Interview: Louise Allan, author of ‘The Sisters’ Song’

An interview with Louise Allan by Shelley Timms

How did you first get into writing fiction?

My previous career was medicine, and I hadn’t written creatively since leaving school around 25 years earlier. I took singing lessons in my 30s, and did that for around 7 years until I realised that singing wasn’t something that would get me far. I was flat out working, with 4 children that were just hitting their teens and so I was thinking about stopping work but also thinking about what else I could try when I did stop work. A couple of my children had entered creative writing competitions and I used to joke to people “Oh, they didn’t get it from me. I haven’t a creative bone in my body!”; but in the back of my mind I always wondered where they did get it from.

I stopped work which opened up a whole lot of free time, so I enrolled in a creative writing course, and by the second assignment I knew I’d found what I wanted to sink my teeth into. I was 43 at the time, and unlike singing I wasn’t too old to start, and I could devote myself to writing full time. The irony is I gave up work to be with my family, but I work more now that I ever did.

Was it a tough transition to go from doctor to full time writer?

Yeah it was! I didn’t tell anyone besides my husband and close friends for about 2 or 3 years. I was quite embarrassed, actually. Being a writer is much more open than you are as a doctor, and I thought “Oh God, what if my patients read what I’ve written? Now they’d know the inside workings of my mind!”

When you’re a doctor it’s not just a job, it’s a whole identity and it’s hard to give up. You change your title and I’m still Dr Louise Allan, and I will always have that title. I couldn’t let go of my identity as a doctor, because Louise and doctor were so intertwined. I found it hard, and I still miss it. But I don’t miss it enough to go back.

What was your family’s reaction when you told them that you wanted to become a writer?

My family took a while to adjust. My husband has always been supportive but I don’t think he realised what it takes to become a writer, and how intensive it is. It took up until about 6 months ago for everyone to realise that this is a legitimate career, and it’s a professional job, and I do need time to work during the day. I did have a sign on the door that said Don’t interrupt unless it’s an emergency or to kiss me goodnight! and I would get interrupted and get annoyed, and of course my kids would walk out with their sloping shoulders and I felt really bad because they wanted their mum. But I think every working mother has that.

Do you have any advice for anyone that wants to give up their career to pursue writing?

That’s a good question! I would say ‘Give it your all”. There’s no point doing it half-heartedly because you’ll end up failing. You have to have a sense of entitlement, which sounds really selfish but it’s not. You’re entitled to have your own dreams and aspirations and devote time to them. The hardest thing is financially, because writing pays so little. I worked for 6 years without getting a cent. I was lucky that my husband could support me. To summarise, give it your all, give it a shot, take it seriously and treat it as though it is a paying job. It’s perseverance and persistence that pays off.

The other thing I’d say is, go easy on yourself. Treat writing as a learning experience, as if you are an apprentice learning a career for the first time. You’re still allowed to learn and make mistakes. That’s my number one rule; let yourself learn. You persist, you learn and you get better.

Can you describe what the publishing process was like for The Sisters’ Song?

It was really, really onerous but really fulfilling. I thought that I had edited my book to the best it could possibly be, but I hadn’t at all. Working with a professional editor at a publishing house, especially one like Allen and Unwin, who are so experienced and know so much about reading and books, made my book so much better. They picked up more than I ever could have. When I first got the contract, people were saying “You’ll be amazed by what they get you to do with your book”, and I thought “Oh, mine’s pretty much ready to go, I won’t have to do much!” But with the insights they gave, I’d say the final product is 300 per cent of what the manuscript was.

During the editing process they asked a lot of questions, in such a way that made you go back and really think about dynamics of relationships, precipitants of certain events, if a scene is really necessary, sagging middles, etcetera. It just lifts your book beyond what you’d ever thought it could be.

After my first structural edit, I didn’t think I’d done everything they’d asked of me, and so when I got the copy edit and saw they were asking the same questions as in the first edit, I knew I hadn’t quite nailed it. I battled for a week, barely sleeping and working like a maniac to get it done within the two week deadline. I emailed my editor and asked for more time, and they gave me another two months and pushed back publication by four months. I ended up adding 12 000 words to flesh it out and bring the story full circle like I wanted to. I really was given a lot of space and freedom, but still had their guidance.

One thing I had to adjust to was that my publisher wanted to change the title. I loved my old title, and it felt like they’d asked me to change the name of one of my children. However, knowing they knew much more about books than me, I accepted it. Now, I can’t imagine it called anything else, of course.

I had no say in the choice of cover, but I think it’s beautiful. It hints at trouble in the relationship, but also at a closeness between the two women. I liked that you can’t see their faces, so you can still imagine that. Funny story: Once I saw the cover, I had to go through the book and change the colour of Nora’s hair!

It was really hard once the advanced reader copies were sent out to reviewers, libraries and bookstores, because I knew people were reading it, but there was silence, so I had no idea what people were thinking. Then a reviewer contacted me privately to say how much the book had moved her, and I nearly cried with relief. A few weeks later, I was notified that The Australian Women’s Weekly were featuring it as the Great Read for January. An author friend recommended keeping a Portfolio of Praise, to refer to when you get bad reviews, and remind yourself that there are readers who liked your book. The AWW feature sits front and centre in my portfolio.

Can you tell us what The Sisters’ Song is about?

It’s about two sisters who both have dreams and aspirations; equally fervent in their yearnings but the complete opposite of each other. There’s Ida, who wants to become a mother, and Nora who is a prodigious musical talent who dreams of being on the opera stage and wants nothing to do with being a mum. Neither of them get what they hope for, Ida has 3 stillbirths and Nora gets pregnant. It’s about how they deal with losing their hopes and dealing with the cards life has dealt them and coping with grief and loss. It’s about their relationship and how it survives this turbulence.

Book recommendations!

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose – I’ve been recommending this to everyone!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – It’s so moving, I’m almost crying on every page.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry – My husband said this is his favourite book of 2017, aside from mine!

 

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