Kirsty Eagar is the Sydney-based author of YA novels Raw Blue, Saltwater Vampires and Night Beach, plus Summer Skin, to be published early next year (!!! I am excited about this). She's won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Young Adult fiction and been shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Queensland Literary Awards, the Western Australia Premier’s Awards and a Gold Inky - which should indicate that her novels are pretty terrific. I met Kirsty Eagar at the Somerset Writers Festival in 2011, so I can confirm she is as lovely in real life as she is on the internet.
Being able to ask an author tonnes of questions about their writing process under the guise of it being for my blog - when in actual fact I'm just really curious! - is one of my favourite things about blogging (I hope you love finding out the stories behind stories as much as I do!). Luckily for me, Kirsty took the time to answer all of my very involved questions with really thoughtful, interesting answers - on writing about surfing, reading while writing, exploiting your own fear to create creepy atmosphere, the advice she'd share with herself as a beginning writer, plus more.
Steph: I really love that each of your novels are so different from one another (save for the surfing theme - I'm going to ask questions about that shortly!) - from Raw Blue being achingly realistic to Saltwater Vampires being paranormal with historical elements to Night Beach being a terrifically eerie gothic horror story. So I wonder whether you decide before you set out what genre you'll write the next book in, or whether that's something you work out as you write? Genre-wise, do you favour one over the others?
Kirsty: Oh, that’s such a good question. I’d love to know how it works for other people. With Raw Blue and Saltwater Vampires, the genre was part of the initial seed idea. It wasn’t that clear cut for Night Beach. In the beginning, I had it pegged as more of a noir thing, more realistic. But when I decided to include art in the plot, everything changed, because I’ve always loved the Surrealists. Also, the house that Abbie’s living in is borrowed directly from real life – an old place we rented. The swaying chandeliers really happened, likewise that place had no hallway (so each room had two to three doorways) and there was a locked door downstairs. So it was probably the decision to use the house that turned the story gothic. (The house’s saving grace was that it also had a great view – blurry photo below is from the balcony at night: moon over the ocean).
On genre: I have no favourite. I found Saltwater Vampires the most demanding to write, though.
Steph: I also love that surfing is a central theme in all your novels, and that it's inextricably tied to the plot of each. How do you manage to continually write about surfing in a fresh way? What first inspired you to write about surfing, and do you think it will continue to be central to your work?
Kirsty: Before I got published I’d written two novels that almost, but not quite, made it, and I’d given up on the whole idea of getting there. But I couldn’t let go of writing, so I decided to just write something that mattered to me. And surfing has given me all the big things in my life (writing, my husband, a home, a community, daily conversation that forces me to remove my head from my … you get the picture) so it had to be in there. In the beginning I struggled with permission, though. But then I realised that a lot of surf writing is from a male perspective, and tends to be about dominating the ocean, whereas I wanted to write about something quieter – just turning up because you love it. That realisation gave me the way in, and a point of difference.
There’s probably always more to write on it, because the hierarchy in the water is an interesting way to explore other themes, like belonging, for example. That said (she says, climbing down from her high horse) there’ll be no more surf writing for at least the next two books. It’s been good to step away from it.
Steph: In Saltwater Vampires, historical events and characters are interpreted through a supernatural lens - what drew you to writing about the Batavia? Are there any other historical events you'd like to reimagine for a novel?
Kirsty: I think what made me want to write about it was that it was just such a good story. To this day, Mike Dash’s account of what happened, Batavia’s Graveyard, is probably my favourite work of non-fiction (his writing is brilliant).
Funny, you ask that second question … I’m related to the explorer Emily Caroline Barnett (nee Creaghe) so I’d like to look at her life either in a novel, or creative non-fiction.
Steph: Do you read while you're working on a novel? Does what you're reading vary based on what you're writing and help inspire your work?
Kirsty: Yes and no. I oscillate between lumpy bursts of intense effort in amongst much longer periods of flat line procrastination. So I’m happy to read when I’m flat lining, but I don’t read at all when things are heating up. I’ll read books related to what I’m doing in a research sense, but I try not to cross over with other fiction. Most of the time, I read pretty widely and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. So I might read a sports biography, and then a YA, and then a horror, and then short stories … What inspires me is when you come across writing so good it smacks you in the eyeballs. It makes you realise what’s possible.
Steph: What have you learnt about writing and publishing that you'd share with yourself back when you first started writing?
