The Writer’s Room: Rachel Sanderson

I’m so excited to introduce you all to my next guest in the Writer’s Room; Rachel Sanderson. Though Rachel and I haven’t met in real life (yet), we’ve bonded through Twitter over sleepless nights with sick toddlers, finding time to write and reading great fiction. I subscribe to Rachel’s newsletter and it was there that I found out about publication of her debut YA novel, The Space Between. I snapped up the eBook as soon as it was released and promptly devoured it. In today’s interview, I ask the standard writing questions of Rachel, but also delve a little deeper into her novel. There are no spoilers, but if you’ve read the book, you’ll find some wonderful insight from Rachel here.

Rachel Sanderson has worked as a bakery assistant, cleaner, telemarketer, receptionist, yoga instructor, university tutor, researcher and public servant. She’s studied philosophy, Spanish, law and has a PhD in history. She co-wrote a documentary film, The End of the Rainbow, which won the First Appearance Award at the 2007 International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. The Space Between is her  first novel. It was shortlisted for the 2016 Ampersand Prize. She lives in Canberra with her partner and son.

You can find Rachel through her website, on Twitter, Facebook, and the book is available here on Amazon.

According to your bio you are a prolific reader and writer. You’ve had success in documentary writing, short stories, poetry, essays and now YA fiction. Is it difficult to switch between so many genres and styles? And how do you best approach your writing on any given day?

I’ve been writing for most of my life, so I’ve done lots of different types of writing but over a long period of time! I did a PhD in history and one of the reasons I didn’t want to continue working in academia is because I’ve always wanted to write fiction, and I found I couldn’t do both. It just didn’t work for me at all. I’ve had periods of writing poetry intensively but I’m not doing that at all at the moment. Since about 2012 I’ve been really focused on writing novels – it’s taken me such a long time to figure out how to get from one end of a story to another, and it takes so much focus and concentration, I find I can’t do all that much else now.

I do swap between genres though – I write contemporary young adult novels that tend to be on the darker, grittier side, and I’m also writing a fantasy series. I generally have multiple projects on the go simultaneously – something in early draft, something in revisions or resting in the drawer. I find I need to give my first drafts quite a bit of time to rest before I can work on them effectively – often up to six months. So it works well for me having different long-term projects underway. I also quite like the change of voice and style I get when I switch between genres – the tone is really very different, and I think writing fantasy gives me a break from the contemporary and vice versa.

In terms of my daily writing routine – I have a three-year-old and I work part-time and really just grab whatever time I can. Either early mornings, or evenings after my son goes to sleep. Sometimes I write on the bus. I have two mornings a week when my son’s in daycare and I don’t start work till late morning and I generally get a couple of hours then to work, which I absolutely treasure. I’m someone who works well to a routine and if it was just up to me I’d probably stick to a much more regular timetable and do a lot more hours, but it’s just not possible at the moment unfortunately! I’m always working around things and most of the time I live with an underlying feeling of frustration that I’m not getting more done, which is hard. I don’t do much of anything other than writing, parenting and working at the moment – any spare time I have is for writing. On the plus side, I think it makes me very focused when I do sit down to write now. I don’t procrastinate because the time is just so precious to me.

Have you undertaken any formal or informal education in writing? And have you found this beneficial in honing your craft?

When I was in high school I wrote volumes and did lots of fantastic writing workshops at a youth arts centre. I had someone who acted as a mentor to me there, and he taught me a lot, especially about editing.

Writing a PhD isn’t necessarily education in writing as such, but I have definitely found that the discipline I learned from my PhD is something I’ve taken into all the writing I’ve done since. That was how I learned just to sit down and write – when I was in the writing-phase I worked to a word count every day. I drafted and redrafted and redrafted and I wrote something big not knowing exactly where I was going, which was terrifying – which is how I always seem to work.

I’ve tried and failed to write novels for years. I have so many first chapters tucked away in boxes and drawers!  I just couldn’t figure out how to make a story move – how to make things happen. In 2012 I did a ten-month novel-writing course online through the Writers Studio in Sydney. It was very focused on the detail of story structure, and aligning your plot and character development and I did most of the course, then got a bit derailed by life events and didn’t finish it. I did Nanowrimo later that year and that was when I wrote the first draft of The Space Between. So even though I don’t tightly follow the approach we were taught, something in the course just clicked for me, at very long last, and helped me get to the point where I could actually finish a draft of a novel.  That was a huge relief!!

These days I listen to a lot of podcasts, and read Writer’s Digest and books about writing, as well as just reading fiction generally, so I try to keep learning more about the craft of writing that way.

Where do you draw inspiration for your writing?

The inspiration for my writing is primarily from my own life – not that what I’m writing is biographical but it draws on the colour and texture of my experiences. I’ve also read a lot, which I’m sure feeds my imagination. Often my writing starts with a very contained idea, a character or scene, something that sticks in my mind, and I gradually build it from there and learn more about what is surrounding it. It doesn’t all come at once for me – I generally figure things out slowly as I write, or more often as I re-write! That seems to be how I think best.

You recently self-published your first novel, The Space Between. Why did you decide to go down the self-publishing route, and what did you gain from that process?

