Perth-based Annabel Smith is the author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. She has been writer-in-residence at Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA), had short fiction and commentary published in Westerly and Southerly and hold a PhD in Writing from Edith Cowan University. In 2012 Annabel was selected by the Australia Council as one of five inaugural recipients of a Creative Australia Fellowship for Emerging Artists, for the creation of an interactive app to accompany her experimental speculative fiction The Ark, to be published in 2014. She is currently working on Monkey See, an epic quest with a sci-fi twist featuring a monkey, an evil priestess and the mother of all tsunamis. You can read Annabel’s blog here, connect with her on Facebook here and follow her on Twitter here.
Monique: Tell me about your road to publication. What are some of the highlights and lowlights?
Annabel: I entered my first novel A New Map of the Universe in the Vogel competition and though I was not shortlisted, Allen & Unwin asked if they could have a further look at the manuscript with a view to publication. Of course I got my hopes up, and then when they rejected the manuscript I was devastated. It was my first rejection and it felt so personal. Shortly afterwards, I submitted the manuscript to UWA Publishing who had put out a call for manuscripts developed through post-graduate writing programs. Their director, Terri-ann White, called me after 2 days to tell me she had read the manuscript and loved it. However, there were various hoops to jump through and it was eight months before I signed a contract with them. At the time that felt like forever, but in hindsight I see that as a dream run.
I was not so lucky with Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. For two years I resisted the impulse to approach publishers directly because I was determined to find an agent. When that failed, I approached a number of small presses, and received a lot of rejections, before the novel found a home at Fremantle Press. More than a year after Whisky Charlie Foxtrot was published in Australia it was picked up by Sourcebooks, USA who will publish it in April 2015. Being published internationally is definitely a highlight for me.
Monique: Your third novel The Ark is being self-published later this year. What do readers have to look forward to with this book? Why did you choose to self-publish?
Annabel: The Ark is an experimental interactive speculative fiction novel. I know, what a mouthful! It will be accompanied by an app which allows people to delve deeper into the world of the novel, and also continue to grow the world of the novel by adding their own content. I chose to self-publish because I couldn’t find any publishers that were making books like the one I envisaged and I wasn’t prepared to compromise.
Monique: You’re also working on a steampunk-inspired sci-fi novel, Monkey See. It sounds intriguing and I love the tsunami description (see below). Can you tell me more about it?
Annabel: Monkey See is a contemporary take on a classic epic quest tale, with a speculative fiction twist. It is a rollicking adventure in which a trio of unlikely heroes must unite to overthrow a sadistic cult. I am having so much fun writing it, and think it will form the first part of a trilogy.
For the people of Ciudad, the tales of El Monstro del Mar were as familiar as the thrumming of blood in their own veins. Any child who could speak could tell you of the vast, faceless beast who, growing weary of the endless saltiness of its own diet, rose without warning and swallowed the harbour whole. The boats and the huts and the fishermen; their wives and their children and even their dogs, all were sucked to the depths of its watery lair. And then, having acquired a taste for these new flavours, the beast rose again, to devour schools and temples, fields of corn and potatoes, goats and pigs and llamas, squealing and bleating as they disappeared into the dark and churning depths of its great jaws, never to be seen again. (excerpt from Monkey See by Annabel Smith)
Monique: Your two previous books have attracted high praise from reviewers. How does it feel to hear your work described this way? Do you still feel nervous when you’re about to release a book?
Annabel: It’s incredibly nerve-wracking when your book is released and you’re waiting for the first reviews. There is fear that negative reviews hurt sales, but also, of course, the personal feeling of ‘rejection’ when someone dislikes something you’ve created and are very attached to. I’ve only had one truly savage review ever, and it was devastating. But good reviews make up for it. You have to develop a bit of a thick skin though. I think I’m getting better at that.
Monique: You wake in the middle of the night with a brilliant book-ish idea. What do you do?
Annabel: Go back to sleep. If it’s that good, I’ll remember it in the morning. I think it was Henry James who said something like ‘If you have to make notes on how something has struck you, it probably hasn’t struck you all that much’.
Monique: One (or more) of your characters is not behaving, or does something unexpected. How do you handle this?
Annabel: Mostly I trust my characters to lead me where they need to go. I don’t try to control them too much. Honestly, I like it when they do something unexpected. That’s part of the fun.
Monique: Do you become emotionally attached to your characters? What happens when the book is finished? Do you close the door or wonder what they’re getting up to?
