The Spilled Ink-quisition – An Interview with Emily O’Grady

Helen Roche

Dr Emily O’Grady is the author of the 2018 Vogel Award-winning novel The Yellow House. She also teaches creative writing at QUT and kindly agreed to an interview with Helen for the first edition of Spilled Ink for 2023.

Helen: Hi Emily; thanks so much for talking to me today. What are you currently working on?

Emily: My second book will be out in June, so now I’m working on my third novel.

Helen:  Are we allowed to know what your second book is about?

Emily: Yes. It’s called Feast and it’s set in Scotland. Like The Yellow House, it’s about a dysfunctional family. It takes place over the weekend of the daughter’s 18th birthday, and plenty of chaos occurs.

Helen: Your first novel, The Yellow House, was set in Australia with Australian characters. For Feast, are the characters Scottish and if so, did you have to do research about them or are they Australian characters in a Scottish setting?

Emily: Half and half. There are three Australian characters and three Scottish characters, so a bit of a combination. I went on a research trip to Scotland, which was actually more of a holiday, and that was to look at locations. The setting is loosely based on my maternal great, great, great, great grandfather who was a Scottish laird with a gambling problem who owned a castle. He gambled away all the money and lost the castle, and then centuries later, the new owners of the castle turned it into an exotic zoo. It was a beautiful castle and on the grounds there were polar bears and elephants and all sorts of amazing animals. Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long, and they also lost all their money. So now it’s a ruin. It’s in what is now a beautiful county park with a café on the grounds and lovely fields around but in the middle is this old crumbly, ugly, heritage-listed castle that can’t be knocked down. That’s the loose setting for it. In terms of research, I listened to people, did a lot of reading and took snippets from people’s lives.

Helen: When did you think Creative Writing was something you wanted to do as a career?

Emily: Like a lot of people, I just went to university because I thought that was what you do. I did the BFA in Creative Writing thinking I wanted to work in publishing or editing, but I quickly realised I couldn’t see myself doing those things as a career. Initially, I didn’t have a strong pull towards creative writing but I really enjoyed the writing subjects that I did and I found out that I was all right at it. It wasn’t a conscious decision to pursue writing as a career – not that it’s my whole career – even now, it’s probably only 10% of my job – but then I started sending stories out and writing more. It wasn’t until The Yellow House was published that I really considered that I had a career in writing.

Helen: When did you start writing The Yellow House?

Emily: I started writing it in subjects for the degree. We used to have another unit called Advanced Practice in second semester of second year and it ran for three semesters. It is similar to the Creative Project subject offered now, where you are encouraged to continue the same idea. I did The Yellow House for Advanced Practice, 1, 2 and 3 and for Creative Project 1 and 2. By that point, I knew there was something in it. However, none of that made the book. I completely scrapped what I had done and started again but that was where the idea started to formulate.

Helen: What was the first piece of writing you ever submitted for publication?

Emily: It was the first story I ever wrote in the short story subject at QUT, and I got a good mark for it, so I sent it out. It was rejected and I was very disappointed, so I didn’t send anything else out for another year. Once my ego had healed, I just started sending out assignments or things I had written on the side, and then at the end of my degree my first story was published in Voice Works. So, from my first attempt to my first publication was about three years.

Helen: Do you take rejection for your writing personally?

Emily: I used to. In the beginning I felt disheartened for a day or two, but after that I assembled a spreadsheet that had the name of the story I had written, where and when I had sent it, and whether it was accepted or rejected. I always had a few things on the go, so if I got a rejection, there was still a glimmer of hope because there was something else out in the world that had a chance. I just had this rolling system.

There’s never a time though that you don’t feel slightly disappointed. Even now, when I submit things that I don’t think have a chance of being published, there is still a part of me that is hopeful. You just have to suck it up and not let the fear of rejection stop you from sending out your work or you will never publish anything. I would say that 10% of everything I have ever sent out has been published, so the odds are very low and there are a lot more people submitting to journals than there are spaces in the journals to be published. It really is a numbers game. You have to be persistent, but you also have to feel confident that your work is good and make sure that you are taking on feedback.

Helen: How do you judge if your work is good enough to send out? Do you have somebody read your work?

Emily: When I write short stories now, I have a friend who will give me feedback. I find I get the bulk of it done myself and then either send it to a friend and they will give me some notes or have a conversation with somebody and talk through the ideas. It’s definitely not done in a vacuum, and it’s important to bounce ideas off other people who know your writing and who understand your intentions with your writing as well.

Helen: When you are forming your ideas, do you take notes or keep a journal or none of those things?

