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Monday, September 5, 2016

Interview with Laura Elizabeth Woollett, author of 'The Love of a Bad Man'

Q: Tell me about how you got published (agent or slush pile)?

Neither, actually. I have an American agent who tried selling it over there in early 2015, but the general response was, “great idea, but we’re not doing short stories right now,” and, “tell us when she has a novel.” I ended up going to the US mid-2015 to research my next novel. A couple of months after my return, I did a reading for a Melbourne Writers Festival event and Marika Webb-Pullman, a commissioning editor from Scribe, happened to be in the audience. The next morning, she emailed me asking to see what I was working on, and I had a two-book deal within a month. 

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The Love of a Bad Man’ - from first idea to final manuscript? 

In 2012, I finished my degree and my first novel, The Wood of Suicides. After that, I had a bit of a fallow period, writing-wise, but was reading more nonfiction, looking for ideas. I think I was committed to the idea of the collection by early 2013 and I wrote a few of the stories that year. In 2014, I got a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and completed a big chunk of the book over ten weeks. By the end of 2014, I had a final manuscript. So about two years, all up.


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?

I honestly don’t have that many ideas. There are themes that I find myself coming back to (girlhood, sex, power) again and again, and my stories tend to be ways of exploring these, with shifts in character, setting, and perspective. Sometimes a random image or detail will spark something in me, but it’s rare that it leads to a whole story. With this collection, I was very dependent on research to supplement my imagination, and I think this is how I work best: research-heavy fiction. I envy those writers who are idea-machines, capable of spinning totally original stories from the tiniest inspiration. I personally need a lot of groundwork.

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?

Plotter all the way – as you probably guessed from my previous response. My Myers-Briggs type is INTJ, aka ‘the Mastermind’. I like to mastermind things, to think them through meticulously before I put them to paper. For this reason, I love research, and always hated those 10-minute creative writing exercises at uni (mostly I’d just draw flowers or fashion girls instead of writing anything).

Q: How did you go about choosing these particular women to focus on - and were you already familiar with all their stories, or once you had the concept for the collection did you have to go digging through the history books for a cast of characters? 

There were some that I encountered in my teens. I remember reading about the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart in DOLLY, of all places, when I was 13 or 14. Others I heard of in my early twenties and filed away with the intention of reading up on, though not necessarily writing about. And others I actively sought out, once I realised I had a collection on my hands. There were several cases I read up on but didn’t end up including. Twelve stories seemed like a good amount to explore the theme multifariously, without it being overkill.  

Q: Even though you are writing fictional accounts of these women's lives, you have some meticulous details in here - particularly around historical context. What kind of research did you do, not only for accurate details but to also get into the head-space of some really unsavoury characters? 

I read a lot of true crime and biographies, to start with. The facts that I connected with most tended to be mundane things, rather than gory details; stuff like what these characters wore, ate, watched, read, smoked, etc. Picturing the dailiness of their lives helped me see them as real people, with habits and preferences, and made it easier to get under their skin. In terms of ‘darker’ impulses, that involved more introspection. I don’t think there’s anything particularly mysterious about the feelings that motivate bad behaviour; the invisible lines between feeling and action are where the mystery lies, for me. So often it was a matter of taking a feeling I’ve had and following that thread.  

Q: What was your favourite bit of trivia you discovered while researching? 

Ian Brady gave Myra Hindley a record to commemorate each murder they committed together. The first record was ‘Theme from The Legion’s Last Patrol’ by Ken Thorne and His Orchestra. The rest were pop songs, and all about breakups or being stood up: ‘24 Hours From Tulsa’ by Gene Pitney, ‘It’s Over’ by Roy Orbison, ‘Girl Don’t Come’ by Sandie Shaw, and Joan Baez’s ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. No happy love songs.

Q: Do any of the real women in the collection know that you've written about them? A few are still alive, after all (Veronica Compton, Caril Ann Fugate)

I didn’t try to contact any of them. It was easier for me not to, and seemed like the safest, least intrusive option. Of the women still alive, many have taken pains to live anonymously. Others are still serving time. I did track down one of them online, though decided against getting in touch. Ultimately, I’m a fiction writer, not a journalist, and didn’t feel like such contact was necessary to the composition of these stories.  

Q: What's the hardest part of short-story writing for you? 


Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to his bookshelves?

I’m working on a (long!) novel called Beautiful Revolutionary. It’s about a young couple who join Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in late ’60s California, and follows them all the way to the Jonestown massacre of 1978. It actually began with research for this book, and about one woman in particular, Carolyn Moore Layton, who was Jones’ mistress and most trusted aide. I didn’t end up including a story about her – partly because her character didn’t lend itself well to first-person narration, partly because I felt I needed a whole novel to get her character right – though she does cameo in ‘Marceline’. It’ll hit bookshelves sometime in 2018, which is also the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre.

Q: Favourite author(s) and book(s) of all time?

Lolita. The Bell Jar. The Virgin Suicides. The Secret History. And the Ass Saw the Angel. Bonjour Tristesse. The Beach. Joyce Carol Oates. Marguerite Duras. Elena Ferrante. Gillian Flynn. Stephanie Dickinson.  

Q: What are you reading, loving and recommending right now?

I’ve just finished Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s my first JCO of the year and one of the most recent books (2014) from her super-massive backlist. A Goodreads reviewer described it as “an arthouse redux of Gone Girl”, and there are some similarities, though this is much more bizarre and existential. I saw a lot of myself in the protagonist, Cressida Mayfield – which is a little scary because she’s an incredibly high-strung, antisocial, self-sabotaging character!

I’ve also been reading White Girls by Hilton Als, a writer for The New Yorker. It’s an exploration of Als’ identification, as a gay African-American man, with ‘white girls’ of culture. More broadly, it’s an exploration of gender, race, class, and art. His writing is both intimate and critical, with long, fancy sentences that I love.

Haven’t started yet, but dying to read The Turner House by Angela Flourney. She’s a debut author from the US and a guest of Melbourne Writers Festival this year. It’s a family saga set in Detroit, and the snippets I’ve read on Amazon have been fantastic.    

Q: Do you have any advice for budding young writers?

I think it’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses, and to find a style that suits them, without being fatalistic about it. For instance, I always thought I was terrible at dialogue, then suddenly I wasn’t. Read writers whose strengths you share and see how they do it. Read writers whose strengths you don’t share for the same reason. Know that, no matter where you’re starting from, you can only get better and better.

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