Interiview with Dr Christine Williams, Director, Sydney School of Arts & Humanities by Dr. Syam Sudhakar, Kerala
Several universities, colleges and their boards of studies are yet to accept Creative Writing as one among their major courses. It is evident that there is an outsized demand for such courses as the number of vibrant and upcoming writers (or aspirants) is generally high when a creative writing workshop is conducted in the right place, and if properly advertised. Many writers, irrespective of their age and experience, are successful in conducting Creative Writing classes. Though the number of writers who have become financially sound using their writing skills, in both English and regional languages, is not prodigious, the number of literary carnivals and book festivals are increasing every year. Online book market is by no means flourishing in India, although writers self-publishing and print on demand have become common. In this context, the role of an editor or a Creative Writing Coach in the contemporary publishing domain is a major subject to be problematized.
It was perhaps during Aristotle’s time that the Western literary criticism started focusing on the style and method of literary genres. A study of the thoughts behind the process of writing flourished especially during the Modernity , where the entire European knowledge system was influenced by post-industrial and neo-liberal epistemological enquiries in the 19th Century and Post- Nietzschean nihilistic and existential 20th Century. Self-reflective writings of French symbolist poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valery and Stephane Mallarme and the Bohemian Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke; observations of Virginia Wolf and Henry James on various aspects of novel writing; impressions and speculations of playwrights such as Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht and Tennessee Williams; all these offer a rich platform for the development of an academic endeavor to form a strong philosophical foundation for the theory of creative writing.
Paul Dawson, Adele Ramet, Hazel Smith, Anna Leahy, Paul Mills are a few contemporary names who have explored the multiple nuances of creative writing from various corners of the world, which through their writings and creative writing classes have encouraged upcoming writers. Critics of creative writing often focus on various aspects such as the initial thought process, collecting materials both from memory and through proper historical research, laying a format to write publications and a writing project’s scope. Some of them try to bring down the high philosophical interrogations into a more democratic place and make it accessible for a popular culture. The ‘simple’ and ‘encouraging’ tone of their books proves this.
As mentioned earlier, there are several writers who opened creative writing courses across the globe; most of them are small scale publishers. It is interesting to analyze the development in the number of small scale publishing industries, their way of selling books and the marketing ideologies of these new firms. Dr. Christine Williams is one among them who owns a private business called Sydney Schools of Arts and Humanities (SSOA) and is a prominent creative writer based in Sydney, Australia. She holds a Doctorate of Creative Arts, has written a short story collection and four biographical works including the biographies of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and Australian novelist Christina Stead.
Here’s a brief conversation with Dr. Christine Williams which I conducted in February 2017 when she visited India to give a keynote address in a conference at Hyderabad.
SSOA published some remarkable books in the year 2016. What are the challenges that an independent publisher faces in Sydney?
Yes, I agree, remarkable books! A biography of life in Burma (now Myanmar) under military rule, some poetry, a short story from an Italian novelist (called “Arco”) and our first novel by a local writer, “Reported Missing”. And challenges … wow, no end of challenges – nurturing emerging writers from the kernel of an idea of their story right through to a completed manuscript – and then comes the rewriting and editing. Anyone who hasn’t had a book published thinks it’s a pushover to be a writer whereas only those initiated into the mysteries know that it takes a lot of talent plus sheer hard work.
How long have you been teaching creative writing? Why did you choose such a profession?
Well, I’ve been teaching for many years – always as an adjunct to being a practitioner. First I taught radio production while I was a radio producer and presenter, then journalism as I’d trained as a journalist, and only later I began to teach creative writing community classes when I was studying for a doctorate. It was easy to slide into tutoring and lecturing, but I’ve always liked the down-to-earth quality of teaching community groups. People walk in off the street or find us via internet, and you never know what stories will turn up – whether biographical or fictional. Now we have a democratic feel to our teaching through meet ups, with not so much instruction and more sharing of our styles and approaches to writing by reading out loud in small groups, for feedback. It means that rather than getting lost in the story itself, participants learn about techniques as they listen: how a plot is developed week by week, the subtleties of clever characterisation, the range of voices and styles that can be effective in writing, depending on genre.
You write stories as well. How far does teaching creative writing differ from actual creative writing?
Oh, it’s so different – but who better to teach creative writing than a writer herself? Writing is mostly a lonely occupation … an act of creation involving your mind, your fingers and a piece of paper or, more often these days, a screen. So patience and a strong back are essential! Plus a tad of talent.[Laughs.]
