Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Q&A with Susanne Gervay

Recently I, caught up with Susanne Gervay, ambassador for Room to Read, author of the children’s book series I Am Jack and young adult novel Butterflies

How/when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was always a writer, but publication didn’t cross my mind. I thought everyone wrote novels and by eight, I was writing to work out the ‘meaning of life’ or to escape ‘the meaning of life.’ I only became an author when my beloved father passed away. The intensity of the loss was so great, that I needed to write about him. I wrote story after story. Writing and life became intertwined.

Slowly came the realization that I wanted to share my writing. I wanted other people to know that my father was special, that he survived war, prison and migration and protected us all. Then as a sole parent of two young children, I wanted to write for young people, so they’d always feel there’s a friend in their corner – to play with, share growing up, be there for the challenges of life and know they can be all they can be.

Were there any significant mentors/supporters who really assisted you when you were starting out?
My writing group of unpublished writers was a key support in my journey of becoming an author. I developed a lifelong friendship with fellow novice author Moya Simons. We workshopped each other’s writing, shared disappointments and successes. The writers in my writing group all became published in the end, which was a great joy to me and to each other.

The craft of writing for children and young adults might seem challenging to some.  What attracts you to that demographic?
 Writing for young people is challenging as authors face parental, teacher and community gatekeepers. How do you navigate truth with the inbuilt and well-meaning censorship implicit in writing for children and young adults? You tread lightly but do not compromise your commitment to the story and your readers.

Writing down to young people for worthy reasons can never be acceptable. Young people feel and think about everything, except they do not have the experience to navigate life. Writing is partnering them on their discoveries. 

Young people read very differently to adults. If a story reaches them, they will read and re-read it many times. Story becomes part of their search for identity and it is a privilege to travel with them. I receive many emails and cards from adults and children sharing the impact of my I Am Jack books, Butterflies for young adults, my picture books for all ages. 

I receive emails and letters for my books all the time from young readers, parents and teachers. Some emails in response to the I Am Jack books are:

When I knew I Am Jack was true, I imagined myself in Jack’s shoes. I felt sorrowful and sad as Jack had to put up with bullying for a long time. It would have been a burden forever if I was Jack. – K

 My heart just floated into nothing when I discovered that Jack and Samantha were your actual children. – A

My son was a victim of a false gay rumour at a school camp. [Later] they studied I Am Jack. My son's teacher told me that my son finished the book before the class did, participated in the class discussion which he is normally very shy in doing, all because he identified with Jack. Thank you – L

I get bullied at school almost every day and it makes me sick. I just didn't feel like going to school. I pretended to be sick and stay home for the day. I've talked to the School Councillor, I've tried to tell my mum, I've thought of getting back at the bullies, but all these things don't seem to work. But I Am Jack inspired me to tell everyone that I am being bullied. It makes me feel great and today I treated my mother with respect (I wasn't doing that ….) – L

The cemetery scene really resonated with one of my students as both his parents died in Afghanistan. He is comforted by the thought that they are watching over him and that he can talk to them at anytime, just like Nanna and Jack do with Grandad. – R

I love writing for kids and young adults.

When you set out to write, do you have a particular topic or issue in mind? If so, how do you choose it (or perhaps it chooses you)?
I write from a very personal perspective. When something touches me, it swirls in my mind, often for years, until it emerges as the core of my book. For my young adult novel Butterflies, a girl asked me to write about growing up with severe burns. While I initially refused to do it, it wove into my passions on difference, disability, disempowerment/empowerment and giving young women a voice. It was years of thinking and research – interviewing burn survivors, parents, siblings, doctors, firefighters, community until I understood it in my heart. Then I wrote Butterflies. When The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Sydney asked if it could endorse Butterflies. I cried.

Like tempering steel, the process of passing through the fire helps make a person of exceptional quality. Butterflies captures these subtleties for the reader, and gives a stunning insight into a difficult topic.
 – Dr Hugh Martin OAM
President of the Australian and New Zealand Burn Association and
Head of the Burn Unit, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Sydney.

