The 2009 Victoria University Writer in Residence was Paula Boock. Paula’s literary career began in editing and publishing in Dunedin, where she was a founding partner at Longacre Press. She has written five novels for young adults, including Out Walked Mel and Dare, Truth or Promise, which won the 1998 NZ Post Children’s Book of the Year award. In recent years Paula has written mainly for the screen. Her television credits include the acclaimed series The Insider’s Guide to Happiness and its prequel, The Insider’s Guide to Love. Paula and Donna Malane form the core of screen production company, Lippy Pictures. Their Sunday Theatre film for television, Until Proven Innocent, which told the story of wrongly convicted rapist David Dougherty, was awarded Best Drama Programme at the 2009 Qantas Film and Television awards.
This year Paula returned to writing for the page to work on a novel for adults, set in 1930s Dunedin.
This interview took place via email in mid-November 2009. The questions were submitted anonymously by members of the IIML community. Elizabeth Russell managed the interview process.
Would you mind telling us a little about your writing process? And how it may have changed over the course of your career so far? Also, has the residency this year changed the way you go about getting the work done?
I am essentially a nine to five writer. By which I mean, I write when I have the time and need to write, rather than when the ‘muse descends’ and such. I don’t always start at nine or finish at five, but on a writing day or morning or when I have two hours free, I sit down and do my best with the time I’ve got. I know this sounds madly unromantic, but by practice I’ve discovered that the ability to write something useful is nearly always there if you just engage the backbone.
I like to plan what I’m writing – this process works best for me as I’m usually writing longer works (sixty or ninety minute drama or novels) and without that roadmap I usually work my way into a big boggy mess partway through. I spend quite a long time (usually months) mulling over characters and story – that’s usually my test as to whether the idea has ‘legs’ – and then I start mapping out a structure for the work. With drama, this is a very comprehensive process – I usually write an outline, then a treatment, then a scene breakdown before embarking on the actual script. With novels in the past I’ve mapped out the main storyline (some in more detail than others), the main character’s journey and any memorable moments along the way, and this seems to be enough.
This year, I’ve been enjoying the freedom to depart from the roadmap and pick my way through the story more than usual. I think this is largely a reaction to the extremely planned nature of scriptwriting, but it’s also out of curiosity; I’m intrigued to find what comes of that process, and I guess I’m trusting my writing and story instincts that I’ll still get it right by taking it more organically. It makes the writing a more surprising process, and it also makes it a much slower process.
What sparked your decision to move into writing for adults this year? And what were the particular challenges in making that change?
Although my novels have been for ‘young adults’ I’ve been writing television drama for adults for the last ten years, so there was no specific catalyst for that decision. I still love writing about a teenage world, but I don’t feel confined to that genre.
Challenges? I suspect the vague notion of a reader that I had in my head when I was writing teenage fiction was more forgiving than the adult reader I’m conscious of now. Given that both are probably versions of me, that’s not surprising! I’m a far more critical reader these days so I’m harder on myself as I write. Otherwise I don’t notice much difference between the genres in terms of the writing process. What I do notice is that coming back to sentence-making from scriptwriting is both glorious and laborious – depending on the day.
What are you up to next?
I’m one half of a screen company called Lippy Pictures and we are hoping to be making another ninety minute Sunday Theatre film for television next year. It’s called Tangiwaiand is a love story based on some extraordinary events that occurred around the rail disaster on Christmas Eve 1953. It’s a story I’ve always wanted to tell so it will be fantastic if it gets funded.
How do you feel about walking into a room full of writers and readers and knowing you’ll have a conversation where you have to talk about what you’re writing? Is it easy for you to take off your writer hat of solitude, and put on your party hat? It seems like, these days, writers are expected to get out there and have a face and a persona, not just be the vague presence behind a page of words, and I’m curious to know how you feel about that…
I suspect like many writers I’m an introverted extrovert. Or is that an extroverted introvert? Something inside out and conflicted about exactly this business anyway. There are times when I’ve delighted in an audience and have been only too happy to be the centre of attention, and talk all about me! And there have been times when it’s felt false, like performing a set of tricks and so far from the good, honest wrestle that writing is that I vow never to do it again. I try now to choose situations where I feel I can be real, and am not being asked to be an entertainer or a school teacher. As an ex-publisher I understand the value in an author appearing at festivals and schools and helping to market their work, but I have great sympathy for the many writers who are true introverts and who don’t take any pleasure in that sort of public role.
