Fiona Robertson lived with migraines for years, writing short stories as a creative pursuit. Now she’s free from migraines and the award-winning author of the debut short story collection, If You’re Happy. Her work explores the lives of lonely people seeking happiness in a turbulent world.
In episode 53 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, Fiona discusses the common threads that bind her stories, why they’re her chosen form, and how living with unpredictable chronic illness impacted her life and creative work.
Fiona Robertson is a writer and doctor. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and anthologies in Australia and the UK, and has been shortlisted for international competitions. Her collection of stories, If You’re Happy, won the Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer at the 2020 Queensland Literary Awards. Fiona lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.
Plus, Fiona and I talk about our fellowships at KSP Writers Centre in 2017, and how the benefits of such opportunities extend far beyond writing time.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Louise Allan – The Keepers by Al Campbell, plus her Sydney Morning Herald article, ‘The disappointing question I most often got after writing a book‘ – Long Road to Dry River by Jen Severn – All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy – Child of God by Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy – David Vann – Denizen by James McKenzie Watson, out 19 July 2022!
Just announced! I’m teaching a one-day in-person memoir workshop for Writing NSW on Saturday 7 May. If you’re in the midst of writing a memoir, or hoping to start one, this is everything you need to know. For more info and enrolments, visit Writing NSW >>
I’ve wanted to be an author since 1989, when I was six years old.
I took creative writing workshops in university and college. I churned out novels and stories and possibly the worst poetry in history of English.
In my early thirties, I spent five years writing and revising a creative non-fiction book that, despite being shortlisted for two unpublished manuscript awards, is still unpublished.
Finally, in 2019, my first book came out. It only took me 30 years.
Over that time, I collected a lot of writing advice, and thought a lot about the process of going from aspiring writer to published author. If I’d had even half of this advice when I started, I think the process would have been easier and more enjoyable, if not faster.
2. Start by building a creative practice When you’re starting out, engage with your creativity for its own sake, rather than with any specific end goal (like publication) in mind. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to develop your skills if you want to be an author. Enjoy the process. Plus, engaging with our creativity can be therapeutic – hear art therapist Karin Foxwell discuss the healing power of creativity in this interview >>
3. Remember that your creativity is important Creativity isn’t frivolous, or selfish, or peripheral – it’s a radically powerful act. Author Sarah Sentilles teaches that when we turn toward our creativity, we turn toward the world. Hear more from Sarah in this interview >>
4. Understand that creative work can spark anxiety What if we don’t know what we’re doing? What if the work we’re producing is rubbish? This is absolutely normal, and something many published authors still struggle with. Listen to author Kate Mildenhall share her advice >>
5. Tune out your inner critic Most of us judge ourselves and our ideas harshly, but the truth is you often need to go through a lot of mediocre ideas and drafts before arriving at an exciting one. You can learn to tune out the inner critic that tries to shut you down. Here’s a tip: when I’m find myself second-guessing every word of a new draft, I change my font to trees >>
6. Overcome project inertia Often during a project we can lose momentum, and day by day it becomes increasingly difficult to go back to the work – resistance builds up. I call this ‘project inertia’ and there are strategies to overcome and avoid it. Read more about project inertia here >>
7. Trust the process As you progress in your practice, you’ll develop a process that works for you. But then you’ll get derailed and feel lost. Go back to your process, and learn to trust it >>
8. Get a writers group (or two) Once you’ve started producing work you think might be headed for publication, it’s time to get feedback. One of the best ways to do that is a writers’ group. I credit mine with helping me sharpen the skills needed to get published. Read more about how to get the most from writers’ groups here >>
11. Accept the ups and downs If you want to become published and get paid for your work, the process will have many ups and downs. This is true for practically all writers. Here’s the messy process I went through, summarised into 10 easy steps >>
12. Find your joy, even through rejection For a lot of years, I received a lot of rejections. But I found myself having a wonderful time, because I loved my creative work, and I loved all the fabulous readers and writers I was meeting through the community. During that, I got involved in supporting the writing community as a way to connect with others, and wrote about how much I learned through this process >>
Your lived experience provides the raw material for a memoir – but how do you shape that material into something greater than a series of recollections? How do you craft a cohesive, compelling narrative arc from the quiet moments our lives often turn on?
