Interview conducted by Lana McIvor
I had the great pleasure and honour of interviewing our 2022 Headliner Elise Valmorbida ahead of this years festival. Elise is a wonderful author, creator, educator, and, as I found out, a fantastic interviewee. As a rounded and varied individual, I was eager to hear about her recent publications and the journey she faced to get where she is now.
- SNWF 2022 is all about Deconstructing the Self – looking into identity. You’re an Italian Australian living in London, an award-winning writer, designer, film producer and teacher. Your identity is varied and exciting! How does your self inspire your creative ideas or influence your work?
Perhaps we are all hybrids, but I marvel at those people who knew at the age of three that they would grow up to be xyz, and then proceeded to become xyz. What must it be like to have such certainty? I really don’t know. And there are those artists who plough the same furrow forever—don’t they yearn to wander? My one constant is probably the compulsion to make. I haven’t seen it as a constant because, even within creative writing, I’ve ended up wearing different hats: working in multiple genres and forms, as well as script consultancy and teaching. For me, creativity is predicated on curiosity, exploration and wonder.
- Tell me about your most recent publication The Happy Writing Book – a very useful read for those attending the festival!
The Happy Writing Book is a practical-philosophical guide to creative writing and wellbeing. It offers 100+ prompts, insights and exercises to help you become a better writer, while considering how the practice of creative writing — being expressive, exploring ideas, crafting words, shaping stories — can also deepen your appreciation of life.
Having taught creative writing for decades, I’ve noticed several recurring issues: pesky problems, classic hopes, common fears and dreams. I’ve also noticed how those of us who stick at the practice find new kinds of happiness in our lives. It may be the euphoria of an inspirational moment, the gratification of being published or winning praise. But it’s the lasting kind of happiness that most interests me. It is slow to build. It happens piece by tiny piece, like a mosaic. It emerges from ways of seeing, and ways of doing. With time, creative writing can enhance wellbeing, which can enhance creative writing, which can enhance wellbeing…
- Where did you come up with your prompts and exercises for The Happy Writing Book? Had you used them as a teacher?
You won’t be surprised to know that the prompts and exercises in The Happy Writing Book come from more than one source of inspiration. Mostly they’re assignments I’ve devised for my creative writing students because I have had to struggle with specific technical challenges in my own writing practice, and I’ve found a way through. Sometimes students ask me for an exercise that will help them resolve a practical issue such as procrastination, or a craft-based issue such as dialogue. In a few instances, I adapt (and acknowledge) creative writing exercises of writer-teachers I admire. Often I use techniques I’ve learned from tai chi, visual art, film-making, mindfulness, psychology and practical philosophies such as stoicism and existentialism. All the exercises in the book have been tried and tested!
- I read that you had been working on The Happy Writing Book since 2006. What was this 15-year process like leading up to publication and do you have any advice for those losing motivation?
Whenever I finish writing a novel, I think I will never write another one. This is not a joke. I go into a kind of mourning and really cannot imagine another book happening. It takes me quite a while before the tiniest inkling of a new idea occurs, which may or may not become something more than a notebook scribble.
In those bereft times ‘between books’, I have had this creative writing guide under way. I’d add to it, do research, write chapters, jot down ideas and inspirations. It was all a bit random, which was fun, and kept me thinking. Now that the thing is distilled and published, I don’t know what I’ll do between books. I’m nearing the end of my new work-in-progress (fiction, first draft) and am a little afraid of the unknown beyond. As ever, I know I’ll want to write, but I won’t know what. So motivation isn’t the issue for me. It’s insecurity.
But I do understand why and how motivation can be a struggle. That’s a recurring issue for creatives, and it’s partly what prompted me to write The Happy Writing Book. There are ways to navigate the highs and lows, to deal with ‘failure’ and rejection, to make time and space, to overcome fears, blocks and unhelpful habits.
- What is the first thing you do once your book is finally finished and ready for publishing?
Celebrate. But then I find out that it’s not actually really properly truly finally finished, so I have to knuckle down again. And then I celebrate. But then it needs work. And so on, until it’s actually published, and then I celebrate.
- You also have big involvement in Threads of Time, a collaborative book celebrating 25 years of Fine Cell Work which has just been published. What was it like working as both an editor and contributor to this piece? Did it differ from your usual writing routine?
The book editing role reminded me a little of being a producer on an indie film, because it meant working with many different people from the start (extraordinary prisoner-rehabilitation charity Fine Cell Work, dozens of writers, interviewees, partners, artists), dealing with design and print, publicity, fundraising and legal matters, while also keeping a critical distance and overview of the entire project. Thankfully I was in a team of four editors and we worked really well together.
Chapter editing required a different kind of brain: awareness of the subject’s potential, close textual analysis, and offering ideas to help the chapter writers bring their stories up to the next level.
When it came to writing my own chapter, I found my uncertain way into the subject via intensive research, hoping/trusting that ideas would emerge. I tested out drafts with my writing group. And then I embraced the process of having my work edited.
- How does teaching and mentoring others affect you as a writer?
I say to my students: if you offer each other feedback, you’ll sharpen your own writing practice. In formulating your thoughtful response to a text, you recognise what your views and values are. You make discoveries. If your criticism is constructive, you’ll be helping to solve creative problems for another writer and indirectly for yourself too. It’s necessary for their craft, and for yours. I guess this is what happens all the time for me as I’m teaching.
I love teaching and believe that in order to be a good teacher I must be a good student. I constantly learn from my students, and I delight in responding to the challenges they give me.
- Which of your books was the hardest to write and why?
The first because it was the first, and I had a more-than-full-time day-job. The second, because it was ‘the famous second novel’ but I didn’t know about ‘famous second novels’ then. And I had a more-than-full-time day-job. The third and fourth and fifth novels because—I may as well just say ALL OF THEM.
- What is the best piece of advice you think authors or creatives out there need to hear?
If you want to be a writer, write.
If you want to be a…
- What has been your proudest moment and how did that impact your identity as a writer?
When Faber & Faber offered to publish The Madonna of the Mountains, I almost didn’t believe it. I couldn’t have wished for a better publisher. So I guess it wasn’t pride so much as amazement. There are many glowing moments… The final edit, when I know I’ve worked my socks off and done the best I could—whatever happens next. Meeting my agent Clare Alexander and saying yes to each other. My mother’s face when The Madonna of the Mountains won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction… Such experiences bring a kind of reassurance, but until recently I’ve been very tentative about calling myself a writer.
To learn more about Elise’s role in the 2022 Festival, and to view her work, head to her section of SNWF’s Meet Our Guests.
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About the author
Lana McIvor is currently reading English Literature with Creative Writing at the University of Surrey and holds a special interest in romance and drama novels and writing comedic stage-plays. This is her first year with the festival as she takes the position of head writer. When not writing, Lana can be found playing with new recipes in her kitchen.