I have a few authors whose upcoming releases I anticipate like Christmas. I mark release-dates in my calendar, and the approach of their new book is met with unmitigated glee. I look forward to these authors because I’ve come to trust in their books and their writing – they’re my guaranteed great reads, and I just know their new books will only build upon their favorite author status on my shelf.
Honey Brown is one such author and her new book, 'Dark Horse', has become another favourite. So, of course, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask questions of the author whose books I crack open with Christmas-morning enthusiasm.
Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?I’d entered Red Queen into the ABC Unpublished Manuscript Competition, and come runner-up. At the awards ceremony I asked an agent for her card. I sent the Red Queen manuscript to her, and she sent it on to Penguin.
Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?I’m a pantser. For me, plotting leads to writer’s block. Characters drive my stories, and their personalities evolve as I write. Characters are like people – they don’t like being told how to act. It’s hard for me to shoehorn them into predetermined plot points. If I do that, it’s like they’re all of a sudden cardboard cutouts. A part of the fun of writing is being surprised by the unexpected things a character can do, and how the story can unfold in a way more fascinating than I first imagined. I do start each book with an ending in mind though, and I try my best to steer that way.
Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Dark Horse’, from first idea to final manuscript?Because I’m writing constantly, staring times and ending times are a bit of a blur. It probably took around ten months to complete.
It’s always a question relating to human nature that sparks my interest. I think of a tough situation, and then wonder what a good person would do if dropped into it, how they would react, how it might change them, the bad things they might be pushed to do. It’s through writing that I get to explore these questions and try and answer them.Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?
Q: You write such complex, thrilling books that delve into the darkest depths of the human psyche. Do you enjoy reading books in the same genre that you write in? And what is it about the darkness that draws you to write about it?I’m not a big reader of novels. When I do read a book, I don’t read in the conventional way – I open a book anywhere, I look for the writer’s style and use of language, I’m interested in technique. I’m rarely swept-up in the story. I think I’m drawn to writing about darker themes because I like rawness and honesty and stripping back modern convention and moral codes to see what’s underneath.
Q: All of your books feature strong, female characters. And, more importantly, they’re strong, ordinary female characters – there are no superpowers involved, and they’re incredibly relatable. Do you think there’s a lack of such characters in Australian fiction at the moment? And are your female heroines inspired by women in your life?There seems to me to be a lot of strong female characters in storytelling at the moment. I don’t write to push any sort of an agenda or to address any kind of an imbalance though. Weak characters are never very likable, I wouldn’t like to spend a lot of time with them, and don’t think the reader would either, so I make my main characters strong. I make them everyday people so I that when I drop them in an extreme situation, the sudden change and test of spirit are there to explore.
My female characters (like my male characters) have lots of different people in them, and a little bit of me too. I draw from family members, friends, and even people I’ve only briefly met. Personality traits can cross from sex to sex. If anything, I see parts of myself in my male characters more so than in my female characters.
Q: I feel like a big theme you keep exploring in all your books is the edge of male violence against women. It feels like in all of your books, there comes a moment when you write your female heroines into a corner – and put a chokehold on the reader. I can say, personally, it’s always a moment that I dread/can’t stop reading. It’s when your female characters enter into a situation with men – and as a female reader you dread the worst for them – I’m thinking of Rebecca finding herself in a house full of drunk men in ‘The Good Daughter’, or Denny making herself known and vulnerable to two isolated brothers in ‘Red Queen’. I dread the anticipation and potentially reading a quite brutal scene in which women are at men’s mercy – but personally, I think you say everything that needs to be said in these scenes without writing excessive violence against the female characters. Why is this something you keep coming back to? Have you ever thought that other writers have gone too far in writing violence against women, without more thoughtful examination?My interest lies more with power play than what it does with violence against women. In my stories the characters use what they’ve been equipped with to coerce others and gain control. I believe that men often use their physicality, because they have that in their arsenal, whereas women often use emotional manipulation, because we’ve evolved that skill to compensate for our smaller frames. All types of controlling behaviors can be cruel and soul destroying. Both sexes can inflict pain and be hurtful. I don’t like going too far in my description of brutality; it feels disrespectful to people who have suffered real-life violence, or been emotionally or physically abused, and disrespectful to use my characters in such a way. I’m not at all comfortable around true evil. Good people doing bad things, is where my fascination lies.
In writing violence and brutality, authors cross the line all the time, but the creative process is about pushing boundaries and thinking outside the box, so it’s understandable that it happens, and I don’t doubt that a writer, or any type of artist, on reflection, regrets it when they’ve gone too far.
Q: Your books alternately explore isolation and pack mentality – ‘Red Queen’ had a main cast of two brothers and one stranger, ‘The Good Daughter’ was centred on an entire town, ‘After the Darkness’ was sort of about two characters against the world, and in ‘Dark Horse’ we’re back to a quite pared-back character list and a focus on two souls – Sarah and Heath. What influences whether you want to have a tight, small cast of characters or examine society on a larger scale?It’s whatever best suits the original question I put to myself when starting the book. In Red Queen it went without saying that there’d be very few characters, because the question I posed myself was – what would happen if two brothers and one women were isolated in a cabin in the wilderness? Whereas with After The Darkness the question was – what if couple happily married couple were attacked and abused and then had to return to their children and go about their normal life? The background cast of characters is like the setting – it’s about framing and enhancing the story.
Q: You’ve been (thankfully!) releasing a book every year since your ‘Red Queen’ debut. Do you get ideas/inspiration for your next book while writing your current – or do you have a cooling-off period when you think about ideas for your next manuscript? And, speaking of, what are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to hit shelves?I don’t cool down between books. Sometimes I wish I did. At any given time I have a couple of stories turning in my mind. I file them to the back of my head and draw out one at a time. When I’m writing, I’m aware of the other stories waiting there, not liking being shelved. Towards the end of each story, I tend to get more excited about the next one, and it takes some effort to stay focused on the one I’m actually writing.
I’m at the halfway point of book five at the moment. It’ll be released next year. I’m very secretive about my raw drafts. If I talk too much about an unwritten story it leeches the energy from it, and the drive to write it disappears. I use the keyboard as my only outlet, and that way I always push through to the end so that at I can at last talk about my story.
Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?These authors I envy because of their amazing minds and their craftsmanship when writing – J.M.Coetzee, Graham Greene, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Robert Harris, Alice Munro, the list could go on and on…
Q: Favourite book(s)?My favourite books aren’t always the most perfectly written ones; I don’t mind seeing flaws in a novel, it often endears me to it. These are the books I will never lend out, or pack away in any box, or ever be without – Deliverance, Dirt Music, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Great Gatsby, Lord of The Flies, The Quiet American, Disgrace, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.
Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?Respect your reader. Write a story that will entertain them.