Sofie Laguna is a lawyer by training and a writer by choice. She completed RMIT's Diploma in Professional Writing and Editing, and now writes for children and adults alike.
Her children's books have been named Honour Books and Notable Books in the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards, and have also been shortlisted in the Queensland Premier’s Awards. She has been published in the US and the UK and in translation throughout Europe and Asia. My Yellow Blanky (2002) and On Our Way to the Beach (2004) are considered classics.
Sofie's literary fiction includes:
- The Choke will be published in late 2017.
- The Eye of the Sheep (2014), awarded the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2015.
- One Foot Wrong (2008), shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and long-listed for the 2009 Miles Franklin Award.
Sofie continues to write for a wide readership, from picture books to novels for adults. Sofie lives in Melbourne with her partner and their two young sons.
- Sofie loved reading Dr Seuss as a child (especially Horton Hatches the Egg), as well as Hans Christian Anderson and Enid Blyton. Specific books that stand out in her memory are The House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert DeJong (and illustrated by Maurice Sendak) and The Owl Service by Alan Garner.
- D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is one of Sofie’s favourite books. She also adores the works of Helen Garner and Christos Tsiolkas.
- Sofie cites the movie, or more specifically the screenplay, Thelma and Louise as motivation for her to start her writing career.
- Ania Walwicz taught Sofie short story writing at RMIT University.
- At the time of this interview Sofie was reading Anne Patchett’s Commonwealth and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Nic Brasch: Sofie Laguna is an acclaimed writer for both children and adults. Her picture books, Too Loud Lily and On Our Way to the Beach, are classics. Her Miles Franklin award winning novel, The Eye of the Sheep, grabs your attention early and never let’s go.
We usually record The Garret podcast in the rooms of the State Library of Victoria, but we recorded this chat with Sofie in her home.
I started by asking Sofie about her childhood home.
Sofie: Books were a given I think. There were books, my mum has always been an avid reader. My mum is an artist… I’m taking a while to warm up…
Nic: That’s alright, no worries.
Sofie: [Laughter] I had a busy morning. Let me talk about the housework. Can we start there!
Nic and Sofie: [Laughter]
Sofie: The tantrums, the 6-year-old. So, my parents were readers. I always read a lot from a very young age – I think books were a given. Books were a given.
Nic: So, what are your earliest recollections of who you read and the types of books you liked? Maybe when you were 10 years old, primary school? Were there any books or authors or genres that you were particularly interested in?
Sofie: I remember picture books when I was very young having impact. In the way that only words paired with illustrations can. I think they bypass some kind of a… What is it? There is something about the combination of images and words that is particularly powerful, especially for young children, for all of us, but particularly for young children. The way we enter the world of the book when words are paired with pictures is a really powerful thing for a child. And that happened frequently.
I remember loving Dr Seuss and other books more mysterious, where I would gaze into the illustrations for long periods of time that I remember today, although I can’t remember the titles of these things. I’m just speaking about it as an example of how we can be affected by what we read from a young age. As I got a little older, Enid Blyton, of course. There weren’t as many books for young people when I was growing up, you know. I remember Judy Bloom in our library.
But very soon we were reading the school texts, Dickens. I remember anything the teachers read out loud certainly came to life in a much more vivid way than books I was reading on my own, that shared experience of being read to in class. I remember Mrs. Kellert in fifth class read a book called House of Sixty Fathers. Have you heard of that book?
Nic: No I haven’t. Never heard of it.
Sofie: It’s politically really incorrect, I think now, because it’s about a boy in the Vietnam war, a Vietnamese boy, who is stranded and loses his parents. And the 60 fathers were the 60 American soldiers who come to his rescue. So, it is very much about the heroic American soldier. I remember the teachers reading a book called The Owl Service, but lots of Enid Blyton, lots of Naughtiest Girl in School, lots of Famous Five – I wanted to be Julian. Dr Seuss very much, and Hans Christian Andersen. Mum would read us The Little Mermaid and many of his tales. Lots of Dr Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg was a favourite, The Cat in the Hat.
Nic: All of them. The Fish Out of Water was one of my favourites.
Sofie: Yeah. The Fish Out of Water, that was very… that affected me. Yeah, see the way we receive things as a child is so much more… what is the word? It’s almost, I don’t know, mythical or something.
Nic: In some ways, in some ways. It’s interesting that you weren’t naming Australian authors and Australian picture books and stuff like that. Today there is a lot of them around, a lot of chapter books and picture books of Australian authors and every household has got them.
Sofie: You are right, you are right.
Nic: But then there was very little influence from Australia for young Australians growing up.
