February Dinner Meeting Report

Do all editors have an aspiring writer buried somewhere inside? After all, we're really good at fixing up bad writing, so it should come naturally to us - or should it? In this meeting we heard from two editors who've had success with writing as well.

dinnermeeting-large

Kate Cuthbert has her dream job. It really does seem as if it was made for her and her life was a journey towards manifesting it. Kate described to us her transformation from embarrassed romance novel reader to out-and-proud proponent, and her battle against the stereotype that romance readers are intellectual lightweights.

Considering the staggering sales figures of romance novels - around 50 per cent of all fiction sold - you have to wonder where people are reading them. It was desperation that made Kate overcome her embarrassment of reading romance in public (all in the good cause of her master's thesis), on the train on the way to uni, although she admits she had a three-stop no-go zone in the vicinity of uni in case anyone saw her!

The struggle with her own embarrassment about reading romance in public prompted Kate to ask why - a topic she has explored in focus groups and in her writing. She reads them because she loves happy endings and she believes in the redemptive power of love (and the hot sex doesn't hurt).

Kate's fame in the romance game started with a letter to the editor of the Brisbane Courier Mail about the subversiveness of romance novels. They didn't print the letter but it prompted a phone call from the editor that led to a feature article and then a fortnightly column from 2006 to 2008. She has also written for All About Romance, Bookseller+Publisher, the New York Journal of Books, the Australian Romance Readers Association and Booktopia. Meanwhile, she kept on blogging and she feels that timing, at the advent of Web 2.0, contributed to her lucky break.

On her blog, Kate enjoyed the free reign to write whatever she wanted, developing her network of fans and contacts and encouraging readers to bring their romance novels out in public. She was soon Australia's 'go-to expert on romance writing'.

Now she works as acquisitions manager of the digital-first imprint for Escape Publishing, a division of Harlequin Australia. It was fascinating to hear about the sub-genres in romance, which include Christian, Amish, science fiction, fantasy and romantic suspense. Kate also explained to us how, except for historical romance, romance novels have to keep up with the times, explore current issues and reflect today's gender relations.

As Kate says, if you think about popular movies, there's always a love interest. That got me thinking about books that I've read and about what a romance novel actually is, because there's a love plot going on in so many of them ...

Kath Harper credits her writing success to her dog. Back in the mid-noughties, whenever Kath would get a bit too frustrated with a manuscript or author and start 'verbalising' at her computer, her dog would quietly get up and leave the room. Eventually Kath got the message and realised that leaving the room would do her good too, so she started taking breaks from the desk by walking around the neighbourhood.

On one of these walks, Kath spied a notice for a local theatre company and decided to give acting a go. After getting a few strange male roles in various productions, finding that doing pelvic floor exercises while on stage helped one look 'intense and concentrated' and doing a bit of work in production and backstage, it occurred to Kath to give playwriting a go. In 2006 she submitted a play that she'd written over two nights and it was accepted and produced by her company.

Kath's creative life has been characterised by trying new things, so next she wrote a short comedy, which won the Boroondara Theatre Company's National Playwright Competition.

Her most recent play, produced by her local theatre company in late 2012, was set in an aged care facility, reflecting a recent experience she'd had with her mother. For this effort, Kath became a cover girl - albeit on the cover of Australian Senior magazine, but that's one more cover than most of us!

Kath did a certificate course in Professional Writing and Editing at the CAE - brandishing her AE certificate to wangle her way out of having to do any of the editing units - and expanded her repertoire into short stories. Her story Grandad's Garden won a prize in the unpublished writers' category of the 2012 National Year of Reading competition and she blushingly received her $1000 cheque from hunky actor William McInnes. She also won first prize in the Odyssey House Short Story Competition in 2012 for her story Cry Baby.

Next she thought she'd have a bash at crime fiction for Sisters in Crime's annual Scarlett Stiletto competition. She entered in several categories and won in the Body in the Library category, one of 11 prizes from 182 entries. Kath's tablemate on the night, who had entered umpteen times with no recognition, asked Kath how many times she'd entered and Kath had to admit shamefacedly it was her first.

Seeing a pattern here? Whatever she tries is gold. I'd love for Kath to write a novel next; based on her form she'll probably win the Miles Franklin with her first attempt!

Jo Tayler