Wendy James is the author of six books, including The Lost Girls (2014), The Mistake (2012) and Out of the Silence, which won the 2006 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime fiction and was shortlisted for the Nita May Dobbie Award for women’s writing. She currently lives in Newcastle, New South Wales with her husband and two of their four children.
Her official website with information and news about her work is at http://www.wendyjames.com.au/.
Did you grow up in a bookish house? What was your early relationship with books?
Our house was full of books. Both my parents were big readers – still are – and my father studied English at university (because that’s where all the girls were, he says now…). I must have spent heaps of time just gazing at the bookshelf ( or perhaps dusting it, in those child-labour reliant days) because I can remember knowing who wrote what long before I’d read them or even had any idea what they were: I could rattle off the author of, say, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or The Outsider, or Anthony Adverse, which would have been a pretty neat party trick if there had been anyone else at this particular party. My relationship with books was pretty intense; I think I have very few memories of my childhood simply because I spent most of it reading. I was precocious and completely omnivorous – I can remember reading Carrie when I was about eight, and I would have been reading Enid Blyton at the same time. There were dusty old volumes of plays too – Wilde and Shaw and Coward – and I think I turned into a terrible bore when I discovered these
When did you begin writing in a serious way, and what motivated that?
It was really always in the front (rather than the back) of my mind that ONE DAY I would write. I’d written notes sporadically, waiting for that day to arrive – the one where the muse would descend, I guess. The muse didn’t ever really descend, instead, I was actually forced to write something for a creative writing course when I was doing my BA. I was twenty-five or six, I’d already had two of my four children by this stage, and was living a very different life to most of my peers. It seemed I had heaps to write about – once I began I couldn’t stop. I had always loved short stories, and that’s what I wrote for the first five years or so. I was fortunate to be published pretty early on in literary journals and anthologies. I also won some prizes, which gives you an incredible confidence boost early on — or always, I’m thinking. I started my first novel around 1998 – though I’d written notes about the case it was based on much earlier.
How did your debut novel come to be published?
I had written the novel – which I’d titled Unfortunate Creatures
– as the creative component of a PhD, but this first attempt at a PhD fell apart for a number of reasons: the novel was too long
, my husband was seriously unwell, I had four kids by this time – two teenagers and two babies – and looking back I think I was just completely overwhelmed by everything. Anyway, I finally finished the novel after five years or so – it was a historical novel, pretty exhaustively researched – and sent it off to the lovely Pippa Masson, at Curtis Brown. After a few rejections Random House picked it up, and it was published in 2005 as Out of The Silence.
It got one brilliant review, was shortlisted for the Dobbie, won the Ned Kelly for best first novel, and then hit the remainder bins. A pretty typical first novel experience, but it felt totally heartbreaking at the time. Happily, Momentum have since released both Out of The Silence
and my second novel, The Steele Diaries
(whose reception was even more dispiriting) as e-books, so they’re available to any interested readers.
What was the inspiration behind your latest novel?
The Lost Girls was originally going to be set in the late forties, in Sydney’s Newtown, the story based on the murder of Joan Norma Ginn, a teenage girl who disappeared after being sent to buy bread for her mother, and who was found strangled to death in Camperdown Cemetery the following day. What I was interested in was not so much the crime itself, but its aftermath – the impact on the friends and family who were left. When I began the novel we’d just moved from Armidale to Newcastle, and all the sights and sounds and sensations of coastal life transported me back to my own Northern Beaches adolescence. So while the the novel still tells the story of a young girl’s murder and the aftermath, it’s set in the late seventies, in the Sydney beach suburb of Curl Curl, close to where I spent some of my own teenage years.
Have you had any surprising or unusual reader responses to your books?
Hmmmm. I guess reviews and comments from people who actively dislike your work are always, if not exactly surprising, certainly memorable. One online reviewer admitted that she ALWAYS judged books by their covers, and just knew that The Mistake was going to be trashy literature aimed at vacuous Women’s Weekly reading middle-aged mums, and furthermore novels based on real life people and events were always ethically suspect. Oh boy! The surprise was that she actually bothered to read and review the book. Of course it lived up to her expectations: I think I was probably lucky to get two stars.
What are your writing habits? Where do you write? What does a typical day look like for you?
At the moment I’m lucky enough to be able to write almost every day. I work – alternating between writing and my work as a research assistant – while the kids are at school. Because my husband’s currently at home full-time, and is responsible for drop-offs and pick-ups, I can I sometimes keep going until four or even five. I work in a study that doubles as a storage facility (so much stuff!) and occasional fourth bedroom. The room was actually a corner shop in a former life, and as my parents owned a corner shop when I was little, the ambience really suits me. Right now the shelves are filled with books, but I’d like to deck it out authentically one day, with jars of Allen’s lollies. My husband has recently built me a desk to use over a treadmill – so I walk as I write, to counteract my early exposure to (and on-gioing obsession with) jelly snakes and red frogs. Oh, and Cobbers.
What do you do when you feel creatively stuck?
I tend to write in a patchwork sort of way anyway, so if I get stuck (or bored) I just move to another scene. Generally, when I come back something will have shifted, and I can continue from where I left off. But if it doesn’t work, I’m not so close that it hurts to kill it. I’m using Scrivener for this book and it works brilliantly for this particular method (I’m calling it a method, but in reality it is anything but methodical).
What are you working on now?
I’m writing another novel about about families and crime. This time it’s two families, and both perpetrator and victim are children. It’s about bullying and parenting and friendship, and there’s drama and suspense… and I’m really looking forward to having that first draft done!
What’s your favourite book by an Australian female author?
Oh, there are so many favourites … It’s impossible to pick just one! Henry Handle Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom is probably up there, as well as The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. I’m currently re-reading Helen Garner’s Consolation of Joe Cinque, and I’m looking forward to her new work – though the subject matter is so painful. There are some remarkable contemporary voices in fiction – writing in all genres. I’ve just finished reading Liane Moriarty’s latest – and am seriously impressed. Her work is just getting better and better – somehow she manages to write lightly about dark subjects without lessening their impact. And I’m continually amazed by her ability to pull all the narrative threads together in the end – how does she do that?
Reviews of Wendy’s Books:
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. Her forthcoming interactive digital novel/app The Ark will be published in September 2014.