Susan Johnson Interview
Posted on 12 January 2005. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to novelist and non fiction author Susan Johnson
Tell us something about your background.
I've just finished my fifth novel, The Broken Book, which was published for Christmas in Australia (UK and US forthcoming). That means I actually finished writing it, and editing it (several times!) about a century ago -- you get so sick of books that by the time they finally come out they seem a thousand years old. It took me from 2001 to 2003 probably to do it. Before that my last book was a memoir, or 'life writing' as it is becoming known, A Better Woman. I should add that I don't feel that I am a particularly noteworthy person but that book had an odd genesis -- I was asked by a publisher to do a kind of 'how-to' book about pregnancy and birth, and then events in my life took over (unexpected results from childbirth -- a baby! No, a temporary colostomy!) The book became a record of the writer's life, or rather the female writer's life, and the effects of children and illness. Washington Square Press (Simon and Schuster) published it in the States, and Aurum Press in the UK. Other than that, I have published four other novels (Faber, UK and US; Picador, Australia; various translations). In other words, I am one of those writers you have never heard of, who is NOT Zadie Smith or JK Rowling!
As to my writing background, well, I grew up in Australia and when I left school I got a cadetship as a cub reporter on a broadsheet newspaper, and my employer paid for my University degree which I did part-time. I spent some ten years as a journalist on various newspapers and magazine, writing short fiction, getting some of it published. I wrote poetry at school and was always a voracious reader. I think a passion for books is where all writers begin. Books were where I lived my deepest life.
How did you start writing?
I published my first novel in 1986, just before I turned thirty. Every new writer should know that getting published is largely a matter of luck more than anything. Doris Lessing illustrated this more than twenty years ago when she wrote a fine novel under a pseudonym and it was rejected by her own publishers. One of Lessing's reason for not publishing under her own name was to cheer up young writers, who 'often have a hard time of it'. She wanted, she said, to illustrate that 'certain attitudes and processes they have to submit to are mechanical, and have nothing to do with them personally, or with their kind of degree or talent.'
Moreover, the American publisher who eventually bought the book asked the British publisher who finally bought it (Michael Joseph) why more hadn't been done to promote it: the publisher replied that there was nothing to promote, 'no personality'. I would argue that in the intervening years, this situation has only got worse. What, no heroin habit? You're not a twenty year old photogenic wizkid? You didn't get an eight figure advance? Where's the story?
In my own case, much came down to luck. I was a former journalist (which undoubtedly helped), a new literary imprint was starting up and was actively seeking new titles (the book and the commissioning editor clicked straight away -- in other words, the editor's own subjective story matched the story in the book). Then, my greatest piece of luck, I heard a new agent had started at Curtis Brown. Margaret Connolly had just left law to go into her greatest passion, books; she was the same age as me, just starting out like me, and we clicked straight away. She has been my agent ever since (she now runs her own agency) and she is my first reader. I rely immensely on her opinion.
I should say, though, that you need not only to develop a kind of carapace to get you through this writing life, but you need to develop the skills of listening to your reader. In other words, not every case of an editor rejecting a book, or an agent deciding not to take you on, is because the editor is dim, or the agent stupid. You need to know where your work is going wrong, and be willing to listen and learn. For every case of CATCH-22 (rejected by a million publishers) there is a lot of stuff that is simply not up to scratch. Learn to distinguish between OK work (or even bad work) and terrific work. Even if it's your own. (Especially if it's your own!)
Who are your favourite writers and why?
Tolstoy for the breadth and depth of his vision, his humanity, his aweinspiring ability to capture human consciousness; Charlotte Bronte for her depiction of the female spirit; Nancy Mitford for her wonderful humour; Saul Bellow for capturing the arc of human life.
What's the worst thing about writing?
The bad pay. For every story about million pound advances there are thousands more like me, having good years, having bad years. The only way I get to make a half-way decent living is by selling in various territories -- for those of you who don't know, the literary world is divided up: UK and Commonwealth rights; Australia and NZ; the Americas (which usually includes Canada). For my first novel, I sold world rights (never do this if you can avoid it) and received the princely sum of $AUD500 (that's less than two hundred quid). I do OK now.
And the best?
Being free; imagining that I am recording this passing moment, being life's witness. (Which doesn't mean all my work is intensely autobiographical -- although naturally much of it is -- I want to explore life in all its terror and variety, all its joys and griefs. Writing fiction allows me -- for a moment -- to think this might be possible).
Do you read your work to audiences? Tell us what kind of response you get
Yes, it's part of the job description. And for those of you who are terrified of this aspect (as I once was) you do get better at it. When I knew I would have to do live radio and live TV and readings I was petrified. So I took myself off to a public speaking course and it's the best thing I ever did. Now I can even say I quite enjoy it -- I've done readings and lectures and taught in Australia, Britain, New York, Boston, Hong Kong. I say yes to anything now! And I have to say that an audience prefers humour more than anything. They don't want to hear someone droning on and on, they want the juicy bits. Sex or humour that's what they want (I always read out the mango scene from my first novel -- good boy, bathtub, taking mother's advice, mango and piss -- it's got it all! I think this was a 'chick lit' book before the term was invented -- but I AM a serious writer -- promise!)
What was your breakthrough moment?
Don't think I had one but I do remember I had been trying and trying to write a novel and it just wouldn't come. All through my early twenties I was attempting one but I have come round to the opinion that you probably don't have much to write about before 30. Certainly I didn't have the maturity for it. I know there are exceptions -- Truman Capote, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and I suppose more recently Zadie Smith (except we don't yet know whether she is in the same category) -- but in general, one needs to ferment, if you like. I do recall that I spent an entire year before I wrote my novel reading the books I loved, and taking them apart to see how they worked. By the time I came to write my novel I had a scaffolding, and I remember the joy of realizing I had everything I needed beneath my hand.
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