Nikki Gemmell is the author of thirteen novels and four works of non-fiction. She also writes a weekly column for The Australian newspaper.
Nikki is best-known for The Bride Stripped Bare (2003), an explicit exploration of female sexuality. Several of her books, including Shiver, The Book of Rapture and The Bride Stripped Bare, made the longlist of 'Favourite Australian Novels' as chosen by readers of the Australian Book Review. Her other novels include With My Body and I Take You (that form the Bride Trilogy with the original The Bride Stripped Bare), Lovesong and Pleasure.
Her non-fictions works are After (2017), Why You Are Australian, Honestly: Notes on Life, and Pleasure: An Almanac for the Heart. Nikki also writes novels for children, including the Kensington Reptilarium series and the Coco Banjo series.
- As a child, Nikki read and was influenced by The Silver Brumby Series by Elyne Mitchell, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren.
- As an adult, Nikki admires the distinctive voices of Anne Carson, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morison, Michael Ondaatje (especially Coming Through Slaughter) and Salman Rushdie.
- David Godwin has been Nikki’s agent since her second novel was published. David was originally in an editor, and is still one of the first readers of Nikki’s work.
- Nikki’s first short story was published in Quadrant by Les Murray. Nikki quotes what Les told her on the back of her first novel, Shiver.
- Nikki’s second novel, Cleave, was written as a part of her Masters at UTS. Her thesis was supervised by Glenda Adams and commented on by Amanda Lohrey.
- Nikki credits Virginia Woolf’s discussion of anonymity as a refuge for women writers in A Room of One’s Own as the inspiration behind publishing The Bride Stripped Bare anonymously.
- Nikki has written several lengthy works in the second person, and cites Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City as an influence.
Nicholas Brasch: Nikki Gemmell has seemingly done it all in the writing world. She is a former journalist, a best-selling novelist, children’s book author, writer of intensely moving non-fiction books, and a weekly columnist for The Weekend Australian, where she reveals almost every aspect of her life.
Nikki, like her writing, is eclectic, and her natural curiosity helped her discover books as a child.
Nikki Gemmell: We lived in an area that was… the bush was our backyard. My brothers were into trail bikes, they had red back spider farms in ice cream containers…
Nic: Wow, my goodness.
Nikki: … in the carport. We had red belly black snakes in the gutter. My father was a coal miner and did not come from a reading world at all. Both my mother and my father left school at 16…
Nikki: … because that was expected of them. And books, to me, were this amazing other world. An escape.
Nic: Do you remember the first authors and books, you know, when you were 10, what were you reading?
Nikki: Oh god. I could talk about that for an hour! [Laughter]
Nic: Let’s start, and I’ll cut you off!
Nikki: Ok, ok. I loved the Australian bush, so I can still remember so vividly The Silver Brumby series, which I adored. And then it was all those iconic girl books, it was Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Pippi Longstocking… You name it, I read it. But from about the age of 10, I also remember getting into the harder stuff. You know, veering into Jane Eyre.
Nic: Yeah, yeah.
Nikki: Books like that. Reading these amazing other worlds, these emotionally resonant books, and from about the age of 10 I was like, ‘I want to do this’.
Nic: Were you also, at the same time, getting into red back spiders and mud piles and that, or were you escaping?
Nikki: No, no, no.
Nic: You loved all that?
Nikki: I loved all that. I still have a muffler scar on my calf where I burnt my leg on the muffler of my brother’s trail bike. So, I was very, very much… It was the two worlds. I had two older brothers, and you know the Kawasaki and the Suzuki motorbikes were the posters on the walls and that kind of thing.
Nikki: But then I was running away and reading my Silver Brumby, and all the rest of it. I still remember so clearly that every Saturday morning we would go into town, and my dad would take me to Cottington’s bookstore in Wollongong – sadly no longer existing – and you know, we’d go to the Wollongong Library. So even though we weren’t a house of books, my parents knew where to find books, and knew that I was different from the world of a lot of kids around us, and I found a real solace in reading. And thank god for them, they encouraged that, they welcomed that.
Nic: Yeah. And even today, libraries are such an important part of growing up and of learning and of reading, it’s such a valuable resource.
Nikki: Oh yes.
Nic: Even with the Internet, we can still never have too many libraries.
