Ellen van Neerven-Currie chats with Katia about novel writing

Words by Ellen van Neerven-Currie

Published on November 27, 2012


This month is all about novels. Our editor Katia Pase chats with four writers about the process of putting together a manuscript. Ellen Van Neerven-Currie is our final writer.

Q1: Pitch your novel to us.

Fifty words or less? Part crime thriller, part literary romance, Hard tackles themes of racism, police corruption and forbidden love in a small country town.

Q2: Haruki Murakami says that when he’s writing a novel he gets up at 4am every morning, writes for 4 or five hours, then goes for a 10km run or a 1500m swim, or both. Did you have a routine you kept when writing your novel, and how did you juggle this with everyday ‘life’ commitments?

I admire anyone who has a writing routine. I work best with targets. I set myself a target of 2000 words a day, and then shortened it to 1000. There was a good while there, I think two, three weeks or so, that I kept this up, but I ended up exhausting myself because there was days where I could not find the space in the day to write, and this was also making me feel a fair bit of anxiety.

So I found a target that worked, one chapter a week, and I followed that mostly throughout the process of writing this novel. It was more flexible than a word count, I could have 5000 word chapters, I could have 1000 word chapters. It didn’t really matter, as I was going to go back and self-edit anyway. As long as I had the early beginnings, sketches of a chapter, I was happy.  I was writing to the QLA deadline, so I only had three months or so.

Like Murakami, I find exercise very important. I play football three times a week and I was careful not to miss any hit-outs if I didn’t have to, even when I felt under the gun. Being there, on a quiet, dark field in Albany Creek, was a much needed escape. It was the only time I wasn’t thinking about my novel.

Q3: How does your manuscript look compared to what you thought it would be when it was in the genesis stage?

It changed quite a few times, in different ways. Even when writing the first chapter. It was only going to follow Jolte, the protagonist. But 1000 words in, I was becoming restless, and switched to Ax’s perspective. I quickly made up my mind that it was going to follow these three characters; Jolte, Ax and Foreman and stuck to this. At the end of writing it, I’m even not sure whose book it is now.

I always had a plan for the first half of the manuscript, but the second was a complete mystery. I just kept writing, not sure where it was going. This was a good thing and a bad thing. As soon as I found myself bored and frustrated, I took a different direction. But sometimes when you don’t know where it’s going it can also be stifling. Because you think, there are all these loose ends and I don’t know how to tidy them up!

Q4: What other texts (books, movies, TV shows, music etc) did you consume during the process, and did any of it affect your writing?

I read a little bit of fiction, but none of it was deliberate. I think I was reading Chris Womersley, Dorothy Porter, Cormac McCarthy, Teju Cole, Anna Funder. I don’t think it really affected my writing, but others might be able to see it better than me. I think I had such a strong concept and style in my head for a long time before that I didn’t really subconsciously look at other texts for guidance.

The original first chapter, which I wrote in September 2011, was in some ways a response to Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore. And Dorothy Porter was very much an inspiration at the conceptual stage as well. There were some writers I tried to read that I thought would be helpful, and aligned in theme. But that didn’t work out so much.

I deliberately listened to music for mood. She Keeps Bees, Magic Dirt, Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams, Feist. And mostly, I consumed a lot of chocolate.

Q5: What did you find trickiest about the process? What did you find most rewarding?

Writing endings are such a challenge. Someone should start a workshop on it, I’ll happily sign up. I found balancing a job in the industry to be quite difficult. But on the other hand, I got to go to Adelaide Writers Week at the start of the year, which was very much an inspiring time. I also found it hard balancing other writing commitments and deadlines. It was rewarding having my first reader, my girlfriend, read it. It refreshed my enthusiasm. Also, looking at printed out drafts-there is something about print that really feels accomplished.

Ellen van Neerven-Currie is a writer, editor and Brisbane Roar FC fan. Her mother’s family is Mununjali of the Beaudesert region, and her father is Dutch. She works at the black&write! project at the State Library of Queensland, fostering a Indigenous writing hub. Ellen’s own writing has been published in McSweeney’s(US), Masacara Literary Review and REX, and she was shortlisted for the David Unaipon Award this year with her manuscript Hard.