Christine’s top tip for aspiring authors: Even when you’re not getting published keep writing. Elizabeth Jolley did that over twenty years of rejection and then when one book got published, the others all lined up behind and, in short time, she seemed prolific.
Christine Bell is a Melbourne fiction writer. Her debut historical novel No Small Shame was published by Ventura Press (Impact) this month. In October 2019, Christine was awarded the inaugural Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) Colleen McCullough Residency for an Established Writer. She is a Varuna fellow and holds a Master of Creative Writing (RMIT). Christine has had 35 short fiction works published for children. No Small Shame is her first adult novel.
Why do you write? I write because I love the thrill of creating characters and seeing people, places, events coming to life on the page that didn’t exist before. Then I write to discover why my characters make certain choices, what influences them and to see how they respond to both the world and shifting circumstances.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I’d perhaps be a teacher or a librarian. I taught ESL to Chinese English Major students for a term at a Chinese university and loved it. I also taught creative writing classes for a couple of terms to adult students and loved that too. But being a writer, I couldn’t wait to get back to work on my story.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Getting a novel published has proven far more elusive than getting my children’s fiction published. Two YA novels went to various acquisitions meetings, but didn’t make it through. Really though, I think my biggest obstacle was probably my own fear and self-doubt. I took a long time to send No Small Shame out into the world. I loved it and couldn’t bear to let it go.
How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? Ventura Press have been very inclusive throughout every stage, from discussions on the cover design and editorial process to changing the original title. I really appreciated that they took up some of my suggestions. I trusted them implicitly and knew that, if they did not agree with any, they knew the market and readers far better than me. My input into the cover design was to suggest the type of cover images I liked and then to say which design I liked best during concept development. Happily, we all picked the same as our favourite which was the one developed into the final cover art on the book.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? I love those moments when I’m so engrossed in writing a scene that my fingers fly across the keyboard. It still delights me to see an idea become real on the page, a new character or event come to life that an hour ago did not exist. Also I love those times when a gnarly scene I’ve been wrestling develops into a crucial and poignant moment in the book. I have to say though that the very best moment was when I finally held No Small Shame, the book, in my hands!
—the worst? Self doubt. The fear that I’m fooling myself. Will anyone want to read my book? That fear can be paralysing on occasions, but then I have to give myself a good prod and get back to work.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I’d trust myself to write the book I always wanted to write, even if it was big and scary and might never be published.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? If you want to write novels, write novels. Don’t worry whether you’re good enough or if it will ever get published.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Make your similes work for your story. Match them to your work. For example: In No Small Shame, there’s a scene where Mary’s husband is having a nightmare and thrashing about in the bed. In the original scene I wrote it using a simile along the lines that Mary was drowning in a churning sea, but when I went to rework it, I knew it needed to be connected more immediately to their world and setting, and so it became about the timbers shifting in a coal mine and the roof beginning to cave in.
How important is social media to you as an author? At one time, I looked upon it as a necessary evil. A time sucker that took me away from writing. But then as I began to make connections and friendships with writers whom I’d never met and couldn’t hope to meet, my attitude changed to one of gratitude. Plus the incredible, generous response of the online writing community to authors who’ve had launches and events cancelled during this Covid-19 crisis has proven beyond doubt how valuable the connections you make through social media can be. Plus you’re never working alone in a bubble or isolated.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? Generally, I don’t suffer from writer’s block. I can experience chronic bouts of procrastination, when I consciously avoid beginning a scene, telling myself I need to do more research, think about it more etc. Ultimately, I have to make myself sit down and just write. I tell myself, I just need to get the bare bones down. It almost always works, then I’m left wondering why I put it off so long!
How do you deal with rejection? Usually I give myself 24 hours to mope, then send it out again. I’ve always been pretty resilient, except for one brief patch in 2018 when I lost confidence in the direction of my work-in-progress, then received two particularly disappointing rejections in one week. For the first time, I shut my office door, saying, I don’t think I can do this anymore. It took some weeks for me to realise that I’d become so obsessed with writing and getting published, I’d forgotten to take time out for other things. For fun! I gave myself a long Christmas break and took up learning to play the piano and mastering photography with a mirrorless camera. I began the New Year somewhat renewed and reinspired for work-in-progress, especially after I did a hugely inspirational masterclass with Antoni Jach.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Authentic, compelling, gritty.
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? This answer would change for me on any given day, depending on what I was reading or writing. Today, I’d nominate Ruth Park. She wrote with such raw honesty and her characters, such as the Darcy family in Harp in the South, bore a familiarity to the O’Donnells in No Small Shame. They also faced poverty and prejudice, along with the daily struggle to break free of their circumstances. I think Park with her Irish migrant background would have many more tales she could tell. With my Irish, Scottish heritage, I’d be keen to listen.
Australia, 1914. The world is erupting in war. Jobs are scarce and immigrants unwelcome. For young Catholic Mary O’Donnell, this is not the new life she imagined. When one foolish night of passion leads to an unexpected pregnancy and a loveless marriage, Mary’s reluctant husband Liam escapes to the trenches. With her overbearing mother attempting to control her every decision, Mary flees to Melbourne determined to build a life for herself and her child. There, she forms an unlikely friendship with Protestant army reject Tom Robbins. But as a shattering betrayal is revealed, Mary must make an impossible choice. Does she embrace the path fate has set for her, or follow the one she longs to take? From the harshness of a pit village in Scotland to the upheaval of wartime Australia, No Small Shame tells the moving story of love and duty, loyalty and betrayal, and confronting the past before you can seek a future.
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