In partnership with the State Library of Victoria, The Garret hosted a series of live events with leading Australian writers in 2018. In our final event, Clementine Ford, Hannah Kent and Alice Pung discussed the status of women writers and the challenges they face.
Clementine Ford is a writer, broadcaster and feminist thinker and speaker. She has been writing freelance for more than a decade, and has published two bestselling non-fiction works: Fight Like A Girl (2017) and Boys Will Be Boys (2018).
Hannah Kent made waves in Australia's literary scene in 2013 with her first novel, Burial Rites. It won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Victorian Premier's People's Choice Award, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, The Good People (2016), received similar acclaim. Hannah is also the co-founder of the literary journal Kill Your Darlings.
Alice Pung is a writer, editor, teacher and lawyer. She has won numerous awards for her memoirs, and her writing has appeared in The Monthly, The Age, Meanjin, Best Australian Stories and Best Australian Essays. Her long-form works include: Unpolished Gem (2007), Her Father's Daughter (2011) and Laurinda (2014). Alice also edited Growing Up Asian in Australia (2008).
Justine: Hi, everyone. My name's Justine Hyde and I'm the Director of Experience here at the State Library of Victoria. It's my great pleasure to welcome you tonight to The Garret Live at the Library with Alice Pung, Clementine Ford and Hannah Kent in conversation with The Garret host, Astrid Edwards.
At the Library, we're proud to support The Garret in connecting readers everywhere with the writers behind their stories. We launched Live at the Library earlier this year, inviting audiences to be part of these exciting and inspiring conversations. The series launched on World Book Day with a conversation with acclaimed novelist, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter Christos Tsiolkas. Since then we've heard from journalist, author, and award-winning TV show creator Benjamin Law on diversity and representation in literature, on screen, and on stage, and New York Times bestselling YA authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff on the intricacies of collaborative writing.
For tonight's event, Hannah Kent, Alice Pung and Clementine Ford will dissect the role of women writers in Australian intellectual life. When discussing the role of contemporary women writers, it's impossible not to acknowledge the women who fought so hard for so long for our voices to be heard. In the first half of last century, women writers challenged the gendered roles and norms that had for so long prevented half of the population from contributing to public intellectual and cultural life. They fought for voting rights, working rights, rights to their own bodies and relationships, and the right to write.
Now women writers and authors are no longer the exception with recent studies showing that about two-thirds of professional writers in Australia identify as female. According to The Stella Count, which assesses the extent of gender biases in the field of book reviewing in Australia, women have been underrepresented across the review pages of Australia's twelve major newspapers and literary magazines since the count began in 2012. The results of the most recent count show that books by women accounted for only 40 per cent of reviews in The Saturday Paper and 38 per cent in both The Weekend Australian and The Australian Book Review. Some publications however are making a change. Books by women accounted for 68 per cent of reviews in Books and Publishing, and 58 per cent in The West Australian.
Hannah Kent's debut novel, Burial Rights, won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, the Indie Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year and the Victorian Premier's People's Choice Award. It was shortlisted for The Stella Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. And her acclaimed second novel, The Good People, was published in 2016 and shortlisted for the Indie Book Awards and the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year. Hannah is the co-founder and publishing director of literary journal Kill Your Darlings.
Clementine Ford is a writer, broadcaster, and feminist thinker and speaker. She has been writing freelance for more than a decade and is a regular contributor to The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. Clementine is the author of two best-selling non-fiction works, the feminist manifesto Fight Like A Girl, released in 2017, and the incendiary new book tackling toxic masculinity and misogyny, Boys Will Be Boys, which was published last month.
And Alice Pung is a writer, editor, teacher, and lawyer. She's won numerous awards for her two memoirs, and her writing has appeared in The Monthly, The Age, Meanjin, Best Australian Stories and Best Australian Essays. Her long form works include Unpolished Gem, Her Father's Daughter, Laurinda, and the Marley series. Alice has just published Close to Home, selected writings.
I'd now like to hand over to Astrid to lead what will no doubt be a fascinating discussion. Thank you, and I hope to see you at the Library again soon. [applause]
Astrid: Thank you, Justine. And thank you Clementine, Alice, and Hannah. It is a great pleasure and honour to have you and your children here tonight.
So to start with, Hannah, if I could ask you first, how has the literary landscape changed over your career? Of course your literary career, but also your role as co-founder of Kill Your Darlings.
Hannah: I feel that I haven't really been writing for long enough to substantiate a career that I could talk through in any sense of it being a long time and having had a lot of changes occur in it. And same with Kill Your Darlings, it's only really been about 10 years or so. However, I think there have been some changes, and I think – perhaps it's just my own optimistic attitude, but I think there have been in recent years, in the last decade, a great many more opportunities created for young writers, for emerging writers, for writers who come from diverse backgrounds, who come from challenging backgrounds. I think there's more space being created and I think there's a growing awareness and hunger for diverse stories.
