Your path to becoming a published author was via a manuscript development program offered through Hachette Publishing and the Queensland Writer’s Centre. What are some of the most important things you learned about writing fiction by going through this workshop?
Various industry personnel touched on all aspects of the Australian publishing industry during the program, and author Kim Wilkins gave seminars on the technical side of writing. She covered areas like plotting, scene maps, POV, timelines, structure, characterisation and so on. All fundamentals that underpin fiction writing but that I really hadn’t heard of until then. Kim is a great teacher and I often refer back to the notes I took in her seminars.
You have mentioned that, until the workshop discussed above, your training in writing fiction had consisted of reading a lot of fiction. Do you think this translates into an advantage of not having a lot of contrived theory get in the way of your writing, or do you wish you had more academic training?
I do not wish for more academic training. I have two degrees and a postgrad diploma and I vowed never to undertake formal study again many years ago. And, as my second degree was in visual arts I had years of exposure to theory, and I really didn’t want to go back to it.
While intellectually fascinating I think theory can smother creativity, it can make you afraid to put a word on paper lest you get the theory behind the word wrong. As an art student and subsequent art lecturer, I saw many art students, with patchy understanding of the fashionable theories at the time, work in the style of the big theory driven artists while not really understanding what the hell they were doing. But they were bloody certain that if they didn’t at least make art that resembled the theory based art, they’d be excluded. Whatever the merits of literary theory at the moment, it’s not for me, nor for the people I write for. I suspect it would be a great disadvantage for my writing to be distanced, ironic and theory based.
That said, I do occasionally tip my hat in Theory’s direction, and writing romance can be a feminist minefield, but I don’t let it worry me unduly. My character, Lily, says to her love interest, William, ‘this is a fantasy, puppies are born housetrained and no one wears a condom.’ She’s also saying it to the reader, and that’s about as close as I want to get to irony.
What makes a great writing workshop, or what advice would you like to give to anyone planning a writing workshop?
The only writing workshop I’ve been to is the one Kim Wilkins held as part of the manuscript development program, so I couldn’t really say. However, having had experience teaching art I think there are some fundamentals that need to be part of any creative learning environment. The primary one is to create a safe place where people are prepared to take risks and not lose face. If participants feel bad they freeze and cling to what they know. Like most situations it’s people skills that are important – once you have mutual trust and respect you can really get into learning.
You have mentioned that you prefer to write light, entertaining, humorous fiction. What attracts you to this style of writing?
Writing fiction requires a writer to submerge into the world they’re writing about – that’s why a lot of us do it, I guess. I write full time and don’t want to be in a world of corpses, autopsies, disappointments, tragedy and other bleak scenarios day after day. I’m not a Pollyanna, I can read dark literature, watch all manner of films – but I just don’t want it to live in my head, day after day.
I’m just going to nip back to the art analogy again here – I studied sculpture in the late eighties, it was all very conceptually based, and intellectually challenging. But sometimes I’d walk past the decorative arts studios and look at all the beautiful objects they were creating and wonder if I was doing the right course. We’d be studying Joseph Beuys and I’d be sneaking off to the library to look at ceramicists Lorraine Jennyns or Jenny Orchard.
With writing, I didn’t want to make the same mistake; I’m doing what feels good for me.
What were some of the most important aspects you considered to make the story work in The Book of Love?
I wanted classical antiquities in the story and a small group of characters on the fringes of the arts world. I initially wanted to look at various incidents, first from a man’s point of view, and then from a woman’s. There’s a lot of scope for humour in those different perceptions, but it became too unwieldy, so I kept the his/hers viewpoint and just got on with the story.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes them stand out for you?
At the moment I’m rather taken with Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther. Gunther is a private detective in pre and post war Berlin and has a line in wisecracks that kills me – I’m always snorting and giggling when I read one of his books. Gunther wanders through the descent into hell and it’s aftermath, trying to find a morality to his actions, the cases he takes on and the dames he inevitably gets entangled with.
What is one the most memorable responses a reader has expressed to you about your book?
I have a friend with a widowed mother in her eighties who can be a bit tricky, a bit demanding. My friend gave her a copy of my book and her mother took the day to read it and became so engrossed in the story she forgot to ask for her dinner, or for anything else. A first, so I’m told.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I’ll continue to write romantic comedy/suspense for now. I’m thinking of a story revolving around Freud’s collection of antiquities and I’d like to write a story based on the book, Rebecca, in the manner that the film, Clueless, was based on Emma. These ideas are starting points, the stories could go in different directions but that’s all part of the pleasure.
I’m also researching Italian Futurism during the build up to Italian Fascism, in order to write a love story set in that era. An Australian studying art in Milan gets caught up in the Futurists agenda. Not a romance, a love story – then I can dispense with the happy ending.
More on Phillipa Fioretti and her fiction can be found at www.phillipafioretti.com.au.
The Australian Literature Review