Make Friends with Struggle & Doubt

Sunday, December 23, 2018
Kathryn Heyman Interviewed by Cath James

A portrait of Kathryn Heyman
Kathryn Heyman

2019 Summer School: Writing Your Way to the End: Plotting, Momentum and Re-Drafting

CJ: Your first memoir is coming out soon. Has the process of finding narrative structure or ‘plot' in your memoir been different to that of your novels?

KH: I did bring my novelist's mind to the shaping of the memoir. One difference with memoir is that you're working around true events - but the order you tell them in, what you leave in, what you take out: these things are part of story structure, part of plot, and they are the writer's creation. I mentor quite a lot of memoir writers and often have memoirists in my structure classes, because structure is crucial when you're working with true life. Narrative momentum is even more important when you're trying to craft a series of messy and not-alway-well-formed events into a cohesive narrative.  

CJ: As director and as part of the Australian Mentors Writing Program, is momentum still an issue when writers have that sort of support?

KH: There are two kinds of momentum - story momentum, and writerly momentum. Having regular deadlines and expectations tends to help writers with the second kind of momentum, as does having consistent encouragement. There have been some amazing moments, when a writer has finished a manuscript and I know how much internal struggle and doubt there has been. I think it's often helpful to remember that the word protagonist means 'the first to struggle'. A bit of struggle is good. You can't write a book without it. So I usually encourage writers to make friends with struggle and doubt and uncertainty. It's part of the process, an important part.

CJ: The perfect ending is something most writers strive for - can you give us a sneak preview about one of your favourite examples?

The perfect ending, for me, is one that answers the question the book raises in the beginning - so the ending can only be perfect in relation to the beginning. What have you set up? Have you delivered? The Great Gatsby does that beautifully, of course - and those perfect final lines that contain everything the book has been striving towards. I love that in an ending, the sense that this moment is both inevitable and surprising. In memoir, Maggie O Farrell's I Am, I Am, I Am does that - a final moment that makes sense of all that has gone before and gives it an extra emotional weight.

CJ: You’ve published six novels now, has there been some that have been harder than others to find the momentum to finish?

KH: They all take extra push at certain stages: I feel now I really recognise certain stages (and having 'midwifed' many books by other writers, I think I recognise that some of these stages are to be expected!) That said, there are different reasons for finding books hard to finish and I've probably had some version of all of them! (I was a playwright and radio dramatist for the BBC as well, so I've had a lot of writing projects to finish over many years, and learned all my own dastardly tricks for avoidance). The first novel was tough to finish because I was terrified. Frightened that it wouldn't succeed, terrified that it would.

CJ: The re-drafting process can either bring something to life or overwork it to death - how can you tell when to leave something alone?

KH: Great question. The facetious answer would be 'when it's published' (though some writers have reissued earlier works, re-edited so perhaps not even then). I usually encourage writers not to re-edit too much until you have a final draft for this reason. Without knowing what the centre of the book is, what your driving question is, and whether you've answered it, you run the risk of throwing in random plot moments (I know! She goes to Antaractica! No, not Antarctica, Costa Rica! And she falls in love with a statue! No, she kills a man!). So I'd say that the book is done when there is a clear centre, when the question is clear, when you've answered the question (or delivered on your promise) and when you've made all the words work to that end, and thrown away all the words that don't do that. Simple*.

*Obviously not simple.

About 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.