Jeni Lewington has very kindly written up a talk I gave last August to the Queensland branch of the Society of Editors.
Dangling the carrot: a storyteller’s secrets
Report by Jeni Lewington
Susan Johnson, novelist, journalist and non-fiction author, is a master storyteller. Those of us lucky enough to attend the August meeting, entitled A syntax of events or shivering life, were treated to an engaging and humorous recollection of Susan’s life journey, including insights and challenges from her 25-year writing and editing career.
Susan began by describing her childhood, as a way of explaining how her life as a writer was formed, and ‘how you need a particular mix of longing and a desire for expression’. The child of a mixed marriage – her father was a Queenslander while her mother was a Sydneysider – she was born in Brisbane, but grew up in Sydney following her father’s transfer there to work in journalism. However, each year her family returned for Christmas to what Susan felt was the ‘indescribably exotic’ Brisbane, before eventually returning to live in Queensland during her final high school years.
As a child Susan was ‘very’ shy, a characteristic she has had to work hard at to overcome. It was not until 1987, when she embarked on a public speaking course, that she began her endeavour to be a ‘practising extrovert’. She also described feeling different – another marked characteristic of writers – due to having a depressed sternum. Susan commented that writers are ‘often separated from his or her fellows by illness, poverty, by difference’. As a consequence, she ‘dived into reading’, her head filled with stories.
Coming from a long line of storytellers on both sides of her family, Susan was immersed in and enthralled by her paternal grandmother’s tales of growing up in a tin-mining town (now vanished) in Far North Queensland, while on her mother’s side were ‘the big Irish talkers’, with characters like her great uncle ‘who ran away from home on a ship all the way to England where he became an acrobat’.
After school and following in her father’s footsteps, Susan became a cadet journalist with the Courier-Mail and had already begun writing poetry and dreaming of writing. Susan recalled the Brisbane of the late 1970s as ‘a place of ugliness’, a place that didn’t value anything that she valued like ‘art and beauty and remembering’. She argued that nothing much seemed to have changed from 1958 when Patrick White wrote his famous essay The Prodigal Son, from which she quoted:
“In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves.”
In her early twenties Susan struggled to become her ‘writerly self ’, running away to Sydney, Greece and back to Brisbane. The start of her writing career, however, can be traced back to when she was 28 and won a New Writer’s Grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council to write the book that would become her first novel, Messages from Chaos. That great $8000 gift told her that writing ‘does’ matter and boosted her confidence enormously.
Publishing and editing history
In a career spanning 25 years, Susan now has seven novels to her name, several of which have been published in the UK and the US, and, in translation, in France, Norway, Brazil, Italy and Poland.
Susan describes herself as a writer of ‘old-fashioned realistic fiction … with a poetic flourish [which] aims to show us life as it is dazzlingly experienced, with none of its edges blunted’. She draws heavily on the memories of her past, rearranging facts into her fiction. For example, in one of her books her paternal grandmother did not die young but was transformed into a young woman called Emma on the Atherton Tablelands. She explained that fiction ‘must read or feel as if it is as true as life’, but that sometimes real life when written down may seem implausible.
She touched on the differences between editing fiction and non-fiction. In her experience, fiction editors have a much less hands-on approach, existing on a continuum between those who feel they have no creative role to play except correcting grammatical mistakes, to editors who make brilliant suggestions. Having herself edited two non-fiction works, she was at pains to point out that her experiences with fiction editors have only been happy ones.
Susan discussed three main issues which have been challenges or lessons in her career:
2. Cultural cringe
Susan learnt a valuable lesson from her second editor, Fiona McCrae (who at the time worked for Faber UK), on her second novel, Flying Lessons. Susan had written a line along the lines of, ‘He might be bringing happiness. He might be bringing joy or anything.’ Fiona asked her, ‘What does the word “anything” mean here? He might be bringing a chocolate biscuit. It’s so much better to be specific’. Susan argues that her ‘number one rule is [that] an image or a metaphor or a figurative description … must be rooted in reality’.
Susan pointed out that, when publishing books internationally, the cultural cringe is alive and well. She raised the double-standard whereby Australians are expected to be familiar with the colloquial speech of other countries, but ‘American editors and publishers require re-writing of Australian books to make them comprehensible to the American market’.
She recalled agreeing, while culturally cringing, with Fiona McCrae to change the Australian word ‘dill’ to the very English word ‘twit’, and also, once again while culturally cringing, agreeing to a glossary in the back of her novel Flying lessons (see below):
Glossary (source: The Macquarie Dictionary)
blue: Colloq. a fight; dispute
hoe in: Colloq. to commence to eat heartily
hoon: 1. a loutish, aggressive or surly youth 2. a foolish or silly person, esp. one who is a show-off
pinch: Colloq. to arrest
ring-in: to insert or substitute
thongs: a sandal held loosely to the foot by two strips of rubber (flip-flops)
Susan raised questions for us to ponder: ‘what does that mean for us Australian writers? Do we write for the market?’
With many of her novels being translated into foreign languages, Susan has discovered how much more difficult it is to translate a novel than academic texts. She noted that ‘translators traditionally have problems translating figurative languages (metaphors, similes, personifications, etc.) and particularly idiomatic expressions because they must resemble as closely as possible both the original language and the translated language’. There is a danger that the translation will lose the structure and rhythm of the original and introduce unnecessary poetic flourishes, a point she illustrated with a pertinent example from Don Bartlett’s translation of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s international best-seller My Struggle.
Thank you very much to Susan for dangling the carrot, keeping us enthralled by skilfully weaving her adventures into a fascinating life story and sharing her editing experiences. ”
And a big thanks to the Society of Editors for asking me.