Kirsty Eagar

Filmed and edited by David Todd

Duration: 12:33

Kirsty Eagar chats to PRC Officer Tamara Rodgers about her life as a surfer and why the ocean is so important to her, and how she researches when she’s preparing to write a new book. She also tells beginning writers why it’s important to channel your daydreaming and lying skills into your stories.

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Transcript – Kirsty Eagar

TAMARA RODGERS: Hi, I'm Tamara Rodgers from the Premier's Reading Challenge. We're backstage at the Sydney Writers' Festival secondary school's day today at Riverside at Parramatta. And we're joined by the fantastic Kirsty Eagar. Hi, Kirsty.

KIRSTY EAGAR: Hi, Tamara. Thank you for having me.

TAMARA RODGERS: Pleasure. Thank you for being here. How's the festival been for you so far?

KIRSTY EAGAR: It's been fantastic. Because, for me, I love writing books. But the thing I didn't realise about writing books is that the real pleasure is when you actually get to talk to readers and people who've read your books. And also, just talking to the students about their own writing as well has been really fun. Because they've taken a lot from the talk. And they've always got great questions. And it seems to have really inspired them. So to me, that's all positive.

TAMARA RODGERS: Awesome. Your Sidney Writers' Festival bio bills you as author, economist, surfer. Could you pick three more diverse kind of job roles?

KIRSTY EAGAR: To me, it's one of those weird things, where you look back at your life, and you think, oh, wow, how did I get here? It just shows that anything can happen in life.

And for me, I grew up in the country and went to uni, and did economics. But I sort of love the ocean. My parents were divorced, and school holidays were always spent at the beach. And I always felt a real sense of belonging there.

I had surfed or whatever. But I really got into surfing when I came to Sydney the first time. And I surfed a lot overseas. I'm obsessed by writing, but I'm also, in some weird ways, equally obsessed by surfing. I write for a surf magazine, and I surf every day. So it's just something that-- it's a real passion. Economics-- not quite as passionate about. But it was good while it lasted.

TAMARA RODGERS: Yeah. And so surfing features in your writing as well, huh?

KIRSTY EAGAR: Yeah, the first three books, definitely. It was never this story. But it's such a great setting for stories. The ocean is a character in its own right.

And the other thing is, too, you've always got a hierarchy in any surf break. There's a hierarchy of people, and there's a community. And in a weird way, it's like a small town. So it's just such a rich place to set a story.

But it's funny, with 'Summer Skin,' I thought deliberately, time to get out of the water. Let's go somewhere new. And I had this thing that I wanted to go back to university. So that was where I thought, you know, let's step away. I could always come back to the surfing and ocean and all that sort of stuff. But yeah, I thought, maybe it's time to try something different.

TAMARA RODGERS: Nice. So let's talk about 'Summer Skin.' Tell us about the process of writing this book. Because it's quite different to your other books. What was it that inspired you to write this, apart from, of course, your desire to get back to university?

KIRSTY EAGAR: I think I really wanted to look at relationships now. I was interested in the impact of our screen lives, like social media, on relationships. The fact that you now get to know someone often through their profile before you meet them face-to-face, so that sort of stuff.

The other thing I was interested in was that we have this wide access to sexual content. And a lot of it isn't real, and a lot of it's not like real life. It's not even respectful sometimes. So I wanted to look at that as well and how, in a day-to-day way, how that can impact on you.

But more than anything, I just had these two main characters, Jess and Mitch, in my mind. And as I started writing them, it was just magic. Because they had this fantastic chemistry, and they are so opposite to each other. So really, it was just hanging out with them and spending time with them.

And more than anything else, what surprised me is they made me laugh. And it was really nice to write something that's about quite serious themes, but it's really, really funny. And I think that's important. Because if you want people to talk about stuff sometimes, laughter is a great safety mechanism. It cushions the discussion and makes it fun.

TAMARA RODGERS: What kind of stuff did you read when you were a kid growing up in country town in Queensland?

KIRSTY EAGAR: It's so funny-- everything. I'm from a family of readers, which I think has been a lucky thing. And we're the sort of people that when we sit down at the dinner table, it's like, unless we've got a book, we can't possibly eat. You pad around just trying to find whatever it is you were reading last time you were at the table eating.

We had this big bookshelf in the hallway, and it was just full of a whole range of different stories, like fiction, nonfiction. So as a kid, I went to a really small country school with, I think, like, 36 kids or something. So we had a library, but it wasn't extensive.

I read my way through that. I read my way through this bookshelf at home. I loved 'The Silver Brumby' series. I loved the 'Narnia' stories by CS Lewis, 'Neverending Story,' and I particularly loved Tove Jansson's 'Moomintroll' stories. To this day, I read them all the time. I just think they're incredible. So that was the sort of thing.

And then, to be honest, I also read all the adult books in the bookshelf as well without mum knowing. So by age 11, I found the really raunchy, sexy stuff. It was interesting.

TAMARA RODGERS: So do you still read quite diverse stuff now?

KIRSTY EAGAR: Yeah, I read a lot. I'm primarily a fiction reader, I have to say. But I have branched into nonfiction a little bit more as I've gone along, particularly when I'm researching something. But yeah, I'm still fiction.

And I read a lot of young adult fiction. I think it's fantastic. In Australia, we're really lucky. We've got some great writers. Gab Williams, I think, in particular, she's a fantastic author. And there's another author called Belinda Jeffery, who is in Brisbane, who has got something coming soon. I love her work.

Yeah, so crime-- I just read anything really, a little literary fiction as well. Yes, big reader.

