UQP Writer's Room: Dymphna Stella Rees
Why did you start writing?
I started writing as a teenager. It just seemed the natural thing to do as both my parents were writers and at that stage I assumed I'd be one too. I spent a year writing a novel and finished it just before my 20th birthday.
How did you decide which form or genre was right for you?
I've always believed that by mastering the tools of language, you can write in whatever genre you choose. Over my lifetime I've used the same language toolkit to write radio scripts, poetry, textbooks, a thesis, essays, non-fiction and literary fiction.
With A Paper Inheritance, I tried out different forms: first an annotated biography, then narrative non-fiction, then I decided to bring some aspects of my own life into the story so it became a biographical memoir.
Where was your inspiration for your latest work?
I had read biographies of other Australian writers who were contemporaries of my parents and knew there was definitely a need for a book about literary lives of Coralie and Leslie Rees. I felt the weight of obligation. I was the obvious one to write about them as, since 2000, I've managed their literary archive. And, of course, as they were my parents I knew them more intimately than anyone else.
How do you get started with a new project?
There's a conscious beginning: would this make a book? Would it make an interesting read, a contribution to what's already been written? I think most writers begin with a serious intent on how to deal with their subject. Is the purpose to provoke, to entertain, to enlighten, to dramatize, even to satirise? There are so many ways in which a subject can be treated. (My rule of thumb is: Do what you do best.)
Do you have a routine? What tools do you use?
Discipline, as in any detailed work, is essential. I block out the available days with four hour time-slots on my calendar. I ask not to be interrupted and don't take calls or look at emails during that time as it breaks concentration. I work on my Mac in my book-lined study and, hopefully, in blissful silence. It's helpful to set some goals – small steps that add up surprisingly quickly.
How do you handle writer’s block?
My mind is usually buzzing with ideas. Too many! If I'm stuck at a particular point, I find it useful to get something down, even if it's not very good. It's there to work on later. I re-write and re-work sentences endlessly, a process I really enjoy. I read somewhere that Shirley Hazzard, whose work I've long admired, rewrote up to 28 times! Writing is an incomplete process. There no such thing as perfection.
How important is research in the writing you do?
Research is very important, particularly in non-fiction. Nothing is made up – it all has to be true and authentic. When writing about real people, real events, one is conscious of certain responsibilities. Endless checking is required using reliable sources (not Wikipedia).
How much planning is required when it comes to structuring one of your books?
Not so much detailed planning as an overarching concept. One has to see a book as a cohesive entity, not just a series of chapters. Like any work of art, it has to have shape, integrity, an internal design.
What’s the editing process like?
I'm very precise with my use of language and also my syntax so it was at first confronting to find my carefully sculpted phrases and ernestly considered structure challenged by the red pen. However, I realised that each of my editors was seeing my work as a reader would, not from my perspective, and that we were both working to the same end – to make the book as good as possible.
I came to relish the back-and-forth process, to mount a good argument for what I wanted to retain just as I had written it and to concede to the editor's position if I couldn't justify a particular expression or concept. I also valued our lively exchanges, reminding myself that no one else would ever be paying such close attention to my every word!
How do you handle the reviews?
I was moved to tears by my first review because it was so perceptive: it seemed to encapsulate everything I had tried to achieve. I know that not all my reviews will be as satisfying as that. There's such an element of subjectivity in what we like to read, one has to be prepared for some to embrace it, others to be more critical. Both my parents were literary critics at some stage so I understand that most reviewers take their role seriously and realise it carries certain responsibilities.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
I like to be outdoors in nature so I'd be either a botanist or a landscape architect. Photography would be front and centre as it's been a lifelong passion. (I won a photography competition when I was nine years old, using a Box Brownie camera.)
What is your number one tip for aspiring writers?
Perseverance. Hold fast to dreams. It's never too late.
Tea or coffee? Tea
Apple or PC? Apple
When I’m not writing I’m… in my garden
My favourite place to read is… by the fire
Ebook or physical book? Technology changes: a real book can last for centuries. However, there are so many books in our house, there's hardly room for the people. So I now buy ebooks, usually about one a week as I'm a fast reader, and always have a new book on the iPad, ready for my daily indulgence. I live a long way from bookshops and appreciate the convenience of downloading a book at any hour – even in the middle of the night.