Katie Rowney is a recovering journalist, current communications wizard and owner of far too much china. She grew up on Tamborine Mountain, Queensland, and only made it as far as the big smoke of Brisbane city before settling down with her husband Magnus, two dogs and one cat. Her debut novel Front Page News was published by Penguin Random house after being selected from its open submissions pile.
I heard on the grapevine that you took a creative writing class and nearly failed! Surely not?
Yes, and deservedly so! I took a creative writing class at QUT as an elective and got my lowest mark in anything. And I wrote some really bad stuff in that class. I was trying really hard to seem literary and deep and everything I wrote was a big angsty metaphor for something else. I kept trying to smack my reader over the head with meaning. It was terrible.
Your debut novel Front Page News came out earlier this year. Did you always want to be a novelist?
I did always want to be an author – I love books and telling stories so much that I wanted to immerse myself in them. But I always thought I didn’t have enough talent, and that writing was very, very hard to get in to, so I pursued journalism instead. After a few years as a journalist and then a communications officer, I thought I’d try creative writing. I figured the project would go nowhere, but it would be a good exercise to write creatively. Because I like to dream big, I decided to send it in to the open submissions pile of every major publisher in Australia. I thought I might get luck and perhaps get a personal rejection letter with some feedback to help me with my next project. I was absolutely stunned to get an offer from Penguin Random House instead, and to be honest, I still think this entire thing might be an elaborate prank my friends are playing on me.
There were a few things that inspired Front Page News – when I was a journalist I (and all my journo friends and colleagues) was always getting shoved into these wild situations I definitely weren’t qualified to deal with, like seeing dead bodies or showing up at crimes scenes and car crashes. I thought a book about some of that stuff would be interesting. The first chapter sees a journalist sitting around with the local cops, watching a car get towed out of a pond, and making bets as whether or not there’s a dead body in there – that really did happen to me, except for the body part. And I always wondered, what if? So I thought I’d turn that into a story.
And finally, I always worked with these amazing female journalists (and later communications professionals) that were these tiny, dainty women that were constantly being underestimated by everyone they had to deal with. I was in awe of them. So I wanted to pay homage to that team of absolute bosses by amalgamating them into a character.
Were you writing your novel while working full time – how did you balance it?
I read somewhere that J.K. Rowling treated writing Harry Potter like a job – she set out times in her calendar to write and stuck to those, turning down social invitations etc. if they clashed with those periods. I tried to use the same strategy, blocking out weekends and getting up very early and doing a few hours writing before going to my actual job. I did have to give up some stuff – my house was filthy, I wasn’t a great friend on occasion and I used to do triathlons, but that had to go to fit in the writing (also, I was terrible at triathlons, so no great loss).
Now your book has been out in the world for a couple of months, is there anything that’s surprised you about the process?
Hmm. I wish I’d known earlier that publishers actually do read the slush pile – there’s this big misconception in the industry that that pile never gets looked at, but if I’d known it was possible to get picked-up from there, I would have tried earlier. Also that you can get a publishing deal without an agent – I got an agent after I had an offer.
One of the things that surprised me was how often my editor would (very gently) suggest I was repeating myself in the book, making the same points or loudly driving home the same themes over and over. I learned that you need to have some more faith in the reader to pick-up things without you pointing them out (you’d think I would have learned that lesson from my uni class marks, but no).
On your blog, you talked about being too shy to tell people you had a book coming out. Has it gotten any easier now?
Hoo-boy. I don’t think it’s gotten easier, I’ve just gotten better at pretending I’m somebody else when I talk about the book. I’m a bit odd – I’m totally comfortable with public speaking and being the centre of attention, as long as it’s on behalf of someone else. I give lectures all the time, and I used to be on radio and tv constantly – but it was always as the spokesperson for something or as the expert on a topic. When I’m the topic, I get very uncomfortable. I don’t like to big-note myself. It’s really tricky to talk about your book or life as an author without coming off as a total wanker, but the flip side is that if you don’t promote yourself you can seem ungrateful or like you’re not proud of your work (which, at this point, has been the efforts of a team of talented people at Penguin’s work too). So now I just try and pretend I’m Beyoncé, basically, which is always a good life strategy.
