by C V Williams with Syam Sudhakar
A candid interview with the Director of Sydney School of Arts & Humanities, Dr Christine Williams, by South Indian poet and academic, Syam Sudhakar, whose work has been published by the School. Republished in part from a recent issue of
SSOA has published some remarkable books. What are the challenges that an independent publisher faces in Sydney?
Yes, I agree, remarkable books! A biography of life in Burma (now Myanmar) under military rule titled ‘Burma My Mother’, some poetry, a short story from an Italian novelist, ‘Arco, and our first novel by a local writer, ‘Reported Missing’. And challenges … wow, no end of challenges – nurturing emerging writers from the kernel of an idea of their story right through to a completed manuscript – and then comes the rewriting and editing. Anyone who hasn’t had a book published thinks it’s a pushover to be a writer whereas only those initiated into the mysteries know that it takes a lot of talent plus sheer hard work.
How long have you been teaching creative writing? Why did you choose such a profession?
Well, I’ve been teaching for many years – always as an adjunct to being a practitioner. First I taught radio production while I was a radio producer and presenter, then journalism as I’d trained as a journalist, and only later I began to teach creative writing community classes when I was studying for a doctorate. It was easy to slide into tutoring and lecturing, but I’ve always liked the down-to-earth quality of teaching community groups. People walk in off the street or find us via internet, and you never know what stories will turn up – whether biographical or fictional. Now we have a democratic feel to our teaching through meet ups, with not so much instruction and more sharing of our styles and approaches to writing by reading out loud in small groups, for feedback. It means that rather than getting lost in the story itself, participants learn about techniques as they listen: how a plot is developed week by week, the subtleties of clever characterisation, the range of voices and styles that can be effective in writing, depending on genre.
You write stories as well. How far does teaching creative writing differ from actual creative writing?
Oh, it’s so different – but who better to teach creative writing than a writer herself? Writing is mostly a lonely occupation … an act of creation involving your mind, your fingers and a piece of paper or, more often these days, a keyboard and screen. So patience and a strong back are essential! Plus a tad of talent. [Laughs.]
I don’t know anyone who can toss off a brilliant piece of writing first up. Almost everything you write that is longer than one sentence can be improved on reflection. You can certainly catch a brilliant flash of an idea or some phrases that pass through your mind and set them down quickly, but you need to take time for the tea, the chai, to brew, as it were. Or for the first bud to open up to full bloom. Being alone long enough to develop a set of short stories or a novel, at least months on end, more often years, means you sometimes yearn to share your love of story. That’s why we’ve formed the Sydney Writers’ Circle meet up, coming together weekly, which gives an incentive to those taking part to complete a chapter or a few poems, for instance, to share with others. It’s a bit like waiting for the next episode in a TV series. I find the best atmosphere for our groups is non-academic, meaning no competition, but plenty of encouragement in finding what you like about a piece of writing, what works well, and letting the emerging writer know what you think was splendid in the writing, instead of concentrating on the faults, or flaws. Every writer has flaws and they can be pointed out gently, after some praise, so that the writer doesn’t lose heart and over time comes to recognise how she or he can improve.
You have written two biographies of prominent people, the novelist Christina Stead and the philosopher, J. Krishnamurti, who was Indian-born but lived most of his life in England and the United States. Does the writing of fiction have much in common with writing non-fiction such as biography?
A hard question because it depends so much on particular writers’ approaches to writing. No two writers are the same, although they must all share some sense of discipline, otherwise their work would never be completed. I find mornings are best for writing, while you’re still fresh. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, I think it’s also best to read some part of the previous day’s output, so that you don’t fly off in a different style or tone. You need to keep consistency. Both fiction and biography require research in and on detail because that’s what carries the reader along with you, brings a story to life. This should be undertaken before you launch into writing in any genre, though of course biography is the more research-based genre. But you can research for years and unless you can capture the heart of the subject and can form a strong narrative out of the assortment of background information you find, you won’t know why you’ve written the story – and nor will the reader! You need purpose in writing, and that way the reader will be satisfied with the story you’ve told.
