Hannah Richell is the author of Secrets of The Tides and The Shadow Year, both novels I loved and reviewed for Beauty and Lace. Hannah is still in the early days of her career and we briefly touched on the juggling act of balance in the life of an author in the interview we did with her in July 2012. Her involvement with the 2013 Sydney Writers Festival proved to be a perfect opportunity for Hannah to talk to us some more about juggling the aspects of her life, and her experiences at the festival.
I hope you love her guest post as much as I have, and now I will hand you over to Hannah.
Welcome back to Beauty and Lace Hannah and thanks for sharing with us.
Writing novels is a solitary job. It involves hours, days, weeks sitting at a desk – often in pyjamas – with no one for company but the imaginary friends I’ve dreamed up. I have a cat, of course. Occasionally he joins me, his furry bulk landing with unerring accuracy on the DELETE key as he tries to swipe at the spider that’s taken up residence beside my desk; but these clumsy interactions are about as social as it gets. The rest of the time my working days are just me, my laptop and my words. And that’s fine. I like the quietness … the isolation. It suits me.
But then along comes a rare moment – like when my second novel, The Shadow Year, hit the bookstores. Suddenly everything shifted. No longer was it acceptable to hibernate in my cave. It was time to discard the Uggs, brush my hair and re-enter the world. It’s an odd dichotomy – a strange tension between the private and the public – and for someone more inclined to quiet observation than formal public speaking, it was both exciting and terrifying to get out and about for a month or so, to talk about my new novel.
In the month of the launch, I found myself juggling kids and childcare arrangements to attend a series of events, talks and interviews. One of the most exciting came as an invitation to the Sydney Writers’ Festival where I joined bestselling author Caroline Overington and award-winning Julienne Van Loon to talk about writing with narrative tension and suspense. We were chaired by journalist and author Matthew Condon, who asked us about our own personal fears, and how they fuelled our writing. We shared tips and techniques for trying to keep readers hooked, and discussed whether the news and current affairs can help or hinder the creative process. One of the best questions came from the audience: Do you hear dramatic music in your head when you write tense scenes? I loved the idea, but admitted ‘no’, preferring instead to listen to instrumental movie soundtracks when trying to capture a particular atmosphere in my writing.
Afterwards, I wandered the sunny piers at Walsh Bay where I saw people slumped in deck chairs, reading books and newspapers, poring over the festival program. The whole area seemed to hum with ideas and conversation. I flashed my lanyard at a security guard and slipped into the green room, feeling like an imposter, but excited to be in such hallowed literary territory. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting inside, but I was a little disappointed not to spy any outrageous diva antics or extravagant riders – no bowls of blue M&Ms, no flickering white candles – just lots of very nice people deep in conversation or sitting quietly preparing for events. At one point, Claudia Karvan darted in, looking effortlessly glamorous as she snatched up a stray friand and wandered out again, and I’m not ashamed to admit that it took all my self-control not to race after her and declare my girl-crush. (To me she will always be Frankie from Love My Way.)
Wandering the festival, I was fortunate to meet other wonderful writers: Dawn Barker, of the powerful debut Fractured; Kate Forsyth, of the acclaimed The Wild Girl; Michael Robotham, celebrated international thriller writer; and Deborah Oswald, creator of the one and only Offspring! I even managed to squeeze in a few sessions at the festival – Kirstie Clements talking about her time at the helm of Australian Vogue, four international publishers who discussed what makes ‘Fabulous Female Fiction’, and a personal literary heroine of mine, Cheryl Strayed, who spoke incredibly honestly about her memoir Wild, and the choice she made while hiking the Pacific Crest trail to be brave, to reject fear. I left brimming with inspiration and ideas.
The next day heralded my first ever TV interview. For someone who squirms at hearing their voice on an answer machine, the idea of sitting in front of a video camera while attempting to sound vaguely intelligent wasn’t exactly appealing, but I remembered Cheryl Strayed’s wise words and decided that I too would ‘reject fear’. (Let me tell you, it’s easier said than done!) First up was the make-up room for a professional going-over. Then it was into the studio to meet the host of the show, Tim Brunero. They positioned me in a chair, miked me up, tweaked my hair, adjusted lights, rearranged my shirt. Finally, we were rolling.
Halfway through, I realised that I wasn’t sure where to look. At Tim? At the camera? No, don’t look at the camera, surely? That would be weird. Argh! I looked at the camera. A stray strand of hair had started to flap in my face and my mouth was suddenly so dry I wasn’t sure the words would come … and if they were still coming, did they make any sense? Surely not, because all I could hear was that interior monologue, drowning out the reality of what was happening in the studio. But somehow I silenced the annoying voice in my head. Tim Brunero was gentle and perceptive and I was struck, suddenly, at how quickly it was all over. And do you know something: I think I might have even enjoyed it.
Next, I joined Cheryl Akle for the Mamamia Book Circle segment. Cheryl is lovely – as warm and generous in person as she comes across on TV – and her passion for books was obvious. I sat on a panel with Hannah Kent, author of the hit debut, Burial Rites and Sarah Turnbull, author of bestselling Almost French. Both authors were down-to-earth and lovely to talk with. Then Cheryl hit us with the bad news: it was time to pitch our own books to camera in thirty seconds. It proved surprisingly hard and left all of us, I think, with sweaty palms.*
By this point, I was so enjoying my glamorous life that it felt almost normal to attend the Australian Book Industry Awards with my publisher, Hachette. Schmoozing before the dinner, I met literary wonders Kate Morton and Kate Mosse and spotted Justine Clark lingering in the crowds. I considered rushing over to her, until I realised she wouldn’t know me from ADAM, and that she was only so familiar because I’ve watched her on Playschool almost every afternoon for the past couple of years. Later, as they started to read out the nominations and distribute the awards, I was overwhelmed with panic. My debut novel had been nominated in two categories and I hadn’t even thought to prepare an acceptance speech, so obvious had it seemed that I wouldn’t win. But after the last few crazy days, for a split second, I realised anything was possible. I exchanged a nervous glance with my publisher, Vanessa. We held our breaths as the winners were announced: KATE MORTON, of course! And M. L. STEDMAN! Yay. Phew. And yes, I was a tiny bit disappointed … but I loved both the winning novels and I left the evening feeling really-and-truly delighted just to have been nominated. Whoever would’ve thought it just a few years ago as I sat at my kitchen table writing a story while my baby slept in the bassinet beside me – and now there I was, nominated for a book award alongside Kate Morton? Crazy.
And just like that, I woke, hazy with hangover, at the end of the month and as wonderful as it had been to participate in so many great events, none of it felt real. Or at least, not real in the way my children’s arms slung around my neck feels real, or real in the way standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes with my husband feels real. The strange and glamorous world I had just danced through was thrilling and a massive encouragement to a new writer embarking on her career, but truly, I know, the real work is what I do, back at my desk, in front of my computer, churning through ideas, looking for the right words, lost inside my head.
So, here I am, still a little giddy and immensely grateful to my publisher and my publicist Jaki for setting up such a great book campaign, and quietly proud, too, that I have conquered so many personal fears as I retreat back to my writing room. Of course it’s at this exact moment that the universe chooses to let me know that yes, I have been getting just a little too big for my boots, for I return to find the recent rain has brought the ceiling down. I step over the puddle on the carpet and the plaster strewn about the floor and sit myself at my desk, confronted by a blank computer screen, my faithful eight-legged companion studying me from his nook. ‘Hello old friend,’ I whisper. ‘It’s good to be back.’
*If I’m starting to sound like a horrible name-dropper, please may I remind you of the spider … the cat? Thank you.