Cassie Sullivan

WOMEN THROUGHOUT HISTORY TOGETHER CHANGING THE WORLD: an interview with Sam George-Allen

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns

Interviewer: Tamara Lazaroff

Sam George-Allen is the former co-founding editor of online literary magazine Scum. Her work has been published in The Lifted Brow, Stilts, and The Suburban Review, among other places, and she has been shortlisted for the Qantas Spirit of Youth Award, the Scribe Non-Fiction Prize for Young Writers, and the Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award. In 2015, Spineless Wonders published her hybrid micro-collection, I Put A Spell On You. Witches, women working together and feminism have been constant threads in her work. This year, Penguin published George-Allen’s first full-length non-fiction work, Witches: What Women Do Together. This timely collection of personal essays makes a clear, convincing case against the cultural myth of female isolation and rivalry, and shows us instead how groups of women — from nuns to sex-workers, from dancers to farmers — can and have been working together throughout history and across the globe to positively change our world.

INTERVIEWER

Firstly, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed Witches: What Women Do Together, and how reading about communities of girls and women working together towards common goals gave me so much hope, and shifted a few gears for me mentally. I’m curious how and if groups of women and girls have been important to your development as a writer, right from the beginning to now. And, also, how you’ve gone about creating or being involved in these communities.

GEORGE-ALLEN

I’m so glad that you enjoyed it!

I’ve been lucky enough to have had strong relationships with other creative women for a long time, all of whom have been invaluable to my growth as a writer. Aside from the obvious (my mother, my grandmother, my family friends, who’ve all been incredibly generous with their support and encouragement), I found my strongest connections at university, in writing classes and in the post-grad community. I was talking to a friend of mine recently, Emma Doolan, about exactly this — in our academic careers, we have both relied so much on a network of women peers who are willing to offer (gentle) critique, networking opportunities, access to support systems, insider tips for funding and career advancement, and professional collaboration. Maybe we have just been fortunate, but I think it’s a really common scenario to have women who are in the same occupation (or just the same office) really consciously work to support and lift one another up.

INTERVIEWER

In the introduction to Witches you write about the initial impetus for the book: an experience of envy towards another writer’s — a female writer’s —successes, which made you question yourself, your practise of feminism and, inevitably, our society as a whole. I am absolutely sure that envy is one of the most unspoken about challenges that every writer must face at one time or another in their writing life. I wonder what you think some possible antidotes to this state of mind could be.

GEORGE-ALLEN

I really do think that the root of a lot of the envy we feel is that we’ve been inculcated into a false economy of success. It’s got to have something to do with capitalism and consumerism, the idea that if someone has something then I necessarily do not have that thing — in this case, if someone has a successful career, then it diminishes my own opportunity. It’s nonsense. Especially for those of us in creative industries like writing, it’s so important to recognise that there is room for many, many of us: people who love books don’t limit their love to just one author. Another person’s success doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. This zero-sum mentality is a scam, and I think the best way to combat it is to model it for ourselves – so when people in your orbit are doing amazing things, tell them that you’re amazed, tell people you know about their work, recognise what you can learn from them, and absorb that into your own practice. Envy has a lot to do with feelings of inadequacy, but it’s a profoundly unproductive feeling. At least telling everyone about the cool thing your friend or acquaintance has done feels good.

INTERVIEWER

In Witches, you write about, interview and investigate a wide variety of communities of girls and women who are working together to achieve individual and collective goals, including women in sport, dance, farming, sex work, convents, intentional matriarchal societies, and more. Which aspects of your research were most surprising and/or illuminating for you.

GEORGE-ALLEN

I was surprised by the history of sex workers in Australia. I hadn’t realised just how instrumental these groups of (mostly) women were in mitigating the AIDS crisis in this country. It was sex worker organisations who first started handing out free condoms, who lobbied governments for safe needle exchanges, and who started an astonishingly successful campaign of safer sex among sex workers and the broader community that continues to operate today. Because of the social stigma sex workers still have to deal with, we don’t hear about their legacy of activism and how much they’ve changed the sexual and social landscape for the better.