Sofie: Yeah, I’m sitting there considering that now. It really wasn’t, we didn’t see a lot of it, did me?
Nic: No. Very little, very little.
Sofie: If the first names I mention are Dr Seuss and Enid Blyton, just classics.
Nic: And I am sure that if we delve deeper it will still all be UK and British. I remember as a child Richard Scarry books.
Sofie: Oh, gosh yes, they were huge in our house.
Sofie: And my brother used to read… who was Digit Dick?
Nic: Oh, I remember Digit Dick.
Sofie: And Biggles.
Nic: Yeah of course.
Sofie: And Eric, the Red Viking. Alexander and the Horrible Terrible No-Good Very Bad Day.
Nic: You were talking about being at school then through your teenage years. Obviously you were reading at school but what was your choice of reading then. Do you remember?
Sofie: When I was at school?
Nic: Yeah, when you were a teenager. You know, making your own choices of fiction and non-fiction.
Sofie: I was writing lots of poetry. And I loved studying English. I wanted to be an actress, more than anything. So, you know, when the class text was Hamlet I was thrilled about that.
Nic: Playing every part.
Nic and Sofie: [Laughter]
Sofie: Exactly. And I remember reading and studying Catcher in the Rye, and I have read that a couple of times since then, that remains one of my favourite books. And I’ve spoken about Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens. I suppose, back in those days – because choices were fewer – maybe we did read more sophisticated texts earlier.
Nic: Again, no Australians.
Sofie: Isn’t that terrible. I’m ashamed. Yeah, madly thinking back over the titles that were in my cupboard. Maybe literature for a while… When I discovered Triple J and going out… I would study in alternating years. I was a very good student one year and then a very rebellious and poor student the next, and then good the next.
I loved writing creatively in primary school. I had really encouraging teachers who really pleased with what I wrote. My parents were both really encouraging about writing, and I think that is when I responded to the power of words on the page. That is when I began to enjoy it. Really young, maybe 8 or 9 or 10.
I was very invested in the stories that I wrote. I would keep big scrap books full of my own poetry and small plays. I would direct these plays; I would put my friends in them. Acting always very much came first, acting was the shining dream. But writing was right there, just behind it.
I remember rereading a diary that I wrote when I was… How old would I have been… maybe 12? And I wrote ‘When I grow up I want to be a poet, or a movie director, or an actor.’ Maybe I wrote that a little younger somewhere.
So, I always kept a journal, I started keeping a journal when I about seven. I’ve still got that journal, not the most interesting… lists of the household furniture. My father bought me a very old typewriter when I would have been about 10. I put a Holly Hobby sticker on the cover. I was very invested in this typewriter. My father was really excited about my poems, and I remember he put them on the back of his motor bike – he worked at St Vincent’s Hospital, he was a doctor there – and I remember one day he put them in a box on the back of his motorbike. And I’ve written a short story about this - they blew off!
Nic: Oh no!
Sofie: And in the story telling version, there they go flying over the Harbour Bridge and into the ocean below. But maybe that is the poet in me, they were lost. I remember dad coming back really heartbroken about the loss of the poems, and I couldn’t relate at all to what was sad about that. I mean, to me you just write some more. I couldn’t see loss, where was the loss?
Nic: Okay. That’s good.
Sofie: Yeah, it is interesting isn’t it? The child’s way of understanding how the world works.
Nic: It is, but it is not unfamiliar. I’ve met and spoken to writers who have lost a complete first draft when a computer crashed and they hadn’t backed it up. And it’s probably a good attitude, because in that position you could either go ‘Oh no!’ and never get over it, or just start again the next day.
Sofie: That’s right. And particularly children who haven’t yet learned that you have to hang on and hang on... The poet is the consistent, so what does it matter. Interesting anyway.
Nic: Let’s talk about your steps then towards becoming a writer. So, I know there was law and there was acting before, or while, there was writing. Tell me about all of that.
Sofie: Well, it was really always acting. By the time I was in Year 12, that was one of the good years, so I worked very hard. I loved a lot of school, a lot of the study. I really responded to it. I loved modern history, I loved Latin, I loved English. I was really passionate about those things.
Nic: You were a swot.
Sofie: Yeah, up at 6am, truly, I went to boarding school. I was very ambitious about getting the marks, but for what? I wanted to act. I was really clear about it. I knew I wanted to get the marks that I could start a law degree… but with really no intention of following through. I shouldn’t really be making that public, should I?
Nic: No absolutely, why not?
Sofie: But I knew the campus, it was near NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art)! New South Wales University. I wanted to get involved with university theatre. So, I started the law degree, but by the time I started law I was pretty exhausted, because my HSC was pretty stressful. Looking back on it now, that was the year my parents divorced, on top of needing to get these really high marks. I wonder if the two were related in anyway?
