I just spoke to Karen Herbert, who suggested I was more excited than her about the release of her first book! Perhaps, perhaps! It’s not every day that you get to celebrate the launch of a novel that you have watched grow from an early draft to publication.
Karen, like me, is a graduate of Marlish Glorie’s excellent writing class at Fremantle Arts Centre. When we met, Karen was well into her first draft of Castaways – out next year with Fremantle Press. In one of those publishing twists, The River Mouth is Karen’s second completed manuscript, but her first to arrive in book form. It’s a cracker of a study of small towns and the stories within them. Essentially, it’s a rural crime novel about a woman torn between protecting a secret and finding the truth about her son’s murder. Read more about the plot of The River Mouth and find Fremantle Press book club notes here.
Last week, Karen and I sat on a bench in beautiful Jualbup Park and talked about the process of creating The River Mouth.
Annie: Karen, congratulations on the impending publication of ‘The River Mouth’! As a woman who’s had a busy life doing other things until fairly recently, can you tell me about sitting down to write your first novel and what brought you to that moment?
Karen: So, I came to writing really late, although not as late as some people I understand now! I was working in aged care; I was in an executive position. I was loving it, loved my job so much, worked with some wonderful people, some wonderful clients, and it was made redundant. (laughs) I was gutted, just gutted.
Annie: I can imagine
Karen: You know I was gutted. I met you around that time!
Annie: Mmm, it throws you for a six right, when you’re just going along this path and then…
Karen: Ohhh, I went home and drank a couple of glasses of wine and, um, pulled my boots on the next morning and sat down and started to write.
Annie: I just can’t believe it was the next morning!
Karen: Yeah, it was. It was the next morning! I just went oh f@#k it, I want to do something! So, I started to write, and I wrote every morning after my husband went to work and when he came home, I was still there, laughs writing. I shut my computer down, made dinner, we did our evening routine. I did that 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, for three months, and I had the final draft…hah! The final draft?! The first draft of Castaways written. And I hadn’t managed to get a job by that point, so I started The River Mouth! Laughs And both of those were subsequently accepted for publication. I think Castaways was accepted nine months after I was made redundant, which was just, it seemed like forever, but I knew nothing about the publishing industry then and now I understand that it was actually very fast!
Karen: So, I do count myself very fortunate.
Annie: And were there things previously in your life…like did you say to yourself, in my fifties, I’m going to write a book…
Karen: Laughs hard No! I mean, writing was something I was good at. At school, that was my thing. I was cleaning out stuff the other day and I came across all these merit certificates with little red dolphins on them from when I was seven. ‘To Karen, for writing a beautiful poem.’ Laughs. Or ‘an interesting story’. It was there but, I don’t know, in the 70s, in the 80s, when you’re a girl in Geraldton, maybe it’s the same for you too, who becomes a writer? What is a writer? What does a writer do? How do you live as a writer? It’s not something I could dream of. I didn’t know anything about that. Only people who were exceptional got to be writers, I thought. It just didn’t occur to me as something I could do.
Annie: Mmm, interesting. My dad was a book critic as one part of his job as a journalist, so I think to me it was almost like, how dare I aspire to that?
Karen: Yeah, you know, you’d be a bit full of yourself, wouldn’t you? Both laugh
Annie: It was like that, wasn’t it? You were good at it, but it just didn’t occur to you to make it into a career.
Karen: Yeah, yeah. There is something else in that, too, I think. When we have stuff that we are naturally good at, I believe that we tend not to value it. We only value stuff that we had to acquire.
Annie: Mmm, yeah, isn’t that interesting?!
Karen: There’s actually a feminist slant on that as well. A lot of women skills are naturally acquired skills; nurturing, coaching, organising, developing people. They’re the things that, traditionally, women are good at. And they’re the things that are really important in the workplace as well, but we don’t value them as much as being able to manage finances, which is a learned skill. Which typically men learn, so there’s an interesting Venn diagram in there.
Annie: Mmm, I can totally relate. And maybe, also as girls of the 80s, we felt like we had to, in order to be employable, we had to do something that men did.
Karen: Absolutely. We had to learn an acquired profession.
Annie: Mm, okay moving on! It’s clear from the novel that you are someone who reflects on the social ills and strengths of communities. Did you consciously set out to address as many issues as you could in this book, or did it just come about as you explored the characters and story? (Both laugh)
Karen: Yeah, my publishers’ marketing manager said, “There’s almost too much in this, isn’t there?!”
Annie: She meant that in the best way, I reckon!
Karen: I hope so! No, I didn’t. What I tried to do…after I’d written that chapter with the boys on the rope swing and started to wonder what had happened to them…it occurred to me that, whatever it was, it was very deeply rooted in the community. And I wanted to hold up a mirror to the community without whitewashing it or glossing over stuff. For me that meant including people in the community that I’ve had a lot to do with in my life; older people, homeless people, people with disabilities. The more I started to write the story…and be unflinching about what that looks like… and talked about it to other people, the more I started to understand just how much those people are invisible in the community, and invisible in literature, and I think that probably made me more determined to have invisible people quite clearly portrayed in the story and as part of the storyline – not as just a background Greek chorus.
