Felicity Castagna in conversation with Julia Maurus.
JM: In May this year , you launched your free e-book, So You Want to Be A Writer?, which is targeted at writers from western Sydney. Why is it that western Sydney writers are clearly underrepresented in Australia?
FC: One in eleven people in Australia lives in western Sydney. There is certainly no lack of talent or engaging stories in this community and there are many people working hard at their writing. Yet when you have a look at who is being published and receiving fellowship or mentorship programs or being highlighted at writers’ festivals very few of them are from western Sydney. There are many complex reasons for this but one prominent one is less knowledge about how to write things like fellowship applications and cover letters to editors of magazines because, unlike in the inner city, there is a lack of exposure to people who know how to do these things.
You’re a member of SWEATSHOP: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. What is its purpose?
SWEATSHOP is a new organisation devoted to achieving equality for western Sydney communities through literacy and critical thinking. Directed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and housed at the University of Western Sydney, Writing and Society Research Centre, SWEATSHOP is a collective of western Sydney artists who run various literacy, writing and arts-based projects. You can contact SWEATSHOP through its Facebook page or by emailing <email@example.com>.
You are clearly a versatile writer, having had your work produced by leading radio stations and newspapers and having published a book of short stories (Small Indiscretions: Stories of Travel in Asia, Transit Lounge) in 2011. How did you come to write So You Want to Be A Writer?
So You Want to Be a Writer? is not a creative work like everything else I’ve produced but it comes very much from my own experience of trying to get my work published and trying to find the best avenues for support as a writer. I’ve always worked as a teacher, community arts worker and editor, primarily in the western suburbs of Sydney. I found that I was being asked to speak or give advice about the same things all the time (where to publish, how to submit your work to editors and how to apply for residencies and fellowships) and it just kind of seemed like the next logical step to write it all down and give it out to people.
A key message in the book is that if you want to be a writer, there are other places you can and should start other than aiming to write and publish an entire book. I’d like to update the book every couple of years and get some more emerging writers to contribute chapters on their own experiences.
You’re currently a Doctoral Candidate with the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney, focusing on your primary research interest: the ways that people write about place and space. Do you think that travel is valuable to a writer’s development? And do you think that trying to find a place in the world is what motivates a lot of people to write?
Getting out of your own comfort zone is really important for writers and travel can do that if you allow it to. Travel can often allow you to see the places where you live much more clearly. I spent most of my childhood growing up overseas and I think that this has allowed me to observe much more clearly the specific character traits that make a landscape and people particularly Australian. I think there’s also a lot of value in writers writing about their own local communities. A lot of the best writing I’m seeing at the moment focuses on these local landscapes. In a highly globalised world where people move around and travel a lot, it’s often those small local places that aren’t being written about and are ultimately the most interesting.
Is western Sydney religiously diverse?
I would say that the west is a deeply spiritual place. People tend to be more involved with their religious cultures than their city counterparts and I have a lot of respect for that. I don’t think that people outside the west realise just how many religious groups are represented here. Within walking distance of my place there is a synagogue, a Baptist church, a Mormon temple, a Catholic Church, a meeting hall for The Exclusive Brethren, a Murugan Temple, a mosque and a Greek Orthodox Church. Actually, I’m sure there are other houses of worship in my neighbourhood that I’m not even aware of!
Did you always want to be a writer?
I’ve always written and I always will, I’m not sure that it’s as much of a want thing as a habit I’ve never really gotten out of.
How did you start your career and what were the turning points or stepping stones?
The word ‘career’ doesn’t apply very well to creative fields, but I would say that my career started with opening myself up to being rejected a lot. I think in the first few years of sending out submissions to magazines and radio, submitting to competitions and fellowships, I probably sent out two or three submissions a month and was rejected about 99% of the time. I still get rejected all the time but not as much as in those early years. Developing a tough skin is the first thing in any writer’s career. Another really important milestone was getting the Qantas Spirit of Youth Award for writing in 2004. The support and mentorship I received through this award was amazing but more than that I think it was the first time I really came out of the closet as a writer and admitted to myself and others that this is what I really wanted to do.
The publication of my books were obviously huge, exciting turning points in my career. My second book (The Incredible Here and Now, Giramondo, September 2013) is the first young adult novel for Giramondo and for me, as well as being the first work of fiction to be set in Parramatta. It’s risky because it’s not like other young adult works currently on the market — it’s Australia’s first young adult novel in the vignette form — but I really think there’s room for something different.
What are the most important lessons you have learnt as a writer?
Working closely with great editors on my books, I’ve learnt to recognise many of my habits as a writer. That’s the best thing that an editor can do for you: point out that you always use a particular sentence structure or the passive voice or that you over-use a particular word. In many ways they are pointing out things that should be completely obvious to you but when it’s your own work, it’s hard to recognise those things. What’s more, reading reviews and criticism of my books has helped me to articulate what I was trying to achieve as a writer and to identify weaknesses in my writing.
Also, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something that I heard Shaun Tan say in an interview once, which was that the point of writing is to offer your reader a really beautifully formed question. I think that’s a wonderful lesson to learn about writing. As a younger writer I think I wanted to ram a lot of messages down my reader’s throat; I wanted to tell my readers what the answers were. Now, I concentrate on giving them a question about the world they live in and I think allowing them to have the space to find their own answers is ultimately more fulfilling for them as readers. It’s a much harder thing to do as a writer but I also think that it is ultimately more fulfilling for me as well.
So You Want to Be A Writer? is available as a free download at http://issuu.com/fhcastagna/docs/want_to_be_writer_book_final.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Felicity Castagna’ in The Australian Writer issue 382 (December 2013 –February 2014).