Author interview: Campbell Jefferys

Last but not least in the line-up of writers who’ve received a residency through FAWWA this year comes Campbell Jefferys.

With four books under his belt Cam is an established writer living in Hamburg, Germany (the same town I grew up in). In November his residency will bring him back to his hometown Perth.

What made you decide to become a writer?

CJ: It wasn’t a decision. It wasn’t something where I woke up one day and chose, nor was it a long held ambition. I still don’t even think of myself as a writer. Storyteller is probably closer to the truth, but that’s a rather poncy job title. I have stories and I want to share them with people. Writing is the method that works best for me. I think one of the problems with writing is that many people want to be writers; that is, they want to live the life of writer (the highly romanticised view of that life), but the reality is that it’s work, like all work is. It’s hard, and you need to be brave in order to open yourself to criticism, scorn and of course endless rejection. I seldom tell people I’m a writer, because too often the reply is the start of a long-winded monologue that begins “Oh, I always wanted to write a book….”

What was your biggest challenge in your writing career (so far) and how did you tackle it?

CJ: The biggest challenge was understanding that you write for your readers and not for yourself. Too many writers are selfish, writing about themselves for themselves, “look at me, look at how clever I am, love me.” I think it’s important to have a reader-first mentality, and that extends to so many things: is the dialogue believable, are the characters well-drawn, do they behave in character, are the locations depicted as if the writer’s been there? And so on.  The other challenge was self belief: feeling confident in what you’re writing, that it’s good and interesting and people will enjoy reading it. Overcoming this requires work, and more work, drafting and rewriting and getting the writing as good as it can be. Not being lazy with it; it’s very easy to spot lazy writing, especially lazy storytelling, which inevitably resorts to gimmickry and cliché. It also requires the support of people around you, and savouring the joys of small victories: getting a story in a collection, publishing an article, having a book short-listed, maybe winning an award, getting positive replies from readers. That makes you think, “Okay, I’m doing something right. Keep at it.” With self-belief, you start to fully develop your own style.

Do you have a day job and if yes, what do you do?

CJ: There are very, very few fiction writers who don’t have some kind of day job. I have had many jobs. I was a freelance journalist until the internet took away many of the lucrative avenues for journalism. I wrote travel guides for a while, played music, tended bar, taught English. For the last decade or so, I’ve find a niche working in advertising in Germany, on a project to project basis: coming up with brand names and company names, slogans and claims, and longer copy for brochures, corporate publications and websites. This work also gives me time to write fiction. I also spent three years working at the University of Hamburg, where I taught creative writing and Australia studies.

You’ve been living in Germany for the last decade (and a bit), a different choice to most Australians who usually pick other English speaking countries like UK or US. What made you “choose” this country?

CJ: It sounds a bit stupid, but I think Germany chose me. I landed here and just loved it from day one. I remember seeing the film ‘Backbeat’, about the Beatles early days in Hamburg, and thinking, “I’d like to go to Hamburg one day.” And then one day I ended up here.

What do you find the most typical characteristics of Germans?

CJ: The most fascinating thing is that they are nothing like their stereotype. I have never encountered people who like to laugh more than the German people. They are open, generous, tolerant and full of good humour. And when I tell German people this, they are stunned to hear it, which makes me love them more. They would never think of themselves in this way. For me, this opened up so many avenues for storytelling, this idea that you could be different to the way people think you are, that the world can be way different to what you expect. It’s from here that I got ideas for telling stories from unusual perspectives. For example, putting an Australian in East Berlin in 1980 and having him love communist East Germany and feel very sad when the Berlin Wall falls.

When living abroad the qualities, culture and identity of your home country become a lot more apparent – do you share my sentiment?

CJ: Most certainly. Get out of your comfort zone and you’ll be challenged. And step outside of something and you see it in a completely different way. It sounds negative, but I think this has a positive effect. One of the key points of True Blue Tucker rests on this: to love something, you need to love all of it, and not just the good things. I think when Australians say they love their country, they actually love only a small part of it, an idealised part, their own personal part. The same could be said for many people from many different countries.

You’re exploring Australian identity in your book True Blue Tucker. In summary, what would you say are they?

CJ: We have an idea of who we are. We have an idea of what our identity is, an idea of what it means to be Australian. We have an idea of what the world thinks of us. And in the end, they are all only ideas.

Your work is currently published with Indie Publishers. Have you thought about self-publishing?

CJ: I recommend self-publishing to many first-time writers, because this has become pretty much the only way to break into publishing (unless you’re born with silver pen in hand). Mainstream publishers don’t take on unpublished writers, which means a writer can’t get published to start with. The same goes with agents, who only look for established writers (writers they can make money off). Now, with ebooks, a writer can published his/her own work and build a readership. It’s also a way to gauge if the work is any good. My feeling is that if a book is good, people will find it. It’s always been that way. But a writer should ask him/herself: am I writing because I have a story to tell, or am I writing to get published and be a millionaire and live the life of a writer? Whether it’s indie, mainstream or self publishing, writers should understand that there is very little money in it. They say that getting a publishing contract with a mainstream publisher is like winning the lottery where the prize is nothing. Ebooks are a fantastic avenue for publishing. It’s a development which I cannot emphasise enough: it’s game-changing.

What do you think about social media (twitter, facebook, blogs) and as a writer do you participate (why, or why not)?

CJ: Social media has the power to make something popular that no one has ever heard of, and do it quickly. Artists cannot ignore the potential here. It’s more applicable to music and film (which is easier to consume and share) but also important for writers. I’m involved on Facebook (on a marketing level), but not on twitter or blogs. I feel writers should be willing to engage with their readers, but it would be very time-consuming to do it on many social media platforms.

What will you be working on during your residency at FAWWA?

CJ: That’s top secret. I’ve had a busy year. I’m looking forward to having a block of time where I can write the second draft of a novel. I wrote the first draft last year, but haven’t had the time to sit down and continue the rewriting process. I’m very grateful for the residency. And it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to know that there are writers’ centres supporting new writing and giving authors the space, time and financial assistance in order to write.

As part of  his residency Cam will be holding two workshops and as soon details and dates are available I will put them up here so you can join.