Nic: Well, there is a good story there anyway isn’t there?
Sofie: So, I was pretty tired by the time I started uni at seventeen and a half or whatever, because I was one of those younger students.
Yeah, I was very serious about acting and did some really intense plays. I don’t know what they would have been like for the audience but you know… I can’t speak for their experience… But what did they matter?
Nic and Sofie: [Laughter]
Nic: I know, exactly right!
Sofie: When you are 18. I was studying acting on the weekends with an ex-NIDA student and wanted to go to NIDA, and auditioned and that didn’t happen. And then an agent, that’s right, the woman who was teaching me acting said ‘Our agent needs someone who is about your age, would you be interested in joining?’ And I didn’t know anything about what an agent was. I thought that was Maxwell Smart. You know, I was an ordinary 18y year old, I wasn’t very sophisticated. Anyway, so I began acting professionally and left uni.
There was a moment I had, many years later, you know, and struggled my way through with lots of unemployment and had to do all sorts of things to make a living and survive. You know, it was a difficult decade, because I was an ambitious person and an idealistic person, I loved language and I wasn’t getting the work that I wanted.
Why did I ever think it would be otherwise is the question really, but I suppose that is youth. 1992 saw the release of Thelma and Louise.
Nic: Magnificent movie.
Sofie: Yeah. And so, you can imagine every young actress. There was the film, and I remember coming out of that film and thinking, ‘Somebody wrote that, somebody write that. Those words that the actors spoke, somebody wrote them’. I must have picked up something right then and there about what…
Nic: They were the creator, ultimately.
Sofie: They were the foundations of what made that a good film, it was in the writing. I struggled away for some years, still, until I worked for many theatre and education companies. And in 1996, that’s right, I had a particularly tough year with fear in education, working with other actors and the reality of all sitting in that van and touring around Australia in 3-Star motels, you know, three shows a day. And I thought maybe I will just think about the writing a little bit more this year, maybe I will just think about it a little bit more.
Nic: Okay, so you write so many different things. What sort of writing at that point did you think…?
Sofie: Children’s. Because I started studying, yeah.
Okay so there is a little chapter missing. So, I started studying writing. I was never thinking, ‘I will be a writer’. I was thinking. ‘This this will help my acting life. I love to write, I love to read. This will in some way support it. It will help me survive it’. That’s how I remember thinking about writing then. I loved those classes, I loved that course, but that clarity that I have now just hadn’t emerged yet or something. So, it was a particularly tough year in acting, 1998. 1999 rolled around and I thought, ‘This year perhaps just a little more of the eggs will go in that basket’.
I sat down early in 99 with a writing group I had formed as a result of that course at RMIT. And I said each month, lets come together and spend some of our workshop time actually writing. And I came up with an idea for a picture book and I said, let’s write about losing something that’s precious, a child losing something that is precious. So, we all scribbled away for 25 minutes. At the end of that 25 minutes I put down my pen and I had a feeling about my writing I had never experienced before.
Sofie: This is a picture book; you just wrote it. Its new, and there is something new that is happening right now. And I felt it so clearly, you know? And I worked on that story for three or four months on that story that I had wrote in that workshop. I read it out to friends, I was quite preoccupied by it. Obsessive. And when I thought it was ready I submitted it to five publishers. I just looked up their addresses in the front of five picture books that I had read before that I knew were from Australia; and sent it off. I had a lot of faith in that story. And over the next three months, about three months of waiting, I got letters responding to the story. I received four of them all saying that they weren’t interested. And I remember feeling, interestingly, discouraged but also frustrated. And I thought, ‘That feeling I had was mistaken’. And I was frustrated with the response but by the fourth I think I gave up. And I overlooked the fact I had sent it to five publishers, and the fifth letter came in. This might be interesting for emerging writers to know in that the fifth letter came in and said – this was Penny Mathews who was an editor at Omnibus books, also a picture book writer herself. She wrote to me and said, ‘I love this book but it will be so hard for me to find the right illustrator. I can hardly bare to part with it but I’m going to have to. All the best illustrators are busy...’
Nic: Right, wow.
Sofie: ‘… until at least 2005.’ I remember she said that. And when I got that letter it was the best letter I had ever had. It affirmed that I had a feeling, it told me that I was on track, I could trust myself. So, what I did was I worked on the story. I added an action sequence and I resubmitted it but under the guise of, ‘Could you just give me feedback on the change?’. Really, I was resubmitting it. And she actually rang me, Penny rang me, maybe it was six weeks later and said, ‘I just can’t bear to part with it. Can you hang in for us to find the right illustrator? Can you bear that?’ And of course, I said yes. And I just waited and waited and waited. The hardest thing in the world for me is waiting. There was only one moment of peace, and that was when I had general anaesthetic and I was coming out of the effects, and I actually felt like it was going to be okay.