At the turn of the 20th century in Sydney, a young woman with a talent for writing is set to become a teacher and falls in love with an out-and-out cad. But she is not suited to teaching, and the guy sails off to London. She scrimps and saves for a year for the fare in order to follow him, only to find when she reaches London that he is not worth crossing the road for, let alone sailing halfway round the globe. She finds an office job with a banker who also happens to be a published novelist, she falls in love with him because he’s so gentle, kind and intelligent, and goes on to become a major internationally acclaimed novelist herself. Now there’s a story! Does it sound like fiction or biography to you? It’s the true life story of Christina Stead.
I’ve also written some biographies of less well-known characters and I always look for the driving force of their lives. You do the same when you’re developing a fictional character. To be believable a character needs to be shown to have consistency so that a reader gains a sense from what you write that they might expect certain behaviour … yes, the character would speak out to challenge those values, or no, she’s much too well-mannered to slap a man’s face or kick him in the stomach, for example. And the story needs to have fulfilled a purpose, preferably with a memorable climax.
Most of your stories carry some personal element in them. How far do you think a writer’s personal life should be reflected in her or his creative practices?
It’s a funny thing, but when you write a story and it seems quite credible, the first thing most people ask is whether it really happened. Just one percent of the story might be based on your own life, or the life of a friend, and rather than realise that you’ve simply used it as a springboard for a fictional tale to entertain or stimulate, a reader takes what you’ve written as a piece of memoir. Young writers are encouraged to write what they know, because if they venture too far from that they might not have the maturity to develop a theme or to plot a realistic narrative or embellish action for a rounded characterisation. They might show their lack of knowledge of the school of hard knocks that is life. It’s very hard to write completely beyond your experiential knowledge base (even in science fiction) but even so, readers should not be so easily deceived by the tricks of the writing trade.
Different writers use differing degrees of drawing on their own experience to ‘make up’ a story. I can only think that it’s a kind of compliment to your fictional writing that a reader believes it is all true.
I’ve recently published a selection of short stories under the name C V Williams (also available through Amazon) which provided fertile writing ground for me to play with reflections of some situations or characters from my life which I’ve turned inside out or recast, in a post-modern style re-reading and re-writing of the art of fictional biography. The title of the short story selection is ‘a grain of truth a pinch of salt’ so I hope that conveys the midfield positioning of so-called facts that can be re-viewed and de-contextualised so that many readers may see reflections of their own lives in the fiction I’ve created. I recently re-viewed the award-winning movie, ‘LA LA Land’, in which the screenwriter, Damien Chazelle, aims for a similar effect in reworking the bones of 1950s Hollywood musicals to reconstruct a fantasy love story which is not singly biographical so much as a version of what most lovers can relate to from their own lives.
The great contemporary American novelist, Jonathan Franzen said recently, ‘Your own life is not the stuff of fiction exactly,’ and went on to refer to exaggeration, saying he doesn’t like to talk about the biographical sources of his fiction. . net.au/radionational/programs/booksandarts/jonathan-franzen/8016284
How much editing is required in the work of the writers you publish?
Again, it’s variable, depending on the writer. Some people are perfectionists, and that’s a great quality as long as the person isn’t obsessional, taking their rewrites beyond the value of the story itself. As an author it’s best to reach a point where you hand over the manuscript in the knowledge that you’ve done your best and can put your trust in the editor’s judgement that the cake is cooked already. If you want to write another story, then go ahead, rather than try to turn the narrative of a ms. in a new direction.
Of course there are also writers who are lazy and want to leave the hard work to an editor. For example, relying on the editor’s knowledge of grammar and punctuation, instead of going through their own story with a fine tooth comb. That’s not allowed! [Laughs.]
You should think of your story as a gift to the world, so it needs to be displayed in platinum wrapping paper with a bow tie or cherry on top. Or, you know what I mean …
So you edit everything from poetry to novels? Which of these genres is easy and which tough?
