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09 July 2020

Philippa Swan: ‘Write about something that intrigues or confuses you’

Philippa Swan, author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Philippa Swan was a student on our inaugural six-week online Edit & Pitch Your Novel course in 2017. Her debut novel The Night of All Souls was published earlier this year by Penguin Random House New Zealand.

Read on to find out about Philippa’s time studying online with CBC and the inspiration behind her debut novel

You took our inaugural Edit & Pitch Your Novel course in 2017 – what was your experience of studying online with us?

When this course first became available it was perfect timing. I had been working on my manuscript for many years and tied myself up in knots! The course provided a framework for re–evaluating my work in a clear, methodical way. And it was great to receive feedback – everyone was so thoughtful and generous in their responses.

The synopsis–writing section was invaluable, forcing me to crystallise my vision of the novel. Unfortunately I discovered my vision was distressingly murky! This became the basis of a re-write. I pitched my novel to Clare Conville at C&W literary agents and received a very encouraging response, but it was apparent I still had work to do. 

Your debut novel The Night of All Souls is out now from Penguin Random House New Zealand. How did you feel when you found out that you were going to be a published novelist?

Overwhelming relief that I hadn’t wasted many years of my life! Excitement that I could now legitimately start work on another novel. And more relief that I needn’t resort to Plan B (there was never a Plan B!).

Thankfully I didn’t get too excited about book launches and publicity. My novel was released during lockdown and it’s been really difficult. I’m still hoping for a book launch one day …

Can you tell us a bit about The Night of All Souls and the inspiration behind it?

As a fan of American writer Edith Wharton, I’m always surprised at how forgotten she is. And reading her biography, I was amazed to discover she had a rich and complex life. This was the story I wanted to tell.

In my novel, Edith Wharton is variously reimagined – as a host in the afterlife, a historical figure in a modern novella, and as an elusive presence in the pages of her own writing. It’s a story of two worlds: the secretive life of a past novelist and the contemporary pursuit of fame.

Summoned to a room in the afterlife, Edith finds the manuscript of a new novella inspired by her life. A letter from her one–time editor advises Edith to consider carefully whether to destroy the work or allow publication. This is a chance to correct her image of haughtiness and privilege, and reignite interest in her writing. But modern fame will come at a high price, exposing secrets she carefully concealed during her lifetime. Edith is haunted by the words, The letters survive, and everything survives.  

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

Most days start with me doing everything I can to avoid work! I’ve developed a few strategies. Usually I start with some editing or research. This should get me going – but not always. Sometimes I use the Pomodoro technique (which basically involves an egg timer – try Googling it). If things still aren’t going to plan I activate an app on my computer blocking access to pre–specified websites (I use SelfControl). A typical day usually involves multiple cups of tea and several trips to the washing line.

Do you have an advice for aspiring authors?

Write about something that intrigues or confuses you. Write about something you don’t understand. Writing will clarify your views on a subject – and the results might be surprising. Surprise is always good.

Don’t be polemic – always look for good on both sides. This will deepen and enrich your story and characters. Discover the voice and motivations of your less likeable characters. Jennifer Egan speaks about always giving her characters dignity, even when they hold views she finds abhorrent.

Obviously you must write about something you love. Don’t worry about the market or the next hot topic – if you don’t love what you write, no–one else will. And try writing a synopsis of your current work, it’s a brilliant way to clarify your thoughts. This is one of many tips I learned during the course. 

Finally, whats next for your writing journey?

Right now I’m working on my lockdown novel. It’s everything our current world is not – funny and energetic, and with a sense of optimism. It’s nostalgically set in the recent past – 2004 – when social media was new and exciting, and the world seemed full of promise. Sigh.

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