Nic: So, which book was this?
Sofie: So that was My Yellow Blanky. And I never looked back.
Nic: Did you ever consider the illustrations when writing?
Sofie: There were pictures in my mind, but I wasn’t going to be prescriptive about it in any way.
Nic: Because a lot of people who try writing picture books are so… they either do it themselves or have a friend who can do the illustrations.
Sofie: No, that was not really going on.
Nic: It doesn’t go on?
Sofie: No, not for me.
Nic: That would have helped you, because having the trust and faith in the publisher to let them make that choice, a lot of people can’t do that.
Sofie: Right, no. Once I have done the story I let it go… Maybe sometimes to my detriment. I actually think maybe I need to steer it a little more… I don’t know. I let it go and move on.
Really, as soon as I received that letter, saying this story… That was it. Acting went up in smoke. I didn’t even know I let it go. I just forgot it. I was completely preoccupied, completely involved and absorbed by writing.
Sofie: The letter came for My Yellow Blanky and then there was just an endless rush of stories. And so that was just a trip to St Kilda library, very inspired by Kerry Argent’s pictures, sitting in bed – you know, in the days of pre-children – surrounded by picture books thinking, ‘I want to write something with big animals, just the way Kerry Argent creates them’. And boom, so it formed in the diary.
Nic: Did that come out before My Yellow Blanky?
Sofie: No just after. My Yellow Blanky was the first. Yeah, after. And so, all of those stories happened pretty much in quick succession.
Nic: And with great success, and they are wonderful picture books.
Sofie: Thank you. Thanks.
Nic: And then you started writing chapter books, which is very different again.
Sofie: That’s right.
Nic: The Grace series…
Sofie: Yeah, that was a lot later. That was a lot further on.
Nic: So how did you get into chapter books then?
Sofie: The publisher said, ‘Sofie how about you think about writing a book with chapters’. Book with chapters… yeah alright! So, I gave that a go. And then the publisher at Omnibus Books said, ‘We are looking for novels for 8-10s and they need to have about 35 to 40,000 words’. So, I thought, okay, 40,000 words, go!
My time at RMIT generated a lot of ideas, a lot of characters and a lot of ideas. It was a rich time, looking back now it was a rich time for me as a writer. Because… Especially as that manuscript was accepted I could really say yes to all those ideas and all that stuff that was going on.
Nic: Were you earning a living as a writer at this point? Or were you also working.
Sofie: I was running fairy parties on weekends.
Nic: Alright, there is your acting for you.
Sofie: Yeah, and there is the child you see. So, lots and lots of fairy parties.
Sofie: I was a pirate or a fairy or a witch... the Easter Bunny, Alice in Wonderland. Yeah.
Nic: What makes those sort of chapter books for kids, for that sort of age, what makes books like that engaging for readers? Is it plot, is it character? It is obviously a combination but…
Sofie: I feel like you are asking the wrong person!
Nic: Well, you’ve done a lot of them and you’ve done it very well.
Sofie: I know… I know what engages me. You are asking…
Nic: You must know what engages the children, the readers. Or do you have no idea?
Sofie: No, no. I don’t work that way. I mean… No. I don’t think about what engages the reader.
Nic: You’ve never thought about it? Okay, so whatever it is you’ve got it, and you do it, but you have no idea…
Sofie: The piece has its own demands and it’s my job to meet them.
Sofie: To find the character and to meet the demands of the piece. To craft the thing and build the structure. But no, I’ve never thought about, ‘Ah the kids love a bit of adventure here!’ It is just not how I… Never how I’ve worked.
Nic: Maybe it became initiative through Enid Blyton as well. I mean, going back there…
Sofie: I know what I love, I know the world I want to be in. I know who is making me laugh and who is making me cry and when I need the thing to climax and how I need it to resolve. How I need it, how the piece needs it. But it is not like I’m thinking, ‘They love this and I should put in some mud. Kids love mud!’ No.
Nic: History is an important part of a lot of your writing. You said before that you loved studying modern history.
Sofie: I did, stories I suppose.
Nic: Yeah, and you managed to set stories in different eras.
Sofie: Well, I only did that with The Grace series. I was asked to. That was the first time a publisher came and put that idea to me, and I did not think it was something I could do.
Sofie: But when it was put to me that I could possibly do the convict era… When I was a child that part of Australian history captured my imagination, I was only 9 or 10. Stories of prison ships and England, at that time, was a very evocative place in our stories, with Oliver Twist…
Nic: Sure. So, with those books set in the past, how much were you concerned with making the detail right?
