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 Kirsten Krauth, author of just_a_girl and the upcoming Almost a Mirror (Transit Lounge, 2020), which has been shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize 2019.
Recently completing her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra, Kirsten now works as a freelance writer, editor and digital communications specialist for a range of clients. She is, in fact, our very own Newswrite editor, and has been for a decade.
Writing NSW membership intern Geordie Timmins spoke with Kirsten about her love of music, art and academia, and how they influence her writing.
Your manuscript titled Almost a Mirror was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize 2019. Congratulations, what a fantastic achievement! What can you tell us about the story?
Thank you so much. It was very exciting to be shortlisted. Almost a Mirror is about the pop-meets-punk twilight world of 1980s Melbourne. Mona is at the gates of Countdown waiting for her idol Scott Carne to show, while Benny plays in a band at the Crystal Ballroom in St Kilda in the shadow of Nick Cave and the Boys Next Door (who loom as giants). Mona and Benny meet up thirty years later, united by grief, and the desire to create (in Mona’s case, photos; in Benny’s case, traditional instruments). The book starts in a studio where 14-year-old Mona is being photographed. She steps out of the frame. The book will be published by Transit Lounge in 2020.
What was your inspiration behind this story?
I was sitting in the Crystal Ballroom and the elegantly wasted nature of the place was very atmospheric, almost palpable. It felt like the ghosts of Nick Cave and the many other musicians who’ve inhabited the space were still there, haunting the staircase. It seemed to be an almost forgotten part of Melbourne’s history. I wanted to capture some of the energy of this vital punk and post-punk scene that was also happening globally. I was also interested in the idea of what it means to be a teenager being photographed: how does that shape you, your ideas on art and desire and innocence. The title comes from the Roland S. Howard song ‘Shivers’, later sung by Nick Cave.
Did you have any direct involvement with the music scene of the ’80s? Did this culture influence your relationship with the world?
I was obsessed with music as a child and teenager. I moved around a lot, and I think listening to the radio and cassettes – at first Top 40 and then more alternative – kept me grounded and inspired. I watched Countdown religiously and it was often the highlight of my week! I remember the transition clearly from New Romantic idols Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet to darker and more melancholy artists like The Cure and Violent Femmes. In Melbourne, I went to underage nightclubs like the Underground that were modelled on places like the Crystal Ballroom a number of years earlier. I was also interested in exploring the early music and career of Nick Cave too, being a massive fan a few years later. Researching the book meant interviewing many of my favourite musicians from the era: Robert Forster, Scott Carne, Mick Harvey, Dave Graney…
You have recently completed your PhD in creative writing at the University of Canberra, and have written a myriad of different articles. Does this academic passion bleed into your creative practice at all, or do you try and keep these fields separated?
Everything I do is a passion project and all my ideas blend into each other. Almost a Mirror was a novel created as part of a PhD with a companion project that looked into how photography can inspire narrative and vice versa. In my arts journalism work, I write about text and photography, I and love to profile writers like Sarah Sentilles and Meg Wolitzer, or photographer Polly Borland. Music was a central component of the PhD too. I was interested in how music helps us store memories and how so many of our strong musical connections seem to come from our teenage years.
As an editor, you work with content ranging from annual reports to poetry. How difficult is it navigating this vast sphere of writing styles?
I always prefer to have variety in my work and I never get tired of learning new things! The essentials of editing seem to stay the same even when working on different kinds of writing. Of course there is nuance but in general I’m looking for consistency in tone, a clear voice that’s interesting to the reader, and a structure that is the best fit for the type of content. I’ve been editing Newswrite for Writing NSW for a decade (the upcoming issue is the 10th anniversary!) and it’s always exciting to commission writers I admire and read about their writing journey.
How has your work as an editor shaped your writing process?
In the process of writing, I generally try to ignore the fact that I’m an editor. Some say to write hot, then edit cold, and I completely agree with that. I believe that most writing comes from the body and so I try to tap into that in early drafts. Music and photography, the visual and aural — and most of all, emotion — help me in that process. It’s only when I’ve done a complete first draft that I let the editor take over. Some people do it early, but I can’t edit work as I go. I’d never get anything finished. The editorial shaping comes in very late and that’s the part that takes me a long time, trying to sort out the connections. I mostly write in fragments so it’s the way they butt up against each other that interests me the most rather than a flowing narrative.
Your previous book just_a_girl is centred around the perils of the online world. Do you fear for the next generation and the digital age, or are you optimistic?
A bit of both. In just_a_girl I was interested in what happens when a girl can inhabit worlds that a parent has no hope of knowing about. As my kids get older, this is the landscape I have to traverse as well, one where I clearly know less than they do. It’s an interesting dynamic but I try to stay as up-to-date as I can and keep the communication lines open. I do restrict screen time – for myself as well! It can be an insidious thing and often distracts me from things I really love, like reading. I’ve always been quick to take up the digital (hypertext, blogging, social media) and it can be great for connecting with like minds, especially work-related, but I do see how it can become all-consuming.
Writer, editor, digital communications specialist – how do you manage such a workload and still find time to write? Do you have an established writing routine?
This is the question I struggle with daily! I’m a freelancer and single mum so finding dedicated time to write creatively can seem impossible sometimes. When I was doing my PhD, I had more writing time. I’m also someone who likes being completely immersed in whatever I’m working on. At the moment my aim is to set aside one day a week and do Morning Pages each day first thing when I wake up. I’m not sticking to it yet but I’m keen to write my next novels quicker than the last two! Another option that always works for me is to go to Varuna or a retreat somewhere for a week and write intensively. I find that’s a fantastic way to work.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Question everything. If you’re writing novels, don’t read early drafts. Just power along until you’ve finished 70,000 words and see what you’ve come up with. Scrivener [a word-processing program] is fantastic. It’s so much easier to keep all your research, chapters, photographs in one place. You can restructure really easily.
Try not to focus too much on what the market wants. It’s too hard to predict so just concentrate on finding a unique voice for each book, one the reader is desperate to hear more of. Use photographs or music as prompts. I find ekphrasis (responding to any kind of artwork) takes my writing into all kinds of surprising situations. I found doing a Masters and then PhD in Creative Writing enormously stimulating and helpful. If you carefully choose a supervisor, and then are lucky enough to get a scholarship, it’s really three years of paid time to create something special and learn as much as you can from your supervisor along the way.
Finally, who or what do you find the most inspiring?
- Writer: Richard Flanagan – for his superb writing but also for his stand on issues like refugee policy and climate change
- Weather: Cold, crisp with sunny skies
- Time of day: Morning tea – outside in the sun with a cup of tea listening to the birds and the sounds of the kids playing at the local primary school
- Music: How to choose! I’m going to say Nick Cave in all his incarnations. Photographs and videos of him at the Crystal Ballroom inspired a whole PhD and the novel Almost a Mirror!