Join me for a practical workshop filled with writing exercises, analysis of memoir extracts, and discussion. You’ll learn strategies for getting your first draft down and approaches for tackling the serious task of revision, including what narrative structure is and how it works when writing from real life. For more info and enrolments, visit Writing NSW >>
The Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, presented by Writing NSW and Text Publishing, is awarded to an unpublished Indigenous writer who has made substantial progress on a fiction or non-fiction writing project. The writer is paired with a senior Indigenous writer for a structured year-long mentorship.
The 2021 Boundless runner-up is Bundjalung writer Samia Goudie, for her memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. She’ll be working under the mentorship of Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko.
I’m especially excited for Samia because my husband and I had the honour of funding the 2021 runner-up mentorship. In this Q&A, she talks about her early experiences with writing, how she began to work on her memoir, writers that have inspired her, and her best writing tip.
When did you start writing, and what kind of writing did you first aspire to? As a child and all through my teens writing was my to go safe place and I wrote prolifically. Stories, poetry, prose, mostly long streams of consciousness and long 10-page letters to my grandmother and pen pal friends.
The touch of a fresh sharpened pencil and feel of the pen on paper completely absorbed me. I was deeply traumatised as a young person, so reading, writing and painting were my world, my safe place, and helped me survive.
I had two significant English teachers. One was Mr Jardine, he wore a cravat. It was the 70s, he took us to A Clockwork Orange, exposed us to Russian writers, Blake, and the classics as well as contemporary Australian and American writers. In my mid-teens and I was introduced to feminists and Marx, which was unusual, through another English teacher, Elizabeth Cousins.
Elizabeth knew my life was hard and in many ways I couldn’t function in the mainstream-learning environment, so she just let me write whatever I liked and didn’t require I come to class. I’d meet with her regularly instead and she’d read my writing, point me to things to read and make comments and constantly encourage me.
I also did a radio show at my school, so I was very influenced by radio, drama, youth theatre and music. A real mix, symphony, opera, jazz. Mozart and Pink Floyd and Country. We didn’t have a TV till I was 11. So these things shaped my world.
I was an adopted baby, taken from my birth mum, and my parents were significantly older than all my friends’ parents. I had a very lonely and abusive childhood. I just didn’t fit in for all kinds of reasons, Race being just one, so, I had to have a rich inner life to survive.
I spent hours learning and reciting poetry, long form and verse. I loved acting, and I would write my own scripts and then spend hours playing all the characters.
As a young teenager I also spent a lot of time at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and this is where I first started to understand that there were alternative stories and histories to the ones I was being exposed to. I’d grown up with Albert Namatjira on the living room wall, strict Methodists who had both been in the Army during WWII, and a father who grew up in an orphanage. I also spent long periods of time with relatives and then in institutions, so there were lots of disconnections and contradictions. Writing continues to fulfill the same role. It’s my safe place and my way to challenge the complexity of my inner and outer world. To give voice to these complexities and challenge the status quo of society. I love the craft, the voice, the landscape and terrain of stories. I love reading other people’s stories, ones that take you on a journey that transports you. That’s what I’d love to achieve. Telling a story that takes the reader on a journey.
I’ve written a lot of poetry over more recent years, up till then I put all my creativity into community projects, films, digital stories, events, concerts and lecturing and travelling.
Tell us about your memoir, The Woman Who Came from the Sea. Last year after I had an accident and was having a lot of severe pain, I started writing again just for myself, to distract myself. It started to become what felt like a story, one that had been sitting inside me for decades. I decided okay, just write.
Once I made that decision words just flowed out faster than I could type. I have called this work The Woman Who Came from the Sea because the ocean, salt water, and fresh water have always been important in my life. I have experienced deep bliss surfing down the face of a clear blue wave and near death in the center of a cyclone in the middle of the ocean on a small yacht.