Annie: Mmm, so, I’ve got two questions coming out of that. Firstly, was the rope swing scene the first scene you wrote of The River Mouth?
Karen: Yes. I wrote about stuff I’d seen a kid and the setting was how I remembered it when my sisters and I used to roam, down on the Chapman River. And, you know, we weren’t allowed to be there! We were expressly told! We were unseen, unsupervised and there was an element of danger. There were submerged rocks. There were hairy caterpillars. There were odd people lurking around. But, it’s in those environments, on the edges of things, that kids learn. They get to test out their relationships, push their boundaries…
Annie: Mmm, and stories happen!
Karen: And stories happen, don’t they?
Annie: Mmm. You also said, as I learnt to address this unflinchingly. Can you talk a little more about that?
Karen: Yeah. So, there are scenes in the book…I wrote them and I sat back and thought, am I allowed to say that? Is that ok? Is that going to upset people? And some of it’s not particularly politically correct either, some of the things the characters say. I’m quite aware that authors do get torn apart for allowing their characters to say things that aren’t politically correct and then have those views ascribed to them as authors. Sometimes, people don’t seem to be able to distinguish between the views of the author and views of the character. And I thought no I won’t resile from that. Because that’s what people do say and maybe I can be careful about the way that I write it, so it’s clear that I’m not endorsing things that are problematic. But, people do say those things. The example I’m thinking of is where Sandra, the mother of the boy who dies, and Stuart, the husband of the woman who dies, they’re sitting on the riverbank and they come across each other in the dark and there’s a little bit of frisson of fear and tension and danger there. They start talking about Stuart’s wife Barbara, who is Sandra’s best friend. They start trying to make sense of her death and why she was where she was. They’re trying to comfort themselves and they do it in a way that perhaps puts a little bit of self-serving spin on it.
Annie: Self-serving themselves?
Karen: Yes, Stuart in particular, and second-guessing things that may or may not be true about particular types of people in society. I came back to that over and over again and reread it and reread it. And I thought, well that’s what we do, when we’re grappling with issues we don’t really understand and we’re trying to make sense of them. We do say things that might be a bit clumsy or not quite right and that’s okay. I want that to be okay because that’s the pathway we have to walk to come to a more accurate understanding.
Annie: Mmm, I get it. So, similarly, did you think much about the accepted realities of crime fiction when you were writing or did the story take over? And that question came out of the fact that it’s so great that the book doesn’t just revolve around the death of a woman at the hands of a sexual predator or similar.
Karen: Oh yeah. I wasn’t going to write a crime novel that centred around the death of a beautiful young woman in gory, sexualised circumstances. It wasn’t necessary. Death is…untimely death is awful enough without having to put in details or to sexualise it or to continue the trope of here we go with another young woman dying and a grizzled, disaffected male detective is investigating it. Those books are great! I read lots of them myself, but I just didn’t need to write that. But there are other tropes in crime fiction that, as I wrote this book, I realised I did need to follow. And one was the bringing together of all the narrative threads at the end. One of the big things that happened when I was editing was I removed two whole chapters after discussing them with my editor. She explained to me that at this point your reader is expecting this to all start narrowing down to a conclusion and what you’ve done with these chapters, Karen, is take them on a new route and widened it out. And I didn’t realise I’d done that, and I was annoyed because I didn’t want to get rid of those chapters! I liked them! But she was right. That is what readers expect in a crime novel. And if I’m going to call it a crime novel and people are going to pick it up off the shelves and hand over their money thinking they’re getting a crime novel, I need to deliver on that. And maybe when I get a bit more experienced, I can play with that a bit more, in a way that’s a bit more finessed. Maybe.
Annie: That would be fun! So, I’m curious if there is one character in The River Mouth that you came to know better than you’d expected?
Karen: That’s hard. (Thinks) Colin. I’ve been wondering about Colin ever since I wrote the book. Because I started to hear conversations, after I’d written the book, about Own Voices. And started to think about just how much can you write if you haven’t walked in a character’s shoes? And obviously I’ve never been a teenage boy. And it’s quite a while since I was a teenage girl. Laughs.
Annie: Yes, there is so much to discuss around the subtleties of Own Voices, but we’ll be here all day, so we better keep moving! I know from reading an earlier draft that Sandra and Greg’s relationship was explored slightly differently in the final version. Could you talk a little about that process?
Karen: Sure! With Sandra and Greg, as I wrote the book, I didn’t know where Sandra’s relationship with Greg was going to end up. I didn’t know it for a really long time. I knew how she was feeling about Greg and I knew she wasn’t very open with herself about how she was feeling about Greg, but I think I was still, in Chapter 40 or 38, I was still not really sure. I don’t think it was until the denouement, where she’s saying what’s going to happen from here on, that I really knew where she was going to go with that. I followed her, almost.
