Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Making Fiction Speak
Linda Olsson
by Kyla Mackenzie 

"For me, a good novel is one that captivates me.  I want to be emotionally touched by what I read. The book must stir up feelings of some kind.  It is not enough that it is elegantly written or that the plot is cleverly constructed.  The text needs to speak to me."  -  Linda Olsson, Summer School 2313 tutor

When I rang fiction writer, Linda Olsson, she was feeling overwhelmed.  Having arrived back in New Zealand a few days prior, she was in the process of moving into a loft-style apartment in Auckland city.  Boxed belongings from storage surrounded her, loaded with memory.  She revealed to me, somewhat wearily, that this little perch will be her 19th 'home'.  A brisk 5 minute walk up the road from her new bolt-hole, is the suburb of Ponsonby.  She and her former husband once lived here in a characterful old villa.  Write about what you know, they say.  Linda describes such a dwelling and the genteel ambiance of Ponsonby in her internationally best selling novel Let me sing you gentle songs, also released as Astrid and Veronika. 

Her heart belongs to both New Zealand and her country of birth, Sweden.  She describes herself as a New Zealand author.  Her evocative descriptions of both countries, and the ringing truths of her observations about human experience, loss, memory and healing, are hall-marks of her books.  This extremely mobile author has publishers in both countries and a fast-talking American agent with great drive.  Her global reach has secured her that rare privilege – to write full-time.  It has also revealed to her with great clarity, both the need for New Zealand authors to compete on the world stage, and the international market that awaits.  Encouraging new writers is one of the aims of Linda's role as teacher, adviser, friend and future colleague in her upcoming Summer School workshop, Making Fiction Speak.  

Making Fiction Speak is the name of your upcoming Summer School 5 day workshop.  Why did you word the title this way?

For me, a good novel is one that captivates me.  I want to be emotionally touched by what I read. The book must stir up feelings of some kind.  It is not enough that it is elegantly written or that the plot is cleverly constructed.  The text needs to speak to me.  Make me feel something.  Anything, really, but there must be an emotional response of some kind. This is difficult to describe, and probably difficult to teach.  I will do my best, though.

Are you able to give us a brief example of one of the writing techniques the participants will be exploring?

Firstly, I strongly believe that a creative writing course needs to protect the individual voice of the student.  The purpose of a class like this, I think, is similar to a master class for opera singers: the goal is to enhance what is already there.

In our case, it is to teach ways to make the writer’s words speak more clearly and more effectively.  I have specifically stated that students are welcome to bring works in progress, and we will discuss difficulties and issues that the students may want to share. In addition, we will look at examples from the world of literature that demonstrate a range of approaches to fiction writing.

The workshop is pitched at the Intermediate level.  Describe the candidate/s who would most benefit from this process?

Students who have worked on something with a mind to publish.  People who are really trying to write a novel or short stories. 

This is your first practical teaching exercise, I believe.  Does it feel a natural next step, in a way, to share your knowledge in this way?

I do a lot of lecturing around the world.  Usually, these focus on my own writing, of course, but sometimes the topic extends beyond this and becomes more like a lecture on certain aspects of writing in general.  Something of that will be carried over into the Summer School workshop.

I particularly look forward to the hands-on work on the students’ own texts. I am often asked to review works, and I generally decline.  But the students I hope to meet will have decided to take the course in order to progress their writing, and will be open to constructive criticism, I hope.

What are some of the qualities you most appreciated about your own tutors at the University of Auckland?

Actually, the single most valuable aspect of the course was the interaction with the other seven students!  Apart from that, the course provided structure to my writing, and I manage to finish my first novel!

My first book emerged from course work at University.  Overnight it became a best seller. 
I had never envisaged writing novels; it was short stories that I loved, so it is still a surprise that I am writing novels. 

It comes as a surprise that you studied law and worked in banking and finance early in your career.  At what point or points did you realise there were other ambitions you wanted to pursue?

I think it was the other way around, in a way.  I would have liked to study literature and write when I left school.  Language and writing was my passion at school.  But I was the first member of my family to be able to go to college and university and it felt like a huge responsibility.  I felt had to use the opportunity to study something ‘real’.  I am glad I did. My experiences are valuable to me and have made me who I am today.  I am not sure I would have had the confidence to write the books I have without my previous life.  Some mature slowly!

When your first novel became a best seller, how did it make you feel to imagine over a million people reading your hard won words?

Surreal, I suppose, although this is a quickly passing feeling. Very soon I found new things to worry about!  It’s like how you relate to reviews: no matter how many glowing ones you get, it will be the bad one that you remember...

Landscape and environment play an emotive role in your books.  Does living 'between' two countries – Sweden, and New Zealand, sharpen a sense of perpetual separation, of not quite being in that location completely? 

Yes, that is probably true. I think that immigrants see their environment in a different way from those who have lived in the same place all their lives. I think the perspective sharpens the observations. Immigrants see things that the locals take for granted. And they always carry their old country with them.They make comparisons, whether positive or negative, consciously or subconsciously. It is interesting to note that many authors have written their best works when they have been removed from the setting of their stories.