‘If you don’t promote yourself you can seem like you’re not proud of your work…So now I just try and pretend I’m Beyoncé’
You started out as a journo – why did you move into comms and how did you find that transition? Would you go back to journalism?
I went in to comms for a few reasons. I’d reached a level in journalism where everybody who was senior to me seemed like they were chained to their desks and absolutely hated their jobs. I had no interest in getting promoted, and I was getting bored. And at that time in the industry, people were getting fired all the time we kept getting told that print was dead – the news industry was very slow to realise online was a good space so there weren’t opportunities when I left (this makes me sound really old. It was about five years ago, it’s just that traditional newspapers operate in an old-white-men time warp where they refused to acknowledge new technology). Also I actually wanted to earn a living wage – I was a senior journalist and adding hot sauce to my two minute noodles was considered a luxury some weeks.
I knew I could only do a comms job I actually believed in – so I couldn’t work for a cause I disagreed with, like a smoking company or the casino. My first job was with the emergency services, which was fascinating and rewarding, and I felt like I was actually helping people. Now I work at a uni, and my job is to find out all the amazing things researchers there are doing and turn those discoveries in to stories that everyone can understand, so still a very cool job (dinosaurs! Superbugs! Art!). I do miss being a journalist. I loved the fast-pace of it and getting to talk to so many people and find stories. I think there is some great stuff happening in journalism now, and the future is way more hopeful than when I left. Basically, Buzzfeed needs to hire me as their dinosaur correspondent.
Is it hard to switch gears from writing for work and creative writing?
Mostly it’s the tenses that get me. Most of my day job work is written in past tense, so I tend to slip back in to this. I do find it hard to write ‘rich’ prose as well, because in my job anything too descriptive or not-hard-news gets removed. Aside from that, it’s actually been hugely helpful. I think I have a good sense of dialogue because I’m so used to interviewing people all day, and I’m really open to editorial feedback, because in the day job, you get given it constantly, and in nowhere near as nice a way as publishers put it.
Do you have a designated workspace at home? Do you like to work in a café or library?
Once I decided to actually give this writing thing a solid go, I splashed out and bought Ikea’s cheapest desk and set it up in our spare room. When I got to the editing stage of things, I went even more crazy and purchased a second monitor to hook my laptop up to, so I could have notes/ suggestions etc on one screen, and a working copy on the other. When I’m just writing (so not at the editing stage yet) I love working at cafes or libraries. I turn off the wi-fi and accomplish so much more. And because you’ve made an event out of it – put pants on, left the house – you feel like you have to get something done, because you’ve already gone to so much effort.
What do you like to do to nurture your creativity?
Read. There are so many talented writers out there and once you start writing yourself you appreciate their work on many levels – not just good story but valuing their word choices and sentence structure and plotting. And I love to be outdoors, so I usually get a million ideas at the beach, hiking, travelling anywhere new. Basically whenever I’m somewhere without a pen and far from civilisation, I get an idea. Music is a huge influence too – a good song is like a short story.
What’s up next for you?
I have a MS with my agent at the moment that’s about a girl who robs a bank to pay a library fine. The main character also has a prosthetic leg. I’m really interested in writing more diverse characters, and I was fortunate that some women with the same prosthesis as my character were happy to read the draft and talk to me about their lives so it’s a hopefully realistic and respectful book. I’ve also got a modern fairy-tale type book in progress about the god of farmers, who’s pretty resentful about his gig.
Lastly, I love your pet stories on Twitter. How has your animal squad influenced your writing?
Oh man, those little cuties worm their way in to everything. Usually as I write there is a cat on my lap on printer, a dog lying behind me and another dog next to me. So I get hemmed in at my desk and can’t move, thus meaning I have to keep going. And I usually sort out all my plot holes when I’m walking the dogs. I also really love animals, and I think they often have the capacity to pick-up on things or feelings in situations that humans miss. I try and include at least one animal in each book. In Front Page News, Stacey has her cat, in my next book, the main character shares a parrot with her roomie, and the farmer god in my latest book has a whole menagerie.
Katie’s pet squad