What am I working on now?
Last year I had a great idea: wouldn’t it be interesting to write a handbook to help people survive the ravages of climate change? Turns out, yes, it is interesting; it’s also really time-consuming, so not much in the way of fiction is getting written.
That said, this book on surviving climate change is going to be ace. I’m writing it with James Whitmore, Energy & Environment editor at my former employer, The Conversation. We want to find out how people can best make it through the unpredictable times to come: where they should live, what they should live in, what kind of food they should eat, the skills they’ll need, and how they’ll stay sane.
Unlike me, James isn’t scared of ringing up total strangers and asking stupid questions. So far we’ve chatted with a bloke building an Earthship in the Adelaide Hills, a guy who lived through the Black Saturday bushfires, the calmest survivalist ever (his next-door neighbour owns a military tank), and Alexis Wright, with many more thrilling interviews to come.
(OK, on the side I have been mucking about with a few fictional things. I’ve torn apart a novel I originally wrote in 2000 and rewritten it as a novella: it’s about the improbable tumble of coincidences set off when a woman’s severed arm is replaced by the transplanted limb of her unrequited lover’s wife. Good luck getting that published, right? And I’ve been tinkering around the edges of a novel I’ve been working on for the past few years: it’s the fictionalised story of my great-great-grandfather, who survived eight days on a shipwreck without water or food. As Richard Flanagan would say while munching on yellow kingfish pancetta, “You grow up knowing there is this sort of Homeric story all around you. You realise it speaks to a whole universe of feeling. Then you become a writer and it is the thing that, if you have the courage and ability, you would wish to write about. But it’s terrifying because it is so vast”. So like I said: tinkering around the edges.)
How does my work differ from other works in its genre?
I don’t know what genre I write in. It makes it hard to write pitches to publishers. I tried this ‘what genre is my novel?’ website, and it said I write feminist urban fantasy satire. I suspect that isn’t true.
At the risk of enraging Annabel Smith, who posits novels which are both speculative and literary are ‘few and far between’, I’m going to claim my genre is just that: literary speculative. Does that mean I don’t have to answer the question? I think my debut novel, A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, had more jokes than other writers in my genre (some might say too many jokes), and more bits that might make you cry. And a lot of plot twists without really very much action, which is pretty unusual for a novel the Aurealis Awards thought constituted science fiction.
Why do I write about what I do?
Most of the things I write seem to start out as a ‘what if?’ question I feel compelled to explore. What if the things you imagined then forgot lived lives of their own somewhere just outside yours? What if limb transplants came with all the dreams of their original owners? What if you divided America up into 25-foot squares and tried to stand in each of them? What if your identity was accidentally wiped from all central records? What if you survived a horrible shipwreck and psychology hadn’t been invented yet?
As to where those questions come from in the first place, the blame lies in this endlessly fascinating world – art, dreams, drunken conversations, accidents, the news, a scrap of paper on a train station, an argument about one thing that turns into an argument about another. There are too many questions for one person to answer.
How does my writing process work?
I write fiction and non-fiction differently. Does anyone care about non-fiction? No? I didn’t think so – ask me in the comments if you do.
With fiction, like I said, it usually starts out with a question I want to answer – I wrote a short story recently after Scott Morrison told asylum seekers on Manus not to ‘even dream of coming to Australia’; I wanted to know, what would happen if he actually tried to control asylum seekers’ dreams? I also collect stuff, all the time – scraps of overheard conversations, things I see in the paper, ideas that pop out of my head – just in case I need them later. Consequently a lot of what I write features either public transport or boring offices.
I don’t really plot. I’ve tried it, and so far I’ve always ditched the story once I’ve plotted it out – knowing where I’m going makes me bored. I do sometimes give myself a place to get to in each chunk of writing (‘by the end of this scene, Jerry should have found out why the shopping trolley is possessed’), and sometimes I give myself things I have to include in each chapter to keep me on some kind of track (one novel was based around a mix tape, one song for each chapter), but for the most part I just write, fast, and see what happens. I do like to get my characters into predicaments then agonise over how they’ll get out.
So yeah, first draft is fast and I try to write a lot and regularly – every day for a month, say. This has to fit in around a regular job, friends (luckily, two of them often write at the same time I do), husband, cooking dinner, cleaning, patting cats, playing music, watching footy and so on, so you can see why I have to write fast.
I have no idea how to rewrite. I really just don’t. One of my friends told me he throws away his first draft and writes a second without even looking at it again. I think he’s lying. I hate redrafting: hate, hate, hate it. It’s partly because I’d rather think I can write perfectly first go, and partly because reading what I’ve written is the same kind of agony you feel listening to yourself talking on tape*. It’s gross. The only thing I’ve found which works consistently for me is reading out loud, preferably to someone who’s prepared to listen and give feeback (thanks, husband). Reading out loud really reveals how stupid your writing is, and creates a desperate urge to fix it. I hear pretty much everyone else gets other people to read and critique their stuff, so I reckon I might give that a try next time around.
OK, enough; this is getting way too long. I’m handing over to the next two in the chain. Alex Landragin is the author of the gigantic online extravaganza, The Daily Fiction Project, and he’ll be posting his contribution here. Yvette Walker wrote the gorgeous and heartbreaking Letters to the End of Love and her update will appear here.
If you have any questions about any of this, I’d love to answer them. And I’d love to hear how people go about writing second, third and fourth drafts: I need help! (Also, plotting: is there a way to plot out a book without losing interest in telling the story?)
*Tape? Who records anything on tape anymore?