Close and Personal with Francesca Haig

Arianne recently chatted with Tasmanian born Francesca Haig, bestselling author of the post-apocalyptic fantasy trilogy The Fire Sermon, about her new novel, The Cookbook of Common Prayer, which will be featured in our October Recommended Reads.

I was curious to know whether Francesca enjoyed writing one book more than another, or if she found the process of writing The Cookbook of Common prayer very different to The Fire Sermon given the stark difference in subject matter. Francesca told me that, while it’s true these books are very different, in some ways The Cookbook of Common Prayer “felt more like coming home, because I’d previously published a book of poetry when I still lived in Australia, so I was a poet at heart. Taking this slight detour into genre fiction was more the unexpected mood, so this one felt more like what I’d been doing all along, closer to the poetry and the realism of what I used to write. But in many ways they didn’t feel different at all, and I didn’t find that I was putting on a different hat or that it required more intelligence or insight from me to write this book. I’m always very keen to come to the defence of genre fiction and particularly of young adult fiction, because the readers of young adult fiction can be so amazing and insightful and certainly I don’t think that young adult fiction or fantasy and science fiction are lesser genres. But I did joke about being relieved to get away from writing such a complicated plot. I said, ‘I just want to write a book where people sit in a room and have feelings!’ The focus of this book was on character and that was in many ways a relief… and easier to write. I think many people have the perception that writing a young adult genre book will be easier than writing a serious literary novel, but I say hats off to the people writing complex genre fiction … they have to create a whole new world from scratch.”

When I asked Francesca what she loved most about the writing process and what she found most challenging, she told me she loves basically everything about writing.

“I’m so aware of what an incredible privilege it is to sit down and have my job every day be to think hard about words, to throw myself into language and to dream up characters and scenarios and to play with them – that’s enormously fun and a joy, but the bit that I hate is the hard bit when you’ve done all the fun stuff. I’m coming to the end of what will be my fifth novel, and I always promise myself that I’m going to write in chronological order and not skip over the hard bits and I fail spectacularly every time. No matter how much you love your book and no matter how invested you are in the subject matter, there’s that really grim bit at the end of the first draft when you have to go in and fill in the complicated, necessary bits and the gaps, and that’s always a slog.”

I wondered whether Francesca has a writing routine. She tells me that once you have kids, every moment you have to write is precious, and she’s learnt to be very efficient with her hours.

“The time that you are not caring for the child you value immensely  … and because I’m fortunate enough to have writing as my full-time job, I treat it as a job. I’m very unromantic. I always say when people talk about writers block that you don’t have people complaining about garbage collectors block or architecture’s block. There are some days when the work comes really easily and some days when it feels like pulling teeth, but you put your bum in the chair and you do the work. When my child’s at school I have an office I go to and I drink a lot of tea and I write and I give myself a word count goal. I try to be very unprecious about it.”

When asked the classic question of whether she considers herself to be a plotter or a panster, Francesca says she’s halfway between. “Before I embark properly on the writing I will have a dot point plan which is something like one or two A4 pages… I think of it as like a scaffolding. It’s useful for getting the building up, and you can then drop it away … it’s inevitable and perhaps quite a good thing that the characters in your book surprise you in some ways, but the plan gets you off the ground. I also find that having a dot point list of basic plot points makes it a much more doable and less huge and terrifying task, by separating the writing into concrete, specific scenes. If you put in the time and produce the words you’ll find that there’s one image or one metaphor that makes it into the final draft.”

Francesca says she always makes time for reading. “Reading is putting fuel into the vehicle. The Cookbook of Common Prayer has four main narrative voices so I was very interested in reading books that did narrative voices really well, even if the subject matter was completely different. Reading is probably the most important thing you can do apart from the physical act of putting pen to paper, so I say reading is the best thing for writers block, but also not allowing yourself to be precious or romanticising the process. You do the work.”

Francesca tells me she always wanted to be a writer and grew up in a household that really encouraged this dream. “I was a very single minded kid and I was an obsessive reader, and was lucky enough to grow up in a very supportive house that really valued reading and made the time to take me to the library. We were lucky enough to have lots of books at home. It was a house where my ambition was fostered and taken seriously and nurtured, and I had lovely english teachers as well who really encouraged me… So yes I knew early, but I also had the opportunity to pursue that ambition.”

Francesca has also completed a Phd in English Literature and has spent time working very happily in academia. It’s something she misses and wouldn’t mind going back to one day. She says it’s nice to know that it’s an option.

I asked Francesca what the publishing process was like for her first book. “In England, if you want to go with mainstream publishing you really have to have a literary agent, so that was the process for me. I submitted to a number of agents and was lucky enough to be taken on by my absolutely brilliant agent Juliet Mushens … she really got the novel, and the sale of the Fire Sermon trilogy went like a dream. I’m sometimes a bit hesitant to talk about it because I’m aware when I talk to writers and aspiring authors that it doesn’t always go like this, and that their story might be different and that’s okay.”

Francesca tells me the publishing process for The Cookbook of Common Prayer was very different, largely because it all happened during covid. “I didn’t get to meet my wonderful editor Kate Ballard at Allen and Unwin … it was a slightly more distanced and weird process – everything was done over zoom and email, but in many ways it was still a very joyful and satisfying process because Kate was such a wonderful editor and the team at Allen and Unwin really got the book right from the start, so the editing process was never painful even though it was weirdly distant.”

Social media is such a huge part of our lives these days, and considered almost a necessity as an author to have some kind of online presence, so I was curious about whether Francesca enjoys using social media, or if she ever struggles presenting herself online.

“I’m not sure that you have to do it. I think it can be a useful tool but I have friends who are successful writers who say twitter is too much and I think that’s fine. I don’t think it should feel like a necessity because for some people it doesn’t come naturally. I enjoy twitter. My problem is wasting too much time on it… It does feel quite useful to have an audience of a few thousand to whom you can say, ‘my next book’s coming out’, but I think if you just treat it as a promotional tool and a necessity to your publishing profile it would be a drag. If you’re going to do it you have to find some real pleasure and real interaction, and not just use it to sell your books.”

I asked Francesca what the best writing advice she’s ever received has been. She shared with me a quote from Stephen King:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.  

“We’re lucky as writers, that reading is part of the job. I know that writers can be anxious sometimes about losing their own voice through reading too much and the opposite is of course true – the more you read the more you realise what’s possible, and that’s how you discover what you can do. As a writer, when you get that stab of not only pleasure but also envy, that’s a wonderful feeling. Reading is the breathing in and writing is the breathing out.”

TasWriters thanks Francesca for taking the time to be interviewed. We wish her the best of luck for her writing future.