And this is something that we've also seen in Kill Your Darlings. I think, we, from the outset, really wanted to publish excellent writing. We wanted to publish quality stories. We weren't necessarily keen on getting the biggest names. We just wanted the writing of the highest quality, and I think where initially we had to hunt really hard, particularly to find women or female contributors, now through various initiatives, but also perhaps a greater culture of women being invited to contribute of being fostered and supported and mentored. For instance, we had for some time a Friday pitch fest called ‘Pitch Bitch’, which was specifically targeted to encourage women to pitch to us, because overwhelmingly we had a lot of fiction submissions to Kill Your Darlings, but very few women would pitch non-fiction articles.
So through all these small changes and initiatives we now have, I think, at least parity if not maybe slightly more women writers pitching their ideas, which is really, really heartening to see. I don't think it's necessarily we've fixed all the problems that we initially encountered, but we've certainly covered some ground.
Astrid: Alice, I might move on to you. Have you noticed or experienced any change? In 2008, you published Growing Up Asian in Australia, one of the anthologies by Black Inc. And as I'm sure you're all aware, it took a decade for the anthology series to be continued, this year with Growing Up Aboriginal by Anita Heiss, and we have anthologies by Ben Law and Maxine Beneba Clarke on the way.
Alice: I speak to a lot of high school students, and I'm quite optimistic about them. They're more self-aware and they're more... Some people would call it entitled, but I think they just don't put up with bullshit. They don't put up with racism. They're well aware of their identity and they have a sense of belonging, and they definitely don't put up with racism. And I think that's got a lot to do with social media, as well. Social media is great to call out instances of racism and when things aren't right. And younger people are getting a sense that if something's not right, it's okay to speak out.
Astrid: And Clementine, your career has so much in it, I just don't know where to begin, actually.
Clementine: Well, it's really nice to... Firstly, really nice to be here with everyone tonight. No, it's not your turn [speaking to her son on stage with her]. I'm a long-term fan of both Hannah and Alice's work, and I'm hesitant to apologize for what's happening on my lap right now because one of the realities of all three of us writers is that we all have kids, and unlike a lot of men writers, this is how we write [laughter], which actually makes us a lot more remarkable than them, really. Just excuse me one second. This is my microphone. Such a boy. [laughter]
And it's great because in my early days of writing, some of my pieces... I was lucky enough to have them appear in Kill Your Darlings, which was such a wonderful place to be welcomed into and to have your work validated. So thanks so much for that, Hannah.
Hannah: Oh, you're so welcome.
Astrid: Do you think that your first book, Fight Like a Girl, could have been published or even sold so well earlier than 2016?
Clementine: Not at all. In fact, back in 2012... I think it was 2012 because it was just after I'd moved to Melbourne. I actually spoke with an editor at a publishing house – and I won't name either one because the editor is amazing and the publishing house is also wonderful – and it was an early proto-version of Fight Like A Girl. And the editor was really excited about it and she really wanted to get the publishing house to acquire it, and we thought it was... It almost got to the line, and then she came back to me and she said, ‘I'm so sorry. This is so disappointing that I took it to acquisitions and they've had to decline because feminist books don't sell’. And it was true at the time. It was true. One of my favourite feminist books that came out in Australia a couple of years before that, I was surprised to learn how few copies it had sold, because I thought it was this huge hit.
And I don't think that if it had come out... Firstly, I don't think that I would've written as good a book back then. I think that my writing got a lot better over the next four years, and hopefully will continue to get better and better as I get older. But I just think that everything that has happened since that period in time has created the perfect environment for a book like that to be embraced as it was.
Astrid: So I'd like to go into detail about everything that has happened in that time, and I'd like the thoughts of all three of you on… Any discussion of women in Australian literature sits right next to a discussion of diversity, not just in writers that are published in Australia, but also those who work in the arts and literary industry behind the scenes. We now talk about Own Voices and the importance of representation. As Justine mentioned, we had Ben Law here talking about representation on screen and on stage. But can you elaborate those things that you referred to? What has happened?
Clementine: Well, I suppose I can only speak personally from the approach that I take to writing, and also the lessons that I've been fortunate enough to learn along the way because of the increase in exposure of diverse writers. And also, I think the unapologetic claiming of space from groups that have traditionally been marginalized and silenced, which is really invigorating and inspiring to be part of the audience of. Feminism, what I write about, is changing all the time and is under a pretty critical lens from within and without. So I've made missteps along the way and had to become a lot more conscious of how the systems that I'm writing about work outside of my own experience of them, which I think has been really valuable for me personally, and also has improved my writing a lot.
