Anita Heiss

Dr Anita Heiss writes non-fiction, commercial women's fiction, children's literature and poetry. She is a fierce advocate and is known for her social commentary. A proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central NSW, Anita is also a Lifetime Ambassador of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, an Advocate for the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, an Ambassador of Worowa Aboriginal College, and an Adjunct Professor with Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at UTS.

Anita's literary career kicked of with Sacred Cows (1995). Since then, her non-fiction works include writing Am I Black Enough for You? (2012) and editing the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (2008). She has published six novels, including Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms (2016), Tiddas (2014), Paris Dreaming (2011), Manhattan Dreaming (2010), Avoiding Mr Right (2008) and Not Meeting Mr Right (2007). Anita also published a poetry collection, I'm Not Racist, But... (2007), as well as the children's books Yirra and her Deadly Dog, Demon (2007) and Who Am I? The Diary of Mary Talence, Sydney, 1937 (2001). Anita's also published two football inspired works, Kicking Goals with Goodesy and Magic (2016) and Matty's Comeback (2016).

Related episode:

  • Anita mentions Tony Birch as a brilliant writer, and also discusses their shared approach to writing place.

Show notes

Transcript

Nic Brasch: Welcome to The Garret. The Garret podcast is a series of interviews with the best writers writing today. This episode features the prolific writer and activist Anita Heiss. Anita’s story in just a moment.

Thank you to everyone who has listened to The Garret podcast. It has been a real thrill to see a community of writers, readers and everyone interested in the creative process grow over the two seasons. I’d like to hear from you on our Facebook, page, GarretPodcast. You’ll find all of our interviews and transcripts there.

Still to come in Season 2 is Australia’s Children’s Laureate, Leigh Hobbs. I spent time with Leigh in his studio in Williamstown in Melbourne. I can’t wait to share that experience with you.

Now, on to Anita Heiss. I talked to Anita about all things writing on International Women’s Day.

Anita Heiss is a writer of, well, just about everything. Fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, poetry, articles, blogs, I could go on and on. A proud Wiradjuri woman, she is also an adjunct professor with the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology Sydney, a life time ambassador of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, an advocate for the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, and Ambassador of Worowa Aboriginal College.

She is a very busy women, one of the busiest in the business and I’m honoured that she found a moment in her extraordinarily busy schedule to talk to us. Anita welcome to The Garret.

Anita Heiss: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s worth it just for that introduction.

Nic: Absolutely. Lets go back, I won’t say a very long time, just a few years. What were you reading when you were 10, and where were you when you were 10?

Anita: When I was 10. Well, I was born on Gadigal Country. Your listeners might know that as the City of Sydney. But I was born, I was raised on the land of the Dharawal out near Laperouse, strategically placed between Long Bay jail, Malabar sewerage works and an industrial estate.

Nic: [Laughter] It would have been a very long time ago.

Anita: Now you laugh, but it was the perfect setting for creative inspiration. But when I was 10, which was back in the 70s – yes, I know that’s hard to believe, back in the 70s – it was around the time when we had a mobile library. You know the big bus?

Nic: Yeah, I remember.

Anita: The big bus would come around, and you’d get your books and then a week, two weeks, a month and then you’d take them back. Now I wasn’t much of a reader in primary school. I was a bit of a tom boy, I was out on the street playing cricket and footy and tennis and playing Atari back in those days.

Nic: Atari…

Anita: I don’t know what they play these days. So, I didn’t actually… I mean I know when I left school, primary school, I had a reading age of about 16, but I was not a reader at all. I didn’t grow up in a home with books, my parents weren’t readers, they didn’t grow up in homes with books.

Nic: Ok. So how did you discover books, do you remember what the first books were that engaged you, and when that might have been?

Anita: See that’s a dangerous question, see. If I was completely honest I would probably say I became most engaged in Australian Literature and my area of passion now when I was doing my PHD. I mean, I did an undergrad…

Nic: Ok. In that case why did you choose then to do undergrad in Literature when you weren’t interested in reading?

Anita: Well, because I was, I was interested in… I don’t know. I wanted to learn more about Australia. So, I was actually doing a double major, I wanted to do Political Science and English, and I was doing History as well. So I wanted to learn about Australia and the different versions of history as we know it – and that’s another conversation – through various mediums. So I didn’t know I was going to be an author. I wanted to be a nun when I was a kid. I wanted to be a nun and I wanted to be an air hostess and I wanted to be Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.

Nic: There’s nothing wrong with that because Thomas Kenneally wanted to be a priest, so there you go.

Anita: There you go. I never knew I was going to be a writer, but I was interested in reading Australian stories, so I did a couple of years of English at UNSW before I failed Chaucer, and I thought ‘Why am I reading this?’ – another conversation – but my real passion came when I was enrolled in my PHD, and I was reading and interviewing Aboriginal writers, editors and publishers.

