Avoiding the research black hole

Friday, August 11, 2017
Lorna Hendry interviewed by Amy Adeney

There is a great deal of work to be done before a memoir is ready to be written. Ahead of her upcoming workshop, we talk to Lorna Hendry about the risks and rewards of research and interviews.

Your upcoming course on Research and Interviews will address the need to recognise when it’s time to stop researching and start writing. Was this a lesson you learnt from a personal experience of falling into the ‘black hole of research’?

I write non-fiction science books for primary school aged children, and I can easily spend entire days researching a topic and convincing myself I am making excellent use of my time. It’s only when I finally get around to turning all my interesting ideas and notes and scribbled diagrams into sentences and paragraphs that concisely express the concepts I’ve been reading about that I remember that research isn’t actually writing. 

When I was writing my travel memoir, I often found myself tracking down information that was only very loosely related to my travels. I still have a text file of Edward John Eyre’s journals from his exploration of Lake Eyre in 1840. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg when I was chasing a quote from Eyre that I vaguely remembered seeing on a sign that I hadn’t thought to photograph at the time. I read most of it – it was fascinating. Unfortunately for my writing schedule, it was more than 250,000 words long.

You say that memoirs are crafted with a balance of remembering and research – have you ever discovered anything through research that has made you question your own memories of an event?

I started writing my travel memoir as soon as we returned to Melbourne, so I had most of the information I needed to back up my memories in our diaries, photographs and blog posts. But my sons were only six and eight when we began our trip and, back then, their memories of events were sometimes very different to mine. I’m also very aware that now – seven years later – their memories of our time on the road are almost entirely informed by the events I chose to write about, and how I chose to tell those stories. I think it's similar to having what you firmly believe to be a vivid childhood memory that you later realise is based entirely on a picture in your mum’s photo album.

In addition to your writing projects, you also work as a freelance editor – how do you balance the two voices of writer and editor when you’re working on your own writing projects?

I always have to resist the temptation to rework the words I’ve already written instead of pushing through and writing new ones. I am now a huge fan of what Anne Lamott calls the ‘shitty first draft’. It’s pretty much the only way I can begin any writing project. The idea is that all you need to do at the beginning is just get the words down, no matter how terrible they are. I use that concept to get started writing, and I promise myself that I’ll go back later and fix it up. 

As a writer, though, I absolutely adore being edited. There is something wonderful about knowing that someone else is going to read your writing, think deeply about it, and offer you suggestions and maybe even a completely different perspective on your work. A good editor is like a co-pilot who helps you avoid turbulence and nail a potentially bumpy landing.

Have you had any favourite interview subjects? What has been the most surprising or exciting thing you’ve discovered in an interview?

When I was writing The Gigantic Book of Genes, the geneticist I talked to told me that some people have traces of Neanderthal DNA in their cells. That led to a fascinating discussion about how early humans and Neanderthals co-existed in Europe for several thousand years. We also speculated about how that mixing of DNA might have happened. It was a thirty-minute conversation that ended up as forty-eight carefully chosen words in the book.

You work across many different fields: writing, editing, designing, teaching and project managing. You must be a master of time management! Do you have any advice for people trying to fit writing into their already-full lives?

I think it’s really important to experiment with writing in different places and at different times and find out what works for you. Some people work well early in the morning or late at night, or can snatch an hour here or there and work productively. Not me. To make good progress on a writing project, I need to block out decent amounts of time – anything less than six hours is pointless for me because I spend at least the first hour procrastinating researching. I also need to go somewhere that isn’t my usual workplace. I wrote a lot of my travel memoir at Rosebank, thanks to a Writers Victoria fellowship, and then redrafted it at a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk. To meet the publisher’s deadline on my most recent writing project, I spent two days a week in a public library. Deadlines help! Even if they are ones you make for yourself.

About Lorna Hendry

Lorna Hendry is the author of 'Wrong Way Round', a travel memoir about a three-year family camping trip around Australia. She is an editor, writer and graphic designer and has written and designed 15 non-fiction children’s books. 'The Gigantic Book of Genes' is shortlisted for the 2017 CBCA Eve Pownall Award for Information Book of the Year. Lorna teaches in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing program and is researching a new book for older children.

About Amy Adeney

Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.