Alice: I loved what you said, Clementine, about this unapologetic claiming of space. So maybe two decades ago, if I were to have written... I've been writing for about fifteen years. Just five years before I was writing, stories like mine were called, ‘ethic literature’ or ‘migrant literature’. And then I think the tables turned. We started having more stories that authored our identity as Australians first and foremost. Not in a nationalistic way, but in a way that you can be Asian Australian or Somali Australian or gay Australian as a sense of identity. And there reached a point where the Australian literary world got a bit embarrassed by these migrant stories, and a lot kept getting published that weren't of particularly high quality. I get asked to read a lot of books, especially if they're refugee stories, and sometimes it comes in cycles.
So I get asked to read a lot of books about war, and I think, ‘Wow, this is an incredible story, but this isn't a writerly voice yet. It needs to be cultivated. It needs some mentorship. It's not a literary voice’. And then, maybe, the saddest thing is, six months later you see that book that this young refugee – usually they're young – have put their heart and soul into, on the remainder table on those $10 book shops, because it's just a narrative. It's not a literary story or anything. And it comes in cycles, and I've had publishers tell me, ‘Do you know of any Sudanese refugees? You work in Footscray. Do you know Iranian refugees?’ We don't have any of their voices.
So Own Voices is really important, but the quality of Own Voices is also quite important as well. And I judge every year an award called the ... Well, I've got two kids now, so I haven't. But for the past three years, I judged an award called the Deborah Cass Prize, which is about any aspect of migrant writing, and it was started three years ago by writer Deborah Cass who died of cancer. And I really quite like that. Fifteen years ago, people would have been ashamed to write about the migrant experience. It was just daggy. But now there's a special prize for it, and the prize is judged on literary merit. So when I judged it I was with Christos Tsiolkas and the filmmaker Tony Ayres.
Hannah: Look, I think it's... You've mentioned people are now claiming the space and telling these stories which haven't been told before, and I think that's a big part of it. But I think something which is perhaps ... Being totally upstaged here. [Laughter]
Clementine: I'm not going to apologize for having to bring him because I couldn't get a babysitter, and I know we all understand that, but I do apologise for the distraction.
Hannah: No apologies. I think they're just much higher cuter levels than anything I can offer, really. [Laughter]
But what was I saying? I think what I was trying to get at was more that I think there's been a time where people have perhaps realised, and I speak for myself with this, the importance more than ever of listening. And I think with the spaces being claimed, people have realised that, no, no, no, it's time for a lot of us to actually shut up and to listen to these stories that are being told. Not just to create more space for them, but to actually actively engage with them and to take them on, and then interrogate a lot of the dominant narrative forms that we've been grown up with, particularly in my case. I grew up at school, all the books that I read in English were written by white, dead men, and that was something that I accepted at the time unquestioningly. I don't think children now going to school would accept that to the same level, and I think that's because we've been taught that there are... For the need for multiple stories, and perhaps, like I said, a little bit more willing to listen to them.
Clementine: But it's interesting, as well, that there's still that backlash against that embrace and that movement. I mean, Alice, you were talking before about kids today being really switched on and all the kids all over the country went out today to march and to protest against a lack of action on climate change. And the ways in which the people who consider themselves the gatekeepers of power and privilege and what gets to be considered important in society, the way that they've been talking about them is so horribly offensive and patronising and infantalising. And I think that we've all seen that same response to the suggestion that literature be not only more diverse voices be published and mentored and fostered, but that school curriculums should not be dominated by the voices of dead, white men. Although, who doesn't like a dead white man? [Laughter]
Astrid: You do get yourself into trouble.
Clementine: And still that backlash has been, ‘Well, it should be about the best books on the curriculum!’
Astrid: So this brings us to the question of, what barriers exist to the quality that you're referring to, Alice, and to that true representation that comes to the forefront. What barriers have you all experienced and what still remain?
Hannah: I don't know. I feel like perhaps it's a very big question and it's one that, perhaps, can be split into three. I think there are barriers specific to creation of literature. There are barriers specific to the publication. And then also barriers related to the reception. And I think, for instance, we spoke earlier of The Stella Count. That is something which highlights all the barriers faced by women in the reception of their work, and the way in which, consequently, that work might be disseminated to broader society, the way it might be read by various people... If it's going to be stopped dead, basically.
