Anita Heiss has been one of the most popular authors in the AWW Challenge so far, with more than 19 reviews of her books including her chick-lit novels Manhattan Dreaming, Paris Dreaming and Avoiding Mr Right, her memoir, Am I Black Enough For you? and her poetry book I’m Not Racist but…
Dr Anita Heiss is the author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women’s fiction, poetry, social commentary and travel articles. She is a regular guest at writers’ festivals and travels internationally performing her work and lecturing on Indigenous literature. She is an Indigenous Literacy Day Ambassador and a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central NSW. She is an Adjunct Professor with Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, UTS and currently divides her time between writing, public speaking, MCing, and being a ‘creative disruptor’. Anita was a finalist in the 2012 Human Rights Awards and the 2013 Australian of the Year Awards. Her latest novel is Tiddas.
There weren’t many books in my house growing up. We had a couple of sets of encyclopaedias like Funk & Wagnalls and the Complete Encyclopaedia of Everything that Crawled (that wasn’t the title but it was about animals and reptiles and things that young girls aren’t really interested in!). I was allowed to buy a book occasionally from the book club and I went in the MS Readathon I think that what it was called back then (mid-late 1970s). But the most vivid memory I have of reading at home as a child, is quite a specific one, sitting on my father’s lap one night and him reading me a Golden Book when I was about five. I remember vividly where we were sitting, and what was on telly in the background. For some reason that moment has stayed with me forever. My love of reading didn’t really come until I was doing my PhD- can you believe that?
When did you begin writing in a serious way, and what motivated that?
My first job out of university in 1992 was writing comic scripts for Streetwize Comics in Sydney. I found a love of writing then – not for comics – but for the other side of my job, which included writing columns and articles for youth magazines and journals. I published my first piece of paid journalism in 1992 in Habitat Magazine and it was about the Aboriginal Housing Company in Redfern. I guess I didn’t really get serious about my writing until after my PhD in 2001 when my first novel came out Who Am I? the diary of Mary Talence, Sydney 1937, and I could see the difference writing novels could make when discussing very important issues.
What research did you have to do for Tiddas and how did you go about it? I spent a month in Brisbane in 2011, living in some of the suburbs where my characters reside; West End, Kangaroo Point and Ashgrove. I had a residency at QUT (thank you CAL) and drove, walked and ferried to all the places mentioned in the novel. I sat in the cemetery in Brookfield, ate in the cafes and restaurants in Paddington and walked along the river a LOT! I am a method writer and put myself in the head space and physical space of my characters.
I then spent six months in Brisbane last year while editing the novel and adding more detail. I spoke to women there about everything from who does what where, and how they cope with menopause. I gave drafts of the novel to local Murri women to read also. I always spend time in any place I write about, to get the complete sense of landscape – what it looks like, what it smells like and how it might make my characters feel. To date I think Tiddas does place the best. I hope the local readers in particular feel I have captured there city well.
Have you had any surprising or unusual reader responses to your books? I’m always surprised when men read my chick lit. I’ve had two fellas ask questions from the floor at different events. One fella in Brisbane was the only man there for a talk about Not Meeting Mr Right and he’d read the novel, and asked me to read a particularly funny scene out loud. The other was a gentleman in his (I’m guessing) 70s, who questioned why a man didn’t appear to have a role till rather late in Paris Dreaming. He even cited the page number. I was gob-smacked!
What are your writing habits?
I write in blocks of time. I will set aside weeks or months where all I do is sit and write and only work on the one thing. I write in my office in Sydney mostly and will aim for between 2000 and 4000 words per day. I will rest comfortably with 3000 but readers need to understand I can do this because I have already mapped out each chapter and know where the story is going before I start. When working on the first draft of my last five books my day had a structure reflecting morning exercise, writing from 9am-2pm (maximum), and then onto personal emails and other work (but there would be no other major project at the same time). I finish early on my writing days because I am generally exhausted and my eyes burn. I rarely read anything when I am in the writing process, but I do consume a lot of caffeine and chocolate during the first draft stage.
What do you do when you feel creatively stuck?
Because my methodology relies on thorough research and I’m a plotter who maps out each chapter across the whole novel before I sit down to write, I rarely get stuck to the point I can’t write anything. If in fact I can’t move forward on a certain scene I just leave it and move onto the next chapter or further on in the book, and return to it later. Of course, on those days when I am just feeling creatively lacking generally, I will take myself to the beach for an hour or so to just relax – mentally and physically. And I find that chocolate also helps!
What are you working on next?
I can’t believe this is the first time since about 2001 that I haven’t had a book project of some description on the boil. I’ve always had a self-imposed or contracted deadline on a book to be working towards, but right now I don’t. It’s actually liberating. I want to really enjoy the release of Tiddas – the events, festivals and meeting my readers. Usually I’m sitting in my hotel room working edits of the next book while traveling. This year, I want to be able to reflect each day and write blogs, get back into being grateful for everything my writing journey has given me.
What’s your favourite book by an Australian female author?
It’s been well documented that one of my favourite books by an Australian female author is Butterfly Song by Terri Janke but if you asked me, what is my most recent favourite book I’d say Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko.
Your turn: Have you read any of Anita’s books? Which has been your favourite?
This interview is part of a series with authors of popular books in the AWW challenge. You might enjoy reading these other interviews:
Annabel Smith is the author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. She has had short fiction and commentary published in Westerly and Southerly and holds a PhD in Writing from Edith Cowan University.