This month on my author interview series Holden’s Heroes, I chat with the latest writer friend I’ve
cornered and blackmailed invited to share their craft: author, editor and doctoral student Rebecca Freeman. I’ll be asking her the tough, intelligent questions, like how does she manage to do so much with a cat sitting obstinately in front of her keyboard.
Let’s dive in and find out more!
Holden’s Heroes ~ September 2019
Holden: Rebecca Freeman, welcome to my house! Don’t mind the cans of diet coke all over the patio – that’s just the fallout from when Lana Pecherczyk came to visit. I’m not supposed to mention this, but she also stayed for a cheeky gin. What a wild child.
Rebecca: Oh please. I live with an Adam, our four children, dog, cats and chooks. This is nothing. I’ll just move the nail polish and tin of supplement and sit myself down here on this milk crate.
H: Classic me, painting my nails punk style while making my protein shake, ha! Anyway, Bec, welcome to trashville, population me and my husband. Now let’s start with the most exciting news first: your brand new novella Alt-Ctrl is a dystopian story and it’s hitting our shelves on Monday, 30 September! Tell me, what’s it all about?
R: OMG I KNOW. I can’t quite believe it. September 30th seemed like such a long time away when I was discussing it with my publisher and now it’s nearly here! So Alt-Ctrl is set in Australia in the near future, and centres around a young woman, Finn. She lives in an enclosed City, which is one of the few safe places to live since the climate collapsed. Outside the City are the Badlands, and Finn has grown up hearing all kinds of stories about the people who eke out a living there, suffering from radiation poisoning and starvation. But as it turns out, the stories weren’t true, and there might be more to fear from within the City than there is without.
H: It’s such a great premise and flips the classic dystopian setup around. Where did the idea to write something dystopian come from? The cli-fi aspect seems to be relevant currently, what with the way the world is going and the recent global climate strike. What inspired you to write this novella?
R: Well, weirdly, the story itself was inspired by losing access to a blogging platform I used and it made me think about how connected we are to the online community, and how it can feel like you’re completely cut off if that drops away.
H: This would actually have such an impact – so many creative careers would be poleaxed without access to blogs and social media! Including my own probably *sad cough*. What about the plot?
R: The plot came to me in a dream! It was one of those times when you wake up from a dream and write it down and the next morning it actually makes sense, unlike most of the time when you wake up the next morning and see that you’ve written ‘Sliced oranges’ or something equally confounding.
H: So many writers I know have done this, and it’s usually even less coherent than ‘sliced oranges’.
R: I later wrote a short story called ‘And then it rained’ which was published in an anthology of Asian-Pacific Speculative Fiction (called Amok). And the characters really stayed with me, and so I started writing a story which featured them, and that turned into Alt-Ctrl. But cli-fi in general, I love it so much, because I think it’s an example of how incredibly powerful fiction can be in affecting change in subtle ways, you know, without being too preachy. We change our minds because of stories, and now more than ever we need a shift in perspective, a way of finding new solutions. From what I read about how your writing impacts people’s lives, I imagine you can probably understand that too.
H: Yes, I totally get it, and that’s something that drives me in terms of opening up new conversations without preaching – letting the art do the talking. I’m sure your novella will do the same as it’s so pertinent to what we’re facing globally at the moment. I love the boldness of the cover of Alt-Ctrl. I remember from our chats a few months ago that this wasn’t the original title. Can you talk about your process in choosing the right fit for the novella’s title, and why you chose this one?
R: Thanks, I love it too! But ugh, don’t talk to me about titles. I haaaaate titles. Hate them! If it were up to me, I’d call them ‘Story A’, ‘Story B’… haha. But I guess that’s not very interesting. You’re right though. Alt-Ctrl was Collapse the whole time I was writing it, and then at the end, I sat down and brainstormed with my publisher and Adam and we came up with this, and then I thought, ‘Yes, that’s it.’
H: The title immediately tells us we’re dealing with spec fic, I reckon – nice work. Now, you’ve also had some other wins recently, with your novella pitch to the Drowned Earth competition shortlisted. How did it feel to get that recognition of the quality of your work, and what’s happening with that project currently?
