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Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings Debut Spotlight feature. For May that debut is The Albatross by Nina Wan (Pan Macmillan), a big-hearted, beautifully written and engaging novel about first love, second chances and the most elusive shot in golf. We spoke to Nina about her publishing journey and the inspiration behind the book.

Stay tuned later this month for a review of the book from Debut Spotlight critic Rosie Ofori Ward, and a video reading from the author on our Instagram.

For those who haven’t read The Albatross yet, can you give a brief summary?

The Albatross tells the story of a 36-year-old woman named Primrose Li, whose marriage is teetering on the brink. Her husband has grown distant in the aftermath of his cancer battle, and Primrose herself is driven to strange compulsions while harbouring a painful secret. To add to complications, Peter, the boy she loved twenty years ago, is now living across the street, forcing her to re-examine long-buried feelings in the light of the present.

In the midst of all this, she finds refuge in a dilapidated golf course nearing the end of its days. And through trying her hand at a sport she proves to be terrible at, she begins to make sense of who she is and what she really wants.

Can you tell us about what drove you to write this book, and the book’s journey to publication more broadly?

I took up golf several years ago, at a time when I was reeling from my husband’s struggles with cancer. At first, I was reluctant to try it, but it turned out to be a profoundly meditative experience. I knew then that I wanted to write a story about a troubled woman who somehow wound up on a golf course, of all places.

A few years later, after I finally found time to complete a manuscript, I began to send it out to publishers. There were a few passes, but all came with very helpful advice which helped me keep going. One of the things I did was to take part in a literary speed dating event, where I found a number of publishers who were interested to read the manuscript. Around the same time, a friend suggested I submit it for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. When I was shortlisted for that award, Cate Blake from Pan Macmillan contacted me to ask if she could read it. The rest, as they say, was history.

What does your writing process look like? Any particular strategies or philosophies that help you find inspiration or put words on the page, or self-care strategies that help you when writing gets difficult?

My process was pretty chaotic while I was working on The Albatross. I wrote most of the first draft during Covid lockdown, while home schooling the kids and working my day job. I wrote in randomly scattered bursts throughout the day, and in longer stretches after everyone else had gone to bed.

The fact that I was busy with other commitments helped make my writing time feel like a luxury. It motivated me to use the time more efficiently than I otherwise would have. The idea that ‘if you want something done, give it to a busy person’ certainly held true for me.

Other than that, I did find hot showers to be a great remedy for writer’s block, and I probably took more of them than was good for me.

This book perfectly balances humour with intensity, exploring themes of family, love, duty and identity—how did you go about striking that balance in your writing process?

I think it’s mostly an instinctive process, rather like when a painter steps back from the canvas to get a sense of what needs to be accentuated or diminished. Sometimes the slightest dab of paint can make a huge difference to a picture, and other times, an entire area needs to be reworked. Writing is the same, it’s a constant process of addition and subtraction to get the right balance.

A little bit of humour can be a powerful thing, and often I found that just a sprinkle of it was enough. The same applied to many of the darker tones in the book—grief, anger, heartache. My preference was always to suggest, to imply, rather than to explicitly articulate. There is a special energy that can be generated in a story when the author knows when to hold her tongue.

As a former journalist for the Australian Financial Review, how does your creative process and approach to writing more generally differ for fiction writing? What drove you to pursue fiction?

I enjoyed my time as a journalist, but I was always drawn to the complete freedom of expression that comes with writing fiction.

As a journalist, your creativity is somewhat restricted by the way real life events unfold before your eyes. You’re also very much restricted by space—that is, by a word limit or, if you are writing for print, by the number of centimetres your editor can afford to give you. Because of that, writing for news is top-heavy. You must reveal the key points in the very beginning, there is no time to beat around the bush.

Writing a novel is very different. The story unfolds slowly, drawing the reader in with hints and trails that eventually lead to the heart of what you are trying to say and the emotions you are trying to trigger. I like the fact that you can take your time with fiction.

What’s one thing you know now about the writing and publishing journey that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

I’ve learnt along the way that writing and publishing a book is not just a marathon, it’s a series of marathons. I know now that the journey is not finished by the time you type the last word or hold your published book in your hand; it is only just beginning. So as a writer, you need to brace yourself, take a deep breath at each juncture, and celebrate each milestone, however small they may be.

And another thing: along this arduous journey, you will often feel rejected and alone, but you will also meet people who are kind and generous beyond your imagination.

What other writers or books influenced your writing (either this book specifically or your writing more broadly)? Are there any great books you’ve read lately that you’d like to recommend to KYD readers?

Sometimes the power of the language in a book stays with me long after details of the story have faded with memory. These are the books I cherish the most, and they include the works of J.M.Coetzee, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath. Recently, I’ve been re-reading the works of Joan Didion, as I love the simplicity and poetry of her writing as delivered through the prism of journalism. I highly recommend the collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem in particular.

The Albatross is available now from your local independent bookseller.