I’d say its memoir, but also could fall into being creative non-fiction. I don’t want to give away too much yet; I can say it’s a wild story, a story of adventure and survival against the odds. I know I have lived a life that’s very full and left of center. I actually hate boxes and strive to challenge being labeled or locked into other people’s definitions of who I am. I’d like that to be the same with my writing, I am not trying to write in a specific formula or write for a living. I am just writing.
Various people throughout my life have heard pieces of my life and always commented that they would love to read the full story. So, maybe they will get that chance. I hope so, that would be wonderful.
What books or authors have inspired your writing? I have read broadly, the books that really stand out are always ones with rich landscapes and diverse voices. First Nations writing from this country has always had a special place ever since meeting and then reading the work of some of our early trailblazers, people like respected Elders Oodgeroo Noonuccal or Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert who founded the writing group I’m currently part of called Us Mob writers in Canberra.
Since being involved with Us Mob writers and First Nations Australia Writers Network, I have made a point to read nearly exclusively Aboriginal and Indigenous writers. We have so many talented storytellers; I have a never-ending pile.
I also love Hispanic and Latino and First Nations writers from the Americas where I lived for 12 years, mostly in the southwest. So, of course I am very impacted by the landscape of those places and the voices from those lands. I like to read and listen to stories that are recommended me by other writers. Films, theatre and podcasts inform me as well.
Through the Boundless Mentorship, you’ll be working with author Melissa Lucashenko, winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. What are you hoping to take from this? Being runner up in the Boundless Mentorship and being matched with Melissa Lucashenko, whose book Too Much Lip won the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award, is an extraordinary opportunity. The process of shaping my writing into structure and working out how to keep the story moving, is why it’s important for me to have a mentor. Just to get feedback and encouragement and not be so isolated means a lot.
I’m just grateful to learn whatever I can from her and hope it helps me bring my story to life.
What writing tip have you found most useful so far? Right now, it’s just about getting the writing on the page. That’s the best tip I have had. Just write, don’t stop, don’t edit, just get it down first. The rest will follow. The others are to read and read a lot. I’d add listen. Listen, be interested and brave.
It’s scary sometimes, to be visible, but I have such a great community of writers who inspire me. Aunty Kerry kept telling me before she died that she’d watching me and will be on my back if I don’t write. So, I have to honor her, as she really believed in me.
I want to thank Boundless, Writing NSW, Text Publishers, Booktopia, the judges, and of course my generous sponsors. I hope I can give you something that rewards your choice in supporting me with this opportunity.
Time is precious, so, now, it’s back to my story. I hope you might get to read it one day.
Congrats also to this year’s Boundless winner, Torres Strait Islander Lenora Thaker.For more about the Boundless Indigenous Writer’s Mentorship, visit Writing NSW.
I’ve been in a writers’ group for over six years now, and the process of getting regular feedback has been transformative for my writing.
Whether you’re thinking about joining a writers’ group (do it!) or you’re in one already but think it could be more effective, here are my tips on getting the most out of the experience.
Find the right group for you All writers’ groups are different, so it depends on what you’re looking for. The first one I tried focused on generating material in their sessions, then reading aloud and giving light verbal feedback. I think the most important thing you can get from a writers’ group is robust, in-depth feedback, but it depends what stage of the process you’re at. Don’t be afraid to try a few different groups before settling on one. Or form your own.
Exchange excerpts in advance My group focusses on feedback, and our monthly meetings work like this: approximately one week before each meeting, we email our excerpt around, so we can all read them in advance. To me, this is essential. For one thing, it means I have time to re-read and think deeply about the excerpts. It also means I can make as many comments as I feel necessary, on what works as well as areas I think need improvement. This is a time commitment – everyone in my group sends up to 6000 words each month – but it’s worth it for the quality of feedback.
