Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
Sherryl writes in various genres and styles for adults and children, such as crime, poetry, short novels with Elyse Perry, a sports series and many others. Sherryl is releasing a sequel to Trust Me, I’m Dead later this year. So far, none of her events surrounding this book have been cancelled, but she has had workshops and other appearances cancelled during the first months of the pandemic.
Hi Sherryl and welcome to The Book Muse!
- You write for kids and adults – what made you decide to tackle two very different audiences in a variety of ways?
I started out writing for adults, and then I did a children’s writing workshop with Meredith Costain – out of that came “The Too-Tight Tutu” which was published by Penguin (Aussie Bite), and the children’s books became my focus. I still kept writing crime fiction. I’d revise my novel (I had two previous not-good ones I left in the bottom drawer) every now and then, and it had some rejections along the way. Then I did another rewrite and entered it in the CWA Debut Dagger – it was shortlisted and that led to the publishing deal with Verve Books UK. I’m still writing both kinds of books but the crime novels take up more of my time now.
- You have several new books and series – the Elyse Perry series, and Trust Me, I’m Dead, your recent adult crime novel – did you have to cancel any events surrounding any of these books or other books due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes, I had several things lined up – two writers’ festivals and some workshops planned. I did one school visit before the lockdown and caught a bad cold from it! Since the lockdown, no school visits or author talks for months now. Because schools are closed in Victoria for Term 2, that means no author visits even online really – I think teachers are having enough trouble without trying to beam in an author! Book Week has been moved to October.
I’m really sorry the local literary festivals have had to be cancelled – they have such good reputations for friendly, interesting sessions and people interested in books getting together to talk about them.
- Can you tell my readers more about the sequel to Trust Me, I’m Dead?
The title is Dead and Gone (took a while to settle on that!). Judi has gone back to Candlebark where she lives, and is working in the local pub to make ends meet when the owner is murdered. That brings Det Sgt Heath back into her life (the minor romance element) but when she has her own ideas about who the killer is, she’s ignored. She gets involved anyway, through a series of mysterious incidents, and pursues it on her own. Her niece, Mia, is also part of the story when Judi’s custody of her is disputed.
- The sequel to your crime novel comes out this year – was that release affected by the pandemic health crisis?
Not so far! The e-book will be out 25th June, and the print book in August. Although Verve originally were only going to publish as e-book and POD, TMID sold really well as a print book and so now they have an Australian distributor to make it easier to buy here. A lot of the publicity we did last time was via blogs and web magazines, so it’ll probably be like that again. I’d love to have a proper launch, though.
- Apart from writing, you do school visits and run writing workshops for kids – did you have to cancel, postpone or alter the way you present any of these due to the pandemic?
I’ve lost all of that work, so one thing I have done is short videos of writing prompts that I put on YouTube for free, and on my blog. I’m also teaching two webinars for Shooting Star Press on character and story structure. I recorded myself reading The Littlest Pirate in a Pickle last week for Katherine Public Library – that was a challenge! But it ended up being fun.
- How long have you been part of your local writing community, and what led you into this industry?
Oh goodness, I started working in community arts way back in the 80s. I was part of Victorian Community Writers for many years, and our focus was running workshops and things in country areas. I worked with some great people who are still friends. I was in a women’s writing group for more than 30 years, and my current group has been going for ten years. So all that teaching in the community then led me to teaching in TAFE. I guess a big part of my community now is also past students. It’s lovely to keep in touch with them.
- You’ve been writing for children for over twenty years – what led you to writing for this audience in particular?
As I said, initially it was that workshop with Meredith. Then I had more help from Michael Dugan. I got into writing educational chapter books early on, and it suited me because I’d written a lot of short stories. Gradually I wrote longer and longer things, and some picture books. I also went to a lot of conferences and PD events to increase my skills, then I did an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline College in Minneapolis. It’s just been about learning and growing and new ideas, and having fun drawing on bits of my own childhood. My first ever attempts at writing for children were a bit too didactic. When I started aiming for fun and action instead, I improved.
- You also have two collections of poetry – do you find it easier to write fiction or poetry, or do they each have their own challenges, and what are they?
I love poetry. It’s my ‘thing’ I do without any thought of publication. It’s expression and language and ideas and emotion, and it all just comes out on the page. Later I might look at something and see if it’s worth reworking and sending out, but it’s not my primary urge. With fiction, I have more of a sense of structure and what it needs – characters who interest me, a plot that doesn’t run dry, the strong central idea that will keep me writing and rewriting without losing the passion for it. I’ve taught story structure many times to students and it seems to have embedded itself in my writing brain, which is helpful. I can see pretty soon where the holes in something are and how to fix them.
- Have any of your books been nominated or won any awards, and which ones?
My first verse novel Farm Kid won the NSW Premier’s Award for children’s books, and the next one Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!) was a CBCA Honour Book. I think I have 12 CBCA Notables now. Also Meet Rose was shortlisted for the NSW History Award for children’s books.
- You also write across genres – was this a conscious choice, or does the story idea lead you into what genre you’ll write in each time?
It tends to be the idea that leads me. I do love crime fiction, so those ideas are consciously developed with murder and plot twists in mind. With children’s books, sometimes the books will be commissioned (so the publisher proposes the concept and genre). All my pirate stories, though, came from researching a historical figure, a pirate who was a real failure – that led to a big historical novel and lots of Littlest Pirate chapter books! But I’ve also written a science fiction thriller for YA (unpublished) because I had an idea that really intrigued me and it was the best way to explore it.
- When you began your career as a teacher – did you ever think you’d move into a writing and publishing career?
