Peggy Frew’s metamorphoses from bass guitarist to award-winning author

Peggy Frew
Peggy Frew
Award-winning author

Why did you decide to become a writer?

I was just sick of being broke all the time. Which doesn’t make any sense, to become a writer!

I’d been working on this ‘secret’ manuscript, which I didn’t realise was a book and it was getting longer and longer. That’s what made me think I probably should do a writing course, which is how I ended up at RMIT.

How did you get your first book published?

In the world of writing, there is a tradition of more experienced writers guiding and supporting those less experienced. I really felt like those [RMIT] teachers took that role beyond expectations. We were really encouraged to create a cache of short stories, so we always had something ready to send out to all the competitions.

It’s so easy to be discouraged – so to have someone saying, “Just keep sending it in, keep sending them in,” even after a number of failed attempts, was really important. The year that I finished the course and had my youngest child, I won The Age short story competition and then I had some interest from a publisher.

I sent in my first manuscript that I had been writing for eight years, and then, while the publisher was looking at it, I smashed out the first draft of House of Sticks in three months. It was this weird, explosive writing process – to write it so quickly with two children at home and a brand new baby. I’ve looked back over the marked-up manuscripts and I can see this crazy scrawl because I was feeding the baby and writing left-handed while I wrote at night.

Peggy Frew
Peggy Frew
The old library, Melbourne City campus.

Was it hard financially, studying while trying to get published?

I have to give all credit to my partner, throughout the whole course, every six months or so I would go to him and say, “I think I should get some sort of job that makes money” – and he would just encourage me to keep writing.

And actually last year, I made more money than him! But that’s one year of income for a four or five-year book … but he was able to pat me on the back and thank me for bringing home the bacon! If I didn’t have someone who was willing to support me financially I don’t know how I would have done it.

I’ve got friends and peers, who I met at RMIT, women usually, looking at that triple juggling act of work, family and trying to have a creative life or a writing life. There’s just not the time or energy if you are pressured by other things. So I feel really lucky.

What is your experience of the writing and editing process?

With House of Sticks, I just had crazy beginner’s confidence, which in some ways is great, everyone says you only get to write your first novel or make your first album once.

Once you’ve done it, there’s so much more fear. I was blindly confident and fortunately it worked really well the editorial process was great, I felt really happy with the end product.

With Hope Farm, I felt like I did everything wrong. I signed a contract before I’d written it – which people had told me never to do. Now I tell people never to do that, it’s a bad idea. I had a really strong feeling about the book, and that never went away, I just shouldn’t have shown it to anyone until I was way further down the track.

It’s such a funny thing writing a book, going from a band, where you’re playing with other people, to working alone. I reach this point where I’m desperate to share it with somebody, and I have to really restrain myself.

That is something that I’ve learnt from what happened with Hope Farm; I showed it to the wrong people, people didn’t like it. I am really sensitive and that would just paralyse me for months. That book took ages and felt like I had to really fight for it.

Was there a moment when you started to feel legitimate as an author?

I still sometimes feel like I haven’t really earned that title for myself. I think when Hope Farm was shortlisted for the Stella, and the Miles Franklin, I was like – okay, I must really be a writer now, my parents have heard of these prizes, this is official.

I think that was probably when I felt like I could tell people, or write it on my landing card at the airport!

Do you have any advice for someone considering a creative career?

I think a lot of us have a big disconnect between what we actually can do and what we see ourselves as capable of. Once I started doing the professional writing course and focusing on creative writing I realised that I had in fact been writing all along, even when I never thought writing could be a career for me.

I still had, and have, lots to learn as a writer. But I think that the stuff you need to do to write fiction – reading, observing, imagining things, filing little images or lines of dialogue away for future use – I had been doing unconsciously in one form or another all my life.

Peggy Frew completed the Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing in 2008. In 2010 House of Sticks won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. Her second novel Hope Farm was awarded the Barbara Jefferis Award, shortlisted for the Stella and Miles Franklin Awards and has recently been optioned for film.

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