Louise Allan: mother, doctor, and more recently, writer. These days, she’s tucked away in her attic finishing her first novel. In 2013 she told everyone about her secret writing habit; two of her stories, ‘Metaplasia’ and ‘Neil and Dad and Me’, were published in the anthology ‘Jukebox’ (Out of the Asylum Writers’ Group, November 2013); and she started her blog. In April 2014 she spent time at Varuna in the Blue Mountains on a Residential Fellowship where, in the peace and quiet, she was able to live in her novel, Ida’s Children, and write all day. It’s almost ready to go … Find out more about Louise here, follow her on Twitter here and read extracts of Ida’s Children here.
Monique: You’re working on your first book, Ida’s Children, at the moment. Can you tell me a bit about your writing journey to date and where you’re at now?
Louise: My writing journey is what I’d call ‘circuitous’. I used to amuse myself as a child by doing creative things, like drawing, writing, playing music. I even wrote a song when I was eight—I remember all the words and the tune, but I’ll spare you the agony. It turned out that I was quite good at Maths and Science, and so I chose Medicine as a career. I’ll be eternally grateful for that, and the opportunities it afforded me—the intellectual stimulation, the learning about people and what makes them tick, being able to help them, bearing witness to the beginning and end of life.
I juggled working and children for fourteen years, until it all became too much, and I stopped the work. I knew I’d need something to keep me stimulated, so I enrolled in an online writing course, and I realised immediately that it was something I wanted to do. It was as if I’d let the cork off my brain—it just exploded, trying to make up for lost time.
I did a few writing courses and lots of reading about writing, trying to learn the craft—I had a lot to learn and still do. I wrote a short story in 2010 and let it sit for a while. In 2012, I took it back up and it evolved into my novel. It’s almost ready to start sending out … I’m trying hard not to get my hopes up that a publisher somewhere will like it, but I can’t help it—the other day I asked my kids who I should ask to launch it …
I’ve had a couple of shorter pieces published, but I don’t really enjoy writing short fiction. I’ve realised I like writing novel-length fiction or short memoir pieces. In 2013, I started a blog, which, as you’d know, can feel like a millstone. Last year, I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision, but I’ve plugged away at it and it seems to be finding its place in the blogosphere. I’m really enjoying the supportive network out there, and how many readers I can reach.
Monique: What’s Ida’s Children about? What are some of the underlying themes? Who is the target audience?
Louise: Ida’s Children is the story of two sisters—one yearns for children, while the other has dreams of performing on the stage. Both must give up on their dreams. It’s set in Tasmania, starting in the 1920s and going through to the present day. I grew up in Tasmania, so it contains landmarks from my youth and stories from my family history, although they’ve been twisted and turned so they’re barely recognisable. I think that one of the themes is beauty—the beauty of music and the beauty of children. Other themes are motherhood, the traditional roles of women, the price of giving up your dreams, and the effects of child abuse. The target audience is most likely women over thirty.
Monique: What’s your plan of attack once the book is finished?
Louise: I know what my plan of attack should be—to fix all the broken bits around the house: the architrave in the bathroom that’s fallen down; the shed door that’s off its hinges; the cracked plaster outside my daughter’s bedroom. These have only been broken for, oh, about eighteen months now, but I can’t pull myself away from the computer long enough to actually fix them.
Monique: Earlier this year you spent time at Varuna in the Blue Mountains (NSW) on a residential fellowship. How did this benefit you as a writer?
Louise: Varuna was wonderful. It was two whole weeks with absolutely nothing to think about except my novel. At home, of course, there’s always family commitments—cooking and cleaning and laundry; helping with homework and music practice; running kids hither and thither. To have clear days for two weeks where I could just eat, sleep, and think only about my novel, was bliss. I forgot about my real family, and lived completely in the world of my novel. To show you how beneficial it was, in the two weeks I was at Varuna I revised about 80,000 words of my novel, and it wasn’t a light revision but a mighty structural one. In the month after I returned, I possibly revised two thousand words …
Monique: In what ways have other writers been helpful to you in your writing journey?
Louise: Most people don’t have the urge to write, and only other writers understand this need. Only other writers know what it’s like to have an idea inside your brain that just won’t stop banging on your skull ‘til you let it out. They support you because they understand the journey, they’ve been there. I’ve learned heaps about writing from reading what other writers have written—not only about the craft of writing and how to structure a story, but also about beautiful phrases, and the music and poetry of words. Then there’s the times a writer voices my thoughts, my worries, my problems, and I have an ‘Aha!’ moment …One of the nicest things, and maybe it’s a Perth thing, is how established writers are so willing to welcome newcomers like myself. There is so much support and encouragement for emerging writers, which is really refreshing.
Monique: What do you like most about Ida’s Children?
Louise: What I like most about Ida’s Children is that it’s the story I wanted to tell, even though I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t set out to write this story—I had no preconceived themes or ideas—but I trusted the writing would take me where it was best to go. I think it’s so much better than if I’d set out to write a story about *insert theme*. It’s very much me, about things that are important to me, and it’s turned out to be the story I wanted to tell. It was frustrating at times because I had no idea where the story was headed. Consequently, I didn’t know whether I was in the beginning or middle or nearing the end. I felt as if it was going on forever, then suddenly, I reached the end, and I knew it as soon as I’d reached it. For me, the subconscious self is a much wiser, better writing guide than my conscious self.
