Several years ago somewhere between my first, inner-city pregnancy and coming to terms with a very wakeful, colicky baby, I met the delightful Penni Russon on a public Australian mother’s online forum. I liked her quirky, intelligent, earthy style and soon enough we discovered we were almost neighbours and walked to a local café with our prams to meet up. She’s the kind of person who has a fairy door in her backyard, has a love of interesting things, and write novels for young people. While we no longer live in walking distance, nor use the forum or the subsequent online community that formed, we still connect through Facebook, through her blog Eglantine’s Cake and more recently, on Twitter.
Recently I asked Penni to share how blogging has helped her personally and professionally, and her thoughts on some things that I wonder about, like sharing information online and the future of books. I’m sure you’ll find she has some interesting things to say.
Penni wrote her first blog post “A smidge over two and a half years” ago in March 2006. “On a personal level, it’s an amazing record of my kids, and a personal diary of my wrestling with motherhood. Plus I feel like I’m putting something nice out there, it’s a good place in the world, written without hostility or contention or anxiety, that captures to me some of what it is to be human, on an every day scale. And I have come to appreciate the poetics of a beautifully placed hyperlink. I guess I’ve honed my skill to see beauty in the internet.
“Professionally it’s certainly helped give me more status within the industry. A lot of writers, editors and other industry professionals are regular readers of my blog and it’s been well reviewed more than once in the mainstream and industry press (like The Age, or Bookseller and Publisher). I’ve had some opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise, like speaking gigs and commissions for articles.
Writing is often a lonely and isolated job, where you don’t necessarily meet other people doing the same thing as you, and I’ve created a community for myself of regular readers, whose blogs I also read and comment on. I’ve also been told that I’ve inspired other lovely smart people to start their own blogs, and that makes me happy. As a writer I’ve explored new voices and really begun to come to terms with the whole idea of digital media and the potential demise/transformation of the book. Also, as a writer for young people, it gives me more insight into how technology connects up with worlds, what it means to exist simultaneously in real life and online, and where the disconnect is between those two personas.
Me: You were involved in an online community where you were anonymous and shared details about your pregnancies and births, motherhood etc. Now you have a public blog and share photos, videos and animations of your daughters and husband. Can you share your thoughts around the sharing of personal information online?
As a writer it was never really an option for me to blog anonymously, since my blog is an extension of my professional identity. I knew from the outset that I wanted my blog to have a strong visual element and be personal rather than an ‘expert’ blog, which is why I post pictures of the girls and my home, among other things.
Penni, Frederique and Una
I find blogs that are very text heavy a bit hard going to read, and I am bored by ‘let me tell you how to write a query letter’ style author blogs (which isn’t a criticism of them as such, many of those styles of blogs are far more popular than mine and more power to them, it just isn’t what I personally wanted to read or write). I was more influenced in the beginning by craft blogs like Loobylu and Molly Chicken. In fact when I started writing Eglantine’s Cake I didn’t read any writer’s blogs. When I started I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, I just started talking into space, though it wasn’t long before a few friends stumbled across it. It’s momentum has been slow and steady and now I have about 1500 unique visitors a month (I wish they’d all buy my books!).
Because of its humble beginnings I have always felt comfortable with the idea of posting pictures of my kids and using their real names. Occasionally I wonder how they will feel about the identities I have created for them online, and as they get older I know I’ll probably be constrained more in what I can write about them, because they’ll be more self-conscious about it (which will be sad for me). All I can say is I write with empathy and love and hopefully that is how they will see it.
My books are dedicated to them by name so I don’t really see any point in trying to conceal their identities with cute nicknames (and must admit at finding that sort of coyness a little alienating in some blogs, depending on the nicknames used. If you’re going to do it, at least come up with a name or symbol that your reader can identify with, can love even.)
Perhaps I am naive but I don’t feel threatened in terms of personal security by that information existing online. Of course I can be tracked down if anyone was keen enough to find me, but I could anyway, through my books, through the biographical information already available about me. I am, to some degree, a public entity.
The one thing I find I do is I edit a lot of negative stuff out, for example I don’t write about my book sales unless they’re good, and I try not to write about my personal low points too much either, for example, I’ve never blogged about my father in law being terminally ill. This isn’t so much about presenting a brave face, but about what I am comfortable sharing. I actually have a deep aversion to sympathy so I try not to write anything that solicits this response. And I don’t want to bitch and moan about the more tedious aspects of my life. And as a writer, I do want it to have some marketing potential so getting on there and saying, ‘this book has only sold so many copies’ if the sales have been disappointing doesn’t seem a very positive endorsement of myself. So I guess I am glossing out some of the bad bits, and sometimes I think that’s a little unfortunate – if I was anonymous, I might feel more comfortable about showing some of the raw, painful aspects of my life, and I know this can be cathartic for readers. But I just can’t. After all, my mother reads my blog, and so do my in-laws, and one day my kids will be able to read it too.
I also asked Penni to share her thoughts around the future of books, as impacted by online communities and ebooks
I think we could possibly end up with a generation in which there are more writers than readers. Reading/writing as a dichotomy is often seen as passive/active (though this has rightfully been addressed thematically. Think The Neverending Story by Michael Ende in which reading becomes a powerful act of creation). I think new trends in education probably push writing more than reading. Writing is obviously empowering and relevant, but I don’t know that people see reading as the same way, which is extremely sad in a society that often leaves people adrift and alienated.
I predict a reading renaissance. Much like craft has emerged as an antidote to modern, empty, meaningless consumption, I think novels will re-emerge as a response to the many forms of ultimately unsatisfying entertainment that proliferates in a consumer society (perhaps as a response to our collective love of trash, which I admit I am also guilty of).
I also foresee a rising trend in storytelling in which readers create and control the story path (like in the second half of Neverending Story, where Bastien actually enters the world of the novel and actively participates in shaping reality, initially through naming. I wonder what forms this will take, personally I find game narratives (where your choices can direct the game narrative to an extent) static and boring, much like those old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books – there’s no real freedom for the average player to go in any direction they want, to step outside the parameters of the game Having said that, I do think game narratives will have an enormous influence online storytelling.
I think blogs have more to tell us about the future of collaborative narrative – for example the way blogs can blend fact and fiction and often utilise devices from fiction, like dialogue, characterisation, pace, tension, narrative ‘twists’. And the way blogs can have multiple authors and are open to an unpredictable public participation through the comments interface. Other present phenomena that I think may continue to develop in interesting way are the ‘recap’ (in which stories are summarised and retold, often with hilarious commentary) and fan fiction. I’m not saying this precludes conventional publishing (in fact both these forms build on existing novels), but that there will continue to be new ways to tell stories using technologies that don’t exist yet.
I personally think electronic readers like the Iliad and the Sony ereader are exciting ideas, but so far have failed to capture the possibilities of their form. If I have a choice between reading Pride and Prejudice in book form or on a screen, I know which one I’d choose. But if Pride and Prejudice on a screen had some other aesthetic possibilities (image, animation, other design features) then I’d definitely be swayed in that direction. The treelover in me hopes that these ereaders will get it right sometime. I want them to be sturdy, beautiful, flexible (open source please), writeable and experimental, not driven by the idea of capturing a ‘safe’ market of book readers, but perhaps aiming themselves at a new, possibly younger, certainly savvier market.”
Thanks Penni. Now I have to go and get myself a copy of The Neverending Story (loved that movie, as a kid)
All photos courtesy of Penni. You can read more words from Penni over at her lovely blog Eglantine’s Cake