[Interview_1] Magdalena Ball

Australian writer, Magdalena Ball is the author of a non-fiction book, two poetry chapbooks and a novel.

Her first published work, The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything (Mountain Mist Productions, 2003) is a guide to the review process and covers topics that range from how to write good reviews, how to use interviews to add depth to reviews, and how to market reviews.

The Art of Assessment was followed by two poetry chapbooks, Quark Soup, (Picaro Press, 2006) and Cherished Pulse (Picaro Press, 2006) which she wrote in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson.

Her first novel, Sleep Before Evening was published by BeWrite Books in July 2007.

In a recent interview, Magdalena Ball spoke about her writing.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

For as long as I've been able to read, I've wanted to make my own stories with words. Reading and writing to me have always been linked activities, joined at the cusp of a love of language. But there was a point when, at university, I had to choose between the world of literary criticism (studying literature) or creative writing (making literature) and for reasons I can't remember, I chose the criticism path. Perhaps it seemed more rigorous to me then, or perhaps I felt that I could come back to writing later.

However, while studying for my DPhil, it soon became clear to me that the concepts I wanted to explore were not academic ones, but rather metaphoric ones -- ideas that needed the language and structure of poetry and fiction (and in fact my supervisor made a point of telling me that I used 'too many metaphors' in my papers). So I guess you could say the sense of myself as a writer happened sometime after I walked away from the doctorate and began writing stories. That's a fuzzy line and it took me quite a while after stopping the study to go back to books -- maybe eight years or so -- and then I began by returning to criticism/reviewing, and slowly started again with stories, poetry and finally the novel.

So, let's say around 10 years ago what was a vague nag became a serious hobby, which is only now starting to look more like a career. But there never was a point for me, from my earliest memories, where words weren't dear and trying to get at the heart of what I wanted to say -- to go a little deeper -- wasn't something that I was aiming at. And I'll always see my love of reading and love of writing as intricately linked.

How would you describe the writing that you are doing now?

My big long term projects are novels. My first one, Sleep Before Evening, has just been released and I'm currently in the process of working on two more of them -- a tree-change novel that moves between corporate Australia and rural Tasmania, and a second one set in the Catskill 'Borscht Belt' of New York, 1942.

Just yesterday though, someone I've known for sometime told me she was the great grandaughter of Goethe, and after listening to her talk about her life for an hour or so I'm thinking there might well be another novel there -- The Daughters of Goethe -- so which one will come next may depend on the the muse!

I'm also always writing poetry, a form that comes naturally to me and is quite relaxing (novel writing is anything but relaxing -- I find it extremely challenging, but at the end of the day, there's nothing quite like holding a whole world that you've created in your hand), stories for various competitions or events, and am also writing lots of reviews, guest blogs, articles and editorial.

I like to keep things reasonably varied!

Who is your target audience?

I'd never knock back a reader, and occasionally I have to admit to being surprised at who has read and enjoyed my work. But while I'm writing I usually think of my ideal reader as being someone with similar tastes to me -- a literary fiction lover -- the kind of person who always has a book on the go, enjoys books that are complex with heady themes, and challenging but still entertaining and fast paced. One of my regular Compulsive Reader visitors or almost any of my newsletter subscribers.

So I write for someone similar in tastes to me (it's probably fair to say that most writers do that). That said, if someone with entirely different tastes or someone who normally doesn't read much comes across Sleep Before Evening and finds it meaningful and enjoyable, that's kind of an extra bonus -- because I've not only reached a new reader, I've perhaps opened a door for someone.

What motivated you to start writing in this genre?

Literary fiction is the genre I read most, so it's how I think and the way I want to create. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable writing in any other fictional genre, since I rarely read other genres.

Why novels? I guess because it has always seemed to me like the pinnacle of writing -- the hardest, longest, most complete form. That isn't to knock other forms -- I love the short story, the poem (and have read some astonishingly good verse novels recently), and nonfiction, but because there's nothing that gives me the same pleasure as getting lost in a novel, that's where I see my biggest projects happening.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

In terms of my self-perception, that would probably be my rather artistic family, who have always encouraged me in that direction.

In terms of authors, I read so widely that influences are probably everywhere. It's probably fair to say that James Joyce has had a huge influence on me, and I'm not sure anyone else ever has been able to do the things with language that he did. In some ways, Sleep Before Evening is a kind of female version of the ultimate Bildungsroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If I ever run out of inspiration I only need to look into Ulysses and I instantly want to write again and am full of ideas.

But there are many others -- from Tim Winton to Peter Carey, [Margaret] Atwood, [Julian] Barnes, [Umberto] Eco, [Virginia] Woolf. I could probably make a ten page list and still miss some.

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

Despite my regular assertions that there are few biographical elements in my fiction, I have to admit that I use everything around me in my writing. The birth of my children, for example, had a profound effect on my writing, inspiring most of my poetry book Quark Soup, and also influencing the major themes underlying Sleep Before Evening.

Almost everything I've experienced, perceived and seen is useful in my work. Even something as simple as hearing my son play piano will appear in the writing I'm doing at the time. I use everything.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

Character comes quite naturally to me, but as a writer, I'm always struggling to produce a strong, compelling plot with the right amount of beats, and to create a setting which is both vibrant and still natural, sitting behind and supporting character. To deal with what I see as my own weakness (and I have to admit that I've always been good with remembering and connecting with people but there are times when I'm sure I have no idea at all where I am -- so true of fiction, true of life!) I outline, plot, make maps and time lines to try and keep everything ordered and structured within the chaos that I put my characters through.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

I think it's probably the same answer you'll get from almost any modern author (or person). Time. I have so many different hats and finding the time to put in the hours required to produce work is always challenging.