Nikki: Oh, well exactly. I’ve got four kids myself now, and the library for them is just as big part of their existence – from my little 5 year old, who loves getting his books every week from the library to my 16 year old, who loves going and studying at the library, and I was thinking, ‘Oh my god how amazing is this!’ until I realised it’s a hang, its where they all go… yeah!
Nic: I was going to say…
Nikki: The girls.
Nic: Of course, of course. Not much studying going on there.
Nikki: Not at all. But they can’t be too loud…
Nic: Well, these days you can actually in libraries…
Nikki: Oh really? Oh god, don’t tell me that.
Nic and Nikki: [Laughter]
Nic: So, were you keeping a diary, were you writing at the same time, were you writing poetry and all that sort of stuff?
Nikki: Well, I got my first taste, delicious taste of publication in The Keiraville Kookaburra, that was the school magazine for Keiraville Public School. I was aged 8, and I wrote an appalling poem, it was absolutely atrocious. I can still memorise it almost…. I can still remember it almost word for word.
Nic: You know what I’m going to ask you now?
Nikki: No, no, you don’t want to know.
Nic and Nikki: [Laughter]
Nikki: No, no, no, everyone will be switching off. But to see my poem and my name, Nicole Gemmell aged 8, in print was like… I’ve never lost that thrill.
Nikki: So that began it all, The Keiraville Kookaburra.
Nikki: And a fantastic teacher, who encouraged reading and my love…
Nic: Yeah. I hear that a lot from the writers I interview, and certainly the case with me as well, there was one particular teacher that sort of made a comment and encouraged and then…
Nikki: That’s it.
Nic: … and you go along. At what point did you realise it was possible to be a writer? I mean, that such a thing existed? Or were you pursuing other paths later on, through university and high school? I mean at what point did you think, ‘Writing. Wow.’
Nikki: I must admit, another teacher that I had in Year 8, Mrs Tang, she handed out journals to all us girls at our convent school, and she said, ‘Girls, girls, I want you to fill these out every day, and I’m going to collect them once a week, and I’m not going to read what’s in them, I just want to see that you’ve actually written something.’
Nikki: And what she began, for me, was a habit that has existed to this day. So, I’m up to journal number 17 now.
Nikki: And they record everything, from conversations scraps, title ideas, small little character portraits that might be just a line or two lines long, descriptions of a sunset or a house that might turn up in a novel four novels later, or scraps of conversation that I’ve heard on a plane or a bus, or whatever it is… So that was a wonderful habit that I began when I was about 14.
I must admit, I loved English at school, and I did English Lit, I began English Literature at university, but I quickly realised – I love the name of your podcast, The Garret – I quickly realised that I could not be that starving poet in the garret.
I was raised by a single mum. My parents got divorced when I was 10, and my mother instilled in me very early on the importance of work and making your own way in life, and making a living and as a woman not relying on a man financially. So, I knew all through university – I loved my acting, I loved my theatre, I loved my literature and my writing – but I knew I was not going to make a living out of it.
Nikki: So, in the last semester or so of my degree – I’d switched across to Communications – I actually just took some journalism subjects really, really quickly so that I could then go to an interview and say, ‘Oh yes, I studied journalism’.
Nic and Nikki: [Laughter]
Nikki: And from that, I got a cadetship at the ABC. And through my years of radio journalism at the ABC, I knew that I could use this as fuel for my fiction, I could travel with it. And so, I was probably the only ABC journo who started in the Sydney newsroom and then put up their hand to go to the Darwin newsroom, because I thought it would be good for fiction…
Nikki: … creative writing. And then I ended up in the Alice Springs newsroom. I ended up going to Antarctica and places like that, and always had my creative writing notebooks alongside my journalism notebooks.
Nic: Ok. Other than the fact that you were able to travel through journalism, and that helped influenced the books that you wrote and your creative writing, what other sorts of lessons did you learn from journalism that helped you as a writer later on?
Nikki: I feel fantastic, rigorous lessons in terms of writing.
Number one, a deadline. The importance of a deadline. You hit it, you just do. Because as a radio journalist, you know, you’ve got a deadline every hour, and you have to hit that deadline or your piece doesn’t go to air.
