Cynthia, When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I have always loved writing. However, loving writing and becoming a professional writer are two very different things, and it took a long time for me to awaken to the idea that one could possibly earn a living and do something one loved—it didn’t have to be either/or.
After college, I’d headed for the corporate world. I did very well, but even as I climbed the corporate ladder, I knew something was missing. In my thirties, I started graduate school part time, while still holding down my full-time corporate job. I thought that perhaps in academe I’d find others who loved words, books, and ideas. It was at the end of my first year that a professor wrote on one of my papers that my writing was brilliant, but the skills that make a good writer do not necessarily make a good scholar. I’m certain he thought I’d be devastated, but instead, it was like my fairy godmother had hit me with her magic wand. Suddenly, everything was clear. I was supposed to be a writer. I began planning my “escape.”
I would leave graduate school, but I would also began plotting my departure from the corporate world, so I would write. Clearly, just walking away didn’t make it happen, but it was the start. It took a lot of hard work, and a few lean years, but then I started getting more and more assignments. I was actually supporting myself with my writing.
Did writing come naturally to you or is it something that you had/have to work on?
Basically, yes to both. I have written since I was a child, and it flows as naturally as conversation when I’m creating the first draft. However, anyone who is serious about writing has to work at it. Checking facts, editing ruthlessly, refining, polishing, proofreading—if you’re not doing this, you aren’t going to be a good writer.
No, I didn't suggest that Cynthia add the last sentence! But, you know... it is so true! So, recognizing that there is a lot of basic skills to learn/know, did you go to school for writing?
No—but that doesn’t mean I haven’t studied writing. I learned to read when I was three, and I have always been passionate about books. My parents were both readers, and my dad in particular was clever with words, from advertising (his job) to poetry (which he turned out for every possible occasion). English Literature was one of my majors, and was what I pursued in graduate school. As a result, I was anchored in good writing. Much of what I write simply flows out of my having been so immersed in literature and good writing, knowing how language works, knowing what makes a good story. However, I also studied seriously on my own. I’d say the most important books for teaching me the nuts and bolts of the writing life were William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.
Thanks for providing some great resources Cynthia! But where do your ideas and subjects come from?
From my interests and my life. I love history, travel, food, and culture, and most of my work revolves around these in some way.
Why did you write Waltzing Australia?
I wrote it both to share with readers the wonders of Australia and to show people that dreams can come true, if you pay the price.
Hmmm, I'd like to hear more sometime about "paying the price," so maybe you'll expand upon that someday while you are here! I'm fairly certain that most of us saw the connection, but I'm going to ask anyway. How did you select your title?
It seemed a natural for me. The song “Waltzing Matilda” is considered by many to be virtually the unofficial national anthem of Australia. The “waltzing” in the title meant walking or wandering. “Matilda” was slang for a bedroll or pack. I didn’t carry a backpack, but I certainly wandered about Australia.
Well, that was a little more than I expected. I always thought Matilda was a woman! I've been told I take words too literally! You can be sure that I've learned a great deal from reading Waltzing Australia and from you! After reading your book, I'd have to add that you not only wandered, but you climbed, rode horseback, and moved from one end of the country to another. I do look forward to hearing even more from you! Are you doing anything other than promoting your book right now?
Yes—I actually need to work for a living! I write for magazines and newspapers, and an occasional reference book, but most of my writing is in the field of education. It lets me really use my love of history and culture. However, I’d love to see Waltzing Australia do well enough that I could work more on my own projects, rather than so often on those of others.
I also wish you well with your book! Then what projects of your own would you like to do?
I hope to do a sequel to Waltzing Australia. I’ve been back to Australia three times since that first big trip, and I’ve had some astonishing adventures and seen places that I missed the first time, including some remarkably remote areas. In addition, I’m working on a book of travel tips, to help others travel, and I have queries out for two books of food history (I am a culinary historian and have written an award-winning food history column for 13 years, so I’m hoping I can turn some of the research behind that into a book or two).
That's Wonderful! Soooo, how about sharing some of the food surprises you found in Australia this month! Even a recipe or two??? What say you? Another question for now, though. Your writing style has been compared to both Annie Dillard and Bill Bryson. They’re pretty different writers. Would you agree with such comparisons? How would you define your "style"?
It is mostly my descriptions of nature that get compared to Annie Dillard. I’m flattered, and would love to think I have an eye for detail that is comparable to hers. As for Bill Bryson, I think that what I share with him is the weaving in of information that deepens the reader’s understanding of a place, rather than simply reporting what is being observed. (And for what it’s worth, I actually hadn’t read any Bill Bryson until after I was being compared to him.) I have also been told that I can be humorous at times, though that is not the effect I’m striving for, while Bryson is clearly geared for humor.
