Queensland Writer's Life - Sally Piper
WQ is proud to present a series of interviews with writers from across Queensland. We have approached novelists, playwrights, freelancers, memoirists, short fiction writers, songwriters, game writers, poets, debuts, old hats, traditionally published authors and self-publishers, and asked each of them the same eleven questions. Read individually, each writer’s answers reveals their unique approach to their craft. Read as a group, broad patterns begin to emerge. All of it to answer the simple question: what is the Queensland Writer’s Life?
Why do you write? What drives you?
For me, writing is as much about self-exploration as it is about giving readers a story they might engage with. Much of my drive to write comes from having a visceral response to certain issues, whether that response is anger, frustration, joy or sadness. In the case of my novel Grace’s Table, these issues included things like the stereotyping of the aged, domestic violence and the expectations that surround grief. As a writer, I feel I have a social or moral responsibility to give these issues a face and a space in which they can be explored to help raise awareness about them and to create or continue a conversation around them.
How did you come to writing?
Writing came to me when I was given that most precious gift – time. I’d nursed for 20 years, then after the birth of my second child we moved to the UK to live, where we stayed for the next eight years. It wasn’t possible for me to work there but I missed the action and stimulation of the critical care units I’d worked on for the greater part of my nursing career. To fill that void, I decided I’d try my hand at writing educational books for children initially, with a focus on health issues (think sugar villain eludes insulin hero and all hell breaks loose in the body). The first thing I learnt when I sat down to write is how hard it is. I didn’t have a clue about voice, characterisation or narrative structure – in fact, I didn’t even know such terms existed back then, only that what I was writing was terrible. So I joined a tutor-led writing group and over the next few years I came to better understand the craft of writing, and to write across many genres and forms. I eventually started to have some publication success with my short fiction, which gave me the confidence to try long fiction. By the time I left the UK to return to Australia, I had written three (unpublishable) novels. I still think of them as vital stepping-stones to the eventual publication of Grace’s Table.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
The hardest thing initially was trusting that I had something worth saying and then having the faith that I could learn and apply the skills needed to say it well. And the only way for me to do this was to write and write and write. I tried different forms, genres and structures, and through that I eventually found my writer’s voice, who I wanted to be as a writer. Then when a publisher first said yes to this labour, I started to believe that I did have something worth saying and that I could say it well enough to earn a readership. After that, repeat.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
I approach my writing job the same way that I approached my nursing job – I get dressed for it (I never write in my PJs, unless I get an idea at 2am that I need to get down!) and I turn up, not just physically but mentally. I never think of my writing as a hobby and it offends me if people suggest that it is. It’s also important for me to remember that I’m a part of something bigger, so I network with other writers and readers wherever possible at events like those run by QWC or those held at our many wonderful independent bookstores. Writing can be lonely, so it’s nice to know that on any given day another writer is also turning up at their writing space, most likely facing the same frustrations, challenges and tricks to their confidence as me.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
I work at a desk on my Apple Mac. My desk looks messy but it is an organised mess. There are several piles of books (twenty or more is not uncommon), some to be read, others for reference, plus a Macquarie dictionary weighty enough to break my foot if it fell on it (and no I don’t use the dictionary facility on my PC, not because I’m a Luddite but because I actually love reading dictionaries). I cut any waste A4 pages into quarters and they become my ‘notes to self’ for thoughts and ideas, lines of dialogue, observations or character traits. There are piles of these on my desk, plus I keep a stack of them on my bedside table because once I’m really engaged with a project I wake at all hours with ideas. One Christmas my mother gave me a pen with a light in the nib of it!
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
When I first started writing there was nothing at stake except my time. I wrote for the sheer joy of creating something. There was no inner critic whispering criticisms in my ear, nothing holding me back. Once I started to submit my work for publication, I quickly realised that I’d crossed into the real writer’s world, which is a place of rejection slips and criticism – from myself, publishers, reviewers, readers. I wish I’d known this would happen when I first started writing. I’d have celebrated that honeymoon period more!
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
I read widely across fiction and non-fiction with a bit of poetry thrown in, mainly to remind me about the benefit of the economy of language. My non-fiction reading includes contemporary works, classics and philosophy, and usually relates to the themes I’m addressing in my current writing project. My fiction reading is mostly of literary novels that address a great variety of themes. The way I read has changed a lot since I started writing. I spend more time in the white space of a book now, assessing what the author doesn’t say, what they skilfully hold back, inserting my own world view and experiences into these gaps. I’m not a fast reader, mainly because I read with an eye for author style and craft as well as story, and for those silences. Often I read with envy. Sometimes I read with frustration, especially if the author hasn’t respected me as a reader or intruded upon their character’s responsibilities too much and filled in those white spaces for me.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
I might be howled down for this, but I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it’s been made into a bogeyman, something that as writers we have to be wary of ‘catching’ like it’s a disease. Sure, there’s times when I can’t find the right words but this is because I haven’t thought enough about what it is I want to say. Or as Jonathan Franzen puts it: “the blank page in the mind has to be filled before you have the courage to face the actual blank page.”
To fix this absence of words I step back from the computer for a while. I spend time thinking about what it is I really want to say – what are the key issues, the themes, who are the most suitable people to explore them. I do this best when I walk; sometimes I have to walk a lot. Also, I read widely around the themes I want to address, and I make many, many notes. What has also worked for me in the past is to sit down with my potential characters and interview them. I ask them hard questions, push them until they come up with an answer, see if they’re fit to represent the themes I want to address, and if not I get rid of them. The answers of those characters I keep might change or be contradictory but this can help open the way for how they will grow and change throughout the story.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring writer?
If you’re writing to be published, turn up at your writing space like it’s a job, even if only for the handful of hours you might have spare in a week. No excuses.
First published in WQ Online for the ‘Queensland Writer’s Life’ series, February 2017