Bestselling Australian novelist Di Morrissey has just published her 20th novel in 20 years, The Opal Desert (Macmillan). Andrea Hanke spoke to the author about her career journey, changes in publishing, new media vs ‘pressing the flesh’, and the marginalisation of women’s writing and popular fiction.
Twenty novels in 20 years is an extraordinary achievement. What kind of discipline is required to meet these publishing deadlines, year in and year out?
When you start writing you don’t think past getting that story out and hopefully getting it published, but when you have the commitment of a contract there is an additional motivation. I have a very strong, perhaps old-fashioned, work ethic. I shudder when I hear of people who have a contract or potential interest in their work and diddle around and can’t meet their deadline and never produce anything. I’m there on the day it’s due, manuscript in hand for better or worse. I also understand it’s not just about me but there is a whole team involved, a schedule, a business plan, marketing campaign and people who depend on me producing a publishable book. The writing process may be a solitary endeavour but there is a massive machine involving many dedicated people that take your original scribbles and turn it into a polished, professional product, so it does put considerable pressure on me. And of course, when you have a successful book the expectation is there to do an even better next book.
When you look back over your career, how has the way in which your books are edited, published and promoted changed over the years? Is the publishing industry better at its job today than it was 20 years ago?
Well technology has made it easier in many ways to write. When I first started I mailed hard copy to my editor, so email has certainly speeded things up. Publishers today don’t like to take risks and have had to adapt, to be more focused, take less of a scatter-gun approach and hope a book on spec does well, as they can’t afford a failure in these more competitive times. So I wouldn’t want to be starting out now! Marketing is even more vital now and traditional media campaigns have changed as social networking and an online presence reaches an audience as quickly and effectively as a print or radio ad. Authors have to be prepared to adapt to the new media but frankly, I still feel that word of mouth and ‘pressing the flesh’ is as powerful as ever. Publishing houses have had to be more savvy as well as cost-conscious, the old conservative days of British publishing dominating the Empire are gone but try telling them that! There’s still a bit of literary snobbishness and parochialism with international publishers believing their books outrank ours.
There has been a lot of talk recently about a gender bias in literary criticism and awards. What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you support the creation of a new women-only book prize? And do you think we need more book prizes for genres outside literary fiction?
There is no question that the bias exists. Women are not reviewed as seriously or in as great a depth or frequency as men. Nor do women receive as many awards as men. But to section ourselves off with women-only prizes and categories is buying into the marginalisation, i.e. ‘Men do art, women do craft’. Besides, I think there are enough specialist categories for a variety of genres. We know literary fiction usually doesn’t sell anywhere near what popular fiction sells, yet the ‘literary’ tag imbues a book with some kind of merit so these ‘serious’ authors content themselves with a badge of assumed quality when most would secretly prefer to have a royalty cheque of quantity. And let’s face it, if a heap of people buy a book, and continue to show loyalty to a particular popular author, then that author must be doing something right.
Of all 20 novels, which is your favourite?
I don’t have a favourite book per se, it is a bit like choosing a favourite child. But I have to confess to a slight affection for Tears of the Moon as it was the book that broke me out in hardback and international sales. And it was a deliberate strategy to find a mainstream and male audience and change the perception of me being a writer of romance fiction.
Which book has been the hardest to write?
The one I’m writing now! I face each new book with trepidation and insecurity, I never feel complacent and the more successful you become and the more you write, the greater the pressure. But equally I do it because of the passion and fulfilment that I only find from writing.
What has inspired your latest novel?
I’ve always loved opals, and I first visited the opal fields in the 1980s and decided I wanted to spend time in this strange word and write about it one day. I’ve been going to Lightning Ridge for many years and I saw how the industry was changing and decided this was the year to explore the lure and obsession that draws people to this different lifestyle and isolated community. It’s also about women’s friendship. The bonds and special connection and emotional support women draw from each other. This book explores the relationship between three women of differing generations who find themselves in the remote and wonderful opal fields.