Hayley Scrivenor: Dirt Town

Hayley Scrivenor’s debut Dirt Town is a beautifully-crafted, atmospheric thriller in which actions taken during a moment of weakness have huge consequences. The disappearance of a schoolgirl from a small town in rural Australia triggers the spiralling drama and the exposure of long-hidden secrets. Dirt Town was published in June, 2022 by Macmillan.

Welcome, Hayley! Huge congratulations on the very recent publication of your debut Dirt Town! How did you celebrate your big day?

Thank you very much! The day of publication in Australia was a bit of an extravaganza, if I’m honest. I made my partner take me out to breakfast. I had a friend come over for morning tea, a few more friends took me to my local independent bookstore to see my book in a bookshop for the first time and we took photos. I visited some other local bookstores and signed books, then I had a big dinner with neighbours and family. It might sound like a lot of fuss, but I worked on Dirt Town for six years, from beginning to publication, and I was determined to celebrate it. My UK publication day was a little more subdued – though my wonderful UK publisher Pan Macmillan did send me a nice bottle of champagne, which was very lovely of them. I’m very lucky to be coming to Scotland and England in September for some festivals, so I’ll be able to visit the UK edition in a bookshop then!
What inspired you to write Dirt Town, and what came first for you – setting, plot, characters or something completely different?

I started a PhD in creative writing in 2016. I actually pitched a very different idea to work on for the novel component of my PhD, but when I sat down to write an unrelated short story, I began writing about the small Australian town where I had grown up. I imagined how each of the children would get home from their small country school, and the writing just flowed. And then the central conceit of what would become Dirt Town came to me in something of a flash: I knew a girl had died, and knew what had happened. I then had to work very hard to figure out the other characters, and the ins and outs of the plot. The town of Durton is fictional (the local kids call it ‘Dirt Town’, which is obviously the source of the title), but it did help being able to draw from my own childhood, so that I at least had something of a handle on the setting.

“Dirt and hurt – that’s what others would remember about our town” – Dirt Town reveals the secrets, fears and casual cruelties within the complicated, and often isolated, families of rural Durton. Which parts of the story did you find the most difficult to write, and is the finished novel what you imagined it would be?

There are five different points of view in Dirt Town. I found Constance, the mother of missing girl Esther, the most harrowing character to sit with in a lot of ways. My brother used to run off a lot. I’m quite a bit older than him, so sometimes I would be looking after him and I would lose him, just for a few moments, but sometimes for longer. I think everyone knows that feeling, when someone you love is not where they’re supposed to be. Constance is living in that space for the vast majority of the novel, and her sections were hard going.

Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels was also a challenging character to write, but for different reasons. She was the character who required the most research, as it was important to me that she was good at her job. She sees the world very differently to me, and I also couldn’t include all the details I wanted to about her, particularly about her former relationships, because she is just one voice of five. It’s not a traditional detective novel in that sense. We actually get much more of the story from the child characters than we do from the investigating officer.

The end result is so much more complex than I ever thought possible, if I’m honest. But that’s the wonderful thing about a novel in particular: it can expand to fit as much complexity as you care to stuff into it. I certainly didn’t know when I began how complex the plot would be, or the range of experiences that I would touch on.

We loved the multilayered format of Dirt Town, with its skilful weaving of different voices, from the children to the adults and the ethereal ‘We’ in between. How did you plot all your individual narrative threads so effectively, and which character did you identify with the most?

An excellent question! My very first draft was entirely from the point of view of the ‘We’, this group of children from the town that act a bit like a Greek chorus. As I introduced more points of view, I tried a lot of different ways to organise the material. In the end, I more or less had to write all the events of the book from each of the points of view and then I tried to always pick the one that was the most interesting for the reader. I threw away a lot of writing, but I don’t regret it. I would say that Ronnie (short for Veronica) is hands down the closest character to me: she’s a chubby and bossy know-it-all who is always wondering where her next meal is coming from, and that’s why she will always be close to my heart.

You revealed the fate of the missing girl at the very start of the novel – did this enable you to write the other main characters and their stories with a clearer eye?