But if I may go back to my 20s, because I do remember, vividly, sitting in lecture theatres and tutorials and the works that we did do.

I did enrol… One of my courses was Australian Women’s writing, so you know, I did Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach and I did Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story and Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. I mentioned I did Chaucer in my early undergrad years, Elizabeth Jolley, The Well, at the same time I was reading history and political science books which were interesting to me at the time.

I can’t remember a lot of what I learnt, but I remember my lecturers… Richard Lucy and he used to read out of his own text book and that was interesting.

Faith Bandler’s Turning the Tide, which talked about FCAATSI and led up to the 1967 referendum and was a key test for me at that time, Henry Reynolds, Anne Summers of course, Damned Whores and God’s Police.

Nic: Of course, Damned Whores.

Anita: So that was my late teens, early 20s, when I was an undergrad.

Nic: That’s a great list, I mean those are some of the most pivotal books in certainly 70s, early 80s – even some of them going back early 70s. Texts to get a real understanding of contemporary Australia, you could almost not give students a better list than that.

Anita: And to be honest with you, I have had to cull my shelves over the years, moving around and they’re books I just don’t get rid of. They’re the books that you keep forever.

Nic: Yeah, yeah. You were talking about being interested in history, and reading and learning about history. There were not back then a lot of published works by female Australian historians. I mean, the male historians dominated the landscape, Inga Clendinnen perhaps being an exception, any others from the time that you recall?

Anita: Oh, gosh.

Nic: Or did you note down?

Anita: During that time… I mean, during that period, and later when I was into my PHD, I started to recognise the value of Indigenous autobiography as our history books, and of how we’ve been so conditioned in the academic world, particularly, to think that you have to read an academic text and a nonfiction history to actually learn about history, which is not the case.

I mean, people like Alexis Wright, Miles Franklin award winner of Carpentaria, will tell you that she writes fiction, because she can say all the things that she needs to say in fiction, without putting a community under the microscope like a non-fiction work would.

So, I’ve tried over the last two decades – and hundreds of thousands of words that I’ve written around the area – for people to understand that our autobiographies, our memoirs and so forth, they are our history books.

Nic: Yes, yes.

Anita: All history books only document only a certain moment in time anyway, so I value those today.

Nic: And when you look at Indigenous history, and you’re talking about autobiographies, but I mean the Indigenous tradition was oral storytelling, so I’m imagining as part of your PHD and your learnings at that time, that a lot of it was sitting down with the Indigenous people and getting their stories that way. Is that right?

Anita: Well, when I interviewed loads of writers for my PHD – and as you’re talking now and I will be mentioning her this evening when I do the Hyllus Marra Memorial Lecture – Aunty Ruby Langford Ginibi who really pushed the boundaries in publishing, and for the readership in terms of the way her written word was exactly like her spoken word, which is almost unheard of because everything gets edited out. And she said to editors and publishers, ‘Do not gubbarise my text’.

For your listeners, gubba is generally a negative term for a white fella, it depends on how you say it. You know, it is about context, and she said ‘Don’t gubbarise my text’. And her work, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, was on the NSW High School Certificate for many years, at a time when books like Sally Morgan’s were selling tens, hundreds of thousands more, but I would say, the language of that text and her story was far less challenging than Aunty Ruby Langford Ginibi’s, but I would see her text as something that does document history in a period of time for a Bundjalung woman from Coraki.

Nic: What exactly was the topic of your PhD?

Anita: The title was Dhuuluu-Yala, which is a Wiradjuri phrase means to talk straight.

Because I believe that’s what Aboriginal writers do, and it was looking at Aboriginal writing and publishing with a comparative study to Maori writing in Aotearoa in New Zealand and Native American writing in North America.

Nic: Fantastic.

Anita: So, who are people writing for, why, who’s the audience, what’s the process, and where at that time – it’s a very different landscape now – where did we fit into the Australian Literary landscape and how were we being perceived and received at things like festivals.

Nic: And how has that changed since then and now, if at all?

Anita: Oh, it’s changed. Obviously our list, our published list has increased dramatically, we have over 6,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and story tellers indexed into AusLit. Listeners will know about that. In the Black Words data set, which is a research community for Indigenous writers and storytellers, we are represented far more at most main stream festivals in Australia. So, I’ve recently done Perth, and over there was Jared Thomas and Bruce Pascoe and Nakkiah Lui.There were others, sorry, and I’m off to Adelaide tomorrow, and we have a First Nations Australia Writers Network, as an organisation for us. The Black and Write program out of the State Library of Queensland, we have places like Magabala Books have grown their lists. Back in the 90s we had a very short fiction list, and now we’ve got Commonwealth prize winners, we’ve got Kim Scott who has won the Miles Franklin twice. So, it’s a different landscape now. But that’s come from a lot of advocacy.