So I can see the similarities, but I also like to think my style is distinct. If I had to define my style, I’d say conversational—but my conversation, which tends to be filled with anecdotes, factoids, enthusiasm, and humor. Friends have said they can hear my voice in their heads when they read the book. But it’s also more descriptive than ordinary conversation. Others, including some reviewers, say they feel like I’ve taken them along with me, that they can almost smell and hear what I’m describing. That’s pretty much what I was aiming for—having it be my voice and carrying folks along on the journey.
I tend to agree with you that each writer has a personal style unique to that individual. To me, that is part of the fun I have in reading books from new authors, especially those that decide to self-publish. It is fresh, individual, and uniquely that author's. I tend to read for content and story, so that when someone does write, like you, describing the various locations, animals, birds, it does indeed bring to the readers a depth that is not often found in novels, especially. I found I was able to concentrate, as you said, in visualizing the land and enjoying your personal adventure as if it were my own! I'm sure you are beginning to get much feedback from readers of your book. Do you enjoy hearing from your fans? What are your favorite comments from readers?
There are two comments that I often get that I really love to hear. One is when a reader felt like I had become a friend, and that he or she was traveling right along with me. The other is when readers say my book has inspired them to pursue something that they thought they would never do, whether it’s something big, such as a career change or picking a college major, or just taking a vacation or starting a new hobby.
I confess that I was one of those dreamers who once thought of heading off to Australia, funny I can't remember why though. Although I didn't travel there, I've been able to do quite a bit of traveling to far places and so thoroughly enjoyed your book to Australia. In fact, in many books, I have "visited" many fascinating places! So, tell me, Cynthia, do you have a favorite part and least favorite part of being a writer?
My favorite part of being a writer is writing. I love writing. That said, writing might be tied for first place with research. I love the travel, reading, and talking to people that goes into preparing to write.
The least favorite part about being a writer is always having to market yourself. People don’t call and say, “I read your article. Will you come and write something for us?” Granted, if you have an editor or client who likes your work, you may work for them repeatedly. But I’ve never worked for a magazine where the editor stayed for more than two years, and then you have to start all over.
With books, it’s the same thing. Just having a book out doesn’t get you anything. You have to talk on the radio, do book signings, give presentations—all of which you have to arrange for yourself. (I actually love talking about my book and about writing, as well as about almost any other topic that interests me—I am at heart a storyteller. And I love meeting readers, so it’s not the interviews and presentations that are an issue, it’s the having to arrange it all—endlessly calling, writing, or e-mailing until you find a book store, radio station, organization, or library that wants to hear your presentation.) So, unlike getting hired for a job, where you sell yourself once and stay for a while, writing is a constant sales job—you have to sell yourself over and over.
So I love talking and teaching, and I love writing and research. I’m just frustrated by the amount of time needed for marketing, not just my book, but myself. Fortunately, at least for me, the favorite part is good enough to make the least favorite part worth the effort.
I know that many, many authors are almost blindsighted by the amount of work required for marketing just one book, so I completely understand your response! Still, knowing that the overall activity is worthwhile, What tips do you have for aspiring writers?
Care deeply about your craft. You won’t always love the topic you’re writing about, but if you care deeply about your craft, you can still always have a great time, because you’re still always improving your skills. Caring about your audience is a good thing, too.
Look everything up. You can’t believe how much of what you hear is inaccurate or used incorrectly. For example, almost no one uses disinterested and uninterested correctly anymore. And incorrect information is everywhere, especially in media that has to publish quickly, such as newspapers, as they have no time for fact-checking. In educational publishing, we are not allowed to use newspapers as reference materials, as they are considered too unreliable.
And don’t plagiarize—copying and pasting is not writing. (I also work as an editor, and trust me, this is a major issue. Turning in someone else’s work as your own is not just a bad idea; it’s illegal.)
Thinking about your comments about marketing, having to handle all of the activities for yourself, etc., have you ever regretted leaving the corporate world to pursue writing?
Never. Even when things are a little slow and I have to pinch pennies, I’d much rather be doing what I’m doing now than working at some giant, international corporation. Which is not to say there’s anything wrong with the corporate world, but as I note in the book, it’s like the difference between chess and Scrabble. Chess is a fine game, but I play Scrabble; I like words. Plus my current life has afforded me astonishing opportunities that would never have occurred had I remained in the corporate world.
I was a different person when I returned from Australia—much more adventurous, and with different expectations about life. In my corporate days, I never took vacations. Now, I consider travel a priority, both because it delights me and because it feeds my writing. I’ve studied history and culture, wandered in delighted amazement, taken cooking lessons, or had adventures in destinations ranging from Iceland to India, Morocco to Mongolia, Ecuador to Egypt. But most important, I earn a living doing what I love. I write. I don’t have to sneak writing in between meetings; it’s what I do every day.
Cynthia, thank you so much for sharing a little of yourself in this interview! And for agreeing to spend some of your valuable time with us this month! Enjoy your birthday today!