Show Your Working is a monthly column exploring how some of our favourite writers get things done. This month, we take a peek into the writing routine of author and filmmaker Sophie Hardcastle, whose debut novel Below Deck is out now from Allen & Unwin. Read an extract on our website!
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What does your workspace look like?
For the past two years, I’ve had the immense privilege of working in the libraries that make up the University of Oxford. Studying as a visiting scholar, and then working as a research assistant, I’ve had access to the Bodleian Libraries, which is a group of more than thirty research, faculty and departmental libraries. My favourite library to work in (and where I wrote Below Deck) is the Radcliffe Camera. Round like an observatory, the Radcliffe Camera is a mammoth chamber, made from stone, with huge windows and high ceilings. There are two storeys, and an upper balcony that circles the interior of the building. The balcony is where I sit. All around me are thick, leather-bound volumes embossed with gold letters. There lingers the scent of words that are centuries old.
Before coming to Oxford, I’d only worked in my bedroom with no distance between dreams and work. And though writing may, at times, feel like dreaming, it is work, so it suits me now to have a physical separation. I also like the repetitions—gathering my books, riding my bicycle into town, climbing the stairs to the upper balcony, finding a desk. They create routine in an otherwise shapeless schedule.
As I work in a library, I don’t have a reserved desk space. I change position daily depending on where there is a free desk. This impermanence forces me to keep my materials in order, because the space is public and the desks are shared. On the balcony, each desk seats six people. It’s silent, of course, but I like the proximity of other bodies. Writing a novel can be make you feel very alone, so I like having people physically close to me. I also enjoy being in a space where, in the same moment, people are writing code and reading about witches and creating formulas and analysing data and writing poetry, altogether, beneath the one roof.
Are you an analog or digital writer?
I write digitally, because I edit as I write. However, I do all my research and notetaking by hand. I only write in non-lined notebooks and am obsessed with Moleskines as I love the smooth, buttery texture of their paper.
What sort of software and hardware do you use to get your work done?
Below Deck was my research project for my final term studying as a Provost’s Scholar at Oxford University. I wrote it on Google Docs so that my supervisor could follow along on his computer during our tutorials. I’d never written a creative work under someone’s supervision before. It’s tradition when studying at Oxford to read your essays aloud to your tutor, and we did this for my novel as well. Each week I would write between six and ten thousand words, then on Friday morning, I would meet with my professor and would read aloud however many of those words I could get through in the hour. Reading my prose aloud helped me to hear and understand the rhythms of my work, and made any awkward or clunky sections stand out. In Below Deck, I experiment with punctuation, so it was cool to hear how the irregular punctuation affected the story’s rhythm and how it forced or deprived the breath. This process made me much more aware of my craft, and allowed me to make specific decisions that would affect the way my readers would consume the novel.
‘My perfect writing set up would involve writing in a quiet, but communal space, like a library, working alongside friends.’
I’d say my perfect writing set up would involve writing in a quiet, but communal space, like a library, working alongside friends. And then, ideally, I’d have somewhere to read aloud my work, whether it be to someone else, or just to myself, at the end of each writing week, to give me a strong sense of what’s working and what isn’t as I move forward.
Describe your writing practice?
I’ve always been an early bird, and I’ve always written with routine. When I write, I need to fully immerse myself in the world, so I’ve always prioritised giving myself writing blocks that have allowed me to inhabit a novel for extended periods of time. Before I could afford to write full time, this involved working other jobs and saving for months to give myself a period during which I could just write. I did this for both of my young adult books. I worked as a nanny, in a surfboard factory and at a bar for several months, then took time off to punch out the first drafts. For Running Like China, I took two months, and for Breathing Under Water, I took four months. It always felt like a race against time to get the draft out, but knowing there was an end to the writing period was the pressure I needed to sit down every day and do nothing but write.
Writing Below Deck, my first novel for adults, was different in that I was studying on a scholarship, so for the first time, I didn’t have to worry about living expenses. The deadline was still there though, because I was writing it as my term research project, and the terms are only eight weeks long. It put an enormous amount of pressure on me to write the first draft very quickly, but I loved it. And I knew it was such a luxury to not be worrying about living costs, so I got up every day and wrote, feeling immensely grateful for the opportunity.
‘No text exists in a vacuum, and it’s important to understand what has come before you…you must know the rules before you can break them.’
Has your writing practice changed over the years? If so, how?
My writing practice has changed significantly over the years in that I’ve gone from letting the writing unfold by itself, to methodically planning what’s going to happen. Running Like China was a memoir, so I was retelling stories from memory. It was my first time writing a book and there wasn’t much in the way of structure until I worked with an editor. Breathing Under Water was my first novel, and though I knew what the major drama would be, I didn’t know how the story would unfold or how it would resolve. Writing it surprised me in many ways, and I thought I would always write like that because I enjoyed the process so much. Below Deck was the first novel I ever planned, and I did so because my supervisor asked me for a detailed synopsis at the beginning of the term. It was a story I’d been mulling over for almost three years—the kind where it feels like everything that happens in your life is somehow feeding into the narrative. What I loved about planning it was that I had something very specific that I wanted to say, and so it was a process of finding the best possible way to tell that truth. I made very conscious decisions about how to tell the story. It therefore made me think about my craft and my role as the author. I imagine I will use this method of intense planning when I write my next novel.
How do you encourage inspiration to strike?
I did two terms of research at Oxford before I started writing Below Deck. This involved writing three essays a fortnight, which amounted to twenty-four essays. My subjects were 20th Century Poetry, Theory of the Novel, and Literature of the Environment, so I wrote essays on poets, novelists, critical theorists and philosophers for four months in the lead up to writing Below Deck. It meant that I spent hours critically analysing other people’s work, thinking about what worked and what didn’t. Reading widely exposed me to many different techniques, and helped me to situate my work in the context of others. No text exists in a vacuum, and I think it’s important to understand what has come before you. As my teacher at art school used to tell me, you must know the rules before you can break them. Reading widely also encouraged inspiration. Many of my ideas sprung from reading philosophy and literary non-fiction. In that sense, I think wide and diverse reading is the best way for me to deal with writer’s block. In saying that, there does comes a point when you must just write. A publisher once told me, get it out, Soph, because I can’t edit a vacuum! And I think this is as helpful advice as any I could have asked for!
Sophie and co-creator Charlie Ford’s miniseries Cloudy River is now streaming on SBS On Demand.