Nic: Absolutely. It doesn’t come easy. At the recent Victorian Premiers Literary Awards, both Leah Purcell and Tony Birch were there as winners of categories, and Leah as the top winner. So, magnificent to see.

Anita: It’s awesome.

Nic: And it’s mainstream which is fantastic.

Anita: It’s mainstream. Yes.

Nic: What about some of your favourite contemporary writers?

Anita: Well, given that it’s International Women’s Day, I would like…

Nic: Honoured to have you hear on this day.

Anita: I’m excited to be here. I would say… the women writers… there are so many, so I’m just going to mention a couple that I have read recently and that I think your listeners should be looking at. There are people like Ali Cobby Eckermann, and she’s just recently won the Wyndham Campbell Award, a major international, very lucrative prize, and a surprise to her, which was great. I really loved her work Ruby Moonlight, which is a verse novel. And I also launched her memoir, Too Afraid to Cry. So, I would suggest your listeners look out for Ali’s work.

Melissa Lucashenko cornered the market in the 90s and early 2000s in terms of YA, her first book was Steam Peaks, but her most recent book is Mullumbimby, and she’s married the notion of East coast living, two main characters, living in Mullumbimby, one traditional land owner and one not from that area, different perspectives on native title, there’s romance. It would make a brilliant film. It should be taught. All of these books should be on curriculum.

Ellen Van Neerven, her first work, Heat and Light, short stories, won the David Unaipon Award and was short listed, I believe, for the Stella Prize. She went on to do Comfort Food which is poetry. She broke new ground writing in a way, we don’t have writers writing about sexuality in the literary form that she has done. So, it was a bit hot and heavy when you read some of this stuff! But literary. Not that there is anything wrong with erotica, but it was a literary work.

On to non-Indigenous authors. When I was thinking about this question –someone was asking me this the other day – I read two books last year, both of them moved me to tears, which is quite extraordinary, it is very powerful writing, both Australian women writers – Ashley Hays The Railway Man’s Wife and Pamela Hart’s The Soldier’s Wife. So bizarrely similar stories, and I was thinking, ‘I need to write a book about someone’s wife’.

Nic: [Laughter]

Anita: But both of them, of course… Pamela Heart writes other works under the name of Pamela Freeman when she writes children’s and YA. So, I think that may have been her venture under the Pamela Heart brand. So, I recommend those two Australian writers.

Nic: I know many years ago, you wrote comic strips. Tell me about that. Where they your first published pieces of work and what was it that drew you into that form?

Anita: It sounds so much more fun and glamorous than it was.

Nic: It sounds very fun and glamourous!

Anita: And I can tell you that I wasn’t very good, because a comic has one message per page. As you can imagine, very few words, and I have been accused of being verbose. I had to Google that.

Nic: I have seen you at a couple of festivals, and I won’t argue.

Anita: I didn’t like that definition. You may have asked for 1,800 words for that article, I gave you an extra 1,200 for free!

Nic: Publishers love that, don’t they.

Anita: No. So, Streetwise comics were a not for profit agency set up I think in the late 80s. They were an educational publishing house and created comics on issues of education, employment, legal rights, environment, housing, I think we did the world’s first comic for deaf people, so the characters were signing and so forth. Basically, it was about providing information in a format for young people largely in remote and rural areas, but also urban centres, with low literacy skills, who needed to know about their legal rights, who needed to know about things that we all need to know about in society, but wouldn’t pick up a pamphlet or go through the Yellow Pages (as they were in the old days), but would read a comic in a drop in centre or a classroom or a library.

Nic: Don’t you wish every legal document was like that?

Anita: Oh, it would make my life easier.

Nic: It would make everyone’s life easier, wouldn’t it? And terms and conditions for iPhones…

Anita: Here’s you T & Cs, read a comic!

So, I did that for a couple of years, and I’ve come out of finishing my undergrad, and ended up pulling beers at Bronte RSL. And my father was horrified, after 13 years of school and university.

Nic: You would have seen some good bands at the Bronte RSL.

Anita: Oh, it’s gone now. And my first night there I had a run in with someone, aboard member who came up and asked for a ‘glass of nigger’, but that’s another story that people can read in my memoir, Am I Black Enough For You? But anyway, there is always material, everywhere.

I spent two years… It was… The research was as important as the writing, so it was travelling around and running focus groups with kids, because it was in street lingo. So, for me, there was a struggle between ‘We’re trying to improve literacy, but doing this’. But it was really about how do we… It’s for them. The whole point is doing it in their language. So, I did that for a couple of years.

So, my first paid outside proper job, which was amazing, I got my first paid writing gig while I was there, and I think it was writing a story about the Aboriginal housing company in Redfern for Habitat magazine. And I think I never banked that cheque.

Nic: Did you become a writer because somebody… people asked you to write because they thought you were good, or at what point did you decide you wanted to become a writer?

Anita: That’s a really good question. The first book I wrote was Sacred Cows in 1996. I thought I was just going to write one book. I didn’t know I’d be sitting here 16 books later and two on the way.