Because of my strange lifestyle, I live in two countries all the time.  I am both an emigrant and an immigrant, permanently.  And my relationship with my two countries as I come and go constantly changes.  The one that is far removed seems more attractive always.  And also clearer.  I find myself referring to it all the time in a favourable way. So, I wrote my first, very Swedish novel, here in Auckland, and the third one, the most New Zealand of my three novels, mostly in Europe.

In terms of challenges writers experience - would isolation be both a blessing and a curse?

Isolation for me is necessary but then I get to the point when I desperately need to see people.  Yet, I write the best when I'm alone and in quite a dark mood.  I need to be able to really go into that world - I have to be there, and it does exclude everything else. I can't write about it from the 'outside', if that makes sense.  I enjoy books where the author has clearly felt something. There is enormous power in words, but you have to find the right ones.  I'm fascinated by the act of putting little black marks on a white page and sending it across the world and to have someone cry as a result. 

Do you keep an array of beautiful notebooks for the collection of thoughts?

No. I keep buying them, and people give them to me, but I am completely dependent on my laptop.  And my brain, hoping that elusive ideas will stay in my mind until I get back to my computer.  I often send myself a text to make sure I remember an idea or an observation.

 Any favourite books or authors you can recommend?

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is one that comes to mind.  The main character is a woman whose life you follow – it is an old fashioned epic novel.  When you finish, you feel you have made that journey with her, experienced her sensations; its beautifully written. 

Another book I often go back to is The Victim, by Saul Bellow.  It's about a man who goes mad during a very hot summer in New York.  You can feel is the heat, feel his mounting paranoia and descent into madness. 

I was really moved by your novel, Let me sing you gentle songs.  Why did it also get released under the name Astrid and Veronika (the two main characters) ?

It has been given many different titles. ‘Astrid and Veronika’ was the US title, and was subsequently adopted by some other countries. The oddest title I am aware of (I am not entirely sure what the Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai versions mean), is the German one: ‘Die Dorfhexe’ which means “The Village Witch’.  It didn’t sell well until it was re-released with a different cover, so titles are important.

Who would have thought a title like The Village Witch wouldn't sell like hotcakes...?

And it had such a gloomy cover as well...  Of course, it didn't work at all.  Comments on Amazon said things like 'such a great book but what a bad title!'

It's also interesting that some men who have bought my book have really enjoyed them but admitted they wouldn't have bought as they thought was a 'woman's' book.  Cover design is so important. 

Do you think it would work well as a film or does the thought of it being tampered with make you feel ill?

I am not sure, but the film rights are presently under negotiation. My daughter in law who is a film director has always said it would be a difficult book to make into a film. Personally, I have already seen the film.  In my head.  Because I see my books, then try to write what I see.  Someone asked if I think in English or Swedish when I write, and I said I did neither, I think in pictures.

You were our recent literary ambassador to the Frankfurt Book Fair in October this year – how was that? 

To be honest, I came away feeling a little disappointed.  The Frankfurt Book Fair is not a fun fair, it is a very serious trading place where literary rights are traded.  I think that New Zealand was presented more as a tourist destination than a country offering a wealth of wonderful literature.  I feel strongly that these are rare and valuable events; there is so little money for writers and an amazing platform like this needs to be exploited to maximise the opportunities for NZ authors and publishers. 

In many countries the literature has finally been recognised for its huge financial potential; its export potential.  China recently launched a government initiative to promote Chinese literature overseas, for example. As has Sweden and many other countries.

When I tour I always ask my audiences what other New Zealand authors they know. Usually I get an auditorium of blank faces. The odd person might mention Janet Frame. Someone might know that Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander and not English. That is all.  I was hoping that Frankfurt would change that.

This was, afterall, a fair absolutely packed with hard nosed buyers.  None of my publishers were approached by the New Zealand group - they didn't bring publishers, or agents to approach the buyers of literary rights. Iceland last year had all the right contacts, they introduced all the authors to the right people, and it had a really good outcome.  New Zealand publishers, while some are excellent, don't seem to have the overseas contacts and confidence.  I hope to see this change. 

How can new writers promote themselves independently at a global level?

Well, obviously websites and blogs go some way.  Find yourself an energetic literary agent.  An agent who is fluent in several languages is a definite plus.  I was lucky to find such an aggressive, hard-selling one - she got results.  A good agent would have the required contacts in different markets. Something New Zealand publishers don’t have.

I would like to have a session in the workshop about how to go about distributing your manuscript and the steps beyond that.  This is the sort of thing serious writers need to think about. 

What kind of attitude should participants bring to your workshop and what would you like them to gain from the experience?

A positive frame of mind. I hope they will come loaded with creativity and optimism, willing to be active participants.

I would like for them to walk away feeling reinforced in their pursuit of their own writing projects.  Confident and eager to sit down and write.   Connections in such a setting can be made for life; I want them to come away with new friends as well as ideas. 
The workshop, ideally, will foster a sense of collective spirit; it's a discussion group – one which I hope to learn from also! 

No comments:

Post a Comment