What motivated you to start writing a novel, and can you describe how you came to get it published?
Years ago, I saw a documentary which looked at some of the more bizarre aspects of alternative therapies. In between the guy who was channelling an ancient Chinese prophet by way of Mickey Rooney at Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the other guy who claimed he would never age because he drank his own urine, I wondered two things (actually, I wondered a whole bunch of things but these were the most prominent):
1) Did these people who claimed to be psychic actually believe they had powers? (And, if they didn’t, how did they sleep at night after siphoning people’s wallets?)
2) How was it that a whole industry existed where people with no qualifications or credibility could take money from vulnerable people seeking help?
The idea that an ordinary person, blessed with charisma but no psychic power, could conceivably create an empire based on spiritual healing was irresistible. The story had so much possibility, I couldn’t not write it. How much could my fake psychic get away with? How much will desperate people believe? In both cases, it turned out: a lot.
Getting it published was a combination of luck and timing. I sent the manuscript to Simon & Schuster Australia on a whim, and crossed my fingers. To my surprise and delight, it got pulled out of slush, and they told me they loved it. I have to admit that if I’d started reading writing forums before I sent the MS off, I may never have done it as it ticked all the boxes for automatic failure: first novel; first publishing house; no agent. (You can add “no writing group”, “no conferences”, “no networking”, and “no clue” to the list, too.) All in all, it’s been like finding a Willy Wonka gold ticket, and I’m still pinching myself.
Your debut novel The Fortunes of Ruby White has recently been published. For those not familiar with it, how would you describe the book?
The Fortunes of Ruby White is a comedy about a girl who lands a job at an aromatherapy company and doesn’t realise it’s actually a cult. Very sceptical of her new line of work initially, she slowly but surely gets seduced into this strange new world, to the concern of her family and friends.
It examines how far people will go in order to fit in or keep their jobs, and what they’re willing to betray in order to belong, especially when they start to believe their own hype. It’s also a satire on the New Age scene. There’s a lot of material there! A looooot.
You have provided some insight into the process you went through writing The Fortunes of Ruby White here. What are some key thing you would do similarly and key things you would do differently, in terms of the way you write, in the future?
Writing without filtering—or constantly re-writing the same paragraph—was the hardest lesson to learn, and is something I still struggle with. (I’m assuming at some point it will get easier. In the meantime, I’m thinking of putting a “STOP THAT!” note on my keyboard until I get the hint.)
As I had a strong idea as to where I wanted the story to end up, I also did little plotting, bar jotting down scenes on one page. (“Hey, that sounds interesting,” was pretty much the criteria.) Predictably, I ground to a halt a few times during the process, so for the second book I’ve gone the other way and have been trying out the Snowflake Method. The Snowflake Method is measured, meticulous, and slightly scary. So far I’m not sure which method works better for me. Although I like the concept of having a structure I can rely on (I’m a mad planner outside my writing life), I’ve found slogging through detailed character studies in lieu of actual writing to be depressing and irritating. It’s entirely possible that I’ll abandon this process and go back to the previous method, but I thought it was important to try both.
As far as things I would definitely do differently, I would highly recommend creating two spreadsheets: a timeline to keep track of the story’s days/weeks/months, and a character arc broken into scenes so you can check your protagonist’s progression at a glance. (You may want to do one for each major character, too.) The character arcs help ensure that your people are behaving consistently and in a way that makes sense. I would also highly recommend creating these things while you write your book, not afterwards, as I did. Piecing Ruby White’s timeline together during the editing process took years off my life.
Do you read much Australian fiction, and do you have some favourites?
I have to admit, I read what appeals immediately, regardless of where the author is from. However, I loved Tim Winton’s Breath, am devouring Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and have The Boat (Nam Le) and Beautiful Malice (Rebecca James) on my bedside table, waiting for me. Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly is also on my list for my next trip to the bookshop.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and why?
Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables. Her intelligence, passion, and optimism make her a wonderful heroine, but she’s made even more irresistible by her flaws, particularly her stubbornness, bad temper, and fondness for sentimentality. I love the way she and Diana give in to romantic histrionics, swooning over awful melodramas and melancholy heroes. The fierce loyalty of their friendship is beautifully written; it always reminds me of how the little things can seem so life-and-death important when you’re not yet an adult. Plus through her I can vicariously enjoy puffed sleeves, as they make me look like a confused scullery-maid in real life.
What is one of your favourite first chapters of a novel, and what made it work so well for you?
I discovered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was barely in my teenage years and it was unlike anything I had ever read before. Arthur Dent thinks his biggest problem is the bulldozer threatening his house… and it’s really, really not. The melding of normal day-to-day Britain with completely absurd side notes is captivating, and Douglas Adams has a wonderfully strong narrative voice. You know you’re going on an adventure in this book. You may have no idea what kind of adventure or where you going or with whom, but you do know you’re in excellent hands. Hitchhiker’s Guide is also very, very, very funny straight off the bat; I was hooked immediately.
What is the main piece of advice you would like to offer new writers?
You can write about fantasy worlds, about wars, about politics, or about the guy next door who keeps pinching your recycling bin, but if it’s not entertaining, it won’t get read. Writing for yourself is all very well—and can be wonderfully cathartic—but if your main goal is to be published, the reader’s reaction must be foremost in your mind.
What is next for your fiction writing?
My second novel is about a mother who moves to a country town with her teenage daughter, and how her growing obsession with a man she can’t have splinters their relationship. It’s another comedy, though it doesn’t sound like one! I’ve also been asked about another Ruby book, so her next adventure may be on the horizon. I’ll keep my fingers crossed…
Find out more about Lia Weston and her writing at authors.simonandschuster.com.au/Lia-Weston/72363370.
The Australian Literature Review