Sofie: I was concerned with it. It needed to be got right. I knew I had to do the research. I think there was enough room for me to move, and enough quirks, enough I could give my character that she could hold me and I could really enjoy that. And it turned out to be a really rich journey…
Sofie: … That I hadn’t anticipated. So, it really did feed me. I did love going back to that world. It was hard to avoid cliché and I’m really not sure if I did. You know, the cockney accents and the costermongers and there is the Themes. Where am I picking all that stuff up if not through popular culture over the years? But I gave her a love of horses and a very rich inner life that I could enjoy.
Nic: Tell me about writing the first novel. Why did you decide you were going to write for an adult audience? You were doing well.
Sofie: Because I don’t think about what sort of audience I’m going to write for. I think about what character… I don’t even think about it to be honest. It is more instinctive. I just follow the, I suppose, the thread of my desire. So, I was studying at RMIT, I was studying short story at the time, and I’m thinking about my first novel, you are talking about my first adult novel here?
Sofie: One Foot Wrong. So, I was studying crime fiction and I had no interest in crime fiction as a reader or a writer. But I remember Ania Walwicz, our short story teacher, saying ‘They are very crafted and very planned. So, I want you, class, to go away and write a 10-point plan for an imaginary crime fiction plot.’ So, I thought okay, that is the exercise that has been set, I will go and do it. So that was about my level of attachment. So I very loosely wrote a pretty wild 10-point plan about a girl who is forced fed and kept a prisoner in the family home by very religious parents. And I had images of body parts in Tupperware and on the stove, because in the end I knew she was going to have her revenge on these very... So, I was really quite over the top. I was very loose, quite playful. I was almost just being, not factious, I was being provocative. I was just so relaxed about it, it was a completely over-the-top thing about this girl. This crazy person. And I read it out to my workshop group, as we had been instructed, and they said, ‘You should write that, you should make that a novel!’ And I thought… Oh.
Nic: Yeah, go for it.
Sofie: … Okay! But it took me eight years, because I failed at first to trust her being younger, but the central voices character was enough, so I made my life very hard because I kept writing these other voices, until I went to a good friend who said, ‘It gets more interesting when it is just her voice!’ So there, seven years later.
Nic: So, The Eye of the Sheep also has a child protagonist, why children as protagonists?
Sofie: Well that’s a good question. When you are the person who is doing it, you don’t ask yourself why, do you? You just do.
Nic: You just do!
Sofie: But now I have to think about it… Well, why?
Nic: That was one of the first things I thought of when I was coming to interview you. I was wondering why?
Sofie: Yeah, I’m wondering if I should change that?
Nic: Why change what’s working? But it is just very interesting, because most writers of adult fiction are not using children as protagonists. But you tend to do it repeatedly.
Sofie: Yeah, yeah.
Nic: Do you have a problem writing an adult as a protagonist? Or do you just like the world in which the child is made the outsider?
Sofie: Well, I’m going to have to consider it now if I’m going to have to deconstruct, what, why this continuing thing seems to happen.
Nic: I would have thought you would have thought about it a lot?
Sofie: Clearly… I think it is because if you look at all that acting I did, all that theatre and education, I played a very young child a lot of the time, I did those fairies, I’m drawn to writing for children… So, I’m obviously… ‘Obviously’ is the wrong word. The child in me has something to say. That’s the obvious answer.
Nic: Yeah. In creating your characters, do you as a writer, do you go back into your acting days and look at the ways actors create?
Sofie: No, nothing like that.
Nic: You don’t. Nothing like that? It is not the same.
Sofie: No. And also, it is not, ‘Ah, and now I will follow step one for creating…’ It is instinctive. You build the character, the characters builds on the page as I go along. And I sort of know them instinctively, I know their sort of soul instinctively. That’s what it is. And then I’ll build up a set of metaphors and the vocabulary they use, and their rhythms, and I’ll know them more as the page… as the thing moves along. Does that make sense?
Sofie: I won’t write back stories or…
Nic: Okay. So, at what point do you… At what draft then do you believe you have actually come to discover your character?
Sofie: I’ll just know, I’ll just know. I can’t sort of number the draft. Every day I’m knowing them more, everyday I’m knowing them more, right up to the last set of proof pages. No that is not entirely true, I’ll know them much sooner than that…
Nic: So, in getting to know them, do you then have to go back and change things? Because the more you discover about them you suddenly realise that they wouldn’t have done that…
Nic: … They would have done this instead.
Sofie: But I will know them instinctively pretty early on actually. So far, if I’m thinking of those I’ve known and loved.