I wrote my first book because when I was at university, every book I got off the shelf about anything to do with Aboriginal people, our shared history, was written about by a non-Aboriginal person.

Nic: Sure, yeah.

Anita: Many of those books were written by people who had never been to Australia. And so, I decided I would write this satirical social commentary about the backyard BBQ and karaoke and Mexican wave and all these sorts of aspects of culture that white fellas had adopted from other countries and made their own. And you know, it’s no great piece of literature, but it was a springboard into something greater.

And then I became interested in… I went overseas to work on Native American newspapers. I lived on a Mohawk reserve up in Quebec, outside of Montreal for a couple of months and worked on the newspaper. And then I went to their national newspapers, Sweet Grass, as they say, and looked at the differences in the way in which those operations worked. And it made me think about how we published here in Australia. And I decided to enrol in a PHD at the University of Western Sydney, now Western Sydney University, to learn about process and structure and so forth. And I never wanted to be an academic, I didn’t do it because people said you’ll be worth more money, I did it because I was really interested in the industry.

And so, while I was doing that I self-published a book of poetry to learn about how the actual process works, and then, again, never thought I was going to be a writer or an author. I say an author publishes, anyone can write.

Nic: Well… Anyone can write but not everyone is an author.

Anita: I ‘auth’. And so what happened then. I published the PHD, I published the book of poetry, and then I get asked to write a kids novel for Scholastic about the Stolen Generations. And that was my first foray into… And then I just kept getting ideas and I could see the gaps in the classrooms, because I was talking to teachers all the time and you could see what was missing.

In doing my PHD seeing the issues for writers, looking at… you know, developing lists of where we’ve published, and what’s missing, and looking at the fiction side of things, and wondering why our books aren’t at the airport and they’re not in department stores, and there’s like a small niche section in independent stores and why aren’t we? Everyone else…

Nic: Yeah.

Anita: And I thought, well… I was up in Port Headland running writing workshops in 2001 and I saw Harry Potter, on a desk in a demountable in an Aboriginal community, and I don’t know who was reading that book but I thought ‘Someone here is reading commercial fiction, so we should be writing it’.

[Promo]

Anita: Very few writers, including myself, go into writing anything with a view to make money. And all of us do it because we have a particular story that needs to be told. The invitation thing in the early days as emerging writer, we all do that because you have to build up your publications list and you can say I’ve been published here, here and here, and then someone will look at you.

But I had a conversation today with my agent saying, ‘This project is about me getting my foot in the US market, this is the bare minimum I will take as an offer per contract’, because I am at a place where I can do that now and because I have bills to pay. And when you are in your 20s it’s very different, and you are grateful for anybody publishing anything, and you accept the crappy cover and you know you have no say at all and that’s part of the socialization process. You know, you’ve got to go through it…

Nic: It is something you learn isn’t it, particularly about covers. The only arguments I’ve ever had with publishers has been over covers, and then you learn you don’t win them anyway.

Anita: I’ve got one publisher and I’ve probably sold 40, 50 thousand books though them, and I lost an argument with title recently. So that’s hard.

But really, my goals… l I have a number of goals, and that is to write Aboriginal people into the Australian literary landscape, which then goes into an international landscape.

I want to write books that encourage or inspire young Aboriginal kids to read. You know, I am an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literary Foundation, and one of the reasons we have literacy issues – and there are many reasons – but one is we need to be providing resources where kids see themselves on the page. It’s not rocket science. So that’s the other thing.

I want book clubs in Australia to be thinking about the issues that are important to me as an Australian women, as an Aboriginal women, as someone who thinks all Australians should be thinking about our role in the war, how we fought in wars where we weren’t even citizens in this country or how we participate in the landscape, in work and education every day of the week.

So, I’m writing works that are targeted to particular audiences. So, for instance, women’s fiction – where for your listeners I just did quotation marks –because I want to reach women who I have things in common with in terms of my desire for companionship and so forth, and shopping and all those sorts of things. But, however, I have different aspects to my life, but we can connect on what makes us the same. And I can get them to think about history and social justice and black deaths in custody and the NT intervention, and it’s possible.

Nic: Absolutely. And you talking… Often I hear about – and I hesitate to use the word niche markets – but certainly Australia is a hard enough market to sell within, but then to compartmentalise it a little bit more and then to look for areas in which you can be profitable, make money, make a living. Things like copyright law and potential changes to copyright law, how important are they as an Australian writer?

