I am please to welcome our next author, She is a internationally acclaimed and award-winning writer please welcome Penni Russon.
What can you tell us about your upcoming book Endsister?
The Endsister began as an online serialised story. I was invited to be a creative partner on Storybird.com. It was during a time when writing was quite challenging for me and the discipline of writing roughly a chapter a week and publishing it straight away was great – instant feedback! The book is quite different from the online novel, characters have developed more in the book. Online, the plot was resolved with a deus ex machina (an act of god) where the family inherited another house! It was fun writing it that way online, but it was also extremely rewarding to push the novel to the next level in the redrafting phase, to be with my characters and patiently listen to what they knew, what they needed. It’s funny to think that the first draft is still out there in the public domain. I wonder if anyone will ever compare them.
Where did the idea for Endsister come from?
Lots of places. My daughter Una was the one who told me she knew what an endsister was. The ghosts Almost Annie and Hardly Alice came to me in a dream. Inheriting the house was a fantasy solution to my own housing dilemma I think – we were a family of five living in a two-bedroom house, the girls sharing, the baby sleeping in our walk-in-robe. I was also drawn to write about England – I’m the daughter of a migrant and on the one hand I felt like I was going home the first time I visited, but when I went back with my oldest daughter, who was five, I realized I didn’t really relate to the culture there, which was so unlike the Asian and Mediterranean influenced culture of the inner suburbs of Melbourne.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It can definitely do both. Else’s loss of ‘flow’ in The Endsister, her struggle to play violin or find interest or joy in something that used to bring her pleasure, is definitely my own story about myself as a writer. The violin maker, Else’s ‘Starman’, says ‘no one is waiting for you to play the violin’ and what he means is, ‘play or don’t play. You may as well play.’ It’s about writing, or playing, for yourself rather than for some kind of public recognition or success.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I’m friends with lots of authors, I guess I’ve been around the traps a while. My daughter Una was Kate Mildenhall daughter’s grade six buddy in 2017 and Kate’s daughter and my son were in the same class. Kate wrote the lovely novel Skylarking. Having Kate in my regular life has been such a treat – to have someone so kindred at the classroom door to chat to just incidentally – and it helps that she’s so warm and kind. I have been teaching creative writing at the University of Melbourne for 10 years and I stay in touch with some of my students who have gone on to do amazing things – C.S. Pacat, Shivaun Plozza, Jack Henseleit, but also several who haven’t been published yet and I am excited and energized by watching them grow and develop as writers. Kirsty Murray has been kind to me since long before I became a writer – we used to go for long walks together when I was in my early twenties and Kirsty was at home with three children and beginning her career. Kirsty helped me meet, well, everyone. Another longstanding writer friend is Kate Constable. It’s good to have friends, especially writer-mother friends, who know what it’s like to live in two worlds.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Actually early on I wasn’t afraid to make a big mess, write my way into trouble and out of it again, including deleting massive chunks (there is something heartstoppingly exhilarating about selecting 10,000 words and hitting the delete button). I’m more conservative now as a writer, I am much less patient with myself, more risk-averse, and find it harder to tolerate mistakes.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I was a child, and I got very, very cross and shut myself in my bedroom, my father would write me notes and draw pictures and push them under the door. The power of language to mend wounds and regulate emotions has stayed with me forever, and now my daughters and I sometimes work things out over text messages (and where language fails there are always gifs).
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
The Summer Birds is a sequel, or prequel I think, to the better-known novel Charlotte Sometimes, and it’s such a curious and strange novel. On the same note, The Long Secret is a lesser-known sequel to Harriet the Spy. I was an adult when I found out these companions to two of my favourite books existed, and it was like discovering a hidden underground room in your house filled with curiosities.
What does literary success look like to you?
There really is nothing better than connecting with a reader and knowing your characters, once so private and intangible, are alive in them. But being published, getting recognition from your peers, critical acclaim, winning prizes, decent sales, these are all measures too, and I have to admit, I really care about all of them.
