Conversations

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Robyn Mundy, 2017, at an old trapper’s hut, Hornsund, Spitsbergen.

 

For those who live in Australia, ABC Radio presenter Richard Fidler is a household name. His regular 50-minute programs Conversations with Richard Fidler have been an Aussie institution since 2006. As the blurb goes, Conversations with Richard Fidler draws you deeper into the life story of someone you may, or may not, have heard about – someone who has seen and done amazing things.

Last week I was Richard’s guest, which just goes to show that his selection of life stories really does include those someones you’ve never heard of. What impressed me—apart from Richard, who is as warm and vivacious in person as he sounds on radio—was the research and preparation that went into the interview. Leading up to the program I spent a couple of hefty phone sessions—two and a half hours—with Richard’s production assistant who eked out countless details of my life: highlights, difficult times, memories I rarely speak of. I nattered on while Nicola, with the occasional oh, wow, or grimace or, what year was this? tapped my history onto her computer.

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Auster Emperor Penguin Rookery, 2008

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MV Polar Pioneer in Keyser Franz Joseph Fjord, East Greenland, 2017

Thankfully, all that was winnowed down to a manageable interview. I think, at least I hope, those in my life know me as actively willing to let other people shine (one great reservation I have about the nature of social media is the relentless ME focus), so it felt decidedly weird and initially unnerving to have the focus redirected. Conversations aired live. We talked about Antarctica, about a year spent working with emperor penguins on the sea ice. We never got to speak about the guiding I do for Aurora Expeditions aboard the ice-strengthened ship Polar Pioneer, which takes me to the top and bottom of the world for several months of each year; or my ongoing pride in Aurora, the innovation of  two dynamic Australian adventurers Greg and Margaret Mortimer. I wish I could have shared a few gobsmacking, high-latitude moments, some of them life-shaping, that our shipboard adventurers take away with them.

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Maatsuyker Island off the south-west corner of Tasmania, 2017.

We spoke about living remotely on wild Maatsuyker Island but never delved into my recent novel set on Maatsuyker, and probably not by accident. I suspect Richard steers away from well-worn angles of conversation. But what has been so heartening in the days following Conversations, is the positive, heartfelt feedback I’ve received from those who regularly listen to the program, or caught our Conversation while in the car or sitting at an airport, who say they learned things they never imagined about my life—hard moments as well as shiny ones—that they found fascinating. Perhaps all down to the magic Richard Fidler consistently wields on his show. If you’re inclined to tune in to the podcast, or others in Conversations, click here.

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Beneath the rainbow

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Any title that includes Rainbow is bound to conjure images of crystals and incense sticks. Nope, there’s not a tinkle of glass nor a whiff of sandalwood to be found in this post, only photographic proof that it is possible to see the end of the rainbow, and live a serene life beneath it. We’re talking Maatsuyker Island, site of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse, the island where my novel Wildlight plays out, within cooee of the south-west corner of Tasmania.

Our six months of caretaking and weather observing at Maatsuyker Island has come to a close. Now, even more than our first few days of treading paved roads, it feels like crashing back to earth. The work on the island was hard, the living conditions cold, and the wind rarely stopped blowing, but perhaps all these challenges contributed to us having the time of our lives. And even though we turned into eating machines, we each left the island many kilograms lighter, and fitter, thanks to hauling lawnmowers up and down slopes, wielding brush cutters, digging drains and tending a large vegetable garden, plus all the walking. It’s a win-win formula that I’m naming The Maatsuyker Diet.

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Here is my partner Gary with ‘Helga’ the mower. There’s little scope for traditional gender roles on Maatsuyker Island. We divided the mowing and brush cutting work that tends a 2-kilometre-long grass road, 2 helicopter pads, 1 vegetable garden, the surrounds of 3 cottages and 1 lighthouse, 1 paddock, and brush cutting 7 bush tracks, paths and numerous slopes too tricky or hazardous to mow. One round took each of us 4–5 days on a 3-weekly cycle.

