Interview with Pip Harry, author of Head of the River

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pip Harry is the Sydney-based author of YA novels Head of the River (a novel about competitive rowing that I loved despite being an entirely un-sportsy human) and I'll Tell You Mine (a novel about a rebellious goth girl that I loved despite being an entirely un-rebellious human who wears a lot of florals). Pip's also a freelance journalist and has worked in magazines (which I imagine is very much like it appears in all those romantic comedies about women who work in magazines - very glamorous, of course - but I may be incorrect). 

She seems like a very adventurous and cool sort, as evidenced by the fact that there's a picture of her skydiving on the About page of her website. (Perhaps that's what I need for my About page. I would never in a million years go skydiving, so I'll have to photoshop it.)

I'm terribly excited to have the chance to interview her, about her tricky journey to publication, advice she'd give to aspiring authors, whether writing can be taught, her writing process and how she relates to her characters, and how her own experiences shaped Head of the River.

Steph: Head of the River beautifully evokes the experience of highly competitive school rowing and was inspired by the years you spent rowing and coaching schoolgirl crews. Did you use a lot of your own experiences in the novel? Was the process of writing the novel made simpler by your familiarity with what you were writing about, or was there still a lot of research involved? 

Pip: I went back in my mind to all those cold, dark mornings in the boat and the endless drills and backbreaking kilometres pulling on an oar. And in case I had forgotten anything, I organised a refresher ‘ride-along’ with Melbourne Girls Grammar, shadowing some of their senior crews on a bike very early one morning along the Yarra River. I also attended some regattas in Sydney and went to the Head of the Schoolgirls on the Barwon – madly scribbling notes on every last detail! I did fall into the Yarra River once, and I used that experience for one particularly humiliating scene with Cristian. In terms of the medical and performance enhancing drug research – that wasn’t anything I was familiar with, so I spend quite a bit of time talking to medical experts and hitting up Dr Google for advice.

Steph: Your background is in journalism, so I'm wondering whether writing non-fiction articles professionally helped you in writing fiction, whether that translated across. Do you think being a journalist has shaped you as a YA author? Or the inverse: Do you think being a YA author has now shaped you as a journalist?
Pip: I’d like to think my non-fiction and fiction writing flowed into each other seamlessly, but they’re actually very different beasts. My creative writing has taken a lot longer to develop and come to fruition than my professional journalism, which took off early in my 20s and came much more easily. I do think my journalism work has made me very well equipped for deadline meeting, structure and taking strong edits and criticism without crying. I don’t think being a journalist has shaped me at all yet as a YA author– but perhaps I will one day write a killer YA book about my time as a celebrity reporter!

Steph: I loved your debut, I'll Tell You Mine, almost as much as I loved your sophomore novel. Did you find writing a second novel easier or more challenging once you'd had a novel published and experienced the process of your novel being out in the world? Did your writing process or expectations of yourself change?
Pip: Awww, thanks Steph! I took forever to write I’ll Tell You Mine. I stopped and started and doubted and nearly chucked it for another shiny idea. It felt so personal and drawn from the deep. Head of the River was also a personal experience, but one that was faster, more directed and more supported. I got a grant for the book from the Australia Council, so I had the incredible luxury of time and a quiet space to go for it. That said my first draft of HOTR was absolutely shocking! But I knew I had to plough through and get it down, and I had set myself a deadline to deliver it to my publisher Kristina Schulz before she went off on Maternity leave. A baby is the best motivator for book delivery. For I’ll tell you Mine it was the arrival of my own first child, Sophie, who spurred me into action and got me an agent!

Steph: Do you find it challenging or easy to create characters that are currently experiencing the various highs and lows of being a teenager? Are your characters and their voices something that come easily to you? Some writers say their characters take over the story - is that the case for you, or are there things you consciously work on to make them authentic?
Pip: I find is so easy to go through the hormonal, adolescent highs and lows. I’m not sure what that says about me. But perhaps it’s just that teens are having human experiences and emotions, and they are the same things I’m wrestling with as an adult too – love, family, pressure, friendships, ambition…all universal and not age-related. The good characters totally take over the story and have their own life-force! Like Vasile, the father in HOTR. He was so fully formed in the first scene – the way he spoke, moved, everything. All there.

Steph: You mention on your website that you took a university creative writing class when you turned thirty, returning to writing fiction after years focused on journalism. Do you think that writing can be taught, and would you recommend writing classes to other writers?  Was there anything in particular you learnt that really shaped you as a writer?
Pip: I don’t think writing can be entirely taught. You need to have a talent, a curiosity and a way of observing the world that’s got to be there to begin with. But I do believe writing can be honed, shaped and directed. And writing courses are brilliant for meeting other writers and just exploring with your voice. I learnt during my study that I had something to say as a fiction writer– and that I needed to keep on with this punishing and at times difficult journey!

Steph: You had quite a difficult and lengthy path to publication, with novels you wrote much earlier than I'll Tell You Mine not finding publishers. You've now published two well-received YA novels with UQP. What advice would you give other writers who want to become published, about writing and the publishing process?
Pip: I was the most frustrated unpublished fiction writer around. I tried so hard to make my stories cut through and get some attention and it was just a series of closed doors and polite nos. If I could whisper in the ear of someone like me – someone struggling to get published – then I would say: ‘Press on. Believe in yourself. You will make it to the end and the end is so beautiful and fun.’ But I would also remind them there’s such an element of luck. It takes just one person to love your work for it to become a book. So, make your story the best it can be, let it go out to the right people and don’t be afraid to try again, and again. I have four unpublished novels in my bottom drawer that all have a little sparkle, but not the overall gleam.

Once you are published, it’s still hard, but you have more people on your team to pull the oar with, weather the rough water and get your boat across the line. (sorry, I couldn’t resist a parting sporting analogy!)


Thanks, Pip! For more about Pip, Head of the River and I'll Tell You Mine, check out Pip's website.
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