Liz Byrski is has been a prolific Australian writer over the last decade and yet she does not get the media exposure of her younger cohorts. It's a shame because she writes candidly and tenderly about the foibles of family life and the complex relationships we carry (or drop) as we get older.
Byrski is 70 and her books cater specifically for the mature woman. These are women who tend to be invisible in so many Australian stories, cast aside once the kids have left home and deemed to be of no interest. Byrski shows us just how rich, and how important, these older female narratives are.
If you've not heard of Byrski, look her up. I'll be sending Family Secrets off to my Mum once this is filed. You should too.
I emailed Liz Byrski to ask her about her writing and reading process and she generously shared her thoughts with me here. Also have a look at her own blog as she has a lot of reviews and handy tips on writing.
All your novels seem to focus on the complexities of family life. How the decisions we make early in our lives, seems to catch up with us sooner or later. How did you come up with the theme for Family Secrets?
This story came to me when, as I mention in the acknowledgements, I read All Passion Spent, by Vita Sackville West. That story written in the 1930s seemed to be a classic tory of a woman’s life and inspired to come up with my own 21st century version of a woman’s life.
Connie is a complex woman, as is her friend Flora. I think you capture really well the generosity and strength that grows with experience while giving equal weight to our silly human flaws and foibles. Do you think we all have a blind side? Is it important to emphasise both in a novel?
I think characters in a novel need to have depth and texture and that means showing their less endearing characteristics as well as their qualities. People are not one dimensional, and yes, many of us have a blindside as well as a dark side. There is nothing more boring to me as a writer or a reader than a character who is all good or all bad.
Liz, you have spoken openly about the lack of novels reflecting the lives of the over-50 woman. Are your novels a deliberate attempt to reach out to that market – was that a key factor when you started writing? Did you pitch it to the marketing department, or was it a conversation that evolved together?
I started writing about older women because I couldn’t find Australian novels in which older women were the main characters. I wanted to read about the lives of women of my age. So, as a reader I found a gap and as a writer I decided to have a go at filling it. I couldn’t have pitched it to anyone as I had never written fiction before, so had to write it to find out if I could do it. So I wrote Gang of Four and my agent sent it to a Pan Macmillan who offered me a contract for that book and another one.
Has your writing process changed as you experienced success? How?
I hope my writing has improved since the first novel, but my process is much the same as it was at the start, but perhaps I’m a bit more confident than I was at the start, and I panic less when things don’t seem to be going right. But I do still panic!
Who are the writers that have inspired, or influenced your writing style?
I have drawn on the work of many of the women writers whom my mother introduced me to as a teenager. These were the books generally known as ‘the feminine middlebrow’ - books written between the 1930s and the late fifties, by women, for women and about women’s lives. Authors include, Monica Dickens, Dorothy Whipple, Jocelyn Playfair, Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, and Antonia White. But my novels are also influences by the feminist consciousness raising fiction of the seventies and eighties by Marilyn French, Eric Yong, Dorothy Bryant, Doris Lessing and others.
You have a PhD in Creative Writing from Curtain University, Western Australia. There is much debate about whether postgrad courses are becoming “novel factories” and yet I believe some of the freshest and most exciting work is coming out of these courses (i.e. Courtney Collins and Hannah Kent). What exactly was it about the PhD in creative writing that was beneficial for you?
I didn’t do a PhD in Creative Writing, I did a PhD by publication which is available to staff and in which you can submit a body of published work an write an academic thesis which likes and explains and develops the theoretical background of that work. A Creative Writing Degree at any level can provide an aspiring writer with the practical and theoretic tools to make the most of their creativity. It provides discipline continuity of feedback and a safe supportive environment in which to take creative risks. It can also provide inspiration and collegiality, moral support and encouragement when it gets tough.
You teach creative writing now. What key piece of advice would you give to first-time novelists?
First of all work out what sort of book you want to write and why. Then learn something about the genre in which you want to work, eg. fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction, women’s fiction, romance, crime etc. Read carefully and widely of a variety of authors and try to work out how they have made their books work. Be prepared for it to take a long time and to be very hard and frustrating. Keep at it and you will get there in the end.
How do you approach each novel? Do you have a research method, a tightly plotted structure or a clear sense of characters and how they relate to one another? So many authors tell me in interviews and at festivals that the “story just came to them” … I just find it hard to believe that they can punch out over 60,000 words with no fixed plan about the plot or characters. It seems to me a bit like models who say they “don’t diet.” I’m not sure this shroud of secrecy and denial helps if it isn’t true!
I don’t have a fixed plan because I don’t write to a formula. What I need is a character who I will work on in my head until I am ready to start writing. I know where that character is in her life, what she wants, what is holding her back and what might free her from that. Then I can develop at least one other character who will either help with, or pull against the first one. I have a rough idea of what I hope will happen in the end but it rarely ends up that way. Once I have the first couple of characters they generate the story, I just have to remember to be open to the fact that those characters will drive the story in their way and that might not be the way I originally intended. This is not a secret among writers; some write to a plan others don’t. I don’t so it’s always a bit scary - Margaret Attwood says it’s like driving at night without headlights. That’s how it is for me. It took me a long time to let go of any trace of a plan that I might have in my head and let the story grow in its own way one day at a time.
Can you please talk readers through how you map out your books?
I don’t’. I sit down in terror each day wondering if I’ll be able to move on and make it work.
Where do you seek inspiration for your writing?
What would you like to see more of published in Australia?
Well written popular fiction about everyday life.
What do you like reading?
Fiction, biography, memoir, critical work on culture and society, history - particularly of the early 20th century.
Describe your typical writing day.
Begins about 8.30 after I’ve walked the dog, tided the house and drunk coffee. Write through until about 1pm, break for an hour, eat, put feet up, close my eyes and try to get calm enough to start again. Start around 2pm, write through until it’s time to walk the dog anytime between 4pm and 5.30pm. Feed dog and start again – write through until about 8-8.30pm, eat while watching something on TV – ideally good drama or crime, something that get the days work out of my head.
Some days this is broken by meetings at work etc but basically this is it. Every day including weekends.
Describe your workspace (or office)
Large room at the end of a big open area which includes dining table. Books occupy one wall, light from windows at both ends both of which overlook the garden. L-shaped desk not very tidy, small central table for overflow – also not very tidy. Dog usually asleep in the armchair beside me.
Without giving away any of your own secrets, what are you researching at the moment? What’s next for Liz Byrski?
I have just finished a non-fiction book of memoir/history, about some WWII pilots who were treated with plastic surgery for chronic facial burns during the war. I’ve just started a novel and have my first two characters, but I’m not sure where they are heading.
Favourite bookshop/s. Why?
Because they all stock a very diverse range of the sort of books I loved and I always find new and exciting books there.
Screen or book?
It varies, I don’t expect a film to be the same as the book on which it’s based, because it can’t be. A film is a different form with different freedoms and constraints. Sometimes I prefer the book to the film, sometimes vice versa.
What are you reading now?
The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
Daughters of Jerusalem by Charlotte Mendelssohn.
What do you plan to read next?
Capital by Thomas Picketty
What do you recommend for a cheeky holiday read?
Cheeky in an unusual way, and not just as a holiday read. I recommend The Life and Loves and Lena Gaunt – a wonderful first novel by Tracy Farr. I fell in love with Lena Gaunt on page 3, and have stayed that way. The best novel I’ve read for a long time. Published by Fremantle Press 2013.
Liz Bryski author website
Sydney Morning Herald review