Monique: What would be your tagline for Ida’s Children?
Louise: I suspect it will change, but the tag line at the moment is: Two sisters—each must give up on a dream.
Monique: You wake in the middle of the night with a brilliant book-ish idea. What do you do?
Louise: This rarely happens because I’m usually so tired that I sleep right through. If the idea is really good, I get up and write it, otherwise the excitement will keep me awake anyway. I must admit, I’m happy to forgo sleep to write! Varuna was great from that perspective because I didn’t have to get up the next morning to get kids to school, so I could write at three in the morning if I wanted to. And I did!
Monique: Are you a plotter or a pantser (fly by the seat of your pants)?
Louise: Definitely a pantser. As I said earlier, I trust my subconscious writing mind more than my conscious writing brain. It is much more original and more unique—sometimes, it amazes me with the ideas it thinks up, and I have no idea where it came from. It’s much wiser, much more honest, and it can come up with a much better story. I’ve tried to plot, but my plotting brain is too conforming and—don’t tell it I said this—it’s a bit boring …
Monique: One (or more) of your characters is not behaving, or does something unexpected. How do you handle this?
Louise: I relish this and it often happens for me. I try it out and if it makes the story better, then I’m quite prepared to go with it. Often it doesn’t work, and I go back to the original, but sometimes, it’s just what the story needs. It throws the story out of kilter, of course, and there are domino effects, but I don’t mind if it makes the story better. When I started writing Ida’s Children, I wrote 50,000 words in one voice, but I didn’t really like it. So, I wrote 35,000 words in another voice. The second character at one point met Ida for morning tea. She chatted to Ida about the family, and Ida had a lot to say. So much, that she kind of took over, and I ended up staying with her voice.
Monique: Are you an emotive writer? Have you ever cried while writing an emotive scene? Or, do you get unsettled by some of the more disturbing scenes?
Louise: I’m very emotional as I write. I feel my heart racing in angry scenes, and I cry in sad ones. In fact, if I’m not feeling the emotion of a scene, I know that it’s not working.
Monique: Where do you write? Do you need complete silence or can you cope with noise? How do you get into the “zone”?
I have a beautiful attic where I write.
It gets tidied periodically, but not as often as it should. For someone who says they don’t like mess, I survive very well amongst it. I love having the house to myself to write, and I keep it quiet. Sometimes if I want to evoke an atmosphere, I’ll play some music. When writing some scenes in Ida’s Children, I played a CD of Tasmanian bird sounds to evoke the bush. However, my peace is disturbed after school, on weekends, and during school holidays, and I have to work with the chaos and noise going on around me. I close the attic door and put a sign on it (see below), but it’s far from soundproof …
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Louise: The freakin’ World Wide Web, and that site with which I have a love-hate relationship: Facebook. Ida’s Children, I’m sure, would have been finished at least twelve months’ earlier if it wasn’t for the internet. I have used ‘Self Control’—the app—because I have none of my own.
Monique: Which books have impacted on you in your life?
Louise: This is really embarrassing, but as a child I was very religious and read the bible and The Book of Everyday Saints. I tried to be really good and pray, so Mary might visit like she did St Bernadette at Lourdes. It was only after studying Psychiatry at Uni that I learned the saints and prophets were actually psychotic and hallucinating. The other book that has stayed with me ever since I read it was Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon. I read it when I was eleven and vowed from that time onwards that I would never smack my kids.
Monique: Which authors do you admire the most?
Louise: Kazuo Ishiguro, Kent Haruf, Ann Patchett, Sebastian Barry, Joan London, Kate Grenville.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Louise: I’m reading two books. I have a pre-release copy of Annabel Smith’s The Ark, which I’m loving. I’m hooked on the personalities—especially one who I suspect is slightly megalomaniacal. I’m also about half-way through Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes. It’s set in Hobart, the capital of my birth state, Tasmania, so there’s lots of familiar landmarks, including the Antarctic icebreaker, Aurora Australis.
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
Louise: I have done it, yes, when I think something really bad might happen, like someone I care about is going to die. Then, I’m forewarned, you see, and I can cope with their death by the time I get to that point of the story …
Monique: Which book in your collection would you most like to have autographed by the author?
Louise: I can’t decide between Sebastian Barry autographing The Secret Scripture or Markus Zusak signing The Book Thief.
Monique: Where in Western Australia would you take an overseas visitor?
Louise: Anywhere on our coast. I love our ocean, even on a grey day. And our beaches. And our cliffs.
Monique: If I came over for dinner tonight, what would we eat?
Louise: A word of warning—you don’t want to come for dinner. Let me explain: This afternoon on the way home after school, I’ll stop at the shop with the kids. I’ll gaze at the meat section, and I’ll ask the kids what they want for dinner. They’ll shrug, so I’ll suggest chicken. They’ll say we had that last night. I’ll suggest rissoles, and they’ll screw up their noses. So I’ll grab whatever is closest to me in the refrigerated section, maybe a roast, and they’ll shrug. We’ll come home, and I’ll quickly peel some veggies and toss them in the tray with the roast and shove it in the oven. Then five minutes before it’s cooked, I’ll make some lumpy gravy to go with it. Sound appetising? I thought not …
Thanks for answering my questions, Louise.