Nic: I was going to ask, are they based on ones you have known and loved?
Sofie: No, I’m thinking of the characters I have created.
Nic: No, no. I’m asking. The child character you create, are they based on…
Sofie: On real people. No.
Nic: Not consciously.
Sofie: No, not consciously. I’m sure I… of course I’m using… all the characters are endowed with those along the way I have met, or maybe I’ve even forgotten meeting them. But they are also informed by me, very much. Who I am. For example, the current novel about to come out in September, has a character called Pop who is a war vet, an alcoholic and he lives in rural Victoria. And I am none of those things. At this point.
Nic: Quite Clearly.
Nic and Sofie: [Laughter]
Sofie: But Pop is obsessive. So, I believe that the author as to know something about the heart or the soul… from their own soul I think. So, Pop is obsessive about firewood and finding it, and the fire seems to be something that feeds him really, that enables him to keep going. He gets an enormous about from staring into those flames. It’s almost as if the fire is light… well it’s an obvious metaphor isn’t it? So, he puts a lot of time and energy into sourcing wood, he is preoccupied by wood, he is a repetitive guy, he is very controlling, very controlling of his environment. You just have to turn up certain knobs, dials and switches inside your own self don’t you? To find these people. I mean you don’t even know this is happening.
Nic: Of course.
Sofie: When you look on the page he talks to himself, he blasts out curses around the house.
Nic: It is a godsend for a writer to have a character that talks to himself, isn’t it?
Nic and Sofie: [Laughter]
Sofie: Yeah, I suppose it is. We have all known lots and lots of people, and we know ourselves. But we are not conscious, I don’t think I am conscious…
Nic: At last you don’t have a child protagonist.
Sofie: No, he is not the protagonist! But my books that have child protagonists have adult characters as big player, strong adult character players. So really it is about the adult world.
Nic: Well that’s great.
Sofie: And it sounds like I did something really smart.
Nic: I think you did, you did. You just didn’t do it deliberately.
Nic and Sofie: [Laughter]
Nic: Keep doing it!
Sofie: Well I’m just doing what… I’m working the piece. I’m saying what I need to say and I’m working the piece… That is not a great way to put it.
Nic: But what you have done, the child exists within the adult world whereas if you had done it purely as a child would think at that time, it would be a child’s world. So, the child exists within that adult world, which makes it harder for the child to exist.
Sofie: Yeah, I think you are right.
Nic: And brings in more conflict and more issues, I would have thought.
Sofie: Okay, yeah. But I did it somehow.
Nic: Which is maybe why you won the Miles Franklin. So, tell me what it was like, when they announced you as the winner for the Miles Franklin?
Sofie: Well you know that I didn’t know up until that very moment that it was announced. So, it was pretty nerve racking because I was not prepared. Which all sounds like ‘Oh how lovely, what a lovely surprise!’ But imagine not being prepared with a proper speech! How terrible to stand in front of all the Australian media…
Sofie: … Without a speech!
Nic: Were you worried about who you would forget to mention?
Nic: That would be the biggest fear.
Sofie: And it nearly happened and it was all terrible! And I had a very young baby, I had a very young baby at the time, so that meant there was never any time for the process. And there still isn’t. There is no time to process anything that goes on much.
Nic: How did winning the Miles Franklin change your life as a writer? Suddenly you are thrust into the spotlight.
Sofie: Well it’s just busier, more demands, but of course, the baby. That’s what I am saying. If you have a really baby - has anyone in this room been through that experience?
Nic: Oh, three times!
Sofie: Yeah okay. So Nic, when you are breast feeding a very young baby…
Nic: Well I haven’t done that!
Sofie: [Laughter] Yeah, exactly. And when you are the mother as well of the newborn, there is nothing else much that where the stakes are close.
Nic: That’s right, of course.
Sofie: So, it feels very life and death, and very stressful when you have a very young baby. I was very nervous, its nerve racking. Some people take to it like its ducks to water, the new born thing.
Nic: Very few.
Sofie: But they do, some of them like it! But it is so nerve racking. So, you are in a state of minor panic the whole time you are apart; together, yes, but apart, it is just so stressful.
I knew it was going to take a lot of time to process, and I was unprepared and stressed. I knew it was going to be a slow release. I knew it was the most significant, I suppose… In a way, between us all and the rest who are listening, is it more significant than that letter that came from Penny Mathews?
Nic: No, probably not. Absolutely not.
Sofie: It was just a wonderful another step, a huge next step.
Nic: But do you feel as if the expectations now are higher?
Sofie: Not consciously. God, there must be a lot going on.
