Questions with Penni Russon

Penni Russon was born in Hobart, and spent her childhood roaming around on a small mountain. Eventually she had to grow up, and she moved from Tasmania to Melbourne to study classics, archaeology, women’s studies and contemporary literature. She writes, edits and teaches creative writing, and lives in outer Melbourne with her husband and three children.

Find out more about Penni at pennirusson.com, or her blog eglantinescake.blogspot.com

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It should also be said about Penni that she is one of the most incredible writers in Australia. She doesn’t say that in her bio but I am not exaggerating. I loved The Endsister so hard I cried when it was over. And Only, Ever, Always is a goddamn masterpiece and I won’t hear otherwise. She is also a fierce mama, a tremendous wit (just read her answers – she’s hilarious), and she is FROM TASMANIA. Woot! I hope you enjoy her beautiful answers.

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Tell us a bit about your latest book.

The Endsister is inspired by those classic novels that predate categories like middle grade and young adult, when kids fiction could be ambitious and literary while also being gentle and soothing, it seems to appeal to quite young kids, teenagers and even parents. The Endsister is for anyone who likes to curl up and get lost in a book. In other words hashtag mood.

What was the inspiration for the story?

One day at the dinner table, my middle child said ‘I know what an endsister is’ – the word gave me chills, as did the conversation that followed. And then later when big sister said ‘It’s not an endsister, it’s a [REDACTED]’, it formed the shape of the novel in my head – the best inspirations are the ones where they come with a middle and an ending!

Tell us about your main character. Why should we fall in love with them?

The main character is actually a whole family but the main main characters are probably Sibbi and Else. Sibbi is four and she is the small child in all of us, subject to the whim of others, subject even to her own feelings but also powerful in her own way. Else is sixteen and suffering mostly at her own hands, not sure if she is the talented violin player she’s always been told she is, but not sure who she will be if she stops playing. In many ways it’s a novel about the consequences of not naming your feelings – we see that in Sibbi and Else and also their mum who really struggles with loneliness, homesickness and depression.

Have you always written, or is writing something you’ve come to in adulthood?

I always read and I always played, writing is an extension of that. I did write poetry as a kid but I’d never have progressed past the first paragraph of a novel. I used to sit down all full of feelings but I couldn’t get the feelings to come to life on the page. It wasn’t until after I finished my uni degree that I took a professional writing course and accepted my fate.

What was your favourite book as a child?

So many. Today I am going to say Charley by Joan G. Robinson about a little girl who reads the torn-off scrap from a letter and as a result runs away from home, all due to a terrible misunderstanding – leaping to conclusions. It’s structurally elegant and really takes as its story momentum the fear we have as humans of being not just disliked but unlikeable.

Can you recommend another female author we should read?

I love Simmone Howell’s YA novels. She captures something about my own feelings of being a teenager that I don’t always see in YA fiction. The sort of joy and cleverness and excess of feeling, and how quickly joy can give way to sadness or self-doubt.

What was the last book you read and loved?

Inga Simpson’s The Nest, and because this is a writerly blog, I’ll tell you why. I really loved that if you had to identify “a goal” for the protagonist (the internet is very bossy about characters having goals) it’s that she wants to live (A) a quiet life and be left more-or-less alone. But in tension with that goal is another goal: she wants to (B) alleviate her loneliness and move on from grief. The novel is about the disruptions and interruptions of daily life and how they rub up against A and gently move her towards B. The transition from A to B being her primary goal happens so subtly that I didn’t notice it. The novel moves towards hope in such a quiet way, I really loved it. The language of birds throughout the novel helps you to see the consolations of nature with an artist’s eye and made me remember how much I value the process of art-making in interpreting the environment around us in order to live a meaningful life.

Do you have a favourite quote by a female author?

…Movies should be five minutes long. You should go in, see a couple of shots, maybe a room with orange draperies and a rug. A voice-over would say, “I’m having a hard time getting Raoul from the hotel room into the elevator.” And, bang, that’s the end. The lights come on, everybody walks out full of sympathy because this is a shared experience. Everybody in that theater knows how hard it is to get Raoul from the hotel room into the elevator. Everyone has had to do boring, dogged work…

From ‘The Politics of Narrative” by Lynn Emmanuel.

Tell us three fun facts about yourself, that other people might not know?

Penni: What’s three fun facts about me?

Martin: Fun facts?

Penni: I’m being interviewed for the internet and this is one of the questions.

Avery: I know three fun facts about you!

Penni: Oh, what?

Avery: Funny. Smart. Kind.

Penni: I am just going to write down this conversation.

Martin: You should totally do that.

Do you have a favourite illustrator of children’s books? Why?

Ron Brooks. I always loved John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat because it has such a Tasmanian quality to it, it’s very Huonville in the sense of place and light. Then there’s Fox which is a book that is impossibly beautiful and savage and fierce and ultimately forgiving of those qualities of the human heart that we most despise in ourselves, our weakness, our avarice, and our jealousy.

What are the best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve received?

The best was probably from Kirsty Murray which boiled down to “They’re waiting for you to write a book for them” (about the publisher I was doing freelance editing and a bit of reception work for). It really spurred me on to write Undine.

The worst advice I receive is the advice in my head ‘This is crap, why would you write this, who’s going to want to read this, this will never make you any money, what’s the point of writing if you aren’t going to make money BLAH BLAH BLAH’

What is your favourite song by a female singer, and why?
Some Days by The Waifs, because I feel like I’m rereading a favourite novel (or a letter from an old friend) every time I’ve read it. And it got me through some dark parenting days, feeling like I’m not alone in the wilderness: it’s a song about a mother doing it tough who loves her kids, but doesn’t love her life.

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