Working with Words: Sue Williams
Sue Williams is a science writer, chartered accountant and author of two crime novels. She chatted with us about big breaks, murder mysteries .... and sea slugs.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
A scientific paper on the sea slugs I was studying for my PhD in marine biology at the University of Western Australia. The paper had the snappy title of ‘Mesoherbivore-macroalgal interactions: feeding ecology of sacoglossan sea slugs (Mollusca, Opisthobranchia) and their effects on their food algae’. It was published in Oceanography and Marine Biology Annual Review. Despite the long-winded title, it went down pretty well in sea-slug research circles.
What’s the best part of your job?
Writing involves a lot of solitude.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Writing involves a lot of solitude.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
The day [Text publisher] Michael Heyward phoned and said, ‘Would you like to come in for a chat about your manuscript?’ It took another year and a lot of work before Text could seriously consider publishing Murder with the Lot, but that phone call was certainly a defining moment in my life.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
A man at a writing festival once told me I shouldn’t write crime novels, ‘because they’re just not good for you, my dear’. I don’t think he realised a) that he was being patronising or b) how therapeutic it is to kill off patronising people in your fiction.
A man at a writing festival once told me I shouldn’t write crime novels, ‘because they’re just not good for you, my dear’.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?
There’s another Sue Williams who hired a hitman a few years ago to kill her husband. The hitman turned out to be an undercover cop. Occasionally, people express surprise that I’m now out of jail.
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I trained as a marine biologist so perhaps I’d try to work at that. I don’t think I’d enjoy the field work though – I get horrendously seasick. I’ve even managed to be seasick in a swimming pool – I’d probably leave that out of my CV.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I went to a great writing course at Box Hill TAFE a few years ago (sadly, it’s now defunct like so many TAFE writing courses). I learned a lot about the craft of writing there, in particular about structure in novels. Another plus was being surrounded by other writers, which helped me take my writing seriously. And I met my writing partner there – we still meet regularly and keep each other going.
'Stay away from people who tell you that you shouldn’t write. Unless they’re right.'
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
Read and write a lot, obviously. And find a way to manage the despair that everything you’re writing is crap – I find Ira Glass’s point about the gap between your taste and your skill helpful. You might also like to pin Charlotte Wood’s reasons to write to a wall, to help remind yourself why you’re doing this. Seek out other friendly writers. Buy their books and read them. Stay away from people who tell you that you shouldn’t write. Unless they’re right.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Alice, the engineer with the triangular hair in the Dilbert cartoons. I’d tell her how worried I am about her and the health of her co-workers, and I’d advise her to leave that job and consider becoming a crime novelist. I’d sit some way away from her while I told her all this – out of fork-stabbing distance.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
There are so many fiction books, hundreds of them, that have taught me about writing and life. One non-fiction book that I often dip into is If I Tell You ... I'll Have to Kill You: Australia's Leading Crime Writers Reveal Their Secrets, edited by Michael Robotham. It has lots of great tips from Australian crime writers, ranging from Shane Maloney’s ‘read some f***ing books’, Angela Savage’s ‘eavesdrop shamelessly at every opportunity’ to Garry Disher’s, ‘crime fiction is often topical, a barometer of prevailing social tensions, telling us about the world we live in.’