You just spoke a little bit about publication. I don't have a great insight about that. I think perhaps something... And creation is something which perhaps I have only personal insight into. And I think I've been reading Clementine's incredible book Boys Will Be Boys, and you speak so eloquently in that about the continued weight placed on women, or the continued responsibility for women to assume primary care-giving roles, for instance. You spoke earlier about the challenges lots of women writers have because they're also at the same time caring for children. And I think this is something which, like I said earlier, is most immediate to me in terms of my own experience, and I think something then that I can imagine would impact women in far greater ways than perhaps I have been challenged. So yeah, I think it's probably a three-fold question, but certainly… I'll let you guys maybe comment further on those things.
Alice: Exactly what you said, Hannah. So I've got an eight week old baby here and my husband's in Duki for work. I feel very lucky, though. Duki is a real place, actually. [Laughter] Because when I started out writing... My mother's illiterate, so she can't read or write. They closed down the Chinese schools in Cambodia when she was just in Grade Two. That was the first stage of ethnic cleansing. So she can't read or write. She hasn't read a word that I've written. But today she went to a school with me to hold this baby so that I could give a talk to Year 9 students about war and things like that. And in the car, she was saying to me, ‘Yeah, you better get me to come along to all your school visits, because these schools won't have you back if they find out you have a baby. Especially the really wealthy schools’. So she was really paranoid as this. And she took time from her work. She works at Better Electrical in Springvale, which is quite far from where I was today as well, and I just saw within this one generation a huge difference and a huge acceptance.
Now what we do as writers in our own time is quite a feat. You've probably breastfed while typing on the computer and done things like that as well. But in terms of, not even promoting your work, going out and teaching students, that's not possible without help. So one of my friends, when I was at university, he said, because he was from China, he said, ‘All these first year students, all these Westerners, they think they get independent when they get their own car so they can't wait to turn 18 until they get a car and then they can drive anywhere and that's independence here’. And he says, ‘You know what? Takes bloody a thousand people to make a frigging car. The moment they sit in that car and turn on the ignition they're relying on the help of a thousand people’. And I thought, ‘That's pretty cool. That's true’. And it's the same with having a kid, I think.
Clementine: Yeah, god, I'm not going to sit in my car the same way again now. [Laughter]
Yeah, look, I feel like more than anything that's been the biggest barrier/challenge has been motherhood. I wrote my first book when I was pregnant and it came out two months before he was born... Sorry, two months after he was born. So he same age as your gorgeous little baby that I cannot take my eyes off of. And I did the whole book tour with him breastfeeding and trying to manage that, and I guess I only had one so I wasn't quite as tired then. And I've done that thing walking around the neighbourhood, pushing him in a pram to get him to sleep, and typing articles on my phone. And then I wrote the second book when he was... He'd just turned one. So it became a whole different kind of challenging, and having to negotiate, as you said, with help. I'm fortunate enough that I have enough disposable income that I can pay for someone to help take care of him.
But again, I don't think that these are choices necessarily that a lot of men who write have to make. One of the reasons why I brought him with me tonight was not only because I couldn't get a babysitter, but also, a babysitter for an event like this would cost about $75, about three hours in and out of the house. And that's not money that a lot of men have to pay in order to go and do their work at night time. A lot of male writers would rely on their female partners to do it, in heterosexual couples, obviously. My partner works at night, so I can't rely on that at all. So there's a lot of management, and then there's the barriers of societal expectations.
So even in an event like this where it's about women who write, all of whom happen to be mothers, the majority of the audience is probably female. I don't think that there's anyone here... Logically, I don't think there's anyone who's hostile to the idea of children being here. But you still have that expectation that, as a woman who works, you have to maintain a barrier and a division between your work life and your home life, and make sure that no one in your work life knows that the home life exists, and no one in your home life knows that the work life exists. And it's impossible when you're a writer because the two are so intrinsically connected.
Astrid: Now, writing is not really the type of industry where you get maternity leave or other benefits. So what is the answer? And the only one I can think of, which is by no means a brilliant answer, is literary prizes for women or new supports like The Next Chapter, but for mothers, for example. Do you have thoughts on what we can actually do?
Hannah: I actually would really like the answer to that because when I had my daughter earlier this year, I told everyone I was going on maternity leave, which is a farce because I'm self-employed. But I did it more to borrow the rhetoric so that people would probably at least not email as much. But I mean, the problem for me being freelance is that deadlines don't shift for things like that. So inevitably, I was still working, and I found it something that... I had anticipated that perhaps people would be a little bit more understanding, and I think people were and their demands weren't as much of me as they perhaps otherwise would have. But the thing, again with being a freelancer, is that you're often working with multiple people who have no idea about the other demands being made on you. So it was something that I actually struggled... I found it very, very difficult. So yeah, if anyone has any solutions, I'd be keen to know how to carve out that space and how to...
And I mean, I have it incredibly easy. I have a very supportive partner. I have a supportive family. I have an office. I have a separate space where I can work, and even then I found it such a challenge. So I mean, acknowledging my own privilege and the sheer luxury I really have in being able to, for instance, work at home as well, I still want answers. I still found it really hard.
