Live from Sydney Writers' Festival, part two: tips for aspiring literary couples

Today I attended the session ‘Au Pairs’ featuring writer-couples James Bradley and Mardi McConnochie, and Louis Nowra and Mandy Sayer. Bradley and McConnochie have been together for 20 years; Nowra and Sayer for eleven. Although the questions were not those you’d ask a lawyer-couple, as Bradley pointed out, people are often curious as to how a relationship works between a couple of writers.

I was interested in attending this session partly because my partner and I both write. So far, that’s worked out great. Just last week he told me exactly why a short story I wrote wasn’t working – the resolution was due to a character’s passivity. As soon as I made the character active, the story came to life. But we don’t always read each other’s stories, or reviews. And often I won’t show him something until I at least know I’m on track. One reason I think it works for us is that our styles, and the way we write, are so different. And we enjoy each other’s style. We also write, for the most part, on different subjects – with some crossing over. I was curious to learn about how these successful literary couples made it work, and made it work in the long run.

Instead of recounting the session blow-for-blow, I thought I’d structure this as a series of useful points for aspiring or emerging literary couples, like G and I:

* ‘You can’t maintain a serious relationship with someone whose work you don’t like’, said McConnochie. They all agreed on this.

* Freedom of expression must be respected. A factor in the break-up of Sayer’s last marriage was the fact her husband didn’t want her to publish certain details in her memoir.

* Dogs can be conducive to writing, and can aid in gathering material for stories at the local pub. (Nowra walks Sayer’s dog each afternoon.)

* Children, especially young children, mean that your time (and space) for writing is limited. ‘You need to be calm to write’, said Bradley, and among the chaos of the children’s schedules it becomes harder to find that calm headspace. However, children can be good for writing, and for inspiring a certain kind of headspace: ‘You become much more focused about what you’re doing’, Bradley said. Having children also takes away a lot of the anxiety about writing, it quietens the ‘corrosive ambition’, Bradley said, which is ultimately a healthy thing.

* You can write a novel in four years by writing one day a week. This is what McConnochie did with The Voyagers. She also works part-time, three days a week as a corporate writer. Bradley does book reviews and other freelance jobs, besides writing novels. As a couple, then, they do make their living as writers. (Nice to know that it can be possible.)

* You might want to think about whether you’d work better living together or apart. Nowra and Sayer live apart, but very close to each other. Their lives are intertwined, but they have their own space, and their own schedules. Nowra doesn’t sleep well, and gets up very early, goes for an inspiring walk (past the colourful debris left from the night – junkies and such), puts on his suit (yes) and sits down to work. Prose in the morning, and the screenplays (less effort) and meetings with producers in the afternoon. Sayer, on the other hand, rises late, sets to work in her pyjamas – on her prose and columns – then deals with ‘admin’ after that. Nowra comes to pick up the dog, and they’ll be together in the evening.

* It can work, between two writers, because you understand when the other is ‘working’ and respect their silence – whether their eyes glaze over with an idea at the dinner table, or they need to be alone for a few more hours to polish that paragraph. Sayer and Nowra really cherish their alone-time, but McConnochie and Bradley often let the domestic ‘come in’. McConnochie said they’re not very good at ‘maintaining boundaries’, but that’s okay, and works for them. The point here is that you’d have to be on a level plane with your partner, about how each of you works. There would have to be understanding and acceptance there.

* You must accept each other’s wishes, in terms of reading unfinished work. McConnochie never shows unfinished work to Bradley. From her playwriting days she found that early input can be misleading, for the work. Bradley said she also seems to have a kind of confidence in herself and her work that he sometimes lacks. He will sometimes show her things if there’s an issue he finds difficult to solve. She might provide some perspective. Nowra and Sayer do read each other’s work, but try not to effect each other too much, as their styles are completely different, and it can be obvious to the reader – glaring – when something of the other’s sneaks in. Nowra likes Sayer to read his work, too, because she’s a very astute reader, not just a great writer.

* A lot of male writers marry their stalker-fans, said Sayer (going by some of their friends). Just a tip for those aspiring to be in a literary couple.

* You must and of course you should be supportive of the other’s success. But I’m sure this is true of any successful couple, not just a literary couple. And of course, you must also ‘put up’ with them, during difficult periods. When depressing research is dragging them down, when they get bad reviews, etc. Support, encouragement – these are no-brainers, really.

* Finally, the two couples were in tune re keeping notebooks. Nowra and Sayer did keep them, McConnochie and Bradley didn’t. Something there? Perhaps it shows, in some subtle way, that you have to look at the world in a similar way.

2 thoughts on “Live from Sydney Writers' Festival, part two: tips for aspiring literary couples

  1. Interesting material Angela. It brought to mind that shocking scene in “Henry & June”, where Anais Nin shows her writing to Henry Miller and he immediately starts editing it without a second thought.

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