I've been aware for a while of the impression I must have given due to the authors I've invited to answer The Creative Identity Questionnaire. When a couple of weeks ago a friend of mine said that she will never be on here because I only go after people who are already published, I smirked to my GMail as I knew what was coming. I am not interested just in authors who have already landed agents and publishing deals and today you've got proof that writing is always joyful, that one can write about anything and everything and that writing itself is one of life's greatest indulgences.
Philippa's blog (Phil for short, naturellement) is a lovely place where to read about love of books, writing, food and travel, all of those things that make life so exiting and fabulous. I don't even remember when I started reading it, but I do know that what attracted me to it wasn't just the colour green (as it happens, my favourite too) but the copious images of coffees and lattes, of cheese, wine, and food in general. What would this secret novelist answer when presented with my questionnaire?
Phil works in publishing and is currently typing away at her novel. I won't tell you much more about her past writing successes, because she does it all eloquently herself below, but I will tell you that her blog is the perfect example of what every would-be writer should always keep in mind: write for yourself first and foremost and the rest will just happen. Thanks Phil, these are great fun!
What is your idea of perfect writing?
I love writing that is engaging, sumptuous and rich with detail, and that is comforting yet unpredictable; writing that is like waves crashing on a beach, pulling you in but still gentle and soothing, that you could lose yourself in for hours. I also think Lorrie Moore (no relation!) made a most apt observation that good writing, or a good story, is like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend!
What is your greatest writing fear?
If you had asked me a few months ago, it was what other people thought, or might think, of my writing. It took me a long time to realise I had to get over that if I was ever going to get anywhere! Going to an Arvon course in April this year really helped me get over that fear. Perhaps now my greatest writing fear is that I’m not as good as I want to be – that I’m actually pretty deluded when it comes to my own stuff and am actually not very good at all! I really do think that fighting your demons and that little voice in your head that says you will never be good enough is the hardest part of writing.
What do you consider your greatest writing achievement?
I wrote a play at university which won a competition, and it was performed – by real actors, and had a real director! And then Wal Eastman, resident theatre critic of The Mercury (Hobart’s primary newspaper), wrote a great review! The play then toured the state as part of a drama festival later that year. That whole experience was an incredible thrill. When I first moved to London three years ago, I was overcome with this sense of needing to be brave and put myself and my writing out there. I pimped myself to every theatre I came across, I wrote poems full of angst and rainy day metaphors in Hyde Park and sent them into magazines, I holed myself up in the Victoria library and British Library to research and escape.
For a while, nothing seemed to be working – although I got the nicest rejection letters I’ve ever had, and kept them all - but then I got an acceptance from a journal, and that was it. That was one of the happiest moments of my writing life. Right now, I’m just proud of the fact I keep going, I keep improving and I keep discovering new things about my style and what sort of writer I want to be. I’m not afraid to put aside a piece of work if I don’t think its working and I’m not enjoying writing it. I consider that an achievement. I’ve also written extensively about my health and fitness journey, and have had some lovely emails and letters over the years from people who have told me that I inspired them to take charge of their lives and go after their dreams. It’s always wonderful and humbling to think you’ve made a difference in someone’s life with your words and sharing a story.
What is the writing tendency you most deplore in yourself?
Oh, the usual – procrastination, mixing up the present and past tenses (I do that a lot!), and making my characters just different, darker versions of myself. I’ve grown out of the last one over the last few years though!
Which living writer do you most admire?
As an Australian I feel incredibly proud of (and somewhat dwarfed by) the writing talent that has come out of my country, and my home state of Tasmania too, come to think of it. There are so many Australian writers that I love and that I think contribute so much to literature there – Tim Winton, Richard Flanagan, Christopher Koch, Thea Astley, Helen Garner…they are all so passionate and fearless in their own way. But
I would have to say the first person that came to mind was the Tasmanian writer Heather Rose. I first encountered her in my late teens when her debut novel, White Heart, was published and it was one of those books that is deceptively simple but it ended up changing my life and the way I thought about writing and what it could do. My sister just sent over her latest book, The River Wife, for my birthday and I’m saving it for a summer reading treat. I, incidentally, met Heather Rose once, about ten years ago when I was house sitting for some people who turned out to be friends of hers (Hobart is a small place!) and she came over to pick some lemons off their tree.
