Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Sandra Leigh Price lives in Sydney. She graduated from the Australian National University, Canberra, with a Double Major in English Literature and Drama, and co-established a small theatre company before moving to Sydney. She has written both for the stage and screen. The Bird’s Child is her debut novel.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I’ve always been a storyteller. As a child I was quite shy and loved the world of the library and books. I wrote lengthy stories about animals and injustices. As an adolescent I became involved with drama, and I loved dissolving into a character and the world of the play. While at University I wrote poetry and also reviews and interviews for Muse Magazine in Canberra, as well as working as a professional storyteller in schools and in a Fairy shop. I spent an amazing time in Ireland backpacking and spent a little time at the Abbey Theatre, which I found so inspiring. The Irish really value the spoken and written word (I’m proud to have a lot of Irish ancestors).
When I moved to Sydney, while chasing auditions, I wrote a few plays for children and adults, and a screenplay. My first big break came with the screenplay, which I had a major British director attached to. I pitched it to some large film companies in the UK and found myself a small fish in a big pond (including having a slightly unreal conversation with a celebrated actor’s agent in a hotel room in Paris). The film is yet to be made, but I learned if you don’t back your own story, no one else will.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
My debut novel, The Bird’s Child, has recently been published by HarperCollins/Fourth Estate. It tells the story of three different outsiders in 1929 Sydney who meet at Miss du Maurier’s boarding house – one is a Jewish boy with a mysterious tattoo on his hand who wishes Houdini was his father, another is a runaway girl who wears trousers and has a way with birds, and the other is a damaged returned soldier who harbours a disturbing ambition. When these three lives intersect fireworks fly. It is a story largely about finding one’s own place in the world, about belonging, and the weight of the past impacting on the present.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I dream of work environments! I long for a room of my own, but alas, don’t have one. Due to space restrictions, I tend to work wherever I can get a decent cup of coffee. Failing that, I have a table in the lounge room that is surrounded by toppling piles of books and papers, much to the chagrin of my family. I did try and take a photo, but was too embarrassed by the papery wilderness of it – it needs a tidy, but at the moment I’m in the middle of a draft, so I’m happy just to burrow down and get on with it.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
Nothing beats the morning for me. And a cup of coffee or two. Or three. I’m not Balzac (who called it a “great power in [his] life” and is rumoured to have had 50 cups a day), but I understand the need. I prefer to get out of the house otherwise I get distracted by domestic demands and the internet. A typical day is a good few hours at a café with my pen and notebook followed by a few hours at home – either typing up what I’ve written or doing research.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
I write all my first drafts by hand. For me there is a better link between the heart, mind, and hand if I use a pen and paper. I prefer Clairefontaine 96-page notebooks and I use a variety of fountain pens. And after a while I get a little superstitious about what coloured ink the thing needs to be written with. Just a way of tricking myself into keeping at it. The worst part of my process is typing up my sadly wonky handwriting.
My writing usually starts with an image in my mind or a phrase of words that tend to haunt me and that I just can’t get out of my head. Often this image – like Ari’s tattoo – is the starting point and the story spins from there. Images – photographs, paintings – are strong triggers for me.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
Writing for me – having that unfurling world in your mind’s eye and trying to find a shape in words – is one of the most satisfying creative experiences. To me it feels like flying when it works. That and I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for a story.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
I find history very vivid, the lives of unknown and known individuals. My family tree is particularly inspiring for me – unearthing and fleshing out lives, motivations, secrets. I’ve discovered some really startling things in my own family: touching, moving, and disturbing things. I really do feel the past is very much part of the present.
In The Bird’s Child I included little family stories, some conscious, some not – like my great Aunt who used to steal out in trousers to pump petrol at the petrol station in the 1930’s – I couldn’t resist that image.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
The biggest challenges for me have been finding/making time and balancing other work with writing and family life.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
That it takes a long time. That you can’t rush it. I wish I knew when I started how to follow my gut. To keep ideas to yourself until they are hatched. That a good editor is worth their weight in gold. That there is no perfect time to write. That you can’t edit an idea, you can only work with what you have on the page.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
My personal goals are to keep going. And to have a room of my own.
I’d like to see more books by women reviewed, and more female reviewers.
And I’d like to see books marketed as good books rather than for boys/girls/men/women.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
Emily Bronte, Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Louise Erdrich, Colette, Geraldine Brooks. Emily Dickinson, Claire Tomalin, AS Byatt. Kate Atkinson & Jill Dawson
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Lucy Treloar, Anna Smaill (I wrote this before her super fabulous Booker Longlisting, so she may be a little pre-occupied!), Rachael King, Ruth Quibell, Emma Hooper, Melissa Harrison, Mireille Juchau, Felicity Plunkett.
Thank you, Sandra Leigh Price!
— Nicole Melanson
And thank you, Robyn Cadwallader, for recommending Sandra! Read Robyn’s WordMothers interview here
* Author photo by Joern Harris
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