in which Carolyn describes her publishing experiences with FACP and
gives a sneak preview into her upcoming book...
Historian and Autobiographer
A conversation between Carolyn Polizzotto and Phillip Winn, Perth, 1 December 1997
in which Carolyn describes her publishing experiences with FACP and gives a sneak preview into her upcoming book...
|Surrounded by all the books and paraphernalia of an active writer, Carolyn Polizzotto looks consummately at ease in her home office. A warm, exuberant and lively conversationalist, she is a pleasure to interview. Having already published two history-based works with FACP, her upcoming Pomegranate Season represents a move into the realm of autobiography. Her story illustrates FACP's commitment to developing on-going relationships with local authors, and hints at a very healthy symbiosis.|
Your association with FACP dates back to the eighties. Can you tell me how it all began?
Well, I published two books in 1988: The Factory Floor - an oral and visual history of factories in W.A. and their workers; I also did a biography of Elise Blumann, a German-born painter working in W.A. At that time FACP published exclusively Western Australian work and they were the people to go to. It also has to be said that I was very much an emerging author - with the emphasis on not quite yet having emerged - "soon to be famous" was the way my son described it - with the emphasis on the "soon".
So would you say that FACP helped shape your career as a writer?
I was an academic who was beginning to branch out and get away from the hallowed halls and they were just wonderful to me in terms of my ringing up and saying I had an idea for a book. That was the Elise Blumann one: "Wonderful, wonderful come and talk to us!", they said. So I had a long association with them. I started talking of Elise in 1982 - the book came out six years later. During that whole time I was in contact with the Press - shaping it and so forth. They really took me from being an academic and an historian to being someone who could claim, modestly, to be a writer. So it's very precious to me. A lot of care went into looking after me.
At what stage of the writing process did FACP become involved with your project?
Right at the start because the Elise book was just an idea and similarly the factory book. Approaching Elise has an unusual structure - once I got the structure, I knew the book would follow - but I would take down a couple of pages of structure and say: "Look, this is what I'm thinking of doing" and they'd say: "Wonderful, wonderful!" - which was terribly sweet of them. What they needed was a manuscript. It's a little bit like thesis supervision: "The structure is fantastic, perhaps if you could give us a chapter?" But I had no sense of that. I do now.
Yes, it's always easier to discuss a draft when there's a certain amount written. So how did things progress after that?
Say with Approaching Elise it would go: "Structure, yes wonderful, so look forward to seeing something written"! Then I went away and the book came very fast. Then they would actually see a bound, typed manuscript, probably two years after the "structure" conversation and six years after the initial "I've got an idea" conversation. I didn't start showing them bits. They saw a complete manuscript, which they then had to formally accept, etc. - and which would have gone nowhere, had they not been happy. It's not that they were just rubber stamping it.
Obviously once FACP had seen your manuscript, you would have received some editorial feedback. Did you find those comments useful or helpful?
Yes. I had a fairly academic style in the sense that I would comment on structure ("now we will look at..." - crudely speaking); I would advertise to the reader what I was doing. And that isn't necessary in those works. So that sort of thing was a blinding flash of vision to me - I didn't know. In that sense, writing for a non-academic, or not specifically academic market, they helped. With the Elise book the first section is my own and then there are two Elise sections. They were very good at just sharpening up the section they weren't happy with; then I went away and re-did it. It was then OK. They tend not to nitpick. Ray Coffey and Wendy Jenkins don't have their equal in Australia. We're very lucky they have stayed with FACP - they're phenomenal editors.
Did you feel at any stage that you were asked to make too many changes to your work?
Both manuscripts were accepted more or less as is. I was invited to make changes if I wanted to. It was up to me whether I did or not and acceptance was never presented as being conditional on the changes - it was up to me.
Did FACP provide you with any financial support along the way?
They were supportive with respect to grant applications. I was trying to get funding to assist with the translation of her diaries from German, so I could rely upon the Press for a letter of support. And I also got a writers' grant from the Australia Council - under a new-writers category which they had that year. Otherwise I wouldn't have had a hope. I think that was 1985. Once again they offered that sort of nurturing as well. They'll do whatever is needed to support the project.