In a world that is increasingly complex, how do you approach the task of having an authentic voice for younger readers?
As an author for younger readers or adults, it is the same process. You get into the mind and emotions of a character and react to the world as that character does. This is the basis of all stories. An authentic voice means you understand and are that character, know how they react and feel.  For example, in To Kill A Mockingbird the narrator, Scout, is eight years old. The voice is authentic because it reflects a child’s voice and her exploration of an adult world fraught with adult issues of racism, sexual abuse, mental health, group violence, sole parenting and more. It also reflects her journey, understanding, courage, values and who she wants to be within the joys and adventures of being a child in a world that is so new to her.

You’ve been asked to conduct a workshop for the ACT Writers Centre. In what ways do you think your workshop will benefit emerging writers?
At a key level, it provides the opportunity to network with other writers and help establish and/or deepen your creative community. It’s an opportunity to work as a group where ideas and craft issues can be explored, developed and answered.  It demystifies the complex world of publishing which is essential for those entering the world of children’s writing.

Is there any general advice you can give emerging writers?
Read the books of much loved children’s writers. Read school journals and short stories. Establish a writers’ group to share your work, edit, comment, develop your craft, enjoy as well as struggle with the process. Join your local writers centre, go to festivals and participate in the creative life. When you feel ready, submit your work to magazines, journals, enter competitions. Research publishers and what they are publishing. Then submit the appropriate work for the appropriate publisher. Pin your badge of courage on and learn from rejections so you can get closer to your goal.

Do not write for the market. Write from your passion and belief in what you are doing. Publication is precarious, so you need to write something you love and are committed to.

For those who want a quicker process, write on the computer as it makes editing so much easier. Research during your writing process. The internet can be a great friend.

The Biggest tip is to be willing to work on your craft to ensure that your piece is as good as it can be.   

This blog post is part of my Blogger in Residence with the ACT Writers Centre and first appeared in Capital Letters 

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Arts Collaboration Anything But Arcane

The New Glass 2015 Writing Competition, an initiative of the ACT Writers Centre and the Canberra Glassworks, is part of an ongoing endeavour to develop collaborative opportunities for glass artists and writers. Kelli-Anne Moore, ACT Writers Centre Director, says the idea for the competition came from the desire to ‘recognise and celebrate the work of writers, and to encourage writers to find inspiration in other art forms’.

2015 winner, Claire Capel-Stanley, was announced at a special event held at the Canberra Glassworks. Capel-Stanley’s piece Victories: On New Glass 2015 was published in the online brochure for the New Glass 2015: Archaeology, Excavation and the Arcane exhibition. In addition, the ACT Writers Centre presented her with a two year membership.
‘Glass,’ Capel-Stanley writes in her essay, ‘Seems to carry with it the whole consignment of human ingenuity: the necessary innovation of function, and the love of ornament.’ This seems a fitting observation not only of glass, but of the collaborative project which wove two strands of creativity into a new form.

Capel-Stanley, a freelance art writer and reviewer, studied Art History and Curatorship at the Australian National University and has worked in various roles in collections and galleries for several years. She is currently Program Manager at PhotoAccess in Manuka, where she manages exhibitions, artist residencies and marketing as well as the education program. ‘I also have an emerging practice which sits somewhere in the middle of writing, drawing and sculpture,’ she says.

According to Capel-Stanley, winning the award is validation of the sometimes invisible efforts of writers: ‘When you are trying to do anything “on the side” of a job, whether that's writing, art, or even making your own jam to sell at the farmers markets, it sometimes feels like an invisible career, something you just did one time by accident.’

Art writing awards and competitions are still uncommon, so the opportunity offered by the ACT Writers Centre and the Canberra Glassworks is innovative and welcomed by both glassmakers and writers. Capel-Stanley sees art writing as a growing field, one that is increasingly of interest to arts organisations, noting that, ‘It's nice to even be able to enter an art writing award, let alone win.’

