Each month we shine our spotlight on a member of the Writing NSW community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements and inspirations. This month we spoke with Carolyn and Loretta Re, co-authors of the newly-released women’s fiction novel, Secrets of the IN-group.
Dynamic writing duo Loretta and Carolyn have been writing together since they were children. Loretta is a lawyer-turned-novelist whose middle-grade novel Stand Up and Cheer was voted one of the best books for literacy and language development by Speech Pathology Australia. She is also an avid screenwriter. Carolyn, a former medical practitioner, penned Medical Observer’s humorous column Funny About That and has written widely across health-related issues for a range of publications.
Our Membership Intern, Lou Garcia-Dolnik, spoke with the writing duo about the motivations behind their debut novel, social media and its place in the writing life, and their collaborative writing process.
Congratulations to you both on your novel, Secrets of the IN-group! Could you tell us a bit about the work?
We wanted to explore the difficulties women might face when their world starts changing so quickly. What do they do once they leave the workforce and their adult children move out of home?
The six women in Secrets of the IN-group initially meet through a book club, but when they realise that their lack of up-to-date computer and social media skills is a liability, they hire an IT expert to run meetings aimed at improving their knowledge. That’s when things become complicated. Their new-found confidence leads to problems when they take risks they wouldn’t normally take and discover hidden secrets that might have been better left alone. This leads to major life changes for several of the women.
The novel’s main themes are adapting to change and the role friendships play in sustaining us in later life. We were delighted to see one reviewer on Amazon say ‘there’s a little mystery, a little romance, and a whole lot of camaraderie—all the elements of a great book’, because that’s what we were trying to achieve.
The novel touches on themes of social media and connectivity, ideas that are increasingly at the forefront of every writer’s mind. What motivated you to explore them in this novel?
The work began when we noticed we were being left behind in the social media stakes, and so were many of our friends. We’d bought iPads but when neither of us could make sense of the introductory chapter of the book iPad for Seniors, we thought surely it can’t just be us? Maybe this topic will resonate with other women in our age group. Because we hadn’t spent our working lives using computers, it dawned on us that we were entering a different world, one full of bloggers and the “Twitterati” and Instagram influencers. Without the necessary skills, perhaps we’d drift further and further behind. But, perversely, social media can lead to people becoming more disconnected. In the novel, our women manage to solve many of the problems that social media creates through the personal connections they make.
You’re both skilled hands at collaborative writing, having written together since you were children. How did you grow your ideas together for this project?
We know how each other thinks and although many writers say how difficult it must be to collaborate, other forms of creative writing—like screenwriting—are done collaboratively. It can work wonderfully. Having someone you trust give an opinion about your latest idea helps a lot.
Although we did write together as children, we’d never taken on a joint project as challenging as a novel. We had to improve our own understanding of the new media so we’d know what we were writing about, too. Because we live over 500km apart, we developed a lot of ideas in regular Skype sessions, messaging new plot developments when they came to us, and going away on holidays to have marathon working sessions. We went for a week’s break in the wine country near Albury with friends, but we probably weren’t very good company—we spent most of the time working on the book while they were out living it up in the vineyards.
Perhaps one of the downsides is that we tend to have similar strengths and weaknesses, so we can’t think, ‘I don’t like writing this bit, but at least I know my co-author will be great’.
The novel was born out of Writing NSW’s Fiction Feedback courses, and eventually published under the guidance of Joel Naoum. How did working in tandem with tutors and other participants help shape the novel?
It was extremely helpful. When Loretta signed up for the Fiction Feedback course, Carolyn had just begun the first draft of the novel, so it was the impetus to get three chapters completed. The course introduced us to the convener, Nicola O’Shea, a truly marvellous editor. Everyone in her group gave great feedback and helped us work out what was working and what wasn’t and who the book was going to appeal to and why. It’s so helpful to view your work through others’ eyes, too, and see how people interpret things quite differently.
