Interview With Author Gwen Wilson

# Please introduce yourself and your book!

Hi. My name is Gwen Wilson and thank you for inviting me to contribute. I hail from Wollongong, an Australian city on the Pacific Ocean coast, about ninety minutes south of Sydney, where I live with my husband Bill, and, sadly, no pets. After careers in shipping, logistics and the supply chain (nothing to do with writing!) we retired here to a scenic, comfortable lifestyle which is a world away from my tough upbringing.

In part, it was the contrast between then and now that caused me to revisit the traumatic circumstances of my first twenty years. After ten years of writing, the result is my memoir I Belong to No One. I was blessed to be traditionally published, by Hachette Australia in June 2015, and Orion UK in December 2015. My book is readily available worldwide by ordering through your favourite bookstore or online retailer, in both Trade and Mass Paperback sizes, eBook and as an audio book, narrated by … me!

# What is the real-life story behind your book?

I grew up in 1950s/60s Australia, in the working class western suburbs of Sydney, the daughter of a sole parent who was stricken with mental illness. I was a bright, imaginative child born into a confusing world of half-truths and hardship: fatherless, dirt poor, a welfare kid – and illegitimate to boot.

The emotional void in my early years, and my search for love, produced an almost inevitable result: I fell pregnant to a charming rogue at sixteen and abandoned my education despite winning scholarships. Faced with a choice between abortion, adoption and marriage, I bucked the system and brought my baby home from hospital, but society was not kind to unwed mothers. When my son was three months old, I reluctantly agreed to marry the father – a disastrous decision.

In 1974, in the dying days of what Australia now terms the Forced Adoption Era the eighteen-year-old me was persuaded that surrendering my toddler was the best thing for my child’s future.

But I Belong to No One is by no means a hard luck story. It is, in fact, a testimony to triumph of will over adversity. One of my favourite quotes comes from the Dalai Lama: – “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us, and make us kinder. You always have the choice.”

# What inspired your creativity?

As I stood to make an impromptu speech at my 50th birthday party, I suddenly realised that each group of guests represented a distinct part of my life. It was like seeing my life’s journey mapped out in front of me. Now I stood in front of them as a well-dressed, financially secure, successful career woman, with a supportive husband beside me, and family, friends and colleagues all around me. It was like a storyboard laid out in front of me; the rags to riches tale of a girl from humble beginnings who was now the hostess of this lavish evening.

My life could so easily have gone a different way, and as I spoke, I felt the spiritual presence of those people who had supported me and guided me in my childhood. Particularly the strong and caring working class women who – despite growing up in an Australia that offered them little personal opportunity – had surrounded me with a sense of safety, and imbued me with the character traits which pulled me through those very tough times.

I went home determined to document my story as a way of honouring them, and of acknowledging where I had come from. As Sandra Day O’Connor is quoted as saying:- “We don’t accomplish anything in this world alone … and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads form one to another that creates something.”

# How do you deal with creative block?

That is not really my problem. Mine is the unseen thief who sneaks into the house and steals away my time for writing. I don’t wait for a mood to hit me. I write every day I can, regardless of whether the output is usable or “perfect”. But I’ve realised that walking assists the brain think through scenarios, so I sometimes record on my cell phone as I walk, type it all up when I get home, and then sift through for the meaningful bits. Setting aside a tough passage overnight also works, or thinking while in the shower, making coffee … pretending to listen to my husband (Whoops! Did I just confess that?).

# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

If I were writing a novel, one of the answers would be around unbelievable plot and under-developed characters. Since I am writing about my memoir, I’ll answer from the perspective of the actual writing process.

They say writers fall into two camps, the Plotters and the Pantsers. I’m definitely the latter. In I Belong to No One my early drafts were anything and everything I remembered. Lots of good times, lots of bad times. Funny stories. Sad stories. Family History. Social History. Stray research. Commentary on how times have changed.

At first I tried honing every chapter as I wrote it. Over and over, perfecting sentence structure and grammar. There was a moment when I’d been writing for two years, (I was still working fulltime) that the manuscript had ten chapters and I was still only seven years old. I didn’t have a clear idea of where it was going – not even where I would end it. I had to learn to just write the story, go with wherever it led me, and deal with the editing later. Eventually twice as many words were ditched as remained in the published book, and a good many of those came from those first two years of writing, which turned in to my source material.

