As part of my ongoing guest post series in this blog, we recently heard from Omar Musa, a renowned Australian poet and author, long listed last week for the International Dublin Literary Award. Today, it is my pleasure to welcome award-winning author, and contributor to the Cooked Up anthology, Pippa Goldschmidt. She would be answering questions on writing, editing, her career and her work in publishing. She has given very useful, practical advice, some of which I’ve highlighted for you in blue.
If you have questions for her, please drop them in the comments.
I’m interested in showing what it feels like to be an astronomer – it’s a very odd job to observe unimaginably distant objects such as stars and galaxies. To some extent, observing them night after night makes them feel a bit ‘ordinary’, because you start to recognise them in the same way you’d recognise human faces. Working at a remote observatory is also an odd experience, these places are in the middle of nowhere, on tops of mountains. Being there is so different to normal life.
2. What are your preoccupations as a writer? Do you have an ideal reader in mind as you write?
My ideal writer is me! I write stories I want to read. I don’t picture anyone else when I’m writing the first draft, but when I’m editing, I try and consider what other people might think. At that stage I’m writing for people who may be interested in science but who don’t necessarily know anything about it. And there must be an emotional pull to the story too, it can’t just be a load of scientific information. The story always comes first.
3. You wrote a collection of short fiction after you finished your novel. How did the experience of short story writing compare to that of writing the novel? Do you prefer the writing process of novels or short stories?
I spent several years on and off writing my first novel (although I wrote a few stories during that time). So, after the novel was published I was keen to write stories with very varied voices, and I wanted to explore some very different themes.
I really enjoy writing both novels and short stories. I think I mentally switch from one to the other, right now after the book of short stories I’m back in ‘novel’ mode. I can only concentrate on my embryonic novel-in-progress, I don’t have the mental capacity to work on stories too.
A short story is not just a chapter of a novel, it’s a very different art form. I enjoy the challenges of writing short stories, they can be ‘perfect’ in a way that novels never are.
4. You write ‘fiction of science’ or ‘lab lit.’ Could you tell us more about this genre?
The word ‘Lablit‘ was first coined by the writer and biologist Jenny Rohn and she edits the website lablit.com which showcases work in that genre. It’s a genre which seeks to show science in a realistic way in fiction, and also to forefront science, to make it a key aspect of the story. So it’s slightly different to a lot of science fiction in which the actual science may not be that important to the story nor might it be real, but rather made-up.
5. Who are your writing influences, the authors whose work has inspired you?
I love the work of John Banville who has written a couple of novels inspired by astronomers; ‘Dr Copernicus’ and ‘Kepler’ – these are amazing novels that are so beautifully written and I think he also captures what something about the emerging, still-developing scientific process in the early modern period.
I also love Jane Gardam’s work. I read her books when I was a teenager – particularly ‘A Long Way from Verona’ which is about a young girl growing up in England during the second world war, and she knows she wants to be a writer. It’s very well-observed and also very funny. I knew when I read that book that I also wanted to be a writer.
6. You also write poetry and non-fiction. Could you tell us about your writing journey, and when you began to write fiction?
I’ve always been obsessed by books and reading. Although I trained as a scientist I used to read fiction all the time. I first tried to write when I was a student, but it was a very gradual process. I knew I wanted to write something about astronomy but it took years. But it was helpful to have to write a thesis and scientific papers, it made me think about structuring my writing, and also getting words on paper was a good discipline. It wasn’t until I left astronomy several years ago that I started writing seriously and then I did a Master’s degree in creative writing at Glasgow which was great at instilling the habit of writing in me and teaching me how to critique my own work.
7. What advice would you give to someone starting out on the writing life?
Just write! There are no shortcuts to it. You just have to do it. Write and edit your work and try and consider it objectively. What works, what doesn’t work. Look at your favourite authors and try and understand what it is about their work that you enjoy. And what motivates you? I’m not so sure about the advice ‘write what you know’ but I do think you have to write about what interests you, because that will give your writing an energy that the reader will feel.
Finally, editing is more important than writing the first draft. It’s easier and more fun to write that draft, that’s when you tap into the subconscious creative side of your brain, but you need to edit ruthlessly and objectively if you want to create something that someone else will want to publish.
8. You’re represented by Isobel Dixon at Blake Friedmann. What was your journey of querying like? What advice would you give to aspiring authors in the process of querying?
My experience wasn’t too lengthy, I approached one or two agents before I was introduced to Isobel and she liked my work. I actually had a publisher before I had an agent, because my first book was published by Freight in 2013, as a result of being a finalist in the Dundee Book Prize in 2012. So I did things slightly back to front.
Before you approach agents you have to make sure that there is nothing in your query that can make them reject you. They get so many query letters that they’re always looking for something to make them move onto the next one – so make sure your work is perfect, editing it as many times as needed.
9. Please tell us about your stories in the Cooked up Anthology, and what inspired you to write it.
I have three flash fictions in that anthology and I was really interested in writing about food because it’s such a powerful way of exploring people’s cultural and ethnic identities. It connects us in a very direct way to our families. So, one of the stories ‘Potato Pancakes’ was inspired by my experiences of being taught how to cook by my great-aunt, who cooked a mixture of English and Jewish food.
Pippa Goldschmidt is based in Edinburgh. Her short stories, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in a wide variety of publications including New Writing Scotland, Gutter, the New York Times, and in anthologies such as ‘Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014’.
Her novel ‘The Falling Sky’ (published by Freight) was a finalist in the Dundee International Book prize in 2012. Her short story collection ‘The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space’ (also published by Freight) was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award this year.
She’s the co-editor (together with Tania Hershman) of an anthology of short stories and essays inspired by general relativity, ‘I Am Because You Are’, out this autumn – published by Freight.
Do you read or write short stories? If you do enjoy them, why? And if not, why not? What are your thoughts on writing short stories and editing them? Checked out the Cooked Up anthology? Do you have questions for Pippa– about her work, editing her work, the publishing scene or her experience as an author?