What drives you to write?
Various demons. Joy. Energy. It’s just natural to me – it’s like asking someone what drives you to walk. What drives people to sing in the shower? It’s natural.
The truth is I find life outside of books far more complicated and anxiety-ridden than what is on the page. Which is probably partly why I write. I’m not someone who cruises through life, but neither do most people.
How did winning this year’s $60,000 Miles Franklin Literary Award for your novel The Eye of the Sheep make an impact on your life and career?
Since winning the award my life has become something of a whirlwind. I have a little baby so managing parenting as well as the attention the award has brought me is a lot. I am not complaining though – it’s all a dream come true. Just a rather frantic dream right now, a crowded and colourful one!
My husband is an illustrator so we don’t have a lot of financial security – this is our kind of security.
In terms of impact, it means sales – your work is being read. Massive amounts of publicity – appearances everywhere. It sped everything up enormously.
You studied law and trained as an actor – how did you become a writer?
I always wanted to be an actor; I was very single-minded about that since I was a small child. I started a law degree because I got the marks, but went into it with an awareness that I was going to be an actor. Eventually I dropped out and went to acting school.
But the reality of working as an actor was very challenging. By the time I was about 30, I’d been studying writing at RMIT part-time for a number of years. I always loved writing, but it had been secondary to acting.
Then after one particularly gruelling year of working in children’s theatre, I thought, maybe I’ll just think about writing a little bit more this year.
Years before, I’d been part of Clare Renner’s ‘Writing for Children’ class at RMIT, which was something of a seminal class for me, where I made a strong base of friends and discovered myself as an author for children.
What is your advice on how to find the right career path?
My advice would be to learn about who you are, to know yourself as well as you can, to try things, to persist, to push, to ask for support, feedback, help. To take risks, to practice, to study as much as you can, to have patience and faith and keep knocking on doors as many times as you have to until they open.
How do you manage sacrificing a regular wage to pursue your passion?
It depends on how talented you are. And how hard you are prepared to work, and how much money you need to feel you have enough. I was never prepared to choose a more predictable career that paid the bills. It wasn't even close to a choice. I was idealistic and I couldn't let go of my dreams, no matter the struggle they brought me in the early days. Life will show you things as you go along, and you will work out what suits you, what kind of life you want. I am ok with living outside the mainstream - I always have been. I was never going to give up. Even when it hurt.
How did you get your first book published?
As part of a writing group formed in Clare Renner’s class, I wrote a manuscript called My Yellow Blanky. I knew it was strong and going to be published.
I submitted it to five publishers and received four rejection letters. I temporarily gave up – then the fifth letter from another publisher, Omnibus, arrived.
It wasn’t an offer, but they said, “We really love it, but we can’t find the right illustrator”. I added some action into the story and resubmitted, asking for feedback.
They said, “We can’t bear to part with it.” They found an illustrator and it was published.
The minute I received that letter of acceptance, I forgot an acting dream of 25 years – it went up in smoke. All my attention was with my writing from then on and has been ever since.
You’re still acting when you’re writing – you’re just doing it internally. Acting and writing are parallel, so I’m not ever dissatisfied.
What was the hardest part of getting published?
It was fairly stressful because it took a long time to sign the contract and a long time to find an illustrator. It was an almost-dream for a long period of time. It was all I thought about for a long time and for that reason was quite excruciating. But I think deep, deep down I suspected it was all going to be all right and would all fall into place.
When did you decide to write for adults?
My adult writing has very young narrators so far, so it fits. With adult fiction I can cover darker territory, and I can explore more confronting truths or complexities, but the principles remain the same. The craft is the same. The integrity of the work is the same.
I started writing a novel called One Foot Wrong in Ania Walwicz’s short story class.
It took about eight years to write that novel. It was published in 2008 and was translated throughout Europe and sold well in the US and UK.
How did you come to write your Miles Franklin award-winning book, The Eye of the Sheep?
RMIT has played such a big part all the way through. In Peta Murray’s class about 15 years ago, I wrote a radio play. At that time I was new, I didn’t know I had any talent, but her feedback was so positive. One of the characters that came out of that became The Eye of the Sheep. That was the seed of it.
Do you hope your books will make an impact, or is it a more personal process?
More personal. Completely. There’s no thought for the reader. The piece has its own demand. In order to complete it and make it right – it asks for its own energy.
It’s like a piece of music. You know when it’s finished, not because the listener is going to love a drumbeat here or there – because you’re faithful to the integrity of the thing and it tells you what must be done.
The reader isn’t in the room for me. I’m the reader and I can see what needs to happen to make it right.
What advice would you have given yourself as a writer and what advice would you give to others?
I would have said for myself – don’t have such a struggle with acting.
For others, my advice is – read a lot. Enjoy your reading. Keep a diary – keep a pen moving across the page. Attend workshops. Be keen. Be brave. Share. Never bow down to the voices of doubt. Start a group, join a group. Muscle in!
What is something unexpected writing has taught you?
So much. It’s given me a lot of confidence. It’s given me my rightful place. It’s where I belong, creatively, it’s a place for me to go. It’s given me the tools to live the kind of life I want to live. I found my husband through writing, he is a children’s illustrator, Mark McBride. So it gave me a family in a way. It has given me a rich and expansive life, travel across the world and Australia. Writing has just about given me everything.
It’s also helped me survive – given how hard life can be sometimes in your own mind. You put all your thoughts and feelings down and it’s an amazing thing.
What’s something that made a significant impact on you?
Getting into RMIT! I'm not just being a suck, these really were things that changed my life. Studying playwriting with Peta Murray. Studying writing for children with Claire Renner. Working with the wonderful teachers at RMIT.
I loved every time I was ever at RMIT. I was happy, every time I was there. I felt contained, happy, stimulated, safe and as though I was making things happen. And I was. I was really committed. I felt like I was 1000% there; I was always early, I never missed a class, I always had my hand up, I was one of those people!
Sofie Laguna completed the Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing in 2001. In 2015 Sofie won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel, The Eye of the Sheep.
Top and insert: Sofie Laguna, photographed by RMIT alumnus Jules Tahan.
Background image: RMIT's Swanston Academic Building.