I had the pleasure of meeting Hayley at a dinner (pre-COVID times, obviously) when she was visiting Perth for a writing residency. I instantly warmed to her — she struck me as a genuine, open person, passionate about writing and her five kids! Yes, five kids! Recently, I interviewed Hayley to find out more about what drives this energetic and passionate writer.
NLK: You knew you wanted to write for a long time before you did, what was the catalyst that got your started?
HL: I started writing seriously during two different periods. The first was in my early twenties when I almost completed my first dystopian YA manuscript. This manuscript took me to John Marsden’s Tye Estate in Victoria where I got to meet with editors and other writers, attend a weekend of talks and load my head with information about the publishing process and the craft of writing. That first manuscript surprisingly got a bite from an editor at Text Publishing during that weekend away, but was ultimately rejected. I allowed that rejection to dishearten me enough to stop writing for six years. In those six years, I kept busy working, having babies and journaling, a cathartic process I have done since I was seven. But there was something about turning thirty that triggered a hunger in me. An awareness of the brevity of my time on earth. I had three young daughters aged four and under when I decided to get back to writing. Finish a novel if it killed me. I told myself that if I had no serious interest from a publisher by the time I turned forty, I would concede that I wasn’t a good enough writer, and give the novel attempts away.
NLK: Can you please tell us about your first novel Inside the Tiger which was inspired by your personal experiences? Has your creative process changed with your subsequent books, Ruby Tuesday and Skin Deep?
HL: Inside the Tiger, my first published novel, is about a seventeen-year-old elite Sydney school girl who writes to an Australian death row prisoner in Thailand, before falling for him and destroying them both. The story was inspired by the five years I spent writing to a death row prisoner in Thailand. The daily horrors of prison life, which feature heavily throughout Inside the Tiger, along with my unforgettable visit to BangKwang Central prison are all drawn from real experiences. I find real experiences a wonderful source of inspiration for my novels, but the process of writing each novel seems to be unique. Inside the Tiger was plot driven for instance, while Ruby Tuesday was more character driven. Some stories spill out and some require a bit of dragging through mud. But the consistent element for me seems to be a strong central theme. If there’s something I want to explore, the best place for me to do that is through writing and storytelling.
NLK: You primarily write for young adults, what do you believe are the biggest challenges in writing for this age group?
HL: By far the biggest challenge for me in writing YA is the feeling of sometimes being caught between brutal honesty in my writing and responsibility to the audience. I’m talking about writing sensitive subject matter, and striking that delicate balance between telling a bare-bones truthful story, while also understanding the wide range of ages that will be reading that story. A thirteen-year-old is a lot younger than a seventeen-year-old reader as far as appropriate content is concerned. What I do is just to write the bare bones story. Tell it brutally and honestly, because that’s the best thing a writer can do. And it’s our job to be honest. I wait to discuss content until the editing stage, where it’s important for myself and my editor to reach a compromise on appropriate content.
NLK: How did Inside the Tiger get picked up by Penguin Random House? What was the first thing you did when you received your publishing contract? How did it feel?
HL: Inside the Tiger was my second manuscript that Penguin Random House had considered for publication, and by the time Inside the Tigershortlisted for the Vogel Prize, there were a number of publishers interested in it. I was on my family’s rural property in the Western Ranges of NSW with no phone reception the day I was meant to find out if Penguin Random House were acquiring the manuscript. So I drove towards the township of Mudgee, and as soon as I heard messages coming through on my phone, I knew I was back in range and pulled over. My fingers trembled as I scrolled through my messages. And there it was. My incredible agent Clare Forster had written, ‘Good news! Penguin Random House have made us an offer. Please call!’ My heart was pounding as I made that call to her from inside my hot car. She asked if I wanted to take the offer and I said a big yes. I had already formed a good working relationship with the amazing editor, Michelle Madden, at Penguin, and I couldn’t wait to work with her on my novel. As I drove back to our country property, I couldn’t stop the giddy, tumbly feeling in my stomach. This was something I had dreamed of since I was single digits. Having a story published. Now I was going to see not just a story, but my first novel in print. I rumbled through the three gates to our property, then down through the shallow creek to the house. My family came out to greet me. ‘You’re looking at Penguin’s newest author,’ I said.
