I'm very happy to welcome my dear friend and writer Josephine Pennicott to the blog today. She is the author of the brilliantly creepy and suspenseful Gothic murder mystery Currawong Novel, which I enjoyed immensely.
Are you a daydreamer too?
Definitely! I’ve always felt as if I straddle different worlds. I do meditate a lot in an attempt to quieten my mind, so I can receive the impressions of the project I’m working on. I believe in the power of daydreaming, and not overstimulating your brain in order to access deeper levels of imagination. It’s something I’ve actively pursued over many years. I’m just about to take up transcendental meditation, so I’ll be interested to note the effects on my writing. When you stop trying to control and distract your mind and allow your brain to become bored, ideas can be whispered by the muses. I often feel uneasy, when on public transport or out and about, to see so many people strapped to their little machines, not allowing the quiet space to unfurl in their mind for daydreaming and creativity to flourish.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
From when I first discovered books such as Enid Blyton’s, I wanted to be a writer. I was an insatiable reader as soon as I learnt to decipher the mysterious markings that made my heart race just to look at them. Words always had a calming, soothing effect on me. I remember my mother removing my book from me at the dinner table once and I immediately began reading the labels on jars. I find bookstores and libraries calming spaces. I just didn’t think it was possible for me to actually become a writer. My classmates can still relate stories of how I held them spellbound with tales made of simple props in the classroom, such as a biro and its cap (a gnome and his helmet). My English teachers were very disappointed when I chose to enter nursing rather than pursue my writing.
My father always encouraged my love of words but I had a couple of beliefs that blocked me. One was that you couldn’t make money from writing; and I was in a hurry to leave school, see the world and make money. The second belief was that to lock yourself away writing was a self-obsessed pursuit, when you could be actively pursuing a path of service. It seems blindingly obvious to me now how foolish and untrue those mental blocks were – but I believed them. It took me becoming incredibly burnt-out and despairing about the career path I was on – and travelling to India to consult with a well-known guru – to return me to my childhood dreams and fantasies.
It’s a long story, but his basic statement was: “If you don’t use the gifts you are born with, it’s an insult to God.”
Or as that American guru, Bob Dylan also says, “Do what you must and do it well.”
When people going through cancer treatments and difficult circumstances say how much my book helped take their mind off their problems, I realise I’m actually doing the service I always wanted to do. I will always consider nursing to be one of the greatest service professions, but I knew inside myself it wasn’t my soul’s calling.
Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Tasmania in Oatlands, a small village in the Tasmanian midlands. It’s a very pretty historic village which boasts of having the most sandstone buildings in Australia. I spent my early years in Papua New Guinea having a most Papuan Swallows and Amazons type childhood. I now live in the inner-west of Sydney in a tiny brick cottage with my writer husband, David Levell and our daughter, Daisy. I like to write, read, go for walks in nature. I enjoy the opera, art gallery, theatre, spiritual and cultural pursuits, but mostly I enjoy simple pleasures – a walk in nature, my book-club, birdwatching, a picnic, excursions with my family around Sydney or the Blue Mountains, a pot of tea, a good book and a bath. I am happiest when I’m in my garden shed, writing. I’ve worked a wide variety of jobs over the years to support my writing at different times. I also have a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts where I majored in painting.
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for Currawong Manor?
I had the opening line: The bush kept its secrets well. I also had an image of a young blonde-haired girl running through the Australian bush in a long white dress. I could see around her currawongs that appeared to be menacing the child as she ran through the bush. I also saw that same little girl drowned in a waterhole, and her father was holding her: I didn’t know if he was screaming in anguish, because he had attempted to rescue her, or if he had killed her. I was curious to find out... I had the symbol of keys in my mind and a strange-fairy tale looking house in the Blue Mountains. I knew all of these elements would work well together in the gothic landscape of the Blue Mountains.
The story was also inspired by a real life murder in the Blue Mountains when my husband was working at SBS television. It made me realise how vulnerable we are when we’re alone in the bush. I spend a lot of time in the bush alone and often spook myself speculating what could be around the next corner.
And throughout my art school years I was always drawn to the 1940s Australian Modernist painters such as Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. And I was also fascinated by the glamorous lives and personalities of the life models for artists such as Pearl Goldman, Norman Lindsay’s life model who modelled for him between 1938-1945.
Poet’s Cottage, my Tasmanian sea-fishing village mystery, was inspired by a real-life cottage I fell in love with on a Tasmanian family holiday. The house was called Poet’s Cottage and I had several major scenes of that book down before I left. I also had an image of a little girl playing in the snow with her sister and she walks into the house and down the cellar steps where she witnesses her mother being murdered.
I’m really very visual when I work.
How extensively do you plan your novels?
It varies with each book. For Poet’s Cottage, which was written out of contract, I plotted very loosely and free-fell into the story. I didn’t know who had killed Pearl Tatlow until I came to that point. I remember the shock I felt when I realised the killer, and when I looked back over the manuscript I saw the plot threads had led me to that point. I love it when the subconscious works so cleverly.
With Currawong Manor I had tighter deadlines and plotted it out a bit more. The book I’m working on now needs to be written fairly quickly, so I have to know exactly where I’m going. Because my books have twists, I need prior knowledge of some of them, but it’s always a delightful experience when the book starts to emerge on its own and surprises you. My favourite way of working is to begin with the images and ideas that I’ve been brewing away with for years and allow the story to dictate itself.
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I’ve actually woken from a dream today, which I might be able to use for a darker crime novel further down the track. Dreams often give me titles and images to work with. When I was at art school I was fascinated by the surrealist painters and their work with the unconscious. I still find dreams a really fabulous place to connect with muses. There’s a quote by Jorge Luis Borges: “Writing is nothing more than a guided dream.”
Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
One thing that did surprise me when writing Currawong Manor was the character of Dolly. From the very beginning of the book, I knew she was going to be an important character. I couldn’t figure out exactly why, or where she had come from. I realised months after finishing the book, that when I was growing up there was a young girl who lived with her mother in the bush and attended school every day. I knew they lived a very simple lifestyle in the wild and didn’t have electricity or any mod cons. She would walk for miles to attend school. I hadn’t consciously thought of this girl for many years, but my unconscious had remembered her and she became a part of Dolly. There’s also another part of the story (which I can’t mention because of spoilers) but as soon as I began writing the scenes, newspapers began reporting the twist I was writing about!
Also – Pearl Goldman turned up to speak at Norman Lindsay’s house in the Blue Mountains when I was working on an early draft. This was an amazing bonus to hear stories from one of the life models who had inspired the character of Ginger in Currawong Manor.
And in 2012 when I was working on the book, the Sydney Museum kindly put on an exhibition called Homefront Wartime Sydney: 1939-45. Perfect timing for scenes I was working on!
Where do you write, and when?
I have a garden writing shed which we had built in our courtyard garden amongst the palm trees and large tea tree. It’s a very lovely space, and without internet access I tend to get a lot of work done.
Elizabeth Taylor is the patron saint of the shed. I have wallpapered it in a Laura Ashley paper; my German publishers liked it so much they used it for their Poet’s Cottage cover (Dornentochter in Germany).
If I’m not in the mood for the shed, I write in bed (which I find cosy and womb-like) using a wooden lap table for my computer that my father-in-law made.
I try to write every day, seven days a week. With a nine-year old daughter, it’s not always possible, but that’s what I aim to do. I show up when I’m feeling deflated, over-it, joyous and every mood and shade in-between. My best writing is often done in the very early hours (from 4am). It’s hell to get up, but once I’m writing the words flow so much faster when the moon is still in the sky, the birds have yet to begin their morning cries and I’m surrounded by the dreaming household.
What is your favourite part of writing?
My favourite part is the early drafts of a book when the story is emerging onto the page. I love filling notebooks with images and ideas and getting to know characters. I find that process so exhilarating and joyous. It’s the work that brings me all the satisfaction.
What do you do when you get blocked?
I don’t tend to get blocked. But when I feel I’m falling out of the story, I would try to meditate. I limit the internet and either take a walk or have a bath to find what I’m attempting to bring forth from inside myself.
How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
Reading poetry and reading across all genres of writing. Looking at art books, Pinterest online for visual imagery. The Art Gallery of New South Wales. Nature itself always inspires me. Being in the bush, or by the ocean. I keep scrapbooks and clippings of newspaper articles that interest me. I use everything around me for inspiration. I play games with myself when I’m out, trying to notice as many things as I can, because I feel we are all on auto-pilot a lot. I un-name things as well for example: if I didn’t know that was a tree, what would I call it? If I had just arrived from another planet, what would I think a supermarket was? These games might sound silly, but they help you to think outside the box a lot and wake your brain up. Biographies of other artists help as well. You realise that success often has a huge back-story to it and it gives you inspiration to keep going.
Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I do tend to follow moon cycles with a lot of my writing as I believe in there being more opportune times in the natural world for new beginnings and endings. For example, with my blog, I would do posts on favourable moon days, rather than a ‘negative’ cycle. I have a few crystals around and before starting work every morning, I say a prayer, an invocation to the muses to be with me. I also find it helpful to write the journal pages that Julia Cameron talks about in her book The Artist’s Way, but I don’t do the journal pages every day. I also try to avoid social media and read instead from a few pages of a book that inspires me or a poem before I start. I’m actually a big believer in the power of ritual for creative projects. Affirmations, visualisations. I’m a believer!
Who are ten of your favourite writers?
This is an almost impossible question as there are so many I really love! Plus, I have so many writer friends that I’m terrified of leaving someone out, so to be careful I won’t name any contemporary Australian writers. But some of my long-standing other favourites are:
Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine
Daphne du Maurier
Robert Louis Stevenson
What do you consider to be good writing?
Writing that doesn’t sacrifice page-turning absorption for strong, poetic imagery. And vice-versa. Characters that remain in your marrow long after you’ve closed the book. Writing that makes you see the familiar in a different way. A book that transforms your present circumstances, making you dread the last page approaching: you keep trying to slow down your reading, but you have to keep turning the pages long after the witching hour. The book you close and think, ‘God, if only I could be that good! Even half that good.”
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Just DO IT. Don’ t talk about doing it on blogs, twitter or Facebook. Just do it. Read a lot, write a lot. Write every day when possible, even if it’s only for twenty minutes. Support the industry you want to be a part of by buying books and don’t only buy books that you see featured in Spectrum. Support all sorts of authors. Don’t wait for the perfect moment or circumstances to evolve before you begin. Now is the perfect time. Don’t overstimulate your brain; quieten your brain. Believe in yourself even when the rest of the world doesn’t. Write the book you would love to read. Create a space where there’s no internet access to write. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Too may people give up too easily. As Stella Adler says: ”You really do have to have the skin of of a rhinoceros but the soul of a rose”.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another mystery novel, set in Tasmania between the 1950s and 1920s. It’s an idea I’ve had brewing for quite a few years. It relates the ripple effect of what happens in a small village when the town’s most popular girl is murdered. The working title is Sweetwater and I’m loving watching it emerge.
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