Episode 33: Holly Throsby

Holly Throsby is a songwriter, musician and author.

Penmanship podcast episode 33: Holly Throsby, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016As an accomplished singer and songwriter, Holly has been performing since 2004, and has released five albums. In 2010, she joined forces with her friends Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltmann to form the indie pop group Seeker Lover Keeper, which released one album the following year. In 2016, she became an author: her first novel was published in September by Allen & Unwin. It’s named Goodwood, and it’s about what happens to a small town in New South Wales when two prominent members of the community go missing within a week of each other.

The story is narrated by a 17 year-old named Jean Brown, and everything we see is filtered through the young narrator as she grapples with the dramatic turn of events. It’s a combination of a mystery narrative and a portrait of a town experiencing a collective trauma. Goodwood offers a wonderfully lush and well-realised depiction of several aspects of contemporary Australian life, and it announces Holly as a major talent in fiction writing.

I first met Holly in April 2013, when she invited me into her home in Sydney to talk about drug use for my book Talking Smack. In late September 2016, Holly’s book was launched in Brisbane by previous Penmanship guest Kathleen Noonan at Avid Reader bookstore. The morning after, we met at an inner-city hotel room for a conversation which touches on her extensive research into the creative process as she began the book’s first draft while pregnant with her daughter; why she likes the distance and anonymity that comes with writing fiction; how elements of the story and its characters draw on her upbringing in Sydney’s inner west; how she snuck some of her favourite Australian expressions into the book’s dialogue; what inspired her to record an album for children, and what led her to write an op-ed for The Sydney Morning Herald about same-sex marriage.

Holly Throsby is a Sydney-based songwriter and musician. She has released four solo albums and a children’s album called See! She is known for summoning melodies that sound beautifully crumpled, worn and decades-old, and matching them with hushed, cutting lyrics that read like a Carver short story. Holly has been nominated for four ARIA Awards: two for Best Female Artist, one for Best Children’s Album, and one as part of Seeker Lover Keeper, her band with Sally Seltmann and Sarah Blasko. Goodwood is Holly’s debut novel.

Holly Throsby on Twitter: @HollyThrosby

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3.00 Holly compares the feeling of publishing Goodwood to the release of her first album: “[I feel] kind of terrified, but very excited, because completing a big project always gives a nice sense of achievement”

4.00 Before she set off to write the book, Holly decided to read a lot about how other authors write: she particularly enjoyed Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, and On Writing by Stephen King

6.30 “Stephen King says to write every day, to put stuff in a drawer and leave it for a while, and decide whether to chuck it out or keep going”

8.00 Holly also liked Elmore Leonard’s ‘10 Rules of Writing‘, and John Steinbeck’s work on character description

8.30 “I like to give an indication, but also leave a lot of space for readers to fill in faces, or places, in their own mind. When I was writing Goodwood, I wanted it to be a bit of an ‘every town'”

9.30 Holly has always been inspired by Annie Proulx, largely because she was such a late publisher; Proux’s first novel Postcards was published when she was in her 50s

10.30 “I didn’t feel this huge rush to do it all through my 20s. I felt it was something that was slowly, slowly building in me, and I think that must be how a lot of authors feel, because they publish late in life and go on to have these careers into their 60s and 70s”

12.00 Holly likes the distance and anonymity that comes with writing fiction, as it frees people to be able to express themselves in a purer way: “I really understand people who write under pseudonyms; it makes perfect sense to me”

12.30 Holly did not consider writing Goodwood under a pseudonym: “The distance that I was able to achieve was in writing in fiction, as opposed to performing a song under my own name, which people often assume is autobiographical”

13.30 There are elements of Holly’s personality in the characters in the book, but she says she’s not concerned as the audience can make up their own minds about which elements reflect her

15.00 The mystery in Goodwood is laid out in the first few pages, as Holly was interested in “putting it out there and working backwards from there, in terms of the tension it creates”

16.00 “The book is really interested in relationships, and connections between people, place and family; a lot of them are unexpected or unlikely connections”

16.30 Holly set the book in 1992, partly because she wanted to avoid the way in which information spreads in the modern day, with the internet and mobile phones

17.00 In 1992, Holly was aged 13, but she was looking up to her elder sister, who is five years older; it was also a formative year in terms of popular music, some of which creeps into the book’s setting

18.30 Writing a cast of characters wasn’t as much of a challenge as Holly expected: “As they arrived to me, they were strangely formed, and I wonder if a lot of authors feel the same way”

20.30 The aspect of smalltown gossip reflects Holly’s upbringing in Balmain, a peninsula suburb in Sydney’s inner west: “If you walked up and down Darling Street, the main street, you really knew everybody”

22.30 Holly has read a handful of true crime books, and often finds them “a bit scary”, but she’s a big fan of crime mystery as a genre; her first love in this field was James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, which she studied at university

23.30 “I found [Elroy’s ‘L.A. Quartet‘] just fascinating in terms of the pace, and the way that the revelations would just smash you in the face; they were so fantastic”

25.00 Holly wrote the first draft of Goodwood in about eight months, while she was pregnant, which she liked as it gave her a hard deadline to meet

26.00 The book’s narrator, Jean Brown, was always conceived as a single-parent child, because Holly wanted to explore and celebrate non-traditional family structures