What’s the best way to market your books?
I remember hearing a story about Paul Jennings from early in his career. It might be apocryphal, but apparently he first started receiving fan mail from one area, I think it was Geelong, and then a while later, he found he was receiving fan mail from Bendigo (it was back in the deep dark ages of snail mail). Anyway, the point being that books and reading have always been social and word of mouth was then and still is the best way for news of a book to spread – that earnest handselling recommendation between two friends. Now it happens differently of course, ‘Bendigo’ and ‘Geelong’ are now ‘Tumblr’ and ‘Instagram’ or more precisely, the communities that form on these sorts of social networks. I guess when it comes down to it, I write the best book I know how to write and I trust booksellers, librarians and readers to find it, if it’s the right book for them. I am online and active on social networks, but I try not to be all ‘hey, buy my thing’ at people. I think if people feel like they have a relationship with me online, they’ll be driven by their own curiosity to seek out my work. Writing this, I feel like a giant fraud because marketing is probably the thing about being a writer that I find hardest to do. It goes against my social conditioning to push myself forward.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I read a lot. I read books in the genre I want to write – for Endsister that meant lots of 20th century family stories with magical elements by authors like Noel Streatfeild, Rumer Godden, Joan G. Robinson, Lucy Boston, Penelope Farmer. For Endsister, I used Google Earth extensively to find the right street in London and ‘walk’ around the neighbourhood (I’d been to London twice before on short visits so I had some sense of the place). I was lucky to go back to London during the rewrite so I took lots of notes, but I was excited to see that Google Earth had been a fairly reliable source and the street looked exactly as I imagined it. Going to London reminded me of certain things, like you sit facing each other in the Tube instead of on rows of streets like in Melbourne trains, and I visited Harrods and the Natural History Museum and all the other places the Outhwaites go in the book. Also I found out that apparently lots of people in England believe in ghosts!
How do you select the names of your characters?
All the babies I never had! I’m obsessed with names. I’m the person in the cinema reading all the names in the credits while everyone else dashes to the loo. I think I considered every name in existence for my three children. Sibylla, Oscar, Finn, Clancy and Else were all close contenders for baby names. For adults I try to come up with names that sound right for the age, so I borrow names from people I know.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I would love to be a curator in a museum or art gallery.
Do you Google yourself? If so what have you learned about yourself?
If you Google ‘How old is Penni Russon?’ it comes up with my age. That’s pretty cool, lucky I’m not coy about it. My Wikipedia page is woefully out of date, but it seems unseemly to update it myself.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
Money. The desire to make money out of writing.
Lastly is there anything you would like to say to your fans?
Reading over this, I guess the message about writing is that it’s sometimes hard work. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it, or how to do it. Writing your way through these feelings if the only way, just like being lost in forest – if you sit down and give up, you’ll stay lost. And you’ll always wonder what you might have found if you kept going. You are your mostly companion, trust yourself to guide yourself out of the forest, but don’t feel like you need to do it alone, help is on hand if you are kind to the woodland creatures and the trees. The thing is, a few trees over, in the next clearing that you can’t see, is everyone else you know, also lost in the same forest. You might not all be there at the same time, but it’s that kind of a forest, we all spend time there. Writer’s block is really another way of saying ‘I don’t know where to go next’ or ‘I am very tired, maybe I should just lie down here and sleep for a hundred years.’ That’s not a feeling special to writers. There is teacher’s block, plumber’s block, relationship block, even Netflix block. So send out your little light, and keep your eye out for those other little lights in the dark, showing the way home. And write. And read. And play. And dream.
Penni Russon is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning writer and academic with an enduring interest in childhood and adolescence. Penni lives in the bushy outskirts of Melbourne with her partner, three kids and a schnauzer called Swoosie. Find out more about Penni at pennirusson.com, or her blog eglantinescake.blogspot.com