Meet Tracy Crisp, the accidental writer
"Long after I finished my first book I was still grappling with self-doubts; is this meant to be, am I a good writer? I knew I could string words together, but wasn't sure if I had the technical finesse to write a good, memorable book," says Tracy Crisp, writer and Funeral Celebrant. It is this brand of fierce honesty that has become the trademark of Tracy's writing. Her books are not only known for its rich prose, and emotional maturity but also for its ability to grip the readers with its stark frankness. Given these attributes her novels, Black Dust Dancing and Surrogate, have quickly climbed the popularity charts, and her powerful and moving solo performance at this year's Adelaide Fringe, Pearls, won her rave reviews. And, when the Adelaidean is not penning bestsellers, she is a Funeral Celebrant, helping families share poignant stories of their loved ones.
In a conversation with TAL, Tracy opens up about the challenges of being a writer, the inspirations behind her works, and her life as a Funeral Celebrant.
When did you decide to become a writer and how has the journey been?
I don't think it was a conscious decision; it just came to be. My first work was a children's story published with the help of Tessa Duder, an excellent writer from New Zealand. Though the publication of the novel made me realise that I could be a writer, there was a long phase soon after when I was just not inspired enough to pen anything.
Self-doubts started creeping in and I thought maybe being a writer was not to be. I've had a lot of interesting discussions with friends about that. And, then slowly things just fell into place.
Considering that you stumbled into the world of writing, what kind of challenges did you have to overcome?
It's been quite long since my first and second books were published, and there are a lot of reasons for that. I feel that even though I was quite adept at putting the right words one after the other, there were a few writing technicalities and nuances that I hadn't figure out yet. For example, while writing the first novel I had problems with plotting and creating a narrative arc - it took me a long time and many false starts to get better.
Creatively and emotionally too I was dealing with a lot of personal issues during this time. Also, my boys were young, and I was exhausted by all the running around I had to do! I think there's this romantic notion that tough times are often the fuel for creativity, but that wasn't my experience. In retrospect, those times did provide a lot of raw material I suppose, but I do prefer the calmer life I am living now instead.
Please tell us about your first novel. What was the thought process behind it?
Many aspects of my first novel are derived from my childhood and teenage years. To be honest, I didn't struggle to write that because I didn't know what I was doing; so I wasn't trying to correct any of its flaws. I saved all that struggle for the second book. I remember entering the incomplete work for a Lietrature awards in the unfinished manuscript section. I didn't win, but Wakefield Press still published the book.
And then you released Surrogate your highly loved second novel. Please tell us how did you come with the idea, and what was the reception like for the book?
The novel follows the story of a young woman who is asked to be a surrogate mother. The decision forces the protagonist's mother to revisit her foray into motherhood in the 1960s when she had to relinquish a child. It was launched last November, and I had a great time promoting it.
The reception has been great! I love that so many readers told me that they finished the story overnight or over a weekend. That’s exactly what I wanted to achieve through my book! For the last few years, life’s been busy, and as a result, my reading suffered.
So I started opting for books that could be read over a short span, and that's when the idea of writing a similar kind of book struck me.
The other thing that people loved about the book was its climax; which, they claim, surprised them. I didn't set out to make the book a mystery, but I didn't want to write a cliched and cheesy novel either. They are easier to write but hardly satisfying.
Do you think, writers today have to work harder than before to create stories that would capture the interest of an audience who - driven by social media - prefers immediate consumption of news and stories?
Storytelling is one of the most fundamental of all human experiences! Even if the way stories are told changes, storytelling is always going to exist. I work as a Funeral Celebrant, and my work stems from the belief that people's lives are treasure troves of rich and compelling stories, and no matter which era we live in, that’s not going change.
Some of my stories are fiction, but others, like my Adelaide Fringe show, Pearls, are memoirs, derived from the stories of my life and the lives of people around me. I tell my stories through books and novels and may reach some people but not others. Similarly, there are others who tell their stories through Twitter, podcasts, etc. I think it's lovely that there are so many different ways to share stories.
What do you think of the storytelling landscape in South Australia? Can we do more to create stories that are indigenous to the land and its culture?
I think we have fabulous storytellers and stories coming from South Australia, with a number of them specialising in children’s and young adult literature. Many of them supported me wholeheartedly when I was starting out. And, I think we all are incredibly supportive of each other’s works.
When Eva Hornung won the Premier's Award for Literature this year, all South Australian writers were thrilled because she has such a fantastic body of work. Kerryn Goldsworthy has written many evocative pieces about SA, and I always give a copy of her book, Adelaide, to my interstate and overseas guests. I am a big fan of Stephen Orr's work and his representations of SA always gets me thinking. And, when talking about publishing in SA, it is essential to mention Wakefield Press – my publishers – who are such a vital part of our state's storytelling landscape.
Can something more be done? For one, I would love to see a purchasing scheme similar to that in Norway where the government's arts body purchases different books published by a Norwegian author and distribute them to libraries. These books have to pass a specific test for quality, but authors often cite it as the cornerstone of their literary culture.
You are also a renowned funeral celebrant. Please tell us about that journey? And, what prompted your interest in such an unconventional career option?
Being a Funeral Celebrant is probably the most enriching and rewarding thing I have ever done. Both my parents died young, and I have spent years trying to make sense of a world that doesn't have them in it.
I guess their passing is the most obvious reason I became a celebrant, but it goes much deeper than that too. As I mentioned earlier, the way people lived their lives make for strong and compelling stories. And - as cliched as it sounds - being a celebrant gives me the honour to help a family share these beautiful stories with the larger society.
Who has been your role model and why?
Had I been asked this question some years ago, I probably wouldn't have said this – but my role model is my mother. With every passing year, I see a reflection of my mother in every major decision I make. It just happened, I guess!
What advice would you give to up and coming writers?
Neil Gaiman famously said, “Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” I wouldn't presume to have any advice of my own to give, but Gaiman’s advice was a life changer. I started following it fervently a few years ago, and it has had a profound impact on my writing - both on its quality and quantity. So if you are an up and coming writer, remember to finish your work!
Please tell us something about your future projects.
I'm working on a sequel to Pearls called The Forgettory. In this novel, I use my relationship with my grandparents to explore themes of forgetting and remembering to unravel the importance and to understand the significance of the two.
I'd like to have it ready to stage at next year's Adelaide Fringe, but I'm at that precarious stage of writing where it might all come together beautifully or fall apart completely. I won't know until I am there.
I'm also working on a new novel, Blackout which is set in Adelaide airport on the night of the statewide blackout. I am trying something new and writing a longer story that tells the secrets of a South Australian family from several reliable and unreliable viewpoints. I am having a lot of fun writing it and if all goes according to plan – I will be able to submit it by the end of the year.
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Log on to her website for more details about her upcoming books and show.