Masters Series: Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham is a non-fiction writer, novelist, editor and climate activist; every day she posts an image of a tree on her Instagram @sophtreeofday. Author of seven books (and more to come) Cunningham is a Member of the Order of Australia for her contributions to literature, was a co-founder of The Stella Prize, former editor of Meanjin (2008 – 2011), former chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts (2011 – 2014) and sits on the Board of University of Queensland Press and Australian Society of Authors. She has written for a range of magazines, including Griffith Review and The Monthly. Sophie’s latest books are her picture book Flipper and Finnegan: the true story of Penguins in Tiny Jumpers and her new novel This Devastating Fever which we discuss in this wide ranging conversation about writing, editing, trees, climate change, voice and lots more.

This conversation covers:

  • Sophie’s early reading: Enid Blyton, ES Nesbit, Tolkien, What Katy Did (although there was a lot of punishment of heroines!), then ‘escape’ novels including James Bond, then on to Catherine Cookson romances, Poldark and the books on the shelves of the families she babysat for: ‘I did love a slightly saucy book’
  • Her experience in publishing and editing (including editing Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet) and what she learned from mentors and the authors she edited.
  • The experience of publishing her first book Geography, and what she learned (including not revealing so much of her self)
  • The long process of writing This Devastating Fever
  • Finding her voice in writing City of Trees
  • On thinking about audience, Sophie says: You find the book by writing for yourself then you go back and think what’s this going to be like for other people to read
  • The impact of the pandemic and how ‘ordinary and boring it is’ to be ‘living through history’
  • Climate activism, especially in the wake of the bushfires: we have to look what’s happening in the eye and then make decisions as a result
  • Once you stop taking yourself seriously and think about bigger issues you’re much freer to write in a different way
  • Naming – Living with Anthropocene –
  • Walking as part of the creative process and Sophie’s Calibre Prize winning essay – Staying With the Trouble
  • Learning to draw – especially in City of Trees – as a different way of approaching the material
  • Being inspired by the works of writers Tim Flannery & Joelle Gergis
  • The need for more funding in the Arts in Australia and for Literature in general

Advice: Trust your voice. You know the answer.

Recommended debut book: Sophie talks about her love for debut novels in general and then recommends Monkey Grip by Helen Garner.

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