I don’t know anyone who can toss off a brilliant piece of writing first up. Almost everything you write that is longer than one sentence can be improved on reflection. You can certainly catch a brilliant flash of an idea or some phrases that pass through your mind and set them down quickly, but you need to take time for the tea, the chai, to brew, as it were. Or for the first bud to open up to full bloom.
Being alone long enough to develop a set of short stories or a novel, at least months on end, more often years, means you sometimes yearn to share your love of story. That’s why we’ve formed the Sydney Writers’ Circle meet up, coming together weekly, which gives an incentive to those taking part to complete a chapter or a few poems, for instance, to share with others. It’s a bit like waiting for the next episode in a TV series. I find the best atmosphere for our groups is non-academic, meaning no competition, but plenty of encouragement in finding what you like about a piece of writing, what works well, and letting the emerging writer know what you think was splendid in the writing, instead of concentrating on the faults, or flaws. Every writer has flaws and they can be pointed out gently, after some praise, so that the writer doesn’t lose heart and over time comes to recognise how she or he can improve.
You have written two biographies of prominent people, the novelist Christina Stead and the philosopher, J. Krishnamurti, who was Indian-born but lived most of his life in England and the United States. Does the writing of fiction have much in common with writing non-fiction such as biography?
A hard question because it depends so much on particular writers’ approaches to writing. No two writers are the same, although they must all share some sense of discipline, otherwise their work would never be completed. I find mornings are best for writing, while you’re still fresh. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, I think it’s also best to read some part of the previous day’s output, so that you don’t fly off in a different style or tone. You need to keep consistency. Both fiction and biography require research in and on detail because that’s what carries the reader along with you, brings a story to life. This should be undertaken before you launch into writing in any genre, though of course biography is the more research-based genre. But you can research for years and unless you can capture the heart of the subject and can form a strong narrative out of the assortment of background information you find, you won’t know why you’ve written the story – and nor will the reader! You need purpose in writing, and that way the reader will be satisfied with the story you’ve told.
At the turn of the 20th century in Sydney, a young woman with a talent for writing is set to become a teacher and falls in love with an out-and-out cad. But she is not suited to teaching, and the guy sails off to London. She scrimps and saves for a year for the fare in order to follow him, only to find when she reaches London that he is not worth crossing the road for, let alone sailing halfway round the globe. She finds an office job with a banker who also happens to be a published novelist, she falls in love with him because he’s so gentle, kind and intelligent, and goes on to become a major internationally acclaimed novelist herself. Now there’s a story! Does it sound like fiction or biography to you? It’s the true life story of Christina Stead.
I’ve also written some biographies of less well-known characters and I always look for the driving force of their lives. You do the same when you’re developing a fictional character. To be believable a character needs to be shown to have consistency so that a reader gains a sense from what you write that they might expect certain behaviour… yes, the character would speak out to challenge those values, or no, she’s much too well-mannered to slap a man’s face or kick him in the stomach, for example. And the story needs to have fulfilled a purpose, preferably with a memorable climax.
Most of your stories carry a personal element in them. How far do you think a writer’s personal life should be reflected in her or his creative practices?
It’s a funny thing, but when you write a story and it seems quite credible, the first thing most people ask is whether it really happened. Just one percent of the story might be based on your own life, or the life of a friend, and rather than realise that you’ve simply used it as a springboard for a fictional tale to entertain or stimulate, a reader takes what you’ve written as a piece of memoir. Young writers are encouraged to write what they know, because if they venture too far from that they might not have the maturity to develop a theme or to plot a realistic narrative or embellish action for a rounded characterisation. They might show their lack of knowledge of the school of hard knocks that is life. It’s very hard to write completely beyond your experiential knowledge base (even in science fiction) but even so, readers should not be so easily deceived by the tricks of the writing trade.
Different writers use differing degrees of drawing on their own experience to ‘make up’ a story. I can only think that it’s a kind of compliment to your fictional writing that a reader believes it is all true.
I’ve recently published a selection of short stories under the name C V Williams (also available through Amazon) which provided fertile writing ground for me to play with reflections of some situations or characters from my life – which I’ve turned inside out or recast, in a post-modern style re-reading and re-writing of the art of fictional biography. The title of the short story selection is “a grain of truth a pinch of salt” so I hope that conveys the mid-field positioning of so-called facts that can be re-viewed and de-contextualised so that many readers may see reflections of their own lives in the fiction I’ve created. In the award-winning movie, “LA LA Land”, the screenwriter, Damien Chazelle, aims for a similar effect in reworking the bones of 1950s Hollywood musicals to reconstruct a fantasy love story which is not singly biographical so much as a version of what most lovers can relate to from their own lives.
