Ros Thomas has been a journalist for 24 years, 17 of them in television current affairs. Most recently she has turned her (dishpan) hand to writing a full page column for the Saturday edition of the West Australian newspaper. She attempts to write from home, whilst minding the nest and her three children, aged 2, 5 and 12. She lives with her partner, Matthew, in Perth, where she grew up. Ros will be my Stories on Stage guest at Koorliny Arts Centre on June 4. For more information about Ros, click here.
Monique: Your book, Was it Something I said? is about to be published. How did the book come about?
Ros: The editor of Saturday’s West approached UWA Press about the idea of publishing a ‘best of’ book of columns.
Monique: The book’s a consolidated collection of your columns (published in the Weekend West). Who are the columns aimed at? What’s the motivation or purpose (or brief) of the column?
Ros: That same editor rang me two years ago, when my third child was a year old: “We want you to write a weekly column about what women are thinking,” she said. “About what it’s like to give up a career for motherhood. About having it all. Or having none of it. We want you to lift the lid on ordinary life.” I wanted to write a column a man would want to read. It’s still my goal.
Monique: How has writing the column been good for you?
Ros: I live for the reader feedback. I have correspondents who write every few weeks – some have become almost daily correspondents, and tell me all their secrets and stories. That’s how I met Carl, the 87-year-old who asked me to come and visit his terminal wife in her nursing home because he thought I needed to write about loss. He and I are now firm friends, and the two columns I have written about Carl have been widely embraced by readers.
Monique: I loved the recent comment you made in a Weekend West feature article about waiting for your husband to read the column every Saturday morning. I can relate! How do you feel when you send your column off to the editor? Do you ever second guess yourself?
Ros: Constantly! My father, a veteran features writer, has taken on the thankless role of being my sub. So by the time the column reaches the West Weekend’s editor, I’d like to think it’s as perfect as it can be. My columns are almost never altered by the magazine. How I love them for that generosity. Sometimes, a word here and there is shaved, or a correction made to punctuation, but that’s it. When my father gets hold of a draft, it’s terrifying. I send it via email to Melbourne, and can’t relax until it comes back with an elephant stamp. Literally – he sends it back with suggestions and if the first draft is really good, an elephant stamp. If it’s rubbish, I get a headline saying ‘Mmmmm.’ He calls me ‘his grammar criminal’ and considers it his job to point out my hanging clauses, strained metaphors or anything too abstract. He’s wonderful to have as a sounding board, being a man, and a 73-year-old one at that, because he comes at my topics from a completely different point of view. I often alter the tone of the piece to accommodate his opinions. Perhaps that’s why the column has a lot of older, male fans?
Monique: Are you ever stuck for column ideas? What do you do in this case? Do you keep a running list of potential ideas?
Ros: I am currently at my desk looking at a file a foot think containing clippings and drafts and pages torn from magazines – all ideas I think might come in useful for when writer’s block strikes, which it does, at least once a month. During a dry week, I’ll feel nauseous until a worthy idea forms itself. Often, I’ll pack the kids into the car and go someplace weird in the hope something will happen I can write about. Invariably it does. The furthest I’ve ever driven for a column is to York – after seeing an ad for the Medieval Fair and thinking there had to be something in it for me. That’s how desperate I get! Right now, I’m blank and have been for four days. Nothing has happened. My domestic life is mundane. (I’ve been writing my book launch speech instead and am struggling with that too!) Tomorrow I will be panic stricken as my deadline is Wednesday.
Monique: Do you have any desire to write fiction? If you did, which genres would you lean towards?
Ros: Yes, I do, but I really have no idea what. Genres? Historical I guess – I love researching and am forensic about getting period details right.
Monique: How much time do you spend writing a column?
Ros: Every waking minute. I’m always brooding on the next column. The only time I allow my brain to rest is the day of, and the day after I’ve finished a column. I envy those writers who just sit down on a Monday and fling off 800 words. (Actually, I don’t believe anyone who says they do that). Having said that, on rare occasions, a column has gone from brain spark to completed draft in a single day. Deeply satisfying.
Monique: Your journalism career spans more than 25 years. Which aspects of working full-time in this field do you miss? Which ones are you happy to leave behind?
