Rowan, one of the judges of the "dark" submissions and author of Harmless Like You, has spoken to us about writing themes and the creative process.
How would you describe your writing style?
I hope my style is still a growing changing thing. There’s a misconception floating around that one day you find your writing style and then you’re done—finished. To me, what keeps it interesting is when I surprise myself.
Is there a particular theme you try to convey in your writing, be it societal, cultural, moral etc.?
I am particularly interested in moral grey areas. The moments in life where there isn’t a right answer. I’m not so much interested in heroes and villains as I am in people trying to live the best lives they can, using the tools they have.
My novel is called Harmless Like You. It’s about a Japanese artist in 1960’s New York who ends up abandoning her son. I wanted to understand how and why a person might do that.
What techniques or styles do you look for in a good writer?
Specificity. Writing feels most powerful when it sharply conveys a vision of the world that I had not previously been able to imagine. That might mean casting mundane objects in a new light. It might mean highly fantastical writing. But when a writer conveys their own very specific vision of the world, they expand my vision. If a writer can do that even once in a story, they have given me a gift.
A great example of what I mean is “The Maenad” by Eliza Robertson, which you can read here.
There’s a passage that goes like this—
Nice dress, he says.
She smiles because boys never know the names of clothes. She is wearing a 70s buckskin studded hippie vest-jacket with a leather fringe, which she found on Etsy. The tassels begin just under her shoulder blades; she feels like a stingray.
It’s such a carefully observed interaction that it feels completely real. She begins with a generalization—boys never know the names of clothes. And then begins to describe a garment with a high degree of specificity. You and I might imagine this garment differently, but the full detailing convinces us both of her care for the jacket, and her noticing of her own appearance in the world. And then there’s that twist at the end. She feels like a stingray. It captures the private fantasies that we sometimes have of ourselves, as we slip into our daily garments. All of this is so real. And yet the story is about a creature from Greek mythology, the daughter of the god Bacchus.
How do you feel about this year’s theme of light and dark for the Publishers’ Prize?
Like all good themes, it feels suitably open ended. One of the exciting things for me as a judge is the wide range of styles and subjects that the writers have chosen.
If you could enter a piece of writing to the Publishers Prize, in what ways might you play with the dark/light side? What ideas and themes might you explore within the encompassing term of dark/light?
I never quite know how a story will be shaped until I begin. So to know, I think I’d actually have to sit down and write it.
Will this be your first experience as an official judge of young people’s writing?
Yes it is, which is delightful. I teach young people so I do get to work with developing writers. But there is no prize at the end!
Would you say your writing is political? To what extent do you believe that personal is political?
I believe the latter completely. This is largely because the political is intrinsically personal. Our political choices reflect how we see the world. They reflect the people we want to be and the lives we want them to live.
Some writers begin with the political and others the personal. I am a member of the latter camp. It was by trying to understand my characters and the worlds in which they operate, that I stumbled upon the political. I wanted to understand the life of a Japanese woman living in New York in the 1960’s-80’s. But when the book was published, I found myself in so many conversations about representation. And I realised that the choice to tell this story of someone on the periphery could not be anything other than political.
What is the biggest challenge you find as an author, both in the creative process and navigating the publishing industry?
As in many careers, I think the biggest challenge is finding a balance. I write fiction and essays. I teach, do book promotion, and am an editor. On a bad day, I’m running from one thing to the next, and answering emails on my phone at the same time. On a good day, all these things feed each other.
Thank you Rowan!