The great contemporary American novelist, Jonathan Franzen, explained in an interview during the 2016 Sydney Writers’ Festival, “Your own life is not the stuff of fiction exactly,” and went on to refer to exaggeration, saying he doesn’t like to talk about the biographical sources of his fiction.
How much editing is required in the work of the writers you publish?
Again, it’s variable, depending on the writer. Some people are perfectionists, and that’s a great quality as long as the person isn’t obsessional, taking their rewrites beyond the value of the story itself. As an author it’s best to reach a point where you hand over the manuscript in the knowledge that you’ve done your best and can put your trust in the editor’s judgment that the cake is cooked already. If you want to write another story, then go ahead, rather than try to turn the narrative of a manuscript in a new direction.
Of course there are also writers who are lazy and want to leave the hard work to an editor. For example, relying on the editor’s knowledge of grammar and punctuation, instead of going through their own story with a fine tooth comb. That’s not allowed! [Laughs.]
You should think of your story as a gift to the world, so it needs to be displayed in platinum wrapping paper with a bow tie or cherry on top. Or, you know what I mean …
So you edit everything from poetry to novels? Which of these genres is easy and which tough?
You’d like to think that poetry would be easier because it’s more concise – yet it presents its own challenges. You see, no matter what the publication, every word counts. In a poem, the message should be stripped bare yet convey a mood with extraordinary sensitivity. It’s not an easy task to intervene in a poem to assist without risking some gaucheness. My experience in editing poetry has been with translated texts, which adds another dimension because the success of the poem can lie so directly in the adeptness of the translator.
When it comes to novels, this focus on every word is writ large. And the several editors that are employed by SSOA are both writers and editors so they’re experienced in both creation and refinement of the art of writing. You have so much more to consider in every sentence of a novel, especially its interconnection with every other sentence in the unfolding of the story. Consistency is a major concern – of character, of plot, of pacing, of the weather or season, the colour of a character’s shoes, even perhaps the impact of the sound of a bird’s call. Continuity is as high a priority as for a film, so it needs to be double-checked for accuracy. The novelist is all-powerful in creating a world but then is imprisoned by it and must observe the rules of that world – the pleasures and cares, the number and quality of characters and objects – manifest in all the detail that he or she has created.
If writing is purely a talent, what is the duty of a creative writing teacher – and does a writer also have a duty?
I’m not sure what you’re implying here, because many hopefuls have talent but only a few develop that talent into a successful outcome. In India I believe you have a deep faith in the idea of the destiny of a chosen few. By contrast, Australia is generally a democratic country and the culture encourages an attitude of a potential in everyone, and that any individual with a talent in a certain direction must work hard with focus to succeed – using strong will and plenty of sweat. There are natural strengths but they can’t be taken for granted. So I believe the duty of a creative writing teacher is to assist a person who has either a dream to become a writer, or more importantly, some idea to convert into writing which would be valuable for others to read from a moral, social, political or entertainment point of view. A potential writer surely has not so much a duty, but a privilege, to make the most of his or her life, and talent, and take up the opportunities that come along to persist in the practice of writing.
Self-publishing firms encourage democracy in publishing books. Are you happy about the way companies such as Amazon publish and sell books?
Democracy is one thing. A multinational tax-savvy, profit-making business is another and it’s a myth that Amazon operates to assist poor struggling writers or that you can become a millionaire as a result of being listed on Amazon. How is anyone going to find your book among the hundreds of millions available on the site, I ask you? It’s a random and rare occurrence that any writer might conquer the world, and writers such as J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, Paulo Coelho, James Patterson, Danielle Steele or Stephenie Meyer would have been found and picked up by traditional publishers at one time or another anyway.
That said, Sydney School of Arts & Humanities sells the work of our authors through Amazon and Apple and other major online retailers worldwide, as part of our publishing contract for global network reach. We are active on many social media sites and encourage our individual writers to maintain high profiles, as it’s really only by getting the message out there that sales and reputation can expand. As an emerging writer it’s more valuable for you to be judged by your peers, to be accepted by a publisher with experience in assessing manuscripts, and to join a stable of authors even in a small publishing house – rather than strike out completely on your own, not only risking publication of a sub-standard book but trying to negotiate the maze of internet marketing which is essential for sales these days.