Set the rules When my group gives feedback, we follow a set of rules: if my excerpt is being discussed, everyone takes turns giving me their main points of feedback – they may have written more comments for me, but verbally they only raise their key points. As the feedback recipient, I can’t talk until everyone is done – I can’t explain what a certain paragraph meant, or tell the reader why they misunderstood. I shut up and take notes until everyone is done, then I have five minutes to ask questions. This helps to keep the meeting moving along. This also gives the writer a chance to absorb the feedback and think about why the person might have interpreted the excerpt in a particular way.
Another rule we stick to is restricting the group to five members. Three is too few, and six means we don’t have enough time in our meetings to fully discuss each piece.
Finesse your feedback Great feedback focuses on your experience as a reader, while drawing on your expertise as a writer. Note what works well, what captivates your attention, where you feel the tension building, and your emotional investment in the scene. Note also where you’re jolted out of the scene, where the description drags, where you’re confused or uncertain. This can be most helpful when it comes to the balance of showing and telling. Are the details showing what the writer thinks they are? Your own writing skills will improve as you develop your ability to pinpoint what works in others’ writing, no matter the genre.
Find your writers’ group State and local writers’ centres are a good place to find a group. Writing NSW hosts over 30 groups and lists more around the state, some of which are open to new members. Early each year, they also host a Writers’ Group Open Night, which is a chance to learn about the various groups, meet their members, and discuss.
If you can’t access an in-person group, you might try joining an online writers’ group. One way to do this is to take an online writing course, and connect with others looking for ongoing peer support and feedback. In Writing NSW’s online writing courses, online groups often form after the course.*
This August, you can also join me for two online sessions with Writers Unleashed.
Writers Unleashed Festival Saturday 21 August 2021 Online! Full-festival access pass $90 Writers Unleashed has a fantastic line-up of authors on this year’s online program, and I’ll be taking part in two sessions:
Getting Your Scenes Right: The Nitty-Gritty of Scene Structure 9:30-10:30am **live**
Social Media and Building an Author Profile Pre-recorded, part of your seven-day access pass Ashley Kalagian Blunt & Alan Baxter
‘It’s really important to me, as a writer, to get under the skin of my characters.’ In her new novel, Love Objects, Emily Maguire does exactly that, exploring one woman’s experience with hoarding disorder as a way to better understand our relationships with objects – and with each other.
Emily is the author of six novels, including the Stella Prize and Miles Franklin Award-shortlisted An Isolated Incident, and three non-fiction books. Her articles and essays on sex, feminism, culture and literature have been published widely including in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Observer and the Age. Emily works as a teacher and as a mentor to young and emerging writers and was the 2018/2019 Writer-in-Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.
In episode 27 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we talk to Emily about her interest in hoarding disorder, our relationships to material possessions, and why it’s often so difficult to talk about what causes us pain.
She also draws on her experience as the longtime teacher of Writing NSW’s Year of the Novel course and shares her key advice for writers.
Recently I was invited to be a guest author at the Sutherland Shire Fellowship of Australian Writers, who are an absolutely lovely bunch of people.
You don’t need to take my word for it. Just look at the How to Be Australian themed afternoon tea they put on.
If you’re wondering, I didn’t have an iced vovo. I was busy digging into the salted caramel slices, which were perfectly chewy and had no dessicated coconut in the base! A++
And in honour of the event, I wore my caramel slice earrings. I’m very on brand.
As the guest author, I decided to share some of the advice I’ve learned over the ten years I’ve been steadily developing my writing process and industry expertise.
I talked about trusting the processing, about learning to be your own editor, and about the importance of regular feedback from informed readers (ie other writers).
I also talked about project inertia.
This is what I’ve come to call the feeling when a project stalls, when I’m not working on it (for whatever reason, some more excusable than others) and then feel a lot resistance when I try to get back into it.
I began my current manuscript in July 2019 and it’s been through a few serious bouts of project inertia. I had to spend several months editing How to Be Australian. Then I had a two-month stretch of terrible fatigue in early 2020. (That happened right before covid hit, so I spent two months cancelling plans and staying home, and then as soon as I started to feel better, we were suddenly in lockdown.) Then I spent a couple of months doing book publicity, and then I had another 10-week stretch of fatigue.
