Pip Smith is a Sydney-based writer and poet. Her debut novel, Half Wild, draws on extensive research to reimagine the life of Eugenia Falleni, the so-called “man-woman” convicted of murder in Sydney in 1920. Published in July by Allen & Unwin, the book has been praised as “impressive” (The Australian) and “imaginative and adventurous” (The Sydney Morning Herald). I chatted with Pip about how she came to write her first novel, the importance of failure, and why the only risks worth taking are the scary ones.
What was your inspiration for Half Wild?
I found out about Eugenia Falleni when I went to see the “City of Shadows” exhibition at the Justice and Police Museum. These were police photographs from the early twentieth century. Most of the subjects were hamming it up, trying to look tough with a scowl and their hats cocked to the side. But then there was this one photo of a man who looked the opposite: he was trying very hard to look normal but something in his eyes looked like he was about to come apart. The description said this was “actually” an Italian woman and mother. When I looked at the photo, I could see how it could be two people: a woman as well as a man. What interested me was that these were equally true identities—Eugenia lived in Double Bay as a woman who wore trousers and had a daughter, but [also lived] in Drummoyne as Harry Crawford, a Scotsman who grew up in New Zealand and had a wife and stepson. I was intrigued that one body could maintain two different identities in the same city at the same time, and never the twain shall meet—until, of course, they did, in the horrible court case of 1920.
These days, there’s vehement discussion about “truthiness” and fake news. While I passionately defend scientific truth, I was intrigued by the idea that multiple truths could coexist for different people at the same time.
Also, the places in Eugenia’s story are places I have lived. Once you become obsessed with something, you start seeing it everywhere. I almost felt stalked by the story. This was a story about my city that called into question things I both love and hate about it.
Did you know right away that you wanted to turn Eugenia’s story into a novel?
When I saw the exhibition, I was interested in making theatre. We pitched a show based on Eugenia to the Melbourne Fringe Festival. But collaboration can be unpredictable. The show somehow ended up being about Michael Jackson and I was naked in a Perspex box filled with plastic plants! It was pretty terrible. Then I thought, maybe I’d turn it into a collection of prose poems. But when I started writing, it came out as a novel. That’s just the way the project evolved.
Everyone’s artistic process is different. I have to go the long way to get anywhere, and that’s okay. I think it’s important to get distracted, go down rabbit holes, and procrastinate by researching something strange, because it all ends up being swept back in the project in some way.
So you give yourself the freedom to explore?
Yes, and to fail. That’s important. A lot of the stuff I wrote [in the first couple years] didn’t work. It felt phony. I was scared of writing from Harry Crawford’s point of view because I’m not a man or a trans man. It was a voice experiment that went on forever. I finally just shelved it. It wasn’t until years later that I went back and looked at what I’d written. I cut thousands of words and some of it survived. It’s amazing how things can come back like that.
Given that this was your first novel, did you struggle with self-doubt? Did you ever want to give up?
Self-doubt is a big thing for me. I took about a year to get going, just trying to convince myself I could do it. One of the things that pulled me through was that it was a true story, and that Eugenia’s life—or lives—are still relevant now. With all this debate about gender fluidity and identity politics, it’s still an important idea. Also, I was on a scholarship and felt like I had a commitment to the government to finish. As a writer, you’ve got to jump at these opportunities.
What does your writing day look like?
I need to write first thing in the morning because it’s really easy to get distracted. The hardest thing for me is getting raw material on the page. It’s the most important part of writing and the scariest—and also the most fun. I feel great if I can get three hours of writing done. I leave editing until the afternoon, when that creative energy has burned up.
The thing that keeps me going is reading. If I don’t know what I’m doing, I often at least know what energy I want on the page. In the first part of the book, I wanted a larger-than-life energy, as if time was racing ahead. I was also exploring the idea of your imagination making things real. So I read a lot of books written from the point of view of children. I’d read until I got excited by a spark of an idea, then start writing.
Different kinds of writing require different processes. The third part of the novel, which is based on the court transcript, had a lot more facts to include. I made a spreadsheet of all the witnesses’ names, what they had seen, and so on. Each week I would write one person’s scenes to make sure I kept the voices consistent.
A lot of the work is trying to find the process that works for you at a given point in time. Whenever there’s a big life change it takes ages to find the way of organizing your life that’s the most effective.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about writing?
The most important thing is to do it every day, to keep a regular practice even when you’re feeling lost. You never know when it’s going to work or how it’s going to work. If I know that I’m going to be at my desk for three hours every day, then any ideas I have will be caught, like in a fishing net. If you turn up, something’s going to make it. Being disciplined in that way has been really valuable for me.
Kate Grenville recommended writing the most difficult part first, the part you’re most afraid of. I think that’s really wise, because otherwise you spend so long circling around it, you end up with tens of thousands of words on stuff that isn’t quite the thing that scares you.
Any advice about taking creative risks?
My big fear about taking a risk is that if it’s a failure, I’ll have wasted my time. But it’s only a risk not worth taking if it doesn’t address something genuinely, deeply inside you. If it is a genuine question you have, it’s never going to be a waste of time.
Then the important thing is to ask yourself: is the question big enough? Is what I’m attempting scary enough? If the question doesn’t rattle you, it’s probably not worth asking. So it’s probably not, “Is this too much of a risk?” but rather, “Is this a big enough risk to warrant committing years of my life to?”
Julie Mazur Tribe is an editor and book-publishing consultant who loves working with authors, books, and creative ideas. She can be found at BrooklynBookStudio.com or on Instagram at @brooklynbookstudio.
Author photo by Joshua Morris