Getting to Print (#ForestForTheTrees at Sydney Writers Festival)

This is my second blog post about the Forest for the Trees workshop organised by  NSW Writers’ Centre and Sydney Writers’ Festival on Thursday 17th May 2012. You can read the previous post here.

(The session and panellist information below comes directly from the Sydney Writers’ Festival program although I’ve chosen to add links)

Getting to Print

“What does it take to get published? Sophie Cunningham unearths the winding – and sometimes very long – paths that debut novelist Chad Harbach and established author Elliot Perlman took to get published.”

Chad Harbach is the author of one of the most talked about novels of 2011, The Art of Fielding. He grew up in Wisconsin and graduated from Harvard in 1997. He was a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, where he received an MFA in Fiction in 2004. He is currently the executive editor of n+1, which he co-founded, and lives in Brooklyn.

Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars won The Age Book of the Year Award, the Betty Trask Award (UK) and the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Book of the Year Award. He co-wrote the screenplay for the film Three Dollars which received the Australian Film Critics’ Circle Award for Best Adapted Screenplay as well as the AFI Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Seven Types of Ambiguity was an international bestseller and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Sophie Cunningham‘s bio is listed in my previous blog post.

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This session gave us the perspective of the writer: When they first wanted to write, how they found an agent and publisher and what advice they would give to aspiring writers.

Some notes from Getting to Print session:

Sophie started by asking Chad and Elliot “When did you want to be a writer and when did you do something about it?”

  • Elliot Perlman said it was from when books started to affect him. While his older sister read the books that their parents fed them, they didn’t seem relevant to his life. The only books banned in the house were the ones his mother taught. So of course, that was what he wanted to read – starting with One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. He was drawn in immediately and started alternating between reading Adult and Young Adult fiction.
  • Changing schools and suddenly friendless, his father suggested he disguise his “lack of social success” by hanging out in the library. Elliott Perlman found books more reliable and comforting during childhood than anything at school or home. He was comforted by books in times of difficulty in his childhood.
  • Chad Harbach said that when he graduated he didn’t know what to do with himself. So he decided (and I love this) to call himself a writer:  No one needed to believe him but no one could tell him he wasn’t!  It’s not a job you need to apply for and don’t need to do any interviews.
  • For several years he worked strange jobs and as often as could would work less than full-time so that by 4pm he could go home and write for hours.

Sophie then asked Elliot when he formalised his writing practice:

  • Elliot Perlman said that he wrote short stories as a child, all through University and only stopped in the early years of working as a solicitor. When he was an Associate for a Judge he resumed writing.
  • During this time he sent his stories out to magazines and journals but found it so dispiriting that he didn’t hear back. He said you start to question if you are even addressing the envelope correctly!
  • Luckily a friend goaded him into entering the Age Short Story contest in 1994 (thank you friend) and he won! (The funny thing is that after that he kept sending out short stories but at least he got a rejection letter!) He also got a pass into the Melbourne Writers Festival and met a Picador Publisher (now Publishing Director at Random House), entered a short story in the Picador New Writers Anthology then was asked if he had a novel. He lied! And so Three Dollars was written and published in 1998.

Sophie then asked Chad about the literary magazine he works on: “When did you decide to start it, at what stage of you as a writer you do this?”

  • Chad Harbach replied that he started the first magazine with five friends who all believed in and admired each others work. In the US when you are starting out as a young writer you may be forced to write very particular things. For instance you may get your start writing book reviews – but then that is all that you are able to publish. For years! they wanted to write about a variety of things: fiction, culture, politics.

Sophie asked each of the writers what their relationship to research was. She said that at times for her research may be an avoidance technique!

  • Elliot Perlman explained that for The Street Sweeper he went to Auschwitz six times. He knew that each time he went he could not absorb everything he he was being shown or told so he kept going until he felt he had everything required. He did more research for this book than any others: not only the visits to Auschwitz but also reading and interviewing people. The book took five years to write and he estimates two of those were taken up with research.
  • Chad Harbach said that for The Art of Fielding , but the plan was to write a book that he didn’t need to reesarch. He really did no research!

Sophie asked both writers how they found the editing process:

  • Elliot Perlman said it was wonderful to work with people who earns their living working with words. He loved someone wanting to shape and improve his words.
  • Chad Harbach explained that by the time his editor saw it he’d been working on it for ten years. As a result when it came back from editing there were large sections without any changes, and a series of gentle suggestions, some about how to organise the first part of the book and structural suggestions. He found a few comments would trigger a working frenzy and he would spend days working on improving the book. He trusted his editor.

All of the writers (Sophie, Chad and Elliot) agreed that generating the first draft was the hardest and most exhausting work. It is much easier to do fine tuning compared to the early drafts.

 “Just get it down on the page, once you’ve got something it’s more fun to play with.”

Elliot Perlman

Sophie Cunningham finished up by asking what advice they would give to an aspiring writer?

  • Chad Harbach said he was a bad writer starting out and far too hard on himself. His best peice of advise is to get some words down every single day. Once you get into gear, use it, don’t lose it.
  • Elliot Perlman told us the advice he most often gives is not about the craft or writing itself. Ask yourself, why am I doing this? If you don’t have good enough answer, do something else because it hurts so much. If after asking yourself all the questions you still have to write, then he suggests you try an education or job where you are not economically humiliated. The average Australian writer earns an average of $5K a year from their writing (few years back). You’ve got to really want to do it.

This session was a brilliant way to understand the background and motivations behind these two successful writers. Of important note is how long each of them took to write their books. I’m sure there are some writers (in fact many) who can write faster but the success of Sophie, Chad and Elliot and the care each of them take with their work is an important lesson for writers.

For an article about the pressure on writers to increase their output you may be interested in this article from The New York Times.

If you would like to read more about Sophie Cunningham and the life of a writer then Part One of my blog posts about The Forest for the Trees can be read here.

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