Talking Books w/ Wendy James, by Kian West / by Kian West

BEING A PRINT-BASED ZINE IN NEWCASTLE, IT’S ONLY NATURAL THAT WE ARE HUGE FANS OF THE NEWCASTLE WRITERS FESTIVAL (MAYBE WE SHOULD HAVE A ZINE FESTIVAL?). SO WHEN WE GOT AN EMAIL THAT INCLUDED INFORMATION ABOUT A LOCAL AUTHOR WRITING A NOVEL THAT WAS SET IN NEWCASTLE, WELL, WE HAD TO SPEAK WITH THIS NOVELIST.

A casual morning meeting with Wendy James, local novelist whose most recent published work is The Golden Child, saw us at the new coffee joint at The Junction – Pickled & Pressed – for a quick chat about writing, the writers festival, and the internet.

Wendy James writer Newcastle

Wendy James

By Kian West

If you were at a party and someone asked about you, what would you tell them?

Wendy: I’d be at the party doing something so I didn’t have to talk to people.

I’d say I was a writer… And then they’d elaborate and say, ‘So what do you write?’ and I’d say ‘Well, I write novels for women, or about women. I started with women in the 19th century and now I write about women’s contemporary lives’. 

Has that been a purposeful transition?

I did a literature degree, an Australian literature degree. Helen Garner said when she did English at uni, at that point, ‘I’ll never be able to write a book’ – because at that point you’re studying the best that has ever been written, so you maybe don’t think of yourself as being able to do it; but I was forced to do it. At Australian Literature in Sydney Uni, there was one subject that was creative writing, and creative writing wasn’t everywhere the way it is now. So I had to write something – and I was about 25 by then, and I’ve got two kids, and I looked back and thought, ‘One day, when I’m really smart and I know everything in the world that there is to know, I guess I could be a writer.’ But I was kind of heading towards Honours and then doing a PhD in literature kind of thing, and I started writing, and I really liked it and I could do it.
I remember a story I wrote making the people in my class cry and I thought, ‘Oh, right!’. I guess I thought maybe you don’t need to know everything, so I started writing short stories. I won some prizes, which is always encouraging. So for about ten years I wrote short stories; I did a master’s at UTS, still writing short fiction. My stuff was published in literary journals around then.

Then I enrolled in a PhD and I got a scholarship, so I could continue writing and only work part-time. I had kids at this time, so I was kind of busy. [Then] we moved to the country. In order to get something PhD-worthy, I started writing a historical novel about the suffrage movement set at the turn of the last century, and so it was a great big exciting project about women and where they were 100 years ago.

Is it a normal process to write a novel as part of a PhD?

It is now [with] a creative writing PhD. They have a program in Newcastle for writers; what you’d do is write a novel – it doesn’t have to be heavily researched novel like that – but then you’d write, say, a 30,000-word exegesis, a shorter critical analysis in some way connected to what you’ve written in the novel. 

Your newest work The Golden Child is set now?

Yes. It’s set in Newcastle. Written about people who are more or less my age.

 Does the story come from what is happening right now?

It’s, you know, a lifetime. My eldest son is 27 – it’s all that mothering experience and speaking to other parents and seeing all the changes. I’ve got two sets of children with eight years between them, a generation, almost, between the two lots: one lot before the internet, before you all had mobile phones and were constantly connected, and now I’ve got a 14- and 16-year-old, so we’re right in the thick of this change – the way we communicate, the way kids communicate, the way we live our lives. So this book is about all of that. The main character Lizzy is a blogger, so she’s got the ‘perfect’ blogging life and her real life is sort of unravelling – and, more importantly, in a way, her daughter [is part of] the younger generation getting into social media; one child is bullying and attempts suicide. That’s really what the story is about – what goes on with teenage kids.

You’re presenting at the Newcastle Writers Festival?

I’m on a couple of panels. I think I’m actually on a panel discussing writing in Newcastle, which will be interesting. There are three novels that have come out this year that are from Newcastle.

If you could teach Novocastrians one thing, what would it be?

Oh, that is a tough one. To be open to other people and other experiences, not to say that Newcastle is closed.

When you aren’t writing, where do you like to hang out?

The beach. I try to head to the beach at least once a day.

What’s next?

The next novel – it’s at 40,000 words and needs to progress.

Check out the full festival program at www.newcastlewritersfestival.org.au and make a special note on all the workshops that Wendy is a part of, then find yourself a copy of The Golden Child and have a nice read with a local perspective…