Term 1 2021
- Feature article
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Supporting Australian book creators
The inside life, by Anna Fienberg
In her novel Celestial Navigation, Anne Tyler observes: ‘One sad thing about this world is that the acts that take the most out of you are usually the ones that other people will never know about.’
Like billions of other fans of good fiction, I am saved every day by insights such as Anne’s. Novels like hers let us know about the hidden ‘acts’, how idiosyncratic and peculiar we all are, how different and reassuringly similar. And doesn’t this help us feel less alone?
Other people and their inside lives would have remained a complete mystery to me as a child if I hadn’t discovered fiction. So fascinating did I find the twisting tunnels of underground selves that I grew into an avid sleuth of truth, and a slave to stories.
Because books tell you what people are thinking.
To write books, a good deal of living down in the tunnels has to be done. I can only speak of my own process, but I suspect many authors feel much the same. Writing involves days and weeks and months of dithering. Indecisiveness. Battles with confidence. Rewriting – masses of it.‘Good enough’ is just not good enough. Unlike parenting … but that’s another story.
Kim Gamble, illustrator extraordinaire of Tashi, would often say as he tore up another of his beautiful watercolours for no discernible reason (to me): ‘Anna, this book will be here long after I am gone. It has to be right.’ And we’d block our ears as the publishing deadline boomed overhead.
Writing, too, has to feel right. Once an idea for a book is sparked and you fall in love, bits from the outside world fly at it, like iron filings to a magnet. You watch helplessly as your character darkens into solidity, taking its time. Even when you’re not at the desk, gestures and shadows, small facts and rags of conversation continue to drift into the story you’re writing in your mind. You become like a recording device, only to sift and sort and scrap.
Of course this makes concentrating on real life difficult, and that can be annoying for other people. Even before lockdown I tended to hermit (I deliberately use the verb rather than the noun, much like the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins used to selve, magnificently capturing the vital duty of each creature here on earth) and thus I like writing in my pyjamas. A friend rang me the other day and said after a few minutes, ‘Oh, you’ve got your pyjama voice on, I’ll leave you to it.’
I felt grateful. These days we’re often advised that gratitude exercises will help alleviate low moods but when you’re in the middle of one, it’s the last thing you want to do. Yet I only have to think of Educational Lending Rights and Public Lending Rights, and boundless happiness erupts.
Maybe boundless relief is the more correct term. Sadly, relief is often underrated. Bill Nighy claimed that as he grows older he doesn’t do happiness, but he does relief rather well. I’m with him.
Regularly in May or June, the long-awaited cheque from ELR and PLR arrives to rescue me. And every year I want to ring the lovely people in Canberra and thank them effusively. I don’t want to distract them from their hard work though, so I resist, after much dithering.
The reason I’m writing so frankly to you is that I’ve just finished reading Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Lives of Adults, and she persuaded me to be absolutely truthful. It was her writing style as much as her theme that reminded me yet again that the greatest emotional truths lie in fiction.
That’s why we read it. And write it.
Have you read her new book? I found myself both addicted to and repelled by the central character, shocked at those around her, ravenous – it created a storm of identification with the self-obsessed teenager and a whoop for her final independence. The novel viscerally reminded me that it was in fiction that I first got to see how people bust out of their conditioning like 18th-century women from their whalebones.
And it was in fiction that I learnt exactly how they did it – not in a sudden explosion, but in slow painful steps that build a solid escape route to last them (and the reader) all their lives.
Maybe one of my most gratifying moments as a writer was when a girl from Year 3 told me she carried The Great Big Enormous Tashi around with her because if a problem came up, Tashi would tell her what to do.
I first discovered fiction and truth at the age of nine when I borrowed Anne of Green Gables. Nothing was ever the same again. I learnt what made Anne angry, about her loneliness and what she did to quench it, her desperate need to be loved. And she showed me how to notice and love nature for itself, and to be loved by it in return.
Even now, when I’m supposed to be writing and feel blocked off from myself, I turn to a favourite novel – just lately Elena Ferrante, and before that Sophie Cunningham, Joan London … and I’m set back on track, like the needle on vinyl as it finds your favourite song.
My need to escape into stories – reading and writing them – has sprung from libraries. My mother Barbara, co-writer of Tashi and retired teacher librarian, enthused her class about a new book by learning the first chapter in the bath at night, and then telling it the next day. You could have heard a pin drop – I know because I was in her class. It was she of course who introduced me in 2nd class to Ruth Park’s The Muddle-Headed Wombat, and later to the world of Narnia, to Ivan Southall and Eleanor Spence, to Lilith Norman and Ursula Le Guin. Armed with my latest book, I was never bored by real life because I would pick up from my last page and get lost somewhere else.
When I had my son, I was both ecstatic and alarmed. Never having done this before, I had no idea how to fill in the hours of day or night. So I went to the library. The maximum we could borrow was 12 books and eachweek that’s what we got. Snuggled in together, my son nestled in my lap pointing to ducks and rain puddles and patient dogs, we discussed all the important things in the universe. And when I was exhausted and an empty vessel, the words were all there for us – I didn’t have to struggle to find them because I could use those of the author, who’d spent months or years trying to choose just the right ones.
As an editor at The School Magazine, where I served my writing apprenticeship for 10 years, I would read 1,000 children’s books a year. From these we would select the best to review for Bookshelf. At schools now, I often suggest that the way to learn how to write is to read. You can find your own voice by absorbing others’, exploring a wide variety of fiction genres. It takes time to decipher which kind of books you like to read and, therefore, to write, and it’s the most marvellous way to travel.
I write from the inside out. Even fantasy adventures like Horrendo’s Curse or Wicked’s Way came from my own big feelings and the need to understand them. ‘Everything is copy,’ said Nora Ephron’s mother, and my own. And they were right. The only thing to do about heartbreak, betrayal, fury or injustice is to write about them. In the Tashi series, real-life issues often complement the peaks and valleys of a fairytale plot. Tashi Lost in the City sprouted directly from the most horrific eight minutes of my life when my little boy got lost among 200,000 people in the Walk for Reconciliation across the Harbour Bridge.
In my opinion, fiction’s finest feature is that it examines life from the inside. No other art can show us so profoundly the silent, intricate workings of the secret self. I want all children to have the opportunity to learn that books are where they can go to both understand and escape their lives, returning bigger than they were before.
Like enticing a wild animal from the forest, the final draft of a book can’t be rushed. Publishers suffer, your bank balance shrivels, but you have to stay firm.
PLR and ELR allow the author not only to hold firm, but to feel supported by the important readers they are writing for.
Particularly in the last few years, with the arrival of Amazon, digital books, the disappearance of many independent bookshops and, subsequently, reduced royalties, not to mention desert stretches of writers’ block (which are really subterranean fertile patches in the mode of regenerative farming) royalties can be reduced to a trickle. For authors, each sale of a book delivers just 5 or 10% of the retail price. Most are acutely aware of their bank balance as they dig and dither and explore their characters’ lives. But sometimes, there’s nothing to be done except continue to dig.
I can’t find a more apt description of the writing process than Margaret Atwood’s opening paragraph of Life before Man: ‘I don’t know how I should live. I don’t know how anyone should live. All I know is how I do live. I live like a peeled snail. And that’s no way to make money.’
Writing is a process of discovery. You lose layers of self-protection constantly, and find buried treasure occasionally. Thank heavens – thank ELR and PLR! – for allowing Australian writers to live during the process.