5 minutes with author Kerry McGinnis
In 5 minutes with author, Over60 asks book writers about their literary habits and preferences. Next in this series is Kerry McGinnis, a novelist and memoir writer based in Bundaberg, Queensland. She has travelled across outback Northern Territory and Queensland and worked as a shepherd, droving hand, gardener, stock-camp and station cook. She is the author of memoirs Pieces of Blue and Heart Country and the novels The Waddi Tree, Wildhorse Creek, Mallee Sky, Out of Alice and more. Her latest title, Croc Country is out now.
Over60 talked with McGinnis about inspiration, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and a life beyond the bitumen.
Over60: What’s your best writing tip? Alternatively, what is the worst writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Kerry McGinnis: I think the best writing tip I have is: Write what you know. Everybody is an expert on something — the parent of an autistic child knows that condition, just as a hairdresser knows the salon or the nurse the ward. I know the bush and station life. It is not only easier to have a full depth knowledge of your subject, but the tales you spin from them have the authenticity that makes them believable to your readers.
Positively the worst tip? You must wait for inspiration to strike. Now that sounds to me like the teenager saying, “I’ll do the dishes when I feel like it.” Of course they’ll never get done. Because honestly, who feels like washing dishes? Writing is like any other work, productivity is the key and that isn’t achieved by waiting for inspiration. Decide on your subject/theme/whatever and get on with it. Books don’t write themselves.
What was the last book that made you laugh?
Probably Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Poor Arthur Dent’s helplessness in the face of the indifferent and chaotic Universe reminds me irresistibly of the rages of John Cleese doing his block in Fawlty Towers.
What does your writing routine look like?
I write every day that I’m home save Sundays. This means four to five hours work or as long as it takes to produce three pages that satisfy me. I’m not fast, but once started I do daily rewrites before beginning on the next three pages. Once I have the first draft done I may do all-day stints at the computer, but by the last draft I limit myself to about 30 pages a day so that I can catch mistakes. The more familiar you are with the work, the easier it is to miss them.
Character or plot, which is more important to you?
Character every time. The plot simply gives your character something to do. It is rather daunting to think of producing 100,000 words. You have to have something for your characters to do that will display their attributes to the reader and a place to do it in, so my background or setting is to a large degree also a character in the novel.
How has your time in the bush influenced your writing?
In every sense. It is my subject; it forms the background and basis of my characters as well as the plots they become immersed in. This of course depends on what is possible given the country/isolation/circumstances and, also important, weather or season. City people accustomed to all-weather lives sometimes fail to grasp how it affects everybody who lives beyond the bitumen. Dirt roads and unbridged rivers can throw quite a spanner into the day’s plans, as can bushfire, disasters, dust and storms. Navigating them adds to the uncertainty of life for characters between the covers of my books.
Do you deal with writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Maybe I’m lucky but I’ve never had to. It’s like washing those dishes. Just get in and start. Maybe the day’s work won’t be worth keeping but meantime you are writing and sooner or later, if you keep going, the words will flow again and begin to please.
Is there a cliché you can’t help but love?
I love Reginald Hill’s bold use of “It was a dark and stormy night”. Writing schools actually warn their pupils against this cliché, but he used it anyway and it fitted beautifully. What’s more is while he was using it, his character acknowledged its riskiness!
What do you do when you’re not writing or reading?
I like to garden because I love flowers, though Bundaberg is not an ideal spot for roses — rust and black-spot and every other pest thrives in this humid climate. But hibiscus do well here, and the tougher seasonal blooms. I also play the harp and greatly enjoy the fortnightly get-togethers with the Harp group I belong to. And I go to the gym and walk most days through the wetlands only a kilometre from where I live. Lots of water birds, scrub turkeys and terrapins.
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