In 2012 Hannah Richell went through the portal that divides ‘normal Sydney woman taking her kids to school’ from ‘internationally bestselling author standing on stage at the Sydney Writers Festival in front of appreciative audience’. What happened? Her debut novel, Secrets of the Tides became one of the most widely praised novels of 2012, and the second bestselling Australian debut of 2012. Her second novel Shadow Year is about to hit be published; it’s on my review shelf and I can’t wait to crack it open. I had the chance to ask Hannah some questions ahead of publication – here’s a little insight for you.
Monique: Tell me a bit about how you became a writer.
Hannah: I’ve always kept journals and diaries but I only began to write fiction as a bit of a guilty pleasure while I was on maternity leave with my first child. I quickly found that once I’d started, I couldn’t stop. Eventually I had an entire manuscript, which was Secrets of the Tides.
Monique: Your first novel, Secrets of the Tides, was released in 2012 to fantastic reviews, and ended up being published in many countries. What was that experience like? How is your life different now because of this?
Hannah: The experience was wonderful and wholly unexpected. Because I began writing not long after I’d become a mother, there were a great many distractions and plenty of reasons to stop. I felt a strong sense of guilt at being so absorbed in something that seemed rather self-indulgent so I kept it pretty private and only told my husband and my closest friends. But when that moment came when I felt I had a complete story. I had to ask myself what I was going to do with it. Would it go in a drawer, to look at when I was old and grey, or was I brave enough to show someone and put myself ‘out there’ for criticism and scrutiny? In the end I steeled my nerves and sent it out to a few literary agents in the UK. I think I got very lucky. My book found the right agent with the right vision and from there everything snowballed into an auction and publishing deals, foreign translations, nice reviews and then getting picked for the Richard & Judy Book Club in the UK. It really was a real dream-come-true experience.
Since then I’ve been able to leave behind the world of the office job and take up writing full-time. I get a real tingle of excitement being able to put ‘writer’ in the occupation box on forms now, although some days I still feel like a HUGE fraud.
Monique: Your second book The Shadow Year is winging its way cross country as I write and I’m looking forward to reading it. Can you tell me what I have to look forward to with this book?
Hannah: I hope when you open the cover to The Shadow Year you’ll be drawn into a suspense-filled drama. It’s really two stories in one: the tale of a group of friends in the 1980’s who stumble upon an abandoned cottage on the shores of a remote lake and decide to drop out for a year and experiment with living self-sufficiently. During their year at the lake tensions rise and life spirals into unexpected darkness and tragedy. At the same time, interspersed with this year is the contemporary story of Lila, a young woman whose marriage is in crisis and who runs away to the same cottage. Once there she finds solace in renovating the cottage but as she begins to peel back its layers, she gradually uncovers the truth of what happened there thirty years previously. I’ve been told the novel has slight echoes of The Big Chill and The Secret History, two stories I absolutely love.
Monique: What do you like most about The Shadow Year? What was your response to the cover design? Did you have any input?
Hannah: I had great fun interweaving the two separate stories in the novel to create one bigger picture. It was lovely to settle upon such a neat structure – two years told in alternate months – and to trace the seasons in each and to think about how a group of relatively naïve twenty-somethings could survive in the wild and forage for their provisions. That side of the story really appealed to me.
It’s a very strange moment being shown a cover for your novel: all those words boiled down to one visual interpretation. It’s also when you first get a sense of where your publisher sees you sitting in the market and how they want to position you. The truth is I love seeing how different countries interpret my work. I was shown both the UK and the Australian covers and asked for my feedback, but fundamentally it’s down to the publisher to have the final say. They are the ones who have to go out there and sell the book, so it’s important I trust them.
Monique: Was your writing experience different this time around?
Hannah: Yes, Secrets of the Tides began as a secret project to keep my mind ticking over while I was off work but suddenly, with this second novel, there was a weight of expectation and a very real deadline. I wrestled with self-doubt and a growing panic for quite a while as I ploughed my way through the first draft of a very different novel. Then, just a few months away from my deadline, the idea for The Shadow Year struck me. I tried to push it away. I was just a few months away from my publisher’s deadline and very focused on hitting that date, but that lake and the cottage wouldn’t leave me alone. After a few encouraging calls with my agent and editor I decided to put the unfinished draft to one side and start on the new idea. That’s how The Shadow Year started and I wrote it in a fury, still determined to hit my deadline but also furious at myself for having the idea so late.
Monique: You started your book when your son was a newborn. How did you manage that? What’s your writing process like now that he’s a bit older? Do you have a particular writing space? Do you need complete silence or can you cope with noise? How do you get into the “zone”?
