DJ: Sarah, congratulations on your recent Faber Academy scholarship win. We’ll certainly get to that, but first let’s talk a bit about how you got there. You’re an English teacher writing YA fiction; how symbiotic are those two sides of your working life?
SP: Teaching is very busy and consuming, so it’s hard to think about anything else when I’m at school, but at the same time, being around teenagers does keep my head in a good place for writing YA fiction.
DJ: Inspiration: to what extent do you draw from situations and students you observe in your role as an educator? The potential seems limitless, but how sensitive an area is mining the dramas of your teenaged students for material? Where else do you find your ideas?
SP: I don’t really get into the nitty gritty of the students’ dramas at school. The thing I do listen out for is their dialogue, because it’s such a hard thing to get right in fiction, and I’m still trying to make it work in my book. I think there’s so much power in dialogue when it’s done well.
My ideas have mainly come about through spending a lot of time with the one story, redrafting (with help from various people), and lots of that ‘soft’ thinking time. In the first few drafts it was a very quiet story, probably too timid and circumspect. I’ve since introduced another few layers to try and get things zipping along a bit more.
DJ: How did YA writing come about for you? Was it this exposure to teenagers in your professional work, your own adolescent memories or a teen voice in your head – what happened to send you down this path?
SP: All of the above! Undoubtedly, though, working with teenagers has influenced what I write.
DJ: Last year I interviewed fellow Varuna alumna Fiona Wood, author of YA hits Six Impossible Things and Wildlife, and I remember she said her own reading was still predominantly adult literary fiction – what are your own reading tastes and habits? How important is it to you to read widely across YA and adult genres and who are some of your favourite authors?
SP: I really enjoy reading YA and coming-of-age fiction ( Sonya Hartnett, Craig Silvey, Julia Lawrinson, Meg Rosoff) and I try to keep abreast of it so that I can make recommendations to the kids at school. I read Six Impossible Things during my last stay at Varuna, and I know it’s a popular choice in our school library!
I do try to read widely, but mostly I read adult literary fiction. When I’m doing a lot of writing myself, I always read something that I’ve loved previously ( MJ Hyland, Thomas Moran, Flannery O’Connor, Anson Cameron, Tim Winton) so that I can dip into a lovely piece of prose or some really authentic dialogue or an arresting scene – and it inspires me to keep going!
DJ: I’ve just listened to your Writer-a-Day recording, featuring your novel-in-progress ‘Chasing Butterflies’ – it’s a taut little extract and I instantly felt the claustrophobic tension of a family in crisis; how indicative is that of the atmosphere of the whole and how difficult is it living in that world as you create your story?
SP: The whole story was too claustrophobic in the earlier drafts, so I’ve worked hard at opening it up more, at trying to enact more scenes and move things at a faster pace. It’s still a work-in-progress, though, and I’ve got some way to go yet. Trying to make the story less introspective has perhaps been one of my biggest challenges.
I love living in the world of my book! I think spending big chunks of time with the manuscript and really living it, is the only way I can get it done.
DJ: Voice is so critical in writing – who is the first-person narrator in ‘Chasing Butterflies’ and how did her voice emerge? What else can you tell us about the characters and the story?
SP: The narrator is a sixteen year-old girl called Anna. The story begins with the implosion of Anna’s family – her father throws out his phone and business suits then moves upstairs to the storage loft in the family’s home. I think Anna’s voice has been there from the start, but as the protagonist she was too passive and reasonable. So I’m working at the moment on giving her more age and agency, a bit more authority and spunk.
Anna has an older sister who is ambitious and smart, and a real estate agent mother; both refuse to see things for what they really are. I suppose the story is about modern family dynamics, and about the healing that can come through facing the truth.
DJ: What’s your publication history? When and how did you realise you had to write?
I’ve never had anything published. I started writing many years ago after the suicide of my boyfriend. I think I was probably writing my way through the grief, as a way of understanding. Now it is just part of what I do. It’s clichéd, I know, but I just can’t not do it!
DJ: I think that’s a cliché we all recognise, Sarah. And I’m so sorry it was a personal tragedy that first impelled you to write, although I’m sure most of us relate to that too; writing is an enormously cathartic practice. Tell us specifically about the genesis and gestation of ‘Chasing Butterflies’.
SP: When my children were babies we lived in an old timber house that had a loft in the roof. I used to get up in the night to breastfeed, and I could hear creaking up there. So I suppose it started from those spooky noises in the night – what if someone was living up there? And they’d completely shut down from their family and their work and friends, as a sort of silent demonstration about their life?
I started writing this story over five years ago. I haven’t written anything else in that time (though it probably would’ve helped if I did). It’s been through many drafts, but I’m hopeful this one will be the last.
During my first [stay at] Varuna, Peter Bishop told my group that one book can take ten years. That amount of time sounded crazy to me then. Now I completely understand.