A corner of the Maatsuyker pantry at the start of our stay; strawberries from the veggie garden’s poly house; sushi rolls for dinner (my partner Gary’s speciality); during our stay we consumed 42 kgs flour transformed into sourdough loaves and baked goods.

During our first caretaking term in 2010–11 we barely saw another two-legged being, but on this stint we relished the company of several energetic visitors. Long-time friends Katherine and Kevin from Western Australia arrived on a crayfishing boat and stayed for five days. The permits and arrangements took them months, and even then it was nail biting times as the ocean swell and weather was against them both on their arrival and throughout their stay. Katherine and Kev were thankful for the handrails in the howling gales; they very quickly found their footing, embraced nature, and contributed to Maatsuyker with all manner of island work.

The wonderful Friends of Maatsuyker stayed over for two intensive working bees. This volunteer group contributes to almost every aspect of the island. Amongst the hard workers was Mark, who has turned his passion for lighthouses into restoring those around Australia that require serious TLC. Mark made his own way down to Tasmania and donated time and skills to continue work on restoring Maatsuyker’s lighthouse. During his days on the island we would regularly cross paths at first light as he headed down the hill to begin his day, working until late into the nights. He made impressive progress by removing damaging paint from a big section of the inside walls, and repainting top parts of the tower.

An unexpected visitation came from Dutch presenter-producer Floortje Dessing and her camerawoman Renée, who flew all the way from the Netherlands at short notice to produce a documentary about life as caretakers on Maatsuyker Island. Floortje To the End of the World (Floortje Naar Het Einde Van De Wereld) is a popular Dutch TV series which focusses as much on the people who choose to live in remote corners of the world as it does on the the natural wonders of wild places. While they were on Maatsuyker the girls got to experience the brunt of the Roaring Forties latitudes with 6-metre ocean swells and a record wind gust for January. Maatsuyker claims plenty of ‘personal bests’ when it comes to record winds: still to be beaten is its August 1991 squall of 112 knots (207.4 kms per hour), the country’s highest non-cyclonic wind gust. Floortje and Renée embraced every moment of the weather and were fun to be with. I only learned later how big a celebrity Floortje is in her home country, while to us they were simply two sparkling, energetic women who joined us each evening for dinner, washed up afterwards, brought a whopping great round of Edam cheese in their suitcase and followed us here and there on our daily routines.

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Lastly we welcomed Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife video competition winner Simon whose prize was a visit to Maatsuyker Island. Simon and his mate Noodle lobbed in for an overnight stay via helicopter, though with under-par weather conditions it was touch and go whether they could even make it to the island. Thanks to the skilled pilots at HeliRes they arrived safely after a short delay. Without losing another minute, the boys donned wet weather gear and bounded from one end of the island to the other with cameras in tow. In the evening, between ducking outdoors to watch a brilliant sunset, they joined us at Quarters 1 for curry and a pint of home brew beer. Next morning at 0400 they were up and at ’em to watch Maatsuyker’s thousands of short-tailed shearwaters launch off the island. In 24 hours Simon and Noodle succeeded in filming and later producing a professional 3-minute video which showcases the island. I will have that clip available to share in a week or so, along with an interview with Simon.

I could go on about Maatsuyker, but will close with the info below and a selection of photos which I hope express the magic of the island.

The nitty gritty of caretaking at Maatsuyker Island

The volunteer caretaker program is coordinated and managed by Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service who currently advertise the position through Wildcare Inc. every two years. Each applicant must demonstrate a range of skills and an adequate level of physical fitness, and will be responsible for purchasing their own provisions for the six-month term. Part of the Maatsuyker caretaker duties is to conduct daily weather observations for the Bureau of Meteorology Hobart. Many short-term volunteer caretaking opportunities across Tasmania are advertised through Wildcare Inc., the incorporated community partner organisation that provides management and support for volunteers working in natural and cultural heritage conservation and reserve management. Friends of Maatsuyker Island (Wildcare Inc.) is a volunteer group who contribute time and skills to the island, raise funds towards maintenance and improvements on Maatsuyker, run day trips to the island via boat, and conduct annual working bees.

