By Arianne James interviewing Sophie Masson
Can you pick three books that you think influenced your desire to become a writer? A hard question I know!
Yes indeed a hard question! These are just three among the many that influenced me and they are all from childhood: the Blue Book of Fairy Tales(a Little Golden Book), it was the first ever book I read for myself in English after we arrived in Australia from France when I was a little girl—they were Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Toads and Diamonds, I knew them all beforehand in French but that was the first time I got to know them in the language in which I later became a writer—I have never stopped being inspired by fairy tales; the Tintin series by Herge, which I read both in French and English and which gave me a taste for adventure, mystery and visual narrative; and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—I really wanted to go through the wardrobe into an enchanted world—and now I realise that’s exactly what stories did for me. I was a child living between worlds, so having a foot in two worlds really resonated with me.
There are many others of course that I’ve written about before, like Jules Verne’s Michel Strogoff, which was hugely influential, and books by Leon Garfield and Alan Garner and Tove Jannsson and many many others which I’ve written about at various times.
What was the first book you had published and what was the process you went through to make it happen?
My first published book (but actually the third book I had written, the other two have never seen the light of day and never will!) was an adult contemporary novel called The House in the Rainforest. It was not autobiographical but instead set within a small timber-milling village on the North Coast of NSW in the late 1970’s and then Sydney in the 1980’s. It is told in the voice of Kate Murphy, who is a journalist going to cover a tragic and horrible story from her home village on the North Coast: a murder-suicide. She knew the people involved and over the course of the novel, she starts unravelling the mystery of why it happened, and in the process looks at her own history back then. It was inspired by a place on the North Coast I knew as a teenager when my parents had bought a farm there—my father, though French, loved the Australian bush-and we would go there on holidays (it was managed the rest of the time). I was fascinated by rural Australian life which I didn’t know till then and I got to meet many people in the village and took lots of notes! In fact I wrote a short story called ‘Sketches’ which later became the jumping off point for the novel. Many years later I was living for a few months in Coffs Harbour with my husband and small daughter, working as a journalist for a local paper, and I got interested again in that whole North Coast thing—the tension between incomers and locals, the different cultures that overlap and sometimes clash there, Aboriginal people, hippies, small-scale dairy farmers, cattlemen, marijuana growers, artists, timber-cutters, surfies, etc… and so I took out that story and started to think how a novel might work. But I did most of the work on it when we were living in Guyra, a small town high up in the Northern Tablelands, which proudly boasts it has the highest caravan park in NSW—and the coldest, I imagine! Anyway when I finished, I sent it off to the University of Queensland Press as I’d read they were looking for fiction set in Queensland or Northern NSW. I knew nobody in publishing, not a soul! In those days you could send a whole ms plus a query letter and synopsis from the get-go and I’d read how to do it in an authors’ guide book, so off I sent my parcel! I waited a whole year for a reply—and during that time, as I didn’t want to just sit around chewing my fingernails, I wrote another book, one for children this time, a time slip novel called Fire in the Sky, set partly in medieval France, partly in modern Australia, and sent it off to Angus and Robertson. And guess what—it was picked up for publication only a few weeks after I’d had the acceptance letter from UQP for The House in the Rainforest! (They were much quicker about saying yes, thank goodness!) It was SO exciting-I had my first two books published in the same year, 1990: The House in the Rainforest in April, Fire in the Sky in June.
Which writers have inspired you the most throughout your career?
Many! Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare, Herge, Agatha Christie, Leon Garfield, CS Lewis, Tolkien, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy—and lots lots more. An eclectic bunch!
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you write everyday?
I write at least 4-5 days a week, depending on what else I have on, and I work from around 8.30 am to 6 or so. On writing days, I start with a short walk in morning, then get to work—have a break for lunch but that’s all. I NEVER work at night, much too tired—instead I love to read and also to watch crime series on DVD with my husband. So good to relax reading or watching someone else’s stories!
How do you go about planning a novel?
I think about the setting, the characters, the main thrust of the story, make quite a few notes but don’t have a set plan as such—I let the story takes me where it takes me. When I’m ready to start writing, I write in solid blocks of time one day at a time and the next day go over what I’ve written the previous day before going on to the next bit. This means my ‘first draft’ is actually quite sleek by the end of it—I can’t just get everything down in a big mess then go right back to the beginning—doesn’t work for me at all.
Do you do a lot of journaling?
