We asked West AustralianTV writer and author about his writing and reading habits. Read his responses here. Ron Elliott Ron Elliott’s ‘The Lake Story’ is one of twelve finalists in the 2014 Carmel Bird Award and is included in the Michael McGirr Selects series of digital singles which is being released this year. You can read a preview and purchase Ron’s story below. Join Ron and other short story readers and writers for a discussion of ‘The Lake Story’ on our online bookclub, Aug 27 at 8pm EST.
Do you remember the name and personality of the first character you ever created?
I was a television director once upon a time and then I became a television writer while also writing feature film ideas. This is a way of saying I have known many characters in many towns. Please sing “Throw Your Arms Around Me”. However, the character I most recall is David Donald from my novel, Spinner. It was my first attempt at prose rather than film scripting. Learning who David was and how he reacted to the amazing events he was a part of was a wonderful experience. He was brave, noble, talented and yet massively insecure and aching for love. I spent a lot of time with him over many years. I learned so much from him, including inhabiting a character’s consciousness for a whole novel. There have been many others before and since, but David still feels like my first.
What drove you to write the story which is in the Michael McGirr Selects series?
There is a family anecdote about the day dad took us to Lake Leschenaultia, in the hills outside Perth and left us for way too long. Everyone seemed to have different recollections of the events of that day and other days but we all agreed about how it ended.
In spite of being the oldest, I seemed to have the least strong memories about the day, yet the family story kept calling to me, nagging at me. There were things buried there that seemed to need telling. So I asked my sisters and my mum to write down what they remembered. As it turned out no-one had very much concrete detail. So I decided to fictionalise the events. I decided to see them from my father’s point of view and then from my sisters’ and finally from mine. It felt like the only truthful way to round out real events and honour real people’s perspectives. Fiction offered the fairer truth, I thought. It also freed me to tweak up the dramatic elements so that the family story could work for us but also for a wider readership.
I then came to my next problem which was inventing an inner world and events for myself, especially because I could not remember much. As a consequence the fiction began to disassemble slightly, to devolve into reflections on memory and memoir and so to explore, I hope, the reasons why I don’t remember.
I often deal with this kind of troubling personal stuff but tangentially and metaphorically in my other fiction. There are evocations of madness in my thriller Random Malice and it is probably no accident that my main character Iris in Burn Patterns is a psychologist suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. So it was quite confronting to delve and explicate such real biographic elements head on, explicitly – which, in my wiggly way, I possibly evade slightly still, with my forgetfulness and my slippery writerly repositionings.
By the way, I’m not out to cure myself or anyone else, but merely to understand. I seek to understand my father but also how we kids dealt with his schizophrenia.
How do you approach a new story? With a clear plan of where the narrative is going, or is it more of a ‘well, let’s see how this goes’ kind of approach?
I’m used to charting things out, plotting and putting in turning points. Spinner was plotted against Vogler’s Writer’s Journey as a template. Most of the Now Showing Stories have a strong three or two act structure, even when modified as prose novellas. However in my forthcoming novel Burn Patterns, I forced myself not to plot too strongly beforehand. I did a huge amount of research, of course, and I had a rough idea of some major events. But this novel is seen completely through the main character, so I felt I was free to be able to simply go with her and find what she did. For instance, I had no idea that on page fifteen the school gymnasium would blow up. And as a consequence lots of things were advanced and lots of things went differently. It created all kinds of problems of timing, implication and also of character introduction. But it was exciting and challenging. Given it is a psychological thriller, I’m hoping there will be more surprises for the reader, given how surprised the writer was!
I should add I always seem to have a long gestation period, reading around the topic, researching and thinking. I’m a big believer in pre-writing.
Is there one particular author or book that you look to as a source of inspiration for your own writing? What are you reading now? Any recommendations?
I read heavily in the genre I’m writing in. I like writing in different genres and playing with convention. I read lots of psych thrillers for Burn Patterns as well as the relevant topics such as fire investigation and Narrative Therapy.
For pleasure, I read Le Carre, detective fiction like Michael Connelly, and I used to read a lot of science fiction such as Gibson and Banks. I read a lot of Alice Munro while writing the Lake story. But I like to read widely. I have just finished ‘The Son’ by Philip Myer. Brilliant. I’m half way through The Kills by Richard House. I would like to highly recommend The Good Parents by Joan London and All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld. (I have not read Wolf Hall yet, or Infinite Jest but both books sit on my sagging “to read shelf”.
How does writing fit into your day-to-day life? Do you have any unusual writing habits? Any advice to share for those stuck in a writing slump?
My advice is nothing new. Write. Be disciplined and write a lot. I was blessed to be able to write children’s television (and direct stuff) while my kids were growing up. My writing day was 8.30 – 1300 write. Go for a run. Read in the afternoon. Pick the kids up from school. Cook. Watch telly. Do it again. Mostly 6 days a week as they got older. It was brilliant.
But then there was one of the downturns in the film industry and I had to get a day job. Luckily I got one teaching in a University. So I wrote on my research day and on weekends but mostly in the breaks from teaching. Much harder that way. It’s much harder to ‘park on a hill’, and you’re often catching up on what you were thinking last time before you can add to it. I wrote Spinner and reshaped five novellas for Now Showing while working at Curtin University.
My other piece of writing advice concerns turning off your critical brain while you’re writing. Go for it. Then see what you have later when you turn the critical brain back on. Some writers create in the morning and edit in the afternoon.
Ron Elliott is a script writer, director and academic. His directorial credits include the feature film, Justice, and episodes of ABC programs such as Dancing Daze, Relative Merits and The Last Resort. Ron has written for Home and Away, Minty, Wild Kat and Ship to Shore and many more children’s television series. In 2001 he wrote the AFI nominated telemovie Southern Cross. He has written the novel, Spinner and the novella collection, Now Showing. He taught film and television production at Curtin University until 2014.