Last gasp of a big year

dsc_3874-robyn-gary-at-maatsuykerWith my times away from home, my blogging pattern tends to be feast or famine. This week sees no nutritional lack. Despite spotty attendance I feel great personal reward in the interactions with readers and guests that maintaining a website generates. Imagine, then, a world with no internet, no email and no mobile coverage; then—as daunting as the prospect may be—picture me in that world for the next six months. Shortly, my partner Gary and I are off to remote Maatsuyker Island, site of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse, for a second term as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. While the island remains happily rodent and snake-free, it also remains staunchly internet-free, just like its old light keeping days, minus the carrier pigeons.

Maatsuyker Island with Needle Rocks in foreground

Maatsuyker Island with Needle Rocks in foreground. ©Robyn Mundy

This has been a mega year for me with the launch of my second novel, Wildlight, a story set on Maatsuyker Island. I feel personally touched to have had many lovely responses from readers who in different ways have been moved by the story, along with the relief any writer feels on receiving favourable media reviews. This doesn’t come without the sting of the odd 1- or 2-star reader rating on Goodreads, but—Man-up, Robyn!—such is the nature of writing and reading. This year I also feel fortunate to be amongst the lucky few to receive a grant from Australia Council for the Arts toward my new novel in progress. Thank you, ACA, for considering the project worthy of support. Those of us who throw our hats into the ring for such funding understand how competitive and slim the prospects. There are so many talented writers deserving of success, combined with brutal slashes in funding for Australian Arts.

Between ship work and writing research, it’s been a scramble preparing for Maatsuyker Island, months in the planning with the need to provide 6 months of provisions for our island time. Imagine running short of coffee. Or wine. Or chocolate! Imagine forgetting to take books to read. It has been the mother of all shopping lists, let me tell you. As seasoned caretakers on Maatsuyker there will be no shortage of lawn mowing, brush cutting or maintenance tasks; thankfully, there will still be ample time to savour the beautiful island surrounds and to make solid progress on my new novel. Novel 3 will not be a sequel to Wildlight, though my Auntie Muriel is keen to know why I refused to write Wildlight‘s final chapter. 🙂 This new story is set in a vastly different wilderness, about as far away from Maatsuyker Island as is probable to venture.

Earlier in the year I was invited to write an article for Newswrite magazine on what attracts writers like myself to wild places. With permission from the New South Wales Writers’ Centre, I have reproduced the article below.

For now and always, keep safe and happy. Keep loving books. More from Writing the Wild in March 2017.

Robyn x

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Writing the Wild

This article first appeared in Newswrite Magazine, June 2016, and is reproduced here with permission of the New South Wales Writers’ Centre.

When asked to consider why, as a writer, I feel drawn to wild places and isolation, I initially grappled for an answer, which led to this confession: forget about being a writer; the urge to experience places such as Maatsuyker Island and Antarctica where my novels are set, originates from purely self-seeking motives, from some deep well of longing to experience nature. As a novelist, the fascination for wilderness precedes all else; from immersion in its landscape comes story.

The Nature of Ice frontcov smallMy first novel, The Nature of Ice, draws on Antarctica, the backdrop of my life for nearly 20 years. I have wintered and summered at Australian Antarctic stations, working as a field assistant on science research projects that included a remarkable winter on the sea ice with emperor penguins. I am doubly fortunate to spend several months each year aboard a small ice-strengthened vessel, guiding adventure tours to Antarctica, the Arctic, and other wondrous outposts.