R: That was so great! As you know, both Mike [author Michael Trant] and I were shortlisted for this competition which was fantastic – it’s awesome to share that sort of thing with your friends. It also sparked a new story and to be considered for the shortlist, I had to write a synopsis and the introduction, so now I have the beginning of the story. I’d love to get back to it, and I’ve got a notebook with a few thousand words in it, but obviously there are only so many hours in the day!
H: And from where I’m sitting, I’m pretty sure you are using literally every one of those hours already! You’re incredibly busy and productive, as you’re also completing your PhD through Curtin University. What’s your thesis on?
R: Yeah, so I’m doing a creative PhD, which means I need to produce a creative project and then a short thesis of about 30,000 words.
H: *hears distant screaming of people wondering how 30,000 could be short*
R: I’m writing a steampunk novel as my creative project and both that and the thesis are focusing on how steampunk explores colonisation, and how it portrays nature and technology. The setting of the novel is here in Albany in the late 1800s but it’s obviously quite a different place. I’m really enjoying playing with an alternative world and weaving in some of the real-world problems and conflicts during that time. Even the research is interesting. Did you know that we had a massive depression in the 1890s?
H: Somehow, yes, I did. I can’t remember most of high school but I do remember that we had an economic depression in the 1890s. Go figure.
R: And did you know that in 1893 the Australian Federal Bank failed?! So incredible.
H: I didn’t know about that! I guess knowing the fine details makes you such a great editor, which is my brilliant segue to my next question, because you also work as a freelance editor! How does that experience differ from the creative writing process and is it difficult to switch between the two?
R: It actually balances out really well. When editing, I’m in a different mindset, I think. It’s more methodical, more critical. You can’t approach writing in that way – at least not when you’re doing the first or second drafts – or you’ll get totally bogged down in the details. But it always surprises me how I still need to draw on creativity when I edit, because I have to phrase my feedback in a way which is helpful and constructive. I’m glad I get to do both, though. I think being an editor helps my writing, and that could be simply due to the fact that it requires lots of reading, and that’s always good for writers to do.
H: I think Laurie Steed told me something about that once – and if he didn’t, he totally could have, because he’s also both an editor and a writer, and his writing is exceptionally well constructed. Now, being an editor, you must see a lot of rough-looking drafts from writers before you work your magic on them. What are some of the most common mistakes you see and what can writers do to improve their work?
R: Most of the time writers have done a great job with the manuscripts they send me, and I’ve been so amazed at the incredible stories I get to read. Occasionally I’ll get something which really is a draft, and I have actually sent some back to the writer, to tell them that their story is not ready to edit yet. So I guess my advice would be to not be in too much of a hurry. When you finish a draft, let it rest for a bit. Leave it at least a few weeks before you go back to it and read it again – and that time can really give you some perspective.
H: Totes agree on letting manuscripts rest! Speaking of rest (someone is going to scream at me for this segues soon) but – when and how do you rest, because as if being a writer, editor and doctoral student wasn’t enough, you’re also raising a family of four. Now, I can barely take care of myself, so forgive the cliché question, but how on earth do you manage your time?
R: Oh, I just leave a massive bowl of fruit in the kitchen and leave them to it! Haha, just kidding! (Well, sort of. They do eat a lot of fruit.) But having lots to do is fun for me. I generally thrive on it. I mean, there are days – like today, in fact – when I’ve barely had time to eat, but those are few and far between. Most of the time it’s about managing my time well while the kids are away at school or asleep. That’s why getting up early is really good for me. Now that they’re all starting to sleep in, I can get a good chunk of work done in the mornings. As for everything else, I recommend menu planning and a large diary to write everything down!
H: I’m taking notes that I 100% know I will not follow, because my career is so tightly managed that my personal/home life is a tyre fire and I don’t see that changing haha. Sidebar to anything writery, I grew up in a family of six kids and loved it because there were always people around and plenty of noise. Do you find that’s a great environment to write in, or do you prefer to quarantine some quiet time and space for yourself to get work done?
R: I need the quiet. I do love being in a household full of people – on weekends we often have extra kids coming and going, and it gives me a sense of contentment that our kids like being at home and that their friends like visiting them here. When I grew up it was often just me and my parents as my siblings were a lot older, so having a busy house is different from my childhood, but not in a bad way. Still, when we moved here a few years ago, we worked out that we could convert the enclosed verandah into a study for me, and recently we put up bookshelves and most importantly a LOCKABLE DOOR. Since I work at home, there have definitely been some BBC-Dad moments.
