Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Helen Thurloe is an award-winning Australian writer. Her debut novel, Promising Azra, has just been published by Allen & Unwin. It’s about forced child marriage in contemporary Australia, and is based on extensive research and interviews.
Helen’s poetry can be found in anthologies, journals and online. Her day jobs have included political staffer, public relations consultant, teacher of the Alexander Technique, and ergonomic furniture sales and marketing.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I’ve written poems and stories since I was a child, and always meant to be a writer when I grew up. For many years I had no confidence in my own creative ideas. I found it much easier to write to others’ briefs, and spent years doing it. My first job after uni was in Federal politics (speeches and letters), and then I spent several years working in PR (press releases, reports, websites). Somewhere in there I had two babies. I also trained to teach the Alexander Technique, which helped resolve the persistent Repetitive Strain Injury I’d had since my early 20’s (which hampered my physical capacity to write). This then inspired an ergonomic furniture business, because long hours at computers are not good for humans. My husband David still runs this business. Finally, after years of furtive scribbling (now stockpiled in boxes under the bed), I resolved to learn how to write my own stuff properly, because I couldn’t work it out on my own.
I made a rather ambitious plan that allocated one year to a different kind of writing alongside the day job. Year One: Poetry. Year Two: A YA novel. Year Three: A children’s book. And so on. I wound up spending two years on the poetry (and am still going), and encouragingly, I won a few national poetry awards. Poetry stimulates my creativity every day, but is an unpredictable and occasionally nasty beast.
I did a few courses at the NSW Writers’ Centre to learn craft. Next up, I started on my YA book, which became Promising Azra. That took two years to research and write, and another two to get published. But my big break was getting a mentorship from the Children’s Book Council of Australia (NSW), which meant that author Nathan Luff encouraged me to complete the first full-length draft. Soon after that, I was awarded two residencies at Varuna, The Writers House, which in addition to giving me focused time, gave me confidence that other people felt that the project was worth completing.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
Promising Azra was released in August 2016, so I’m busy promoting that. Because the story is about a 16-year-old school girl who is being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, there has been lots of national media interest, which has been great. I’m running fast to keep on top of the social media, and other promotion-related admin. Random notes for my next project are buried in piles on my desk. I’ll find them when it’s time.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
Notionally chaotic. I have an office that I share with an exercise bike (not mine) and the laundry basket. It tends to be more of a ‘sorting space’, and I find other places to actually write. I like to spread out on a clear surface, which may be the floor of the living room, or the kitchen table. When I’m working on the computer, I take care to look after my body, with an electric height-adjustable desk so I can move between sitting and standing, and a monitor arm to keep my screen at the right height for my neck and my eyes, whatever height I’m working at.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
If I’m at home, I start in the morning at around 10am. If it’s new material, I can’t write for more than a few hours, so I’m generally done with what looks like writing before 3pm. Then I like to go for a walk with a notebook, because something always suggests itself when I take my focus elsewhere. If I’m editing, I can work on and off all day. I rarely work in the evenings; my brain needs to switch off so I can fall asleep later. But that doesn’t stop me from waking at 3am with an idea that must be written down before I can go back to sleep…
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
The ideas for poems flash past, and if I don’t catch them at the time, they’re gone. I can then go back and revise them sometime later. For a larger creature like a book, it’s a ‘bower bird’ process. Newspaper cuttings, books, site visits, internet research, interviews. There’s a point where there’s enough, and the first draft can begin. That requires binge-writing, several days in a row, which will produce little more than an outline of the story, perhaps of 15,000 words. All written by hand, lying on the sofa propped up with cushions. After that I will have more questions that need to be researched, before I really get into the most substantial piece, which is the second draft. At some stage I will dictate (and edit as I go) the draft into the computer. Speaking it out loud tells me what doesn’t sound right. Then there will be another edit before I show it to some early readers. And then more revision…
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
Because it makes sense of all the stuff I’ve collected in my head, by providing a form in which to shape it. Like releasing the steam out of a boiling kettle, though more laborious. Besides, I don’t feel like I’m properly being myself if I’m not spending time playing with words.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
My ideas come out of my curiosity about other people and their predicaments. What would it be like to be in that situation? How would it feel? Why did she do that? What if it didn’t have to be that way?
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Clearing the mental space to write. Avoiding (my own) distractions at home, and minimising the distractions of others.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
Just how much I’d enjoy it, especially the people I’d meet along the way. Once I started to write (and told people what I was doing), so many people offered to help. There was so much generosity, and now I have many interesting new friends.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
I’m just so glad I eventually started (and finished) my first novel. Even though I was 53 when it was published, nothing at all would have happened without my decision a few years ago to just do it. Now I’m happy to keep on writing, following my curiosity, and seeing where that takes me, without doubting if I’ve got what it takes to do it.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Susan Johnson, Elizabeth Harrower, Barbara Kingsolver, Anna Funder, Eleanor Limprecht, Charlotte Wood, Geraldine Brooks, Madeleine L’Engle
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
You’ve already interviewed Eleanor Limprecht. I’d love to see Susan Johnson, too.
Thank you, Helen Thurloe!
— Nicole Melanson
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