While the Antarctic wildlife rates as a huge drawcard, the ultimate spellbinding seduction for me is the ice. Being within it. That is not to imply some trippy state of serenity. If wonder is one face of awe, the other is a guarded caution in knowing how easily Antarctica can turn from beauty to malevolence. You can’t be in a wild place for long without respect for its might.

The first draw to Antarctica began with someone else’s story. As a young adult I read Lennard Bickel’s This Accursed Land, a dramatised account of polar explorer Douglas Mawson’s 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Along with the iconic images of photographer Frank Hurley, the story of that thwarted expedition ignited my curiosity and imagination. How might such a hostile place feel, where nature determines everything? I had to find a way to go.

when_the_night_comesAs a contemporary Antarctic novelist, I am not alone in this draw to the frozen south. Favel Parret’s When the Night Comes has its origin in the history of Nella Dan, a former Australian Antarctic supply vessel. I posed the question to Favel: what attracts you to wild places?

‘At first I was drawn back into my childhood memories of the south of Tasmania. Mostly it was the child’s fear of the wild that I wanted to understand. Then at 27 came surfing and the feeling of wanting to be on the wild water, and wanting to find remote wild beaches that were pristine and free of concrete car parks and cars and houses. The clean waters of Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean became vitally important to me.’

Reflecting on the genesis of When the Night Comes: ‘Nella came first. I had to follow her and experience where she went. I had to go to sea and visit the Southern Ocean properly. On my first trip, to Macquarie Island, I found that I was in love with seabirds and could easily spend the rest of my life watching them. That trip was not enough; I had only scratched the surface and I knew I had to go to the ice. It was wonderful to experience Antarctica for the ten-day resupply at Casey Station, but it was the long journey at sea that felt most wild. The moments always changing, the ship always moving, new birds to watch, different whales to see, different swells to navigate. The wildness of that ocean speaks to me in so many ways and I would go again in a heartbeat. It is the wildest place I know.’

chasing-the-lightAuthor Jesse Blackadder also travelled south to understand Antarctica. Her novel Chasing the Light draws on the 1930s history of Ingrid Christensen, wife of a Norwegian whaling magnate. Ingrid and two unlikely female companions are each poised to become the first woman to land on Antarctica. Serendipitously, I recently met up with Jesse and asked which came first, the draw to Antarctica, or Ingrid’s story? Like me, like Ingrid Christensen, Jesse’s personal longing to experience Antarctica stretched back years, driven, in Jesse’s case, by images of wildlife and ice. Place first, story second.

All three Antarctic novels are fictional works inspired by history, yet the authors’ personal experience infuses an undeniable verisimilitude into their sense of place. Similarly, the voyage across a vast Southern Ocean to reach Antarctica is as fundamental to each story’s narrative arc as it is to the writer’s personal quest. For writers where place sits at the forefront of the work, it behoves us to connect with its landscape, to fully know it through personal experience or memory or research.

Wildlight front coverMy new novel Wildlight plays out on remote Maatsuyker Island off Tasmania’s South West. Here, my partner Gary and I spent four months living in isolation as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. The inspiration for Maatsuyker Island was triggered by a childhood at our family shack on the edge of the ocean. Maatsuyker amounted to a dot on the wall map, to a reputation for wild weather and the home of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse. Evening weather reports on Dad’s crackly transistor radio conjured images of light keepers trudging to and from the lighthouse in knockdown gales, of a place riven by storm and fearsome seas. As a child I wanted to know such a place. As an adult, I wanted to write it. Yet I couldn’t—not with credibility—until I had experienced it.

The sheer force of wild landscapes—their capacity to slough away the noise and clutter of urban life, to command our full attention, to beguile us with their majesty then strike with their hostility—preoccupies me as both a novelist and traveller. Each season on polar voyages I see fellow travellers ‘expanded’ by these other worlds. For some, like me, the experience is a form of meditation, the likes of which is largely unattainable in the workaday world. For others, the journey may mark a pivotal turning point. As sites of transformation, places of wilderness offer a bounty of riches for literary fiction.