DJ: As mentioned above, you’ve just been awarded a Writing a Novel Scholarship at Allen & Unwin's Faber Academy in Sydney for ‘Chasing Butterflies’ – tell us about that program and why you applied.
SP: The program is run over six months and is an intensive but practical course, which really appeals to me. James Bradley is the course director, with guest lecturers, [award-winning authors] Margo Lanagan and Charlotte Wood [herself a long-time Varuna alumni member].
The program seems to cover all the elements that need to be considered when writing a full length novel: goals and obstacles, character, using memory, point of view, time, dialogue, turning points, narrative summary, editing, even selling your work to a publisher.
There are guest seminars and individual tutorials for feedback on your work. Then at the end of the program, all students are given the opportunity to read some of their work to a group of professionals from the industry.
The course appealed to me because I really value professional development as a writer and I love learning about the craft of writing. I couldn’t manage to pay for the course, so I applied for the scholarship.
DJ: What role has Varuna played in your development?
SP: I’d probably feel quite isolated in my writing life if it weren’t for Varuna. For me, it has been a very nurturing place, where I feel enabled in my writing.
And then there’s Sheila’s baked fish! And red wines around the fire, and the friendships that come out of that big yellow house, supporting and encouraging, long after you’ve gone home.
DJ: You’re a working mum, Sarah – what’s your personal strategy for keeping those balls in the air while writing a novel?
SP: The balls often fall out of the air, with a resounding thud! Over the years I have written late at night, or in the middle of the night. Now that both my children are at school, I like to write in the morning if I can – the early hours are so much more productive for me. Also, I am a single parent, so when my children are with their father I have big chunks of time on my own. Life goes from full throttle to a sudden stillness. And then I write!
DJ: Where and how do you work on your writing? Do you have a room, a desk and a tightly held schedule or...?
SP: There’s no set-aside room (though I’d love one!), but I do keep a desk set up just for my writing so that when I come back again, it is as I left it. No tightly held schedules either, just snatching bits of time here and there.
DJ: Any superstitions or rituals you subscribe and adhere to?
SP: Coffee. And little bits of paper to scribble on (I seem to have a thing for post-it notes).
DJ: What do you hope to achieve from the intensive Faber Academy program?
SP: I think there’s so much to be gained from an intensive course like this one. I know I’m going to learn so much more about the craft and about the process of novel writing. I expect I’ll be inspired and motivated and challenged. And of course, meet some wonderful people along the way.
DJ: How significant do you think peer support and this kind of formal course structure has become to the current generation of new and emerging writers? I’ve recently come to really fancy the idea myself, but I do feel hampered by a persistent lack of money and time. Nice work on that scholarship win, by the way: at nearly six grand, Writing a Novel ain’t a cheap exercise for the rest of your class...especially not when you consider that some (most?) debut authors aren’t even offered that princely sum as an advance.
Time seems less of an issue with the Faber Academy timetable – it looks quite accommodating – but it’s still hard for young working families to lose a key member in out-of-office slots when they’d otherwise be home. Personally I’d love to have those prized, set-in-stone windows, each marked with a big red X on the calendar – oh, glorious! Is that part of it for you, Sarah, the thrill of knowing you have successfully laid claim to these unimpeachable wedges of writing time for the next six months?
SP: Thank you, Di! I feel very privileged to be undertaking the course, and I’m grateful to Allen & Unwin for providing the opportunity.
I think the process of writing a book is a bit like an apprenticeship and courses like this one are one way of speeding up that learning. I suppose it’s a personal thing, as to how much formal learning people feel that they need, but peer support, courses and festivals: all that writerly dialogue has been imperative for me.
Having laid claim to that time over the next six months is definitely part of the excitement! The program consists of sessions on Tuesday evenings and six Saturdays, so it’s manageable with a bit of juggling (and my generous mother, who will be caring for the children). I think it’s so important to carve out a bit of time for these things if you can.
DJ: Damn straight. Now, presumably Allen & Unwin gets first dibs on the manuscripts that have been through the course, potentially side-stepping the abject ghastliness of the submission process – have you given much thought to what happens next?
SP: When I first started the book, I used to dream about getting published all the time, writing up long lists of acknowledgements as a way of procrastinating(!).
[DJ: That’s brilliant. I used to imagine gushing phone calls from agents, editors and judging panels, all bursting to shower me with unmitigated praise.]
SP: But that was before I realised that writing is less about all that stuff, and more about the process of thought and learning, and the craft. If the book does ever find a home with a publisher, [I’ll] be thrilled, and if not, I might just feed it into the fireplace at Varuna and start all over again. Either way, I will have learnt so much from the process of writing it.
DJ: That realisation is a relief when it comes, isn’t it? I’ve felt so...unburdened since the violent death of my ego. I can’t remember the exact circumstances of its demise, but I do know I’m no longer troubled by grotesque fantasies of success.
Well, Sarah Price, great good luck at the Faber Academy – knock ‘em dead. And thank you for playing – please do come back at the end of the course and tell us all about your experience.
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