Anna George’s third novel Tipping is set in and around the world of an upper-class Melbourne private school. It’s a story about breaking the shackles of traditions and the power of persistence. She sat down with Rodney Hrvatin to discuss the novel and writing in general.
You’ve had a bit of a shift between the tone of your first two novels, which were thrillers, and this one. Why was that?
You’re totally right about that, it was a big change for me, this book. I realised that I really enjoy reading books that have light and shade and wit in them and I was hoping to have a go at writing one myself. I think humour is an important part of interpersonal relationships, and a big part of my life with my family, and I wanted to bring some of that to my writing so that the writing reflected more of me. I was also conscious of how I wanted to leave readers—I wanted to take readers on a light, optimistic, playful journey. My other books made some people cry, so I wanted to leave people genuinely uplifted and hopefully even a bit joyful and I wanted to, if I could, get them to smile or laugh—that would be great too!
What was the inspiration for the story? Was it based on real-life events in terms of the schools or the main storyline?
Absolutely. I definitely get inspired by reading the papers a lot and I’m always soaking up what’s going on around me as much as I can. The book begins with an overworked and overwhelmed mum of three being inadvertently locked in the car by her husband and also with a social media sexting scandal at the school.
Now, one of my friends WAS locked in the car by her husband accidentally one day, which was kind of dreadful at the time but afterwards became a really funny story and I just loved that story. Of course, he felt terrible about it! But I thought it encapsulated where the character was at the start of the book, being overwhelmed by family life, maybe even taken for granted and being forgotten by her family as they rush off to meet their Principal at the boys’ fancy school.
The incident at the school was inspired by real events at private boys’ schools in Melbourne, one involving an Instagram account being made by a couple of boys, making sexualised slurs of the girls on the account that they put there without their permission. It was taken down reasonably quickly but not before the community became animated about this account. The boys were ultimately expelled but some of the adults in the community ended up behaving pretty badly. One of the mums of one of the girls involved got very upset, and rightly so, and she posted about it on a neighbourhood Facebook page. She was trolled for that and other things happened. There was a bit of a pushback from the old boys’ network towards her which I thought was dreadful but fascinating and very useful for a story.
The other incident was a high-profile story about a Vice Principle who gave a boy a haircut because it didn’t comply with the dress code. He obviously lost his job and there was a mini-uprising at the school and boys, parents, and old alumni were galvanised and had something to say about it. What was interesting to me was that he got his job back and the new Principal had to leave, but that tipping point at the school was the haircut. It revealed all these underlying issues that the wider public didn’t know about. There were lots of things going on at the school and lots of conflict which this haircut brought to the fore and created real change. I’m really interested in tweaks for change and tipping points.
So I married these stories together, plus another one where Harvard Business School realised they had gender inequality about a decade ago and they set about a campaign of really trying to target changes to what they were doing. In their MBA program, the men got all the prizes at the end of one of the courses and generally had a better time of it than the women. After some investigation they found that it came down to class participation where the men dominated the discussions and the women were often forgotten by the faculty. The women were taught to own the space more and, within two years, things really started to turn around. I thought this was fascinating so I used a lot of the detail around the Harvard Business School and discovered that a lot of the men were horrified and said they had the worst time of their life!
It’s always about that one little incident—that tipping point, if you will—that sparks people into action, isn’t it?
It does for sure. I read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell years ago. It’s dated a bit now but, still, the essence of it was that a tipping point can come along and create a contagious mood. A mood can spread—a haircut can spread—but all these conditions need to be in place. That haircut—I don’t think any old school could have a haircut and that would change everything. All these other factors had to be in play underneath at that school. The conflict, the rumbles, and the swelling of discontent–it all had to come to the fore.
What’s really inspiring about tipping points is we can all be potentially responsible for one. It gives you a sense of your potential power. Some little moment in your life can lead to something very exciting.
I know a lot of authors draw from their experiences to shape their characters. Are you in the book there somewhere? Is there a character you click with or that you based on your friends?
They’re amalgams. You might start off with a bit of yourself or someone else and they continue to grow and evolve. There are bits of me in all of them. There are bits of me in Liv, one of the main characters who’s been the overwhelmed mum. I’ve got lots of friends who at different times have been that overwhelmed mum that has had enough and said, “I’m on strike”.
