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Kelly Gardiner on public speaking and writing through experience

A portrait of Kelly Gardiner.

Writer, editor and educator Kelly Gardiner creates works of historical fiction and fantasy for readers of all ages.

Her latest series is The Firewatcher Chronicles. Her other books include 1917: Australia’s Great WarAct of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes, both shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards; and Goddess, a novel based on the life of the sword-fighting opera star, Mademoiselle de Maupin, which is being adapted for the screen. She has appeared at countless writing events and festivals, hosted podcasts and chaired author panels at festivals for many years.

Ahead of her workshop Speaking About Writing, Kelly spoke with Marketing and Communications Officer Sarah Giles about public speaking and writing through experience.

Whether it be for a panel, facilitation, lecture or podcast episode, how do you prepare for a public speaking gig?

First up, reading. If I’m on a panel with other writers, interviewing or in conversation with them, the best thing to do (and the most respectful thing) is to read their work. That is also the bedrock on which we can build our other preparation: questions become obvious to me while I read, and knowing their work well gives me confidence for the conversation ahead. If I’m being interviewed about my own work, I write down a few things that matter to me most, imagine questions people might ask, and think through a few likely responses.

You are a prolific writer of historical and fantasy fiction. When developing a new project, where do you begin?

The idea can come from anywhere, but because it’s usually set in the past or a totally imagined past, I begin with broad research – concepts, structures, trying to understand what matters most to people in that world. The details can come later – at the start I need to get my head around people’s world views.

What does your writing routine entail?

At present, I get up early and scribble in a notebook before the day begins, then write every morning for at least two hours – if it’s going well, I keep writing all day. Otherwise I go do something else – I teach a bit, walk a lot, and there are always life admin things that need sorting out, and that gives the brain a rest. I do Shut Up and Write with two friends twice a week (we’ve done that for years), and another session with some postgraduates once a week. In all of those sessions, I do 25 minute writing sprints, and it really works for me.

What have you read this year that has meant the most to you?

Like many people, my reading suffered during lockdown. I really struggled to read new things – all I wanted to do was read Jane Austen over and over and watch high fantasy series. The good news is, I now have a huge backlog to read my way through and I’m enjoying catching up – Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like This stopped me in my tracks, like her earlier book Foster, as it’s a masterclass in restraint and word choice.

You recently walked for eight days alongside Hadrian’s Wall in the UK. On your blog, you wrote that this experience might contribute to a work in progress, an essay collection titled Sublime, exploring ‘walking, pilgrimage and the idea of the Sublime’. Do you have any words of wisdom that might help other writers conduct their own experiential research and how to capture their thoughts or insights? 

I’m a big one for walking the ground, although it doesn’t have to be as intense as walking the Wall for days on end, and it doesn’t need to involve walking at all. It’s about sensation. There’s nothing better than being in a place – or, if you can’t, somewhere that lets you imagine it – and letting all your senses record how it feels to be there. I walk with a notebook and write up later, take lots of photos with phone or camera, record sounds, feel the air on my skin, sniff, touch, feel the ground under my feet – whatever you can do that helps you make remember that place.

You’re giving a workshop all about Speaking About Writing with us on Sunday 10 September. What advice would you give to writers who are nervous about public speaking?

We’ll talk more about it on the day, but the steps are, firstly, feeling clear about what and why we write and how to say it, then preparing well, and then bunging on a show! It can be hard, especially for introverts and shy people, but it’s part of the job so we have to figure out a way to feel comfortable about performance.

Places are still available in Kelly’s workshop Speaking About Writing. Members of Writers Victoria receive up to 37% off the full price of all clinics, workshops, seminars and courses. Writers experiencing financial and social barriers to developing their skills are encouraged to apply to The Writers Victoria Fund for subsidised attendance at workshops and clinics.

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