Judy Nunn is one of Australia’s best-loved writers and she’ll be appearing at the St Albans Writers’ Festival this September to talk about women’s fiction. However, Judy doesn’t see her fiction as appealing only to women, as she tells us in this candid interview.
While Judy’s first three novels, The Glitter Game, Centre Stage and Araluen, are set in the worlds of television, theatre and film and became instant bestsellers, since then Judy has focused on Australian historical fiction and her work has sold over one million copies worldwide. Her bestsellers include Kal, Beneath the Southern Cross, Territory, Pacific, Heritage, Floodtide, Maralinga, Tiger Men, Elianne and her most recent is the wonderful Spirits of the Ghan.
In 2015 Judy was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her ‘significant service to the performing arts as a scriptwriter and actor of stage and screen, and to literature as an author’. She speaks to Better Reading about writing historical fiction and gives us a glimpse into her talk at the upcoming St Albans Writers’ Festival on September 18th.
Better Reading: It’s estimated that women’s fiction, covering romance to literary, represents about 70-80 per cent of fiction sales. Do you believe that there is such a thing and that there are strong characteristics that define women’s fiction? If so, do you think these characteristics are the reason for such popularity?
Judy Nunn: I don’t think I write ‘women’s fiction’. I have many male readers as well as female readers. It’s true that there is fiction aimed at women which would not attract men. Romance fiction and chick lit are geared at women. I don’t write that and I don’t specialise in it. I write historically based fiction and wouldn’t know how to go about writing something specifically for women. The covers of my books are not aimed at women so this is not something I can talk about in relation to my own writing.
There has always been an ‘us and them’ factor. It goes across the board with many intellectual areas. I don’t really care – would I rather sell 100,000 books and have readers keen to read my work or have long reviews in literary journals? I’ll take the sales. Some writers are very bitter about not being reviewed or ‘taken seriously’. I don’t give a damn frankly. And there are wonderful Australian books that sell and get reviews like Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Richard Flanagan The Narrow Road to the Deep North – books that work on every level.
BR: Australia has a long history in the importance of storytelling. It’s clear from your last few books that you have a love of writing Australian historical fiction. Do you see yourself as a modern Australian storyteller?
I’m certainly an Australian storyteller and explore different aspects of Australia in my books. They are usually set in Australia but some of my books do also involve other countries. Heritage is set in Australia but follows the lives of the characters back to their home countries. Tiger Men looks at four generations of three families.These themes are historical and they’re Australian.
BR: In multiple interviews, you discuss how your acting career helped drive your writer career in terms of character development, structure etc. Do you think your background in acting is one of the reason behind your writing success?
I don’t know if it’s one of the reasons for my success – I set out to write the books that I wanted to write and it’s turned out that they’ve proved popular. Actors from the theatre are working with great playwrights who are great writers, and creators, psychologists, writers of dialogue and you just soak this up. Actors have to relate rapidly with their fellow actors, the whole of acting has a very psychological undertone and you’re always dealing with dialogue. Many actors become writers, directors, producers.They make good writers because they take in literature, psychology, sociology. I use a lot of dialogue and characters are very important to me.
I don’t set out writing books with an Aboriginal theme. It comes from the story I want to tell. I wanted to write about Maralinga because we aren’t taught about it so there was no choice about ignoring the shocking treatment of first Australians. I wanted to write about the Ghan and naturally that touched on the clash of culture and how you guard sacred sites when you’re building a railway .
BR: Do you have any advice for people wanting to write?
Do it! It’s good for you. Everybody who is literate should write, it’s wonderful but make sure you’ve got a day job (I give the same advice to young people wanting to be actors). Make your notes, and set a day when you’ll start. It’s creative, it takes you away from your everyday reality – you travel, you live in another world. I never read fiction when I’m writing, as I live in my own fictional world. Once I have decided on the time frame, the setting, the characters and the central core, the moral core of the story, the book takes places I haven’t planned. That’s a big escape. Script writing is collaborative and there are limitations – the budget doesn’t allow you to go there – but novel writers are free. I never set out thinking my career would become that of a novelist and I’m so happy that it has.