Collaborations across disciplines provide new perspectives on content and approach – not unlike holding a piece of glass up to the sun and watching where the light refracts. Capel-Stanley suggests these connections are important and can be refreshing for artists and audiences. ‘We have a huge wealth of expertise and creativity in Canberra,’ she says. ‘Collaboration is a great way to introduce diverse knowledge areas to a wider audience, and to participate in a richer and more interesting conversation on current ideas in art, society and culture.’

When asked about what she would say to others interested in entering future art writing competitions, Capel ‑Stanley encourages people from different writing backgrounds to enter. Despite the view that specialist knowledge of technical terms and concepts will be required, she suggests this is not necessarily the case, instead believing that some of the best art writing comes from people who aren't ‘experts’. Capel-Stanley argues that because everyone responds to what they see and feel, art writing is much more accessible than most people imagine. By bringing their individual knowledge and experience into play, art writing is a way of sharing those insights with others. ‘Art can be a really interesting gateway to use as a writer,’ she says.

If you are looking for ways to start your art writing career, Capel-Stanley recommends Siri Hustvedt's book What I Loved for fiction writers and non-fiction writers could try Forty-One False Starts by Janet Malcolm.

The ACT Writers Centre and the Canberra Glassworks hope to encourage writers to explore the fascinating intersection of glass and writing by running a New Glass Writing Competition on an annual basis.

This blog post is part of my Blogger in Residence with the ACT Writers Centre and first appeared in Capital Letters 

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Industry Wrap

Day three of the ACT Writers Centre Intro2Industry sessions wrapped up with eBook Revolution's Emily Craven providing the low down on Indie and digital publishing. She argues that in the digital age, there is no need for authors to think only about 'bound, glued, dead-tree things'. Instead, writers can take the challenge to explore those diverse online mechanisms that enable their ideas to be shared with others.

This doesn't mean that the hardcopy book is dead, far from it. But it does mean that you need to be networked and seek out the best approach for your work.

These days, the options range across podcasts, direct downloads, subscriptions, apps and more.

'We are storytelling animals', so make the most of the opportunities the digital world offers.

The Hardcopy 2015 Intro2Industry program rounded off with a Q&A session provided by freelance editor, Mary Cunnane.

Emerging non-fiction writers now have a better insight into the many ways an author might seek publication. There's no right or wrong way, and definitely no one pathway to publication. As Emily Craven suggests, use the Velcro approach and see what sticks.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Innovation @Hardcopy 2015

Day two of Intro2Industry at the ACT Writers Centre didn't disappoint with an informative line-up headed by digital marketing specialist, Eva Bui from Random House. Her message to writers is to keep up with the digital age and embrace the opportunities for connection offered by technological innovation. Get a FaceBook page, tweet like you're a nightingale, seek out YouTube to reach the 18-34 year age bracket. And Instagram your heart out.

A new session at this year's Hardcopy was from Linda Funnell who shared her experiences at Newtown Review of Books. According to Linda, authors should not look to book reviews for validation, but if your receive a splendid review, don't be afraid to spread the word.

Of course, if you follow Eva's advice and have a strong digital presence, this will be easy.

The day was rounded off by a panel discussion about how to prepare for speaking in public and overcoming the (inevitable) stage fright before confronting your excited fans. My thought on this: make fan interaction a media event so you have something to post to YouTube and Instagram!

Friday, 11 September 2015

I2I @Hardcopy 2015

This morning I had the pleasure of attending the Intro2Industry sessions of HARDCOPY2015 to hear the latest from Charlotte Harper of Editia and literary agent, Jacinta di Mase.

We got down to basics in Charlotte's workshop where participants explored the imperatives facing publishers. While authors struggle with writing that perfect manuscript, publishers are worrying about marketing, rights management, publishing schedules, and the economics of choosing an author who will be noticed and sell. For those non-fiction writers out there, understanding the issues being considered by non-fiction publishers like Editia, Affirm PressText Publishing or Scribe is essential if you want to pitch your work successfully.