It feels important to qualify that a love of nature—of any landscape—is not sufficient to sustain a work of fiction. Within the layers of a compelling story lies human conflict. It must. ‘Without the friction of conflict,’ says author Stephen Fischer, ‘there is no change. And without change, there is no story. A body at rest remains at rest unless it enters into conflict.’

Even during the lead-up to being on Maatsuyker, the anticipation of the island performed its alchemy, stirring characters into being and offering potential conflicts: what would months on Maatsuyker be like for a teenage girl dragged there by her parents, removed from her friends and the comforts of home? What if that family were isolated from each other, grieving for the death of a child? What would the surround of ocean mean for a 19-year-old deckhand who fears the sea and holds a premonition that some day it will take him? And the big question: how do I make best use of island and ocean in a story where these lives collide?

I strive to make place dynamic, to function as a fickle, layered character. Landscape holds a capacity to not only reflect the inner turmoil of characters, but to shape and transform. Who better, it seemed to me, than two young people at odds with their landscape, still making themselves up as they go along?

On a recent walk to a wilderness lookout, I happened upon an interpretative sign with this, by author-environmentalist Aldo Leopold: Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The challenge for the writer remains one of language: to fathom the meanings of wild places through the characters that inhabit them.

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Wildlight – Book of the Week

Wildlight front cover angled copyMy new novel WILDLIGHT is Book of the Week at Coast FM in Auckland, New Zealand. Lovely reviewer Stephanie Jones writes:

Nature is the star of Wildlight, the evocative new novel by Robyn Mundy…Mundy’s prose is redolent with the sights, sounds and scents of sea and sky: clusters of mutton-birds return to nest, the air filling with the rancid smell of their oil; fisherman risk their lives to bring in their catch in violent weather…

Above all, she acknowledges vagary, the element of chance that plays its hand in every existence: “Perhaps we navigate life that way. Perhaps we change course at precisely the wrong moment, blink and miss landfall.” Wildlight beckons to a reader seeking entry to a different world.

Check out the full review by Stephanie Jones. For those in New Zealand, enter the competition to win a copy!

The real cost of loaning out a book

Who hasn’t borrowed a book from a friend, or loaned one out? I raise my hand to having done both. Some time back I even heard the host on a national television book show offer to loan a novel to a fellow panellist. That makes it okay. Right?

WELL, NO.

When a reader tells me that they loved my novel WILDLIGHT, I want to cartwheel through the house then pirouette along the street. But the joie de vivre subsides when the reader adds, enthusiastically, that they’ve loaned their copy to a friend.

OH…

Recently a local book club invited me to join their forthcoming meeting, WILDLIGHT being their selected novel. Yeah! I am delighted to attend book club gatherings when I can, and ever grateful to have my book read and discussed. In fact most authors I know are good sorts, eager to contribute to book clubs, appreciating that each member has purchased the novel, or borrowed it from their public library. With this particular invitation the host innocently explained that she hadn’t yet read WILDLIGHT as it wasn’t her turn. Her turn? The club, it seems, shares a copy, passing it down the line, reader by reader.

IN THE SPIRIT OF TOGETHERNESS, IN THE INTERESTS OF ECONOMY, WHY NOT SHARE?

Here’s why.

When an author has a novel accepted by a publisher, the publisher determines how many copies will be printed based on how many copies they believe will sell. The publisher pays the author a royalty in advance, being an amount per book for predicted sales. For authors in Australia, excluding best selling authors, the print run can be as low as 1,000 copies for a small publisher, or up to 5,000 copies for larger publishers. Royalties will be around 10% of the recommended retail price, amounting, all up, to a few thousand dollars. Modest reward for what amounts, in the case of WILDLIGHT, to two years of writing, months of research, and time and effort in promoting the published novel. I am not alone here. A 2015 survey of Australian authors conducted by Macquarie University revealed that the average Aussie author earns less than $13,000 per year from their writing. Call us knuckle-heads for choosing such a profession. The majority of us supplement our choice to write with other income-earning work. The publisher is not the bad guy here. They carry significant financial risk by investing resources into assessing, editing, producing and marketing the book.