Emily: I don’t journal. I tend to keep the ideas in my head, and I seem to have a really good memory. I encourage people to keep a journal, but my ideas come from everywhere. I read a lot, watch films, read the news, overhear bits of conversations, and I use all these places to get ideas from.

Helen: Your stories tend to be very character driven. Are the characters based on you or people you know, or are they completely made up?

Emily: They are completely made up. I’ve never written a character based on anybody I know, and I’ve never written a character who was a fictionalised version of me. There are little parts of me in all the characters, though. Maybe they have a little habit or hobby or a memory I include in the narration, but in terms of the characters, they are built from the ground up.

Helen: How did your career expectations change from when you started your degree to when you finished it and beyond?

Emily: When I started my BFA I had no thoughts of writing a book. I was more interested in the reading and production side of it just because I’d done no creative writing before. When I started writing fiction, I didn’t think I’d publish a book because I’d seen it as a difficult thing to do, which it is. It was more of a fantasy, or something I hoped may happen one day, but I wasn’t betting on it. I worked on The Yellow House for such a long time, hoped it would get published, and when it did, and I won the Vogel Award, it was a validation. I thought maybe if I could write one book, then perhaps, I could write a second and maybe a third.

Helen: How has winning the Vogel Award changed things for you?

Emily: It was very validating. A lot of people outside of writing were surprised that I was going to write another book, but for me, it was a great stepping-stone and a starting point. The most valuable thing I gained from winning the Vogel was I saw it as confirmation that I was okay at writing, and I could potentially continue to do this with my life.

Helen: Do you write for yourself or an audience?

Emily: I don’t write for myself. If I did, I would just write in a journal, and I don’t journal. I do write with the anticipation of it being published, so I do write for an audience, but I also write for the work itself. I think it’s a balance between writing for publication and wanting your work to be published, but also, when you make decisions in a story you shouldn’t be thinking about the audience but rather, is this right for the narrative for this particular fictional world and these characters? The most important thing is to shape the story into being the best it can be and then think about the audience.

Helen: Did the subjects you took at university change your writing style?

Emily: I had quite a clear idea of my voice from early on in my creative writing journey, which I know doesn’t happen for everyone and is certainly something that can be discovered as you write. For me, the exposure to books and authors that I had not heard of and the strong reading list in Advanced Practice was so valuable and broadened my idea of what a novel could be.

Helen: I don’t want to ruin people’s dreams but has becoming a published writer made you financially rich?

Emily: No, that’s why I still teach. It is very rare for someone to survive off writing fiction and novels alone. You usually do have to have a secondary job, but for me, I see myself first and foremost as a writer. That is my career and I’m very happy with how my writing is going. Of course, I wish that I could earn enough for it to be my only job, but I feel that I’m doing pretty well.

Helen: How much time do you spend writing, and do you suffer from writer’s block?

Emily: I prefer to write in dedicated chunks of time. If I have a few weeks off I will write for the whole time, but I find it hard to go home after work and write. I like intensive periods of writing, but I don’t have a dedicated practice. I do encourage consistent writing, though, because without it you risk not writing anything. My process involves a lot of thinking and forming ideas in my head before I put the words down on paper. Regarding writer’s block, I do believe it is a thing, but it’s also an excuse. I don’t like feeling uncomfortable and writer’s block is very uncomfortable, so I try to push through it.

Helen: How many drafts do you do for your books?

Emily: So many. For The Yellow House, I threw away about 150,000 words and started again. For Feast I have done about 40 drafts and that was before I sent it to the publisher.

Helen: That is amazing. You are so disciplined.

Emily: When you are at that point, I wouldn’t say it is fun, but it is satisfying. It is like putting a puzzle together. It is hard work but very rewarding.

Helen: Were you commissioned to write Feast and what is the process?

Emily: Allen and Unwin published The Yellow House and there was a clause in that contract that gave them first right of refusal for my second book. When I had finished the manuscript of Feast, I sent it to my publisher who took it to their acquisitions meeting, and they accepted it and are now publishing that book.

Helen: Finally, do you have time to read, and if so, what are you reading at the moment?

Emily: I definitely make time to read. I am currently reading Shirley by Ronnie Scott. It is his second book. His first was called The Adversary and this one is about the daughter of an infamous food personality. It is good so far.

Helen Roche is an emerging writer of short stories, poetry, and novels, with a particular interest in themes surrounding the beauty and frailty of humanity.  She is passionate about travel and has had a wealth of life experience in her nearly 60 years travelling around the sun.  She is in her third year of studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at QUT and is very excited to be on the newsletter team of ScratchThat this semester.