Working with Words: Anna Solding
Anna Solding is a writer and editor, and a co-founder of MidnightSun Publishing and the Australian Short Story Festival. Her first book, The Hum of Concrete was shortlisted for several awards. She spoke to us about the time-hungry world of publishing, the timeliness of certain books and the various obstructions to putting pen to paper.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?
This is a hard one. Because I’ve been reading since I was four years old, I can’t necessarily remember the books that I read so long ago. Some of the childhood books that made a huge impression on me were The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, which I read when I was ten, the Narnia series – and Astrid Lindgren’s books. My background is Swedish, so I grew up with all her books, not just Pippi Longstocking.
Now, when I read The Brothers Lionheart to my own children, they look at me sympathetically and ask: ‘Why are you crying, Mum?’ My answer is always: ‘Because it’s so beautiful.’ Writing is magical that way; it can make us laugh and cry simply by putting words in a certain order on the page.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
Yes, I was always a writer. Once I wrote a companion book to the Narnia series, with the same universe and characters. I was very lucky to always have encouragement from my family and my teachers, who let me stretch my word count on numerous occasions. When I became a teenager, I started writing about quite serious issues, such as a family torn apart by AIDS or a car crash after a binge-drinking spree. Those are still the kinds of issues that interest me, but what I write as an adult has shifted to also revolve around motherhood, sexuality and belonging.
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
My mum always tells people that I am the only person she knows who has done whatever I have wanted every day of my life. That might be a slightly modified version of the truth, but I have always felt incredibly supported by my mum, which has helped me focus on the things I actually want to do. This doesn’t mean I haven’t cleaned people’s houses, wiped old people’s bums, delivered mail and taught at the university. I have done all those things, but I have never felt bogged down by them; they have always been temporary, steps on the way to writing-related work.
Publishing has a tendency to swallow up all your time.
In my novel constellation, The Hum of Concrete, one of the characters delivers mail in Sweden, and the knowledge of how that happens (you run up one set of stairs, across the attic then down the next set of stairs) was crucial to the action of that story.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Well, to be honest, I am not currently writing much. I have almost finished a companion book to The Hum of Concrete, called The Song of Glass. It is set in Malmö where I grew up and is a love song to the city itself as well as its inhabitants. Some of the characters from my first book come back in this one, which I have really enjoyed – because where The Hum of Concrete is all about women becoming mothers, The Song of Glass is about men becoming fathers.
The reason I’m not currently writing is that publishing has taken over my life. Five years ago, I started MidnightSun Publishing, and since then I’ve published everything from children’s picture books to short story collections for adults. I love publishing! It’s taken me around the world; to book fairs in Italy and the UK, to China and Korea as well as around Australia. But publishing has a tendency to swallow up all your time, especially when you go from publishing two or three books a year to publishing seven (which is what we have done this year). I have learned so much from the publishing world and met so many wonderful, supportive, creative people along the way that I feel quite at home there.
However, because I specifically love the short story form, I also had the crazy idea a few years ago to start a festival celebrating the form. I’m now the co-founder and co-director of the Australian Short Story Festival, which just took place in Adelaide (from 3–5 November 2017), with amazing writers such as Carmel Bird and Tony Birch present.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
When I studied creative writing at university, my supervisor Eva Hornung had this note stuck on her door:
‘Thinking about writing or
talking about writing or
worrying about writing
is not writing’
That was exactly what I needed to see when I started out, and found that I was worrying a lot more than I was actually putting pen to paper.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
I used to keep a diary when I was younger, but never for very long. When my children were born, I bought books to write letters to them about themselves, but that only lasted a little while too. I think I find writing so hard that if I’m going to do it, I might as well write fiction – something that others can enjoy too.
Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?
I think certain books are best read at particular times in life. I read Catcher in the Rye when I was 35, but I think it speaks to 15- to 20-year-olds – so I found it quite tedious. Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook Trilogy is a wonderfully perplexing and haunting work that few people have heard about, let alone read. If you like your books grim (and I do … ) this is for you.
I think certain books are best read at particular times in life.
Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?
I have never thought about it that way. I think it’s important to grow as a writer, so if you go back and read something old and think you could improve it, you probably can. But to me, that doesn’t mean I’d like to change it. I think this might be a bigger issue for writers of non-fiction who have written about their families and friends, or people who write opinion pieces.
Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?
What an impossibly difficult question. I would love to meet so many of them, but if I had to choose one author it would have to be Toni Morrison, whom I admire endlessly. Beloved is the most heartbreaking and, at the same time, comforting book I have ever read. (Yes – in case you haven’t read it, it’s very grim.) I would love to talk to her about all the things she has never told anyone else, to get a glimpse of her brilliant mind.
The next Australian Short Story Festival will take place in Perth, 19–21 October 2018. You can find out more, including how to get involved, here.