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INTERVIEW: Kirsty Manning

Friday, July 06, 2018


Today I welcome Kirsty Manning, author of The Jade Lily, to the blog.

Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes indeed. I think this was the most frequent comment on my school reports. It wasn’t a compliment at the time, but it has served me well over the years.
Although, my kids often stop and ask me who I’m talking to when I’m alone.
I’m often caught walking, or driving along having animated conversations with people who don’t exist.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I like to have a rough idea of the line of my story before I start. The Jade Lily is historical fiction and set in Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War (WW2) so there were specific dates that had to be hit, for obvious reasons!

The book opens with Kristallnacht in Vienna and I had a very clear idea of the opening scene. I then had some specific scenes planned, plus a rough idea of how the book would end. I used Scrivener this time, and found it very helpful to map out scenes and move them around. I’ve learnt after two books I tend to write the opening, then a loose ending … then I patchwork the two storylines together. I’m never quite sure of how it will turn out, but a plod away and somewhere in the writing some magic happens to join all the dots up. It’s a delightful surprise (and a hell of a relief!) when it all comes together in the end.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I spent time speaking with Sam Moshinsky in Melbourne, author of Goodbye Shanghai, and a Russian Jew who grew up in Shanghai’s French Concession. He was delighted to meet me over coffee and tell me about his time in Shanghai and he then went on to read a draft of the book and answer questions ranging from Jewish rituals, to the tiny minutia of life in Shanghai under the Occupation.

Sam introduced me to Horst Eisfelder, a former German refugee who spent time in the Shanghai ghetto. It turned out Horst had arrived in Shanghai on the same Italian ocean liner, Conte Verde, as my imaginary Romy … and also, his family had owned the real café in the ghetto my character Romy visits, Café Louis.

Where do you write, and when?

I have a small office—basically a corridor—that overlooks my deck and the garden. It’s like working in a glass treehouse. When I’m at the early stages, and also when I’m editing, I like to work here as it is filled with reference books and it is easy to access the bookshelf.

When I start a book, the office is impeccable. During the last draft and editing, you can hardly see the desk or floor as it is covered in scrawled notes and annotated pages.

I write during school hours for the initial drafts, then in a mad frenzy whenever it is close to submission. I always promise myself that I won’t work right up to the deadline like a crazy person, but I always do.

What do you do when you get blocked?

I do feel full of self-doubt at times. I worry I’ll never find a satisfactory path to the end of the novel. But I’ve learned there is no divine inspiration involved. For me the key is discipline.

I avoid being blocked because I sit down and treat writing a novel like the job it is … just as if I were required to submit an article when I was a freelance writer. I give myself a task every day, or word count, and I methodically work away at it. Some days are better than others

It helps when I start on the book to dive in and stick at it until I nut out the characters. I’m always dreaming about my novel, and talking to myself trying to figure out how to make it work. Much of the work is done when you are doing other things, like driving, weeding and cleaning. Sounds mad, but true!

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

Reading widely, walking and gardening.

I love being in my garden, doing hard physical work. It forces me to slow down. Gardening is a little like writing in some ways—it’s not instant results. You have to have an idea, and break it down to plant out or weed section by section. It’s easy to be overwhelmed if you try and do it all at once.

In my writing, I try to capture that old-school idea of how plants can uplift us and create something special.

I adore being in different landscapes, and I’m always peeking at gardens down lane ways and over fences when I travel. I just can’t help myself. Plants and landscape really inspire me every day.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Oh, that’s tough. I love writers across a range of genres. In no particular order: Geraldine Brooks, A.S. Byatt, Michelle de Kretser, Jodi Picoult, Michael Robotham, Richard Flanagan, Ian McEwan, Harper Lee, Richard Ford, Kate Grenville and Isabel Allende. That’s eleven, but seriously … who would you cut from that list?

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

1. Read widely. Most writers I know are great readers across every genre, not just the area they write in. I read biography, historical fiction, commercial, literary fiction, poetry and crime. Study how great writers perfect their craft and then step away and find a way to make it your own.

2. Be disciplined and do the work. There are very few writers who have the story just pour from their fingertips. Most rewrite and re-work and massage until it is ‘just so!’ It will likely take far more time, and far more re-writing than you expected.

3. Learn the craft. There are so many amazing writing courses around, along with online writing communities. Try both, if you can.

4. Write what you love. Writing is a long game. Chances are you will spend years lost in the story and characters. So don’t write what you think you should, write what you love because you will spend a hell of a lot of time with this story every day. (Dare I use the word, obsessed?)

5. If your children are old enough, teach them to cook. Trust me, meal prep can be time-consuming and you can buy yourself an extra hour of writing time while they get busy in the kitchen. My kids enjoy planning meals, especially in the holidays. Extra points if they can do all the housework too.

What are you working on now?
My third novel, with a dual timeframe narrative. This one centres on another forgotten corner of history, and tries to solve a centuries-old mystery.

I’ll be exploring themes of truth, beauty, globalisation and identity. Sounds very Keatsian, doesn’t it? My readers will expect a couple of exotic destinations, a generational conundrum, lovely gardens and some mouth-watering food. I’m doing my best to research it all now. Particularly the food. I always start to cook the dishes of the countries I am writing about. I like to lose myself in the scents, the textures, the rituals … it is all part of the process.

You can read my review of The Jade Lily here.

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