Alice: I saw this great retreat. You might have emailed it, Clementine. It was in the United Kingdom and it was a farm stay and you could stay with your whole family and they did these activities for the kids while you sat there and wrote, and your husband could be involved in the farm work if he so desired. But it was a real family-oriented thing so you didn't have to be separated from your family while you did your writing work. I thought that was an excellent idea.
Hannah: That sounds beautiful.
Clementine: I didn't email that to you, but that sounds incredible. Can you email it to me? [laughter]
Alice: Oh, yeah. Of course.
Clementine: I don't want to sound like a broken record, but I do feel... I just keep coming back to this... Particularly when you're partnered with a man, that it's all of this extra work that is involved. I also didn't take maternity leave, partly because as a freelancer I didn't really get maternity leave from Fairfax. [Laughter] But I think there's also that fear that drives you as well, that when you're a freelance writer or someone who is able to make most of your living from writing – which is a privileged position in and of itself – there is that fear that if you drop the ball for even a minute that not only will you forget how to write, but someone else will come along and take the space that you've worked so hard to carve out. I mean, that's actually not really the reality, but it's the fear constantly of the freelance life. Whether or not you're a freelance writer or a freelance graphic designer, whatever it might be. I always feel that if someone's offering me work that I have to say yes because it's like the diligent mouse that collects the acorns in the springtime so that they'll keep being able to eat in winter. And I've had enough bare winters that I don't want to have no acorns. [Laughter]
But I just feel, structurally it's not about... I mean, you can sit here and you can acknowledge these barriers, and it's not just women with children who have these barriers. There's lots of barriers that exist for women without children who are writers, whether or not they're partnered. They may be single. There's structurally the barrier of less money and less attention, less value being placed on your work because you're a woman. The marginalisation of your writing as ‘women's writing’, as if somehow women have nothing interesting or important or relevant to talk about. And it's just all of these assumptions that have to be navigated about who you are, and you spend so much of your time actually playing along with the assumptions and trying to disprove them, rather than creating something different.
And so, just very quickly, structurally I think that in supporting women to write and in supporting mothers to write, it has to be a multi-faceted approach. The support has to come from, obviously their families and their communities, but also financial support is important.
Astrid: So I have a question. Now, you've all been nominated for a long list of literary prizes. Hannah, you were shortlisted for The Stella Prize, which is Australia's premier prize for women's literature, and Alice was longlisted the year after. What role do prizes just for women have these days? And if I can ask a more pointed question, are they prizes for women, or should they be more inclusive by essentially being prizes not for men?
Hannah: The second part of your question is a very good one, but I think probably... I am for prizes for women for as long as there is a need for parity in the way in which women's stories are reviewed and in the way that they're received and the way that they're published. I think as long as the Stella count keeps throwing up these horrific numbers... I mean, 2016 was an incredible year for those of you who follow The Stella Count, and then 2017 shows a complete going back to… slipping back to where we were. I mean, the fact that Australia's premier publication for reviewing Australian books, The Australian Book Review, only has 38 per cent reviews of the works of women just seems bizarre. I think that there is a need for women's prizes. And I think sometimes... I mean, I have lots of friends who are writers. I have lots of friends who are engaged in the literary industry. I think sometimes it's easy, perhaps, to forget that lots of people don't come to events like this. Lots of people don't necessarily have friends who are writers or are really involved or read a lot of reviews. And so, sometimes the only mention that they'll hear of these awards is when the winner is printed in the newspaper and they're like, ‘Brilliant. All right. I might read that’. And I think that's really, really important to remember, that these prizes aren't so much just there for writers, although they're incredible because they do give women a lot of financial support to write these stories. But I think they need to be there for readers. I think they need to let readers know that these incredible works are there, and I think that that's something which I perceive to be one of the... I guess, the most fundamentally important part of them, if that makes sense.
Clementine: I was just going to say, that's why I love the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, the fact that it differentiates itself not just as a writers festival, but as a writers and readers festival, and values the reader.
Astrid: So Hannah, you mentioned The Stella Prize. I have some stats for you. Now, those of you who know me know I am incredibly offended by the state of arts criticism and literary criticism in Australia, particularly the gender bias.
So in the latest count, the percentage of women reviewed dropped from 48 per cent to 46 per cent, meaning work by women is represented and engaged with less. That's what you were referring to, Hannah.
64 per cent of the long reviews, and by long review, that's a review over 1,000 words, are books by men, and this has increased over time. It used to be less than 60 per cent, and this means that men get more detailed and in-depth reviews than work by women.
