Notes from The Sydney Writers Festival – My Brilliant Debut Part One

Posted on July 17, 2010 by


When I was at the writers’ festival in Sydney, I attended a session called ‘My Brilliant Debut’, featuring three new writers, all starting out with strongly written, robustly performing novels.

The three writers and their novels were:

Kirsten Tranter – The Legacy

Patrick Allington – Figurehead

Steven Amsterdam – Things we didn’t see coming

The session was chaired by Jeff Sparrow editor of Overland Literary Magazine  (and hopefully the lovely man who will accept my unsolicited short story sometime soon ) author of Communism: A love story and Killing: misadventures in violence  – amongst other works.

The best way to reproduce the most interesting aspects of what each writer said is to pose the questions that Jeff asked and then give my edited version of what each writer contributed to the answers.

Steve Amsterdam (our left) and Patrick Allington

JS – Where did the books come from?

PA – I have always wanted to write since I was seven. However Figurehead came out when I was forty. Although Figurehead is the first novel, there were many incomplete novels, published and unpublished short stories and other work that came out before the first novel was ready. I had the idea for the novel ten to fifteen years earlier, so I wrote a great deal of it in my head before actually putting pen to paper. “I wrote it without writing it for years.” I always had to juggle work with writing and that was often difficult. Figurehead is a PHD and that made it much easier to eventually write.  The PHD made the writing the number one priority and that made all the difference.

SA – didn’t always want to be a novel writer, but loved film and literature first. As a short story writer I didn’t really see the book coming, it sort of snuck up on me, and that suits the style of the book. I got a degree in writing, but I was using it really as a way to stay in Australia, which was where I wanted to be, not because I felt that I wanted to be a writer. Rather than university, it was my writing workshops that really helped.  The solid critique toward each piece was what made the stories get better and better. I would dream up a character and then think about who they were twenty years on and then I would fill in the gaps about how they came to be that person.  Best advice I can give when starting out is to find a good writing workshop.

KT – I did my PHD in the US in English Literature and the novel was really on the heels of my dissertation. I’d studied Henry James and I had some questions about artistic originality.  I wanted to rewrite the end of Portrait of a Lady, and so wrote bits and pieces for a while and then got more serious in 2006. I don’t have a real passion to be a writer, I think of myself as an academic. It feels like a surprise that it worked out the way it did.

Jeff Sparrow and Kirsten Tranter

JS – How as your experience of publication?

PA – I looked for an agent and it took three goes to find one.  After that it took eighteen months to two years to find a publisher.  I learned that everything happens slowly. I really felt that I needed the agent because I am from Adelaide and that is a fairly isolated town. I feel I had no choice there. I had to do find one.

SA – I published through a small press, so I didn’t bother with an agent, however Sleepers wanted world rights and I didn’t give it to them because I thought they were too small to handle something that complicated. So for the overseas work I used my own contacts back in the states to get to people and eventually the head of Pantheon wanted it. It wasn’t till then that I got an agent. Advantages to the small press was that I had complete contact with the people who ran it and therefore I had a lot of control. The publishers in the states were a lot more formal and contact was always strictly business and rare.

KT – Sold the book in Australia first. It was a good springboard to the Sates. Kirsten’s first agent is her mother (Lyn Tranter of ALM) but for overseas I wanted some more freedom so I went with another agent. Through that agent I was able to secure a two book deal and I got a substantial advance. These things all work very well through contacts and through friends of friends. William Morris is the overseas agent. Although it is basically the same, publishing in the United States is a lot bigger. You really need to have a good agent.

I will leave it here for the moment. Part two will focus more on the editing aspect of the process of producing an excellent first novel.