Anita: Well I think… Australia has a copyright system that is admired around the world, because it is very clear cut, it protects the rights of those who are creators, and of course filmmakers, authors, artists, musicians all deserve to be paid for the work they create. We have blanket licenses at universities and schools who allow them to photocopy for a fee, we then as members of a Copyright Agency then get our cut. It’s cheaper than any student buying a book, it’s cheaper than universities stocking any libraries and so forth, you know, I might get $10 grand a year for works of mine that are photocopied, but I would get times that if people bought the books. I think, you know, fair payments to authors allow us to create new material, and with proposed changes that want to have this very loose, fair use model, which allows people to pretty much photocopy or download books anyway they want, this is what Google is fighting for and universities want to spend less money. I mean, that’s not an incentive for me to create anything new, why would I? Why would I do all the work?

Nic: Exactly.

Anita: And I say to people, who want to download or pirate films and download books for free, ‘You sit down in front of a blank screen and you try and create something and then you will understand’. Everybody wants something for nothing, everyone goes to writer’s festivals and they don’t want to pay for anything. Everyone gets something for nothing except for the writers.

Nic: I had a student once who submitted a piece for an online publication and they weren’t going to pay for it and they said. ‘That’s not fair, is it?’

And I asked them when the last time was they downloaded a movie or music illegally, and they said, ‘Well, I do it all the time’. And I said, ‘You don’t see the connection?’ And they had never thought that someone who has created something, finally they were in a position to suddenly understand why it was wrong to do that.

Anita: I wrote an article in the press last year, the year before last, around this issue and got absolutely hammered.

Nic: My goodness.

Anita: Even by… I think the only people I got support from were HBO, and a few writers. But I even had writers say… yeah, I was mortified.

Nic: Really, astonishing.

Anita: I felt like saying, ‘You may be selling 200,000 books and living comfortably...’ But, I don’t think they are. But as I say, I don’t work my weekends, have a day job and work my weekends, creating material to educate and entertain and engage Australian students and so forth, to have people just to download. And in my view I don’t just create literature, I create a cultural product, as Australian writers do, because we are reflecting to the world who we are as a nation.

Nic: And without that protection, we are going to lose our stories. And there’s no incentive for Australians to write our stories. Things like the copyright PLR and ELO, and all those sort of things, they actually help writers make enough money. Otherwise, why would you? You would go and write American stories, or stories for which you can get compensated fairly.

Anita: That’s right.

Nic: You write fiction, you write non-fiction, can we explore perhaps the different approaches you take to writing a novel compared to a non-fiction book? And I’m wondering whether research into a non-fiction book sparks the idea of a fiction project. Because I know, you know, a great way to get ideas for fiction is from real life, so let’s just explore that a little bit.

Anita: I’m a plotter, so I might start with…

Nic: We can talk about the process, and how you right as well.

Anita: I mean, I’ve only done two non-fiction works, really, which is my PHD, which inspired me to understand the industry more. I can’t even say that it made me want to write, because after five years of doing that I wanted to spend three weeks crying and sleeping. But I…and my memoir.

Nic: By non-fiction I also mean long form articles and that sort of stuff.

Anita: Sure. Well, it’s much more enjoyable, can I say, writing creative works and fiction, writing fiction, Because…  And I do take the line, an Alexis Wright line, that I can weave into my commercial women’s fiction a whole range of issues that puts nobody under the microscope, that people can relate to.

But I am a plotter. So, I generally do, I always do, a synopsis, which is even harder than writing 90,000 words.

Nic: Absolutely.

Anita: Narrowing down… I say to my students, you know, don’t start anything until you know exactly what your story is. I can’t teach you to be a panster – most of my friends are pansters who fly by the seat of their pants – but I had four books out in a year. So I go, you know, if you want to finish a book, this is the easiest way to do it. You map it out, you do your synopsis, you understand what the story is. You’re stuck in the lift with the publisher from a major multinational, you will be able to tell them between two floors what the story is, right? And why someone needs to read your book. So, I do this synopsis, I do like a breakdown of the main characters – what they look like, what they wear, any eccentricities, their backstory – so I know exactly who they are before I start writing.

I have my… I do my research. So, whether it means going to Paris or Manhattan or Barcelona or Japan as it were a couple of years ago.

Nic: Fantastic.

Anita: Cowra, Melbourne. And then I map it out. I map out chapters

Nic: Do you choose topics based on where you can go?

Anita: I’ve done travel stories, that took me to Vegas. And I did the Freedom Walkway in Alberta, Martin Luther King’s Freedom Walkway in Alberta. So, I’ve done some travel stuff that I can write off on tax. But I do choose. So, you now, I had a two book deal with Random years ago for Manhattan Dreaming and Paris Dreaming, and they said – I had the idea for one, and that was Manhattan – and they said, ‘Oh, we want a two book deal’. And I said, ‘Where else do I need to research? Paris’. And then while she’s there, I’d go ‘I’d like to visit a friend in Barcelona’, so my character – because I am a method writer, I literally get into character – I had to go there and everything that happened I arrived at the airport, I’m really heart broken and sad and I’m sitting, waiting for the bag to come around... All that’s in the book.

Nic: So can we just explore that. I’m fascinated by this, you know.

Anita: And tax deductible.