And number two is not to be too precious about the editing process, because… I’d hand in my beautifully crafted pieces and they’d be ripped and slashed and all the rest, and I learned pretty quickly just to let it go, and that’s someone else’s opinion. And that, in a way, has stood me in good stead throughout… You know, I’m up to my thirteenth, fourteenth book now. I’m constantly distilling and honing down, and I’m very good at editing my own work. I’m quite ruthless. And I really welcome editorial input.
Nikki: So, I’ve said to various publishers throughout my career, ‘Give me a tough edit’. That’s what I always want, because I love the collaborative process, I love the other eye looking at my work. You know, just telling me what’s wrong with it, working with it. They can only ever suggest, that can’t impose, but I welcome the suggestions, I love that process. And I think that stems back from my days in a radio newsroom, where it was… You were always handing your copy to a sub, and they were always changing it, and you just learnt to stomach that.
Nic: That’s really good advice for people who are setting out on the writing… in the writing world. The people that are editing your work, they’ve got the same goal that you have – to make it better.
Nikki: Well, exactly.
Nic: And not to be so precious. Because it is collaborative, even though you do the actual writing on your own, from then on there is a lot of people involved.
Nikki: Yeah, yeah. And that’s right, we do have the same goal, we both want to make it a better book. And you have to trust that process.
I will say, you have to find your right reader, your right editor too…
Nikki: … because you may find you have someone quite destructive. I can remember with my second novel, Cleave, I was with Random House and Jane Palfreyman at the time, and I got a very light edit for that.
And I just said, ‘Jane, I feel like I’m not in sync with this editor, and I feel like she’s too timid, she’s almost scared of suggesting changes to me, and I know changes are needed’.
And Cleave was actually, it was my Masters. I had done it at UTS under Glenda Adams, the wonderful novelist, she was my supervisor. And it had been marked by Amanda Lohrey, another wonderful writer. And then when my publisher sends it out to an editor, and I’ve had all of these amazing women look at this, and I just feel like I want another strong, rigorous, tough amazing woman with this book too!
So, Jane sent it out to a second editor, and I got it back and it was crueller and more painful, but in the end it was a much better book, and I knew that.
And also my agent, he began in editing too, and he is someone who - I’m just about to do it now – when I hand him a new novel…
Nic: Well, they’re the first, aren’t they?
Nikki: They’re the first! And he basically says to me, ‘Nikki, you get one chance at this. I cannot send it out and have it rejected, and then you think you can just change it and I can send it back. We have to make it the best book we can’.
And he has just sold the new Arundhati Roy novel all over the world, so no pressure here, he’s just said to me, ‘Nikki, you better bloody make it good, this next book’.
Nic and Nikki: [Laughter]
Nikki: It’s like, oh god.
Nic: That’s right.
Nikki: But he was an editor originally, before he moved into being an agent. So, what he does is that he gets my raw manuscript, brings me into his office, and he’s got pages and pages of notes, and he will say things like, ‘Change the ending, that male protagonist doesn’t work, fiddle with this, fiddle with that, whatever’. And I will usually go back, and for another six months, work on my book from what my agent has said, before he actually goes and shows it.
Nic: Again, that’s really valuable, because too many people send drafts to publishers and agents that are just way too early.
Nic: And they’re hoping they will have the opportunity to get feedback and change it. It doesn’t work that way. So, I’m amazed that it is still the case for you that, after 13 or 14 novels, there is no difference.
Nikki: Absolutely. You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot. And you really… Because the volume of material that these publishers get… You know, if they’ve rejected a book once, they’ll just think, ‘Oh, it’s borderline, I don’t know’. They are not going to be interested in seeing that again. They want something fresh and exciting and audacious that they can work with right away.
Nic: I remember reading and really enjoying your first novel, Shiver, an Antarctic journey in Antarctica. Did the trip to Antarctica come about because you wanted to write the novel, or did you do that and then go, ‘I’m going to write a novel’?
Nic: At what point did you go, ‘I’m going to write a novel about this?’
Nikki: Well, well, one of my very first short stories published, going back to my university days – and we knew each other at university, Nic, we have to disclose that, in other lives that had nothing to do with writing!
Nic: Absolutely nothing.
Nikki: But I was passionate about writing then, and I was writing short stories all during my university years. And when I was about 19, 20, one of my short stories was picked up by Les Murray, who was the literary editor of Quadrant and still is. And he said to me then…
Nic: And one of the great characters of Australian literature!
Nikki: Oh, he is, he is!
Nic: Isn’t he wonderful?