There is a trend of men reviewing men and women reviewing women, and that's problematic but it's particularly problematic because there is a trend of men publishing non-fiction, which sells better, so there's a commercial reality there, but also a bias that non-fiction is more important than fiction.
I think that's horrific. Hannah?
Hannah: I agree. [Laughter]
Astrid: I was very lucky to be published in the Australian Book Review twice this year. Once, your work, Clementine, which I felt honoured to review, but also because you were a female writer writing non-fiction and I was a female reviewer reviewing non-fiction.
Clementine: Can I just say as well, just on what you were talking about. Ann Enright wrote a really... Oh, sorry. I don't know if you had that next in your questions. But Ann Enright wrote a really amazing piece for the Irish Book Review, or the Irish Review of Books, sorry. The Irish Times, probably. Last year, and it was about the count in Ireland and it reflects exactly the same statistics. But she also recounted a story about an author, a woman, who had written this book that she'd sent out to forty literary agents, say, and I think she got a reply from two of them, both saying that they weren't interested. And then she decided to run an experiment where she changed her name to George and sent the same exact manuscript out, and this time 25 per cent of the literary agents responded extremely enthusiastically and all wanted to see more. And the anecdote that Ann Enright recounting in this is this author talking about how completely demoralising and depressing it was to realise that George was 25 per cent better at writing than she was. [Laughter]
Astrid: So depressing.
Hannah: It's interesting, the comment you make about men preferring non-fiction. I mean, if I had a dollar for every time this has happened... Sadly, a lot to me over the past five years or whatever. There'll be an event like this, afterwards or at a writers festival, particularly somewhere like Adelaide Writers Festival, which isn't ticketed so you have a lot of people coming through who might not necessarily listen to you otherwise or seek you out. And I'll have men come up to me with a copy of the book at the signing table and say, ‘I just really wanted to thank you for that talk. I found it fascinating. I really hope my wife enjoys the book’. And I'm always like, ‘Maybe you might enjoy it too’. And then they say, ‘Oh, no, no. I only read non-fiction’. Because at first I just nodded and then I started pushing back a little bit, and it happens all the time, and it's very much this idea of, ‘Good for you, you woman writer, writing women's fiction for my wife. She's going to love it’.
But I just find, you've just gone out of your way to have a conversation with me and you've said that you've enjoyed what we've been talking about. I've been talking about fiction. I've been talking about creative process. I've been talking about all the real life human experience which informs fiction. What then is in the way? I mean, I feel sorry for them. I think they're missing out. But it happens so much and it continues to happen, actually.
Clementine: That same thing happens to me as well. A lot of men... And look, I don't care if they're buying the book. That's good whoever's reading it. Just buy it. [Laughter] No, no, no. I'm joking. A lot of men do the same thing. They come and they engage very enthusiastically after hearing me speak, and then they say, ‘I'm buying this for my daughter’, or, ‘I'm buying it for my wife’. And I want to nudge them and say, ‘Maybe you could read it too, as well’. But I think one of the problems with non-fiction, and particularly the topics that I write about, is that oftentimes that reading is done by the women and then the ideas are translated to men, because on the other side of that, I get a lot of women buying my books and saying, ‘Hopefully I can encourage my husband to read it’, or ‘My sons to read it’, or whatever it might be. So I don't know if it's ... He says he just reads non-fiction. Maybe I should send him a copy of my book.
Hannah: I think so. I'll just give them your number.
Clementine: But yeah, I mean, it's still this idea of, ‘Well, I should be entitled to my preferences and my preference is to just read…’I think it goes back to what we were speaking about at the start of the podcast about diversity and about embracing different voices, and it should be considered more shameful by people that they have no curiosity about any stories that seem foreign to them. And I don't mean foreign location, but any stories that are outside of their own immediate experience, that they couldn't possibly be interested in discovering more about them.
Astrid: Clementine, Hannah and Alice, you are all much admired. The audience is here tonight because they enjoy your work and what you represent. Can you each share some of your advice for your readers and your writers who are here, particularly those who love your work or identify with you?
Hannah: I mean, all of you seem to be readers anyway, and often my first thing is just to read, to read as widely as possible. I'm still trying to challenge myself with the books I read. There's many other stories that... I'm trying to break down, actually, the way that I've been trained to read, which is to idealise a particular kind of literature, which is basically Tolstoy, and to actively seek out other works, seek out works in translation. So to challenge yourself as a reader, and I think that does make you a better writer as well. But specific to writing, and perhaps specific to the women in the room who want to write, is to...
It's two-fold. Part A is don't wait until you feel ready, because in my experience you so rarely feel ready to write and I still never feel ready. And Part B, you'll need to give yourself permission. You can't get it from anyone else. And I think that speaks to what you were saying earlier about the many people who don't have the support of their partners or the families, who find it very difficult to carve out 20 minutes a day to establish a writing routine. You need to be the person to give yourself that permission and to just start.
