Writers in the Attic is back! I’m so excited to be hosting this again as I’ve really missed it. I already have some amazing writers lined up for future weeks, and more are coming, and I promise you that WITA 2.0 will be just as good as the first season.
Without further ado then, here’s my first guest for 2019, well known and much-loved WA author, Susan Midalia.
Susan Midalia has published four works of fiction: three collections of short stories and a novel. She also works as a freelance fiction editor, a mentor for emerging writers, a workshop facilitator, and as a volunteer teacher of creative writing for socially underprivileged children. She has been the judge of many literary competitions, including the Western Australian Premiers Book Awards and the T.A.G. Hungerford Award. She continues to believe that reading literature can encourage understanding, rather than judgment, of others, and a critical perspective on the world.
Just about every writer in WA knows Susan, through her writing workshops, where they’ve imbibed her gems of wisdom, or through her editorial guidance in shaping their work for publication. I’m sure you’ll enjoy what she has to impart today.
WHY DO I WRITE?
I didn’t start writing fiction until my fifties, although decades of reading intelligent and evocative literature gave me the best training a writer could have. Two quite different impulses convinced me to leave academia and teaching to begin a writing life. The first happened when I was writing an academic PhD and discovered, to my surprise, the intense pleasure of mucking around with words: thinking about matters of diction and syntax, the sounds of words and the rhythms of sentences. In fact, I became more interested in style than in the substance of my theoretical arguments, to the point where I was reluctant to delete irrelevant material because I was so pleased with the elegance of my prose!
The second and radically different compulsion to write was therapeutic. Not long after completing my PhD, my father died, and I found myself composing a story about our fraught relationship. This meant facing a distressing question: what might it mean when a child felt no love for her father, and indeed had no respect for him? Through a process of coincidence, that story was published – my first publication of imaginative fiction; and readers’ responses made me aware that writing was not only a form of self-expression but a meaningful act of communication, with the power to complicate our understanding of self and others, and to rescue us from debilitating self-enclosure. I was reminded of the words of the novelist C.S. Lewis: “We read to know that we are not alone.”
I then became more keenly attuned to an environment saturated with interesting stories: when taking a walk or on public transport; listening to conversations; reading; memories; the media. People often ask writers where they find their material, and the simple answer – in the words of Susan Sontag – is by paying attention to the world.
FINDING THE ORDINARY IN THE EVERYDAY
My desire to continue writing fiction was so powerful that I quit my full-time teaching job, with the generous support of my patron: a husband who pays the bills and who reads my work assiduously. Since 2007 I have produced three collections of short stories, all of them shortlisted for major literary awards. My debut novel, published in 2018, is called The Art of Persuasion. Like my short stories, it focuses on what is sometimes unfairly disparaged as “domestic” or feminine writing: the entanglements of family, sexual relationships (my younger son told me I had to stop writing about sex), and suburban malaise. But in writing about ordinary experience, one of my guiding principles is finding the extraordinary in everyday life. I believe that nothing and no one is ordinary, if we tunnel our way, patiently, carefully, into the complexities beneath familiar surfaces.
In writing about the domestic, what fascinates me most is the inner life of my characters: their thoughts and feelings, in all their waywardness, nastiness, generosity, opacity, self-delusion, misery and sense of hope. My favourite novelists are canonical observers of character like Charlotte Bronte, Henry James and Jane Austen, and contemporary writers such as Anne Enright, Carol Shields, Colm Toibin, Colum McCann, Jim Crace, Joyce Carol Oates, Michelle de Kretser, Sonya Hartnett, Christina Stead and Patrick White.
As both a writer and a reader, I’m also drawn to Anton Chekhov’s belief that “art should prepare us for tenderness.”
I’m a big fan of humour, too: if I could have another life, I would be a stand-up comedian. Seriously. How joyous it would be to make a roomful of people laugh.
ON WRITING POLITICALLY
I’m also a political writer, in that I’m interested in the political dimensions of so-called personal experience: the power imbalances in families and relationships, the struggle to find meaningful gender and class identities. I also like to have the occasional swipe at politics in the wider sphere, outraged as I am by my country’s continuing inaction on climate change and its heartless treatment of asylum seekers.
This brings me to one of the main strands of my novel The Art of Persuasion. I was impelled to write it after having been deeply moved by seeing a humble memorial in Canberra to the deaths of 353 asylum seekers making a perilous journey from Indonesia to Australia. The drowning of those people travelling on a boat called the SIEV X has been more or less erased from Australian political history, so part of my motivation in writing this novel was to bring this tragedy to wider public attention. But how can one write a political novel without becoming didactic, patronising or self-righteously preachy? After a series of missteps, backtracks and many drafts, I ended up combining politics, romance and comedy in an attempt to entertain readers while also encouraging them to think about important social and ethical issues.
TRANSITIONING FROM SHORT STORIES TO NOVELS
I’m sometimes asked how I negotiated the transition from writing short stories to completing a novel, and my answer is that I found it difficult. Before the publication of my debut novel, I had two disastrously unsuccessful attempts at writing in the longer form. The most difficult aspect was creating a narrative arc: a plot that would sustain the reader’s interest in the course of 60,000 plus words.
To be honest, plot is the narrative element that interests me least as both a writer and reader, so I had to work hard at creating an engaging storyline. Here, I drew on my experience as a doorknocker for the Greens and as a teacher over many years. I also set myself the challenge of writing from the perspective of a twenty-five year old woman in order to explore the difficulties faced by a generation uncertain about their future. My twenty-seven-year-old son – who objected to the novel’s one sex scene – assured me that I’d convincingly captured the voice and cultural references of his generation.
ON GETTING PUBLISHED
Finally, a few words about getting published: I think it’s about finding the right reader at a publishing house, and accepting that there’s a substantial element of luck involved. You can research a publisher’s list to find out the kind of work they support, but ultimately you have no control over how your work will be received. I do believe, however, in the value of resilience: I once had three rejections in one week, sobbed for another week, and then began work on another project.
ON PLAYING TO YOUR STRENGTHS
I also believe in learning to recognise one’s writerly strengths and weaknesses. I can’t seem to create interesting physical settings, for example, so now I either don’t try, or I keep descriptions of setting to a minimum. But I know I can create credible realist characters, even ones who have nothing in common with me, so I play to that strength in my writing. Always, of course, on the understanding that the final product is never perfect; that all we writers can do, as we draft and re-draft, as we embark on our second, third, fourth book, is subscribe to Samuel Beckett’s advice to “fail better.”
Susan’s book, The Art of Persuasion, can be purchased online here and from all good bookstores.
If you’ve enjoyed this and would like to read more, there are plenty of wonderful posts by writers who visited the attic in the previous series.
So grab a coffee, click here and settle in.