Nikki: And god help us, he has to get that Nobel Prize, that literature prize.
Nic: Oh, one day.
Nikki: But anyway, Les said to me back in the day when he published my first piece, and I do think writing is all about confidence too, so having those little kind of bursts of confidence, the affirmation to get a short story published here and there was so thrilling, and it just set me on the path. But he said, back in the day, ‘Nikki, so many writers don’t have anything to write about’. And I thought about that, and I thought about that all during my 20s, and I thought, ‘I don’t have anything to write about’. And I thought, ‘I want to write a novel by the time I’m 30. I want to do it, I want to just have a novel published!’ And when I was 28 Triple J sent me down to Antarctica.
Nic: Yeah, yeah.
Nikki: And I fell in love. I was going to say illegally, but not illegally, but secretly with someone on the boat. And he was then killed down in Antarctica. And suddenly, from that awful, awful process, I had the gift of a story. And I thought back to Les, and I thought ‘Les, I finally have something to write about’. And he’s quoted on the back of the book.
It was a good lesson for me to learn, because I had started a few novels throughout my 20s. They had never sung, they had never felt right, they were forced or they just petered out, or whatever it was, and it was because I was trying to push a rock up a hill…
Nikki: It just wasn’t working. And so finally I had the gift of the story, with what had happened down in Antarctica. And that was Shiver, my first novel.
Nikki: Which, I would also just quickly like to say, I sent off to an agent in Sydney… rejected.
Nic: Of course.
Nikki: I was devastated. I thought, ‘That’s it, that’s my writing career over’. I’d written my novel by the time I was 30, and I couldn’t get an agent, let alone a publisher.
Nikki: And then darling Helen Razer, she was working at Triple J, and she said, ‘Nikki, just send it to my publisher at Random House, and just say I have sent you’. Helen hadn’t read it or anything. So, I sent it to Jane Palfreyman, and she took it within 24 hours.
Nikki: And that was a lesson for me, that you have to find your champion in this business. Because that agent who first rejected Shiver, she crushed my dreams, and I thought, ‘That was it, I can’t do this, I’m no good at this’.
Nikki: But then my process ever since then has been saturation bombardment.
Nikki: You just send out everywhere, you will find your champion somewhere, you just have to find that champion. So, Jane was my first champion.
Nic: Alright. I know you moved to London, was that to pursue a writing career, yeah? So, tell me about that, why you did that?
Nikki: It was.
Nic: Was Australian not good enough for you?
Nik and Nikki: [Laughter]
Nikki: No! I’d had a series of disastrous relationships, Nic, believe it or not.
Nic: So, rejection continued for you?
Nikki: Rejection continued in many spheres of my life. And an ex-boyfriend, who I’d gone out with in Alice Springs – I shouldn’t be laughing, he wouldn’t be laughing – when I was 24, he had moved to London. And he rang me when I was 30 and I was just about to get Shiver published, and he went, ‘God, you’re life is a mess. Come to London and start afresh’.
Nikki: And so, I did. And in those days, for some reason I thought, ’You have to take a printer to London’.
Nic and Nikki: [Laughter]
Nikki: So, I had in my backpack a printer to print out my manuscript of Cleave, my second novel.
Nic: Ok, yeah.
Nikki: Which I don’t think had been written on my old Amstrad computer. Maybe Shiver, my first one, had.
Nic: I’m assuming that the plug didn’t fit in…
Nikki: No, no. I got the converter plug, it’s alright, I had that in the backpack too.
Nic and Nikki: [Laughter]
Nikki: And then I thought what I need in London, because I want to make it as a writer, not as just an Australian writer, I want to get an English agent and an English publisher, and around the time when I arrived, which was 1997, I started reading in the newspaper about this amazing book by this unknown Indian author, who was at that stage an aerobics instructor I think, who’d sent off this manuscript to an agent, David Godwin in London, he had loved it so much he’d jumped on a plane, went to Delhi, knocked on Arundhati Roy’s door, and said, ‘Please, please let me represent you’.
And for me, I thought, that’s the gift of enthusiasm. You need your champion, you need someone whose passionate and enthusiastic with the fire in their belly behind you, and I thought, you know, the little Aussie that I was, I thought ‘I want him too’.