The following year, Loretta signed up for Dianne Blacklock’s Contemporary Women’s Fiction course and Dianne provided great encouragement for the story and for our writing. As a best-selling author, she was generous with her tips on the writer’s craft, techniques that would have taken us years to work out ourselves.
Publishing with Joel Naoum’s assistance was a dream. We went from having a finished manuscript to holding a beautiful book in our hands in only three months. We’d highly recommend his self-publishing courses.
Carolyn, you authored a regular humorous column, ‘Funny About That’, in Medical Observer. Did some of that playfulness (or your medical training) manage to make its way into the book?
Yes to both. The playfulness or humour in the novel is, for better or worse, my default style of writing—and probably living. Taking things too seriously isn’t always good for your health.
And once a doctor, always a doctor, I’m afraid. Two of the story threads have medical themes albeit in completely different ways. Loretta did complain at one stage that I was setting too many scenes in a doctor’s waiting room! But I have a bit of fun with some of the hospital and medical encounters, which were definitely taken from experience.
Loretta, you’re also a scriptwriter and published novelist. How did your previous work inform your approach to Secrets of the IN-group?
Script writing impressed on me the value of a strong, well-plotted story and how to use words economically. That experience helped ensure we didn’t have to slash much of what we’d written when we came to our later drafts. The importance of dialogue in carrying the story, revealing character and allowing readers to form a bond with the women whose lives are in the book, are all things you learn from film too. Carolyn and I have both always been big movie fans and we gobble up Netflix, so I think we were also subconsciously influenced by that. But we enjoyed the fact that there are no budgetary constraints on what you can have the women in a novel do. We could have any of them jetting off to Sydney and overseas without it costing a cent.
Can you tell us why you were both drawn to Albury as a fictional setting?
Initially, we didn’t set the story in Albury, even though Carolyn has lived there for years and Loretta’s first novel was about an historic Albury rescue. We dithered over where the women lived. One view was to write what you know, and that readers respond to places they recognise. But then we thought that writing about a fictional town would give us more freedom to create whatever we liked and avoid the risk of people assuming everything in the story was true.
In the early drafts, the women lived in Lake Arthurton, a town nestled by a lake. Gradually, the place became more like Albury, which is right on the border between New South Wales and Victoria, so we changed the name to Borderton, which it stayed for a long time. It really wasn’t until the final draft, on the recommendation of Catherine Milne from HarperCollins at a Writing NSW Open House, that we decided to settle on Albury. That’s when we introduced landmarks such as local walks and cultural institutions. Funnily enough, lots of people who read it are now saying they want to go and visit Albury.
Do you see yourselves writing together again in the near future?
That’s highly likely. It’s fun, it shares the load and no one else cares quite as deeply for your characters as your fellow creator.
If you could have dinner with any artist, author or fictional character, who would it be and why?
We’re at our best at lunch, if that’s okay. Carolyn has a habit of falling for idealistic characters, so she’d love to meet James Bray, the very decent colonial administrator in Nadine Gordimer’s A Guest of Honour. Loretta would like to invite Nadine Gordimer as well, to find out [spoiler alert] how she could kill off one of her finest creations.
Anyone interested in obtaining a free advanced review copy of Secrets of the IN-group and posting a review on Goodreads or Amazon can find the book at https://booksirens.com/book/JTYQV85/XOI78Q6
About the authors
Loretta Re and her sister Carolyn have been writing together since they were children, cranking out magazines and ripping yarns on an old home printing machine.
Loretta was once a lawyer who is now enjoying the creative life writing novels and screenplays. Her middle grade novel Stand Up and Cheer, about the 1934 Centenary Air Race, was published in 2015. It was voted one of the best books for literacy and language development that year by Speech Pathology Australia. She divides her time between the restaurants of Sydney and Albury, and is on the board of Writing NSW.
Carolyn, a former medical practitioner, wrote health related articles for newspapers and medical publishers for many years. She also had a regular humorous column in Medical Observer, titled Funny About That. She lives in Albury with her whippet, Ziggy and blogs at https://outsidethesquare101.com.