AUTHOR INSIGHT: MEET DEBORAH O'BRIEN

Ahead of her first Australian book tour (2012), Australian author Deborah O’Brien answered a bunch of questions for Write Note Reviews – word is she loved the mix of routine and left of centre! Note: this Q&A took place in 2012.

How does writing make you feel?
Writing engenders all kinds of feelings in me, depending on what I’m working on at the time. Like a child with a pile of building blocks, it makes me happy to play with words and phrases, and it can be immensely satisfying to capture a particular cadence or rhythm. When I’m stressed, writing can be a comfort, allowing me to escape into a world of make-believe. And as an exercise in wish-fulfilment, it’s enormous fun. For example, I’ve always dreamed of owning a small herd of alpacas but I can’t have them in real life, so I put them into my novel instead!

Tell me a bit about your writing journey – the highlights and lowlights.
As a child, I wrote and illustrated little magazines for my family. I remember creating a special one for my dad when he went into hospital for an operation – my mother still has it. In primary school I penned a series of stories about a character called Polly Gordon – she was the girl I wanted to be – pretty, popular and good at sport.

One memorable lowlight occurred when I was in the early years of high school. The teacher had set a story-writing exercise and chose my contribution to read aloud to the class. You can imagine how thrilled I was. Until I heard the tone of her voice – withering and sarcastic. She went on to pull my efforts apart in a manner that left me red with embarrassment. From that day onwards, apart from my family, I didn’t show my stories to anyone else. Not until decades later.

After high school I went to uni and became a teacher. Following the birth of my son, I worked from home, authoring art and design books under my married name, running painting classes and penning articles for magazines. One day my mother said, ‘When are you going to write your novel? I’m not getting any younger, you know.’ So that night, fortified by a glass of wine, I went straight to my laptop and started typing.

Soon I was working on two manuscripts concurrently, ‘Mr Chen’ and another. I suppose I was making up for lost time. And I couldn’t complain about ‘writer’s block’ because I always had the other project to go on with. Which leads me to the second major lowlight. I’d just finished the final draft of an ill-fated love story cum political thriller, when real events overtook the political part of the narrative. I couldn’t believe it. Nor could the small group of trusted friends, who had read the manuscript. Anyway, I’ve reworked the story since then, and now it’s sitting in the ‘bottom drawer’. Who knows if it will ever see the light of day again?

Mr Chen’s Emporium is your debut novel. Tell me a bit about it.
The idea had been sitting in my head for a long time, inspired by the stories my grandmother used to tell me about her childhood and adolescence in the gold districts of central-western NSW during the early 1900s. In recent years, my husband and I bought a little cottage on the outskirts of a small country town. The fact that I myself was a ‘blow-in’ gave me the initial premise: two women recently arrived in a rural community. But that didn’t sound too exciting, so I made it a dual narrative – then and now. From the start I pictured an emporium as the centrepiece of the novel, an Aladdin’s cave of exotic wares, run by a young Chinese merchant. Once those basic elements were in place, the book seemed to acquire its own momentum.

I hope, of course, that readers are entertained by the story, but beyond that, I’d be delighted if the twin storylines caused them to reflect on how society has changed between the 1870s and the present-day. The other point about the book’s structure is that it highlights the universal constants of love and friendship, which are timeless, no matter what the era. Sadly, the same applies to prejudice and intolerance.

What’s your writing process like? Do you need total quiet or can you work in chaos?
I’ve always had to write and paint amid the bustle of family life so I’ve gotten used to it. For years I worked at my dining room table and cleared it every night to make room for dinner. Having said that, my writing dream is encapsulated in the following words from Fra Angelico circa 1450, and still so true today: ‘Whoever practises art needs a quiet life and freedom from care.’

I’d love to have been friends with Anne of Green Gables. Which character from any book would you most like to be friends with and why?
Actually, Monique, we must be kindred spirits because I too would love to have been friends with Anne Shirley. The ‘Anne’ books were such an integral part of my childhood that she was ever-present in my imagination. But if I had to choose someone else, it would be Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, because she’s plucky, loyal and compassionate. For the same reasons, Jo March would undoubtedly be a great friend.

What words of wisdom would you give a high school student who wanted to write a novel?
My first inclination would be to suggest starting with something smaller, such as blog articles or short fiction. Then again, if they really have the makings of a novel inside their head, why not encourage them to have a go? There’s no minimum age, and it really depends on the individual writer. I’ve read brilliant novels by authors in their early twenties. In my case, however, it took a long time to build up the life experience necessary for the task.

On a practical level, if you’re an aspiring young writer, I would recommend reading widely, including the classic books, and writing at every opportunity, no matter what the context or the genre.

Getting rejection letters seems to be part and parcel of the publishing process. Think back to the day you received your first rejection letter  –  what words of wisdom would you give yourself?
The advice I would give myself is: don’t stop writing. I’ve always enjoyed the ‘process’ more than anything else. It might sound naïve or overly simplistic, but in writing fiction, I’ve never thought too much about the outcomes, except to write something which mattered to me. For my part, I was very fortunate that my agent submitted ‘Mr Chen’ to Random House Australia and not long afterwards, we heard that they loved it. It seems like a Cinderella story, but I’m proof it can still happen.

What sort of books do you like to read?
I love anything by Kazuo Ishiguro, especially The Remains of the Day, which is an exquisite novel in every way. I’m drawn to books about trying to recapture an illusory past. That’s why I adore Alain-Fournier’s Le grand Meaulnes and Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby. I’ve always enjoyed a well-written biography or autobiography. Dawn French’s Dear Fatty, for example, offers such a fresh, honest and humorous approach to the genre. I’m also fond of literary crime novels by authors such as Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin and Michael Robotham.

Why should you never write when you’re hungry?
The problem with writing when I’m hungry is that sometimes a paragraph will look more like a menu than a legitimate part of the narrative. Breakfasts, in particular, seem to feature abundantly in my writing. I suspect that’s because I’m so keen to start work each morning that I forget to eat first. Whenever you see poached eggs, crispy bacon, corn fritters and home-made sausages in one of my stories, you can be pretty certain I missed breakfast on the morning I wrote that particular piece. On one occasion I wrote an entire smorgasbord lunch, describing every item in minute detail. You can guess which meal I’d skipped that day! The next morning, following a hearty breakfast with my husband in our local café, I re-read the previous day’s text, realised I’d gone way over the top with the food, and deleted most of it.

What’s your favourite word? Enthusiasm

If you could pick five literary characters to have dinner with you, who would you choose and why?
Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. To me, he’s one of the great heroes of English-speaking fiction and I’d love to meet him.
Hercule Poirot: I feel certain Agatha Christie’s detective would be great company, and if he had David Suchet’s Belgian-French accent, it would be even better.
Elizabeth Bennet for her wit. She might even bring Mr Darcy!
Miss Phryne Fisher: I would enjoy hearing about her earlier life and, of course, her detective work. Perhaps she and Monsieur Poirot could compare cases.
Jay Gatsby: I’d like to tell him what lies ahead, but I doubt he’d listen. And if he actually did, that might ruin a masterpiece.