Dianne Touchell has just had her first novel, Creepy & Maud, shortlisted for a Children’s Book Council of Australia Older Reader award. I already knew that Dianne lives close to my work, but after sending her some questions it turns out we have a couple more things in common. However, I won’t be stopping in unannounced to visit Dianne on my way home from work – read on to see why that would not be a good idea! Here’s my insight into Dianne – and if you want to read my review of Creepy and Maud, click here.
Monique: Tell me a bit about how you became a writer.
Dianne: I became a writer by writing. I’ve always sort of been one; I just wasn’t being paid for it. Len Wein once said: “A writer writes. Period. No matter if someone is buying your work or not.” It’s a dreadful compulsion, this need to write. And I have written some awful shit along the way. I look back on it fondly because I was so invested at the time but now I’d take those pages and use them to wrap fish. Actually I’d take what I wrote yesterday and use it to wrap fish. And that’s ok. That’s what writing is. Scrumming with imaginary friends and hoping one of the voices makes sense.
Monique: Your first novel, Creepy & Maud, was released in 2012. What sort of feedback have you had from readers about the novel?
Dianne: I have had, mostly, great feedback from readers. Readers tend to have some very strong opinions about Creepy & Maud, which makes for the sort of discussion I like. They are also appreciating the humour, which I’ve been told balances some of the darker elements of the narrative. I’ve been amazed by some very poignant insights from readers; people have pulled things from this book that actually never occurred to me – and I wrote the thing! I love that.
Monique: For those who haven’t read the book, can you give a quick summary?
Dianne: Creepy, a boy who flies under the radar at school and home, socially inelegant, with a hawk-eye for caustic observation of the people around him. Maud, a girl who is marginalized at school and home because of an obsessive-compulsive disorder that compels her to pull her hair out to deal with anxiety. But there is so much more to both of them, as they and the reader discover, when Creepy and Maud begin communicating by taping notes to each other on their bedroom window panes. It’s a different kind of love story as both of them find a sort of attention they didn’t even realise they needed. It is about hope for a life beyond the bullshit of crazy adolescence.
Monique: Congrats on making the Children’s Book Council shortlist for Creepy and Maud. Have you come down off the cloud yet?
Dianne: Ummm… no. I know I should say more here but…no.
Monique: The inclusion of Creepy and Maud was described by a reporter as a “brave” choice. What’s your response to that?
Dianne: I don’t have a problem with that description but I also don’t consider Creepy & Maud a “brave” book. I think it contains some brave characters; characters who are coping with fears and desperate situations in the best way they can with the skills they have in the moment. So a “brave” choice for the judges? Maybe if they were threatened with mortar fire if they shortlisted it. I just think it’s an honest book which makes no judgments about people’s weird and wonderful behaviour.
Monique: Creepy is a watcher – he watches people from the sidelines and Maud through her window. What kind of person would see if he was watching you?
Dianne: Oh – no fair!! I don’t want this little bastard peering through my window! Honestly, I love him – but do I always trust his perception? Let’s see. He would see a woman dressed in rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers and…Oh, wait…that’s Miss Havisham. Creepy would actually see a woman with unusual ways of dealing with stress (I have a Wicker Man in the back yard), a questionable sense of humour, and no bathing suits in her wardrobe.
Monique: Maud is a “puller” – she pulls her hair out to deal with stress and anxiety. What makes you want to pull your hair out?
Dianne: God. God makes me pull my hair out. I have no problem with people choosing to hold close to myths in order to make meaning of their lives. I embrace that. I think it’s quite beautiful. I love stories and I love belief. However, when someone else’s belief begins to infringe on my life I become a little Creepy. Don’t tell me who I can and can’t go to bed with, and don’t tell me what’s going to happen to me when I die. It just ticks me off and makes me much less sympathetic to your beautiful personal beliefs. I think it might tick God off too.
Monique: What made you decide to write for the YA market? Any plans to write for an adult market?