You’d like to think that poetry would be easier because it’s more concise – yet it presents its own challenges. You see, no matter what the publication, every word counts. In a poem, the message should be stripped bare yet convey a mood with extraordinary sensitivity. It’s not an easy task to intervene in a poem to assist without risking some gaucheness. My experience in editing poetry has been with translated texts, which adds another dimension because the success of the poem can lie so directly in the adeptness of the translator.
When it comes to novels, this focus on every word is writ large. And the several editors that are employed by SSOA are both writers and editors so they're experienced in both creation and refinement of the art of writing. You have so much more to consider in every sentence of a novel, especially its interconnection with every other sentence in the unfolding of the story. Consistency is a major concern – of character, of plot, of pacing, of the weather or season, the colour of a character’s shoes, even perhaps the impact of the sound of a bird’s call.
Continuity is as high a priority as for a film, so it needs to be double-checked for accuracy. The novelist is all-powerful in creating a world but then is imprisoned by it and must observe the rules of that world – the pleasures and cares, the number and quality of characters and objects – manifest in all the detail that he or she has created.
If writing is purely a talent, what is the duty of a creative writing teacher – and does a writer also have a duty?
I’m not sure what you’re implying here, because many hopefuls have talent but only a few develop that talent into a successful outcome. In India I believe you have a deep faith in the idea of the destiny of a chosen few. By contrast, Australia is generally a democratic country and the culture encourages an attitude of a potential in everyone, and that any individual with a talent in a certain direction must work hard with focus to succeed – using strong will and plenty of sweat. There are natural strengths but they can’t be taken for granted. So I believe the duty of a creative writing teacher is to assist a person who has either a dream to become a writer, or more importantly, some idea to convert into writing which would be valuable for others to read from a moral, social, political or entertainment point of view. A potential writer surely has not so much a duty, but a privilege, to make the most of his or her life, and talent, and take up the opportunities that come along to persist in the practice of writing.
Self-publishing firms encourage democracy in publishing books. Are you happy about the way companies such as Amazon publish and sell books?
Democracy is one thing. A multinational tax-savvy, profit-making business is another and it’s a myth that Amazon operates to assist poor struggling writers or that you can become a millionaire as a result of being listed on Amazon. How is anyone going to find your book among the hundreds of millions available on the site, I ask you? It’s a random and rare occurrence that any writer might conquer the world, and writers such as J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, Paulo Coehlo, James Patterson, Danielle Steele or Stephenie Meyer would have been found and picked up by traditional publishers at one time or another anyway.
That said, Sydney School of Arts & Humanities sells the work of our authors through Amazon and Apple and other major online retailers worldwide, as part of our publishing contract for global network reach. We are active on many social media sites and encourage our individual writers to maintain high profiles, as it’s really only by getting the message out there that sales and reputation can expand. As an emerging writer it’s more valuable for you to be judged by your peers, to be accepted by a publisher with experience in assessing manuscripts, and to join a stable of authors even in a small publishing house – rather than strike out completely on your own, not only risking publication of a sub-standard book but trying to negotiate the maze of internet marketing which is essential for sales these days.
But the most important factor in sales remains the writer’s ability to tell a graphic and formidable story in tune with the values of many niche markets, and if possible, the market as a whole. A bestseller in one decade can easily lie on a remaindered desk the next – and the writer completely forgotten twenty years later.
What is the role of an editor in the contemporary creative writing scene?
With more and more emphasis on universities as the source of accomplished creative writers over the past twenty years, there has lately arisen more interest in publishers being invited into the academic fold. It’s important for any aspiring writer to have a knowledge of what has come before – in other words to be a reader, to understand the history of writing in their own culture and language, as well as in English, since English literature dominates the world of writing in range and versatility, and especially with the number of readers of English as a second language increasing every year. As university English departments and Arts faculties recognize the vocational possibilities for their talented students, I believe there will be greater interaction between the educational and marketing streams of creative writing, to the advantage of emerging writers. As long as creativity is not repressed or censored in the interests of safe marketing, to the detriment of that well-spring of intellectual joy and fecundity, originality in writing.