Interview with the Author : Sally Odgers

About the Author

  1. Tell us about yourself.
    I was born in Tasmania in the 1950s and have lived here ever since.
    I grew up on a dairy farm on the banks of the Mersey River. I loved riding, swimming, rowing, gardens, writing and reading.
    These days, I walk a lot, often accompanied by my husband and a few dogs. I love my eclectic garden. My children are grown up and we have two grandchildren who live a long way from us, so I console myself with dogs.
    In my apocryphal leisure moments I have finally worked out what makes my tick. My inclinations are, and have probably always been, towards microcosms and towards bringing order from chaos. It’s my kind of order though, and it probably looks pretty eccentric to those outside.
    I have a strong sense of self… of what is and isn’t for me. I am drawn to beauty, but it is always a careless beauty. I have no use for characters (in real life or in books) who whinge for insufficient reason or who are gratuitously stupid or unkind. I can usually see several different sides to a story, which doesn’t make me any more decisive or certain I am right.
    Someone once said she wrote to “set the world to rights”. I think I do the same. My motto is, if you can’t have a castle, then be happy in a cottage, and be grateful if the roof doesn’t leak.
    I had a happy and stable childhood and my family always encouraged my aspirations to be a writer. I assume they noticed (quite kindly) that I didn’t have much talent for anything but writing. Music, athleticism and artistic talents are scattered through the family, but they didn’t land on me.
    Writing, I often think, is an invisible talent and so writers have to work harder to be noticed. A picture can be admired in seconds. A song can be enjoyed in minutes. A race or match won has a visible trophy. A book needs a publisher and also an investment of time and willingness from the reader.
  1. How do you feel about being part of Satalyte’s Women’s month?
    I am delighted to be part of Women’s month although I’d be equally happy to be part of Writers’ month or Australians’ month or Dog Friends’ month or Midlisters’ month or Grandparents’ month. Many of my favourite writers are women, but none of them is consciously a “woman writer” if you see what I mean. They simply are writers who are, or were, women. That’s what I am too.
    I write about male and female characters, but I think this particular book, Heather and Heath, is well-suited to a Women’s month. It is, after all, the story of three steadfast women all of whom have problems and joys specific to women.
  1. Do you feel there is any advantages or disadvantages to being a Female author, or is it totally irrelevant?
    As I probably said above, I don’t look at myself as a “woman writer” exactly. I am a writer. I suppose many of my interests and loves make their way into my books, but a lot of interests are unisex anyway. Are there not men who love gardening, reading, walking, writing, drinking tea, playing with dogs, adoring their grandchildren and watching a good bug movie?

That said, I have, over my long career (45 years and counting) seen a few problems for a writer who is a woman. For one thing, I think, even now, men are freer to take up opportunities that call for more than a few days away from home. A mum who has young children will have to find someone to sub for her, whereas a dad can probably just go. An older writer may well be carer or co-carer (as I am) for an implausibly old dad or mum and so, again, must find a sub who has the time and inclination to take over, and whom the old mum or dad will accept.
I think male writers for children may get a bit more respect than the female variety because, frankly, there are fewer of them and there may be a background feeling that it’s the business of a woman to write for children whereas for a man to do it he must be something unusual.
I remember one editor, back in the 1990s, who told me one of my books outsold a book by a man in the same series, yet the man’s book was reviewed more often and got a lot more attention. Having said this, though, I think it is a mistake to over-think it. There are too many variables in the writing game to come to a strong conclusion.
At least we are, I believe, paid at the same rate.
I have often used a male penname, but that’s just because a publisher asked me to do it. It doesn’t bother me though, when writing as or about men I channel the attitudes of my father, husband and son. It is particularly interesting to see how much of my dad is in me and how much of me made its way into my son.
Oh, and one more thing… there’s been a perception out there for a long time that while girls and women happily read books by men and women, boys and men may prefer books by men. My old dad, who loves women, respects them and has always been comfortable with them (he had strong sisters, a strong wife and only daughters) still said recently that he didn’t want any books by women from the library. I pointed out that I was a woman writer and that he liked my books and he said, and I quote… “You’re different. You get on with the story”. He did like books by Madeleine Brent which may be because Madeleine Brent’s real name was Peter O’Donnell. And no, Dad didn’t know that. He just liked Madeleine’s style.
I think my getting on with the story comes from my background as a children’s writer. I tend to see characters as people (unless they’re dogs or aliens) and so I can tune into the same character as a child or as on older person. Personality establishes pretty early in life.