Dianne: I sort of think of myself as a contemporary fiction writer who writes books with young adult protagonists. I think I already write for “adults”. I don’t write with an audience in mind. Clearly my interest is young adults because they, like the elderly, have the most unique and life changing shit happen. Grown-ups give the puberty-stricken books on periods and wet dreams which are totally inadequate when it comes to the emotional turmoil of those years; the elderly are given pamphlets on bone breakage and dementia which are oftentimes disrespectful to the journey that brought them to their hip-break. We always return to what we were. How can there be boundaries in fiction?
Monique: How does it feel when someone refers to you as an author? Has it sunk in yet? Do you recall a moment when it sunk in for you?
Dianne: It hasn’t sunk in. I’m still the girl who just writes. I created a Facebook page recently called ‘Dianne Touchell – Author’ and it feels wonderful and foreign. Bottom line is I haven’t become anything different. I remain who I always was. I just make stories.
Monique: What’s your writing process like? 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”?
Dianne: I have to treat writing like a real job. I have a regular income job so I do this writing job on weekends. I get up, shower and get dressed (as I do for the regular income job), and then sit down and write. I need silence. I get into the “zone” by walking the “zone”. I never wait for “inspiration” – I just read what I wrote last and keep going. I am a slow, slow, slow writer. I do labour over individual sentences, individual words. I do a lot of reading out loud as I write to see how it feels in the mouth and in the head. And I set myself a word target for each day. Make the target and I’m satisfied.
Monique: I understand your next book is called Open Slather and it explores infanticide and the question (in your words): ‘Does doing something monstrous make you a monster?’ On your blog you’ve said you started making notes for this in 1997 … has your “answer” to this question changed since you first noted your thoughts?
Dianne: The new book (working on second draft, so stay tuned) is now called “Untitled”. It does explore infanticide. My answer to the question that I first wrote down in 1997 (“Does doing something monstrous make you a monster?”) has not changed. My answer to that question is unimportant, however. It’s not up to me to foist my opinion on my characters or my readers. They do and think what they are going to do and think. I’m not in the business of proselytising. I just write the story.
Monique: If someone wanted to start creative writing, what advice would you give them?
Dianne: Write, write, read, read, then write and read some more. And don’t take advice from other writers.
Monique: Lately there has been a growing move to put Australian women writers on the map, courtesy of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. Was this long overdue? Which Australian women writers do you admire the most?
Dianne: Yes, long overdue. A few of my favourite Australian women writers are: Criena Rohan, Christina Stead, Dale Spender, Amanda Curtin, Judith Wright, Geraldine Brooks, Colleen Mc Cullough, Shirley Hazzard and … how much time have you got?! Australian women have been writing extraordinary things for an extraordinarily long time.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Dianne: Over explaining things. You know when you watch those awful American sit-coms and they tell you the joke and then explain the joke and then beat you over the head with a laughter track in case you don’t know when you’re supposed to laugh? I have to be careful I don’t over explain. Keep it simple and let the action speak for itself.
Monique: What would you call your memoir?
Dianne: “She may be going to Hell, of course, but at least she isn’t standing still.” – courtesy of ee cummings
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Dianne: Diana Athill Stet: An Editor’s Life
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
Monique: What party trick can you do?
Dianne: I’m pretty good at drinking too much and saying out loud the one thing every other guest has been hoping no one will bring up. (I don’t get invited to many parties…)
Monique: If I came over for afternoon tea, what would we have to eat?
Dianne: Savouries, because I’m not a fan of sweets. I’d probably make my mini-quiches and glazed meatballs. And for afternoon tea I like to serve wine. In a nutshell – you’d get meat, eggs and booze.
Monique: Finish this sentence … I really hate it when …
Dianne: … someone does the “pop in”. I don’t understand the “pop in”. If I’d wanted you at my house I would have called and invited you. My car’s in the driveway so hiding under the kitchen table is useless (and bad on the arthritis). I invariably haven’t swept the floor and am not wearing a bra. If it’s a weekend I have to pretend I wasn’t drinking at 11am and when I go to make you a cup of tea the milk is six days out of date and semi-solid. I love visitors; I love talking to people; but don’t “pop in”. The “pop in” is psychological terrorism.
Monique: Which song best describes you?
Dianne: Both Sides Now – Joni Mitchell