Kirsty: Just. Keep. Working. Set targets and then halve them (annual, monthly, week to week) and keep a record of your hours – it keeps you honest, gives you a feeling of accomplishment, and forces you to focus on the writing. In a business sense, don’t be afraid to ask questions and never be afraid to change things if they’re not working. I think, too, I haven’t always been very mature about handling the post publication side. I let things slide, buried my head in the sand. In terms of interacting with other writers and readers, you should know, Steph, that you have been a role model to me. I very much admire your grace, professionalism, generosity and courtesy. So that’s important, too, focus on the people who are positive.
Steph: Do you outline your novels or make things up as you go along? What's your process like, generally, from idea to finished manuscript?
Kirsty: It tends to be pretty loose until I finally get a decent first draft down. I don’t outline formally, only because when I’m writing it changes anyway. But I do have a working idea in my head of where I might be going, and a couple of story beats I want to hit. Each chunk of new writing might contain a couple of hidden gems – like a throwaway line halfway through chapter five that you suddenly realise would work well as a scene, and not just any scene, but your opening scene! So what I call a first draft is heaps and heaps of rewrites and a lot of stops and starts. I find that excruciating, and I always tell myself it’ll be different next time, more organised, but it never is.
Steph: Night Beach is incredibly eerie and atmospheric - what were your inspirations? What advice would you give writers wanting to generate creepy atmosphere in their stories?
Kirsty: Thank you! The art in the story was a big inspiration. I took directly from it in places – so, for example, Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Yes, there’s a point in the story where Abbie’s hair is standing on end like the dolls/girls in that painting, but what I found, the more I looked, was the sense of unease I felt actually came from that door, just so slightly ajar. I drew a lot on the idea of the shadow, too – Jungian psychology and the shadow-self, the unconscious parts of your personality that you don’t acknowledge (so, for Abbie, that might be her sexuality, or residual feelings about her parents’ divorce).
Steph: There's a lot of really challenging material (to write and to read) in your novels, and very authentic, emotionally honest characters. I think this sort of stuff can be easily mishandled, but everything is dealt with very subtly and realistically. I felt this most especially with Raw Blue. So I wonder how you go about empathising with your characters - are you the sort of writer to whom characters seem very real and drive the story themselves, or do you have to really draw them out and explore the character before being able to write them so authentically?
Kirsty: Thank you again, Steph. Yes, they definitely feel real and, I think this is important, they also aren’t me – because you’ve got to get your own ego out of the way. Hopefully that happens during the whole write, rewrite, rewrite, feedback, rewrite, rewrite cycle! But, on the other hand, I think you’ve got to be honest. So you’re invested, you’ve risked something. That said, the characters drive it. I will sit with a scene for a long time now, and wait until my initial urge has passed and a second, better, solution arrives, generated by them. But that’s scary, because you’re always worried it won’t come. How’s that for a not very good answer to your question??? :)
Steph: Do you have a perfect reader in mind as you write? Or do you write for yourself? Does it vary from novel to novel?
Kirsty: The eventual decision to go with one thing over another (because there always seems to be two competing ideas when I’m about to start something new) is made to please myself. But once I’m writing, it is about the reader. I don’t know who they are, though. They’re this floaty presence, holy and humbling. Real readers are the motivation to not give up on a story, because you’ve loved this world and these people and you want someone else to share it with you.
Steph: What are you working on at the moment? (Having now read all your novels, I am in that rather unpleasant state of impatiently waiting for the next book - so I hope it will be out soon!)
Kirsty: Well, that goes from me to you, too, Steph – waiting! The next one (I have to interrupt myself here to say that for a long time I thought there mightn’t be a next one, so it’s really nice to be able to say that, albeit, not very casually!) comes out early next year. It’s called Summer Skin. Despite being a beachy sounding title, as I said, there’s no surfing. It’s a uni novel, set in Brisbane (where I went to uni). It’s a bit out there, and I’m terrified.
Thank you for such astute questions Steph, and thank you very much for having me!!!
Kirsty writes a terrific blog, which is well worth checking out - one of her features, Where the magic happens, is about where writers write, to which I contributed a post, which you can read here (predictably, it features garden gnomes). I am ridiculously excited for Summer Skin - and Kirsty has a little snippet of it up on her blog.
Here's my review of Raw Blue, and more info on Night Beach and Saltwater Vampires (you'll probably see reviews for each of these here soon).