27.00 The first chapter Holly wrote in the first draft is quite similar to what appears in the finished book

29.00 With the first draft, Holly tried to write every day, between the hours of roughly 10am and 3pm

30.00 “When I do feel like I’ve written a good song, I like to play and sing it ten times in a row, and feel really excited by that. But the thing I really liked about [writing Goodwood] is how that long that lasted, and how many ups and downs you can feel within one project that’s extremely long”

31.00 Holly finished the first draft, gave birth to her daughter, and planned to pick it up again three months later; ultimately, she printed and read it aloud ten months later, on the advice of her publisher at Allen & Unwin, Richard Walsh

32.00 Songwriter and author Peggy Frew also advised Holly to print out, read it aloud, and change the text to a different font than the one she’d written it in, in order to spot errors

33.30 Richard Walsh advises Holly to “lock all the doors, turn the phone off, and keep writing, and I think that’s the best advice anyone can give a writer”

34.00 Holly’s mother, Margaret Throsby, read the third draft of the book, followed by the uncorrected proof which Holly showed to her partner and close friends

35.00 Speaking of copy editing, Holly says it was “a treat to have someone who’s so professional read your book in such a focussed way; that’s very flattering, like when someone mixes your record”

36.00 Holly’s book deal only came after the third draft; Richard Walsh is an old friend of her mother’s, and he encouraged her to write Goodwood, saying that he thinks it’ll be good book

37.00 Holly wrote the book without a publishing contract, which is the same approach that she took with her first album On Night (2004) and her 2010 children’s album, See!

38.30 “This is all new to me, the book world, but that didn’t seem strange to me. What if they said, ‘Yeah, write us a book!’ and it was crap, and they hated it!”

39.00 Her children’s album, See!, came about because Holly wanted to try something different, and wanted to make children’s music for her god-daughter

40.00 “There’s something really freeing about writing kids’ songs, because they’re not for grown-ups, so I felt like there would be this suspension of judgment. If kids like it, does it really matter if it’s good or bad?”

41.30 Holly would take a recorder to kids’ birthday parties and primary schools to get their voices on tape, to weave them into the songs

42.30 Whenever the kids’ show Small Potatoes is on ABC KIDS, Holly is glued to the TV, because she loves the innocence of what the children are expressing through the potato characters

43.00 Holly isn’t comfortable playing her own music in her house, but her partner sometimes plays See! to their daughter, Alvy, who is also a big fan of the new Warpaint single, ‘New Song’

44.00 Holly’s next album for adults is currently being mixed, and is due for release in February 2017, while the first single will be out in November 2016

45.00 On the new album, Holly played a lot of electric guitar, and Mick Turner from instrumental rock band Dirty Three – her favourite guitarist in the world – plays on the album, too

46.30 “Mick is an instinctive performer; he has this characteristic sound that’s really impressionistic. It’s really about his guitar, his amp and his sound, and somehow melding himself with a song. It’s very textural, and to me, as soon as I start hearing that swell up, I find it extremely emotional”

47.30 Mick Turner is partnered and has three children with Peggy Frew, and has also performed with Dirty Three drummer Jim White, who played with Seeker Lover Keeper alongside Holly, Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltmann

48.00 Holly worked at a Balmain video store named The Video Shift for eight years, between the ages of 18 and 26

49.30 Holly also worked at a Balmain bookshop at the age of 17: “A very classy bookshop, similar to an Avid Reader or a Riverbend [Books]; I felt very out of my depth. I wanted to be good at it, but I hadn’t read enough”

51.00 While saving up to make her first album, Holly worked six days a week programming music channels for airlines, including Qantas

52.30 Holly loved to use the phrase “of an evening” or “of a Saturday” because she loves Australian expressions such as “deadset keen”

54.00 Jean Brown’s best friend in Goodwood, Georgina, has photic sneeze reflex – a sensitivity to bright light – which is weird because Holly’s daughter now has it, as does the donor that Holly and her partner used to conceive Alvy

55.00 “Speaking of Australian expressions, in Goodwood, George says one of my favourites when she says she’s ‘fizzing at the bunghole’, which is an expression I learned in Hay, New South Wales, meaning to be very excited”

56.00 Holly has started writing her second novel, which is currently set in Cedar Valley, a town situated south of Goodwood, a year after the events of Goodwood

57.00 Holly wrote an op-ed piece for The Sydney Morning Herald about same-sex marriage in 2013, titled Sing out loud: marriage equality is in tune with the times

58.30 “I felt like I was really ready to speak out on that issue. I think it’s a very basic equal rights issue, and it saddens me that we haven’t caught up with a lot of other countries in the world”

59.00 “The thing that strikes me about the whole debate is that I can’t find convincing arguments against it […] I’m not so sure why people would be so nervous about it”

61.00 When writing Goodwood, Holly wanted to write about things that aren’t spoken about much, but which are prevalent in Australian society, such as domestic violence, undiagnosed mental illness and alcoholism

63.00 Holly’s reading diet mainly consists of fiction, political books and pop psychology, as well as reading a hard copy of The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper every day

65.00 “I still really like to read a printed newspaper, and I like to do the crosswords with a pen”; previous Penmanship guest David Astle does Friday’s SMH crosswords, and Holly says they are “impossible” to solve


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