After each of these long breaks, I really struggled to get back into my new manuscript. I felt distant from the project, and a bit overwhelmed, and there was always something else to keep me busy.
A standard creative writing tip is to write every day. For a long time, I disagreed with this. In fact, I was asked in a Q&A from the Wheeler Centre, “What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?” I said:
One common piece of advice is to write every day. This is nonsense. I’ve been writing seriously for the past ten years, and I’ve never managed to write every day. I have, however, interviewed more than 140 people, completed two Masters theses, written four manuscripts and published two of them. Most of that time I also had a day job, and for almost four years I’ve had a debilitating illness. Better advice: write when you can, write what excites you, keep going.
Kate talked about her writing process and the process journal she keeps, documenting all her thoughts around the project and its development as she goes. We also talked about writing practice, and writers who write every day.
So I decided to try it. Both the process journal and this crazy writing every day thing. I committed to working on the manuscript for at least 15 minutes every day for a month.
And seven months later, I’m still doing it, for one amazing reason: no more project inertia.
I still greatly prefer to sit down and work on my writing for at least an hour at a time, ideally two or three. I can’t get much done in 15 minutes.
But it is exceptionally helpful to create a habit of sitting down and the computer, opening the file, and getting my head into the manuscript. This means when I am able to sit down for a longer stretch, I can get straight into it.
I still miss one or two days a month, almost always because of the fatigue. But otherwise, I keep myself accountable in my process journal.
And I’ve made huge progress since that October commitment. Then I only had 45,000 words of a first draft. Now I’ve completed that draft, used it to develop a 15,000-word scene-by-scene outline, and am already 25,000 words into a new draft.
So now I’ve started suggesting writing daily. Fifteen minutes a day can lead to a surprising amount of of progress, and spare a lot of the torture of project inertia.
In Friends & Dark Shapes, author Kavita Bedford uses the term sea-creature days, ‘Days when things that lurk beneath the surface start to come up and feel a little stronger in day-to-day life than they normally do.’ We’ve all had days like that.
A Sydney local, Kavita crafted the story as a love letter to her hometown. Its series of textured, lyrical vignettes centre around an unnamed protagonist, her share-house friends, and the lives of others they encounter across a complex, multicultural city where it’s easy to meet people but hard to make lasting connections. Grieving the loss of her father, the protagonist tries to shape her future in her city, while also tracing how it has shaped her.
Kavita drew on her own experiences of her father’s death in writing the novel, as well as her own experiences of Sydney. She was surprised by the complexity of grief. ‘Grief is such a slippery, tricky thing, and you do have moment of lightness within it.’
She was also surprised by the process of writing about Sydney. ‘When I started writing about my own city, there was such an initial outpouring of emotion that I wasn’t expecting.’
The resulting book is a powerful exploration both of grief, and of a metropolitan, multicultural city in transition.
Books and authors discussed in this episode – Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli – Teju Cole – Olivia Lang – Sheila Heti – Rachel Cusk – Jenny Offill – Elizabeth Strout – Disoriental by Négar Djavadi – The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen – Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon – Deepfakes by Nina Schick
In 2017, I found myself with a 12,000-word novella. It was best piece of fiction I’d ever written, and possibly my best piece of writing full stop, and it sat on my hard drive, dreaming of readers.
I hadn’t intended to write a novella; my master’s degree program had dictated the word length. But writing it had turned out to be very useful. It allowed me to more easily develop novel-writing skills on a shorter project. I was able to go from idea to final draft in 18 months, with heaps of feedback and revision, something I never could have found time for if I’d been working on a manuscript of 80,000 words.
But novellas are tricky creatures. Publication call-outs and competitions for novellas exist, but there are far fewer than for short stories or full-length manuscripts.