I'm not sure I'd be happy just writing, as I often find inspiration from everything else that I'm doing, but nevertheless finding the time to write all the things I want to write in any particular day along with meeting the needs of my family, a day job, promoting my existing novel, and all sorts of little things like volunteer work at the school, or having a cup of coffee with a needy friend, can be tricky.

How do you deal with these challenges?

I try to schedule in the writing time. Especially writing time for those non-urgent but important things like writing the novel. I use a diary and basic time management principles like chunking and planning the work quite carefully. This way every minute I spend writing is fruitful and I don't waste time faffing around wondering what to do next.

Do you write everyday?

I do write everyday, and try to work on the novel a little each day. I will open my key work at the start of each day but I can’t really commit to any particular amount of time. I’ll usually start by beginning to do some research and setting everything up, and then will just write until I get interrupted by some other job, and then come back to it and then get interrupted and so on! It usually ends when I realize I can’t do anymore today and it’s time to close down the PC.

What is your latest book about?

Sleep Before Evening tells the story of the teenager's struggle against a self-centered artist mother, a succession of drive-by stepfathers, her desperate escape into a nightmare of drugs and sexual degradation... and her struggle not to Sleep Before Evening.

How long did it take you to write the novel?

It took about six years from concept to creation, but like any first novel, was nagging me in an inchoate form for many many years prior to that. It was published this July in the U.K. by BeWrite Books.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

As I mentioned earlier I found getting the setting, and time frame perfect a challenge and had to do a lot of time-lining, plotting and even made a large scale map so I could trace specific walks in specific locations. I knew that if I got it wrong, someone who knew those real areas would pick me up on it very quickly (and indeed some of my wonderful early readers did).

I also had to do quite a lot of research on the drug addiction aspects, since, although I’ve had some experience by proximity, I haven’t been through this kind of addiction (I’m happy to say) myself. So I needed to virtually enter the clinics, take myself through the desperation and difficult elements of recovery that my character went through. Again, I dealt with this by extensive research, reading lots of firsthand accounts and talking to recovered addicts.

Which did you enjoy most?

I found it quite easy to get into the mind of my protagonist. I’m a character person -- I’ve always enjoyed talking to people and, I guess, imagining their lives -- so getting under the skin of my characters and imagining their inner worlds came naturally to me.

What sets the book apart from the other things you have written?

It’s much bigger in scale and scope than anything I’ve ever done before. This is my first novel, and the learning curve to sustain the work and create such a big complete universe was steep.

In what way is it similar?

I have a kind of poetic sensibility, I think, and many of the themes and perhaps the use of language is something that could be identified in my poetry books, my short stories and even some of my nonfiction. There are many threads and themes in this book that have formed the basis for lots of my other work.

How did you chose a publisher for the book?

I knew that I wanted a small, attentive publisher -- someone who had a strong reputation for high quality books and rigorous editing, and BeWrite came to me very highly recommended by other authors. My experience with them has been exactly that -- they're small, very warm and attentive (I definitely have that sense of being partners in the success of my book -- both in terms of its literary success and its commercial success).

What other advantages and/or disadvantages has this presented?

Because I'm in Australia I have had to struggle a little with the fact that the book isn't distributed locally -- many of the people here who know me have been a little reluctant to order from overseas (though the ones who have have received the book quickly without any difficulties).

Getting the books on the shelves in Angus & Robertson and even in online bookstores has been a bit of a drama. But overall it's a minor problem, since again, ordering the book from overseas hasn't been a big problem.

How are you dealing with these?

I've done an awful lot of nagging! I've phoned A&R daily for a while, and just kept at it, visiting bookstores, speaking to managers, and so on. I've even called people's local shops to talk the owners through buying a copy.

What will your next book be about?

I'm working on Black Cow (working title -- it may well change, though I'm rather attached to it at the moment) -- a story set between Sydney's ritzy Double Bay/corporate Australia and rural Tasmania.

The key protagonist is a Chief Executive Office in a large multinational corporation and is very stressed. When a threatened heart attack forces him to take bedrest, he begins to imagine a very different kind of life as a self-sufficeint farmer. Of course self-sufficiency isn't exactly a soft option and there are plenty of un-expected stresses as the family goes through the change. This is a tree-change story -- something like Dilbert meets The Good Life.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I have to say that the first novel is definitely my most significant piece of work so far -- just completing it and then getting it polished to the point of publishability has been a dream of mine for many years. I now feel almost qualified to actually call myself a writer and not feel like a sham!

How did you get there?

Slowly -- like the Tortoise! I planned it and plotted it and cut it into pieces and worked on it in little bits and pieces as I could fit it secretly into my busy life until it began to take on enough structure to have its own gravity and forward force. That's the only way to get anywhere I think! I can't afford large chunks of time with three young children and a million other priorities, so I have to rely on a ridiculous, almost Pollyanna like tenacity (I have lots of it) coupled with patience (something I don't have much of) and a good clear path forward (which I make and remake as I go along). Works for me.

This article was first published by OhmyNews International.


You will see from this lovely interview that Magdalena and I collaborated on a lovely little e-book of love poetry. That is the disclosure. I hope that information won't diminish this comment. I read "Sleep Before Evening" long before it was published and it is not only well written and a great read but it is so needed today when families tend to think they are alone with drug problems. May "Sleep" hit the bestseller lists.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Author of award-winning novels, short storyies, poetry and the HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers.

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