Hannah: I’ve learned to be pretty flexible. Writing with a young baby encouraged me to seize the moment whenever it arrived. Besides, the best ideas often arrive at the most inconvenient times – standing in the shower … cooking the kids’ tea … or that moment just before you drop off to sleep. I have two children now and so last year I rented a desk at a writer’s room in the city, which was fantastic to escape to. This year I seem to be gravitating back to my kitchen table. My son has just started school and the days suddenly seem a lot shorter. I prefer a quiet room but I can work in a crowded coffee shop if necessary. Sometimes music helps – I like to listen to film soundtracks. I find they help to evoke a mood. Having said all that, I still dream of having my own quiet writing room at home with a door that shuts. One day …
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Hannah: The internet. It’s too easy to procrastinate when things aren’t going so well and dive onto Facebook or Twitter … but I’m not strong-minded enough to disconnect completely, which would obviously be the answer!
Monique: Do your characters create themselves? Or do you plan them out? Do they ever surprise you?
Hannah: I create them and sketch them out a little before I start but then the characters evolve and yes, often do surprise me as the story develops. The characters of The Shadow Year actually dictated the twists and turns at the end of the book, which not even I had seen coming at the very start of the writing process. It’s a joyful moment when a character leaps off the page and tells you what they will do next.
Monique: What do you look for when you read fiction?
Hannah: A gripping plot, memorable characters and breathtaking prose. All three together is my perfect book.
Monique: What are your top tips for budding writers?
Hannah: Read lots. Write lots. Sit in that chair and go for it. Most importantly, do it for the sheer love of writing. Even if success comes there will be highs and lows and difficult days when self-doubt wraps itself around you. It’s the love of writing that will pull you through, every time.
Monique: Lately there has been a growing move to put Australian women writers on the map, courtesy of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. Was this long overdue? Which Australian women writers do you admire the most?
Hannah: I think the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge and the Stella Prize are fantastic movements for shining a light on the wealth of female literary talent out there in Australia. Some local female authors’ books that I’ve enjoyed recently are Favel Parret’s Past the Shallows, Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, Charlotte Wood’s Animal People and Joan Lindsay’s classic Picnic at Hanging Rock. I am really looking forward to reading Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds and Courtney Collins’ The Burial, which are both currently sitting on my bedside table.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Hannah: I’m reading an early Gillian Flynn – Sharp Objects.
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
Hannah: Only if I’m bored, but I hate myself for it.
Monique: What party trick can you do?
Hannah: I’m hopeless at jokes and party tricks … but I’m great at laughing at them. I can laugh until I cry. It’s a habit that has earned me the nickname ‘Niagara’ within a certain circle of friends.
Monique: If I came over for dinner now, what would we have to eat?
Hannah: I’ve just got back from the UK and have yet to stock-up, so unless you fancied a fish finger sandwich it’d probably be a take-away, my shout.
Monique: Finish this sentence … I really hate it when …
Hannah: … people drop litter. Grrrr.
Monique: Which song best describes you?
Hannah: Hmmm… this is hard. Is it too much of a cop-out to say ‘Paperback Writer’ by The Beatles? Otherwise, it would have to be the joyous track ‘Alive’ by Goldfrapp (although sometimes I’m more ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley).
Monique: Which book in your collection would you most like to have autographed by the author?
Hannah: Any of my Roald Dahl novels, but sadly, as that’s not going to happen, I’d say The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. I think she’s a goddess. O’Farrell’s novels always surprise me and her writing makes me want to strive to be a better writer.
Monique: How would you describe your bookshelves? What do others think of your bookshelves?
Hannah: Cluttered. My husband and I both involved in the book world so we have rather a lot – not just spilling off our shelves but also piled up all around the house. Friends and family are always borrowing from us so hopefully they’d consider it a good, eclectic selection.
Monique: You’re based in Sydney. Which places would you take a friend/relative to show off the city?
Hannah: I think you have to be on or near the water to see Sydney at its best so I would take them to Bronte Beach for a pre-breakfast swim, Bill’s in Paddington for brunch, then an afternoon walk from Bradley’s Head to Manly before finishing with dinner at the beach in Balmoral. After all, we might as well enjoy the culinary delights of the city too, along the way.
Monique: If you had time to own a bookshop, what would you call it?
Hannah: My multi-talented literary agent also runs a bookshop in Notting Hill called Lutyens & Rubinstein. It is a wonderful bookstore because it not only sells a beautifully-curated selection of books, but it also stocks gorgeous art and craft objects. I can’t go in there without wanting to buy EVERYTHING. If I owned a bookshop I’d love to curate a similar selection of books and objects for people to lust over, maybe even a little music too. I would call it something esoteric like ‘Paper, Scissors, Rock’ and with my head for figures it would probably last just a matter of weeks.
Look out for my review of The Shadow Year soon.