South Australian Writers' Centre Interview
This interview originally appeared in the SAWC February 2011 newsletter.
The Fortunes of Ruby White is a comic novel about a jobless heroine. Can you tell us what influenced you to write it?
Initially, a documentary examining some of the more bizarre New Age therapies, where vulnerable people were being fleeced by so-called psychics and healers; secondly, a job selling a product I knew had flaws. The ideas collided: if you were employed to hawk bogus products, how far would you bend your ethics in order to stay employed? The New Age field is also an area ripe for satire. I was into it for a few years, but knew I had to get out when I found myself eye-rolling at a seminar when the presenter (a local Personality, to boot) said that a light bulb flickering means a loved one is trying to make contact. In my house, it’s called ‘crappy wiring’.
Is comic fiction tricky to write?
I actually find it trickier not to write comic fiction; it seems to be the way my brain works. I tend to find that if my writing isn’t comic, it’s deeply depressing; sometimes I worry I can only go one way or the other. I blame a childhood which featured a lot of Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg, courtesy of my parents.
How did The Fortunes of Ruby White get from the slush pile to an editor’s desk?
Luck and timing. (Sorry.) I picked Simon & Schuster as they were a publisher I admired but didn’t produce much local fiction, figuring I’d have a better shot that way. Naiively, I went about it completely backwards: wrote the manuscript, sent it off, and then began researching the industry. The more I read, the more I realised the chance of getting any book picked out of slush—let alone a first novel, let alone one by an author with no agent—was incredibly slight. To test the waters, I entered into the Salisbury Writers’ Festival’s First Page session, and then waited eagerly on the day for feedback. My page wasn’t picked, which convinced me that my manuscript was being used to prop up the short leg of a desk and wasn’t even good enough to warrant a rejection letter. Two weeks later, Simon & Schuster emailed to say they were interested. (I’m still not sure what the lesson is out of this. Fortune favours the ignorant, perhaps.)
What are you currently reading?
Unusually for me, as I’m normally years behind everyone else, something relatively current—Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Next on the list is Bill Bryson’s House, but he’ll probably have put out A Short History of Something Else by the time I get to it. I also recently finished Allayne Webster’s Our Little Secret, which upset me for days afterwards (in the best possible way).
What books have influenced you?
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the first book I read which tackled high-end academic concepts in such a bizarre way; always beautifully understated, measured, and somewhat detached, even when the world is (literally) exploding. I’m a sucker for bleakly humorous books, and it’s also impossible for me to dislike someone who loathes pointless bureaucracy as much as I do. Also, Cynthia Heimel’s If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?, for her razor-edged sarcasm and open rawness, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for exploring disturbing concepts with delicate language, Bill Bryson’s A Walk In the Woods, for the ease and fluidity of Bryson’s writing (not to mention his dab hand with a curse word), and Stephen King’s On Writing, in particular for its analogy that stories are “found things, like fossils in the ground”.
Do you have a non-writing job?
I work six days a week (sometimes seven, if I’m lucky) at the bicycle shop I own with my husband. Fitting writing around work is an ongoing battle. (As I type this, it’s 5.30 a.m.) On the plus side, many people have been fascinated by the whole book thing; almost half of the people at the launch were bike shop customers. I was so touched!
How did you get started as a writer?
When I was 7, my father said that rhyming couplets were the lowest form of poetry, so naturally I started writing screeds of them to entertain him. (He ended up changing his mind, possibly to shut me up.) In high school, I drew political cartoons for a favourite teacher. At uni, I ghost-wrote my friends’ essays. The Fortunes of Ruby White came after this, and I’ve just realised it was the first thing I wrote purely for myself. Weird.
What is one important lesson you’ve learnt on your journey to becoming a writer and how has it helped you improve your craft?
Don’t edit as you go. Writing, editing, and re-writing the same sentences over and over and over does your head in and gets you nowhere. Letting go and just putting words on the page, even if they’re making you cringe, is the key to actually getting things done. I hate the first draft but I love to edit.
Your publishers have been calling you the next Helen Fielding. How do you feel about that?
Terrified. Immensely flattered, but terrified.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
For those who want to get published, write for your reader. Don’t write for acclaim or money (ha ha! No, really.) or awards; just concentrate on telling a great story in the simplest, crispest language you can. Re-read favourite books to work out why you love them, and see if you can make those elements your own to develop your style. I also think it’s crucial to always look for the truth in the moment, as, in my own reading, I find it’s those tiny kernels of “Ah! I thought I was the only person who thought that,” that hold the most resonance.
What’s next for Lia Weston?
I’ve just finished the first draft of my second novel, which is a story about obsessive love. It’s quite different to ...Ruby White. While it ferments in a desk drawer, I’m creating an epistolary project with someone I’ve never met, plus a short story to contribute to an anthology; both are projects with The Australian Literature Review. I’ve never written a short story or collaborated with someone else before, so it’s very exciting. Finally something that doesn’t have to be 100,000 words long!
Where do you see yourself and your writing in 5 years time?
Although I’d love to see myself on a window seat of my New York penthouse, approving the costume designs for Ruby White: The Movie, I have a feeling I’ll be continuing to juggle my writing/work/general life commitments, hopefully with another one or two books on the shelf. And if we’ve got a part-timer at the shop so I can have a few days off each week, that will be a bonus.