We have started a new web video series of informal chats and interviews with some of your favourite authors. To kickstart us off is the lovely Robin Bower, author of Beyond Home: A Daughter’s Journey.
Want to listen to it while commuting? We have an audio version (mp3) for you.
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Our next author is Marianne de Pierres, crime fiction and science fiction writer extraordinaire. We are taking your questions from right now up until 11 am Monday so make sure you tweet at us or at Marisa or leave a comment on our Facebook page.
We are also taking suggestions for writers you want us to interview.
If you have more questions for Robin, please leave them in the comments below so she can respond with answers.
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The disembodied voice of the interviewer is provided by journalist and writer Marisa Wikramanayake. She promises to scrub up and show herself in the next episode. If you adore her, you can send your #askanauthor questions to her on Twitter.
Full transcript for the video:
Marisa: Tell us about Beyond Home? And you?
Robin: Beyond Home is a story about a woman who is based in Perth – I don’t actually mention Perth – but she is in Perth. She is not young, she is not old, she is that middle of the road age. She has gone through some trials. Her father is a distant man and she loves him dearly but they find it really difficult to communicate and she is not that impressed with how it is going. When she discovers that he has died, she goes over to his place and when that all happens she finds a diary.
So the diary, she doesn’t know whether it is his or whether it’s been given to him but from what she had thought of his life, she thought he had been a public servant in Perth and hadn’t really done anything very exciting, hadn’t travelled or done anything.
She discovers from this diary that he has had a very exciting life in Burma and has done some fantastic things so she decides to travel to Burma and discover what his life was really like there.
Marisa: Do you like gardening? Because there is gardening in both your books now.
Robin: Yes there is a little bit of a gardening theme.
Marisa: There are lots of themes. There’s father daughter relationships, there is gardening and then there is that whole “Oh I might be pregnant” thing or the whole “I don’t who my mother is or my parents are” or “OhI need to go find my family”. There is a lot of that. Family secrets, distant fathers, you know, gardening.
Robin: Well, the gardening thing – my mother –
Marisa: And also always foreign cultures as well.
Robin: Well my mother had a wonderful garden and we had two gardens when I was growing up and my grandmother had a fantastic rose garden and it was a beautiful garden and when we moved my mother also had a beautiful garden. So I had my own little garden as a child and I would pick of the leaves off different flowers and take them to school for show and tell and put them in front of the class and test people on what leaf was what and I would know all of the names and all that so I was very pleased with myself.
Marisa: You were such a annoying know it all!
Robin: Yes I would have been. I would have been. What a know it all. But of course I have forgotten all of that. I don’t do any gardening at all now. But I do love being in gardens and I have a lovely garden because my husband does all the gardening and he is fantastic at it. So I have a love of nature and a love of that natural landscape.
Marisa: Where did you get the idea from?
Robin: My father was born in Burma and I have a disclaimer here that the book is not based on my father but he is the seed for the idea if you like. He was born in Rangoon in the 1920s and he had to leave with his family because the Japanese invaded Burma so he then went to England and grew up there.
So that’s really the seed of the idea as I have heard a lot of talk from his family. He had five sisters who were also born there and I have seen photographs of his life there so that was how the idea came about.
Marisa: How much research did you do?
Robin: Research for me is everything so I spend about 20% writing and 80% researching. And this is a bit of a process that can go on forever as anybody who writes knows. I find that I need to research every detail just to try and make the story as authentic as possible so she is a horticulturalist. I am not a horticulturalist so I have to find out how she does things, how she puts plants together and all of the ways that happens. Her husband is a doctor and he has studied in France and so I need to learn a little bit about what he studied and where it was and was it in Paris and what was the day like when he was studying. A little bit about that. Even though I have been there, it’s a little bit different from the character’s perspective so you have to do that research.
And then the Burma part of it, I have travelled a lot in Asia but I need to know about the jungle, I need to know about the weather and describe the weather and describe the different parts of the country and look at the different buildings and the different architectural types and then of course I have this drug theme running through. So I needed to research about how to make heroin from opium all that kind of thing. So it was fascinating.
Marisa: So how do you figure out when to stop researching? And when to sit down and write? Or is it very very tempting to go on?
Robin: Very very tempting. So you get the entire story down and then later I can go and research so I like to do that first so I have got my story there. Then I do the research and then I go back and rewrite and read and edit etc. And then I can – I will still need further research along the way as well.
Marisa: So how do you decide what details to keep in, what will help the reader get into the story or what will prevent the reader from doing so? From engaging?