This is why I was excited to discover the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award, which accepted up to 30,000 words. It also suggested including an essay reflecting on the writing process. This excited me further, because I had a lot to say about my writing process. The novella had come out of years of research into the Armenian genocide, including interviews with 140 people on three continents, and two masters’ theses. In fact, I’d enrolled in a creative writing master’s program because I had the idea to write from the point of view of a terrorist connected to that history — and the idea terrified me.
Before entering the CBDLA, I read the examples suggested, My Hearts Are Your Hearts by Carmel Bird and Cracking the Spine: Ten short Australian stories and how they were written, both published by Spineless Wonders. Using these as a guide, I wrote my reflective essay, combined it with the novella, and sent it in.
In 2018, I was delighted to be one of 11 longlisted entries, and very surprised to learn I was one of three finalists. The prize included digital publication and $1000. The ebook of My Name Is Revenge was out by the end of the year.
When Bronwyn Mehan, the powerhouse behind Spineless Wonders, approached me about a print version, I said yes immediately. I’d been studying writing and revising drafts and racking up rejections for nearly a decade by this time, working toward the goal of having a published book. Technically I’d achieved that, but the book wasn’t yet a thing I could hold or sign or gift to my grandmother.
‘One thing,’ Bronwyn said. ‘At 17,000 words, it’s not long enough to have a spine.’
So we added in two additional companion pieces, essays previously published by Griffith Review and Sydney Review of Books. This brought the collection up to 25,000 words. We also included photographs from my time in Armenia.
The idea of the thriller novella was to hook readers with a gripping story, set in Sydney and based on the real-life assassination of the Turkish consul-general and his bodyguard. The assassination took place in 1980 and remains unsolved. When readers finish the story, the essays and photos provide the historical context for its events, a history that has been suppressed due to the ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.
We launched My Name Is Revenge in June 2019, with author Emily Maguire giving the launch speech. It was one of the happiest events of my life.
With the book out in the world, I organised bookshop visits and library talks. I pitched myself to festivals and podcasts. This helped when, later in the year, I had a full-length manuscript under consideration with Affirm Press, which became my second book.
I thought that might be the end of the story for Revenge, but Bronwyn is full of great ideas. There was a voice actor named Felix Johnson, she told me, who would be perfect to narrate Revenge as an audiobook. This delighted me; I love audiobooks.
I worked with sound engineer Jeff Zhang to record the essays, and Felix worked with Jeff and Eleni Schumacher to record the novella, with Bronwyn coordinating everything, working around covid restrictions. It was rewarding to have the opportunity to narrate my work — and also exhausting! I’d never guessed reading out loud could be so tiring. It gave me new respect for audiobook narrators, especially those who bring characters to life the way Felix does.
My Name Is Revenge is now available as an audiobook worldwide, and also in print-on-demand and ebook formats. It’s so much more than I could have hoped for when I wrote that 12,000-word novella, and I credit my success in the CBDLA with launching my writing career.
In 2020, I read far more fiction (61%) than non-fiction (39%). This is unusual for me; I generally prefer non-fiction. But it continues a trend that started in 2019. I suspect we all need more escapism these days.
I continued to support Australian authors, women authors and debut authors, and aimed to read more authors of colour. That 23% is still a too low, which gives me something to focus on in 2021.
2020 reading breakdown 68% Australian authors 74% women authors 23% authors of colour 39% nonfiction 42% debut authors
This year, a lot of my reading was focused on authors who agreed to be guests on my new podcast, James and Ashley Stay at Home, co-hosted with James McKenzie Watson. Most our guests were writers, and we also interviewed comedian Anthony Jeannot and art therapist Karin Foxwell.
Because we interviewed so many writers, we got a lot of fantastic writing tips. As a special end of year treat, James edited some of the best tips together. Episode 17: The Best Writing Tips of 2020 has useful tips for any writer (and a few good tips for those of us suffering chronic illness as well).
And we’re excited to be planning more great episodes for 2021. We’ll be speaking to Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson about her debut novel Song of the Crocodile, to Josephine Taylor about writing and living with vulvodynia, and lots more!