Did you consider other publishers?
No, both were local W.A. projects, it wouldn't really have been appropriate. Where would I have gone? I could have chosen a University Press. But I knew I could do academic work, and I wanted to do something different.
Do you feel you have achieved this break with academia with your latest work?
The new book is scheduled for release in April. It's a different work - it's a more meditative work - it's called Pomegranate Season. I was under contractual obligation with FACP - they had right of first refusal - but this is a case where, because it's a very personal work, and because that sort of confessional edge is very hard to do - without simply being sensationalist schlock - had they refused it, I would not have submitted it elsewhere. I trusted their judgement. And, in fact, they accepted it. The editing process has been more complicated than it was for the other two books. Because this is more of a literary work, and possibly more abstract, it needed to be edited in more of a fictional way - and I'm not a fiction writer - and so in terms of highlighting certain things or registering with the reader that something is happening now - it needed just that touch. I mean, I thought I'd passed the writer's course, but not quite. I had Wendy say to me "I've read this three times now and I did not get that bit of underlying meaning that you thought was so blatantly obvious". It's been a much more elaborate process. I edited it a lot before the manuscript went down to them and since then it's gone through three edits. They would say absolutely minor touches, but to me of course they appear massive! You feel every comma.
So there's been a greater deal of emotional involvement with this book?
Yes, much more. It's a more autobiographical work.
Would you like to say more about Pomegranate Season ?
I'm so close to it, it's really hard. The Press would be able to give you a sentence or two that would be more succinct... I could go on for days. It's a sort of meditation. It's set in the house and garden with the pets and the family members around, but nevertheless there's a sort of philosophical progression - progression is probably too strong a word - going on through the course of the year.
Do you feel that you're moving towards a style of your own with this latest book?
Of the works that I've done - there's a bit of Approaching Elise I liked, that I thought I'd done well with - a sentence actually - with this it does sing to me and I'm very attached to it. It's on relationships, whatever I say it just sounds worse and worse. Ask FACP, they'll say something wonderful.
Pomegranate Season is an interesting title, how did it come about?
It's working title was A Book of Days as I was playing on that notion, but even I was already worried that, now the bookshops are stocking that sort of day book, it would get into the wrong section quite easily. One does get cynical as the years go by. There's also an American detective story just out called A Booke of Days which is a medieval mystery à la Umberto Eco - so that really did for the title. From the editors' point of view they wanted something crisper. So we began tossing ideas back and forth. Because it's about the garden there was the idea of a walled garden. There were various suggestions made. Each of us really waiting for The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Sister Ships to suddenly crystallise - but this didn't happen. I was toying with the idea of pomegranates because we've got a number of pomegranate trees. The Persephone myth, though not explicit in the book, is certainly under the surface for me. I was thinking of Pomegranate Days. Meanwhile, I had told them they could choose a title, but then every time they would suggest something I would say no. Then one weekend, I knew we had to get on with it because it was getting to the point, with the publication only a few months away, where you need to have a title that everyone working on it thinks of in connection with the book. Pomegranate was already there, so then it became Pomegranate Season. I refer to Margaret Mead's Blackberry Winter in the book and after I had thought of Pomegranate Season I kept hearing this echo and I couldn't remember what and then I realised it was Blackberry Winter, but never mind. So at that point I wrote to Ray Coffey, you know - road to Damascus experience - this is what I would like unless there's any strong objection. Now, if they had objected, I would have given ground to whatever they had wanted, but they were happy enough for that to go forward as the title. I think we'd all reached a point where we had to agree on something.
So choosing a title is not as easy as it may seem. Was it as difficult for your other books?
Approaching Elise they thought of... The Factory Floor, I'm not sure who thought of that, probably together. It gets to the point where you don't know who's done what.
A History of Joyce Australia. Fremantle: Joyce Corporation, 1986.
A Fair Sized Town: Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and its history. Nedlands: Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital/U.W.A., 1988.
The Factory Floor: a visual and oral record 1900-1960. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1988.
Approaching Elise. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1988.