My guest author this week is Kali Napier. I can’t remember exactly when Kali’s path and mine first crossed, but over the past six months or so we’ve become friends as our books are being released within a month of each other. There’s nothing like sharing the pathway to publication to glue two people together!
I so related to Kali’s post—I should say ‘essay’, as it’s much more than a ‘post’—in which she discusses the pressure on authors today to ‘market’ themselves and the difficulties of opening up your life to the public.
‘And people will ‘know’ things about me. This is an age of ‘author-brands’ and FAQs about authors.
Who am I? I asked my publisher. Just be yourself, she said.‘
Kali is a Brisbane-based writer of historical fiction, and a former anthropologist and Aboriginal family history researcher. She now studies creative writing at the University of Queensland and maintains a façade of parenting her two children.
You can find Kali on Facebook and Twitter, or read more about her novel, The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge at Hachette. (I was lucky enough to read an early copy of The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge, which I described as a ‘literary page-turner’. For my full review, click here.)
I started writing fiction just over three years ago. For several months I lurked on a now-defunct online writing website, Authonomy, reading chapters people posted up of their manuscripts-in-progress and the detailed editorial feedback provided by other members. I think what excited me most was the Editor’s Desk – a ranking system, like my kids’ rewards charts at school, whereby the top five ‘books’ to hit the desk at the end of each month were read and critiqued by editors at HarperCollins UK. The assumption, I suppose everyone laboured under, was that this was a sure path to a publishing contract and sudden fame and fortune.
I’d spent my childhood writing prolifically: mainly plays and poetry. But when I hit adulthood, life went sideways. I didn’t maintain much contact with my family of origin and even when I was well into my thirties they continued to refer to me as a ‘writer’. I saw this as evidence of how little they knew ‘adult me’ – I had stopped writing at seventeen.
They might have just planted the seed so often, though, that I began to believe it myself, because when I discovered Authonomy, randomly one day looking for something completely different, I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t have the guts or the motivation to actually commit to writing ‘words’, so I enrolled in a postgraduate creative writing degree to force myself. And because I thought it would teach me how to write.
The main assignment was to write a first chapter of a novel.
One afternoon, three years and two months ago, I had half-an-hour to kill and wrote half that chapter longhand. A few days later I posted a whole chapter on Authonomy, and spent another few days on the most important thing of all – designing my book cover for Songs of All Poets, that novel.
And the cover had my name on it.
Some writers on Authonomy used noms de plume, but others, like me crazed with the idea of being ‘discovered’, used our own names. I regret it a little now.
But going public is something I must get used to. In February there will be a book with my name on the cover in actual bookshops. And people will ‘know’ things about me. This is an age of ‘author-brands’ and FAQs about authors. Who am I? I asked my publisher. Just be yourself, she said.
How much do I want people to know about me? In my youth my favourite author was Lisa St Aubin de Teràn, who wrote fiction and autobiography, though mostly autobiographical fiction. I devoured aspects of her life, and became I suppose a ‘groupie’, accumulating knowledge of her life journey, each marriage, divorce, child, house renovation, and country move. Considering the access that the general public, as well as trolls and HSC students, now have to authors through social media, it is prudent to question how much I will allow people to know the personal ‘me’, especially as I have children to protect.
Yet, fiction – at least, mine – draws on the personal, containing biographical aspects. Numerous university courses and academic writings ponder the parallels and connections between an author’s life and their works. These connections may be conscious borrowings from one’s own life, or they may be subconscious and unintentional.
‘A lightbulb went off. I realised I had written the mother-character as my mother.‘
The worst moments in my life as a writer have been when I’ve hit ‘send’ on a new piece of writing and anxiously awaited feedback. When I uploaded that very first chapter of a novel on Authonomy, the comments had me a little perplexed. Why does the mother hate the daughter so much? more than one reader asked. As far as I knew, she didn’t. I had intended to write a ‘normal’ mother-daughter relationship and I saw my characterisation as a failure, until one commenter thought the mother had a particular issue. A lightbulb went off. I realised I had written the mother-character as my mother … but didn’t that mean if she was the mother then I … I was the daughter-character? Did my mother actually hate me and I never knew it?
Rather than tear me apart, this realisation was better than counselling and answered questions I’d held most of my life. I agree with all those articles about writing-as-therapy, a catharsis. And knowing that the mother-character in my story was my mother actually helped me plot a storyline for her.
While I consider Songs of All Poets my most ‘autobiographical’ book to date, despite being set in Calcutta in 1879, the book that will be published in February 2018, The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge is personal in different ways. It is being marketed as based on my family history, as one of the characters was informed by two newspaper articles I found about my unknown great-grandfather when doing some family history research. What is personal about this book is that it is set in Western Australia, where I grew up, and specifically the Mid-West, where I lived and worked for a few years and where my daughter was born. Despite now living in Brisbane for ten years, my heart remains in WA, and I feel a sense of displacement. I thought I knew what I needed to do – purge WA from my life by ‘writing it out’ of me.