If a book sells in excess of the predicted volume, everyone wins. The publisher finally makes a profit (they barely break even on many books), and the author is paid their due royalty for each book sold. Even more importantly for the survival of the author, book sales help protect our future. When the time comes to offer the publisher our next novel, in a commercial climate that for any writer remains forbiddingly unassured, the publisher will reflect on how the previous work performed in determining whether or not to support the new one.

Every time a book is shared, no matter how well intentioned, it means another chink in an author’s armour.

BUT NOVELS ARE EXPENSIVE TO BUY!

Look at it this way: in Australia a new novel retails for $24 – $32. An outlay, for sure, but one that provides hours of reading pleasure, and can be read again, like a favourite bedtime story. A ticket to a new release movie—2 hours of single viewing entertainment—costs around $20, more for ‘gold class’. If I want to purchase Season 2 of Outlander (which I desperately want to see), I’ll need to cough up $38 in return for 5 chapters of time travel. If I head out to a restaurant, or buy a special bottle of wine… you get the picture.

I SIMPLY CAN’T AFFORD TO BUY NEW BOOKS (as one astute tweeter remarked)

Soak up your public library. Libraries are wondrous, welcoming, switched-on places with bright-eyed staff, themselves keen readers. With each copy of an eligible book held at an Australian public library, the author and the publisher each receive a royalty payment from the Australian government. An author will earn around $2 for each book held at a library, while the publisher earns around 0.50 cents for each book (2013 figures). Public Lending Rights, as they are called, compensate authors and publishers for lost income in a public library situation where a single book is utilised by multiple readers. If your library doesn’t have the book you want to read, request they order it. You’re helping reader, writer and publisher when you make use of your library!

MORE PROSELYTISING? I GET IT.

Okay. Okay. Then let me finish with this. I fully understand the temptation to loan out a book to a fellow reader. I have loaned books. I’ve borrowed books. I’ve also purchased many, many books and continue to do so. Speaking for the authors I know, we work long and hard to carve out a small space on the planet. We owe our existence to our wonderful readers, and of course our publishers, bookstores and libraries. When you next read a book that you love, spread the word around (but preferably not the book). Consider taking 30 seconds to rate and even review the book on GOODREADS, the world’s largest, free, website for readers and book recommendations. Most importantly, give yourself a pat on the back for supporting Australian literature.

HAPPY READING!

Image of the week

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Storm front off Maatsuyker Island. ©Robyn Mundy

On a day of screaming winds and rain squalls right across this island state of Tasmania, I am reminded of this rain-bearing front approaching Maatsuyker Island. Within minutes Maatsuyker was deluged. During the writing of Wildlight I frequently drew upon my island photographs; this one helped build a scene for a destructive storm that would leave its mark on a fleet of fishing boats as well as those on the island.