Ros: I miss the excitement of being on top of the news. I miss the camaraderie of newsrooms. I miss being out on the road with my camera crew, far from anywhere, creating beautiful pictures. I miss sitting in a dark box with an editor for eight hours and making magic with sound and music. I don’t miss the stress of trying to get out of the door, shouting at the kids to put their shoes on. I will never miss being on call.
Monique: How has motherhood changed you as a writer?
Ros: I’m much more tolerant. I’m more sentimental, grounded and less judgmental.
Monique: Have you ever cried while writing an emotive piece?
Ros: No. The process of writing is not emotional for me. However, the process of reading is. I never know if readers will react emotionally to a column until it’s printed. I live in fear of over-writing emotional topics. So I tend to pull back and let description do the work for me. I had no idea how people would react to today’s piece (Waiting Rooms) for example, and was very nervous about it. Mum sent me a text saying ‘I’m howling!’ at 8am and I knew then it was good.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing?
Ros: Plough on. Refuse to give up or give in. Try not to listen to the nasty voices in my head. Go back and read something that got a great response. I don’t doubt my writing, as much as I only doubt my ideas.
Monique: How do you procrastinate?
Ros: With three children and a husband who’s often travelling, I don’t have time to procrastinate. I rarely have a night off from writing. I just can’t afford to. What if the kids get sick? I stare out the window of my desk a lot though. I wrote a column about procrastination because, before I had a family, I used to be brilliant at it. I could have written a novel by now if I hadn’t spent so much time procrastinating in my youth. I’d like to add I’ve learnt a lot about ants watching them on the bamboo outside my desk window.
Monique: What’s your writing process like? Where do you write? Do you need complete silence or can you cope with noise? How do you get into the “zone”?
Ros: I prefer to write in silence so I can be alone with my thoughts but it rarely happens. Right now, I’m madly trying to get through your questions because small daughter is nagging me to help her with a jigsaw, middle child is teasing her and they’ll have a fight any moment and my husband has just walked in the door from Africa and I feel guilty being at my desk. Which, by the way, is smack bang next to the kitchen. My favourite time to write is at 5am when the house is quietly breathing. Usually my (more coherent) writing gets done at night. But it’s still interrupted by eldest son and the television. Twice a week, I go to a cafe and sit for an afternoon drinking multiple coffees and writing on my laptop. Lots of noise but no-one needing my attention. I do my best writing in public.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Ros: Being too complex. Being too abstract. Getting the tone wrong. Too preachy. Too middle class. Sounding up myself. I find it very difficult to be objective about tone and content. I’m too close to it. That’s where my dad comes in handy. Sometimes I’ll write a gag or a metaphor and it’ll come back with a ‘huh?’ in big red letters.
Monique: Which books have impacted on you in your life?
Ros: Patrick Suskind’s Perfume was the first book to make me feel physically ill, which is utterly brilliant, though it was so grotesque in description I couldn’t finish it. I must have another go. Black ink on a white page repulsed me – how amazing is language? Middlemarch and The Woodlanders were my first great loves, Life of Pi made my heart pound. Anna Funder’s Stasiland has stayed with me for years, as has Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love. Shark Net because it was set in the street I grew up in. The Dinner was wonderful. That was the last book I read, and I managed to scream through it in three days. Jasper Jones for wonderful character and humour writing.
Monique: Which authors do you admire the most?
Ros: All of the above. And thousands more. I particularly love Clive James for his writing style and laconic wit.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Ros: Bits of everything. I can no longer find the time to devote myself to one novel for a week or a fortnight. Instead, I make do with a scattergun approach. Mostly because I’m always trawling for column ideas in magazines and reference books. I’m always buying books – I have a wonderful library of books at home and I love to look at the spines. I often pull one down I haven’t read and flick through it, and look forward to reading it. I wrote a column on my love of the physicality of the book early last year if you need more.
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
Ros: Yes, but only if I’m bored or the prose is hard work.
Monique: Which book character are you most like?
Ros: Maybe Jasper Jones. Self conscious. Curious. Forensic in his observations of others.
Monique: Which book in your collection would you most like to have autographed by the author?
Ros: Unreliable Memoirs, but I fear Clive James is not long for this world.