Recently, Emma left a comment regarding writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French who together produce the phenomenally successful Nicci French novels. Emma wondered “how writers write books together. Do they bounce on each other’s idea? Take turns to write chapters? How do they compromise to have the same vision of their characters?” All good questions which unfortunately I couldn’t answer. After finishing Writing is Easy, an extremely funny book which pokes fun at that holy bastion of the writing community–the writing workshop, Emma’s questions were still fresh, and so I asked writing team, Australian sisters Joan Kerr and Gabrielle Daly, who together write under the name Gert Loveday, for an interview. And here it is:
Gert Loveday is actually two people, the Daly sisters, Joan (Kerr) and Gabrielle.
2. What motivated you to start writing together?
Joan had been writing for a long time. As children, she and our brother, the immortal “Denis Kodaly” (who will be appearing shortly on our blog) composed a long oral history of a place called Arrapamatta with characters such as Mary Biffy and Rort K. Bugbear. Both of us at different times took honours degrees in English at Melbourne University. Quite some years later, Joan began publishing poetry and then short stories. Gabrielle moved to Singapore and studied memoir, haibun and haiku online with the wonderful Allegra Wong from WOTN. Joan attended one of the Canadian writing-teacher Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s Australian workshops and encouraged Gabrielle to do so. We got highly useful encouragement and feedback from Barbara, who is quite miraculous in the way she frees up the imagination. We learned about NaNoWriMo, and had no difficulty achieving the required 50,000 words in a month. Gabrielle then got the idea that by writing 1500 words a day each we could write a 100,000-word novel in a month, sharing the work.
3. Although you’ve written 5 novels, Writing is Easy is the first to appear on the kindle. Please tell us about your other novels.
The first is Crane Mansions: a story about the redeeming power of cake, set in Crane Mansions Regulatory School for the Children of the Indigent, run by the headmaster Dr Crane in line with pigeonnic augury and the poetry of Blake. Gabrielle was on a Wilkie Collins bender at the time, so it has something of that tone. The orphaned heiress Millie Lord goes through many vicissitudes, as do a large cast of adult characters who are involved, as is usual with Gert, in a range of bizarre schemes and plots of their own. Writing is Easy is our second book. Then we have The Art of the Possible, about political skullduggery and bureaucratic doublespeak, a wonder youth drug, reality TV and the Norse saga. The Lies and Life of Bella Hatherley is told by a little girl who isn’t sure if she’s a liar or just has a very good imagination. Although she is something of a fantasist she is basically level-headed and has a difficult prima donna of a fashion-conscious mother to manage. The last book we wrote and have just rewritten is a nameless book about the effects of a charismatic guru on a cast of characters in a country town. We still don’t like it much. We’ve also had a go at a sort of YA fantasy novel which is a bit of a mess.
All quite different, as you can see.
4. Why did you decide to self-publish?
We had interest in Crane early on from a prominent literary agent but she felt there was a problem in having a child as a central character in a book for adults (difficult marketing, they said) and wanted us to recast it for children. We did have a go, but our hearts weren’t in it. Writing is Easy was shortlisted for a Varuna Publisher Fellowship and was read by another publisher, but wasn’t taken up. We have a lot of confidence in our writing. We know it doesn’t have a mass market but we do think it has one. The novelist Dorothy Johnston told us about the ASA Authors Unlimited program, where they convert the book to e-formats for a reasonable price and put it up for sale on their website. Then you can get a distributor to put it out to Amazon, Kobo and so on. We decided to go for it, wanting to have a book out there that might create a taste for Gert’s writing
5. What is the hardest about self-publishing?
Getting your book noticed in the mountain of other self-published books! There’s a huge learning curve involved in trying to do that. But the positive side is that we could put out the book exactly as we wanted it.
6. I’m fascinated by the idea that two people co-write a book. What is your process?
We write by email taking turns. For our first book we drew up a few names from our junk mail – Eustace Pugh, Hubert Crane, Tibbie Clemons. Somehow we thought of Millie Lord, our protagonist. Gabrielle had a dream about pigeons and we were away. Gabrielle wrote the first 1500 words, Joan followed on as best she could, and the game began. No matter what perplexity was served up one had to take it and run with it. The story had no preordained plot, it truly grew itself. We rushed to our computers every day wanting to know what had befallen the characters since our last writing.