I didn’t intend it, but again, my current manuscript has been written with many different structures. If you plan, you avoid that. On the other hand, I am experimenting on the page, and that has value too. The problem with being a Pantser is you have to be prepared for many edits, and if you are trying to earn a living from writing you don’t have time for that.

# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

I’m not instinctively good at titles. I Belong to No One had many titles along the way, until one day I had a consultation with a book marketing guru. I passed her some of the final pages to read, and within a few minutes she pointed to a phrase, “There,” she said. “That’s your title sitting right there.” And so it was.

Because I am traditionally published, I had to be prepared the publisher would choose another title. In this case they didn’t. They also chose the cover and ran it by me for “approval”. I had an emotional meltdown when I saw it, and wanted changes. They diplomatically ignored me, and it was the right call.

A store browser will pick up a book if something about the cover or title appeals. If you’re lucky they’ll flick over to the back cover. If you’re very, very lucky they’ll actually read the blurb. The author has between ten and sixty seconds of the shopper’s attention.

If you can, listen to the publishing experts about the cover and title for your book. They’ve done this many times, and if you’re a newbie, it’s unlikely you’ll know better than their experience. If you can’t, look at other books in your genre. Research which ones have been the better sellers. Take inspiration from theirs. There are very few book covers which are absolutely unique. In my case, my cover was similar to another book called Girl 43 by Maree Giles, also published by Hachette Australia.

Having said all that, I would love if my next book cover featured an artwork that is mentioned within the pages!

# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

The sensible thing would be not to read reviews at all, but which emerging author has that inner strength?

Writing a memoir is personal, however once it is published your story becomes public property. People feel entitled to review you, as a person, rather than the book. The first two negative reviews I read obliterated all the many positive reviews I had received. I went into a hole.

Now I have learnt to distance myself from that and accept that my book is not for everyone, just the same as I don’t rave about every book I read. Not everyone is attuned to the message within it. Others have grown up in a more modern society, so simply cannot recognise what was not on offer in my time. Sometimes I look at what other books that negative reviewer has rated highly, and now I realise there is a market for personal horror stories. For some, my book is not traumatic enough.

Harking back to the previous question, one reviewer rated me very badly because “the book did not match the title”. Putting aside that it demonstrates they did not recognise the actual line in the text, and the overall tone of the content, it does reinforce the importance that readers place on the book title.

# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book?

The best was that I was able to forgive my mother, both on the page, and in my heart. My mother could not nurture me and as a child I learned it was fruitless and unfair of me to expect her to. What would be sadder still is if I blamed her. For all I know, my mother wanted to be closer, but was incapable on account of her mental illness. Learning to forgive, though, took time and experience. I had to put a lot of resentment and bitterness behind me.

The worst thing about writing memoir is grappling with whether you have the moral right to tell the story, knowing that you are inevitably telling others stories as well. I sought permission from certain friends before their section was published.

The most surprising was seeing that, in the transformation from manuscript to printed book, your words take on a power that was latent before. Although publishers see it every day of their life, it was my first time. If I’d understood that at the outset, I may have been too constrained to write my memoir in the style I have.

The other thing that took me completely unawares was how others interpreted my writing. I Belong to No One means different things to different readers. Since publication, there has been as much interest in a side issue in the book – domestic violence – as there has been in a public awareness of adoption and its effects.

# What are your plans for future books?

While writing I Belong to No One, I discovered that the last legitimate birth on my maternal line was my great-grandmother in 1854. I have been retracing her steps in an effort to understand how a woman from a middle class English Victorian family died in an asylum for destitute people in Sydney. Is there something in her life history that laid the seed for the instability and family turmoil that was daily life for the subsequent three generations?

By writing in my Pantser method, this manuscript grew to the extent it needed to be split into two books. The first, tentatively titled Florence & Lucy, about my grandmother and great-aunt, is currently with a professional editor, in what I hope is its final round before being pitched to my agent.

# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

When we moved to this wonderfully convivial over-55s lifestyle resort, on a golf course, beside the beach … I wasn’t 55, wasn’t a strong swimmer and didn’t play golf. Which part of the move was all about my needs?

Seriously, I think I have already talked quite enough about myself 🙂

But you can learn more about me on my:

Facebook Author Page:
LinkedIn Profile: Gwen Wilson | LinkedIn
Or follow my blog, The Reluctant Retiree:
You can also read those reviews, good & bad at:


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