Nikki: So, I wrote to him and I said, ‘I’ve written my first novel called Shiver, it was a bestseller in Australia, I’ve got my second one here, can I come and see you?’ And he said yes.
Nikki: And he is still my agent now, and he is still Arundhati Roy’s agent, and he still goes through my manuscripts brutally and I hope that he always will.
Nic: Ok. You’re most famous novel, of course, was The Bride Stripped Bare, which obviously explored female sexuality. When it came out, or when it was being touted around, put around, it was supposedly anonymous. Did you expect it to remain that way?
Nikki: I did.
Nic: You did!
Nikki: I still don’t know who shopped me.
Nic: Right, and so that was always the intention.
Nikki: And it still infuriates me that I don’t know.
Nic: It was always the intention?
Nic: And it took you by surprise. Because in this day and age, with I guess social media and…
Niki: You couldn’t do it.
Nic: You really couldn’t do it.
Nic: I guess back in those days… So why, why did you make that choice or want that to happen?
Nikki: I wanted that to happen because… for many, many reasons.
I think the main reason was I’d just had my first child, and I was married to that ex-boyfriend who I’d met in Alice Springs days, by that stage, but I wanted a forensic examination of sex within marriage to read with absolute brutal honesty. But I wanted to protect my husband at the same time, in this little world that I had of my baby, and I very quickly became pregnant with my second child.
And there’s something about motherhood – it’s an egoless existence. I just didn’t care. I’d had three novels written, I didn’t care about having my name on a book anymore. I just wanted to write.
Nic: Right, ok.
Nikki: And I thought, ‘This is a little porny book I’m going to sell for like 5,000 pounds, whatever it is…’ I handed it into David. Nothing happened, nothing happened. It’s like, ‘Oh god, what’s happening here?” Months went by, and he didn’t read it.
Nic: Oh, he didn’t read it?
Nikki: He didn’t read it.
Nic: I thought it would take him six months to get up off the ground.
Nic and Nikki: [Laughter]
Nikki: No. it’s just that he’s got so many manuscripts coming in, it was just on his pile of things to read. And then it was during the summer of, I think it was 2002, the girlfriend of his son picked it up at their summer house and read it, and said, “David, you really should read this, there is something in this’. And it was like, ‘Oh my god’.
It was delicious. Because I’d started writing that book thinking I was going to put my name to it, but I was careful and cautious, I was being too protective and stilted with what I wanted to say, and then I was reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and she was talking about anonymity as a refuge for women writers, and it just clicked.
Nikki: It was just like, ‘I can just disappear’. And as soon as I made that choice everything became very clear and audaciously, deliciously honest and dangerous. And that’s what I wanted for the book.
Unfortunately, it went to the Frankfurt Book Fair, anonymously, but there was a rumour going around that it was written by Salman Rushdie’s wife…
Nic: One of them, one of the many wives of Salman Rushdie…
Nikki: One of them. I do know which one, but there were ex-wives, and she was a novelist.
And so of course he papers got onto it. And being an ex-journo by that stage I knew that as soon as it was reported in, I think it was The Daily Telegraph in London, they were going to be on to me. And I think it took a couple of weeks to unravel and find me.
And it was awful, because I lost control of the narrative. For the first time in my life, I felt like I’d shot my writing career in the foot. You know, I was accused of all kinds of things – that I’d planned this all along, and all the rest of it. It was just awful.
And I can remember on a practical level, my wonderful editor in London, after I was discovered and outed in the press, she just said, ‘Ok Nikki’ – because it hadn’t been published yet, and we were still in the editing process – and she said, ‘Ok Nikki, so we’re going to keep it exactly as it is, aren’t we?’
Nikki: And I was like, now that it’s got my name… No!’
I can remember I was in tears, she was in tears, I was getting a red pen and I was putting it through lines of the manuscript, because back then in those days you weren’t editing online on a computer.
And in the end, she said, ‘Nikki, the lines you want to take out are the lines that absolutely connect to a reader, volcanically connect, and you have to keep them in’. And she won. And I know it was the best thing, but it took me many, many years to kind of work through the trauma of that book, and how it just skewed my career. It was hard to get back on track.
I feel like I’m still trying to get back on track to be the writer that I had been with those early novels. Shiver and Cleave my first ones, that felt like a very pure existence as a writer, and then it’s just kind of… all gone off course since.
Nic: Do you wish you’d never written it?