Empathy for characters. How do you get inside their heads, especially those you don’t have direct experience of being – 10 year old boys for example?
I really don’t know the answer to that question. I suspect some people are just better at it than others, or think about it more. I think about other people’s experience a lot. I dream about being other people. I cry not only at stories in books or films, but at ads on TV, or at seeing an old person struggling with supermarket bags. I have always identified with other people and situations to the extent of being grossly sentimental and I suspect that is one of the reasons I feel such a deep need to write stories. On the other hand I think it was Tolstoy who said ‘we have to be a little bit cold when we write’ and I think that’s strangely true. Maybe writing is my way of converting all that emotional energy into something more calibrated and focussed and useful.
With such young characters, when is a book finished?
When they’ve completed some sort of journey. Learnt something, changed in some way. In Out Walked Mel, Mel has faced her demons, and stopped blaming everyone else. In Sasscat to Win, Sass has accepted her family and who she is. In Dare Truth or Promise, both Willa and Louie have decided that their feelings are valid too and they have a right to be happy. As readers we don’t need to see anymore, we should know that their life will move forward in a slightly changed way now.
What are your top three writing tips?
Read. Write. Read. Sounds a bit flip, but it’s true. You must read to grow as a writer, and the best way to write is just sit down and do it.
Bonus one: A bad piece of writing can still take you somewhere good.
What’s the worst writing advice you’ve been given?
Don’t take any notice of your critics.’ I’ve learnt a lot from good criticism, and even amongst quite poor reviews there’s sometimes a little point that I agree with. If you can bear to read or hear criticism of your work with any level of dispassion, it’s a good professional habit to get into. Use discretion though – just because it’s criticism doesn’t make it right either.
What do you think makes some writing art and leaves other writing in the realm of ‘entertainment’?
How much does Dunedin matter in your life and writing? Does its Scottishness ever get to you?
I lived there for the first 35 years of my life so of course it’s significant to me as a person and therefore to my work. The landscape is still very vivid to me, both the surrounds of Dunedin – the Otago Peninsula, St Clair beach and the north coast through Warrington and Karitane – and the extraordinary landscapes of Central Otago. All that is psychically imprinted and attached to my earliest decision to be a writer and my personal history. For that reason it is a sort of ionising experience visiting Dunedin. It’s not always comfortable, and it can make me feel rather raw, but that is interesting for writing.
I don’t really feel consciously affected by the ‘southern people’ thing; and for me the Scottish thing is a little more than a branding exercise and affectation of modern Dunedin. I do loathe the sound (I refuse to call it music) of bagpipes. Aside from a particularly strong educational ethic and preponderance of Presbyterians among what is still a minority of church-goers in the community, I’m not convinced that people in Dunedin are distinctly different from people in any other urban NZ centre. I think our biggest dichotomy in NZ is between urban and rural communities, not north and south.
In the excerpt from the novel in progress that you read at a Writers on Mondays event in August, there was a cameo appearance by Landfall founder Charles Brasch. Are there other ‘real life characters’ in the book, and what kind of issues have you faced when writing them into the narrative?
One of the major characters of the novel is Ben Rudd, a hermit who lived at that time up Flagstaff hill on the outskirts of Dunedin. Because he was already a sort of ‘character’ of the day, and was later immortalised (and fictionalised) in a Charles Brasch poem, it hasn’t been difficult extrapolating from the few known facts about the hoary little man into a full-blooded fictional character – in fact he seems made for it! Other characters in the book are loosely based on family members from that time and that’s been an exercise in selectivity – using what suits the novel and changing what does not, so I’ve been at pains to constantly say it’s ‘based’ on some true stories from the period but in its final form is a work of fiction. I hope that makes sense!
You’ve returned to the page this year after some years of writing television drama. Has that experience changed the way you approach fiction? Have you sometimes missed the collaborative aspects of the scriptwriting process?