Nic: As a method writer, to the extent that while you are taking that trip, how far in character are you? Are you in your mind going through what you expect your character to do, or are you just observing what’s happening to you so you can write it?

Anita: So I am walking up – doing Manhattan Dreaming – and I’m walking up 4th, 5th, 6th Avenue as the girl.

Nic: Wow.

Anita: Because I’ve been to Manhattan before, so I’m going ‘Lauren, she’s 30, she’s from Goulburn, she thinks Canberra is a big city. What is she thinking?’ So, I’m that girl. I’m the girl going into the sex museum taking notes thinking ‘What is she thinking?’ I’m observing, it was so funny, there were four people in the sex museum that day: a couple, some guy with his hands in his pants the whole time…

Nic: I was going to say, there has to be someone in a raincoat there…

Anita: Me taking notes, and a security guard. And I desperately wanted to say, ‘I’m writing a book’. But everyone’s writing a book, right? So, they’re all going to be, ‘Yeah sure you are’. So, I was literally taking notes, getting tips, watching Panda porn. SO, that’s another story. But… So, I’m literally thinking how is somebody who’s from Goulburn, going from the Big Merino to the Big Apple, how is she feeling? What is she thinking? Is she… So, I do that.

Nic: And do you do that just for your protagonist or for all of your characters?

Anita: Well, just the protagonist. But Tiddas, I have the book Tiddas, I have five, so I lived in the five suburbs those characters lived in for at least a week. Walked around, you know, I’ll tweet ‘Where’s the best coffee in the Gap?’ or something, and someone tweeted me back, saying ‘It’s Swingers night Monday night at The Gap Tavern’.

Nic: [Laughter]

Anita: That might be libel, but… So, I ask locals.

Nic: If it’s not libel, it’s going to be packed there next Monday night anyway.

Anita: So, I was in Wagga, actually, doing a travel story, and I was like, ‘It’s country NSW, where’s the best steak?’ And so, you know, I ask people. I rely on locals and people said to me, ‘Oh, I’ll meet you in France, I’ll meet you in Paris’. I go, ‘It’s work. It looks like a game, but the whole time I have to come back from that research trip with 20,000 words.

Nic: Ok. Can you write without exploring a space, the place in which you want to...

Anita: I wouldn’t do that. I do look at Goodreads, because I teach and I want to tell my students what my readers have said. And I’ve learnt that my readers in particular, with commercial women’s fiction, they like characters that they can relate to and hang out with and they like locations that they either live in or would like to go to. And I think the authenticity of… if you are going to write about a place, you want to be spot on with your online Google searches, getting it right, because people who live there will know. And I don’t think you can write about the heat and the coffee and the doughnuts and the smell of urine in the streets of New York in summer, without walking through it.

Nic: Sure, sure. I ask that because the last person I spoke to who talked about this with such passion and did it with such passion was Tony Birch, and he said he has to go to places. Do you think it may be because of the place of land with Indigenous people and the importance of it, and the way that they, or you, connect to Indigenous land? You have to be there to get a sense of it?

Anita: I think it’s about respect.  I think it’s about respect for place, wherever that place is. I think it’s about acknowledging, particularly if you are not from that place, that you do the right thing by the people who are from that place. So, when I went to New York, I wrote about the National Museum and the American Indian, I went there and I met with the native curators and so forth. They read the drafts, because I want, this was their story, it wasn’t my place to go in there and say, ‘This is yours’. And what I’ve done with my book set in Cowra with my most recent novel, I went there. The families who I mention in that book got copies of drafts of anywhere that I mentioned. So, they knew, because I think it’s about a respect…

Nic: So, it is total respect.

Anita: … And accountability, even if it is non-Indigenous space or whatever. I think for me it’s about that.

Nic: You have written that non-Indigenous writers need to develop, what you said was ‘appropriate methodologies in order to research and write stories with believable, meaningful and hopefully empowering Indigenous characters’. Which non-Indigenous writers of today do you think do that to you satisfaction?

Anita: To my satisfaction?

Nic: Maybe not to your satisfaction, but who does it well?

Anita: Top of the list is Alex Miller, obviously won the Miles Franklin for Journey to the Stone Country, and also Landscape of Farewell. Now I will, tell you when I started reading Journey to the Stone Country, I didn’t know Alex and I had to speak about it with Andrea Stratton in Sydney. And I’m reading it, I’m pages in and I’m looking to see how does he know all this stuff? Who has he spoken to? So usually what I do when there’s a book by an Australian author that has obvious content, I’ll go straight to the acknowledgements pages to see ‘Right, who’s read this, who are they acknowledging?’. I was about 100 pages in before I realised that the novel was based on two people that he knew, Col and Liz, and we’ve since became friends. We ended up speaking together in Hamburg and we danced around each other the whole time. He knew who I was, I knew who he was, and I was like I don’t really know how you know all this stuff and we laugh about it now.