Nikki: I did for many, many years think I would go to my grave regretting that book, but then I think the responses from readers, and just as you get older you kind of loosen and you let it go, and you just embrace it. And the honesty in it was so connecting, and so many men as well as women responded to it so strongly that I realise now that it... That’s a good thing, as a writer to have such a vivid connection with your readers. So, I don’t regret it now, I did back in the day.
Nic: Speaking of that vivid connection with readers, you’re renowned as the queen of second person narrative. Tell me about both perhaps the freedom of writing in that way, and also perhaps the limitations of it, and the choice of doing that? Because usually, I mean when I read stuff, it usually works only in short bursts.
Nic: And its very rare to see it work in such… so consistently. That was a brave decision.
Nikki: It is a brave decision. And I think, because whenever I write my novels, I always feel like they never quite work, and often one of the things I do to see if they will work is switch tenses.
Nikki: If I’ve started in the first person and I switch to the third… And I can’t even remember which was the first book… I think Bride is in the second person.
Nikki: Yeah. And so, I’d done that with Bride, I’d started in the first person and it felt too indulgent. I switched to the third and it was too distancing. And then I read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City book, maybe only 100 pages, written gloriously, audaciously in the second person, and I thought, ‘That’s it, that’s the voice, that’s it’. Because it implies intimacy, but distance at the same time. ‘You did this, you did that.’ And you know, readers said to me with Bride, ‘Oh my god, it’s like we got into her head and we were following her thoughts in terms of what was happening to her’. And it just felt right.
And then I never intended to repeat the second person trick, because they’re not slim novels…
Nic: No, no.
Nikki: Can I possible sustain it? But a few novels after that, once again I tried the first and the third, and just the second felt right. I love writing in the second.
Nic: You don’t find it limiting in any way?
Nikki: No, no, if it’s limiting, I just won’t put that in. I’m good at editing and just getting rid of stuff.
Nic: Let’s fast forward to another brave book, if you like, which is After, your non-fiction memoir about your mother’s suicide and her chronic pain and the effect it had on you, and then propelling you into, I guess, an activist for euthanasia. Was the actual process of writing cathartic? Did you expect it to be, or did you think it may or may not, or did it not come into it? And was it in any way?
Nikki: I had no idea what the process of writing about my mother’s suicide would be like. All I knew is that I had to do it, I felt compelled to do it. For me, writing, whether it’s fiction or it’s a column, whether its non-fiction, whether it’s a radio report from thirty years ago with radio journalism, I write to answer questions. There is something unknown or bewildering, and I write to either answer the question of why or what’s gone on here, and even if I don’t answer the question, it’s to go on a journey.
And so, with After, I was presented with a dead body, the mystery of a dead body, of how had this happened and the why, and it just so happened to be my mother.
And as the police came to my door and told me what they knew about finding my mother’s body and the bewilderment and the shock and all that that was going on at that time, they started taking out their notebooks, and they were taking notes and recording what I was saying. And as they were doing that, I thought, ‘Oh my god, I could be implicated here in my mother’s euthanasia death’.
And they were asking about euthanasia and pills and what she had been taking, and Dr Philip Nietzsche’s Peaceful Pill Handbook, and I was thinking, ‘This is like – not a murder mystery – but a mystery of a dead body. It’s like a novel, almost. I want to unravel this mystery before the police do. Or unravel it in a different way to them’. So, in a way, I was in a race with them to find out what on Earth had happened. And with a novelist’s sensibility, as opposed to a forensic sensibility.
Nic: And that really comes through strongly, because as you’re reading it, or as I read it, I felt as if I was just entering into your mind at different times, just fragments of your mind as you are pondering…
Nikki: In real time.
Nic: In real time, as you are pondering what’s going on, as you’re wondering, as you’re apprehensive… All of that sort of stuff, those snatches of your mind, it just worked so well.
Nikki: Yes. Well thank you. And snatches, that began with The Bride Stripped Bare all those years ago, when I was writing a book just after I’d had my first child. The chapters in Bride Stripped Bare are very short, the first chapter is only a paragraph long. I was basically writing that book in baby nap times.
Nikki: So, as a mum, I’d put the baby down and then I’d race upstairs to my desk, and I’d hone a chapter in that hour or that hour and a half that I had, and so that fragmented way of writing, which I feel is a very modern female way of writing, because we are all so damn busy…
Nikki: … in our lives, that has carried through to the book After, almost twenty years later.