Clementine: Yeah, I think that's excellent advice. And just to add to it, what I would say as well is, while you're giving yourself permission to write, also tell yourself that your voice deserves to be heard, that you don't have to prove that you're worthy to speak or that your story is worth telling. Whether or not it's a memoir or a fictional story, that you actually have just as much right as anyone else in this world to put words down on a page and ask that someone read them. They may not be good words, but a lot of us have written... I mean, all of us have written a lot of bad words and we will continue to write a lot of bad words for the rest of our lives.
And the other thing, as well, is in that 20 minutes, when I was writing the second book and there were some days where I... Days like this. And I used to get quite panicked about the idea that I'd set myself word goals every day in order to hit my deadline, and I would get panicked that if I didn't seem close to hitting that then the day was wasted. And I think just reminding yourself that no words are wasted, even the bad ones, is a really good thing to do as well. And even if you put down... Some days you might be able to write 3,000, 4,000 words, and other days you might only be able to scrounge out 50 or 100, but it's still 50 or 100 words that is part of building a structure.
So those are the things that I think of now, is reminding myself that my voice is just as important or has just as much right as anyone else's. And just to see it as a marathon, not a sprint.
Alice: It's wonderful to be on such a panel talking about writing, but the advice I usually give students is, you can spend a lot of time talking about writing and talking about your ideas, and that's good if it gets you somewhere. But a lot of the time, I find when people start talking about writing in small groups and how hard it is for them, they're not actually doing the writing. So for me, I only talk about the writing once I've got a manuscript or a piece there. And that's just practical advice.
And also, I have a day job. So I've been a public servant... Sorry. Yep. So like George Orwell, I work in the public service. I've been doing that since I was 23 and it's a wonderful thing to have another source of income. The only setback is that I'm actually on maternity leave from my job at the Fair Work Commission, and people don't take writers that seriously, even if you've had a few books published. So I've got about ten. People call you up and say, ‘You're on maternity leave now’.
Clementine: You're on holiday.
Alice: Yeah. We should hang out. And they're your friends, but they think that you have lots of time to write when you're on maternity leave.
Astrid: I now feel very bad about inviting you to an event when you're on maternity leave.
Clementine: Gets her out of the house. What do you do all day?
Can I just say one other thing? In the reading process, one thing I've started to do, which many of you probably do but I'm a late adopter of it, is I've started to listen to books on audio book. You can do it while you're driving or while you're walking and getting some time out. And I love how that process changes the way that I read the book, particularly if it's a non-fiction book that's being performed by the author. I can hear it exactly as they meant for it to be read, and I feel like that just brings a whole new level of enjoyment to things.
Astrid: Do we have any questions in the audience?
Audience 1: I find it quite interesting, when we talk about the difference between fiction and non-fiction, because my view of fiction is that you have to be really informed and you build from reality to write fiction, and non-fiction, well, you don't always know everything anyway so you make up bits of it to fill in the gaps to make it readable. [Laughter] So I figure that I learn a lot from reading non-fiction, and in particular, Hannah, your books were amazing because I had no concept of the eras that you were discussing and the research that you did for them. The only reason, I believe, they're fiction is because nobody knows to fill in the gaps.
The other thing I was going to say. Your view, Clementine, on audio books is, I read really fast and I find the audio books are too slow. I want to know what's happening next and I can read it ten times quicker than I can listen to it, so I don't enjoy that as much. And on the train sometimes I think, ‘Oh, I'll listen to a book as I go home’, but it's too slow!
Clementine: Well you are allowed to keep reading books. [Laughter] There are just some... Sorry. Just quickly what you were saying about learning through fiction and non-fiction alike, and there are just some lines as well in fiction that... For me, the joy there is just the way that they plunge themselves in your heart and just leave like a little splinter there. Like there's one line from Cormack McCarthy's The Road, which it just will always haunt me. And it's when he's talking about how the world is so grey now from this unspecified apocalyptic event, and he says, ‘By day the sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp’. And I always think of that as being a perfect line in literature.
Astrid: Another question there down the front.
Audience 2: I really was interested in what Alice was saying early on in the podcast about – and what everyone was saying – about there being more room for diverse writers and readers, and there being more of a space in the literary scene and more people wanting to read those stories and feeling obliged to encourage them. I'm trying to write, and my story does have migrant themes and cultural themes and class themes in it, but I do fear that it is a popular fetishised area of literature now. I do fear that agents, like you say, are looking for... Is there a Sudanese story? What's the next best thing? What's something I can sell because people feel guilty enough to read about other cultures? And I don't really... And I feel like that's infecting my work a little bit because I worry about how it will be received, whether it will be received at all, if it's popular enough, if it's hot enough. And I don't feel like that's... I feel like that's making it harder for me to actually write what I want to write, and I just wondered if you had any advice for that process.
