Claire Varley is a Melbourne-based author and community development worker. Her debut novel The Bit in Between, a witty story of love loss and travel was published by Pan Macmillan in 2015. Her second novel is set to be released in 2017.
Varley’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in many publications, including The Big Issue, Kill Your Darlings, and The Regal Fox. Varley is a supporter of the Australian literary community and frequently reviews Australian novels in the form of haikus. MAGGIE JANULOSKA and CLAIRE VARLEY had a chance to talk books, the joys of writing and creativity.
MJ: The West Australian described your debut novel as “full of heart and humour.” It starts with two unlikely people meeting in an airport lounge and forging a somewhat turbulent relationship. What inspired you to write your novel, The Bit in Between?
CV: I wrote the novel while I was working and living in the Solomon Island and originally I wrote an entirely different manuscript and then put it in the bin. It had a sci-fi idea running through it, I was enamoured with Terry Pratchett growing up and thought sci-fi and the Solomon Islands would go together. After I finished it, I knew it wasn’t the book I wanted to write, I wanted to write something which would better engage with the island and people. I wanted to write about the different people living and passing through the Solomon Island and tell more about these people and what their stories were.
MJ: How would you describe your publishing process? How long did it all take and what advice would you give to writers who might be pitching their novels?
CV: My biggest bit of advice would be to be patient. When I came back from the Solomon Islands, I sent my manuscript out in the world and it was rejected for a year by publishers. I think chance plays a part, especially when it comes to the slush pile. It depends on when publishers go through their slush pile and if they put your manuscript in their maybe pile, then if the publisher decides to look in the maybe pile and if the story resonates with them. Obviously you want to submit your best work and remember that when someone says no, it doesn’t mean your work is the worst piece ever written, it just means it isn’t the right thing for publishers at the moment.
MJ: What can you tell us about your upcoming 2017 novel?
CV: I just got my first lot of editorial feedback and I’m quite hesitant to say what it’s about because it may all change. It’s set in the north of Melbourne and it’s looking at some of the different people living in the inner and outer north. I wrote about where I was living and I wanted the novel to look at the idea of people living suburbs away from each other, but having completely different lifestyles and experiences of the world.
MJ: Describe your writing process; do you set yourself daily goals? Are you a planner or do you just let your story take you to new and exciting places without premeditation?
CV: I used to think that I was not a planner and I went with the flow, but I’ve actually realised I do plan everything. I do a lot of planning with novels because I write about multiple characters and I’m interested in the characters’ intersections and exploring how their journeys mirror or differ from each other. Often I know where I’m starting and know where I’m ending and have some idea of the middle.
MJ: How does an idea for a novel start? Is it a single idea or a character or scene?
CV: With The Bit in Between the first thing I wrote was the end scene and once I had the characters and knew where they ended up, I wanted to explore how they got there. With the new novel, it came out of a rubbish first attempt at a manuscript when I realised I didn’t like anything in it except this one character, so I wanted that character to have their own story. What about you? How do you find your own process?
MJ: It starts with an idea which keeps nudging me in the back of my mind. It wants to be written. If the idea isn’t that good or memorable I usually forget it within a day, but if it’s a good idea it stews up for a week or two and once I sit down it flows out on paper. The idea for my children’s novel came after teaching historical fiction to a class and one student wanted to write about vermin exterminators in medieval times. I thought the idea was really original and strange, so it stayed with me for a while and after my student forgot about the task, I ended up starting a story about a young girl in 1600s France who is sent out of home to apprentice for a rat-catcher.
CV: How do you prepare for writing historical fiction? My biggest fear would be getting things wrong. How do you get over your anxieties about getting things historically inaccurate?
MJ: I’ve studied history throughout university and I’ve had to reference events which happened at the time. My novel involves a plague, so I had to research real plagues and ways people protected themselves. I’ve tried to make the language accessible, without being too old or too modern. Research has been half the fun for me. Is there a mantra which keeps you motivated during the writing process?
CV: Not so much a saying, but I think what’s the worst that can happen? If you write something terrible, it doesn’t matter because you can edit it and improve it or you can write something better. What about you?
MJ: I like to think quitting isn’t an option. I also like the saying, “only dead fish go with the flow,” it reminds me to persevere and stick to what makes me happy. Australian stories are very unique. What’s your favourite thing about the Australian literary scene?
CV: I think it’s a really interesting time for the Australian literary scene, particularly with the changes recommended by the Productivity Commission in terms of copyright and parallel importation laws. I think it’s a really troubling time for the Australian literary scene. It’s an amazing scene and we are producing important stories and moving towards having more reflective writing. There’s still a long way to go in terms of who’s getting published, but we are at a time where the diversity of writers are reflecting the diversity of the community and we are realising that to be an Australian writer means there’s not just one Australian story. We are finally celebrating the fact that Australian stories look like a hundred different things and that’s what excites me.
MJ: I remember growing up and Looking for Alibrandi was the only book which was so radical in the sense that it was about being ethnic and embracing your identity.
CL: There’s value in our stories being about all kinds of people and families, but not necessarily being what the book is ‘about’. That a character might have a background or sexuality or identity that differs from what we’re used to reading about, but that the story isn’t necessarily ‘about’ that point of difference. These stories are all part of ‘Australian literature’. What excites you about the Australian lit scene?