Robin: So once the first draft is done that is just me doing a massive mind dump of everything and I use this mind mapping technique and just handwriting on paper, eyes closed, kind of like channelling. Wooo. Quite interesting. So I get that first draft and then of course I have got duplication, I have got things out of order, I have got lots of things that should not be there, words that I don’t want, redundant words, so I go back and I take out all of the adjectives, all of the adverbs. I take out scenes that don’t move the story forward. Obviously it’s what I think is going to help the story. If I have got some description about a character that really doesn’t do anything for the story and I don’t really need to explain what that character is wearing then that needs to come out. It’s all about killing your darlings, isn’t it?
Marisa: Tell us something that no one else knows about you. Something that’s surprising.
Robin: Surprising. I walked up to Everest Base Camp. Another lifetime ago of course. I went up there on a trekking expedition. I didn’t go to the top – that would have made news headlines, I think. I walked to the bottom of it. That was 28 days of walking so that was a bit of a feat in itself. I managed to avoid falling into glaciers and getting altitude sickness when everyone else was getting it around me.
Marisa: I have always seen you in heels and dresses and things so I can’t imagine you in that kind of outfit, walking up there, you know, with your lipstick and makeup on.
Robin: Oh I have got so many photos of that.
Marisa: No, it’s not possible. It’s not possible.
Robin: Well, apart from that I was also in the Army Reserves. So you know firing –
Marisa: That’s even more weird. I can’t imagine you in camouflage outfits.
Robin: No. It wasn’t for me.
But I did get lots of experience and actually I have used a bit about that in the book as well. A little bit about military tactics and going on patrols and things and so that’s where that comes from. From my Army training.
Marisa: Why write? Did you always want to write?
Robin: I was good at English – that was what I did. So I wrote compositions and I loved reading them out. And I hope that others enjoyed them as well. And I have always had that throughout my life. That I was going to do something with it. I have just been the biggest procrastinator that you could ever meet. So now at the great age that I am I am finally doing it. So my advice to other wannabe writers is never give up and you are never too old.
Marisa: What would you want to be in another life? If you could?
Robin: I always wanted to be a performer, to sing and dance and act. Barbara Streisand was my ultimate hero. So I have seen everything she has ever been in and I love her voice and I love her acting and I love her comedic quality and I wanted to be her.
Marisa: And you won’t sing for us?
Robin: No I can’t. No I can’t sing! I mean I have had lessons and I can sing in tune but it would do a major disservice to myself if I attempt it right now.
Marisa: So what is stopping you from going on to sing dance and act now?
Robin: Well I have done some of it in the past. As I said I have had singing lessons only because I wanted to see if I could do it well. Any kind of singing. And I was in some amateur theatre, musicals, that kind of stuff. So I have done a bit of that. I just sing for myself now. I just sing for my own enjoyment.
Marisa: What is something that you keep trying and failing at?
Robin: Trying and failing? I think we all are trying and we are all failing all the time, every day. And on the other side of the coin, we are all succeeding in everything we try. It’s a strange thing. I can’t really explain it. I do feel like I am trying a lot and failing a lot at things and yet in my life everything that I have put as a goal, I have accomplished and I am really pleased with how I have done that.
Marisa: What drives you?
Robin: What drives me? I want to be remembered. I want to be that person who can say I have achieved. I have made a difference to people. I would like my stories to change people’s lives. And that’s a big ask, isn’t it?
I would love to have a body of work that people can read and go “Wow, that changed my life.”
Marisa: What’s the book that changed yours?
Robin: I really loved – well there are many books, many books – the one book that I read and “changed my life” is probably a bit strong – Charlotte’s Web. I cried at Charlotte’s Web – that changed my life.
But I still don’t like spiders.
Marisa: What’s your favourite book?
Robin: My favourite book? I have many favourite books. I love Shipping News by Annie Proulx. I love Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. As a young person I read Catcher in the Rye and loved that just for its absurdity and its humour. I probably didn’t quite understand the entirety of it back then. I love To Kill A Mockingbird. I love Sophie’s Choice. I love lots of different books that tell the struggles of people and how they get over them, which basically is every book that is good.
Marisa: And recommend an Australian female writer.
Robin: We have so many wonderful Australian writers. I did Australian literature at university and that so very long ago. We did some of the greats, Richardson etc. So nowadays we have got so many writers in Perth. We have got Amanda Curtin and we have Anna Funda and many, many prizewinners so I think Australian female writers are really coming into their own now which is fantastic.
Marisa: Awesome. Thank you very much.
Robin: Thank you.