Alice: That's an excellent question. It's one I've thought about for well over a decade, as you know. So I guess, what I've noticed change – and this is a sad thing – is that young authors are scared to write about certain things, because they're politically incorrect or there's a certain way of telling a story about racism, a certain way of telling a story about class. And there's a certain... If you make one false move, Twitter will light up. So there's a lot of fear to get it right in the writing. And I started off not knowing any of that stuff, because we weren't so sensitive back then. And I wasn't middle class then, I was working class in Braybrook. So there's a lot of stuff in my books that I read 15 years later and think, ‘Oh, gosh. They'd never let me publish that today’. But just write fearlessly and bravely, I think, because as you mentioned, you have your voice and you have your story and they're separate things, and there's a lot of damage that could be done with this one story of yours, the story of your life, if overzealous editors or overzealous agents say, ‘You've got such an interesting life. You've got two years to write this book’, or one year or nine months, and once you pass that period, it's over. You've got no chances.
I like the authors who spend a long time... So my friend Michelle Law is a very talented playwright and writes for television, and I know she has a young adult book in her and she says, ‘I'm not ready’. And agents have come and asked me, because they say, ‘There's not enough young adult literature with Asian characters’, and she said, ‘I'm trying to get a story so it can wait’. And if you wait and you develop the voice, the voice is what sustains you through the decades, I've realised, as an author, not necessarily the story.
Astrid: We have a question down the front.
Audience 3: Hi. I'm 19. I just graduated from high school last year. So last year, I actually had to study Burial Rites, and the year before that I had to study Year of Wonders, so by Geraldine Brooks. So I know that Geraldine Brooks was Hannah Kent's mentor, but I was wondering, when you're writing, when you're starting off your writing career, would finding a mentor help? And in what ways? And how might you find a mentor?
Hannah: That's a very good question. I mean, in my experience working with Geraldine Brooks, the mentorship was quite brief in some ways, but undoubtedly useful. By the time I was working with her, I had a finished draft of a manuscript. So what she did was really read it, not as an editor or as another writer, but just as a reader, and was able to give me some very broad strokes of advice. And one of them was... I mean, Burial Rites, as you would know having studied it, and I hope you enjoyed studying it. I'm sorry if you didn't. [Laughter]
Audience 3: Yeah, it was really inspiring.
Hannah: Oh, that's lovely of you to say. Well, as you will know, it's quite a bleak story, and in that earlier iteration it was very, very dark. And one of the things she said to me was, ‘You need to let a little more light in’. And this was something that was just a passing comment in a series of emails. We had an email exchange that was the sum of our mentorship, but it really went on to influence how I approach the re-writes. So in that respect, it was incredibly useful for me. But I know that there are lots of other mentorship programs where people, I guess, are facilitated in different ways. So for instance, some mentors... I'm mentoring two writers at the moment and that's taking the shape of me reading early drafts, giving some feedback, maybe some suggestions, and then them going away, doing re-writes, coming back. So it's a little bit more involved.
I think it depends whether you perhaps have any work... Speaking personally to you. If you have any work ready that you feel needs another reader, that you perhaps identify that there's still problems with it but you don't know how to solve them, I find that that's often a really, really good place to then bring in other readers, bring in other mentors. Or whether it's perhaps a different kind of mentorship, one that's about, for instance, finding out what stories you need to tell and how to tell them. So it's actually much more about process, or it's about generation. Or whether you're happy with something and you want to know the best way to put it in to the hands of someone who might publish it.
So my first advice would be to sign up to your local writer centre, because I think these are fantastic central points to go to where you'll find out about mentorship opportunities. And often, many I know... I've recently read in the newsletter, for instance... I'm from Adelaide. South Australian Writers Centre will... You can go to them and say, ‘Look, I really want a mentor. These are the reasons why I want them’. And they'll try to pair you up with someone. So absolutely would recommend it. I've only had positive experiences, both as the mentor and mentee, and I think they can really, really help. But I would, before you start the process, maybe work out why you want them. But I mean, it's basically another supportive relationship, and I think as writers... Writing's such a solitary act. The more support you can have, the better.
Astrid: Now I think that tonight has been a perfect demonstration of the barriers that sometimes women are faced with writing. [Laughter] If any further were needed. So I would like you all to join me in thanking the wonderful mothers on stage and their children.
Clementine: Thank you, Astrid, for being so graceful.
Astrid: Thank you all very much for coming.