Sarah Kanake chats with Katia about novel writing

Words by Sarah Kanake

Published on November 6, 2012

This month is all about novels. Our editor Katia Pase chats with four writers about the process of putting together a manuscript, starting with Sarah Kanake.

Q1. Pitch your novel to us.
Have you ever wondered if you were born in the wrong place, or the wrong family? What about the wrong skin?

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 had a very similar routine to Murakami (minus the running and swimming). I woke up every morning at 5.00, ate my breakfast and watched youtube clips for about half an hour. Clips like ‘Bill O’Reilly gets owned’ or ‘Anne Coulter defends Bush’.

By 6.00 I was at the kitchen table ready to write. I wrote every day until about 1.00, took a break for lunch and a long walk, and was back at the table again at about 3.00 to edit my work and cut anything I didn’t need or like. Then, before going to sleep in the evening, I would decide what I was going to write the following day. It was no uncommon for me to get about half a chapter done in a day (it was also not uncommon for me to throw out half a chapter). I am the opposite of Douglas Adams (and his whooshing deadlines) and work really well with boundaries. I gave myself a word length to hit every day (general between 2,000 and 5,000 words) and most days I got there but some days writing was harder than others and I might end up with my head in a bucket of ice-cream blubbering about how I should have been a lawyer. Asimov once said ‘if you look at anything long enough, say just that wall in front of you, it will come out of that wall’. So, if I was having a tough writing day I still sat down at the table at 6.00 and stared at the wall until something came out of it.

It took longer to write the first four chapters (each from a different character perspective) than any other part of the novel because I was learning to see the world through four very different eyes and also how each character should sound. After the first four chapters were written I wrote the ending, decided on a general trajectory of the novel and just started writing. The novel (minus the first four chapters) took about four months to write.

I am lucky in that my novel is also part of my research for my PhD and so I am able to live off my APA scholarship. This essentially means that, besides teaching, I am able to work full time at my fiction writing.

Q3. How does your manuscript look compared to what you thought it would be when it was in the genesis stage?
Steinbeck once said that ‘I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances’.

I try not to plot or plan my creative work too heavily. I am of the mind that if I take the time to really get to know and understand my characters before I start writing then they will lead me to where I need to go. So far this has worked, although I have started my second novel,which is much longer, has almost a dozen perspectives, and uses small scenes rather than chapters. I think my process will have to change a little bit to accommodate the scope of my new work.

Having said that, the way I wrote Sing Fox to Me  was a particularly enjoyable process because I was able to feel like both a writer and reader. When the novel was in its early stages I didn’t really have clear trajectory but I was ready to ‘take my chances’. I knew what events would happen and I knew where they needed to fall in relation to certain character moments but I didn’t map out the shape of it or bring any expectations to the writing. Consequently I was surprised almost every day by where the story took me. Particularly those moments in the novel that I know are based on real experiences or event.

Q4. What other texts (books, movies, TV shows, music etc) did you consume during the process, and did any of it affect your writing?
In the early stages of understanding my characters I tried to read what they would read and listen to music they would like. The result was that lots of those stories and songs worked their way into the novel.  Sing Fox to Me heavily references other texts and the psychology of my characters is strongly tied to the books and stories that appeal to them. For instance, one of the characters in my novel, an ex logger from Tasmania, often references the poems of Banjo Paterson, particularly Clancy of the Overflow, and Lost. Another character, an eighteen year old girl with a poet for a father, worries over the image of an institution presented in an Anne Sexton poem called December 12th and sings I Was Only 19 by Redgum at the local pub. The hero of the novel (named Samson) is fascinated by the story of his namesake from the Bible, while his twin brother is obsessed with The Jungle Book and hopes that in the wild Tasmanian scrub he might meet the Shere Khan or Kaa the python.

Some of the events in the book come from my own family stories, and as material this was actually much more difficult than it sounds. When you have heard a story over and over for years it can be difficult to begin manipulating it for your own purpose. I took some advice from an interview with author Alice Munro. She said, ‘anecdotes don’t make good stories. Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about’.

Q5. What did you find trickiest about the process? What did you find most rewarding?
The trickiest part of the process I think is having a real life and an imagined life running alongside one another. It can be very difficult to spend five or six hours a day inside your head and then turn around and talk to you parents on the phone, or go out with mates, or discuss your day with your partner. Sometimes the imagined characters push their way into your life and demand your attention. Learning how to juggle the imagined spaces in your life and the real ones can be very difficult. I am lucky because through my PhD I have two very clever supervisors that meet with me once a week and talk to me about my work and encourage me to keep going. I also have a group of friends (made up of readers, writers, editors, and close friends) that I call The Fellowship of the Reading. I sent the Fellowship my first draft and got some very useful feedback that I have since used in my redrafting etc.

Besides this though, no one ever tells you how hard it is after you finish a novel. After I finished my first draft of Sing Fox to Me  I went into the weird fug that took weeks to get out of. My drive had been going so hardcore for such a long time that when it was over I didn’t know what to do when I got up at 5.00 in the morning. In the midst of my sump someone reminded me that Rudyard Kipling once said that, “words are the most powerful drug used by mankind” and so I took a break (before starting to edit) by getting more involved in my band, and doing lots and lots of baking!

What did I find the most rewarding? This one is a little trickier because I am still in the process of editing and redrafting and I am till finding new rewarding aspects of the writing and drafting process. Initially I think it was getting to know the characters. The first few months of conceiving this story was like being on an awesome first date, I asked my characters questions and they answered, I followed them and pushed them and eventually we all ended up in the same space ready to tell a story. But the real joy, the best part, was probably finishing the manuscript. Looking at the word count and seeing 97, 000 feels pretty fucking good!

Sarah Kanake is a PhD student and creative writing tutor at QUT. Sing Fox to Me is her first novel but she hopes to have her second finished by late next year. In her spare time Sarah performs in the country music duo The Shiralee. She lives in Brisbane with her partner and a blue teddy bear.