Annabel: Some of my characters I love very much. Others, the nasty ones, I’m fond of in a different way, because they’re fun to write. Sometimes when I visit book clubs and people criticise my characters I feel quite defensive about them, as though they’re actual people! But, by the time the book is finished, I’m usually sick to death of them, whether I liked them or not, and I don’t think about them anymore.
Monique: Have you ever cried while writing an emotive scene?
Annabel: In my first novel, A New Map of the Universe, I had to kill off one of my favourite characters. I cried when I wrote that scene and years later, cried when I re-read it!
Monique: You’re having trouble writing. What do you do?
Annabel: I have to identify the source of the trouble. Am I being lazy? If so, knuckle down! Do I have low blood sugar? If so, eat chocolate! Have I lost momentum? If so, reread the entire work from the beginning and see if I can pick up where I left off. Am I uncertain what to write next? Revisit my plot overview. Failing these, I show my work to a trusted writing colleague and ask for advice.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing?
Annabel: Eat chocolate. Rant and rave. Complain to other writing friends who will understand. But ultimately: press on. There will always be doubts.
Monique: What do you do when you’re procrastinating?
Annabel: I don’t really procrastinate all that much. I have a rigorous writing ‘timetable’ which i follow assiduously using a kitchen timer.
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Annabel: The fame and fortune myth. 99% of writers will have neither fame nor fortune. Adjusting to the reality of that, and keeping writing anyway, is a lifelong project, I imagine.
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”?
Annabel: I write while my son is at school. I have a ‘study’ in my home, which doubles as a dressing room aka ‘floordrobe’ and also general dumping ground. I like a very tidy desk but rarely manage to maintain one. I need more or less total silence.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Annabel: I think having perspective on your own work is one of the greatest challenges. Sometimes I read over what I’ve written and think it’s the best collection of words that’s ever been committed to paper (or screen) in the history of the world, and other times I can read the exact same passage and think it’s terrible drivel. You have to switch your inner critic off – but not too much!
Monique: Which books have impacted on you in your life?
Annabel: The books I read as a child – like Anne of Green Gables, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Enid Blyton – those books had impact because they gave me a love of reading. Later, the works of writers like Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels showed me how prose could be exquisite, like poetry. More recently I’ve been impacted by books which play with narrative forms, and try to tell stories in new ways, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Monique: Which authors do you admire the most?
Annabel: Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, Frank Herbert, Joan Didion.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Annabel: Richard Powers’ Orfeo, from the Booker longlist. It is amazing.
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
Annabel: Never! That is sacrilege to me. If I’m enjoying a book, I don’t want the ending spoiled. If I’m not enjoying it enough to keep going, I don’t care what happens at the end.
Monique: Which book character are you most like?
Annabel: I am a little bit neurotic and dysfunctional like any of Jonathan Franzen’s characters; bossy, and a bit of a girlie swot like Harry Potter’s mate Hermione, with a dash of the control freak like Madeleine in Jeffery Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. I am a romantic like Emma in David Nicholl’s One Day; prone to depression, like Esther in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; tenacious and a little bit eccentric like Peter Carey’s Lucinda.
Monique: Which book in your collection would you most like to have autographed by the author?
Annabel: Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto – my all-time fave.
Thanks for answering my questions, Annabel.
I’ve enjoyed getting to know Annabel a bit more through HeartsnWined, and this interview was fun. A kitchen timer hey? Well, I’ve yet to try that. Maybe some school-bell kind of discipline is exactly what I need. Good luck with all you have to look forward to in the year ahead Annabel.
Thanks Lily. It sounds weird but it keeps me on track.
This is great, Monique and Annabel! I love the kitchen timer idea, too—might have to borrow it … I’ve just started reading ‘The Ark’ and am enthralled—it’s set in the future, but as it’s emails (or futuristic equivalent), it’s casual and very entertaining. It’s such an innovative idea, Annabel, and I think I’m going to enjoy it!
I just started reading The Ark teasers and you are right, so innovative. Looking forward to seeing it unfold.
Thanks Monique, and thanks again for the great questions.
Great Louise, I look forward to hearing your thoughts when you finish.
I loved everything about this interview, Monique, just as much as I loved Annabel’s answers. I have a feeling Annabel’s going to do to me (as reader) what another favourite writer has done to me (Kate Atkinson). By which I mean, swapping genres and doing it so bloody well I have no choice but to follow! I’m already hooked and when you swap WCF for churning beasts and watery lairs, what am I to do but follow?
Oh, you’re too kind, Rashida! I very much hope I can convert you – and some of my other readers who believe they don’t like speculative fiction. I want people to see it’s not about spaceships & talking plants – but about people and relationships, just like books set in the present. Thanks for your lovely comment.