We had so much fun and were so amazed at what had come out of our imaginations that we went on. For the subsequent books, again we had a vague idea but the path grew with the writing. For Writing is Easy we initially had the idea of a vain actor, but he turned out to be Marcus. Joan started that one off. For Art of the Possible we put some of our Old Norse to work in the main character, the dreamy Dr Frank Owlbrother, who loves the Viking comics of a certain Snorri Sturlusson from Schenectady. We have always followed this approach. Some preliminary chat and laughter and off we go. We write a minimum of 1500 words each every day until the first draft is done. Then, and only then, it’s time to read the whole thing and revise.
7. Do you ever have differences of opinion about the plot or the characters? If so, how is this resolved?
Sometimes a character is heading in a direction one of us doesn’t like. We’ll talk about that over the phone (even though Gabrielle is back in Australia we live in different cities), and then as we go on with the first draft we tweak the character. With plot, if one of us doesn’t want the plot to go there, she’ll do something to turn it back. We might talk about that if the other really doesn’t want to go there. We never reach an impasse. Part of it is being prepared to kill your own darlings.
8. Writing is Easy is set at an eight-day writer’s workshop. Towards the end of Writing is Easy, one of your characters has the thought: “The way I see it is, you can either write to you can’t.” Would you comment on that?
Writing is not easy! Many people want to ‘be writers’ but don’t really want or know how to lay the groundwork. (We love people who say, as Mandy does in Writing is Easy, ‘If I had time, I could write a book.’). It is possible with the help of people like Allegra Wong and Barbara Turner-Vesselago to lift your work to another level, but there is a spark some people have and others don’t. And you can improve by working at your writing but only if technical exercises bring out or free up something that’s already there. So, yes, we probably do think there’s an essential quality that separates okay writers from really interesting ones. And of course, reading, reading, reading is essential. We have a lifelong habit of reading – excessively, some might say.
9. Which authors are your influences? I’d compare your humour to Elizabeth Jolley. Any thoughts?
Elizabeth Jolley not so much. It could be having two central characters who are “misses” that gives that impression. One of our all-time favourites is James Hamilton-Paterson’s great book Cooking with Fernet Branca. Then there’s Lucky Jim (though not so many of Kingsley’s later books), Muriel Spark, especially Memento Mori, and PamelaBranch. Flann O’Brien. And we grew up reading the classic comic writers in our father’s library: Wodehouse, Stephen Leacock, S.J. Perelman, J. B. Morton, Punch, Thurber, Patrick Campbell. We’re always looking for new comic writers and don’t find many.
10. On your blog http://gertloveday.wordpress.com/ you mention ‘GERT’ as though she is a separate entity. In Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World, a female artist uses 3 successive men as “masks” for her work, and she acknowledges in each case she “insisted that the pseudonym she adopted changed the character of the art she made. In other words, the man she used as a mask played a role in the kind of art she produced: each artist mask became for Burden a ‘poetized personality,’ a visual elaboration of a hermaphroditic self which cannot be said to belong to either her or to the mask, but to a mingled reality created between the two of them.” How does that quote relate, if at all, to your creation of Gert Loveday? Is Gert a “mingled reality created between” Joan Kerr and Gabrielle Daly?
Gert is Gert. We both have other writing identities in different forms, but we have a sense of Gert, or a Gertish way of looking at things. She looks like Elinor Bron, with wild white curly hair. We think she smokes (we would never do that) and she has an Irish wolfhound. She is at once much freer and more ruthless than we are. So she feels separate.
11. What are your writing plans for the future?
We go on. Over the next few years we’d like to publish the three books we’re happy with. We’ll go on working on the guru book, and there is another book floating round in the ether about frauds (or freuds, as Gert prefers to call them). We’re really enjoying our blog and we’d like to build on that. Then there’s poetry, and short stories that we write individually. We’ve never wanted to do nothing but write. It’s just one of the many things we like to do. But it is playing a bigger and bigger part in our lives these days.
Thanks Joan and Gabrielle. I’m waiting for your next novel.