I’ve been interested in self-publishing for a year or two now. I listen to a bunch of self-publishing podcasts which are really informative, and I’m involved in a Facebook group of self-publishing authors that’s also been really helpful.

My original plan was that I wanted to try to go hybrid – to see if I could traditionally publish my contemporary YA novels, which are stand-alones, and self-publish my fantasy series under a pen name, because series tend to do well for self-publishing authors. I started pitching The Space Between to publishers and got some really positive responses – it was shortlisted for the Ampersand Prize by Hardie-Grant Egmont, which was amazing, and Penguin Random House requested the full manuscript. I got really supportive and encouraging feedback from a number of publishers, but no contract.

I spent a year out on submission – and it’s a very very slow, glacial process. It takes so much patience and persistence, it’s quite draining. And meanwhile I was continuing to learn about self-publishing, and seeing some traditionally published Australian authors I really admire, like Alison Croggon, Ellie Marney and John Birmingham, choose to go down that route. I hit the one-year mark and just decided, pretty much on the spur of the moment, that I’d given it long enough and if I couldn’t get a contract I’d do it myself.

It’s been a steep learning curve but I’ve been so fortunate to have a hugely supportive author community to draw on for advice. When it comes down to it, publishers are businesses and they’re making a business decision about whether to invest in your work or not. If you don’t get a contract, it doesn’t mean your work is no good, or that you haven’t passed some threshold, it just means they’re not willing to invest in you for whatever reason at this point in time. But the technology is available through print-on-demand and online distribution for authors to make the choice to invest in their own work – to do the work and put it out there and let readers decide. I think that’s pretty exciting, and despite moments of absolute terror I’ve been generally loving the experience so far.

You’re based in Canberra, but you set The Space Between in Adelaide. Why did you choose this location, and what research was involved in getting the setting right?

I’m from Adelaide originally, I grew up there and most of my family is still there, so even though I’ve been living elsewhere since around 1999 I go back regularly. It felt like the natural setting for this story, and the place where they go for the camping trip is based loosely on a place I used to camp at when I was young. I honestly didn’t do all that much research – I spent a bit of time with Google Street View and that was about it!!

The Space Between incorporates some quite heavy topics. What was your driving force for writing this novel, and what do you hope people take away from it?

My dad died when I was eight years old, and as a teenager I was struggling to deal with a lot of unresolved grief and trying to make sense of that loss: what it meant to me and what it meant to my family. I think there’s a lot of that experience in the book. Grief can be such an overwhelming thing, and there’s no right way to deal with it. I’ve had a number of readers say they understood why Erica made the choices that she did but they didn’t agree with them, or they weren’t the choices they would make. I feel that you just don’t know, until you’re in that position, how you’ll respond or what you’ll do. And loss doesn’t go away, there’s no magic wand you can wave to make things all better, it takes lots of time and perspective for you to integrate those experiences into the rest of your life. The thing that shifted for me as I was writing The Space Between was that when I started, I thought I was writing a book about loss, about how we deal with losses that don’t make sense. And I worked on the story and worked on the story and one day I just hit a point where I realized that, for me, the point of the book isn’t loss, it’s love. The love between Erica and Daina is the core of the story, and the sense of that enduring love is I hope what will stay with people when they read it.

I found the characters incredibly realistic and well written. The way you developed Daina throughout the text without having her as a physical character in the scene was very clever. Was it hard to write her and your other characters?

It was an iterative process. I had the characters in my head, I think, but that didn’t necessarily translate straight away to the page. I found working with beta readers incredibly useful for this, because at some points they’d interpret characters actions completely differently to how I saw them, and that made me really examine what and how I had shown, and think hard about how to fine-tune them in every scene. So it took a lot of time to get the characters working on the page, but my sense of them was quite clear from the start.

Without giving too much away, the ending of the novel both resolves the main plot, but also leaves many questions unanswered. Is there any room in the future for a sequel, or are you happy to leave this as it is?

I’m not planning on a sequel but I’d never say never! For me, I feel like the story is finished, even with all the loose ends. I did have some ideas for an epilogue that I never wrote though, and these things can sometimes take on a life of their own…

What are you working on now?

I’ve been redrafting another contemporary YA novel called Mirror Me, which is a story about a girl who moves to a small town only to discover that she’s almost identical to another girl who was murdered there a year earlier. It’s a bit more of a thriller, with some whiffs of the supernatural, and quite a different narrative voice, which I’ve enjoyed. I just sent that off to the first batch of beta readers this week, so I’m happy to put it aside and not think about it for a while.

I’ve also just got my copy edits back on The Dying Flame, which is the first book in my Darkfall series, the fantasy I’ve been working on. I’m working through those at the moment (note to self: use less commas!) and am aiming to publish that book in late October. And then, start writing Book Two!!!!

Finally, what advice do you have for other writers who may be just starting out in the industry and looking for publication?

I’m very much just starting out too, but my main advice would probably be just to keep working. Try and polish a piece of writing to the point that you can send it out, send it out, then get started on something else. You don’t want to be too invested in any one piece of work. And think about what you want – there are lots of ways to connect with readers, there’s not just one single pathway to being a writer.

What a fantastic interview and insight into your writing process, Rachel. I hope this gives other authors who have been considering self-publishing the confidence to believe in themselves and not be deterred if a traditional publishing contract doesn’t come their way.

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