Voice Gives Projects Life

Tuesday, April 30, 2019
By: 
Kathyn Heyman Interviewed by Christy Collins

Kathryn Heyman

Diving In: Finding Your Voice (and your subject)

Writing Your Way to the End: Plotting, Momentum, and Re-Drafting

CC: Your novel, 'Storm and Grace', was praised for its urgency and its poetry. How do you maintain these two, perhaps somewhat opposed, qualities in your work?

KH: Thank you for such a lovely compliment-wrapped-in-a-question! In fact, I think that poetry is urgency - to paraphrase Sylvia Plath, a poem is a dart that goes straight to the heart. What could be more urgent than that?

In 'Storm and Grace' the story is narrated by the Furies - in this case, mythical figures who are beneath the sea, or speaking beyond death. There's a mythical element to it because I wanted to explore the idea of myth - that romantic tropes, romantic stories, for instance, are myths that impact on women. Myths that cause women damage. So the subject, and the voice, led to the voice. When I'm mentoring, I talk to writers about what choices they want to make in their works, what kind of work they want the reader to do, and that impacts on decisions about voice, and about structure.

CC: You are the Director of the Australian Writers Mentoring Program. What do you find emerging writers most need from a mentor?

KH: Every writer needs a different thing - the beauty of mentoring, as opposed to, say, an MA in Writing, is that the mentor meets you where you are. In that relationship, the mentor wants to work with you to become the best writer you can be; the truest to your own self. 

Most writers I work with seem to thrive on the deadlines and expectation that they will step up and excel - I'm quite choosy, so if I've taken them on, I believe they have the potential to be excellent. Everyone responds to a balance of positive regard and expectation. And rules. Rules are great.

CC: As well as novels, you also write radio plays. How do the two forms differ? Do you prefer one over the other?

KH: I do love radio - it's not a form that has a big space in Australia but for many years I wrote dramas for the BBC and I love the way you can combine lyricism, character and narrative. At its best, radio is like the love-child of poetry and theatre. I also wrote for theatre early on, and by the time I came to write my first novel, I was longing to let the language lead me, to just follow the thread of my own curiosity. It's harder to do that with a play - you have constraints that are clearer. My next book is memoir, and then there's another non-fiction book after that, so at the moment I'm exploring some other ways of noticing story in the world. I love them all.

CC: Is your course. Finding your voice, focused on a particular genre (fiction, non-fiction, poetry)? For a particular project, which for you, comes first: voice or subject?

KH: The focus of this course is narrative non-fiction (for instance, memoir) and fiction - not really poetry. We'll be focusing on voice in relation to character and narrative, rather than poetic voice.

As a reader, and as a writer, I love the marriage of voice and subject - form and content. For me, it's usually a seed of an idea, something - a subject - that I want to explore, and then I need to find the voice. Generally, once I have the voice, the project takes on new life. That said, I've worked with writers who get to the end - or halfway through - a first draft, and they find themselves lost and wavering. Generally, they'll think this is to do with structure - often, though, it's because they haven't really found the voice.

CC: Is finding one’s voice (and subject) a once-off process, something that needs to be revisited for each project, or more of an evolution over the course of one’s career?

KH: Oh, sadly every new book requires its own voice and its own learning. That old adage that each book teaches you how to write that book is true. Yet, as you mature as a writer you do develop a sense of what your life project is, what your life subject is - and a stylistic consistency which might be called your writerly voice. A fan of Helen Garner's, for instance, would recognise her writing a fifty paces, with or without her name attached. Yet each book of hers has its own rhythms and voice. So it's both. Life long, and every project. Constant recreation.

CC: Course (Writing Your Way to the End: Plotting, Momentum and Re-structuring): at what stage of writing will writers find this course most valuable?

KH: This is really a course for writers who have embarked on a book length project - it's fine if you're at the early stages of it, and if you're at a later draft. It's not really for writers who don't have a novel or memoir they want to work on or who just want to explore writing. You'll get more from this masterclass if you are serious about your writing.

About Dr Kathryn Heyman

Dr Kathryn Heyman 's sixth novel is 'Storm and Grace' (Allen & Unwin). She has written several radio dramas for the BBC, including adaptations of her own fiction and was awarded the 2018 CAL Author Fellowship for work on her forthcoming memoir. Her previous work has won the Wingate,Southern Arts and Arts Council of England Writing Awards in the UK and been nominated for awards including the Scottish Writer of the Year, the Orange Prize (now the Baileys) and the Kibble Prize and the West Australian Premier’s Literary Awards. Kathryn Heyman is the director of the Australian Writers Mentoring Program.