Life can be Heartbreakingly Hilarious

By: 
Nina Killham Interviewed by Christy Collins

Nina Killham

Finishing Your Novel

CC: Your novels have been described as “rollicking” and “wickedly funny.” Being funny on the page is one of the most difficult elements of a writer’s craft. To what do you attribute your success?

NK: By telling the truth as I see it. Life can be heartbreakingly hilarious. Perhaps what people find funny about my novels is how my characters are genuinely attempting to figure out what on earth is going on and why. I also try not to think too much when I’m getting a first draft down. And particularly not to worry about what others will think. I had a writing teacher once who drilled us like a sergeant to write in 20-minute bouts without stopping and without thinking, just jotting down what popped into our heads. It’s amazing what will come out of you if you can just stop stopping yourself. It’s how I wrote my first novel and that has been probably my most successful yet. Later I started thinking too much, mainly wondering Will someone get this, will they think it’s funny? Will the market like it? Will I offend anyone? It’s death for humour. As I write my latest novel I’m trying to return to my beginner’s courage.

I also think that humour comes from seeing events in a new light. And with my background as the perennial new kid on the block I am constantly observing things for the first time. That newness often allows me to see strange juxtapositions which are the backbone of humour. But these days writing humour is getting harder to do. One, satire is the new reality and how do you compete with that? And two, we’ve moved in a direction where we are so uncomfortable with the status of the world that many of us—with reason--have lost our sense of humour. Climate change is not particularly funny.

CC: Writers do many things to trick themselves into writing – do you have a favourite trick or routine to keep yourself in the chair or pumping out the words?

NK: There are different phases to writing. When I’m actually beginning a novel, I go by the word count rule and try to write about 750/1000 words a day. The problem with that is that I churn out a lot of bad material and go off on unnecessary tangents. With every novel I start I give myself a stern talking to: This time, be in control! But I never am. Writing what pops into my head, with very little attention to story line, is the only way I can get to the first draft stage.

I remember once reading how the novelist Carolyn Chute described her method as “my writing is like having about twenty boxes of Christmas decorations. But no tree. You’re going, Where do I put this?” It’s a brilliant description. Because after the first draft I similarly have to go back and put the written sections onto some sort of structural tree that will strengthen the impact of the story. In that phase, a good day consists of working out, say, the best scene sequence in the second act.

And let us not forget the time-killing, brain-erasing, career-siphoning elephant in the room: the internet. Writers, because of our innate curiosity, are naturally hooked. Whole masterpieces are being frittered away, line by line, on Twitter. I have to use the blocking app Freedom when I am working because I am so enchained.

CC: You have lived in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Brussels, Copenhagen, Paris, Singapore, London and now Melbourne. Does where you live influence what you write about and/or where your novels are set?

NK: They do but always with about a five-year delay. When you write satire you have to know your world 110 percent. It’s not something you can research like a historical novel. You have to soak up the atmosphere in real time and learn everyone’s foibles. So when I was living in London I was still writing about Washington and Los Angeles. And then just about the time I moved to Melbourne, I finally felt comfortable writing about London. I will probably have to be here a few more years to get a handle on Melbourne—perhaps its foibles are more subtle…

I should mention that another downside to moving around is leaving your writers community each time. Melbourne writers have been so welcoming and I very much appreciate that. They are also a lot of fun, don’t take themselves too seriously and are blessedly supportive of each other. They are bad for my liver though.

CC: At what phase of a novel project will writers get the most out of this course?

NK: For those who are about halfway finished or more. Or for those who have finished a first draft—well done--clap clap—but who don’t know what to do now. Finishing a novel—like championship tennis--is a psychological feat. Authors can throw up barriers that often have nothing to do with the actual story. The barriers are often ourselves. I hope to help with concrete plans to push through. I am in the process of finishing a novel right now myself and it is a frustrating time. You start with such high hopes and often end with a disappointed feeling. Finishing a novel is often about managing those feelings so that you can push yourself closer to your original vision.

CC: For writers starting out, what clues might indicate that they might be well suited to screen writing?

NK: It helps if they think visually and have a good sense of dramatic structure. But mainly I think they are well suited if that’s what they want to do. If they have a sense of wonder and excitement whenever the lights go dark in a cinema as I do, I say go for it. I also think learning to write screenplays is a great way to help novelists bring a sense of drama to their books. I used Syd Field’s screenwriting books to help me structure my first novels and I think Robert McKee’s Story is an excellent resource for all fiction writers. But budding screenwriters should be aware that the film process is more collaborative and that they will not own their work as an author of a novel does. Most film projects use a series of screenwriters. Still, writing screenplays has always been very appealing. Who wouldn’t want Hugh Jackman to put his mouth around their words…

About Nina Killham

Nina Killham is a novelist, screenplay and short story writer. She has had three novels published by Penguin and Bloomsbury (How to Cook a Tart, Mounting Desire, and Believe Me) and has had a short story included in The Best British Short Stories 2013. She recently finished a PhD in Creative Writing at La Trobe University and another novel. She is well acquainted with the agonies as well as the secrets to finishing projects.