Jacinta provided insights into the relationship between non-fiction authors, agents and publishers with real life examples about the vibrancy of the Australian non-fiction book industry. It's not enough merely to have written a wonderful memoir, biography or history. Writers need a back story  why they wrote the piece, their connection to the topic, their credentials to deal with the issue. Authors might also consider whether their work lends itself to other forms such as documentaries or radio programs.

Congratulations to the ACT Writers Centre for once again conducting HARDCOPY. This is a leading professional development program backed by industry interest and commitment.

Looking forward to the sessions tomorrow.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

GNH to HJR: Happiness in a Jar

People keep telling me I look happy. And it's true. I have a general sense of well-being, of contentment and satisfaction with my life.

For me, it's not about having things to be happy, but being happy with the things I have.

Bhutan measures its Gross National Happiness (GNH) based on psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and living standards.

Perhaps this offers some insight for happiness at a personal level: look after yourself emotionally and physically, make learning a life-long journey, be organised so you can achieve your goals, seek out difference and take in a broad range of experiences, act ethically, contribute to your community, create a garden, make the most of what you have - however much or however little this is.

Another way to know if you are happy is to create what I call your Happiness Jar Rating (HJR). It's simple. Choose a container (jar, pot, basket) and each day write down something that gave you happiness. Put the piece of paper into the container. Before long you have a ready-made reminder of positive, affirming, uplifting and dare I say it...happy memories. At this rate you'll have a seven star rating in no time!

There are fun ways to use your Happiness Jar as inspiration for writing. I'll explore this over the coming weeks.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Glass Half Full

Halfway through my Blogger in Residence for the ACT Writers Centre and time to do a stocktake of the experience so far.

One of the most interesting aspects is that my Residency is like a professional writing position. I submitted a timetable which was accepted and now it is a process of writing to deadlines, something quite different from the day to day free-form creative writing experience where a day or two, or a week or even a month won't make that much difference initially.

An enjoyable part of my Residency has been the professional contact with established writers, editors, bloggers and presenters. Not only have they been generous with their time, but the information they have provided has been inspiring and insightful.

A by-product of the experience is a greater understanding of the activities going on at the ACT Writers Centre. This has been in part due to the wonderful office there, but also through contact with workshop leaders for the spring program.

This brings me to the final thought for today, which is that while writing can be an individual pursuit, I've found that the Residency has enabled a greater sense of connection to the writing community. My Residency has given me more confidence as a writer, and with positive feedback about my blogs, I feel more capable and definitely appreciated.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Spring into Action

It's official. Spring is here.

If, like me, you've experienced a long, hard winter, shake off both Shakespeare ('Now is the winter of our discontent') and all thoughts of G R R Martin ('Winter is coming') and prepare your Writerly Things to Do in Spring checklist. Mine looks like this:

Organise your files - really it's about version control. You might have some pearls in the early versions of stories or the soon-to-be-best-seller, but you don't need to look at them all the time. Whether electronic or paper, put the older versions into a separate folder. It will clear your workspace and your mind. It also prevents you accidentally editing the 'wrong' version, or 'losing' the changes.

Set yourself a writing challenge - if writing matters to you, no more excuses! Get on with it. Can you create 500 words every day for a week? Or write for 24 hours straight? Or write 200 words in every coffee shop in town? Or create a short story in 100 words while you're on the bus to work?

Find a writing buddy - someone who is interested in writing too, who will hold you to account, who will encourage and nourish you and tell it like it is when you share early drafts. Avoid partners/spouses/parents/children/close friends. These people are lovely, but they don't have enough emotional distance for the task.

Enter a competition - yes, everyone else is doing this, but you have to be in it to win it. At the very least you will have a new piece of creditable writing that you may be able to publish elsewhere. If are the winner, fantastic!

Dust off old ideas - take something you have set aside for a while (yes, even for years) and give it a good going over. Change the perspective, introduce a new character, find a different location, try new dialogue, create a new opening sentence or revamp the title.

See, this is why you need to have a good filing system, be prepared to set yourself a writing challenge, have a writing buddy and a competition to send the finished product to.

So spring into action - there's no time to waste.