Duncan’s the lawyer who realises his work life is not really serving him well and I’ve certainly been that person as well. I have sons who are now roughly the age of the younger characters. When I started the book they were four years younger and now they’re teenage boys. There are bits and pieces of them and their friends and their communities. My kids play basketball so I spend a lot of time near basketball courts. I’ve been the dreadful one-eyed supporter yelling out, so I’ve put her in the book. It all gets mixed in for sure.
Do you find it difficult in your writing to write characters of the opposite gender? Is it harder to delve into the male psyche? Or is it easier because you’re surrounded by your husband and young boys all the time?
I think you have to be a little humble as a writer sometimes. You are humbled by the fact you are not able to access everybody equally well. That’s a reality. I’m conscious of that when I step really far out of myself but, yes, I definitely do look to the people around me as inspiration for those characters and the things that they say and do.
And also, this might be really controversial, I don’t know how entirely different we are deep down. You look at issues we all need to address around assertiveness and authenticity or living in accordance with our values. I kind of go down to those issues in this book and all the characters have something to say about that. We’re all human and it’s not so hard to tap into each other but at the same time I am conscious of it when I take a step out of my gender into another. I created Duncan who was fair-minded and sympathetic to feminism and to equal rights and opportunities for women. He’s quite moderate in that way I suppose.
I was intrigued by the fast ending of the book that really didn’t let us dwell on the characters. Was that a deliberate choice to leave room for a sequel?
I didn’t do that consciously and I do tend to write to a sort of dramatic climax. That probably comes out of studying screenwriting for a little while. I don’t linger on after that high point. In a way, the story is over and you have that tension between satisfying people and overdoing it and have people say, “It’s over now, why are you keeping on going?” That’s a hard balance to strike. I didn’t end it thinking I might do another book though. I don’t know if I want to keep going with that but I have the option there. I was attached to these characters in a way where I can see them continuing but I hope the book is ultimately satisfying enough at the end that the pieces come together enough. Studying film writing very much revolves around the three acts where the climax is the high point and there is a brief denouement and that’s it.
I’ve always found it fascinating how different authors structure their writing. Do you meticulously plan as you go? Do you have a vague game plan as you’re going along?
Not really. I have lots of notebooks with lots of thoughts in them but I do a lot of writing and rewriting. I have a rough idea. I tend to get the beginning of a book in my head and once I get that right the rest of the book begins to flow. I’m conscious of turning points but it’s not heavily structured or planned. I get a first draft down which is wild and woolly and then I’ll take a look at what I’ve got and try to craft it into some sort of shape. It’s like throwing a lump of clay and looking at it and going, “Where can I shape it and how do I bring the story out of that clay now?”
Is this your full-time job now?
I do write full time but I also do, Covid permitting, workshops and giving author talks and what not. I’m very lucky. Like lots of writers, I have a partner who has a full-time job that enables my writing to be in this fashion. I used to write part-time and work part-time and then the kids came along and it became too hard to balance that.
How long would you spend per day writing? Is it regimented or more free flowing?
I try to do it every day, Monday to Friday, When I’m in the writing phase I’ll be doing it when the kids go to bed or on the weekends. The rewriting, editing
I noticed, too, that you had many short chapters. Was this a deliberate ploy on your part?
The other two books, I probably didn’t do that as much but this one I did give myself permission to just do what I wanted—the playful tone, the shorter chapters. I don’t think you lose anything by having short, sharp chapters, particularly when it’s in three points of view. You say what you need to say and you get out.
Can you tell me a little about the audiobook? Who is reading it?
There are three actors. One is Anita Hegh [Stingers, Janet King], for Duncan we have Aaron Tsindos [Mary: The Making of a Princess, Spin Out] and Cat van Davies [The Letdown, Hungry Ghosts].
If you did a movie of this book, I imagined Lisa McCune would be great as Liv!
I kind of picture Andy Lee from Hamish and Andy. I think he would make a good Duncan. That’s the look I’m going for.
What’s next for you? Are you already starting your next book or letting this one settle a bit?
I’ve started thinking about another one but I’m just in the tinkering and planning stages. But I must admit, I do get a bit distracted when a book is about to come out—all the anxiety that comes with it makes it a little hard to focus at that point. I am hoping to stay in this fun, playful, light tone.
Interviewed by Rodney Hrvatin
- Visit Anna George’s website
- Read our review of Tipping
Tipping was published in March 2021 by Penguin Books. RRP: $32.99