But the most important factor in sales remains the writer’s ability to tell a graphic and formidable story in tune with the values of many niche markets, and if possible, the market as a whole. A bestseller in one decade can easily lie on a remaindered desk the next – and the writer completely forgotten twenty years later.
What is the role of an editor in the contemporary creative writing scene?
With more and more emphasis on universities as the source of accomplished creative writers over the past twenty years, there has lately arisen more interest in publishers being invited into the academic fold. It’s important for any aspiring writer to have a knowledge of what has come before – in other words to be a reader, to understand the history of writing in their own culture and language, as well as in English, since English literature dominates the world of writing in range and versatility, and especially with the number of readers of English as a second language increasing every year. As university English departments and Arts faculties recognize the vocational possibilities for their talented students, I believe there will be greater interaction between the educational and marketing streams of creative writing, to the advantage of emerging writers. As long as creativity is not repressed or censored in the interests of safe marketing, to the detriment of that well-spring of intellectual joy and fecundity, originality in writing.
Note: The interview with Dr. Christine Williams ends here.
Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet, which can be very well considered as a manifesto of creative writing, points out the importance of solitude that a writer has to keep and also about how he or she can equip themselves by reading and understanding earlier art forms. Leo Tolstoy in his What is Art? also considered writing as a sincere practice of a writer where he or she experiences a feeling and conveys the same emotion to the readers. From these classical views on art and literature, it is evident that the role of an editor was always kept unsaid; perhaps it remains hidden in the glorious and shining aura of the Author or Artist. The time has come to interrogate such notions about artwork and critics should go deeply into the different dimensions within the creation of a work of art. The text now is not a mere or separate entity by itself in the whole system as there is a scope to study about the thought and technical process behind a work of art; its political and cultural context and also about its range and market.
In most cases, the popular readers tend to look only at the plot or the idea that has been described in a text. In traditional literature classes too, the teacher talks only about nuances such as – theme, structure, plot, characters, the biography of the author and the socio political context of the author and the text. But, for instance, when we teach Chetan Bhagat in a classroom, the name Shinie Antony always remains hidden as very few people actually know that she is the editor and the master key behind the success of the author Chetan Bhagat. Studies could be conducted focusing on the actual manuscript of the text and how much input the editor has given to enhance it.
This showcases that most of the ‘real’ happenings behind the stage remain unseen and the popular reader or researcher always tends to see what has been seen before his eyes, evidently. It is high time that we should start thinking and researching about what is happening behind the stage, the mechanism behind the whole publishing industry and how a work of art has been created – what is all the information added and removed according to the market politics. Such studies taken seriously will definitely create new methodologies in literary studies, which will expand the existing boundaries of literature/art studies. Proper fieldwork, collecting manuscripts and taking interviews of authors, publishers and editors would be a recommended methodology.
Antony, Shinie. “Meet Shinie Antony, Chetan Bhagat’s Editor and Cofounder of the Bangalore Literature Festival.” The Economic Times, 17 July 2015, economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/meet-shinie-antony-chetan-bhagats-editor-and-cofounder-of-the-bangalore-literature-festival/articleshow/48111414.cms.
Dawson, Paul. Creative Writing and the New Humanities. London, Routledge, 2005.
Franzen, Jonathan, and Sarah Kanowski.“Jonathan Franzen in Conversation.” Radio National, ABC, 4 Dec. 2016, www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandarts/jonathan-franzen/8016284.
Harper, Graeme. On Creative Writing.Bristol, UK, Multilingual Matters, 2010.
Leahy, Anna. Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: the Authority Project. Clevedon, Multilingual Matters, 2005.
Mills, Paul. The Routledge Creative Writing Coursebook. London, Routledge, 2006.
Ramet, Adele. Creative Writing: How to Unlock Your Imagination and Develop Your Writing Skills. Oxford, How To Books, 2010.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. New York, Vintage, 1984.
Smith, Hazel. The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing. Crows Nest, N.S.W., Allen &Unwin, 2005.
Tolstoy, Leo. What Is Art? London, Bristol, 1994.
Williams, Christine. Christina Stead: A Life of Letters. Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1989.
—. “Coaching & Mentoring at Sydney School of Arts & Humanities.”Sydney School of Arts & Humanities, 23 Aug. 2013, ssoa.com.au/services/coaching/.
—. JidduKrishnamurti: World Philosopher. Millers Point, New South Wales, Sydney School of Arts & Humanities, 2012.
Dr. Syam Sudhakar,
Department of English,
St.Thomas’ College, Kerala