Working with Words: Rebecca Lim

Rebecca Lim is a writer and illustrator based in Melbourne, Australia. She worked as a commercial lawyer for several years before leaving to write full-time. Rebecca is the author of 15 books for children and young adult readers. The latest is The Astrologer’s Daughter (Text). Rebecca was a guest at this week’s The Next Big Thing.

We spoke to her about ‘channeling voices’ when you write, creating ‘strong, quick-witted female protagonists who aren’t necessarily nice, likeable, tractable or pretty’, and why her best writing advice comes from Kate Bush.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I was lucky enough to win the Mattara Junior Poetry Prize in 1983? 1984? Back in the days when I used to fancy myself a bit of a poet (until I realised how impossibly hard it is to write truly great poetry!). I think the poem made it into the anthology for that year.

What’s the best part of your job?

I call it: ‘channeling voices’. When the writing is just flying and you’ve gone completely off-road from what you intended to do that day – but it’s working – it’s the best feeling. Nothing really compares.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I’m more of a people-watcher and stealth eavesdropper, so the publicity aspect of writing I’ve sometimes found challenging (to the extent that I should probably pop a few beta blockers before I get behind a microphone but, somehow, I usually muddle through and the world does not end).

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

I’m grateful to every publisher and every editor who has taken me in and worked with me. Each working relationship I’ve established with some of the best publishing/writing/editing minds in this country has been significant and educational and greatly cherished. In the age we live in (does that make me sound dinosauric?), having any one want to even read or publish your work at all is a fist-pump moment.

But if I had to name the most significant moment? I’d have to say that as a three-time reject entrant of the Vogel Awards, getting a letter out of the blue one year from Allen & Unwin extracting part of the judges’ analysis of one of my manuscripts was like being hit by lightning. These lovely people had taken the time to write to me and tell me ‘You can actually write’ – you’ve got … something – and it actually gave me the guts to quit my day job to see if I could work something decent up. I’ve never gone back to my old job (sorry old job).

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

My parents can’t understand where any of this has come from so they don’t dish out writing advice other than to tell me I should go back to being a lawyer (!) My publishers and editors have largely been kind and generally leave me to my own devices, only mildly but firmly pointing out sentences where I’ve repeated myself with words of emphasis or gone sick with the italics.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Just recently, I stumbled across a New Zealand critic taking me to task for my sarcastic teen female protagonist in The Astrologer’s Daughter using words like ‘boobs’ and ‘rack’ to describe her own body. She said language like that would feed into girls having ‘poor body image’ issues. And I have to say, I was utterly gobsmacked. The character – Avicenna Crowe – is the world’s biggest cynic and realist and she is using them in a humorous and ironic sense to describe a part of her anatomy she finds, in all honesty, a bit of a nuisance.

Now, people who are familiar with my books – from toddlers (the Ladybird book Bravest Princess Ever) to young adults (the Mercy series) – will know that I am a fierce champion for strong, quick-witted female protagonists who aren’t necessarily nice, likeable, tractable or pretty. To say I’m promoting ‘poor body image’ issues is to say you’ve completely missed the point of my books, frankly.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Writing prospectuses; two words which speak for themselves. I realise that would still be ‘working with words’ but the words would need legal, marketing and financial sign-off, and have no inherent beauty to them when taken as a whole.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Things like writing to deadline, grammar and the art of self-editing can definitely be taught. Having a fresh ‘non-you’ pair of eyes looking at your work is absolutely invaluable, in my view. Things that make perfect sense to you because you’ve read them 50 times and have every character’s back story in your head will not necessarily make sense to a third party. Having someone say: ‘I think you need to make the connection between A and B stronger because I just don’t see it’ is a gift.

That being said, however, you need to be a little bit mad to be a writer. And I use that term with the greatest affection and with no pejorative intent toward anyone. To live in this world but hold all these others in your head, peopled with fantastic beings? Not everybody wants to do that.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

In the immortal words of Kate Bush, ‘Don’t give up’.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. (I’m sorry, I’m sorry).

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

It wouldn’t make for comfortable eating, in all likelihood, but I’d love to sit at supper with Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon and Kim Harrison’s witch/bounty-hunter, Rachel Morgan. There would probably be instant disagreement about ‘people of action’ versus ‘persons of cool intellect’ and I’d probably have to stop them all from literally killing each other and the food would go cold, but it wouldn’t be a dull evening.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

In terms of children’s books, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story was breathtaking to me as a child in terms of its scope, language and visual beauty (both the imagery in the story and the book itself. The hardback edition I own is like a mass-market Book of Kells with multi-coloured font and pictures).

Books I’ve returned to often include: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Stories, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride and anything by Peter Temple for the language, the ideas, the ability to inject beauty and humour and clear-eyed truth into situations that aren’t inherently beautiful at all.

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