Tanya Heaslip discusses how her life has shaped her writing and equipped her for rejection.
Why did you start writing?
I have written since I was a little girl and could first hold a pencil in my hand. I quickly moved to my father’s typewriter (much to his chagrin) and the best present in my whole life was an orange typewriter for my 10th birthday (all of my own – joy!). I became a one finger whizz and wrote story after story about children having adventures in the outback, where I lived. At age eleven, I typed an eighty-six page thriller called ‘The Red Red Rose of Triumph,’ which ended up with a major horse race in Central Australia! Writing was just a compulsion that lives on to this day. I don’t move anywhere without pen and paper in hand. I write constantly, notes to myself, reflections, bits of stories and – then, whenever I can fit it in amongst my work as a lawyer – the excitement of writing full stories!
What does your writing practice look like when you are working on a book?
I would like to say I have a writing practice but I work full-time as a lawyer so it’s whenever I can fit it into any spare moments I can. I use Julia Cameron’s morning pages whenever possible and that helps release stuff that’s blocking me and helps direct me to new ideas. Once I start writing, I become completely focused. I try to make the most of every moment I have because they are few and far between work, life, family obligations. I read an interview with Di Morrissey once, where she said as a result of having started out as a journalist, she could write anywhere, and did, even pulling up a petrol drum at the mechanics shop to use as a desk so she could keep writing while her car was being fixed. That inspires me to this day!
What are your obsessions?
I absolutely love memoir (the stories of other people and how they overcame life challenges), stories about travel (so that I can vicariously travel myself) and anything to do with mysteries and thrillers (my best form of escape – brought about from an early childhood love of Enid Blyton. Despite what people say today about her lack of political correctness, she inspired millions of children around the world to love reading, and if you look closely at her books, she was the ultimate thriller writer. Short chapters, each one ending on a cliffhanger, and the children having to use their own resources to work out how to escape impossible situations and beat the baddies. I devoured her stories and still have many of them on my bookshelf today.)
The beginning of a book
How did you come to writing your first book?
There are many things that have helped, but number one would be having a writing group at all stages of the process, I taught English in Prague four years after the Berlin Wall came down and fell in love with the beauty of the city, its countryside, its music, architectures, and a Czech man with blue eyes who quoted poetry to me under the stars and sang me folk songs with his guitar. It changed my life. I wrote endless diary entries about my experiences, and Mum kept my letters home, so when I returned, my memories were luckily preserved. Several years on, some events happened (I can’t mention them here, because that would be a spoiler!), that meant I felt strongly moved to write the story of my time with the Czechs. Once I started it became an absolute compulsion. I wrote about one million words (no joke!) and gave myself carpal tunnel as I did version after version until it reflected the magic of my time as I really remembered. ‘Alice to Prague’ was born!
Developing the work
What helped you along the way?
I’ve always had to write around full-time work, so I’ve reached out for support along the way from writing groups (both face-to-face and online) and sought out mentors to help me in the process. Having spent a long time as a lawyer, I had to retrain my brain to think and write creatively, and it was very difficult. I couldn’t do it on my own. Three amazing mentors helped me over the course of my fifteen year journey learning to write “Alice to Prague” – Patti Miller, Kathryn Heyman and Bernadette Foley – and I could not have done it without them.
Agents and publishers
Any advice on rejection?
In the 15 years of writing my first book, ‘Alice to Prague,’ I received over 30 rejections from agents and publishers. It was brutal. Each time I’d fall apart and hide in the cupboard, tell myself I was useless, that my dream was a complete waste of time and that my father was right (I should concentrate on my day job). But a couple of things helped me ‘get back on the horse,’ as we used to say when I was growing up in the outback. First of all, it seemed to me that the story had a life of its own and wanted to be told. After about two or three days of despair, the story would come along and tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Alright, enough of that self-pity, back to work’. I later read Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’ about stories finding writers, and I have no doubt that was the case for this one with me. Also, I’d had a very tough childhood in the outback, where you learn you can’t give up, otherwise you and your horse and the cattle you are mustering will perish to death if you don’t get yourselves back to the dam and to water by nightfall. ‘Never give up’ was our childhood motto, with the threat of literally dying if we did. That remained a very serious incentive, even many years on! And an incredibly supportive husband, sister and mother helped me beyond description. Having now written and published three books, I feel very lucky.
Acquisition to publication
How, if at all, did your work change in the hands of a publisher?
Once I was lucky enough to get a publisher (after the 30th rejection), my book ‘Alice to Prague’ had to be rewritten all over again once more. The process of writing and the people in publishing humble you time and time again. My sister has a great expression ‘It’s all about honing your craft, Tanya. Hone your craft. Don’t give up. Hone your craft!’
What has been the most joyful part of the process?
My first three books were memoirs, telling the stories of people and places that I loved. ‘Alice to Prague’ (AU 2019). ‘An Alice Girl’ (AU 2020). ‘Beyond Alice’ (AU 2021). The joy in sharing these stories and keeping them alive meant so much to me. It felt like I’d drawn the formative parts of my life together in a way that could be used to celebrate those people and places, which was both a humbling and joyful thing to be able to do. And then hearing from other people who have been touched by the memoirs is the most spine tingling thing. So much joy!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tanya Heaslip, Author
Tanya Heaslip is an Australian author based in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. She was raised on a cattle station north of Alice Springs during the 1960s and 1970s. Tanya learnt about the outside world through correspondence and School of the Air. She spent many hours dreaming of the overseas lands depicted in her childhood story books.
When she was twelve years old, she was sent sixteen hundred kilometres away from her outback home to a boarding school, a traumatic and life changing experience. From there, she became a lawyer. She never stopped dreaming, however, which led her to the Czech Republic to teach English in 1994, four years after the Berlin Wall fell.
Tanya has published Alice to Prague (2019), An Alice Girl (2020), and her third memoir Beyond Alice was released in May 2021.
Beyond Alice, by Tanya Heaslip
Memoir. Allen & Unwin, 2021
> Read a review
From the happiness and freedom of her bush childhood, Tanya Heaslip is sent to a boarding school sixteen hundred kilometres away from everything and everyone she loves. As these years pass surrounded by the friends she makes, Tanya’s memoir is a humorous and inspiring story of strength, resilience and the realities of Australian outback life.