Nic: And the journalism training wouldn’t have hurt either.
Nikki: No. Which again, that radio journalism thing of, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s a big thing and I have to convey the picture of this and what’s happened very concisely in a short amount of time very succinctly’. Because often they were called voices back in the day in my ABC radio days, and you would have literally 30 seconds to describe a murder trial, or a flood, or a car crash, whatever it was. So, you had to write very vividly and very precisely to convey meaning.
Nic: In your books and in your articles, you put yourself out here as a writer.
Nikki: Too much.
Nic: Well, I’m wondering, is there a line you don’t cross?
Nikki: Yes, and that’s with my children.
Nic: Your children.
Nikki: Yeah. I’ve got four kids, the oldest is 16, and he goes…
Nic: Easily embarrassed, yes.
Nikki: Well, none of them listen to Triple J because I used to work at Triple J, so that’s the most appalling daggy station that could ever possibly exist because of me.
No, but my teenager, he just goes ‘Argh Mum’ – I’m kind of impersonating his voice here, hopefully he won’t listen to this – ‘I’m not going to tell you anything anymore because you put it into your column and you call me ‘the teenager’. And that’s his attitude.
Nic: So, that is where the line is, you’ll do that but you won’t go…
Nikki: Yeah. And he’s got a girlfriend now, and it is like, ‘Oh my god, I’m just itching, there is so much material here’. It’s just delicious. But I can’t.
And also I protect my husband too, because I want to protect the marriage and the family unit and all the rest of it. So, I write about him and the kids in my column a little bit, but obliquely and never in a way that would ever hurt them.
Nic: How do you tackle the demands of a weekly column?
Nikki: Oh, it’s excruciating!
Nic: Tell me about it.
Nikki: It’s so hard.
Nic: Because everybody out there says, ‘I wish I had a weekly column in a national newspaper magazine’. They all want it. Tell them how hard it really is, and why.
Nikki: Well, I’ve been doing it for about six years now.
Nikki: The first eighteen months I had so much to talk about. It was a breeze, I loved it. And after about eighteen months it was like, ‘Ok, now what am I going to talk about now?’ And every week now, in fact I’ve got a column in my laptop at my feet here, that I have to hone, staring at the abyss of ‘Oh my god, I just need to give them something’.
It gets harder and harder and harder. But I’m a writer in a precarious world, I write my column so that I can write my fiction. Because my column is, getting back to what my mother said all those years ago at university, ‘Nikki, you have to make a living’.
Nic: It’s the bread and butter.
Nikki: Yeah. The column is the bread and butter. So as much as I dream of giving it up sometimes, I can’t afford to give it up, because it buys me time for my fiction.
Nic: And I guess one of the problems of the column in that circumstance is that you can… Most jobs you can say to the boss or the client, ‘I’m going away for four weeks so I can’t do anything’. Your editor is going to say, ‘You’re going away, great! Four more stories over the next four weeks’.
Nikki: I know!
Nic: You can’t escape it.
Nikki: We get four weeks off over Christmas, I relish those four weeks. But is just the fact that it is constantly in your head you have got to write something. I remember years ago when I was doing creative writing in my Communications degree at UTS in Sydney, and Helen Garner came to talk to us and she said that it was very hard for her to keep fiction and non-fiction in her head at the same time, it was impossible. And I know exactly what she means.
But I am writing a novel at the moment. The weekly column has to continue, but it drives me bananas in the way that is has to continue through my novel writing, so I’m writing the column usually in this time on the weekend, so I can just spend the weekdays working on the novel.
Nic: And having done it for so long and being such an experienced writer, do you get it, the first draft is done and dusted?
Nikki: Oh god no. No, no, no. I treat the column like a novel!
Nikki: The first columns would go to what, twenty drafts. One of my novels went to 60 drafts...
Nic: Sixty drafts!
Nikki: … and if I’d had the time, I would…
Nic: Which one was that?
Nikki: Lovesong, which is probably one of my least known and most obscure… It’s like rich chocolate mud cake, it’s too much. I did so many drafts too many with that one. Whereas Bride was just very quick, and very short and very certain, very strong as a book.
Nic: Yeah, yeah.