Ha! How wrong I was.
Ironically, a key theme of the story is of how telling stories connects us to place. And so, of course, I became more militantly West Aussie by writing it. Which is why the next two novels will be set in Brisbane. This is my home for now. Though I can see a book set in the south-west of WA in my future.
However, I hadn’t thought The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge was personal in the same way as Songs of All Poets was, in imbuing the characters with mine and my family’s psyche and experiences. But when I gave my daughter a synopsis of the story, she sobbed, thinking the daughter-character was her. I told her she was wrong – the daughter is me! Again, I discovered how the layered themes of the story revealed my subconscious, as the mother-character desperately tries to be a different mother than her own mother had been.
‘Because when a reader says that a character is unlikable, or cold, or narcissistic, or uncaring, or arrogant, if the author identifies in anyway with that character, you’d better believe that author is taking the character feedback as a personal rebuke!’
I wonder if my reluctance to own my attributes in the mother-character stems from my publisher’s initial feedback that she was ‘too unlikeable’ and that I had to spend many drafts giving her warmth. Because when a reader says that a character is unlikeable, or cold, or narcissistic, or uncaring, or arrogant, if the author identifies in anyway with that character, you’d better believe that author is taking the character feedback as a personal rebuke!
I know strong, assertive, high-achieving women who struggle with reading their creative work in public, who sink into a pit of despair when their manuscript is rejected yet again despite having a full social and work life. I don’t know how many books it takes until a writer finally feels like a ‘writer’ – I’ve heard there’s a five-book theory – but it is excruciating to wait while a new work is read, even by friends. This is where I have been recently.
After initial reviews from people I know, will be those from people I don’t, and later, when I have strength and enough wine, from the wider, one-star-rating GoodReads public. The publicity campaign is also underway, and I have committed to radio and library events. It will be more difficult to hide the personal ‘me’ then. It is one of those contradictions in life that writers, who count a high proportion of introverts amongst their number, can lead such very public lives. And this is possibly the reason so many people, including myself once upon a time, think that a publishing contract = fame and fortune. But as I am fond of telling my children, if my book becomes an Australian bestseller next year, I would still earn half the income of a McDonald’s worker.
When Authonomy was closed down by HarperCollins UK in September 2015, Songs of All Poets was number two on the last ever Editor’s Desk, out of thousands of manuscripts. There was no sudden fame and fortune, and that book never got published. But in the last three years, becoming a writer has made me more aware of my motivations, my family dynamics, my fears, my values, and my identity. I have discovered I actually am a writer. I guess my family knew me better than I knew myself.
When The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge is published in February 2018, I have to come to terms with the fact that versions of me will be out there, readers will assume or think they know things about me and my family, and, if I am fortunate to have more books published, they may notice a pattern of stories with dysfunctional families and relationships. You write what you know.
But my books are not me, and I am not my books.
*This blog post has made me very nervous. It’s not fiction.
Lovely post, Kali. Good luck – your book sounds amazing.
Thank you, Lily. Much appreciated.
Thanks, Lily! It is an amazing story! 🙂
Hi Kali, I loved reading more about your background and how you came to writing. And I’m even more keen to read The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge.
I also wanted to tell you – you’re not alone. Lots of us have messed-up families or emotional scars (maybe there are some always-even-keeled people with apple pie families but I don’t think they write 🙂 ) Our experiences and reflections make our writing richer, or at least that’s what I believe.
Thank you for this personal essay and thank you too Louise.
Honestly, the more writers I come to know, the more I realise we write because we HAVE to — we just all have these amazing backstories.
Absolutely, Fi! I’m trying to think if I even know an ‘apple pie family’ (love this description, too, by the way!), but I don’t think I do! I think every family has their issues, some are more open about it than others.
I agree, too, that writing is a great processor of experiences. 🙂
I just wrote a long response to your post, Kali, and the computer swallowed it whole just as I went to send. How frustrating. I went to say something about your wonderful essay, about the business of authorial intentionality and how little it matters to readers, who will read whatever they want in our writing regardless of what we intend, and of how we can sometimes sense the reader has it all wrong or that they’ve read it accurately in disturbing ways, as you suggest here. There are many questions I’d love to ask you on the basis of this ‘essay’ but here is probably not the place. Still, I wonder what your family of origin might make of your story. Congratulations on getting it out there. Families can be our most potent critics, at least mine are. But I write memoir, or autobiographical fiction for want of a better name. I think too about the business of reading between the lines as one of the great pleasures of reading, when the writer has left gaps, not intentionally but inevitably, and we as readers use our imaginations to fill them in. Sometimes we detect meanings that the writer had not imagined or intended. Fascinating to me both as a reader and a writer. My first comment to you, the one my computer swallowed , was more eloquent than this rehash but I hope you get the drift.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for taking the time, not once, but twice to write your wonderful response to my essay. I am really touched that it resonated with you. As for your question about my family of origin and my book, I am reasonably sure they are aware I am having a book published but we are estranged, so their reactions and feedback don’t concern me. This book doesn’t contain any dialogue or anecdotes from them, nor any of the actual dynamics of our previous relationship — that was my first manuscript. So I think I am on pretty safe ground with this book. Please feel free to contact me on Facebook or Twitter with any other questions. Happy to chat.
