Finding the right voices

Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Suzanne McCourt interviewed by Deborah Kane

Suzanne McCourt orders a lemongrass tea and takes in the glistening sea from our sun-drenched spot on the deck of Brighton Baths Café.

Her first novel, contracted with Text Publishing, is due to be launched in February 2014; she is currently working on her second and she has recently released two self-published books – an anthology of her own poetry called The Lost Men, and a photo-gift book called Old Dogs: Lessons in Loving & Aging.

As we watch the dotted boats sailing out to sea, she reflects on her writing path. “I’ve now learned to get out of my head and listen to my heart,” she says about the creative process. “I trust my unconscious and follow where my imagination leads – even if it’s into some very dark places.”

This wasn’t always the case. When Suzanne first pursued her writing dream she tried to stay on the lighter side, while keeping firmly in control and directing the story herself. She attempted to write romance, but it kept detouring to places where romance shouldn’t go. And that wasn’t the only problem – one of the characters, a child, took on a life of her own. “She kept sabotaging the romantic relationship and threatening to take over the story,” says Suzanne. And although she tried to ignore her, the girl just wouldn’t keep quiet. “She was feisty and funny and wanted desperately to be heard.”

It wasn’t until Suzanne changed her approach to writing that the character was able to flourish. During a workshop with Canadian teacher, Barbara Turner-Vesselago, she learned to let go of the need for control. This was a turning point in her writing career and it yielded exceptional results. “I found a voice for my novel. Not surprisingly, it was the voice of the child who’d been trying to get my attention all along.”

The child is now the main character of her first novel, a coming-of-age story set in rural South Australia in the 1950s and 60s. But letting go wasn’t easy. She tells me that she had to face her own past before she could move forward and fully access her creativity. “I’d repressed a lot of emotions and memories, but to be creative you’ve got to be able to feel,” she says. “It took some time before I was able to use the pain from the past.”

Like a lot of writers, Suzanne has also dealt with a fair share of self-doubt. “Having confidence in my abilities has been the hardest thing,” she admits. “I guess it’s true of most creative people. That doubt sits alongside the desire.” A mentorship with Andrea Goldsmith in 2000, through Writers Victoria, gave her a much needed boost. And while Suzanne admits she took it on a bit early, Andrea provided insights that she has held on to. “Like most new writers, I was eager to get there – wherever ‘there’ was – probably to be published,” says Suzanne. Andrea said “don’t try to walk over your own feet,” and so she allowed herself to slow down. “Rather than lusting after outcomes, I’ve learned to value the journey,” she says. “And always the outcomes have arrived in their own time, and only when I was ready”.

Andrea also pointed out that, as in most professions, it usually takes about ten years to establish yourself as a writer. So as Suzanne built up a portfolio of short stories and poetry, and gradually gained recognition by being published in anthologies, literary magazines and competitions, the ten-year rule kept her going on her novel – and it was worth the payoff. While she was initially concerned about the editing process – citing the old fear of “killing off my babies” – she now looks forward to working with Text. “I hope that it grows into a relationship where I’m taken beyond my original vision of the book to something even better,” she says. “It’s about validation, about access to their experience and expertise, and also about being in safe hands. I feel very supported by Text”.

Suzanne is in the unique position where she can comment on two very different types of publishing. While she had always wanted a mainstream publisher for her novel, she has also successfully self-published, with Old Dogs achieving great success after an interview on Radio National. She tells me that she enjoyed the creative process of designing and publishing – with a second Old Dogs book due for release later this year – but that self-publishing can be both time consuming and demanding, particularly if the book is to be marketed effectively. “I now understand why publishers publish and writers write,” she says. “It is hard to wear both hats.”

In the end, for Suzanne writing is both escape and sanctuary. “By creating a fictional reality, I’m able to explore my own truths in a safe place. Hopefully these are truths that resonate with readers,” she says. “I feel incredibly privileged to be able to do it. Although I’m involved in other creative endeavours, none feed my soul like writing does.”

Suzanne’s first novel, as yet untitled, will be launched during the Adelaide Writers' Week at the Adelaide Festival in February 2014.