Anna Rosner Blay is an author and publisher. Born in 1947 in post-war Paris, she emigrated to Melbourne in 1949 with her parents, Polish jews who had been rescued from the Holocaust by Oskar Schindler. Her first book, the critically acclaimed Sister, Sister, juxtaposes her own personal biography with that of her mother and her aunt, Hela and Janka, who recall, by way of first-person parallel narratives, the horrors of the extermination camps in which they were interned. Sister, Sister was short-listed for The Age Book of the Year and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 1998. Her second book, 2004’s Not Paradise: Four Women’s Journeys Beyond Survival, explores similar terrain, detailing the journeys of four woman who survived the Holocaust and rebuilt their lives in Australia.
Why I write
I write to make sense of my world, to sort out my thoughts and emotions, to create some sort of order out of chaos. I also write to record events and moments that will fade from memory without the written word.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours? Or do you work to a daily word count? What time of day do you write – and why?
I write most days in my journal, whenever I have a spare moment. I write more often when I’m worried or upset about something and am trying to figure out what to do; thousands of words can pour out. When things are going along smoothly, I feel less pressure to write. But when I was writing the story of my mother and my aunt (which became Sister, Sister) I felt impelled to keep writing, often at 3 in the morning, which was the only time there were no interruptions and my thoughts were clear (I was working full-time as a teacher and had a family). I just woke around that time, knowing I had to get up and keep writing. And I spent a lot of time doing research and fact-checking.
Where do you work? Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
Nowadays I write at my computer in the study or occasionally when travelling on the laptop or iPad. I no longer write by hand although I used to find that was the best way to dig into what it was I was trying to say. Now, with the tools of being able to edit, cut and paste or move text around on screen, I’d never go back to handwriting. When I was writing Sister, Sister I only had a laptop. Having interviewed the two women separately and transcribed their words, I was able to place their stories side by side on the screen and work at combining the two.
Worst source of distraction?
All the other things I have to do – reply to emails, deal with work, cook the dinner… I have to give myself permission to immerse myself in writing to block out the outside world.
Best source of inspiration?
Reading other authors, finding joy in the way words and ideas are put together. One year I received Prochownik’s Dream by Alex Miller for my birthday, and delighted in savouring the processes going on inside an artist’s head as well as his complex and conflicted personal relationships. Reading it felt like watching a work of art being created and inspired me to think about my own process.
How often do you get writers’ block / doubt your own ability?
If I’m writing for myself, I’m never stuck for words, but if I think there’ll be a reader at the other end, all kinds of doubts creep in. I’m impressed by people who write regular blogs about whatever is on their mind and don’t worry that they might come across as opinionated or narrow-minded or ignorant… or boring. I’m always a bit surprised when someone gives me a compliment about my writing.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I love reading Waleed Aly for his thoughtful and insightful ideas. Always impressed by Helen Garner, her spare prose going to the heart of what’s important. Trent Dalton, who writes for the Weekend Australian, for his intimate, complex and rewarding interviews. And Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers blog for perceptive analyses of books I don’t have time to read.
That’s hard, as there are many. Maybe The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak with its lyrical writing, heartbreaking story and insights into characters you feel you know. And All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, for similar reasons.
Inga Clendinnen, who just died – intellectual, yet wrote prose that was accessible, lucid and dramatic.
The book that changed your life, and why.
Memorial Candles: Children of the Holocaust by Dina Wardi. It helped me to understand the trauma unwittingly passed on to the second generation by their parents, and gave me permission to explore this part of my own life.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – started but never finished, couldn’t hold all the names in my head.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Probably my earliest jottings in school magazines. How serious and pretentious… and pessimistic!
How did you get started writing?
I started keeping a diary from the age of 11 or 12, fairly trivial stuff but it created a lifelong habit. Also as a teenager I wrote typical angst-filled poetry; thankfully, I no longer do that. Later I wrote what began as factual accounts, but unconsciously I shaped and polished them through my appreciation of the art of fiction.
Does writing change anything?
Once I found I had a voice and realised my words could affect others, I knew that writing changed both me and sometimes my readers. Being published gave me the confidence to believe I had something to say and to trust my instinct in how I said it; and from feedback from readers, it sometimes gave them a new understanding about their own lives. The new sense of belief in myself extended to decisions I began to make about changes in my personal life. My writing about family history also will be record for my children and grandchildren about a world, thankfully, they knew nothing about; the younger generation can learn about their roots and feel connections that would otherwise be lost. And knowing that precious first-hand accounts have now been preserved can go some way to combatting Holocaust denial and prejudice.
What are you working on now?
I keep thinking that one day I’ll move away from non-fiction and write fantasy, romance, escapism… but I haven’t yet found the head space. Meanwhile, I find great satisfaction and joy in helping other authors bring their books to completion.
Posted: Sunday, 18 September, 2016