It was the other way around! I was writing first, for a long time, and I did an Arts degree at Deakin via distance learning, then I worked in community arts and began teaching workshops. I didn’t start teaching in TAFE until 1994, I think, and by then I’d had quite a few things published. Poems and stories, a few competition wins, and then the first children’s book.
- Do you have a writing process, and what is it?
I tend to sit on ideas for a while and let them build. I make notes and write little bits, and do research to fill the ideas out more. I don’t start writing until I have a good sense of what the whole thing will be, even if I don’t know the middle. I still know more or less where I will end up, and I do diagrams of the structure. I try to stick to the main diagram but I like to let my subconscious do a lot of the work. So if something pops up in the writing, I usually go with it unless it starts a niggle in my brain that it’s not working. I don’t write in chapters – I start at the beginning and just keep writing without any breaks until I get to the end. I do chapters later in the rewrites.
- Do you have a favourite or preferred writing companion?
No. Just me. I have a new cat who can’t stop walking on the keyboard and chewing paper so she’s banned from the room now.
- When it comes to your own reading habits, what do you enjoy reading, and why?
I love reading crime fiction. I’ve become even more addicted over the last few years. I have lots of favourite authors. But I also love middle grade novels and verse novels. I have a lot of favourite poets, too. I try to read more literary fiction and other genres because I think it’s good for me, and sometimes I find something brilliant and disturbing that blows me away and keeps me thinking for days. Those are real brain stirrers! Like Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. I also really enjoy Helen Garner’s nonfiction.
- You work in the arts and education – for you – how do these two industries complement each other, and how do you think they’ll be impacted overall by the pandemic?
I just think the LNP hate the arts and always have. I still remember Jeff Kennett refusing to be part of the Victorian Premier’s Awards. And Simon Birmingham taking the Professional Writing and Editing courses (and a lot of other arts courses) off the FEE-HELP list because he said they were unimportant ‘lifestyle’ courses. Not to mention the ongoing, endless funding cuts to the Australia Council and the ABC/SBS, and anything that is about the arts. People don’t realise how much money has been syphoned out of the arts over the last 8 years or so.
There was the huge scandal about the $500 million sports grants and where that money went, and I just thought – what about the arts? Our industry makes billions of dollars for the economy but it relies so much on artists and writers working for very little – the assumption is too often that you should do it for the love of it.
So it doesn’t surprise me at all that so many artists and writers are not eligible for Jobkeeper. There is no way the arts industries weren’t discussed in that proposal, and they chose to ignore the need. I think artists and writers will keep working, because most of us can’t stop creating, but bigger industries like film and galleries and theatres will suffer for a lot longer. But we have long memories.
As for education, the bureaucrats stuffed TAFE a long time ago, and pushed universities into relying on overseas students by cutting funding. Look where that’s ended up. I really do wonder how the creative arts industry will come out of all this. (Sorry about the soapbox, but as someone said, while everyone is reading and listening to music and concerts and watching stuff online etc, have a think about where all of that came from – who made it.)
- What do you want to see from the arts and literature consuming public during and after this pandemic?
I think we’re already seeing more people reading and buying books – I hope that continues. And support your local bookstore – everyone says independents and I agree but I know people who run Dymocks branches fantastically well with events to help writers promote their books and they deserve book sales, too. Save Amazon for the e-books you can’t get otherwise. If you see someone performing online and asking for donations, donate if you can. And when we can go out again, put things like theatre and live music and art exhibitions on your visiting list. And more than anything, support the artists and writers who are missing out on Jobkeeper because the rules exclude them (and maybe also think about what the gig economy actually means – it means a heck of a lot of artists who have to survive without any solid, ongoing income, as well as all the delivery drivers etc).
- Do you have a favourite local bookseller, and why this one in particular?
We are very lucky – we have the Sun Bookshop in Yarraville! And Book and Paper in Williamstown. I love walking into a bookshop where I can browse and discover something wonderful.
- Do you have any recommendations for reading and viewing during the time we’re spending in isolation?
Mystery Road on the ABC is top of my list at the moment. I’m getting into Scandi crime again on Netflix and SBS on Demand (watching Bordertown for more research on Finland). The trouble is I get sidetracked into a new series and forget where I’m up to in the other ones, so I have to keep a list! With crime fiction, my favourites lately have been Peace by Garry Disher, Darkness for Light by Emma Viskic and The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan. Also NZ crime writer Vanda Symon has a great series with her character Sam Shephard. I have a list somewhere of good movies set in France to watch (since I can’t go this year like we planned) but I’ve lost it!
- You’re also an editor – are there any challenges in editing your own work before you send it off to a publisher or another editor?
My first drafts tend to focus more on plot than character development, so I have to make sure in rewrites that I deepen characterisation and all their internal stuff. I don’t have problems with grammar and punctuation, because it was drummed into me at school (and I am forever grateful, Mrs Roberts, I really am). But I tend to write a bit lean, so what I need to look out for are gaps or holes or where I haven’t given the reader enough ‘meat’. And sometimes I have motivation issues with characters – pushing them around a bit instead of thinking more about why they do things.
- Finally, what future projects do you have planned?
At the moment, I’m working on the Finland novel still, and writing articles for Medium, which I enjoy. I have some picture books that still aren’t hitting the mark (and often they never do and have to be abandoned). I’m thinking ahead to a third novel about Judi and mulling possible plot ideas. I’m also thinking about putting together all the articles about writing that I’ve published on Medium (along with new ones) and making a book out of them. That’s a long-term idea!
I’m also planning a writing retreat for myself when the lockdown is over, and we can travel again. Somewhere on my own with lots of silence, and hopefully a beach for long, inspirational walks.
Anything I may have missed?