Nic and Sofie: [Laughter]
Sofie: I mean with the first few months of writing the next book I was stressed about ‘Was it was going to be as good?’ Which I went through a lot with The Eye of the Sheep. ‘It’s not as good as One Foot Wrong, it’s not as good!’ And then someone actually said to me that.
Nic: Oh great.
Sofie: That friendship ended after that, to be honest. It really did.
Nic: It really did? Wow.
Sofie: Anyway ‘It’s not as good, it’s not as good’. Maybe there is just a stage where you go, ‘It’s not as good, but…’
Nic: Big Cheerio to that person out there listening.
Nic and Sofie: [Laughter]
Sofie: But… Ok. The reason why all these things are ok… Yeah you do get a bit stressed when you first begin and you think, ‘It’s not as good’ and ‘What will people think?’ But in a short time, the reason why you wrote those other books is the same reason why you are writing now. They are not necessarily the only reasons you can articulate but they are very powerful. And so, before you know it you are on a journey with some new characters. Or if you likened it to writing a piece of music, and you are a musician who needs to compose music, you’re going to forget pretty soon, aren’t you, about anything else but the music? And you are going to be in love with your cast and the stakes are going to be very high and you are going to be very deeply involved in them, and with them. So that overshadows anything else.
In a way I’ve been thinking – because I have just sent it off, it’s just done – if it got sent, let’s say, only to the Scandinavian countries and you never knew what happened next... This might sound terrible, but it wouldn’t really be a difference. You would then go, ‘Ok, what now?’ It is a necessary part of your creative process to be heard, but if it couldn’t happen for any reason, you would start to dig the next hole, the next castle, sand castle, you would build!
Nic: Do you look back at the roll call of Miles Franklin Award winners and go, holy shit, I’m up there with David Malouf and Tim Winton.
Sofie: It’s all too surreal. It all continues to be way too surreal. Good news is a very prickly thing for me at the best of times. You know, to take on and to come to terms with and to allow. O, there is a sort of wall between me and these good things.
So, I am very slowly over time can feel them, and I am very grateful of course for the security it brings – things like leaks in roofs and car repayments, that is very important. And having your book read. I am kind of like a combination of an extreme optimist and an extreme pessimist. I am surprised that anyone reads it, and at the same time I’ve always had that blind faith from 5 years old when I decided to act. So, there is that optimism.
Nic: How do you find time to write? The mother of two young children, what is your routine?
Sofie: Well interestingly I had this very thought this morning. It is much better, even though it is much more tiring now, it is much better for me now the arrangement I have with my writing. Who would have thought? Because I am a much happier person when I am writing just grabs around the edges. All the pressure is off me now.
So, I would apply myself with that kind of rigid disciplinarian that I really can be. You know, really controlling. And I would say, ‘Ok you must be at your desk at 7.30. You have an 8-hour day. You are 34 years old’ – or whatever it was – ‘You must work’. It’s a horrible feeling, you know. It was a horrible hard feeling, and I would live under the whip of my own discipline. I’m really revealing too much… What is the best way to put it… you know… that disciplinarian is a hard task master.
Sofie: It is a hard task master to live with.
Nic: And in some ways a lot of people write so they don’t have to do that, so they don’t have to live like that. A lot of writers love writing is to avoid… for them it is too much like working. That sort of… ‘Why would I bother writing for so little money if I could go into an office and earn so much more?’
Sofie: Yeah, I would apply that. It was uncomfortable. And not really suited – and I didn’t know then – but not really suited to how am creatively. Which is, funnily enough, much looser. I can work quite well in chaos, much happier, much happier in grabs. Because it is all going on all the time, of course.
Nic: So, you talk about writing in grabs, do you still have one particular spot where you write or just everywhere?
Sofie: No, no, no. Play centres, cafes, hallways, corridors. All that.
Nic: Laptop? Notebook? Whatever at that time.
Sofie: Yeah. It’s kids now. It’s on the edge. When I say it is on the edge, it is a fundamental part of who I am, but kids have to… the stakes are much higher. I think it is… I say this now but maybe it is not true… I feel like it is a quite a happier place in amongst it all. You know? Having said that it is much more tiring now.
Nic: Of course.
Sofie: Because I am woken up during the nights sometime still, and there is a whole house to manage, and got to get to school every day. So, it is more tiring, because I still insist on a certain number of words to be written each week. So that task master is still there, and it is really draining writing, even though I describe it ‘Ah, the love and the instinct’ It is still really draining.
Nic: Could you stop writing? Could you give it up?
Sofie: Could I stop? That is an interesting question.
I can’t believe that people can live lives – because I am asked a lot, ‘How did you do it, you know, with the children?’
