Philip’s top tip for aspiring authors: Read. It’s always the same advice. Be critical not sentimental. Look for individuality and value in your own work and be welcoming but be rigorous in developing it. Quality matters more than popularity.
Philip Salom‘s new novel The Returns is his fourth novel. He has also published 14 collections of poetry. His recent novel Waiting attracted wide-ranging acclaim in reviews and in 2017 was shortlisted for the prestigious Miles Franklin Literature Award, as well as the Prime Minister’s Award and the Victorian Premier’s Award. His two earlier novels are Playback, which won the WA Premier’s Prize for Fiction, and Toccata and Rain which was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the WA Premier’s Prize.
His poetry awards include winning the 1987 Commonwealth Poetry Book Prize in London for Overall Best Book of Poetry, after having won Best First Book Prize for Poetry in 1981; the Western Australian Premier’s Prize (twice for Poetry) and the prestigious Newcastle Poetry Prize. Plus numerous shortlistings in the major national book awards.
Philip was recognised with the 2003 Christopher Brennan Prize which is Australia’s most prestigious lifetime award for poets for “poetry of sustained quality and distinction”. Visit Philip’s website at email@example.com
Why do you write? I’ve always been interested in making. As a child I did very little of it but those adults who did caught in my imagination as doing something thrilling, something I desired. Any kind of making, buildings, bridges, paintings, sculptures, but essentially visual forms. Though I read books non-stop it was only in my 20s that I realised I might actually make them. Not external visualisations, but internal ones. ‘Buildings’ you could say, that work in the mind.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? Very hard to say. I have forgotten what it is not to write. And during the last 10 years I’ve had long works-in-progress happening all the time. I have already finished the novel which will follow The Returns. However, I love the idea of being a trouble-shooter, a Fix-it, a problem-solver. The challenge, the creative and imaginative thinking required, the suspense. The resolution. Especially if it has a hands-on physicality, thus the pleasure of working mentally but in three dimensions. Unlike writing, which for all its imaginative recreation of life, is actually a very inward encounter.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? I was lucky. The first manuscript was picked up immediately because I was plucked: a publisher knew what I was working on and asked to see it. But some manuscripts have been harder to place and made me sit down and look very hard – to see if there were problems, then face up to them. First is the feeling of having gone wrong with it, having worked superficially, made errors of judgement. You must be rigorous, and get over it. Re-writing, even re-imagining, can be very confronting personally and tough in terms of sheer concentration, then in the new writing, and new re-writing. Endless re-writing sometimes!
How involved have you been in the development of your books? Did you have input into the covers? Sometimes my poetry has employed unorthodox layout so for a book I did with Penguin I was asked to do the entire layout myself. Fiction is much easier so I’m not involved. I always comment on my book covers, though, as part of my on-going interest in art and design. This new cover is the most unexpected so far and I have grown to really like it.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Being so mentally involved with the actual writing. Fiction is something I carry in my head: my characters, their dialogue, their possibilities, potential surprises in development. It suits the loner in me to spend my private time in a place and with an imagined cast no one knows exists. Until it does.
—the worst? Not knowing quite how much has been achieved in one’s work and, much worse, receiving occasional reviews that seem to exist as bloody-minded dismissals of the work. Some reviews are examples of condescension by the ignorant, some are vindictive, some are not very bright. Thank god for the rest.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I would have written more fiction from the beginning and as a poet made more of the networking that poetry (with its very much smaller base of readers) necessarily exists within. Especially in Australia, where the readership and public reception of poetry are less – and less generous – than in many other countries.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? Same as the above, really, that there is the actual writing (which is private and which I value most) and there is the profession itself, where the public profile of any writer is established and promoted (or not). Most professions are like this but like many I had assumed the writing sold itself. It can, but mostly it doesn’t. There is a huge amount of unseen promotion behind very visible writers.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? A writer I admired telling me that I was on the right track i.e. keep going.
What’s your top tip for aspiring authors? Read. It’s always the same advice. Be critical not sentimental. Look for individuality and value in your own work and be welcoming but be rigorous in developing it. Quality matters more than popularity.
How important is social media to you as an author? It doesn’t appeal to me though its power and reach can be significant.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I’m lucky not to have it. Something always comes if you let yourself be subsumed by the work itself, not your anxieties about it, which are you, and personal. Drop the ego-self but keep the ego-confidence. During a long work I worry about where it’s going and how to solve its problems or demands (such as, does this scene work? Is it right to end it this way? Etc). I solve the problems by writing.
How do you deal with rejection? It’s a hit to the stomach. Keep on. Again, turn back inwards to the writing and if there are lessons in the rejection, use them.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Its own self.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? I remember the old saying: never meet your heroes. As above, the work is the ‘self’ that matters. The desire to meet others is of course very great. I had met and become friendly with John Clarke and he was an exception. His life and work were very much the same. Human, droll, insightful, hilarious and welcoming. That voice. A beautiful person.
Elizabeth posts a ‘room for rent’ notice in Trevor’s bookshop and is caught off-guard when Trevor answers the advertisement himself. She expected a young student not a middle-aged bookseller whose marriage has fallen apart. But Trevor is attracted to Elizabeth’s house because of the empty shed in her backyard, the perfect space for him to revive the artistic career he abandoned years earlier. The face-blind, EH Holden-driving Elizabeth is a solitary and feisty book editor, and she accepts him, on probation …
Miles Franklin finalist Philip Salom has a gift for depicting the inner states of his characters with empathy and insight. In this poignant yet upbeat novel the past keeps returning in the most unexpected ways. Elizabeth is at the beck and call of her ageing mother, and the associated memories of her childhood in a Rajneesh community. Trevor’s Polish father disappeared when Trevor was 15, and his mother died not knowing whether he was dead or alive. The authorities have declared him dead, but is he?
The Returns is a story about the eccentricities, failings and small triumphs that humans are capable of, a novel that pokes fun at literary and artistic pretensions, while celebrating the expansiveness of art, kindness and friendship.
Praise for Philip Salom’s writing
‘Philip Salom … dissects the vulnerabilities of the human condition (loneliness, fear of intimacy, powerlessness, guilt), the power of the past to haunt us, the fear of the future to mire us, and the redemptive effects of love and acceptance.’ -Miles Franklin Award Judges
The book is available here and from all good bookshops.