I’m so glad this essay resonated with you, Lis. Our stories, fictional or memoir, always reveal lots about us, whether we intended it or not. 🙂
A wonderful reflection, thank you Kali, and than you Louise for hosting this piece. I think you express eloquently the paradox of writing; that all writing is autobiographical, on the one hand, and that “my books are not me, and I am not my books,” on the other. Because even if we write memoir, as I do, we do not clone ourselves on the page; we imprint copies of our selves, and with each revision, I’ve found, that self changes, ever shifting, ever tantalising the seeker for truth. Because the truth changes with each look.
Christina, thank you. You are absolutely right about the ‘truth’. I think it’s why I write, to find my own, or an approximation of it.
I love ‘the truth changes with each look’. I agree—I think I’ve found it, only to find a newer, deeper one on the next ‘look’. The thing is, as writers and authors, we keep looking and searching for it. Sometimes I feel like Stephen Hawking, searching for that one true answer to everything. 🙂
I know at least one thing about you, Kali – you’re a brilliant writer.
This is evidenced by your tremendous debut novel and by this essay and by, I’m sure, everything else you’ve written and will continue to write. I’m very much looking forward to your stories set in Brisbane.
Thank you for sharing part of yourself with us. I’ve no doubt The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge will be a bestseller (and win awards – my prediction – I predicted it first, remember)? 😉
Haha, Alyssa. Thank you. You are my truest champion and a wonderful writer yourself as evidenced in your love of writing, and dedication to craft. p.s. I am finding writing a Brisbane setting extremely difficult
Thanks, Kali. Why are you finding it difficult? I feel like if I could live in a refurbished colonial home on Gregory Terrace that I could write a great story set in Brisbane. However, I don’t have $4.2 million so… I’m really constrained by these budget limitations.
It’s the irony of stories connecting us to place. I think I have a psychological blockage to writing about Brisbane, because then that would mean, you know, that I “live” here now…
Embrace it! Brisbane wants you! 🙂
I agree with everything you’ve said, Alyssa, especially the bits about Kali being a brilliant writer! 🙂
Thanks for sharing. I’ve just been through what you are going through now. The best thing about others reading your book when it is published (or about to be) is that now they are reading it for pleasure, not critique. I was so used to the brickbats that I forgot bouquets were coming. Friends and family and the writing community have buoyed me with their love and goodwill, and no matter what stormy waters lie ahead I’ll always have that safe harbour. You may find the same happens for you, too.
Hi Elizabeth, I hope there will be bouquets forthcoming! The writing community is a wonderful place, isn’t it? So far I’ve had lovely reviews from friends, it’s the opinions of strangers who don’t feel any need to support me I’m bracing myself for. My story will stand on its own merits *eek*.
I have to qualify, the feedback I received from people on my writing was for a previous manuscript, not the one that will be published. This one was a largely private affair before it hit the publisher’s desk.
I’m so glad you’ve had bouquets, Elizabeth! As you say, the writing community is such a safe harbour! 🙂
Thank you for your honest post, Kali. It’s not easy to write about dysfunctional families – but that’s why I believe they resonate deeply with so many people – me included!
I hope you have great success with your book, and I love that it’s set in Western Australia. I’m looking forward to reading it!
Thanks, Marie. Of course I’m not saying anything new – Tolstoy said it best in Anna Karenina. Why would we want to read about happy families?? It won’t be the last book I set in WA, that’s for sure.
It’s a great book, Marie—you’ll really appreciate it! 🙂
Looking forward to reading your book Kali! I never assume fiction is about the author, and it irks me that people often assume it is!
No, fiction isn’t always taken directly from the life of the author, but I do believe that all art is autobiographical. Whether we like it or not, we reveal ourselves through our writing, try as we might not to! 🙂
I agree, Louise. My book that’s being published is 100% fiction even though one character is “inspired” by my GGF, who is a figment of my imagination, only appearing as a ‘character’ in two newspaper articles I found. Who knows what he was really like? And in terms of my being my ‘daughter-character’, well I suppose that is just how I feel all mothers are, we try to be better than our own mothers to our daughters. It’s hard to get past our own worldview sometimes. Maybe I am just not very imaginative!
My book’s similar. My characters were inspired by people in my family tree, but they’re all absolutely fictional—no ancestor (that I know of) ever wanted to be an opera singer! I think it gives our stories authenticity when we base our fiction on memories, sometimes even just a moment that’s stayed with us. Our stories are even more powerful when we use our emotional memory.