Hometown: Austinmer, NSW, Australia
Writing From: Brisbane, QLD, Australia
Education: I studied journalism and creative writing at Charles Sturt University for my undergrad degree, did an Honours year later at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) – and then later again completed a Doctorate of Creative Arts through UTS.
Briefly: I’ve published two novels (The Railwayman’s Wife in 2013 and The Body in the Clouds in 2010). Someone asked me recently if I’d always been interested in infrastructure history; someone else asked me if I’d always been interested in industrial accidents, and I hadn’t realized either was true. But The Railwayman’s Wife is partly about the death of a train guard, and The Body in the Clouds is partly about a man who falls off the Sydney Harbour Bridge during its construction – so perhaps there is a theme emerging …
I’ve also written four non-fiction books – three of which were ended up exploring various collectors and their obsessions with natural history (Gum, 2002; Herbarium, 2004; Museum, 2007) – and one which was about Lord Byron’s brief and dubious marriage (The Secret, 2000). I’ve been writing journalism for more than 20 years, and have had work anthologized in journals and collections including Best Australian Essays, Best Australian Short Stories and Best Australian Science Writing.
Pet Peeves: Reviews that give away a book’s twist or its denouement. I read a review of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader that revealed its end, which dramatically diminished the experience I could have of reading the book itself.
If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be… at a loose end. I’ve never had a job that wasn’t to do with words – writing them, commissioning them, editing them. I used to joke about giving it all up to become a train driver, but given the narrative arc of The Railwayman’s Wife (and its roots in an appropriated piece of my own family’s history), that might not be the safest idea.
What You Have Lined Up Next: I’m working on a novel set in Brisbane that spans the 1960s and now, and I’m also very excited to be editing the 2014 Best Australian Science Writing Anthology.
Do you think you were born to be a writer?
When I was little I wanted to be a flight attendant (until I realized I was too short) and a teacher (until I realized I was too shy). I was always interested in writing but I didn’t know how to go about being a writer, so I enrolled for a journalism degree. I thought if I could find work as a journalist, I could try to work out the other kind of writing after that. The most important thing was being lucky enough to grow up in a time and a place and a family where both education and fairly dreamy-sounding ambitions were possible – and then encountering mentors who enabled both.
Prior to writing fiction, you were writing narrative non-fiction. What do you like most about this genre?
I love research, and I like the imagination and creativity involved in narrative non-fiction, the different ways you can play with its forms. I love the way it allows you to take pieces of the information, the facts, of more completist or formal non-fiction stories and give them a new intimacy – you can really pull a story towards your readers across time and space in a way that’s engaging and entrancing. But I have to say, too, that I’m working mainly on long-form fiction these days, and I love the freedom of literally making things up and seeing what transpires.
What made you set The Railwayman’s Wife in the late 1940s?
I was interested in imagining those years just after World War II: from this far away in time, we have a sense that on one day the war started, and then a few years later on one day it stopped, and the world was somehow supposed to go back to normal. Part of what I wanted to look at was the way it leached beyond its historical dates, and went on impacting people’s lives.
Is there a strong writing community in Australia?
Yes, I think there is. Sometimes it feels like there’s a vast writing community in Australia and that we must have a higher per capita ratio of wordsmiths than most places: we only have a population of 20-odd million people, and there are always more wonderful writers emerging from that relatively small pool.
The Body in the Clouds was shortlisted for several prestigious literary prizes. When you set about writing it, did you already feel that it was going to be extraordinary? And that the reception would be so outstanding?
When I set about writing The Body in the Clouds, I didn’t even know if it would be finished, let alone be able to find a publisher or some readers … or readers who happened to be judges of awards! Thank you for finding it extraordinary – I was really thrilled to be able to realize the quite complex ideas I had for it; I thought that I’d made it as whole as I could, and I was delighted that readers (and awards’ judges) thought so too. I worked for several years as the literary editor for The Bulletin, a now-demised national weekly magazine here in Australia, which probably meant I had very few illusions about how hard it was to make noise for a first novel. Everything that came along for the book felt wonderful and exciting, and honestly unexpected.
What do you know for sure about book marketing and getting publicity for a novel?
You can never do enough of it—which is tricky when what you want to be doing is working on the next book you’ve got in mind. Having good and creative people organizing that and spruiking you is worth its weight in gold.
Do you have to be alone, and with the atmosphere quiet, for you to be able to write?
I’m a journalist by training and the owner-operator of a lovely five-year-old so I’d probably be waiting a long time if I waited for a perfectly quiet and isolated atmosphere in which to write. I write whenever and wherever I can – and that background in journalism means that I’m pretty good at sitting down at a desk and getting going, rather than waiting for an elusive muse to appear…
What do you feel is the best method by which an author can get the word out about his or her book?
I’ve been very fortunate to have my books reviewed in mainstream publications over the years, and that definitely helps. Social media is a whole new world that I’m learning about, and since word of mouth has always been important in how people seek out new books, these new kinds of words-of-mouths open up lots of new avenues. If you’re working as a writer, and trying to get better at what your craft, then you’re also hoping that each book not only finds you some more readers than the last one, but sends people back to the earlier ones.
What’s the best way an author can prepare for a book signing event?
There’s a lovely quote by the Irish writer William Trevor who says that he’s “very much against the notion that the person and the writer are the same”…I think I have a kind of heightened version of myself who’s my Ash-the-writer character; I’m a fairly shy person, and this job lets me sit on my own in a room making things up. So I sort of turn the volume up on myself when I have to go out into the world and sound like I know what I’m talking about. But meeting up with people at book signings – people who are interested in reading your words; that has to be one of the loveliest things you could be asked to do. There’s also the chance for surprise because out of these encounters you can get moments of serendipitous endorsement – when someone introduces themselves as related to a historical character you’ve been inspired by, or offers up some extra piece of a story you’ve worked to research.
What tips do you have for new writers?
Read as much and as widely as you can – and across as many styles and genres of writing. At the moment, I don’t have an enormous amount of spare reading time, and so I’ve gone back to reading poetry; I’ve also found myself reading a lot of long-form articles and essays. I haven’t read as many novels in the past few years, but at least this way I’ve still had a lot of new material coming into my imagination. When you’ve started to write, then, my best tip is to try to find a reader for your work who you trust implicitly to be your editor. There’s nothing like a fresh pair of eyes looking at your sentences.