It seems to us the most rewarding way to spend your life is to write books and have people give you money for them.
Fiction or non-fiction, how magnificent to relish, or at least derive satisfaction, ploughing your way through research and creation for the months or years it takes to craft something worthwhile.
Just you and a laptop, (okay oldies, a pen or a typewriter) in a location of your choice, selecting a pattern of words to give others a view of the pictures in your head.
To paint would come second, only because there are more fiddly bits to carry, although inspired mixing of pigments is a fulfilling reward. Sculpting retains your individual vision but may need more heavy lifting and some assistants if you are working in certain materials.
The other creative arts, music, theatre, television and film require many more collaborators, usually involving diplomacy, salesmanship, negotiation, frustration and delays.
Words on a page, that’s our choice, where you are the sole ringmaster and the solo performer.
(OK, OK, you have editors. Some are saints. Some have been one side of memorable and bloody rows. But you can prevail.)
Meet the writer
One of our favourite authors has worked his way through it all and emerged cheerful. He is Derek Hansen. His first book published in 1993 was Lunch with the Generals. Since then he has given us eight more novels and three books of short stories.
TML’s relentless mission to find out how magnificent things happen had us catching up with him recently in Sydney.
We hit him with a few questions, and we reckon his answers not only help us understand the man but also some of the processes involved in the successful pursuit of the Satisfying Profession of Writing.
Good reading for young writers.
TML: When was the moment you thought you could be a published writer?
Derek: Interesting. I always wanted to write a novel and always thought I could but it wasn’t until Bryce Courtenay’s book The Power of One was published that I realised I could get published. I mean, if Bryce could do it… Call it rivalry, envy or pure jealousy, whatever it was it worked.
What’s your typical workday like?
I usually start around 9.30am and finish around 4.00pm, with small breaks along the way. I rarely write for more than five hours a day because of the intensity and level of concentration, especially when I’m writing a novel. Short stories are another matter entirely. I wrote Dead Fishy during a break between novels and just had fun thinking up the stories and characters. It didn’t feel like work. Of course all the usual disciplines applied. It’s a ruthless business making humour work on the page but it can also be a lot of fun and very satisfying.
How much is revision?
The short answer is books aren’t written but rewritten. The first hour of every day is spent revising what I wrote the previous day, which also has the benefit of “putting me in character” so that tone of voice remains consistent. Some days when I’m not in the mood I simply revise, edit and polish sentences. Once the novel is finished I’ll work through it from start to finish at least three times. It helps if you love the craft of writing.
Do you have a break between books, maybe travel for inspiration? Or do you have novels ready to go?
Writing can be exhausting and the process of publishing can be emotional and frustrating so, yeah, I take a break. The length of the break depends on inspiration and enthusiasm. When I travel I not only look for inspiration but check out the places I intend to write about – the geography, topography, flora and fauna, customs, food and history.
How do you go about planning a novel or collection of short stories?
Everybody daydreams but I’m better at it than most people. It’s something I’ve worked hard at. People might think I’m goofing off just sitting in a chair staring out over Pittwater with either a hot coffee or cold beer at hand. What I’m actually doing is thinking through an idea. I don’t start any story until I know the ending, the middle and the beginning. Before I embark on the journey I need to have a destination in mind and some idea of the route I’ll take. Of course the story will have twists and turns but if you know your destination and the framework of your story you can keep it on track. That said, I have been known to fall asleep during this process.
Do you have another novel on the way?
I have another novel in my computer all ready to go. The issue is, go where? I think it was Rupert Murdoch who said computers and the internet destroy as much as they create, and the internet has certainly played havoc with local publishers and booksellers. In simple terms, local publishers need their books to retail around $30 to recover costs and make a profit. Meanwhile Amazon and The Book Depository offer international books by the world’s biggest selling authors for around $12.
Do you have any advice for first time authors?
Local publishers need volume to survive and to reach the necessary volume they need to sell books internationally. So my advice is to write what the market wants, which is international espionage, grand scale corruption and crime. Characters should also be able to survive being shot, stabbed, beaten up on a regular basis, being hit by cars and blown up by bombs. Just ask Robert Crais or Michael Connolly.
Who are your favourite writers, old and new?
My favourite books are totally not like the books I advise young writers to write. I grew up with Hemingway, Steinbeck, J P Donleavy, Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, Tom Wolfe, Deighton and Le Carre. The novels that spoke to the young me the loudest and clearest were Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. My recommendations are for lessor known books: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller and a quirky western depression novel called The Thicket by Joe R Lansdale.
Revisiting and perfecting
Derek recently re-published an earlier collection of stories because he wasn’t happy with the original production values, even though it sold well. The 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition rights those wrongs, a source of immense satisfaction for him.
A creel-full of terrific stories, some brutal, some charming, some funny as a fight. All with a powerful undercurrent of water and creatures of the sea running through them.
You can catch up with Derek Hansen’s creations through your bookstore or have a look through his site: www.derekhansen.com.au