We were lucky enough to chat with Louise Allan, debut author of The Sisters Song, about her journey as a writer. Published by Allen and Unwin and included in our Recommended Reads for January, members have the opportunity to win one of two copies simply by commenting why you would like a copy on Facebook or emailing me at email@example.com.
If you’d like to learn more about Louise Allan, her inspiration, practice and backstory, you can check out her blog at louisejallan.com
First of all, congratulations on the publication of The Sisters Song!
What inspired you to tell this story?
My original story began in the 1960s and moved forward in time to the current day, but the writing was lacklustre and the tale was rather morose. One day, one of the characters in the original story knocked on the door of her Great Aunt Ida. Ida invited her in and as soon as she started talking, I knew I’d found my narrator and a much warmer and better story.
In my mind, Ida looked and sounded like my paternal grandmother, who used to come to our house every day when I was a child. I’ve used snippets from her life in the story, too. In fact, I’ve ended up using all four of my grandparents as inspiration for characters in my novel.
Do you have sisters?
I had a younger sister, Francine, but she was killed in a car accident in 1987. She was only 19 and I was 20. Being so close in age, we were good friends—most of the time! We were very different personalities: she was bubbly and outgoing, and I was more sombre and serious. But we fitted together like a key in a lock. There’s also the intimacy that comes from a shared childhood and history, which meant that despite our different personalities, we shared similar values.
Even though I only had 19 years with her and she died over 30 years ago, I still miss her. In particular, I wish my children could have met her.
Do you think any particular aspects of your childhood helped to shape your decision to become a writer, and your idea of family?
Absolutely. When I started writing, my childhood was at the forefront of my mind and the only thing I wanted to write about. I’d kept so much of it private for many years, and it was only through writing that I was able to process it all and come to a place of acceptance.
It heavily influenced the themes of my novel—I think my novel and I helped each other and made progress together.
Where is your favourite place to write?
My attic! It’s like a garret, with sloping ceilings and a gable window that looks out over a huge tree with green-gold leaves. Its walls are lined by bookshelves on one side and a long desk on the other, so I can move my computer and work in different places if I want. Mostly, though, I sit by the window.
What topics do you keep coming back to in your writing?
I can’t help it, but women’s issues keep coming up for me. I started my second novel intending to head somewhere completely different, but my writing veered towards gender roles again. This story does come from a different angle, though.
I heard that you also write short stories. What draws you to them?
To be honest, I’ve only written a couple of short stories, and one of them turned into my novel. That’s my problem—my short stories keep growing and become long stories!
I love to write personal essays, and I have many, many ideas and themes I’d like to explore through that medium. They help me know myself, which then bleeds into my fiction and warms and deepens that.
Have you done much travelling? If so, where is one place other than Australia you think you could live?
I could live anywhere in Europe, and I really wouldn’t mind which country it was! More than anything, I love the history, the music and the art—it would have to inspire your writing. I’m sure I’d feel homesick eventually, maybe after a decade or two!
Tough question, but what do you love most about living the life of a writer?
I love creating something that didn’t exist before, that we can turn ideas and images from our minds into words, so they evoke the same images and ideas in the minds of others.
I love the mystery and the adventure of it, too. I have no clue where my stores are going as I write them, yet I get the feeling they’re already there and I just have to uncover them. I say ‘just’, like it’s easy, but it can be hard to find the real story you’re trying to tell. I feel as if I’m constantly at a precipice, digging, digging, slowly foraging my way through. It’s exciting because there’s always a discovery to be made.
Of course, there’s significant frustration time, too, when words are hard-won and ground out ever so slowly. But the joy of discovery beats it all.
Can you tell me some of your favourite books, books that have influenced you throughout your life?
Gosh, there have been many. As a child, my favourite books were Storm Boy by Colin Thiele, which to this day makes me cry. I adored the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery because Anne reminded me of myself—auburn-haired and a bit different.
Of the classics, my favourites are Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Tess and Gatsby are such tragic figures—they loved the wrong people, and while their fates were utterly preventable, the society of the time made them inevitable.
A favourite by a contemporary author is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I keenly felt all that Steven’s sacrificed for obedience and loyalty. A recent favourite is The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose, for all that it says about art and the need for human connection.
Can you describe your pathway to publication? Did you send your manuscript out to publishers before seeking an agent?
I began my novel in 2012 and finished the first draft in early 2013. I sought a manuscript assessment whilst at Varuna in 2014 and, after revising it based on that feedback, it was shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford Award in Western Australia. It didn’t win, so I sent it to an agent, Lyn Tranter, who gave me copious, and blunt, feedback. Based on Lyn’s advice, I spent nine months rewriting it, and when I sent it back to her, she accepted it. From there, things moved quickly, and Allen and Unwin bought it a few weeks later. So, while it took years to polish it up to a publishable standard, once there, everything fell into place.
Have you taken any creative writing courses along your journey?
Loads! In 2010, after not writing since I left high school, I completed an online beginners’ writing course. I loved it, so I did a few more online courses in fiction writing, as well as workshops and novel-writing courses through University of Western Australia Extension and the Fellowship of Australian Writers of Western Australia. When I started, I took every opportunity to learn about the craft of writing—setting, character, plotting, editing, whatever.
I have a couple of bookshelves full of writing books, which I’ve read cover-to-cover and completed all their exercises! Since 2010, I’ve been attending a fortnightly writing group run by a lovely writer and author, Rosemary Stevens. We write to a prompt and focus a lot on memoir, but also write fiction. Rosemary constantly reminds us to concentrate on the senses, which is always a good place to start any story.
Until the middle of last year, I was a member of the Booklength Project Group, which I also facilitated for three years. We met once a month to discuss our work-in-progress, and often invited an author as a guest speaker. We were all on the same pathway, so it was a great way to learn from each other.
Do you have plans for more novels in the future?
I sure do. I have my characters and a reasonable idea of what it’s about. I’m 25,000 words into a first draft and I’m itching to get back to it!