I keep various journals—for instance I have a literary journal in which I write down all the ups and downs and small and big events of my literary life, I started keeping that a few years ago and it’s really interesting to look back and read it. I also keep a family journal in which I write down important family events and also mention world events—I write in that every few months or when something big happens..And I have an ordinary diary in which I write day to day stuff. I’ve also kept travel journals. And notebooks!
Do many of your ideas come from your dreams?
Some have done—and also, very often, scenes for books have come out of dreams. I dream a lot and have trained myself to remember them—especially the striking ones of course!
How do you approach any problems that might arise your writing? Such as feeling at a crossroads between two plots, or unsure about a characters motivations?
I go for a walk and try to nut it out in my head away from my desk! That often works if it’s a minor thing. If it is really difficult, I put the text aside altogether and write something else—a poem, say—that might liberate my mind from feeling like a rat going round and round in a maze! And that usually works.
Who were the most helpful people on your journey as a writer?
Firstly, my parents, who have always loved books and stories and who though they had no idea how one might go about being a published writer, encouraged me to write, in French first(my native language) then English(which they both spoke and read very well). My dad was and is a great storyteller, though he never wrote any of it down. My mother, who was a great reader and a tough critic at times, also helped by challenging me to do the best I could. She would never say something of mine was good just because I was her daughter—she’d say, No, this doesn’t work, you’ll have to try again! Not easy for a kid maybe but it really worked for me later as I was used to editing and not being precious about my work! Secondly, my English teacher in high school, Mrs Leaf, who was also of that tough-but-fair school—she was very encouraging but never let me get away with substandard work, and she introduced me to the work of greats like Shakespeare and John Donne in the most interesting and stimulating ways; then there were the fabulous Australian poets who answered my fan letters when I was a teenager—and who gave me advice on my own poems—and especially, the very eminent and accomplished poet AD Hope who wrote several times to me after I sent him my poems and who took time to help a young writer. Then of course my first publishers at UQP and A and R, who loved my work and were so encouraging about submitting more. Then, after I’d had my first two books published, I approached a literary agent, Margaret Connolly, who at the time was working for Curtis Brown but later went off to form her own independent company(and I followed her of course!). Margaret has been the most helpful and wonderful person for me in professional terms, she understands intimately the way I work, she always looks out for great opportunities for me, she empathises with me about the highs and lows, she is the first person I touch base with regarding ideas for new projects etc…And she is a good friend, we talk about all kinds of things as well as professional matters!
As well, my wonderful husband David Leach, who has always supported my writing life, not just morally but very practically by taking an equal share of household and childcare duties (in fact quite often he has done the lion’s share of that work!) and who has never complained about living with a writer’s obsessions, quite the opposite, he seems to enjoy it! Also my gorgeous kids, Pippa, Xavier and Bevis, who have always been an inspiration, and understood why their mum sometimes was away with the fairies (and mind you, exploited that occasionally!!) and who now as adults continue that support. And now my lovely little grandsons George and Otis, who are a constant source of delight and have inspired me to finally crack the genre I have longed to get into: picture books!
I also have many writer and illustrator friends—it’s always wonderful to have a good chat with fellow creators, who understand exactly what it’s like! Some I’ve been friends with for a very long time and we have supported each other through all kinds of life experiences as well as professional things…
I feel blessed, actually, in all the love and support and encouragement and fellowship I’ve had throughout my life as a writer. I have been very lucky indeed. And because I am so grateful about that, I do try to ‘pass it forward’ and help other creators where I can.
What is the best thing about being a writer, for you?
Doing what I was born to do! Still can’t get over my good fortune…
What would be your top 5 pieces of advice for aspiring authors?
- Don’t take rejection personally
- Do take the time to relax and enjoy yourself outside of writing
- Don’t waste your time envying or comparing yourself to other writers
- Do appreciate each successful step along the way, no matter how small
- Do keep in touch about what’s going on in your chosen genre, but don’t copycat or run after trends
Can you tell us about your current projects?
I am currently writing a novel for middle-grade readers, entitled War and Resistance—it’s set in 1939—1941, in France, mainly, during the German occupation in WW2, and it’s told from the contrasting viewpoints of a French girl and a German boy. It’s contracted to Scholastic. Then I’ve been writing a novel and exegesis for my PHD in Creative Practice, which is going very well—I have less than a year to go now! I’ve also been writing journal articles in relation to that. And I have been writing poems and the occasional picture book text too—I’ve had three picture books published this year, and another three have been accepted, and three more are out there doing the rounds! So as you can see, there is lots on. And that’s not to mention my work with Christmas Press, a small publisher of children’s books which I’m a co-director of, and organizing stuff for the New England Writers’ Centre, of which I’m Chair!