Similarly, my husband and I like a lot of the same movies, but whereas I get bored during some action sequences (car chases, battle scenes etc) he often mutters, “get on with the story!” whenever the characters are in static conversation. I’m inclined to rejoin, “But this is the story!” and there I think is the difference between male and female points of view. Men love and feel as much as women, but they see a story as something visibly happening. A sex scene is visible, whereas an oblique conversation, showing how two people may be falling into love or misunderstanding or deeper accord is not visible.

  1. If you could have written any book, other than your own, which would you choose?
    There are a few! Deep Secret and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Polymer, by Sally Rogers-Davidson, The Changeover, by Margaret Mahy, the Legends of Laconia series by Donaya Haymond, the fantasies of Michelle Tatam… I could go on, and on, and on… Yes, I am aware these are all women. I admire a lot of books by male writers too (especially Geoffrey Trease) but these specific books touch me with the paintbrush of admiring envy.
  1. Is there any way you would like to see the publishing industry in Australia grow or change in the future?
    I’d love to see more room for midlisters and more room for a broader list. I understand that publishers need to go for books most likely to appeal to the broadest possible readership, but of the books I have treasured the most have niche appeal.
    I believe in these days of Indie press and ebook there is room for books that may have a tiny but adoring readership, but it’s still difficult for these books to make themselves visible. I think for the mainstream publishers to produce books that may not be part of a “line” is difficult and Australia needs to be on a much better economic footing for that to happen. I see the same thing in television… the programs I like are often skating on shoestrings whereas the big-audience stuff seems often crass, gratuitous and inclined to appeal to the less-attractive aspects of human nature. That’s my opinion. I don’t expect others necessarily to share it.
    When a book (or program) does make a splash, people often flock to read it and declare it original or different. Often those of us who wrote on similar themes years ago just silently clutch our heads. It’s not different. One high profile author combined two genres. How original! came the cry. No, no, no! I could name four authors (including me) who combined those genres in the 1980s or before… yes, and I could quote a number of rejections from publishers explaining that combined genres were not wanted.

About your new book

  1. Tell us about your book

Heather and Heath is the story of a high country property named Glen Heather and its effect on the people who live there. It begins in 1837 as the dream of Scotsman Hector Campbell and his young wife Ness whose difficult relationship is softened by a joint love of its wild hillsides and productive flats. Hector’s pride in his creation leads him to entail the property to his “heirs male”. As Hector has four sons and no daughters, this seems reasonable to him but in the turbulent times of a new century his action will have repercussions far beyond anything even that canny Scot could have envisioned.

  1. What inspired you to write this book?

Heather and Heath has a long and many-stringed beginning. Here are just some of the things that brought it to the page.

Back in the late 1980s, I wrote a tourist guide to Tasmania. In doing so, I picked up a lot of the local history and fell somewhat in love with the beautiful countryside around Mole Creek and Chudleigh where the Mersey River, a small and placid stream where I live, seethes along in a deep gorge. This gave me the setting. I simply triangulated the map and created a third settlement in the area which I named Mersey.

My grandmother was another inspiration. Elsie Florence May Bonney was born in 1899 and had one sister born in 1903. Elsie was intelligent, eccentric and stubborn. She loved flowers, animals and children, collected things, wrote beautifully-styled reports for the CWA… and drove a lot of people barmy with her ways. Her sister Winnie was pretty, strong-minded and tidy. She took great and justified pride in her appearance right unto the age of 100. Elsie, in contrast, wore whatever came to hand and wore it until it fell into holes. These odd sisters were the only children of a messy laid-back farmer and his hard-working tidy wife. Each produced a single daughter. Without going into too much detail, the situation was rather odd, and so, in a way, what happens in 1919 to Alice and Rosalind Campbell is a heavily fictionalised version of what may have happened in 1925 to Elsie and Winnie Bonney.

The Scots influence came from a friend of my grandmother. Her name was Amy Malcolm and she spoke broad Scots with an Argyle accent. She used to call me a “wee besom”. Even fifty years later I can hear her voice and the cadence of her words, and so it was easy to give her voice to Ness McCleod.

