You might have heard some buzz about Australian author Brooke Davis, whose debut novel, Lost & Found, turns the abandonment of a fictional little girl named Millie Bird into a rollercoaster of an adventure. Today, Brooke joins us to talk about her love of people-watching, drawing encouragement from the wise and ever-inspirational words of Ira Glass, and sharing her book deal moment with the friendly patrons of a Canadian pub while travelling.
I feel like I’m always taking in art and life and that those things are always having an impact on my writing: music that might open me up to something, paintings that blast me with colour, photographs of very ordinary people. A landscape, a newspaper headline, a tiny insect. My writing feels like it’s a process of absorbing everything around me and trying to turn all of that into language, and subsequently into narrative.
People, in particular, are really important to my writing. I love writing in cafes to absorb the behaviours of people around me. It’s often called ‘people-watching’, but that implies a certain kind of voyeurism, or staring. But I don’t do that. I don’t sit there with the intention of staring at people and stealing their lives. I promise! In fact, I barely even look at people: it’s more of a process of incidental absorption. A person nearby brushes their hair away from their face, or looks at someone, or walks in a certain way and for some reason the image sticks in my mind and I feel a sense of urgency to nail the moment in language, because it feels like it might represent something.
Can you tell us a little about your average writing day?
I’m a pretty disciplined, hard-working type, but I’ve also learned that I need to be
kind to myself to get the best out of myself, so I focus on living in a balanced way. I love to write and it’s important to me, but I also love my life outside of that. I love being social, I love thinking about things that don’t relate to writing, I love healthy food and exercise. Time away from writing is really important to my life as a writer.
I try to keep my life calm and quiet when I’m writing. I make sure I bookend my writing days with some sort of exercise and time for self-reflection. I treat the day like a job and usually work solidly for eight hours, with a few breaks. I sometimes work from home, and other times, when I’m a little stuck and need a change of scenery, I write in cafes. The disadvantage of working in public is that you can’t work in your pyjamas and you can’t nap when you want to.
I work my best in the mornings. I’m one of those really annoying morning people. I know it’s annoying because I’ve often lived with non-morning people, and when I greet them with a cheery ‘morning!’ at 9am, when I’ve been up for three or four hours, and tell them how beautiful it is outside, etcetera etcetera, they glare at me through half-closed eyes and I can tell they wish me an early death. My mind is so clear at that time, and there’s a stillness and potential that doesn’t exist at any other time of day. The downside to this is that I’m completely useless after about 2pm!
When you are writing, do you use any famous people or people you know as inspiration?
Ira Glass said: “It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions … It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just gotta fight your way through.” (The wonderful, full quote is animated here.) I love that thought: the admission that writing is really hard work; that if it is hard work, you’re doing it right. I plan to be working on closing that gap for the rest of my writing life.
What is your favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
Eep! This is a very difficult question. I’m going to say anything at all, ever, by Alice Munro. She has this extraordinary ability to extract ordinary moments from everyday life – moments that you haven’t thought to put language to, but moments that you recognise, so you feel as if they’re your own thoughts. And she’s so patient with and understanding of even her most flawed characters. She taught me that tiny moments can be big moments, and big moments can be tiny moments.
What female writer has inspired you?
Alice Munro is one of them, but it is a very long list, one that will never stop growing. My friend and writer, A.J. Betts (author of the gorgeous Zac & Mia) is on the list, too – she lives down the road from me and revs me up when I need it.
Can you give us three book recommendations?
I find myself attracted to funny, imaginative writing, and writing that has a strong sense of empathy. I love being impressed by an author’s skill at getting inside a character’s head. I love surprising uses of language, and the kind of writing that you want to read slowly. I love writing that is everything at once: funny and sad and hopeful and peaceful and strange and terrifying. I believe life is like that, so I feel so close to writing that shows me that. In light of those thoughts, some books that have done those things for me lately: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, George Saunders’ Tenth of December, Justin Torres’ We The Animals. Can I give you one more? Chris Cleave’s Incendiary. Maybe one more. Janet Frame’s Between My Father and the King. I’ll stop!
I think I’m still working that out, to be honest. Lost & Found was my first novel, and I had no idea how to write one when I started. I eventually worked out that I need to follow my instincts and have faith that as long as I just keep doing it, I will finish it. Tim Winton – one of our most treasured authors in Australia – said recently that he relearns how to write a novel every time he writes one. He’s written a whole bunch of novels, so that was both relieving and intimidating to hear. Perhaps get back to me after I write the second novel!
What was your journey to being a published author?
I wrote Lost & Found as part of a PhD at Curtin University in Perth. When I finally completed the PhD, a bookseller friend of mine in Perth read Lost & Found and told a mutual friend of ours – Todd – about it, who happens to be a Hachette account manager. Todd rang me and said, ‘Would you like me to take this to head office at Hachette and see what they think?’ And before he’d even finished the sentence, I said ‘Yes, please.’ I was picturing teetering slush piles and not expecting to hear back for months, if at all. But within a couple of weeks, Vanessa from Hachette had rung me and made an offer, and suddenly I had an agent, and the contract was negotiated and agreed upon. It was a bit of a whirlwind. I was actually on holiday in St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada at the time, and after everything had been finalised, I took myself off to this pub and propped myself up at the bar, and I just sat there on my own, kind of giddy with it all. I got to talking to some people, and by the end of the night, all these lovely strangers were buying me drinks to help me celebrate. It was a truly gorgeous moment in my life.
What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
That if you publish a book, you’re suddenly a millionaire. People are often surprised that I’m ‘still’ working as a bookseller. The truth is, I need the money! I also love the job.
What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
I think I’d refer back to the Ira Glass quote, and that concept of the difficulty of it, and the patience you must have with it and yourself: “It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions … It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just gotta fight your way through.”
What are you working on at the moment?
Enjoying having finished this book!