, which is very short term and you know, constant voracious appetite of the newspaper and magazine to get the next article, and having tried novel writing which is very long term, where as I say, you can disappear into your own fantasy world, screenwriting is a kind of nice mix between the two: you’re working with other people, you’re constantly discussing the story, refining it.

On his screenwriting process

My own system is just to, first of all write everything on a card, and you sort of stick up all the cards on a cork board and then tell each other the story, backwards and forwards through all these events in the story until finally we get a plot that we like. Then I’d write out more detail about each of these component sequences. I always think that films are made up of three-minute blocks that you can sort of tell as little short stories, events in the film. So from the cards I go and write out each of these sort of blocks as a sequence, and then I’d read it to Peter and we’d discuss each sequence. Then I went off and wrote these pages of sequences into the final script. And then Peter would rework the stuff that I’d written, and backwards and forwards.

The other thing that’s bizarre in writing is that you can spend a month or two month with a script and not make it better, and you can completely turn it around in a couple of days. So that’s a very bizarre thing, you know, you’ve got to get, I mean, changing from medicine to writing you’ve got to get rid of the Calvinist notion that the number of hours you spend on the job is somehow the worth of your work, cos it doesn’t work like that. 

On the profession of screenwriting

And the truth is, you can usually find something of virtue in almost anything that you do. Weird projects come up and you think I’ll never be able to relate to this, but then you do a little bit of reading around it and think, oh yes, I can connect to that. 

When they sign you up, you say, how long it’ll take to write the draft and I’ll say three months, and out of that, at least six weeks to work out the storyline and do a lot of the research, and then – really you can write a draft in two or three weeks, and then to sort of distill it down, work out where the problems are, rebuild it again, so yeah. To get a readable first draft, it usually takes about three months.

On choosing a project to work on

So when you have a story which is both a thriller and a meditation on something that’s important to you, I think those are the kind of projects which you should ideally always work on. And if you don’t know the story, you need to work hard on that, and if you don’t know the meaning of the story then you need to work especially hard on that, because it’s only when you find meaning or theme to the story that obsesses you, and is important to you, that anything really good will come out. 

 On giving advice to new writers

I would say do something that is not just writing, so get some experience of life, I would say. I would also say, understand that part of the job of being a writer is being a kind of a teacher of philosophy, I think that’s what the job really is. We write stories for a reason, and the reason we write stories is to express a kind of a philosophical or political theme that’s important to us and important to the world. Unless you’re doing that you’re just basically manufacturing entertainment, and there’s no real point of that, there’s so much entertainment out there already. So if you’re going to write something meaningful, if you’re going to be a writer, then write something meaningful. And if you want to write something meaningful, you probably want to have a meaningful life first.

The Creative Conversation #2 - Hannie Rayson


Photo of Hannie Rayson by David Connelly

So this month's guest was the lovely and wonderful Hannie Rayson who didn't mind my sniffling throughout the entire interview. Hannie Rayson is a playwright and writer of Hotel Sorrento, The Swimming Club, Life After George, The Glass Soldier and the upcoming Extinction with the Manhattan Theater Club. Her play Hotel Sorrento was turned into an award winning film, and her other awards include Sidney Myer Performing Arts awards, the NSW and Victorian premier's awards and several Helpmann awards.

During the interview we talked about the joys of travel, how playwrights make money, lying on the floor for inspiration and imaginary friends inside her word processor. One of my favourite quotes from Hannie is about writing and adventurous spirit:

"In my twenties a great friend of mine had a business card that said ‘Wendy Harmer: Adventuress’. And I thought: I really want that business card! And I think part of being a writer, you know, if you’re a writer who’s committed to this, is to have that as your business card. Because it does give you a licence to be an ‘adventuress’."

Of course, please let me know of your suggestions for future guests. I can be found in the comments on this blog, the Facebook page, or on Twitter.

And if you like the podcast please don't forget to subscribe to iTunes and/or to the RSS feed!

The Creative Conversation with Nicole Lee

Download The Creative Conversation #2 - Hannie Rayson

The Creative Conversation #1 - John Collee


The inaugural episode of The Creative Conversation with Nicole Lee is now live!

This month's very special guest is Academy Award winning screenwriter and novelist John Collee (Happy Feet, Master and Commander, Creation). In the interview we talked about his medical past, his writing process, emoting dinosaurs and his love of discussion.

And for those who are unfamiliar with the Proust Questionnaire: the Proust Questionnaire is a popular interview made famous by the responses of Marcel Proust. It is said to reveal the interviewee's personality.

I'd love suggestions for future guests, so please feel free to leave a comment on this blog, on the Facebook page, or on Twitter.

And of course, if you like the podcast please don't forget to subscribe to iTunes and/or to the RSS feed!

*A note on the sound* As this was my first podcast and I am a little wanting of technical skill, the sound goes in and out towards the middle, so you may want to keep your finger on the volume button. This will hopefully be remedied by the second episode.

*A note on iTunes* Also sorting through this one. Will be available soon! In the meantime please listen directly in the player or download.


The Creative Conversation with Nicole Lee

Download The Creative Conversation #1 - John Collee