Publishing: getting the word right

The Editor

Thinking back to my debut novel, The Nature of Ice, in truth I found the first phase of editing—a developmental review—big and daunting. I felt I could never fully achieve what was asked of me. (Having said that, I was acutely aware of the editorial ‘critic’ whispering in my ear throughout the writing of Wildlight.) When it came to publishing Wildlight, I approached the editing with trepidation. Could I meet the demands? Would I want to? As fortune had it, the editing of Wildlight turned out to be a gentle and joyful experience. Picador’s editor JULIA STILES introduced herself with a cover letter detailing her thoughts on the story—praise, questions and suggestions, along with this reassurance: I just want to stress that any suggestions I have made are exactly that – suggestions; use those that resonate with you and disregard the rest. Julia’s cover letter, along with the annotated manuscript, assured me of how closely and astutely the editor had engaged with the text. Just as importantly, she seemed to genuinely like and believe in the story, inviting a relationship where I remained ultimate arbiter. I was in!
Here, I invite Julia Stiles to speak about the role of book editor. Her conversation is packed with valuable information for writers and readers. For those like me who welcome practical writing advice, be sure to read Julia’s thoughts on the revision process.
Over to Julia, who begins by sharing something about herself:
JS: When I was in my early twenties I had my palm read. I was about to leave my life in Sydney and sail aIMG_5809 Julia Stilesway on a yacht; naturally I was wondering what the heck I was doing and what awaited me on the high seas. Somewhat unexpectedly, the palm reader told me I would live surrounded by cows. Naturally I dismissed him as a phony but in fact he turned out to be right. Ever since I have been surrounded by cows — up in the Whitsundays for ten years and now down here in Bega on the far south coast of New South Wales. When I look up from my
desk I see rolling green hills and well-fed Friesians. Actually, I try not to look up from my desk too often because a) such loveliness is distracting, and b) I might notice my teenagers running riot through the rest of the house.

How did you get into book editing?

IMG_5647 Bega rolling hillsJS: Oddly enough, when I was about twenty I woke up one morning with the thought in my head that I was going to be an editor, even though I didn’t have the first clue what an editor did. I was at uni in England at the time and the careers adviser laughed at me and told me I should become an accountant. Thankfully I came to Australia instead because I have the sneaky suspicion I would have ended up in jail for embezzlement. In Sydney I sent out my cv to every publisher in town, still completely ignorant of what an editor did. Thankfully James Fraser, then the publishing director at Pan Macmillan, offered me a job as his secretary. Whilst I was proving myself incompetent at that I was given the opportunity to read through the slush pile and then eventually to learn from two very skilled editors – Jane Palfreyman and Fiona Giles – who gradually trained me up into an editing role.

What do you regard as key qualities of an effective editor?

JS: For me the most important quality is to be able to listen very carefully to a writer’s intentions. This means being able to silence your own inner voice in order to inhabit someone else’s words. When I am editing I am not trying to fix anything or to impose my meaning on the text. I’m trying to help the writer to clarify their intentions, to find those areas of the manuscript they themselves are uncertain about, and to explore and trust in their own capacity to find the necessary solutions.

It’s important, too, to be a sensitive and perceptive reader. When I first started editing I had never studied the mechanics of writing but instinctively, having read so much, I understood how stories were put together. I don’t think you can be an effective editor, or writer for that matter, if you’re not an experienced reader.

How important is the relationship between author and editor?

JS: It’s the quality of the relationship that is most important – a writer needs to trust their editor and to know that they are valued and respected. It very much depends on the individual author how significant their relationship is with an editor. I’ve worked with some very successful writers who don’t place a great deal of importance on the relationship — as long as the quality of the relationship is high, they will work with any editor; they don’t need that continuity of care and insight to produce terrific work. On the other hand I’ve worked with writers for whom a personal ongoing relationship with their editor is paramount. One author I worked with for many years said that editing was like taking her clothes off in front of someone and she was only prepared to do that in front of me! The relationship can be extremely dynamic and creative and productive, but I don’t kid myself that an author isn’t able produce great work without me.

I felt that the editing empowered and contributed to the creative strengths of Wildlight. What result do you strive for? Do you have a memorable moment?

Wildlight front coverJS: I love your description of the editing of Wildlight and that was exactly what I hoped for. More than anything I want a writer to learn to trust themselves – as you say, to feel empowered to trust in their own creative capacity. It’s very satisfying when an author says, yes, I knew that wasn’t quite right but I didn’t know how to fix it, and then, simply through the process of having their manuscript reflected back to them, they find exactly the right solution. This is a very enlivening process, for them and for me.

Funnily enough, it’s not the moments I remember that are most significant. Often I will say something quite unremarkable and it will trigger in the writer a cascade of productive ideas. It’s not me doing the work; it’s the writer.

