Nerida Newton is a Brisbane-based novelist.
Her debut novel, The Lambing Flat (University of Queensland Press, 2003), won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award, and was later shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ award for best first book. An historical novel set during the gold rush days of mid-19th century Australia, The Lambing Flat addresses feelings of displacement and themes of migration, isolation and survival.
Her follow-up, Death of a Whaler (Allen & Unwin, 2010), is set in the Byron Bay region in the 1960s and 1970s – a decade that saw the demise of the whaling industry and the establishment of an eco-aware, alternative lifestyle culture. Through the history of the region and the lives of the characters, the novel deals with issues of death, grief, rebirth and reawakening. The Bulletin called the book a modern Australian classic.
Nerida Newton lives in Brisbane with her partner and children.
Why I write
Put very simply, I can’t imagine not writing. It feels as natural and necessary to my sense of wellbeing as breathing and eating.
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
I write for a job, so – yes. However, that is not the same as novel writing… I don’t write the novel every day, but the days I do write part of it, I feel a lot better than the days I don’t. I work on the novel about three or four days a week. I have a busy life – I work, I teach, I have two young children – so when I get time to sit and write I tend to try to reach a word count goal, rather than base my daily success on the hours I spend in front of the computer. Even when I wasn’t as time-poor as I am now, I used word count to set goals. I used to work on reaching the goal of 1,000 words/day. But they had to be good words, words I was happy with, not just static on the page.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space?
I write at home, and always have, at a study desk or on a laptop on my deck. Nobody could ever accuse me of being a neat freak. My desk is covered in pictures and photographs and readings on whatever topic I’m writing about. And then usually I have to remove my cat from the paperwork before I can get to it. Apparently it makes for a very comfortable nap space.
Worst source of distraction?
The Internet and email. I do a lot of research, and a lot of that is over the Internet (even if it’s because I’m chasing down hard copies of books!). But it’s such a lovely, windy labyrinth of information that I can start researching one topic and end up on another, having followed an information flow over the course of half a day… Some days I just have to write ‘and then xxx happened on xxx date’ so that I stick to the writing rather than researching.
Best source of inspiration?
Inspiration is an odd thing, often snippets of information or stories snag at something already existing inside me. Displacement, or the search for belonging, or fierce maternal love, or a desire to let go… I guess I’d have to include history, because I always imagine what it would have been like to be some person at a particular time, during a particular event and often history becomes the backdrop for the other things I’m trying to write about.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
I don’t often suffer writers’ block, unless you count procrastination as a form of that… I think all writers doubt their own ability at some point. There are occasionally paragraphs I write that I love, where I know I’ve thrown the words down exactly as they are meant to land, and I surprise myself with the ease with which I’ve managed that. Then there is inevitably the point in every manuscript at which I ask myself ‘who on earth would want to read this?’. I plug on regardless. Because the writing is a reward in itself, above and beyond publication.
Contemporary writer in any medium you always read?
There are quite a few… off the top of my head, Tim Winton. Kate Grenville. David Mitchell. I’m a fan of Kathleen Noonan as well, as a columnist.
Don’t make me choose! I really can’t answer that question. I think there are different books for different moments and stages and moods in your life and there are too many that have spoken to me to pick just one.
Ever since I first discovered him as a teen, I’ve loved John Steinbeck. Raymond Carver had similar impact. But choosing this is like choosing the favourite book. Sometimes, different writers speak the language of a particular phase of your life.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Ulysses by James Joyce. Or so I’m told.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
I’m glad I told that story. I’m grateful I had the support and belief of the people around me, which allowed me to write it. I got some things really wrong, but I also got a great deal very right.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve just always known I wanted to be a writer. I knew it at 4, when I wrote my first picture book. And I just didn’t stop. My first serious attempt at writing a novel and getting published was through a Masters’ degree at the University of Queensland, which thankfully was the perfect vehicle for really honing the craft and getting published.
Does writing change anything?
Writing is transformative on a number of levels, personally and socially. Personally, for me, by writing I discover more about myself, I am forced to explore the world and challenge my perceptions. To other people, a sentence well delivered can, I believe, resonate so strongly that it can inspire change and motivate. Words are still at the core of how we communicate – how we express love, or fear, how we create worlds, investigate character… so putting those words out into the world, yes, I believe writing can change everything.
What are you working on now and when is it out?
I’m working on a novel set across WWII Germany, and modern-day Paris and Australia. It focuses on whether we prefer beautiful lies to sometimes harsh and ugly truths about ourselves and our societies. It examines the bond between mothers and their children, between lovers, and the way that all of us at some stage become the archeologists of our parents’ and grandparents’ lives to discover who we are.
Posted: Friday, September 27, 2013