You know, I do have a cranky answer to that question, which I never give which is, ‘How do you not do it?’ Which is equally as fascinating. ‘How are you managing to only just do the kids and the house work without having another life? How are you getting through the days without having some imaginary friends? If you like, a game to play, a jigsaw puzzle, but not just a jigsaw puzzle flat on the board, like a living jigsaw puzzle to put together for fun’.
I mean, I’ve never put it in those words…
Nic: So, you couldn’t stop.
Sofie: Does it sound like I couldn’t stop? Yeah no, would go ‘Well I will be a cook then?’ Yeah, no. I can’t imagine that.
Nic: Do you have time to read? And if so what do you read?
Sofie: Yeah, reading came hard in the first couple of years of Sunny’s life. I was pretty dodgy, as in a lot of episodes of Breaking Bad and, you know, what everyone is doing out there, the rest of our are culture is doing now.
I really love Helen Gardner; I really really love Helen Gardner. More and more.
Nic: Yeah, she is amazing. How can one person write so beautifully in so many different forms?
Sofie: I love it. I really am grateful. And I learn about writing from her. And in fact, I recently wrote to her and told her that when I read her collection of essays. I just couldn’t not, I just loved it.
I read quite a range, I read Anne Patchett’s Commonwealth. I thought that was great. I read Karen. J. Fowler’s We’re All Completely Beside Ourselves. I read Christos Tsiolkas’ work. I try and read as many on the Stella long and short list as I can, and the Miles as I can. The books that are very current getting lots of attention, I try. I only have a bit of time…
Nic: I don’t even know how you do that.
Sofie: … Each evening a little of each. I’ve got a book club going, I read what I can. At other times, it will be Friday night and I will have answered emails and been on my own project as well. And television, there is some good writing, but how Helen Gardner wrote in one of those essays how most film does leave you running out of the cinema, screaming for more. And it does, there is no doubt.
But there is no doubt that fiction, and the quiet meditative act of engaging with it can’t be substituted. When I look at the screen and it is life fizz and bubble, it’s like eating sugar, even the good stuff. It still uses electricity for you to be able to…
Simply that fact alone means there is stress around it, somehow. Even though I love it, and I wrote One Foot Wrong the film script, which has been optioned, I co-wrote that. And when I saw Thelma and Louise I thought to myself, something in me thought, ‘Is that something I will do?’
But engaging with a character on the page who you fall for… We’re All Completely Beside Ourselves completely took my breath away. I could not believe how sharp that voice was.
You know, people write in different ways and what I find easy other people find hard.
Sofie: And what I find… I don’t know how they do it. Like if you ever tried to write a folk song the way Bob Dylan might, or the way those very simple gospel songs, which are deceptively simple, if you try, you can’t do it. Or Merle Haggard, a Merle Haggard song. You can’t replicate it, or whatever the word is. So, simple, because they are coming from some deep place.
Nic: It is deceptive.
Sofie: It is deceptive, it is deceptive. You can’t do it.
Nic: The whole craft of writing is deceptive.
Sofie: But there are quite a few lyrics in my next book, which I find I can write sort of 70s Led Zep type lyrics. I can do that, they just rolled off the tongue! ‘Oh baby, love my way, my sweet baby, in your arms.’ My publisher wrote me and said, ‘Sophie, you know how prickly it is to get these kinds of rights, it is going to cost a fortune’. Really cranky. And I said ‘No, no, no, I wrote them all.
Nic: Fantastic. You just get some key words and put them in a sort of anagram tool and they come out as a 70s hit!
Sofie: Those 70s, ‘Sweet, sweet’…’ They were fun, they were so fun to write!
Nic: Just finally, one final question. Of all the classic novels in time, which one do you wish you had written? Which one would you love to have written and be known for?
Sofie: No look… can I…
Nic: You can answer it in any way you want.
Sofie: So, I don’t like the question. I thought you were going to say which ones do I love. That’s different.
Look I don’t think I wish I wrote that. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously… There are acting roles I think ‘That person is really lucky to have that’, but… not books. I more just have a feeling of love and sort of celebration of and gratitude that it is there.
Nic: Well I will ask it again then.
Sofie: I am giving you a hard time here.
Nic: No. Okay. That aside. What is your favourite, your absolute favourite book? The one that has had the most impact on you.
Sofie: Horton Hatches the Egg.
Sofie: Because an elephant is faithful, 100%
Sofie: Because I read it again the other day. Dr Seuss goes, ‘It should be, it should be like that!’ You know. And the egg that hatched is part bird, part elephant. I mean that was perfect.
Nic: Like the writers Sofie admires, Dr Seuss and Helen Gardner, Sofie is one of kind.