In the late 1980s, also, I wrote a book called, In Mara’s Case, a romance between writers Mara Payne and Jonathan McConnel. Mara was the odd-cousin-out in the sprawling Garland family. I later wrote a book about Mara’s cousin Trina Garland who visited the old family property of Glen Heather in the 1990s. Then there was a long short story called Black Lamb…Because of my habit of loving microcosms, I wanted to move back in time and see how all the dynamics of the 1980s/90s family came about, so I set about researching. I had already learned a lot about the 1910s from my grandmother whose shadow I was as a child, and I went back step by step, looking at family records and social history. I never wanted to include any of the striking events in Tasmania’s history because Heather and Heath was to be the story of a property and a family, so although one character mentions that Moonlight and Kelly have been hanged, this is no more than contemporary conversation. The characters are swept up in the Great War, but the emphasis is on how this affects the folk at Glen Heather.

One more point before I end this… when my daughter was about 9, I took her to a market. There was an artist there who was sketching passers-by. I had him do a sketch of my daughter. When it was done, she looked 14 or so. I got it out again some years later and yes, she had grown to have that face. I asked the artist if he could paint the other way… make a face younger. He said he could. It was an odd talent, and he didn’t know how it came about. From this brief encounter I had another character for my book, James “Charcoal Jamie” Galbraith, who influences so much of what happens at Glen Heather and who paints with a prophetic or retrospective eye.

By the way, the Campbells of Glen Heather are not my family. I am descended from English and Irish settlers (plus the requisite few convicts) and grew up on a river-flat dairy property. The Campbells are Scottish free settlers, whose mountain property is given over to sheep. Some of my ancestors were eccentric or downright peculiar, but none I would hope, was ever as thrawn as Hector Campbell… Where he came from I have no idea. He just strode into the story, wrapped in his plaid, and made himself at home.

  1. Can you name your favourite character in your book?
    Not really. My favourite small-part character is Jennie Comfrey, I think. Of the main characters, I have an affection for Ness, and I am also fond of James Galbraith who always “loves where he shouldna”.
  2. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors out there?
    Yes.
    I have been a published author since I was twelve years old. Over the years I have learned a lot about the unwritten rules of writing. I’ve been a manuscript assessor and private freelance editor since the 1980s, and over the hundreds of mss I’ve seen I have got a pretty good handle on the most common problems in writing. My best advice seems contradictory, but writing is a contradictory business.
  3. Do you have any ambitions or goals for your next book?
    I would love to write the book called Shepherd’s Rest, a sequel to Anna’s Own, which I wrote in the 1990s. Anna is long out of print, and Shepherd’s Rest never went beyond a detailed outline. Maybe it’s time to dust off Anna for a new edition and then finally to get that sequel written. The people in that family have stuck with me over the years. I also have a strong ambition to finish a tetralogy called Dryads’ Well, a science fiction series begun during a residence and never finished for lack of time. My actual next book will be a children’s book in the Pup Patrol series I co-write with my husband.
  • Write what you want to write, as you want to write it.
  • If you haven’t written anything since school, don’t expect to sell your first piece of writing. (After all, people who haven’t painted since leaving school don’t just pick up a paintbrush and paint a picture that will sell to a gallery.)
  • If you don’t have a solid grounding in grammar and spelling and an innate understanding of structure, don’t offer anything to a publisher until you have gained it.
  • Don’t shoot your ms in the foot by making one of the 10 or so major mistakes. If you don’t know what they are, read my book, Twenty Top Tips to find out.
  • The difficulty about writing is that (a) it’s not a single talent but a fistful of associated ones and (b) it calls for both free-ranging imagination and innovation and a firm knowledge of foundation and structure. Talent is no use without technique. Technique is no use without talent. The difference between them is that technique can be learned. Talent cannot. Therefore a writer, no matter how self-effacing and uncertain, has to have an underlying confidence in talent. Have you ever seen old rockers jamming? That’s the way talented writers go on. They take an idea and jam until they have a book.

Interviewd by Alyssa Wickramasinghe

One thought on “Interview with the Author : Sally Odgers

  1. Kelly Modulon

    Really enjoyed your interview Sally. Full of interesting insights and very good advice. Thank you. My mother was Tasmanian born and i have spent quite some there with many relatives splattered all over. I have a childhood memory of Mole Creek that is vividly a favourite and i thoroughly look forward to reading your novel and slipping into the setting. I also chuckled at your mention of characters simply striding into your writing and making themselves comfortable. I relate to this entirely and have stopped being surprised by it and just welcome whatever they have to offer! All the best with your new release. Kelly Modulon.

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