TAMARA RODGERS: Cool. So you touched on getting into nonfiction when you're researching. Can you tell us a bit about the process of researching a new book? At what point do go, this story is worth digging into? And what's the process behind starting to research how you're going to put that together?

KIRSTY EAGAR: For me, see, I have lots of ideas. But the book that I write is usually the very sticky idea. It's the one I keep returning to, and it's the one that seems to get its own momentum. So even when I'm working on something else, it'll be growing, and building, and adding to itself, almost like a growing organism in the back of my mind.

So then a really good book to use as an example of research was probably 'Saltwater Vampires,' which is my second novel. And the vampires in that novel come from the real-life shipwreck of the Batavia. So it was a lot of fun to research.

If you're not aware of that story, get on it. Because it's the best true-life story ever. It's just fascinating. So for me, that meant reading lots and lots of books about it and watching-- there was a doco about it-- and things like that.

With 'Summer Skin,' which is a bit different, the research for that was more thinking about, once again, relationships, how we relate to people. I read this fantastic book called 'An Intelligent Life,' by a man called Julian Short. And it really made me think about my characters in terms of belonging. Because they live in colleges, and the story is partly about how much your environment can impact you as a person.

Because Jess, the main character, has a really supportive college environment. Whereas Mitch has is at an all-male college. And some of the other student there, towards women particularly, are really questionable. And doing this research helped me have sympathy for him as a character, even though I didn't agree with his attitude. I can see why he might be like that, and it was about fitting in for him.

TAMARA RODGERS: So for the kids at home watching this or probably at school-- I don't think they're tuning in from home, but their English teachers and librarians are probably showing them this at school-- who are probably not natural writers, but they have to write stuff for school, do you have some advice for kids who struggle with that process?

KIRSTY EAGAR: I do. And I have to say, when I do workshops, reluctant writers are my favourite people because it's simple. If you daydream and, or if you like to tell lies occasionally, you've got all the tools you need. You don't need anything more than that. That's your starting point. That's all you need.

Everything you do to tell a good lie, so using details, partly believing it yourself, using a little bit of real life. Writers are liars. I make this stuff up. I say, think of it that way. So think of it as a game. It's fun. You're trying to sell this to the reader and make them believe your lie, so have fun with it is the first thing.

And the other thing I always recommend is it's a funny thing, but I find, with students, they think big. You guys think so big in terms of story. So you come up with a character, but you come up with the world. And you've got this massive, big amazing plot in your mind. Your problem is at school, you're asked to distill it into, like, 1,000 words, and that's hard.

So think of it this way. Take a moment in your character's story and work on the moment. And a really easy way of doing it is just think, what mood is your character in at the beginning of the scene? What changes their mood and why?

And you can use emotion as a really good way to bring that character to life. So if they're angry, there's lots of easy ways to show that a character is angry without having to tell your reader that they're angry. So you can have lots of fun with it that way.

So choose the moment, because you guys have got amazing brains, and you always think big. Pick a moment and just work on the moment, and that's enough. That's really rich.

TAMARA RODGERS: Amazing. So being a good liar.

KIRSTY EAGAR: Yeah, enjoy. I'm always late. I always need a very convincing reason as to why I'm late. And most of the times, I'm lying.

TAMARA RODGERS: Excellent. That's good to know. So can you tell us a little bit about your writing day? Because you're a mother, you're living near the beach, so surfing's taking up some time. What does a typical writing day look like for you?

KIRSTY EAGAR: Where I'm really committed-- because I struggle with self-doubt a lot-- so when I've bought-in, and I've thought, you know what? You really have to get it done now. It's time to stop mucking around. I get up really early. That's the first thing.

So I'd be up by five o'clock. And I try and get a good two hours done before my kids wake up. And the other thing I do is no internet. As tempting as it is, leave your phone out of the room. And it's incredible that such a small thing makes such a difference to just having your mind in the story, instead of having it distracted.

Then I usually have a little break, kids off to school, et cetera. Then I'll do a little bit more work, so maybe another three or four hours. And then I'll try and fit in a surf, and then my kids are home from school. And the only thing that sort of disrupts that routine normally is I also do a lot of school visits and workshops. So I might have a day where I'm off to school to do that, but I love doing that, so it's a pleasure.

TAMARA RODGERS: Nice. Do you have a space that's just your writing space?

KIRSTY EAGAR: Yeah. I never used to. I used to just have a desk wherever in the house, especially with young kids. But it was hard.

Now, I've got my own little room, and I like having that space. It's been good for me to have that away from the maelstrom in the rest of the house.

TAMARA RODGERS: Is there anything that you're working on currently that you can tell us about? Are there any ideas that have just stuck there that--

KIRSTY EAGAR: I'm really close to finishing something, so that's exciting. I don't want to tell the title or anything yet, because it doesn't really matter. Once again, for me, every book I do seems to be quite different.

This one, if anything, has echoes of almost like a crime novel. It's young adult again. But it's definitely a crime-type situation. It centres around a disappearance and how that impacts on everybody, including the people who have disappeared. So, yeah, and the Australian bush is once again, not so much surfing this time, very much the bush landscape this time.

TAMARA RODGERS: Nice. It sounds interesting. OK, well, so great to have a chance to catch up with you today. Thank you so much for coming backstage and sharing your ideas and your writing and readings. It's been great to chat with you.

KIRSTY EAGAR: Thank you, Tamara. I've loved it. Thank you. Thanks for having me, guys.

TAMARA RODGERS: Thanks, everyone. Bye.

End of transcript