by Ross Hamilton
Canberrans recently had the opportunity to catch up with Anita Heiss at Paperchain Bookstore, sponsor of the ACT Writers Centre, at the Canberra launch of her latest book, Tiddas. Author of fiction, history, social commentary, poetry, memoir and satire, Anita made some time in her busy schedule to have a yarn with us to talk about Tiddas and writing in general.
Your novels have been described with the delightful term ‘choc-lit’ – chit-lit with an Aboriginal flavour – do we know who came up with it?
From memory the term was coined by broadcasters at Koori Radio 93.7FM in Sydney when my first novel, Not Meeting Mr Right, came out in 2007.
While your earlier work explored the journey of single women, Tiddas explores multiple stories with more mature protagonists. Was this a deliberate change of approach?
Yes, as a writer I needed to challenge myself and having to write five distinct storylines with five diverse voices and characters provided that challenge. Mapping out and plotting each individual journey over the course of the novel, and the complexity of their lives was something I really enjoyed doing as well. And five protagonists also meant I could cover much more ground in terms of issues, politics, personal relationships as well.
Is Tiddas also perhaps a reflection on our collective aging?
Yes, that too. My previous four novels (Not Meeting Mr. Right, Avoiding Mr. Right, Manhattan Dreaming and Paris Dreaming) were all about young women on the cusp of turning thirty. I felt I had written enough about that time in a woman’s life, and as I was approaching mid-40s it made sense to start considering and writing about the concerns and dilemmas of women in my age-bracket.
You have previously stated that you are a planner—how do you approach the mapping and planning of a novel?
I am a plotter as opposed to a ‘pantser’ and that means my methodology is quite structured: I write a synopsis, then I do detailed character profiles (what they look like, eat, quirks, relationships, backstory and what their particular journey is in the novel). I do extensive research in terms of geography/settings and have the bulk of my information before I sit down to map out the novel.
I plot the entire novel with detailed chapter breakdowns—this is like an essay plan for each chapter of the novel. I map out the dramatic plot points, and I know exactly what happens at the end of the novel before I sit down to start write properly. Of course this may change as I write, but I have an ending in mind always.
With Tiddas taking several stories, has this meant a change in that process?
Not really, it just meant I had to be more focused as I had to do it five times instead of once—the white board had each character’s name mentioned in each chapter and I mapped out one character at a time. What was happening to Nadine for instance each month, even if she wasn’t at the book club meeting, where was she, what was she feeling, doing?
What drives your development of characters?
All my characters are flawed, because let’s face it, most of us are flawed as human beings. My goal with my characters is essentially to write realistic women and men who at least have the capacity to grow and change and evolve. Of course, in life, we do not always experience happy endings and in Tiddas I’ve reflected that reality with my characters. I want my readers to feel some connection to at least one character in my novels. If they can find more they can relate to in some way then that’s fantastic.
What drives your overall approach to mapping a story—a character in need of a story, a general plot idea needing characters or something else?
I guess my books are character driven, so the journey of the protagonist(s) is essential in moving the storyline forward. In terms of Tiddas, the plot points were around dramatic moments challenging two or more friends. So I needed to map out where that dramatic moment would occur and then what the steps were to reconciliation between the friends.
Has your approach changed over time with your increasing experience?
I don’t think my approach has changed but I do hope my writing ability has improved.
Do you have any specific writing practices?
I write in blocks of time. I work on a project full-on for the length of time it takes me to write the first draft. I sat down and wrote my last four novels that way. So, between six and eight weeks will be all day every day at the computer, writing non-stop with my chapter breakdowns and all my research notes at hand. Lots of caffeine and lots of chocolate nearby as well. That means I block out weeks or even months months at a time to finish the book. But I also only write to contract so I have deadlines set by the publisher and my own deadlines, which are even more brutal. On a normal day I will write 2,000-2,500 words. On a very good day I will write 3,500-4,000 words. And I very rarely read while I am working on a book. I can’t. My eyes are ruined by the end of the day.
Are there any specific literary influences who have inspired or influenced your approach to writing?
I have a lot of writing heroes but I think my style and my voice are my own. If anything, women writers like the late Oodgeroo Noonuccal and my contemporary peers Alexis Wright and Melissa Lucashenko inspire me to just keep doing what I’m doing. We all write differently with different skills and stories, but I believe we’re all doing the same thing. Keeping the conversations going about who we are, what we have the right to be and have, and that our voices in both the Australian and international literary landscapes are essential.
I understand your doctorate was in Aboriginal literature and publishing. How did the research and exploration in that experience influence your future writing?
I spent nearly five years researching and writing about Aboriginal literature—the production, editing, marketing and so on. Throughout that time I spoke with authors, editors, publishers of work from across Australia, Canada and Aotearoa/New Zealand, and I think what influenced me most from that research was coming to understand the importance of Aboriginal storytelling in all forms, and the need for us to write more stories for the broader market place. My doctorate and what I learned through doing that still inspires me today.
What might you have changed writing-wise if you had your time again?
I think I would definitely enroll in workshops to hone my craft. I’ve done very little professional development as it were, and most of my training has been on the job, and attending a Black Writers Reunion and Conference in the US. I think there is much value in doing courses, masterclasses and having mentors. And if I were starting out now, I’d be milking all those opportunities.
If you had to give aspiring authors a single piece of advice, what might it be?
Read, read, read. You need to read widely—across genre, gender and geography. You need to know what works on the page, what you think your voice should be. You need to know what else is in the marketplace and where the gaps are. I meet so many people who want to write books but don’t read. What makes you think someone will read your book if you can’t be bothered reading anyone else’s?
Where next after Tiddas?
I’m currently excited about the prospect of writing a YA novel with the very talented and much loved author Kate Forsyth. We’re working right now fine-tuning synopses for two potential books.
Thank you for spending this time with us, Anita. For more information on Anita Heiss, her other books and appearances, visit her website www.anitaheiss.com.