Nic: And he stayed away.

Anita: We laugh about it  now. It’s all good. He wouldn’t have published that book without their… and they rang him and they wanted him to do this. He lived on the land with them.

He’s immersed himself in tha space, so he’s become the method, a kind of writer thing. There’s real people in that story.

Jacqui Wright, I did a panel with her in Brisbane, gosh, maybe last year, two years ago. She’s got a book called Red Dirt Talking, and it’s funny, I was reading that thinking ‘How does she know all this?’. And that was born out of her living in community and so forth and following the protocols. And I think… I get people emailing me all the time saying, ‘I’ve just finished a manuscript, can you read it and… I know I should have an Aboriginal character in there’.

Oh, it’s exhausting. I was like, don’t come to me when the projects over, it’s too late for anything. It’s not just a Black-White thing, I think. Di Morrissey, who is a commercial writer, she said years ago, like in the 90s, ‘If I’m going to write about businessmen, I go and speak to businessmen’. It’s not rocket science, it is about being a good writer. For me, it’s about the reader at the end of the day getting a book of the shelf that is the best it can be.

Nic: And did you… You’ve talked about the respect you have for other people when you are writing, let’s talk a little bit about your current novel Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, set in Cowra. The Japanese character in the Cowra breakout, did you approach that character in the same sort of way? How did you go about it and who did you talk to?

Anita: I couldn’t have done it without having gone to Japan. I put some feelers out. Once I had the idea, I contacted Dr Laurie Bamblett in Cowra, who’s from Erambie where my mum was born. I said, ‘I’ve had this idea, but and I’ve lived off country all my life. If you tell me this is bad idea’ –  I’ve done another book there, I go out to Cowra and I do stuff in the schools, and I love it there – ‘but if you tell me this is a bad idea, I will bin it all together’. So, he said, ‘No, it’s a good idea, no one can say your mum hasn’t got the right to tell her own story about life growing up’. So, I then put feelers to find out who I could speak to about the Japanese experience, and I was put in contact with this extraordinary women, actually her title in Japan is Extraordinary Professor.

Nic: [Laughter] Extraordinary Professor!

Anita: I didn’t even know if I was supposed to curtsey or what I was supposed to do. Now, she has spent two decades researching and writing about the Cowra breakout, learning about it at a time when nobody in Japan talked about this. You know, she was friends with someone for five years from Cowra before she knew about it.

Nic: Wow.

Anita: She’s put it on the radar, now she’s interviewed a number of former Japanese POWs, who literally, within months of them telling their stories to her, pass away. It’s like they’ve carried this all, their entire life. So, I go to her, she tells me about things, about life for them on a day to day basis in the compound that it’s not published anywhere. And even when I submitted my draft to my publisher, they came back, the editor said, ‘Oh, this sounds like Australian propaganda’. Because this stuff hadn’t been seen before, and it was that lots of stuff at the Japanese prisoners did not want to break out. They were grateful for the treatment they got. You know, we treated our POWs to the letter of the law under the Geneva Convention, as we should have.

And so… But I wouldn’t have known any of this stuff, so she gave me all this stuff which was great. She read drafts, the first draft I put in she said, Anita, no, there’s no way a Japanese man, particularly at that time, would disclose so much of himself personally to a woman or a Western woman at that. And of course, I was mortified, I was ‘Oh no’.

Nic: That’s not what you want to hear as a writer, you don’t want to go down that track.

Anita: But I know people who would have just said, ‘So what, I’m writing a book and it’s a novel’. But I want… I want this is not my story, like I’m putting it together, I want it to be authentic, so I had to rework that and think to myself, ‘Well, in times of war, people do extraordinary things’. So, I had to make it so he’s conscious that this is not a normal situation and so forth. I went to Hiroshima, I went to the Peace Memorial, I went to the Shrine where 2.5 million souls are meant to be enshrined there in Tokyo, I read letters from soldiers, and that helped me inform the way people thought and that gave me the idea that Hiroshi would write a letter home to his family.

Nic: Ok. I guess that advice you got from her, certainly at first might not have been what you wanted to hear, but it allows you to create the character as they really would have been.

Anita: Absolutely. And that’s the goal, that’s the goal.

Nic: Exactly. And then you deal with that and if that character happens to be like that, then that becomes the way that they act and behave.

Anita: There’s no point in getting it wrong. There’s no point selling 50,000 books, 100,000 books if it’s wrong. Like there’s no point in that for me.

Nic: How have you improved as a writer over the years? Is it something you’ve… You know, if you look back, is there certain things you do or certain techniques to do with your process or when you read something, is there a way that you think you’ve improved?

