Angela’s top tip for aspiring authors: Read. Ponder the experience of reading. Reading as a writer is an art in itself.
Angela O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in South East Queensland and now lives in Sydney. She completed a Master of Arts in Writing at UTS and has had short stories published in literary journals. Night Blue is her first book.
Why do you write? We can’t ever get into the head of another human but we can imagine ourselves into anyone and anything, whether fictional or real. For me, writing is the best and most exhilarating way of doing that. It’s my prism for experiencing the world.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? As far as having some sort of prism for experiencing the world I can’t imagine being happy with anything that wasn’t related to the arts. I would pick acting, I think, as there is that similar aspect of inhabiting a character, of stepping beyond the boundary of the self and in some way experiencing the other.
What was the toughest obstacle to becoming published? The toughest obstacle was me. I wrote probably three or four novels over the years, and a couple of those got initial interest from publishers that then didn’t go anywhere. I really took to heart the adages about writing “what you know” and “showing not telling” and in hindsight I think I let those adages sort of shackle me. In 2016 I went to Varuna, The National Writers House, for a “Conversations with Writers” workshop with Peter Bishop and he talked about allowing the writing “to breathe” and something just clicked for me. I realised I could step into a space where I didn’t know “what I knew”, a space where there was not necessarily a distinction between “showing and telling,” and things just got better from there. I wrote the first pages of Night Blue soon after that.
How involved were you in the development of your book. Did you have input into the cover? Barry from Transit Lounge really loved the book; from the start there was an openness, a common understanding. He has this way in his emails of saying little but meaning much, and I just felt really supported. Yet he was ready to push back when he felt he needed to, and I really appreciated that too. There was a small change I wanted to make in the final edit that he didn’t agree with. In hindsight he was probably right. There comes a point where the writer just has to let go of the work. Barry sent me five or six cover designs by Peter Lo, and asked me to choose my top three. The decision was never going to be mine alone – it wasn’t my department – but it was wonderful to be invited into that process. I love the cover that Peter designed for Night Blue; for me it speaks its own exquisite language to what is inside the book.
What is the best aspect of your writing life? The sense of freedom and discovery.
The worst? Being deep in it and knowing I have to break to do the shopping.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? For me, this question is quite useless. I wouldn’t know what I know now if things had been different. And I wouldn’t know it in the way I know it. For me, that’s impressive and I’m unwilling to walk myself back from that.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? I’m tempted to answer same as above, but I do wish I’d been told that it’s best not to write with an open packet of biscuits within reach. But I stumbled on this pretty quickly on my own.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? In class at UTS Glenda Adams said something about when writing a first draft to let “everything in”; she said it was “like gathering flowers”, and she made these gestures of reaching left and right. I always loved that.
How important is social media to you as a writer? Right now it plays a role in letting people know about Night Blue. It also helps me come across writers, artists, podcasts that I find inspiring. I’ve had lovely connections with other writers on Instagram; it was through Instagram that Favel Parrett kindly agreed to write a commendation for Night Blue. The downside is that it can be a vacuous time waster. A bit like sugar, use in moderation.
Do you experience “writer’s block” and if so, how do you overcome it? I don’t experience a block as such; I can always write. It’s more a matter of whether the writing is any good. If I’m really not happy with how it’s going I usually stop and go for a walk. I live near the ocean and just walking by it is an expansive experience. On the way back I might stop at the shops and buy items for a meal, and often by the time I’m cooking the onions something has shifted in the writing – in the way I see it and feel it – and I’ll know what it needs.
How do you deal with rejection? Cry. Vow never to write again. Go for a walk. Realise I want to keep at it.
In three words how would you describe your writing? Poetic. Accessible. Arresting.
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 want them to tell you about living a writing life? Franz Kafka. He once wrote that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I’d want to ask him about that.
Potent, haunting and lyrical, Night Blue is a narrative largely told in the voice of the painting Blue Poles. It is an original and absorbing approach to revisiting Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner as artists and people, as well as a realigning our ideas around the cultural legacy of Whitlam’s purchase of Blue Poles in 1973.
It is also the story of Alyssa, and a contemporary relationship, in which O’Keeffe immerses us in the essential power of art to change our personal lives and, by turns, a nation.
Moving between New York and Australia with fluid ease, Night Blue is intimate and tender, yet surprisingly dramatic. It is a glorious exploration of how art must never be undervalued.
Buy the book here.