Yes, the solitude of writing fiction has been hard to adjust to. I had got used to the collaborative process of scriptwriting. It’s very noisy! At each of the many planning and drafting stages other people have a say and give you feedback. They also often offer you very good ideas, and are at the least available for testing ideas out on. Fiction-writing is generally a solo exercise and that’s both the beauty and the challenge of it.
I know people expect that scriptwriting makes you a much more visual writer, and that may be true, although I suspect I already was visual and that’s why I had a toe in the drama/theatre world right from the beginning. I tend to write ‘scenes’ and that hasn’t changed.
I think the other big difference for me is that I am much more aware of structure this time round, and what are good questions to ask of a story (i.e.; what does this character want? What does she/he need? What are the obstacles? Where are the turning points/revelations? etc) I didn’t have those analytical skills when I first wrote novels, and they are particularly useful at problem-solving points. I am also much more likely to throw work away now, and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite…
How do you manage the balance of writing an interesting, challenging script in the world of television, where it seems the preference is for a ‘quick fix’ instead of something which could take the audience more time to appreciate but ultimately get more out of?
If you mean by ‘quick fix’ constant high points, peaks, instant gratification etc, rather than a slow-burn, then yes, especially in soaps and comedy that’s the case, which is why I’m no good in those genres. That imperative often burns character and character is ultimately what I’m interested in, both as a viewer and as a writer. In light drama there’s still this pressure to write ‘water-cooler’ moments – i.e.; slightly shocking/surprising/bizarre moments that (so goes the theory) people will talk about around the office watercooler the next day. I got sick of that approach as it became just another drama device (look at Boston Legal for an example of how it went from delightful to completely contrived), but the idea behind it – that the writer should always be looking for arresting and original moments is a good one to remember. Traditionally even serious, long-form television drama has chewed through story – on the basis that a viewer might change channels at any time so you have to keep them hooked – don’t let them get bored for a minute! But I think that’s on its way out. Viewing habits are in the process of profound change. People can download, digitally record or watch DVDs as and when they want and watch them on their computer or ‘home theatre’. So we’re increasingly watching programmes we want to watch rather than what the network programmers have chosen for us in that time slot. That means that viewers have made a much more conscious choice to watch something – and so are more committed, and less likely to channel surf. So at the quality end of the spectrum (which is where I’d like to think I hang out!) this is good news. The distinctions between television drama, telemovies and film are becoming blurred, and I believe the key to success is building great characters – characters that viewers want to spend time with. Actually I’ve always thought that, but perhaps there’s more acceptance of that approach now. Look at The Wire – it’s an incredibly slow burn series that requires careful and committed viewing to appreciate – and it’s been immensely successful.
What you were saying about ‘basing’ certain characters in the novel you’ve been working on this year, on real people, members of your own family in fact, makes sense. How about in this next project where you’re using a real historical event, how closely/accurately do you need to follow the facts of the Tangiwai disaster in order to use it as a basis or setting for the love story? How do you find a balance between serving history/fact and serving your story?
It’s very difficult. I don’t think there’s a simple rule about these things, it’s more something you have to weigh as you go, and continually judge the importance of factual accuracy against the imperatives of the story. With characters, if you veer too far from the facts, it’s best to do away with actual names and create fictionalised people, because people have a right to keep the integrity of their own stories. With events, I guess the key is making sure you’re not messing with the facts so much that it’s distracting for the audience. If we were to adjust the date for instance, although it might serve a particular story better, we’d lose an entire section of the audience who, instead of following the drama, would be going ‘But Tangiwai happened in 1953, not 1955!’. We’d lose faith with our viewers. On the other hand, if we put a character in a first class carriage even though she was actually in a second class carriage – how many people would know that? Very few. Does it make the story more dramatic? Absolutely, because that first class carriage was the one that teetered on the edge of the sheared off railbridge for a long period before falling into the water… and hell, what a moment of drama that gives us.
What are you reading at the moment? And what have been the top three books you’ve discovered this year?
I’m reading Somebody Loves Us All, Damien Wilkins’ just-released novel, and I’m loving it. Beautifully drawn but surprising characters, complex family dynamics, and a bizarre story kicking in… I can’t wait to get back to it! Top three books this year? Chinese Opera by Ian Wedde, The 10pm Question by Kate De Goldi and Dogboyby Eva Hornung.