Annie: So you knew the end of your crime story, whodunnit that is, but there was still a part of it, quite an important part of it, that was a mystery to you. Which, would kind of satisfy both plotters and pantsers! A lot of pantsers would say, why would you want to write a story when you already know what’s going to happen at the end? (Both laugh.) While, of course, plotters are like, what are you talking about?! (More laughter.)
Karen: It’s the driving to Geraldton analogy. I know I’m starting in Perth, I know I’m going to finish in Geraldton. I don’t know what time the westerly is going to start blowing, I don’t know what the traffic conditions are going to be like. I haven’t quite decided whether I’ll take the coast road or the inland road. I know I’ll stop and get a Chiko Roll at some point!
Annie: Haha, you are an 80s girl! Both laugh
Karen: But aside from that, the rest of it’s a bit of a mystery. I don’t know if I’m going to get stuck behind a road train or a procession of grey nomads heading to Exmouth.
Annie: It’s a great analogy. To continue with the Greg aspect, I was lucky enough to read an earlier version and I was a little confused with him. I think for writers it would be really interesting if you could elaborate a little bit on the process you went through to clarify that
Karen: OK, so I’ve done this with quite a few storylines. So, you know you get, as a writer, you get deep down in the detail and are tapping away and then you go back and you start reading through stuff and there’s stuff you forget and you think oh that was really good or what was happening here? So what I do to keep track of that is have a spreadsheet. I have the numbers of the chapters down one side and I have the names of the storylines across the top, so I get all these little boxes. In each box I put the main things that are happening, so then I can read across a chapter and all these things all happened in this chapter. Or I might find a chapter that actually doesn’t do anything and it could be beautiful writing and I might love it, but it just needs to go because it doesn’t need to be there.
So, I did find a few holes with Greg in the book. When I was editing with Georgia at Fremantle Press she said Now, look, it’s really great what happens with Greg, but I don’t understand why! She started laying out Greg’s circumstances and going so given all of that what is his motivation for doing this thing? and I was sitting there on the phone ’cause we’re in the middle of Covid thinking oh you stupid woman it’s this of course and then I spend the next 10 minutes explaining why Greg did all these things and she listens, bless her, and sort of pauses and then she says that’s great I totally get it now – let’s put that in the book shall we? (Both laugh)
Annie: Thanks for sharing that! I just think your success story is so amazing that I think it is helpful for us other writers out there to know that even Karen doesn’t quite get it right first pop! (Laughter) Sometimes little bits and pieces of characters, at least! So, that gets us to the “How are you feeling?” question! Now that the book comes out so soon!
Karen: It’s like riding a wave. It’s just a beautiful feeling but, like riding a wave, it’s also a bit terrifying too because you don’t know when it’s gonna closeout and there’s rocks over there and you’re heading towards them and you don’t know how to turn the surfboard yet!
Annie: A Geraldton girl with a surfing analogy! Excellent. Because you do surf, right?
Karen: Yep and I don’t know how to turn yet! Laughing Every part of the journey has been lovely. I loved drafting the first draft. It was such an adventure. Then, working on the second and third drafts, you’re deep in your head, and you’re problem solving, and you’re pulling stuff apart and discovering, and that’s lovely too. Editing takes you to the whole next level and now, I’m in that bit where I’m learning how to talk about the book! That’s a bit daunting, but Josephine Taylor, who wrote Eye of a Rook, said to me every interview you do, every article you write about your book, you learn more about what you wrote and how you wrote it. You discover things and you become better at understanding. I’ve only done a few interviews so far, but I can really see what she means.
Annie: That’s, actually, really nice to hear! It comes a little bit back to what you said about how we don’t always value what we know, and when you go into writing a book, you bring so much with you that you forget that it’s not everyone else’s reality as well, right? And you have to learn to talk about that!
Karen: Yeah. pause So, I’m feeling good. Nervous but good.
Annie: Okay, two quick questions to go! First, what has been the most eye-opening part of this whole journey for you?
Karen: The writing community. It is amazing! Who knew that there were all these people out there in the community, working away at novels and poems and short stories and writing amazing stuff, and they’re just so damn nice!
Annie: Yes! So true! Okay, lastly…what would you say to people who think it’s too late to start writing?
Karen: I know it sounds all very amazing that I’ve managed to do this in such a short space of time, but the reality is: I’m financially secure. I’ve got a husband who works, our children are grown up, I’m not cooking dinner every night or running kids to sport and school and stuff. I’ve got time to write and I have a part time job now, so I’m doing my bit for the household. I couldn’t have done this when I was working full-time and raising kids. And I’m not sure that I had anything to say! I say to people if you’re out there writing and you just can’t find the time or you’re looking at what you write and just going oh for goodness sake, don’t give up your day job. Life is long and there’s lots of time to do stuff. Put the manuscript in your bottom drawer and go and eat ice cream with the kids. Just wait until it’s time.
So, that’s it! The River Mouth by Karen Herbert is out today from Fremantle Press. If you’re in lockdown or otherwise find it difficult to get out, you can buy it straight from the publisher: https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/products/the-river-mouth