Interview with Beth Montgomery

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Beth Montgomery is the author of two YA novels - The Birthmark and Murderer's Thumb - both published by Text Publishing (my publisher, too!). She grew up on Melbourne's fringe, worked as a teacher in the Pacific Islands and is married to a Solomon Islander. They have two children and now live in rural Victoria, where Beth is at work on her next books. Here, she talks about her path to publication, writing struggles and successes, and what advice she'd give her younger self if she could travel back in time!

Steph: Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing The Birthmark?
Beth: The idea for The Birthmark germinated after a writing workshop with Arnold Zable. He was enthusiastic about a piece I’d written and said it could develop into a novel. I ran with the idea and after about 15 months I had a draft I was happy to send to publishers. It wasn’t called The Birthmark then.

It was an easy book to write because so much of it was infused with memories of my time teaching in the Pacific. The characters were so tangible to me that I cried whilst writing several of the scenes. But when Text accepted the manuscript it was pretty clear that they wanted the first eighty pages scrapped. I couldn’t believe it. But after a few days to get my head around the idea I started rewriting and the whole thing came together.

I did a lot of rewriting. It is the bit about being an author that readers have no concept of when they read the finished product.

Steph: The Birthmark was Text's first YA novel - can you tell me a bit about how you came to be published by them?
Beth: My manuscript got some fabulous feedback in the form of a really detailed rejection letter from Allen and Unwin but my confidence was dented. The second publisher I sent it to was a small publishing house in Canberra which have since folded. Whilst they considered it I also sent three chapters to Text Publishing. Both were prepared to publish so I settled for the better offer which was Text.

The reason why I sent my manuscript to Text initially was again due to Arnold Zable. He was with Text and recommended them. At the time they weren’t publishing YAF but I’d read in the press that they were thinking of starting a YAF line. I rang them up to confirm this, and talked to one of the editors who encouraged me to give them a try. Four months later they agreed to read the whole manuscript and I was on the way to publication. It was a brilliant feeling. I haven’t got an agent, which is rare I suppose, but maybe one day...

Steph: Can you tell me abit about your second novel, Murderer's Thumb?
Beth: Murderer’s Thumb was a prick to write. I started the whole thing arse about. I had my story, but the characters weren’t gelling. I rewrote that manuscript from scratch and still had trouble getting it to work. It wasn’t until my third rewrite that it finally took shape, but even then I did about six versions of the end until I was satisfied. I guess it was more of a work of pure imagination than The Birthmark and so it took a lot more effort. Whereas The Birthmark flew straight out of my past.

Steph: Why do you write and what do you hope to achieve with your writing?
Beth: It would be nice to achieve success and therefore a big fat cheque in my letterbox. Again, maybe one day...
I write because if I don’t I get cranky and I’m a pain to live with. There are stories swirling around my head that demand to be written down.

When I write my books I’m not thinking about my readers, only the story. That might sound conceited but I don’t mean it to be. I just try to be true to the characters and the setting, make sure my dialogue sounds authentic and the pace is right.

I guess I just concentrate on the performance, not what people think of it. I don’t think athletes think about what the crowd likes. I think they just try to play the ball. Maybe musicians are closer to their audience than authors, but they still have to concentrate on hitting the right notes. I figure there are so many readers out there that some people will like my writing and some people won’t. If people get spirited away into my settings and feel my character’s emotions then that’s good enough for me.

Steph: Imagining you could travel back in time and meet your younger self without tearing the universe apart, what advice would you give her about writing and life?
Beth: About writing: Never think your first draft is excellent. It’s always shit compared with what two or three rewrites can produce.

Be prepared for hours of frustration, despair and hatred—all directed at your manuscript. There are hours of delight, pride and love too, when things come together, but they’re far fewer than the negative emotions.

Don’t give up. Get that draft finished. No matter how bad it is, then rewrite it until it’s perfect. Too many people say they’ll write a book but they don’t persevere.

About life: Relish every high and low experience you’ve ever had: the break-ups, betrayals, broken bones, bad hair days; the wins, loves, laughs and pleasures...whatever. The emotions you experience are the fuel of your work. You can use everything.

Never say no to a crappy job when you’re unemployed. Pick fruit, wash dishes, pack shelves, shovel shit. Learn how it feels to use new tools, get blisters, sweat, stain your hands, deal with annoying bosses and earn peanuts. You’ll fill your mind with experiences you can use in your writing and you can always leave when a better job comes along.

Get reading, both the good and the bad. Fiction, non fiction, YAF, children’s, adult and any genre you can stomach. There are so many books out there that even if you were a speed reader you’d never get through half of them in a lifetime and each one will teach you something you need to know to be a better writer.

Steph: What are you working on at the moment?
Beth: At the moment I’m working on a YAF book set in a regional Australian town about a diabetic girl with a passion for poisons. I don’t want to go into details because the whole thing is still in the early drafts stage and I’m afraid I’ll give it the mozz if I blab on about it.
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