MJ: I like the camaraderie between Australian authors and the quality of work in the last few years and the push towards celebrating what makes Australian stories different.
CV: I agree. Any writer knows how difficult it is to write and maintain any kind of lifestyle. With the proposed changes it would be harder for Australian publishers to publish Australian books. We got to a point where we are reading so much of our own writing, why would you want to step back from that?
MJ: If only Australian writers or creative minds were paid or respected as much as athletes. What’s been a memorable Australian book you’ve read recently?
CV: I found myself reading so many Australian novels last year not by conscious choice but because there is just so much good stuff coming out at the moment. I recently read Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident. I’ve also just read Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things. It was wonderfully written and it was a wonderfully put criticism on the treatment of women.
MJ: I just finished Lee Kofman’s The Dangerous Bride, your novel and Laurinda by Alice Pung. Do you believe in writer’s block? How do you combat it?
CV: I don’t know if I believe in writer’s block, but I believe that you have to give yourself time and not to put pressure on yourself. It doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating. For me, it’s more about being unhappy with parts of the story and not knowing what fits where. It’s important to give yourself time to get there. It helps with space and time. What about you?
MJ: Leaving your story for a few days, exercise and a change of scenery work for me. Also doing something out of my comfort zone, seeing a foreign movie or reading really helps.
CV: Reading is fantastic for working out problems. If I get frustrated with writing I’ll sit down with a book and two pages in, I’ll suddenly have an idea. I don’t write every single day because I have a day job and I’m too tired after work, but I still think.
MJ: What’s been your proudest writer moment to date and what are your goals for your literary future?
CV: When the box arrives and you see your book for the first time it’s a hugely validating moment. That was a pivotal moment for me, being able to hold my book and see it in bookshops. Also I’m proud that I’ve been persistent since writing is a difficult thing, especially finding time for it and setting up your life so you aren’t penniless and desolate. It’s difficult to find a balance in your life and I’m proud because as difficult as it has been I’ve been persistent.
At the moment I have a vision for where I see the next book and also during the extended period of waiting to hear from publishers, I researched and plotted a third book. My goal is to deliver my stories as I see them in my mind and tell the stories how I think they should be told. What about you, what’s been your proudest writer moment?
MJ: This year I was published in the Award Winning Australian Writing anthology. I don’t know if it’s a big deal but seeing yourself featured among amazing Australian writers has been validating. Not giving up after many rejections and having a tough skin has taught me a lot about myself. Which book has had a profound influence on you and shaped you as an author?
CV: Zadie Smith novels are some of my favourite, not that I think I in any way write like her. I admire her characters and her complexity. She is a profoundly talented writer who writes so well about life. Growing up, Terry Pratchett was one of the most important writers in my life. I read his work from a young age and although his fantasy writing is different to what I write, I’ve been influenced by his ability to take serious or important social issues and write in a funny approachable way. What about you?
MJ: As a child, I read The Count of Monte Cristo. I fell in love with mystery and adventure stories. Recently I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and the story has been with me for months. It’s so haunting and descriptive. It’s not an easy feat to feel sympathy for a murderer by the end and hate you for doing it at the same time. After writing it Capote declared he couldn’t bear to write another novel. Also The Shadow of the Wind series of books have had a profound influence. They are very noir and gothic, with Dickensian elements and lot of heart. If you could have a dinner party with three creative figures who would they be?
CV: Zadie Smith, even though I’d feel very intimidated talking in front of her. I would invite Neil Gaiman who is one of my favourite writers. Also I’d invite Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who wrote Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah. She’s fabulous and wonderfully insightful. I love her feminism and her approach on women’s issues. It would be an interesting dinner party because I’d just be quiet, serve hors d’oeuvres and listen.
MJ: For me it would be Patti Smith. She’s one of the last survivors of that era. I just read M Train and I loved reading about her daily life. Next would be Frida Kahlo who I discovered as a teenager and I fell in love with her art and her spirit. She had a hard life and suffered growing up, but her story resonates with so many women. The last would be the wonderful Leonard Cohen. I was lucky to see him live in 2013. I cried for a week after his passing, it was like losing a dear teacher or a grandfather who’s been there in a strange way. His music is always with me.
CV: I was a wreck when Terry Pratchett died. It’s amazing that people you’ve never met can have such a profound impact on your life and your grief is so real. It just shows how important the arts are how they can reach people and connect with people oceans away.
MJ: That’s why people write, sculpt, paint or make music. The point is to share your story and voice and touch someone. Pursuing a creative path is never easy, but it is so rewarding. What has your creative experience as a writer taught you? Can you imagine yourself not writing?
CV: I can’t imagine myself not writing because it’s something I’ve always done and it’s something I’ve done for myself primarily. It’s taught me a lot about patience and having confidence in myself. In the creative process you get to a point where you are never done. The creative arts are not a linear thing. Every new project you approach as a student and you have to learn and relearn how something needs to be done. It’s a process where you have to be kind and patient with yourself. What about you?
MJ: The creative process has taught me that I can do it, I can write. I can be as good as other writers. Writing is not a passing fancy. It’s something I do and something I have to do for my own sanity and happiness. Claiming the title of ‘writer’ is also a big deal. I’d be miserable if I worked in my day job without a creative outlet.
CV: I work out who I am and how I process things through my writing. I learn so much about myself. For some people writing is a part of their self-care.