Q & A: Rose Hartley

Rose in Ecuador during a World Vision trip. Picture by Steve Fraser.

Adelaide author Rose Hartley is having a busy year. She’s recently returned from the prestigious Clarion Writers’ Workshop in San Diego and is one of two writers selected to take part in the South Australian Hachette Mentoring Program. We caught up with Rose to chat about what she’s working on, what she reads and what’s next. 

You were recently selected to take part in the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, where you had the opportunity to learn from six some of the world’s most notable fantasy and science fiction writers: Karen Joy Fowler, Christopher Barzak, Margo Lanagan, Saladin Ahmed, Maureen McHugh and James Patrick Kelly. Can you tell us a little about Clarion and your experience taking part in the workshop?

I was so surprised to get into Clarion. The workshop has produced writers like George R.R. Martin and Octavia Butler, lots of fantasy and science fiction heavyweights. They only take 18 writers each year and it’s a tough selection process. Clarion is known as “an MFA in six weeks”, and that’s what it felt like. We lived on campus at UCSD in these weird concrete boxes, wrote a short story every week, workshopped four of each other’s stories in the mornings, and worked on our own stories in the afternoons – as well as going to readings, drinking, dancing and becoming best friends with each other. It was incredibly intense, both creatively and emotionally. We were getting our stories picked apart in the most enlightening way not only by our peers but also our literary idols. It was both inspiring and humbling. 

What prompted you to apply for Clarion and what was the highlight?

It was a coincidence that I even heard about Clarion. I attended a fantasy and science fiction convention in Canberra last year where Margo Lanagan was guest of honour. She talked about how she’d been through Clarion and would be teaching there this year. I love her work so I decided to apply.

There were so many highlights. Half the time it felt like I was high, just from being around people who care so much about writing and wanted to talk about it all day. Some of the 2015 Clarionites are already successful in their own right, like Lilliam Rivera who won the Pushcart Prize this year. Another, Vanessa Len, had never submitted a story to a magazine but blew us away week after week with her brilliant stories. Every single person there was talented and brilliant and supportive, and we’re still messaging each other like crazy on our WhatsApp group. I love waking up to 700 new messages from them. It feels like I’ve found my people.

And of course, there was Karen Joy Fowler. I was fangirling hard in week four when she was our instructor. I had recently read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which made me weep ugly-tears at how unbelievably good it was. She is hilarious, fiercely intelligent and just so damn nice. Every single piece of advice she gave us on writing and how to stay sane while writing was gold. One of my favourite moments happened during my one-on-one conference with her, after she read one of my stories that contained some rather fluffy fake science. She looked at me solemnly and said, “I think your science needs more science.” I had to write that quote down and get her to sign it.

This year you’ve also been selected to take part in the South Australian Hachette Mentoring Program, where you have the opportunity to workshop a manuscript with Sophie Hamley, Publisher with Hachette Australia and former President of the Australian Literary Agents’ Association. Can you share a little about the manuscript you’ll be workshopping with Sophie?

I started writing the manuscript when I was working at World Vision Australia as a copywriter. I was reading these really harrowing firsthand stories of pain and poverty and trying to do them justice when I reworked them into fundraising appeals for the Australian public. Then on weekends I’d drink my fancy lattes and go to engagement parties and complain about how I couldn’t afford real estate in Melbourne. There was just something really jarring about the whole thing. I think that’s how the story came about. I needed an outlet, I needed to laugh at myself, so I created the character of a middle-class Australian girl who refuses to get her life together and decides to live in a caravan on the streets of Collingwood. She works in a charity and is a terrible hypocrite.

It was a lot of fun writing it, and I’m really excited to be working with Sophie. Especially now, after Clarion, when I feel like I’ve come a long way in terms of the skills needed to workshop a manuscript. Even if it doesn’t get published, it’s a great opportunity.

Can you take us behind the scenes and tell us about your writing process?

I am terribly slack. I have no routine and no structure in my days. Since moving back to Adelaide I’ve started running an online business so I work from home, which means I make a lot of cups of tea and fritter away hours on Twitter that I should spend writing. But when something really needs to get done I’ll take myself away to Kangaroo Island, switch off the internet and just get lost in writing for hours and days at a time.

For me, the most painful part of writing is hashing out the structure of a story. I’ve never been much of a plotter, and the story arc does not come naturally to me. Voice does, though, and once I find the voice of a particular piece of work I can usually write quite fast. But it can take a long time to figure out what I actually want to say, and in what order I’m going to say it.