She told me she was going to make Stephanie Alexander’s (well known Australian cookery writer) lemon tart. She was there for maybe two minutes, and I think I just stood there like a mute fool and nodded. I remember thinking Heather Rose is in front of me talking about lemon tart and I can’t think of a single thing to say! I’ve kicked myself often over the years for that! I wish I’d told her how much I loved the book. Maybe I’ll get brave and send her an email one day!
What is your greatest writing extravagance?
At the moment, I would have to say Marco Polo tea from Mariage Frères tea shop in Paris! I love to drink tea while I write and this one is so fruity and floral and delicious, but I have to ration it carefully. Occasionally I’ve had G&Ts while writing but I find that the words don’t make sense after a few of them! I also love fountain pens and real ink.
My fiancé got me a Waterman for our second Christmas together, and it’s the pen I most love to write with. I am rather obsessed with ink, and currently switch between two pots in green (of course!) and a violet that perhaps a 1920s Hollywood starlet might have signed autographs with. Natalie Goldberg said that all writers eventually end up writing about their obsessions. If that is true, expect novels from me on the following – ink, cheese, tea, and wine.
What is the quality you most admire in somebody else's writing?
Fearlessness. Authenticity, which I think is more important than accuracy. Clever plots. Originality. And I also get very envious of particularly well crafted dialogue, in plays or in novels. Sometimes I’ll start reading it aloud, just because good dialogue begs to be.
What or who is your greatest writing love?
I love plays. I love reading them, I love writing them, and I love going to see them. I love to talk (!) so writing dialogue seems to come naturally to me. I will often read plays aloud to myself if I am home alone, as a warm up exercise to get ideas flowing. They are a completely different vein of literature – they are moving, breathing things not designed to be on a bookshelf, really, and I love that. The possibilities and interpretations are endless. The only playwright I have difficulty with is Sarah Kane, even though I love her work – I find her work so confronting that I find it hard to read aloud. She was so ahead of her time I don’t know if her time has even come yet.
When and where were you happiest with your writing?
I was certainly very happy when I got my first acceptance from the poetry journal back in 2007! Those were golden days, when life had finally settled down in London, I had a pad in Clapham with lots of cafes for me to write and people watch in, the rain had finally stopped and I felt like inspiration was around every corner. Also, when I was travelling alone through the United States and Canada in 2007, I kept detailed journals everywhere I went.
It was quite possibly the most uncensored writing I’ve ever done too, because I didn’t want to miss a drop of the experience. I love reading those journals because it was the happiest time of my life, and that happiness radiates through my words. I’m happy with my writing when I think I’ve written something well (or better than I thought I would), or I believe I’ve made good progress. It’s like hitting that runner’s high, where you feel like you could just keep going and going.
If you could change a thing about your writing, what would it be?
I would be faster! Ha ha! Seriously, I don’t know what I would change, but I know I definitely want to keep improving and learning more. I think all writers have moments where they feel what they are working on is a bit awkward and clunky – I’d like to get better at working through those moments instead of using it as an excuse to go and put the kettle on.
What is the most marked characteristic of your writing?
I think that’s a question for those who have read me! I’m not really sure. Fluidity, perhaps? I work hard at getting the flow of my narrative right. People have told me that my stuff is easy to read, like I’m having a conversation with them. I also use wit in my creative work a lot. I like to make people laugh, but I also like to make them think. I’d like to think that my writing has a vibrancy about it – it has comic relief but also a ripple of seriousness through it. That’s certainly the style I’m working towards anyway.
Who are your writing heroes?
Natalie Goldberg, Anais Nin, Oscar Wilde, TS Eliot, Jeanette Winterson, Nikki Gemmell, Sylvia Plath, Tim Winton, Heather Rose, Margaret Scott, Patrick Gale, Lisa Jewell, Nicole Krauss, Madeleine St John, David Williamson, Paulo Coehlo, William Boyd, Helen Garner, Adele Geras, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Janet Frame, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, I could go on and on...
I also admire any writer who is brave enough and confident enough to do their own thing, regardless of the obstacles in the way. Writing that was produced against the odds is always incredibly powerful.
How do you hope your writing will be referred to as long after you've gone?
As the honest and inspiring work of someone who did the best she could with the talent she had. Ordinary stories told in an extraordinary way. Stories that made people think, and hope. And hopefully it won’t just be my grandchildren poring over my badly written diaries and thinking “Oh God! She did that?!” Ha ha!
What is your writing motto?
Fortune favours the bold.