Anita: I would like to think that I have a better understanding of structure, a better understanding of how I need, every line needs to move the story forward. I would like to think from every editorial report I get, I’ve taken in so they don’t have to say the same things for the next book. I know that my capacity to tell a story – contrary to today’s conversation – far more concisely on the page than I would have 10 years ago with Not Meeting Mr Right, and that came back and we lost 20,000 words, so clearly I’d added 20,000 words that didn’t need to be there. I’d like to think that… I don’t think my vocabs grown, I have a very small vocab and I’ve learned to live with that. But I’d like to think that… It’s like running, I run. And the more you do it, the faster you get, the technique improves, the less pain you have and I’d like to think that the more that I do, the skills are honed in terms of recognising what needs to go and what can stay and what’s vital to the story.

Nic: Does it get easier?

Anita: I think it does.

Nic: Ok.

Anita: The hard works still there.

Nic: Sure.

Anita: And it’s stressful and all that, but I’m working on a book now, and I’m really enjoying it because I feel like I know what I’m doing.

Nic: Yeah. And also maybe, is it also because you know which ideas are going to give you more enjoyment now and before you would have?

Anita: I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier about how, you know, we say yes to everything because we need to get published but now I can say yes to things that I really want to do.

Nic: That’s right, exactly.

Anita: Therefore the works still there, the deadlines still there, you still have to develop and create, your characters need to evolve and your story needs to make sense and all that sort of thing, but I’m choosing to write things that I want to. I’m choosing, my choice.

Nic: Tell us… Just give us a very brief outline on the work of and the importance of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. It’s a wonderful organisation, it’s very well supported by all the literary organisations and publishers and what have you.

Anita: So, Suzy Wilson runs Riverbend Books in Brisbane. She woke up one day and saw the appalling statistics around Indigenous illiteracy, or illiteracy, and said, ‘You know what? I’m a bookseller, I rely, my living is based on the fact that people can read – I need to be doing something’. She harnessed support, created the Riverbend Book challenge, which became the Queensland Book Challenge, grew into the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which is a cross sector partnership between booksellers, the Australian Book Sellers Association, Australian Publishers Association, Australian Society of Authors Association, individual authors and creators, and basically we’re doing the job that the Government should be doing and ensuring that all Australian kids have access to resources and can read.

Nic: Sure.

Anita: But… I think it’s a very successful grass roots movement, our patron is Quentin Bryce, we’ve had Ambassadors like Kate Grenville and David Malouf and Andy Griffiths and so forth. There is a three-pronged process where we have book supply, where the book industry supplies books at cost. Communities and literacy workers on the ground choose those books, so we’re not just dumping in books that people don’t want. They’re brand new books because our kids deserve brand new books.

Nic: Absolutely.

Anita: We have a community publishing program, where communities come up with ideas.

So, I’ve done a book with the girls from Tiwi College. We create the book, we sell the book and then that money goes into, you know, buying books for communities. I did a book last year with the Hawthorn Football Club, and the Big River Hawks in Katherine, and the Epic Good Foundation, and with young footballers up there, they’ve created a book.

Nic: Wow, fantastic.

Anita: Yeah, it’s awesome. And we also have Book Buzz, which is a book pack for infants. Because what we found is one of the issues is we have kids starting school having never even held a book before. Already behind the eight ball, so kids need to be reading. So, its grass roots, we have an enormous range of volunteers across the country, and we have Indigenous Literacy days the first Wednesday of September every year where schools around the country participate in great book swaps and people can see that they can make real change. They can see that books are going into the hands of kids who would otherwise not have them.

Nic: Fantastic. I urge everyone to support it when you come across it. Just finally, which classic work do you wish that you had written?

Anita: Apropos of that question, people will often ask me what’s my favourite book. So it’s kind of sort of thing. So not what I’ve written, what’s your favourite book? What’s a classic? The book that I’ve wished I’d written a book that I consider a classic is, Kath Walker’s We Are Going. It was the first published collection of poetry by an Aboriginal person in 1964, it sold about 10,000 copies back then. Can you imagine a poet today in Australia selling that?

Nic: Yeah, but today it is every poetry put together, every poet put together.

Anita: It’s extraordinary. Here we are in the 60s, prior to the 67 Referendum, it’s at a time when reviewers of that work couldn’t believe that it was actually written by an Aboriginal person. They were going, ‘This isn’t written by an Aboriginal person’. So, they denied that. 10,000 people bought that book, that’s the influence, the interest, the level of engagement people had in that work. In that work is the Charter of Aboriginal Rights which is a relevant today as it was back then. I have a hard copy version, so if my house is on fire, I’m taking my parents wedding photos, the laptop with the new book on it, and I’ll probably grab that book. So, I think it’s a classic. It’s one of the books that I think if people are serious about Australian literature should have on their shelves.

Nic: Ok, great.

Anita: And I wished I’d written it, but I’m glad she did, I wasn’t born.

Nic: It’s been an absolute delight talking to you, Anita, and I’ve enjoyed it. I thank you again for spending the time, and coming into our little garret and having a chat.

Anita: Thank you for having me.