I wrote my novel in the hardest way possible, because I had no idea how to write a novel. I simply started at the beginning with no outline and wrote until I hit a problem with the plot. Then I went back to the beginning and re-wrote the story until I fixed the problem. Each time I hit another snag in the plot I’d do it all over again. There’s a reason it took me two years to write the first draft. I went back and started from the beginning at least six or seven times. But I learned from it.

As well as writing fiction, you’re also an award-winning poet and lyricist. What do you enjoy about working in different forms and do you find that working across forms strengthens your writing overall?

I started writing poetry as a child without any idea what I was doing, and I still don’t have any idea what I’m doing. Poetry is just one of those things that humans do because they’re human, and – I don’t know, it’s just necessary. It’s the perfect form to express a single thought, moment, or longing. I think poetry taught me a lot about imagery, metaphor, and economy of language, how to express an idea without actually stating the idea, and how to do it succinctly. All of that has been incredibly useful to me in writing prose.

But I haven’t written any poems in the last year, because I haven’t needed to. It’s enough at the moment just to read other people’s poetry. Besides, after I read a poem by Ruth Stone or Mary Oliver I just can’t bring myself to write something that I know will be inferior.

Now the big philosophical question: why do you write?

Maybe because I’ve never been much of a talker?

When you’re a child, every new idea feels like an epiphany. Not to mention, children have a strong sense of justice that is easily outraged. I started writing down thoughts, ideas and outrages at first because I couldn’t articulate them verbally, and later so as not to lose them.

When I took the step from keeping a journal to writing stories I was blown away by how difficult it was. Every new writing skill was hard-won. Learning to write a story felt like bashing through a brick wall with a spoon. It still feels a bit like that, but nothing else in my life is so satisfying as the feeling I get when I hammer out a story idea or finish writing the draft of a novel.

I never liked the idea of having a job, so writing was the perfect career choice for me, aside from the lack of income. The thought of working in an office again is horrifying. It’s good motivation for me to live my life in as simply as possible, because if I can avoid the longing for material things, I can probably keep writing.

What do you love most about writing and what do you find most challenging?

My favourite thing is to really nail a new voice. Creating a voice is like putting on an invisibility cloak, it’s a ticket into someone else’s life. The fact that it’s a fictional life makes no difference, it still gives me a rush of voyeuristic pleasure.

In terms of craft, the hardest part for me is plot and story arc. The worst thing is getting to the end of a story and realising I have no idea how to end it and then thinking – wait, what am I actually trying to say here? What is this story about? That terrible moment tells me I have to go right back to the beginning to figure it out.

Aside from craft, the hardest part is the writing life itself. It requires a level of self-discipline that I simply wasn’t born with – I prefer to drink and complain than actually do the work. I’m sure I could get twice as much done in half the time if I had a better work ethic. But because writing is the only thing I’m committed to doing properly, I just have to suck it up.

Which books and authors have most influenced your work?

The strongest early influence was Jane Austen. I read and re-read her books so many times as a teenager that I could probably quote whole passages. Her feel for character, relationships and satire was matched only by her ability to construct a perfectly balanced sentence.

In more recent years I’d say Cormac McCarthy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, and George Orwell. A few books that were revelatory for me were The Dispossessed, Catch-22 and The Blind Assassin. For a few years in my early twenties I blatantly copied Cormac McCarthy’s style and was guilty of many crimes against sentence structure. Now I’ve settled into my own style and it’s much more minimalist. I really admire writers like Margaret Atwood and Karen Joy Fowler for their ability to create protagonists that many writing instructors would accuse of being passive observers, and have them carry complex, heart-breaking stories full of complex, heart-breaking characters. 

What’s next after the Hachette Mentorship? 

So far only my short stories have had speculative elements, while my novel is realist contemporary fiction. I think I’d like to write a speculative novel. I have an idea that I’ve been playing with for a year or two, but I need to do some research so that my science has enough science in it. I also plan to study the novels of Saladin Ahmed and C.S. Pacat to work out how to put that elusive quality of page-turniness into my writing.

In the meantime, I’ll be polishing up my Clarion short stories and sending them out to magazines and literary journals. And getting rejections, probably.

What’s your top piece of advice for aspiring writers out there?

I’m going to blatantly rip off Karen Joy Fowler here. At Clarion she told us about her path to success as a writer, and it was quite simple. She said that after every rejection she just got mad. She kept a whole pile of rejection slips so she could say, “look how many people tried to stop me. I would not be stopped.”

That’s all there is to it. Have the grit to keep going even when it seems like everyone hates your work, including you. The only way you’ll lose is if you stop writing.

For more about Rose and her work, take a peek at her website and follow her on Twitter

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