Nikki: I think it was mainly just two or three drafts, so I over ate the pudding with Lovesong. I’m getting better with my columns at not doing so many drafts, but I do go back, and back, and back, and then when the lovely sub Lee, when he sends me the column and I still want to change things. I’m probably hellish to work with, because I’m always honing and changing.
But I love, for me, one of the most important things in writing in prose, whether it’s a column or my novels or a memoir, is the rhythm of the sentences. I find that so important, with my columns or anything, I need to have the right rhythm in my sentences to make the words sing. And so, I slave and I sweat about that.
Nic: Do you read them out loud to help you with the rhythm?
Nic: You mean the rhythm just as you see it on the page?
Nikki: As you’re seeing it on the page. Two sentences joining each other don’t have the same rhythm, because that would become leaden and plodding and repetitive. Or short sentences, perhaps, if like with After, my memoir, you’re implying immediacy, or whatever.
Nikki: But I do think very carefully about rhythm. And also I want beautiful, beautiful sentences. I want a strong individual voice. The writers that I love – Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Anne Carson, Toni Morison – they’ve all got really strong voices.
Nikki: You can pick up their prose, you wouldn’t see who was on the front cover, but if you read their prose you’d know, ‘Ah, Cormac McCarthy!’ and you’d know instantly it was them. And that is the kind of writing I aspire to, and that I love. And so that’s why it sometimes goes to far too many drafts.
Nic: In what ways to you think you are a better, or maybe just different, writer than you were say 15 or 20 years ago? What have you learned over that time?
Nikki: Regrettably in a way I write for a living now. It’s a business. And 20, 25 years…
Nic: Why do you say regretfully?
Nikki: Because that can lead to compromises, like this novel that I’m trying to finish now, I feel like – I haven’t even handed it in yet – I’m rushing the ending to hit a deadline to get a payment on that deadline, because I need to get that money. And that is not a way a writer should be working, but it’s a reality in a shrinking freelance world of writing and publishing and journalism.
It’s really tough out there. And I feel very fortunate. But I’m a complete freelancer at The Australian writing my column, I don’t have any certainty with any of my work.
Nikki: So, I just have to keep on doing it. But I would also say I’ve become better, and I think it’s my journalism training in me, I’ve become adept at accepting commissions and hitting the deadline and never mucking anyone around with being late or being too fussy or whatever, because I just think this is a business and this is a profession. And as much as for me it’s about the beauty and the prose, and the rhythm of the sentences and all the rest of it, it is a job as well, and you have to be professional in that job.
Nic: And there is an understanding that it is a collaborative process at the end of the day.
Nikki: Yeah, absolutely.
Nic: I’m going to let you get back to banging out the bucks on your novel.
Nikki: Oh no, that makes me sound awful.
Nic and Nikki: [Laughter]
Nic: We all do it, we all have to do it. One final question, of all the classic novels that have ever been written, which one do you wish you had written?
Nikki: Well, does it have to be a classic one?
Nic: No, it doesn’t have to be a classic.
Nikki: I’d say the novel that was like my tuning fork for my fiction throughout my 20s and my 30s, and in fact I still go back to it, and I’ve just gone back to it recently with this latest book, is a very obscure book, it’s Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje.
Nikki: And I was introduced to it at university. He is a poet, originally, I hope he is still writing, I’m waiting for his latest book whenever it comes along, but it’s a non-fiction book about a jazz singer. You know, not my world in 1910, so it’s got photographs in it, it’s got slivers of poetry, it’s got dialogue recorded from that time. It is so audacious and brave and bold, it’s exhilarating. It feels like a new form of – I can’t even say fiction, of, I don’t know what, a mixture of memoir, fiction, poetry, visual stimuli… It’s glorious. And for me, to have written something so audacious, it probably sold hardly any copies, and that’s part of its beauty too, because it’s obscure and it’s glorious and I wish I had the beautiful voice that the writer Michael Ondaatje has.
Nic: Well, jazz officiandos would say that you’ve just described jazz!
Nikki: Yeah! Well, the book is about jazz.
Nic: You mentioned, and your description was like… that is jazz.
Nic and Nikki: [Laughter]
Nikki: Yes, exactly. So, he is probably conveying the dynamism of that music in prose. And he does it gloriously. And for a young writer starting out, just read about how inventive you can be on the page. It was exhilarating. And I don’t ever want to lose the joy of that spark of audacity and invention.