This morning I posted my review of Australian author Rebecca James’ second novel, Sweet Damage (which you can see here). Rebecca also very kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions and her answers were so detailed and fabulous that I had to give them their own separate post!
Q1). Hi Rebecca and welcome to my blog. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions for me. To get started, can you share a little about how you came to write and what the road to publication was like for you?
I started writing when I was in my thirties. I had four very young sons at the time and I think I needed some kind of creative outlet, something that got me away from nappy-changing and the chaotic domestic reality of my life. Writing gave me some kind of an outlet, something that I was doing purely for myself.
It always seems, when a debut author breaks out, that their success has been instantaneous, overnight, but the truth is that most debut authors have a practice book or two hidden away somewhere. Beautiful Malice was in fact the third complete novel I’d written, and there were also a number of false-start books that I never managed to finish. The first book I completed I sold to a small e-publisher for the sum total of $100. With my second book I managed to get a literary agent and we shopped it around for a year and a half before giving up. My agent and I parted on amicable terms and I started work on my third book, Beautiful Malice.
It took a long time to get a literary agent for Beautiful Malice. Quite a few agents enjoyed it but said it would be an impossible sell because it didn’t fit clearly enough into a YA or adult fiction category. Eventually, after almost 100 rejections, Jo Unwin from Conville and Walsh picked it up. We worked on it together for a while before she submitted it. Erica Wagner from Allen and Unwin was the first publisher to make an offer and then Julia- Heydon-Wells from Faber and Faber offered. A few weeks later it went to auction in Germany, and a few weeks after that it sold all around the world. It was an amazing time.
In summary I guess the journey was quite long and slow to begin with and then, once Beautiful Malice sold, everything went ahead at a crazy, dizzy speed.
Q2). I know you’re a busy mother – you have four boys! How do you find the time to write? Do you have your own writing space and routines? Or do you just write where and when you can?
I write while the boys are at school, and now that they’re older I can do a bit of work on the weekends or in the evenings. (I’m answering these questions over Easter while the kids watch a movie).
I have a desk which I sit at most days, but sometimes I move my laptop to the kitchen table. On really cold days I’ve even been known to work in bed.
Q3). In Sweet Damage, Anna suffers from severe agoraphobia brought on by grief and stress. What made you choose this condition to give a character?
In a practical sense, when trying to come up with an interesting set-up for my novel, I realised that a mental illness like agoraphobia, which keeps Anna housebound, virtually trapped inside, had a lot of obvious narrative potential. It’s such misunderstood condition and because of that I think it holds a lot of fascination for people. Almost, even, a strange sense of the exotic. (The reality, of course, is not exotic or romantic at all).
I initially became interested in agoraphobia as a condition because I’ve had anxiety myself. I started having panic attacks at a particularly stressful time in my life (my husband, Hilary, and I were running our own small business, we had four young sons at home and Hilary became quite seriously ill). There was a particular day I was so anxious I failed to make it to the supermarket to buy dinner. I was lucky – I had a good doctor- and with a combination of medication and guided meditation, I was able to get better. But since then I’ve often wondered what if? What if my husband hadn’t been understanding? What if I hadn’t been lucky enough to find a knowledgeable doctor? What if things had only gotten worse? I was never as unwell as Anna but I got a glimpse of the frightening possibility, of the frightening potential for your mind to let you down, mess with your thoughts in such a way that normal life becomes impossible.
Q4). Because of Anna’s condition, almost all of the action in the novel centres around her house, Fairview, which is almost like a living breathing character in itself. It reads to me like a modern day gothic story – were you inspired by stories such as Rebecca?
In a way, yes, I was. It’s interesting, I actually reread Rebecca while I was writing Sweet Damage and didn’t enjoy it as much as I remembered loving it when I was younger. I found the narrator irritating – she’s just so spineless and naive. And …(beware spoilers for Rebecca ahead!) … the fact that she has virtually no moral problem accepting the fact that her husband killed his first wife made her seem like a bit of a simpleton. I thought her whole reaction to the bombshell that her husband was a murderer should have been made much more extreme, much more complex and believable.
Nonetheless, the way Du Maurier wrote about Manderly was unquestionably brilliant, and I certainly tried to give Fairview some of that same sense of character and quality of gothic menace.
Q5). Genre and categorisation are all the rage at the moment. Your previous novel was probably classified as YA but this one seems to be marketed as adult, judging by the fact that the characters are slightly older and I’ve seen it in adult sections of bookstores. Where do you think it fits in? Does it straddle across categories or is it part of the ‘New Adult’ craze? Are any of these categories/genres even necessary?
I think Sweet Damage is primarily being marketed as a YA book in Australia but I’m not all that surprised you’ve seen it on adult shelves. Like Beautiful Malice I think it may be considered a bit of a crossover book. I hope it is. I’d like to think adults would enjoy it just as much as teens. It was tricky to write because I was always conscious that, like Beautiful Malice, it would be published as a YA book here in Australia, but as an adult book in some foreign territories. I had to try and make it straddle that divide. I hope I’ve been successful.
I don’t think the categories are all that important to writers, or even readers, but they seem to be necessary to publishers and certainly to booksellers. They’re mainly a marketing tool, I think, a way to define where books fit in and how they compare to other books out there. Categories and genres help publishers and booksellers ‘place’ books, both literally (as in, on the shelves) and figuratively.
Anyway, it’s a very interesting time for all these sorts of questions as everything has evolved so much because of the internet. Loads of writers are self-publishing books and through various success stories even creating new genres (like New Adult, for example). It’s a great time to be a writer – there are so many options – and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Q6). I’ve seen your bookshelves – you’re an avid reader! Who are some of your favourite authors/what are some of your favourite novels?
I have so many beloved books and though I don’t necessarily think in terms of favourites the books that stayed with me long after I turned the last page are the ones that come to mind when I’m asked this question. I think, if I can generalise a bit, that I prefer books that surprise and shock me with an unexpected twist, or stories that make me cry because they’re so heartbreaking, or writing that stuns me with its honesty and insight. Some of my favourite books include The Siege by Helen Dunmore, We Need To Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver, The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler, Out of The Silence by my sister, Wendy James, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates and Villette by Charlotte Bronte. My favourite authors include all of the above plus Helen Garner, Nicci French, Liane Moriarty, Roxana Robinson and Kate Atkinson.
Q7). Did the Easter Bunny bring you something delicious?
The Easter Bunny brought the kids a lot of delicious chocolate and I pinched enough of theirs to be satisfied. 🙂
Q8). If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
A waitress probably. Or a kitchen designer. I’m not actually trained to do anything else.
Q9). And lastly…what’s next for you? Anything juicy you can share?
Nothing juicy. Sorry. My life is decidedly unjuicy. All going well I’ll keep on writing and hopefully put out a third book and then a fourth and a fifth and a sixth and so on and on until I’m ready to retire. (Which I’m hoping will be never while I’m still alive).
Thanks for being my guest Rebecca and for providing me with such wonderful answers. Looking forward to seeing many more novels with your name on them!