Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Interview - Sue Lawson

Sue Lawson kindly took some time in her busy schedule to answer my questions about her amazing novel, Finding Darcy. As a WW2 buff this book interested me a great deal but it's the story of a fragmented family of females (four generations) in present day Australia, which allows you to invest in the mystery and the characters.

You’ve written books for both younger readers and young adults, does your process change?
I’ve found that the story and the characters dictate the writing process for me. Every story is different and places different demands on me. The bare bones of the process remain the same, though.
My stories start as an idea, a character or a question. I spend time ‘thinking’ about the idea, fleshing it out until it feels rounded. Sometimes this process is short, other times it can take years for a story idea to click. Some never amount to anything.

Finding Darcy took me a long time to flesh out. One of the issues toughest issues was deciding when to set it – during the war, during the 80s or in present time.

Once the initial idea feels rounded, I begin planning. I do this by hand in an exercise book. New story, new exercise book. Again, with each story, I’ve started somewhere different. With Finding Darcy and Allie McGregor’s True Colours, I planned the characters first, then moved on to the setting. For my current novel CJ I planned the small country town, the school and sheep property where CJ would be sent before I started on the characters.

I scribble bits of research, create character profiles, sketch house plans, school grounds and streetscapes and even stick in photos from magazines and newspapers into my planning book. I tend to get a little carried away planning, but I love it! I often return to my exercise book to flesh out problems while I’m writing.

Somewhere in all that, I know when it’s time to write. Once I have my first draft done, I print it out, edit by hand, make the changes in the computer and do it all over again.
And that’s the bare bones of my process…

What inspired you to write about Australia’s wartime history within a contemporary setting?
Finding Darcy is based on what happened to my grandfather during World War II.
Until my mid twenties, all I knew of my maternal grandfather was his name, Bill, and that he died as a prisoner of war on board a Japanese ship.

The other thing I knew with complete certainty was that he was never to be spoken about - ever. After my daughter was born, I wanted to know more about Bill’s life before he joined the army and how he died, so without telling my family, I began reading, researching and asking questions.

It took a long time, but eventually I discovered the official line on what had happened to Bill’s battalion, and that the incident is still shrouded in secrecy, speculation and controversy. Most surprising of all, I learnt many families reacted as mine did – by refusing to talk about what had happened.

I started wondering how this silence affected families, and how the silence is felt by following generations, who are so used to speaking about issues that their grandparents would never dream of discussing. I decided I had to make Finding Darcy a contemporary novel so I could explore the impact of silence on a number of generations.

You have crafted some wonderful, strong female characters in Finding Darcy, are they based on people in your life?
Creating the characters for Finding Darcy was tough as I was acutely aware that my family wasn’t happy about me writing it, and resisted until it hit the bookshops. They were challenging times!

So while I crafted the characters, especially Darcy’s grandmother and great-grandmother, I tried to make them completely unlike any of my family. I needed to create grief-filled characters that the reader would still warm to.

Misery’s needed to be brutal and larger than life, as many fictional characters are, to force Darcy to keep searching for the truth about her great-grandfather.

Batty was my favourite character. There are elements of my grandmother in Batty – her poise, sadness, strength, courage and humour – but she is very much a creation of mine. I love the scene at Boof’s house where she shares her memories with Darcy. I wish I had been able to do that with my grandmother, but Gran died before I ever worked up the courage to ask her about Bill.

When creating characters, I tend to pick pieces of people I know, have taught, or have just passed in the street – a way of talking, a habit, a hobby. I guess the characters are a kind of Frankenstein.

After I’d finished the final edit of Allie McGregor’s True Colours I realized Allie’s friend Lou, was very much like my close friend, Doobs. Lou is Allie’s rock –she listens, offers sage advice, is funny and is forgiving of Allie’s moods and quirks. Doobs is all that and more to me. So I guess sometimes the role people play in my life can be replicated in my writing.

What are five novels that everyone should read?
1. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee.
What’s not to like about this book? Atticus Finch is a fantastic character – so courageous. And I love Boo Radley!
2. Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
What can I say about LOTR that hasn’t been said? It challenges me on many levels.
3. Catcher In the Rye – JD Salinger
This is a fantastic book – I made my daughter read it recently (because that’s how I torture her!) and she loved it. Amazing how a story of a teenager in 1950 is still as strong over 50 years later!
4. Dirt Music – Tim Winton.
Tim Winton stories are so compelling and are written with such a light hand. Imagine being able to write with that skill! He is a talented man.
5. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen.
The language is fantastic and the characters so cleverly crafted!

What are you working on right now?
I’m about to do the final edit of my new book, CJ, due for release in August/September.
Again, writing this book has been very different to writing Finding Darcy. My protagonist is a teenage boy this time and he’s a cracker of a kid. He’s cocky, cool, popular, but one act shatters his perfect inner-city life. To help him ‘heal’ CJ’s mum sends him to Winter Creek, a small rural town, to live with grandparents he has never met. Instead of healing, CJ uncovers secrets that add to his pain.

Before CJ hits the bookshops, my editor Karen and I will go over it again and make changes. Once that’s done, I wait for the proof for one last check before CJ is printed. It’s always exciting watching your idea develop into a book.

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