I do think it adds something to particularly the character of Ronnie to know that Esther is already dead. She is such an innocent character, and so devoted to Esther, her best friend. It also colours our understanding of Lewis’s actions. Lewis is an 11-year-old boy who is friends with both Esther and Ronnie. He sees something on the day that Esther goes missing, but is too frightened to come forward, for his own reasons. I’m very interested in fate, in the human tendency to look back at our actions and pinpoint the moments when things could have been different. When the stakes are life or death, that feels heightened somehow.
Please would tell us a bit about your path to publication, and how you secured your agent, Grace Heifetz at Left Bank Literary.

Funnily enough, I approached a number of agents in the UK before I spoke to Grace, who is based in Sydney, Australia. I think approaching overseas agents was partly so that I wouldn’t face rejection from someone I might see one day in person. One of the very first agents I approached was Jane Finigan at Lutyens & Rubinstein, an agency based in Notting Hill, London. She showed some interest, but ultimately passed on the book. I submitted a much more developed version to Grace Heifetz at Left Bank Literary after I had been shortlisted for both the Penguin Literary Prize and the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award here in Australia. The book was much more developed as a result of a manuscript development I’d done, and Grace enthusiastically came on board. I would say that it’s very difficult to get overseas representation, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for writers, because ultimately you want your book to be sold into your home market. Luckily for me, it turned out that Grace knew Jane, who agreed to read the reworked version and she said yes to being my agent for Europe! That’s how and why I came to be published in the UK, and I feel very lucky. It also speaks to the importance of prizes like the Caledonia Novel Award: it’s incredibly difficult to get an agent’s attention otherwise, in my experience.
What does a typical writing day look like for you – if there is such a thing! – and would you describe yourself as a disciplined writer?

I try and maintain what I like to call a ‘writerly rhythm’ as discipline can quickly become a problematic notion for me. I know that it works best when I write first thing, ideally before I’ve spoken to anyone, gotten dressed, or done anything but make a cup of tea. Most days can expand to fit that, even if I need to be somewhere at 9am. Right now, I’m working to a word count of 700 words a day, but I can tell I’m getting to a point where soon it will be less about word count and more about time spent, because sometimes a productive writing day is one where you delete stuff. I use the Pomodoro Timer technique (essentially timed sessions of 25 minutes, with five-minute breaks – you can Google it!) when I’m trying to focus. I will say that it has never, not once, felt like I was doing it right. And yet, here I am with a finished novel. I do think lots of scrappy, half-hearted effort will get you there. You’re not a machine. So long as you’re trying to find a way to show up, then that’s all you need. There are no perfect blocks of time. There’s no point waiting for a better version of yourself, because they are not going to show up. You’ve just got to learn to work with what you’ve got.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you were given as you began your novel?

The best advice came from my PhD supervisor, Dr Shady Cosgrove. She told me to pretend like I was a writer. I think that’s incredibly helpful advice. It took a lot of pressure off my shoulders. When I would sit down and think, “This has to be good: I quit my full-time job to do this”, then I’d hear Shady’s voice telling me I could just pretend, for now at least. And in terms of bad advice, she also advised that I plan the plot out in a spreadsheet. That turned out to be terrible advice for me, at least at the early stage. I will say that part of being a writer is going on a life-long journey of figuring out what works for you. Give all advice a fair hearing, but you can be the ultimate judge.

Which novelists have influenced your writing, and what debut novels have you enjoyed recently?

I read very widely. For this book, I need to acknowledge a debt to books that feature collective narration that I looked at as part of my PhD: most notably, TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos, Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs and Malcolm Knox’s The Wonder Lover. These are wonderful books if you’re interested in unusual points of view. As for books I’ve enjoyed recently, I absolutely loved Shelley Burr’s WAKE. She’s a fellow Australian debut writer, writing about an Australian small town, and her book has recently come out in the UK as well. Her book features excerpts from online forums, and the premise had me hooked from the opening pages. I simply tore through it.

How will you follow this assured and accomplished debut? What can we look forward to from you next?

I am working on my next book (and, for now at least, I seem to have landed on some kind of writerly rhythm that’s working!). The next book won’t be a sequel or a follow-up to Dirt Town, but I do think it will be a recognisable sibling. The stakes are still life or death, and it will feature a different kind of small community. I’m very nervous about it, which I’m taking as a good sign. I think that flash of fear can mean you’re on to something.

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2023?

You miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take!
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