H: That is one of my favourite memes ever, and I love that you’ve been able to live that moment yourself haha – hopefully while not on live TV though! I have major envy looking at your beautiful home study. Now, you live in the rugged and beautiful town of Albany, on Western Australia’s southern coast. What is your experience of being a writer in a regional town, and do you feel there are some services and opportunities you miss out on being in a more isolated location than the metro area?
R: I adore living here. I grew up on a farm near a tiny town only a few hours drive from here, so moving down here was like coming home. And sure, there are some things I know I miss out on, like writers’ festivals and events. It’s very different meeting people in person and going to talks or conventions, that kind of thing, and it can be frustrating that we don’t get that as much in regional or remote communities, although of course I understand why. Saying that, I’ve found a vibrant writing and arts community here, and I belong to two writers’ groups. The library is also outstanding in its support of local artists and writers, and I’m working with some other local people to bring a writers’ festival to Albany in 2020.
H: Agree with Albany Library being amazing – they’re bringing me down to Albany in November for an author talk and I can’t wait – I’ve never visited. Great news about the potential for an Albany writers festival in 2020 – go you. Does this mean you’ll have to put some other projects on hold to make that happen, or will you still be writing new stuff?
R: I’m trying very hard to focus on one thing at a time but as you can imagine, I’m not doing very well with that. Now that Alt-Ctrl is finished, I’m probably going to try and focus on my PhD. But I have a magic realism novel which I’ve written about 20K of, and a cosy crime series which I’m plotting out, and then there’s that Drowned Earth novella idea I mentioned earlier … well, you know how it is. I have a very long ‘to-write’ list!
H: To-write lists are both exciting and stressful as hell. Speaking of hell, it’s sometimes hellish to get up at 5am, and yet we both aim to do this by being in the #5amwritersclub (best segue ever). I feel like you’re one of the most committed in terms of checking in with the rest of us each morning and trying to make us accountable.
R: Aw, thank you! It’s probably less about commitment and more about procrastination! But I think since I work at home and also with the isolation of living in the country, it’s really helpful to have that online accountability. I have deadlines for work and but when it comes to writing, I need to say to someone, ‘I have to do 1000 words by tonight’ or ‘I have to finish this chapter by the end of the week’, and it motivates me to do it because I’ve told other people.
H: What made you join the club, and what made you stay?
R: When Lana [Pecherczyk] started posting the hashtag and suggested getting up early to write, I thought it was something which would help me carve out the time. And as for what made me stay, well, it’s everything: the camaraderie, the support, the laughs, the friendship. It’s such a cool group and I’m honestly blessed to be part of it.
H: Agree. It’s great finding fellow writers to hang with, celebrate with, commiserate with. Is that the advice you would give to new writers who are just starting out?
R: Yes. Find your people. They can be online or in person, it doesn’t matter! I think we consider writing to be a very solitary activity and it’s true that you have to get the words down on your own. I reckon any art needs to be created in solitude, because that gives you opportunity to reflect, but as artists we also need to live in the world, you know? So find those people in the world who will support you, who’ll give you feedback. You know, to celebrate the wins and lift you up from the rejections. It’s kind of lonely, otherwise!
H: Great note to finish on. Rebecca Freeman, thanks for coming over to my place – it was awesome to get to know you better. Care for a drink or two? What’s your poison?
R: I had a great time, thanks for inviting me! I’m not a drinker, as you know, but I brought some lemon balm and peppermint from my garden. Thought I’d make us all a pot of herbal tea.
H: Ah, music to my ears! I love lemon and I totally dig peppermint tea. I’ll chuck the billy on.
R: Oh, and can I tempt you with some homemade brownies? It’s cheat day, right?
H: I’m going to have a little cry at the prospect of tomorrow’s carb bloat, and then eat a brownie anyway, because if there’s a brownie involved, it’s always cheat day.
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the wonderful Rebecca Freeman. She’s a solid friend to have, and a big supporter of others on her social media, so here’s where you can give her a like and a follow:
You can find Rebecca’s first novella Alt-Ctrl here.
I’m about to set off on the book tour in support of my own novel, Invisible Boys, which is released on 1 October (four days away) but Holden’s Heroes will return soon with another interview with a local WA author – stay tuned. Until then, thanks for visiting! 😉