When it was released in mid-2017, Emily Brewin’s debut novel, Hello, Goodbye earned her a slew of fans and critical acclaim from readers and industry insiders alike. A year and a half later, Brewin’s second novel, Small Blessings looks set to do just as well as her first.
In this interview, she and I discuss the nitty-gritty of the novel, from the inspiration behind the story, how switching from historical fiction to contemporary made a difference to her writing, and how she balances it all with two children and a career in education.
Congratulations on the release of your second novel, Small Blessings. I loved it, possibly more than Hello, Goodbye. Were you nervous leading up to its release, given the success had by Hello, Goodbye?
Thanks, Jackie. I actually felt less nervous in the lead-up. Having a second book is possibly a little like having a second child. I felt more at ease with the process and had some idea what to expect.
Of course, I still had butterflies, but I felt I could enjoy the moment more than last time. Seeing a book I’ve written on the shelves in bookstores still gives me a buzz.
The novel deals with female friendships, two women who came together despite their backgrounds. What do you want people to take away from reading Small Blessings?
The main thing is that we often have more in common with people than we think. The very human qualities we share such as the need to belong and to be accepted might not be obvious in the way we dress or the car we drive but they exist, just below the surface.
In an age of increasing social media use, where so much value is placed on how we look, we need to focus on the parts that bind, rather than separate us.
Despite having only been released in February of this year, Small Blessings has already received such great feedback and reviews. Why do you think this topic is so important for readers today?
At the heart of the novel is the modern dilemma of feeling lonely in a world where we are seemingly more connected. Despite being surrounded by people and technology, both Rosie and Isobel feel isolated in their personal challenges and daily struggles. I don’t think this is unusual.
We live in a world of high expectation, where women in particular are often expected to look good, work hard, maintain a household and raise children. It’s inevitable that we sometimes feel alone amidst all this. Small Blessings is about finding the courage to be vulnerable and to reach out when we need to. I think this idea resonates with people.
How did you come up with the idea?
The genesis of the idea was a Blundstone boot I saw lying in the middle of the Monash Freeway on the drive to my parent’s house. Lost or abandoned single shoes have always made me feel slightly unsettled in that I wonder what happened to the person who was wearing them. In this case, the boot probably fell off the back of a ute, but I questioned what the story might be if the shoe belonged to a child who’d gone missing.
And so, I wrote a short story about a child’s shoe being discovered in a suburban front garden and how the discovery connects two women from very different socio-economic backgrounds. The characters intrigued me and so I kept writing in order to explore them more. Unfortunately, there’s no missing shoe in Small Blessings.
Who’s the first person to read your novels, and how did they help make Small Blessings the book it is now?
My agent, Gaby Naher, was the first person to read this novel from front to back. It’s always a spine-tingling moment, waiting to hear back from your first reader. Until that point, the book is a private thing. Gaby suggested some character and plot changes, which I made before we sent it off to Allen & Unwin for a look.
[In] saying this, my writers’ group read and provided feedback on extracts from the novel during our monthly catch-ups. So, they were my very first readers.
Do you plan your novels, or prefer to let the story take you where it may?
I do a bit of both plotting and pants-ing (flying by the seat of my pants). Usually, I have an idea of what the story is and I’ll write a synopsis outlining this. Then I do a lot of work getting to know my characters. I spend time teasing out their personal histories, dreams, fears, family and beliefs, most of which does not end up on the page but instead informs them.
From here, I do a draft chapter breakdown (one topic sentence per chapter) that I use to direct me through my first draft. This changes over time. But mainly, I let the characters lead me through the book.
Did you have to undertake much research for Small Blessings? If so, what was your approach?
I do tend to research and interview for my books. I write a first draft based on some research and my own knowledge, then seek out people who can give me facts. For Small Blessings, I interviewed mothers raising children on the autism spectrum as well as women who had experienced IVF and losing a parent. I also spoke to my uncle, who was a detective for many years, about police protocol.
The people I spoke with were incredibly honest and generous with their personal and professional stories. Their insights added depth and authenticity to my characters and plot and motivated me to keep going when I wanted to stop.
How long did Small Blessings take to write?
The first draft was fast – around three or four months. I was going through a separation at the time and writing it was cathartic and a great way to escape reality for a while. I wrote another two drafts before sending it to my agent who then forwarded it to my publisher. The whole process, from first draft to publication, took almost three years.
One of the reasons why I enjoy your novels so much is how real and engaging the characters are. Do you base their personalities on real people?
My characters come from the real qualities that I sense or observe in myself and other people. For me, developing characters is not always a conscious process. My characters take on a life of their own as I write but are informed by memory, people I’ve known, experiences I’ve had and stories I’ve heard. I hope my characters reflect some of the complexity of these things.
What was your publication process like, particularly in comparison to publishing your first novel, Hello, Goodbye?
It was easier in many ways because I had been through it before but also because the editing process was less complicated. Hello, Goodbye involved timelines that had slipped out of place during redrafting. I had a talented copyeditor, Kate Goldsworthy, who highlighted this.
It was hard work setting everything straight but worth it in the end. Kate did a thorough structural edit on Small Blessings, which meant my copyedit, which comes after the structural edit, was much easier.
Hello, Goodbye is a historical fiction novel, but Small Blessings is a little more contemporary. Did this switch in genres change your approach to writing at all?