NLK: You have five kids, how on earth do you find time to write? Can you please share your top time management hacks?
HL: When my house looks like a bomb has hit it, that usually means I am punching out some great writing. When my house is in a state of decency, that generally means my writing isn’t! I do have five girls, and the juggling act is overwhelming sometimes, but I carve time when I need to. I work until late at night, or snatch an hour here or there. When I’m on a deadline, the girls all know ‘Mumma is writing in her room’ and I remind them that once I have this editing/draft finished, life will get more fun again. I think it’s very easy to waste time on social media. I am guilty of this, but it’s amazing the hours that can be swallowed up doing unhelpful things. I find if I focus and make the effort to consciously devote time to writing and reading each day (or most days), then bit by slow bit, the novel gets written. I wish I was a great time manager, but I’m not. I run behind schedule and get frazzled and sometimes (often!) I overcommit. But I think discipline is a work-in-progress and I’m trying to work on it.
NLK: You’ve won a number of residencies and writing fellowships (including a residency in Ireland), and Inside the Tiger was shortlisted for the Vogel Award in 2017, was a CBCA notable book in 2019 and was long-listed for the Best Crime Novel Sisters-in-Crime Davitt Award in 2019, what do you feel is your biggest professional achievement to date and why?
HL: The things that stand out to me are the firsts. There is no feeling like the very first time an industry professional recognises that your writing has promise. Which is what happened to me in 2014 when Penguin Random House sent me an email about a manuscript I had submitted to them the year before. I leapt out of bed when I read that they were interested in my manuscript and felt my writing had real promise. It was the first time an editor had ever told me that. Also winning the Litlink Fellowship with Varuna the Writers’ House in 2016 had me leaping around with joy. These were real writers. And they were backing me! On the back of this, came the Vogel Prize shortlisting, and I was simply stunned. I really never thought I would get that kind of recognition. There are so many moments of rejection in a writer’s life, countless moments of not feeling good enough, that when you get these small moments of validation, the joy it brings is palpable.
NLK: Has your background as a lawyer influenced your storytelling? In what ways?
HL: Studying law and working in law, exposed me to many stories of human conflict, and to a justice system that requires each side of a story be given equal merit. The law is consumed with grey subject matter and a quest for truth. Or at least, a quest to get as close as possible to that elusive substance known as the truth. In writing my novels, I often find myself touching on subject matter I studied in my law degree, like punitive justice, the death penalty, sexual assault and consent, medical negligence … there are endless fascinating and emerging areas of law that are exciting to humanise and explore through storytelling. Jodie Piccoult did this beautifully in My Sister’s Keeper where she examined the emerging area of bioethics. I think it’s very likely that my legal background will always merge with my fiction, especially as I am going back to legal work this year!
NLK: Have you any advice to share with emerging writers? Has writing been as rewarding as you thought it would be? What have been the shocks and surprises?
HL: My advice to emerging writers is to persevere. There will usually be many knockbacks before you get that publishing deal, but don’t lose heart. Use the time to keep honing your craft. I also recommend entering as many competitions as you can, because any shortlisting or win in a competition will improve your writing resume when you approach agents and publishers. As well as giving you the encouragement and belief in your ability as a writer.
Hayley Lawrence worked as a lawyer in a commercial firm in Sydney before trading city life for the coast when she married a pilot. Hayley and her husband had many adventures while she worked for a small law firm on the Mid-North Coast of NSW. They now have five vivacious daughters who continue to bring immense joy and utter mayhem to their life.
Despite leaving legal work, Hayley could not leave behind the stories of the people she’d encountered. They are stories that provoke questions about the nature of humanity, and it’s these questions that haunt her novels.
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