Does it ever happen that an author outright rejects editorial suggestions? How do you overcome differences?

JS: Actually, I’m delighted if an author thinks carefully about my suggestions and then rejects them. (If they reject my ideas without careful thought, well that’s their prerogative too.) I’m not the authority on their manuscript, they are, and if they think something isn’t going to work they need to trust their own judgement not mine. My sense is that differences tend to be minimised and are more easily overcome if you have communicated to the author the ways in which you appreciate their work. It’s easier for them to trust your response if they know you have read their manuscript with care, empathy and respect.

What might surprise the everyday person about the editing role?

JS: Perhaps that the role exists at all. People often seem to think that the writer sits down and produces the work pretty much word for word as it appears in the finished book. They’re not aware that sometimes quite a considerable amount of developmental work has been done, or that in some circumstances the editor has in effect rewritten the book.

How would you define a great book?

JS: For me there’s a distinction to be made between great literature and great books. Great literature, well, that’s endlessly debated and very much depends on your cultural, historical and personal context. A great book, for me anyway, can be defined by its impact on the reader (and it may or may not be considered great literature by other people). A great book shifts something in your internal world; it creates ‘slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious’ (to borrow from WG Sebald). A great book makes you experience the world in a different, more expansive way. It opens you up to life, even if occasionally that opening is savage.

Before ever submitting a manuscript to a publisher, many writers spend a lot of time rewriting. Speaking for myself, it’s never easy to switch hats from writer to self critic. Do you have advice on ways an author can approach the revision process?

JS: Give yourself time. Put the manuscript aside for as long as you possibly can, so that when you return to it, it seems unfamiliar to you. Basically this is what an editor is bringing to your manuscript – perspective. Pay attention to the small voice that tells you something isn’t quite working; invariably it’s right and what is holding you back from listening to it is weariness or boredom. When you get stuck, set the manuscript aside and daydream; walk, swim, garden, dream – do anything but try to find a solution. It’ll come eventually, often in an unexpected way.

Of course saying ‘give yourself time’ is all very well, but time is often in short supply in publishing, not to mention in our daily lives. If you have a deadline I would recommend having a clear plan for your revision process. The following process reflects the way I work; it may not suit you, so find your own way with it.

Firstly, read the manuscript from start to finish without changing a word (this is surprisingly difficult to do). Then try to think about the story as a whole. You’re looking for a general impression, as though glancing at the story out of the corner of your eye. When you come to look at it head on (that is, when you look at it scene by scene, line by line) those initial impressions will fade (or you’ll try to ignore them), but in fact they’re an extremely valuable guide. Think about which parts were satisfying, which weren’t; what didn’t make sense; where the pace slowed; which characters were vivid, which flat.

Once you’ve identified the patchy areas, go in scene by scene and try to understand how each one contributes to the storytelling, or how it holds it back. I like the technique Ford Maddox Ford and Joseph Conrad called progression d’effet: ‘we agreed that every word…must carry the story forward and, that as the story progressed, the story must be carried forward faster and faster and with more and more intensity’. Think about how those scenes might change, and what effect this will have on the rest of the novel.

When you’ve made those broad changes to individual scenes, then start looking line by line at the whole manuscript. (Yes, it’s a long process, but many writers I have worked with say they enjoy the revision process.) Read aloud to someone if you’re not sure whether something sounds right or makes sense.

It’s helpful to show your work to readers whose judgement you trust, but make sure they are prepared to be honest with you, and you are prepared to hear what they say without holding it against them.

Are you able to switch hats, to go from editor to everyday reader? Do you have a favourite book?

JS: Yes, thank goodness, otherwise one of the greatest pleasures and consolations of my life would become confused with work. I read as an everyday reader all the time but I’m very choosy about what I read and I don’t persevere with a book just for the sake of it. I have so many favourite books it’s impossible to choose only one.

Huge thanks to Julia Stiles for this wonderful interview.