The main difference was the amount of research I had to do to set the scene and to get my settings right. Hello, Goodbye was set in 1968, an era before I was born. I loved researching the music, art, fashion, social values, and politics of the time. It was like falling down a rabbit hole.
Because Small Blessings is contemporary, set in a time and place I recall; the same research didn’t apply. Many of the settings in Small Blessings are inspired by streets and buildings in Carlton, although I am never explicit about where the book is set. Hello, Goodbye was also set in Carlton.
You’re a teacher as well as a novelist. Is it difficult to balance both professions, and how does one influence the other?
It is a juggle. Throw in my two small children and sometimes life veers close to chaos. Most of the time I find teaching works well with writing. There’s nothing like a class full of year 7 students to force you into the moment. This ensures I stop consciously thinking about whatever I’m writing and come back to it later with fresh eyes.
Often the best thing to do when you hit a writing road-block is to have a break from it. Teaching is also about working with personalities – your students and other teachers. It’s a great way to observe and study people and their behaviour. Inevitably, some of this ends up in my writing.
In addition to your novels, you’ve also written a few essays for publications like Kill Your Darlings and The Age, as well as short stories. How does writing fiction compare to non-fiction, and novels to short stories?
I often write non-fiction while writing longer pieces of fiction. It a nice break to work on something that is shorter and more contained, length and style wise. Non-fiction also gives me the opportunity to explore issues I’m interested in and to immerse myself in a different world for a while. Short stories are something I usually work on in-between manuscript drafts.
Again, there’s a pleasure in working on something small, in that you see results sooner. A novel might take years of work before its published. A short story might take a few weeks. Writing shorts is also great for technique because the plot and structure has to be tight.
Who are your idols, both professionally and personally?
I’m inspired by the women authors and writers I know. Most of them are juggling children and paid work with building writing careers. It’s hard work and we draw strength from exchanging stories, ideas and tips on how to muddle through. I think of this group of women, and the local writing community in general, as my tribe. We look out for and support each other, celebrate each other’s triumphs and work through the falls.
I am also inspired by those who have the courage to speak out or push the boundaries so that as a society we are forced to reflect and move forward. Brave women such as Malala Yousafzai show us how important it is to rail against injustice and to believe it’s within our power to make the world a more equitable place.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of writing advice, what would it be?
My advice would be to be kinder to myself. To remember that nothing is perfect, and that writing is a life-long journey made up of achievements and failures. I still have to remind myself of this, often.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
This may be controversial, but I don’t believe in writer’s block. I understand that writing can be horrifyingly hard at times and that sometimes sitting in front of my computer is the last thing I want to do. I also know that often stories, plots and characters don’t work for whatever reason and that it’s tempting to chuck it all in.
However, I tend to work through these patches with an acceptance that my writing might be terrible but that I’ll find something in it later on. Often bad writing is the step I need to take to get to something better.
When did you first discover you had a passion for writing?
I think my passion for writing developed alongside my love of reading – it was there from an early age. I’ve always loved the power of the written word – in the way it transports, informs and allows you to stand in other’s shoes.
What books did you read growing up?
I loved books like Anne of Green Gables and My Brilliant Career with strong female leads as well as series from that era such as The Babysitters Club and John Marsden’s books.
Do you have any writing rituals you like to adhere to?
Not really, except that I love, love, love drinking coffee while writing. This is sometimes exchanged for wine if I’m writing in the evenings. I also like to have my writing notebook on hand so that I can access ideas or scribble things down that I need to recall later.
There have been so many changes in the publishing industry, and it can be difficult for aspiring authors to know where to start. What does having the support of a big, mainstream publisher such as Allen & Unwin, mean to you and your writing career?
Allen & Unwin are experts in the business-end of writing. They know the industry inside and out, and have advised and guided me through the process of preparing my books for publication. They have the professional insights and connections too, to market and sell books.
As a writer, and especially as a first-time author, I knew little about this process. It’s been great having their team of editors, publishers and publicists onside to help manage this.
In an age run by the internet and social media, how important is it for you to use the different platforms available to you to engage with fans?
I use different platforms to engage different audiences. Twitter, for instance, is a great way to interact with other industry folk, while Facebook and my website work well with readers. I also use Instagram, as a more informal way of staying in touch with interested people. I believe word-of-mouth is the best way to sell books. Social media allows these conversations to be more far-reaching and interactive in that I can chat directly with readers and other writers.
No matter how much your work is loved, there’s probably always going to be one person who doesn’t like it. How do you deal with negative criticism?
I take a deep breath and tell myself that we are all entitled to an opinion.
What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
I don’t know a lot about it but believe it can be an empowering way to publish a book in that the writer has control over the entire process. Just like mainstream publishing though, it might be advisable to have knowledgeable people onside who can read and edit your work to ensure it’s ready to be sent out into the world.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received in regard to your writing?
If you could invite three people from history (living or dead) to dinner, who would you invite and why?
This is a hard one. But I’m going to say Doris Lessing, Frida Kahlo and Amelia Earhart because they pushed back against what society said they should be and lived their lives according to their own rules, thus changing community values and paving the way for other women.
Do you have another project on the go? What’s next for you?
Yes – I’m finalising my third novel, The Piano. I’m also working on a few smaller non-fiction pieces that I’ll pitch soon and am in the infant stages of writing a fourth book.
‘Small Blessings’ is published through Allen & Unwin, and can be purchased via their website, as well as your local or online retailer. To find out more about Emily Brewin and her work, follow her on social media or visit her website.