Penni Russon [eglantinescake]
What did you first read? How did you begin to write? Who were the first to read what you wrote?
I have always had eclectic tastes as a reader. I grew up in a reading house, we visited the library regularly, and we had an excellent school librarian. And Dad was a teacher and sometimes brought books home for me from his school library - this was how I first read Chocky by John Wyndham, and The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall. I read novels, short stories (I especially loved Joan Aiken), poetry, picture books and fairy and folk tales from around the world. I also remember the age I got to as an independent reader (probably about 7 or 8) when I discovered all these books on my parents shelves - Seven Little Australians, Little Mother Meg, Little Women, Midnite by Randolph Stow... My mother and I used to read classic kids books in her bed - Wind in the Willows, The Magic Pudding.
I wrote at school. I didn't write stories at home but I wrote long letters to my friends at school, including a diary length one at 13 for my best friend when she headed off overseas. Which means I haven't kept any of my writing from then. Writing was an extension of play, so I guess my first reader was my best friend Zoe, though we were more like collaborators.
What is your favorite genre? Can you provide a link to a site where we can read some of your work or learn something about it?
I love reading and writing across several genres. If I had to choose I'd say my favourite genre is literary children's fiction. I mean the sort of deep philosophical stuff, that reads on multiple levels, has poetic language and has heaps of interesting stuff happening under the surface for an adult reader.
You can read my blog at www.eglantinescake.blogspot.com
There's an extract of one of my novels here http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=94&book=9781741752922
What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
I go into my cupboard (yes, really) and sit down and write. I have no special routine or ritual though it's pretty important that I have access to coffee and tea. As a mum, I have to be able to switch it on and off instantly. Switching off the writerly self is harder than switching it on.
What type of reading inspires you to write?
All types! At the moment I'm reading a lot of mid twentieth century American fiction. I teach a Reading Australian Writing course, so I've been reading my way through the course texts - Rodney Hall, Sonya Hartnett, Dorothy Porter. As a writer I'm always looking at words and phrases and expressions, stories and characters.
What do you think are the basic ingredients of a story?
Character. Time. Space.
What voice do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Both. Different novels demand different voices. I often experiment with both during the writing process before I settle.
What well known writers do you admire most?
Here's a hodge podge of children's, YA, adult writers and poets:
Margo Lanagan, Sonya Hartnett, Coetzee, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Marina Warner, Joan Aiken, Rumer Godden, Russel Hoban, Marilynne Robinson, Jane Gardam, Alan Garner, Robert Westall, Michael Ende, Helen Garner, Beverly Cleary, Anne Tyler, Hemingway, Sloan Wilson, Simon Armitage, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath.
What is required for a character to be believable? How do you create yours?
It's a tricky magic, a kind of alchemy. I always need to know a bit about them but not everything. I need to know why they react in certain ways, what sort of relationships they have, what's happened to them in the past, who they trust. But I like them to have unpredictable elements as well. To me part of writing a character is discovering who they will become. I don't know that when I write.
Are you equally good at telling stories orally?
Ha ha ha. We live an hour out of the city and spend a lot of time in the car. I have a 3 year old and a 6 year old. At the moment one of thir favourite distractions is for me to sing fairy tales. I make it up as I go along and try to find silly rhymes. They love it, and it is funny for all of us. As to whether I'd want a wider audience for it...hmmm...
I think I tell a good story at a dinner party or whatever, but I'm not sure that I could weave a tale in front of an audience...I wish I could, would be a fantastic skill to have.
Deep down inside, who do you write for?
Is writing a form of personal therapy? Are internal conflicts a creative force?
Not at the time, any writing that directly comes from present conflicts is always too raw and unfiltered to be of any interest to an audience. But I do find that years after something happens, writing about it is interesting. I'm not sure it's therapy though...
I think writing from personal tragedy is circular, and sometimes you might have to write and write about the same thing for a small audience or an audience of one even, before you're ready to move on to a broader audience. That was my experience. I had a Very Sad Thing happen to me at the age of 20 and for years I wrote poetry about it, building and rebuilding loss through poetry, filling this gaping absence with words, but all the time widening the hole left by the loss - the more words I threw at it, the bigger and more overwhelming the loss was. One day I suddenly had an idea of how I could use the same material in an historic novel, about a real person (whose experiences were blatantly different from mine, but there was one common thread.) The novel was never finished but it broke me out of the cycle, and gave me a sense that I needed to find a way to translate personal experience.
Does reader feed-back help you?
A few trusted readers - yes.
Do you participate in competitions? Have you received any awards?
I'm not really into competitions. I've judged them! But I don't really enter them.
I have been Undine was shortlisted for the Aurealis and the following year Breathe was highly commended, Undine also got a Special Commendation in the Kathleen Mitchell awards and was a Notable Book with the Children's Book Council.
Do you share rough drafts of your writings with someone whose opinion you trust?
I talk to my husband about it and sometimes read sections out to him, but I don't show anyone my drafts. I have done this in workshop environments with stories and poems, but I'm not sure the experience works as well for novels. I think it's a good learning too though. My editor and I have a good relationship and sometimes we talk things through as I go too.
Do you believe you have already found "your voice" or is that something one is always searching for?
Every novel has its own voice, but of course there is something distinctively me in all of them, which I call a '-ness', and I can trace that '-ness' back to the writing I was doing as a teenager.
What discipline do you impose on yourself regarding schedules, goals, etc.?
I just write when i can. We're always reinventing the wheel at the moment, our schedules change, so I have to be flexible. When both my kids are at school I'm hoping it will be a bit more predictable.
What do you surround yourself with in your work area in order to help your concentrate?
Copies of my own books and poetry books. Switching off the Internet helps.
Do you write on a computer? Do you print frequently? Do you correct on paper? What is your process?
I am not at a point where generally I write and reread and correct on screen. I sometimes print when I get stuck. But I worry about the trees!
What sites do you frequent on-line to share experiences or information?
I bounce around the blogosphere. I am on Facebook and Twitter and have connected with lots of other writers that way. I do a lot of research and spend a lot of time on the university (where I teach) library website.
What has been your experience with publishers?
I've been published by four! Three in Australia and one in America. I followed my editor from Random House to Allen & Unwin (I call her my soul-editor, because we are so perfectly matched) and wrote a little book for Penguin (my husband's cousin worked there at the time, and suggested I try writing a Chomp). In the US my publisher was Greenwillow, an imprint of Harper Collins. My American editor was a gorgeous person and an incredible editor, with such a fine eye and decisive but gentle touch. Unfortunately she left the company, but we are still in touch sometimes. I've never had a bad experience.
I actually worked for Allen & Unwin for quite a few years before I was published, which was why I was able to write and submit my novel. Otherwise I'm sure I would have been totally paralysed by my impression that publishers were hallowed halls, staffed by people much cleverer than me, wading through literary masterpieces waiting to be discovered.
What are you working on now?
A collaborative novel just for fun with my friend Kate, it will be part of the Girlfriend series.
A very intense 'fairytale' novel about parallel worlds and girls and anger and the emptiness of things.
What do you recommend I do with all those things I wrote years ago but have never been able to bring myself to show anyone?
Forget about them and write something new. That's your backlog, your apprenticeship. You have the foundations of being a writer, now you need to use your maturity and experiences since then to find your authentic story. Then show someone the new material.