After spending the bulk of Friday morning inside the media tent, deciphering my handwritten notes, drinking long blacks and watching Kamahl wander past like a vision in his wonderful cream suit, I found myself at a panel discussion called The First Book: Writers Talk About Their Experience.
Chaired by writer, performer and Southern Cross University lecturer Janie Conway-Herron, the panel featured three writers, Ashley Hay, Cory Taylor and Katie Wall, who have all recently published first novels. Cory Taylor’s Me and Mr Booker is about a young woman’s relationship with an older man; Katie Wall’s I Say Tomato is a portrait of LA through the eyes of a young Australian actress and Ashley Hay’s novel The Body in the Clouds is about the lives of three different Sydney during three different eras.
The speakers shared their reactions to their books, finally, being finished and published. Coming from a background of screen writing, Cory spoke about the difference between the physicality of a novel and a film script that’s just “a big pile of paper” and that she experienced a “tremendous sense of grief once my book was finally published”. Katie said she still feels pangs of ‘I should’ve put that in my book!’ regularly, while Ashley said that she felt “not so much grief but an overwhelming sense of terror” when she saw her book for sale in the window of a suburban shopping centre bookstore, sitting very small and alone without her. Attachment to one’s words is hard to sever.
Katie, an actress, first began writing when she was in LA, pregnant and not working because, as she said, “there are not that many roles for pregnant women”. Her beginning was somewhat un-glamourous as she “had really bad morning sickness so I was, like, vomiting and then writing”. Corey said that when beginning she found it best to let the words spill first and then would shape them later, not planning but finding out she went along. Ashley agreed saying “the fun is not really knowing what you are doing”.
It was interesting to hear that both Katie and Cory got their deals by default. They entered competitions and lost them but their manuscripts ended up on the right desks and they were offered publishing deals. Katie said she was incredulous when the offer came through. “I just said ‘are you sure?’”.
All three novelists also spoke about the importance of finding your voice and how it can be warped by outside influences and other art. They collectively said that once you find your writing voice it’s easy to forget so you have to constantly pull it back to your character. Also discussed was the question of what is fact and what is fiction in their novels and the answer was that usually it’s not definitive either way.
The strongest sense I received while listening to these women talk is that writing a novel is something magical and mysterious. It’s a feet-first leap into the unknown, and something that can only be structured with the loosest of plans because in the act of writing, something happens and the words themselves take over. Towards the beginning of the panel, Katie and Ashley spoke about being pregnant while working on their novels and it seems that the two experiences are infinitely similar: you carry an unborn child with you and have hopes and dreams about what colour their hair may be and whether they’ll be good at mathematics or painting and what the name of the first person to break their heart will be. But in reality, you can never know. You may carry a novel or a child with you for nine months or nine years but in the end they have a life of their own to lead and all you can do is let go.