INTERVIEWER

Something I particularly enjoyed about the book was the voices of your interviewees shining through. A couple of chapters are even collaborative works, conversations — which makes total sense. How did you practically negotiate these written conversations?

GEORGE-ALLEN

Collaborating with Liz Duck-Chong and Aunty Dawn Daylight was incredibly rewarding, and we co-wrote the two chapters in really different ways. With Liz, because she is a writer by trade, we approached the collaboration in a standard co-authoring manner — had a series of phone conversations mapping out what we wanted to write about, kept in touch via Messenger, and then fired up the trusty shared Google Doc to get the words down. Liz is someone whose work I’ve always really admired, so I valued her editing input in the chapter as well; I hope we get to collaborate again in the future.

With Aunty Dawn, we approached co-writing differently. Aunty Dawn is a born storyteller, and it’s what she does on an almost daily basis in her work with her local community, but she works predominantly in an oral tradition. We decided the best thing to do was just spend time together, talking about her life. We’d catch up at a cafe or her house, I’d hit record on my phone, and we’d talk. Once I transcribed the conversations and edited them, I’d send them to Aunty Dawn for approval. It was a method that I ended up being really happy with, and one I’d like to repeat as well.

INTERVIEWER

Though Witches is not predominantly about witchcraft as such, you do weave in a lot of thinking through of the term and its history in our culture. There are also thirteen chapters in the book — which is a very witchy number. And the chapters seem to move through the ages, starting with groups of girls, moving into communities of women in early and mid-adult life, and finally ending with a chapter on the crone. Was there anything else particular witchy about your writing process?

GEORGE-ALLEN

I’m glad you noticed those aspects of the book! I did develop some witchy habits when I was writing. I’ve always been a casually superstitious person, but the pressure and esoteric nature of working on such a long project made me much less casual about it —  I really ended up indulging my magical thinking (if it’s raining, then I must write; the cars across the street are all the same colour, so I must write; that kind of thing).

I also slipped into a sleeping pattern for a few weeks that was both very weird and very productive for me: I’d fall asleep (usually fully clothed and in front of the TV) at about 8pm, wake up with a start at 2am, and work for three or four hours before falling asleep again until 8 or 9 in the morning. I got really good work done in those witching hours in the middle of the night. 

INTERVIEWER

Finally, I’d love to hear about how writing your first long form work was different to writing short form pieces. Did you need to develop a different kind of writing muscle that you didn’t have before? What advice would you give to writers beginning their first long form work?

GEORGE-ALLEN

Writing a whole book was unimaginably different from writing the short form pieces I was used to. Even though the book is made up of individual chapters that aren’t so different in length from the kind of writing I’d done up until that point, it was psychologically completely new territory. The hardest part was constantly second-guessing myself — I doubted what I was doing at every possible moment, thinking that I’d somehow got everything wrong, that my ideas were becoming incoherent, that I wasn’t linking the separate components of the book together at all. The best piece of advice I can give, after dealing with (and eventually overcoming) that, is a huge cliche: trust the process. The work will change under your hands as you’re writing it; that’s okay. Trust that your ideas are strong and that your team is smart and supportive and that your end product will be what it’s meant to be.

INTERVIEWER

Thank you so much for taking the time to engage with these questions, Sam. In the spirit of Witches, I wish you and your book every success and power in the world.

Witches: What Women Do Together is published by Penguin, RRP $32.99. Available at all good book stores and online as an eBook and audio download. Read an excerpt from the book here


Tamara LazaroffTamara Lazaroff is a Brisbane-based writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. Her work has been published widely in Australian, New Zealand and UK journals, including Meanjin, Southerly, Verity La, Headland and The Wrong Quarterly. She has a particular interest in hidden histories, the migrant experience, queer and feminist themes, oral storytelling traditions and celebratory stories of social connectedness.