Sally Colin-James- One Illumined Thread | Sydney Writers' Festival 2023

interview by Connor Phipps

Sally Colin-James' debut novel ‘One Illumined Thread’, inspired by Albertinelli’s, ‘The Visitation’, is a beautifully written, powerful and emotional story of three women separated by centuries yet connected by a thread of longing and a singular creative spirit. ‘One Illumined Thread’ celebrates the power and creative spirit of the female heart, the heartrending complexities between mother and child and women’s eternal fight to overcome oppression. We speak to Sally about her own search for creativity in publishing a novel and discuss how the experiences of the past can be traced to the present.

We know your name and we know about your gorgeous book, but please could you tell us a little more about yourself?

Firstly, can I say, I'm such a lover of the university and alumni, so it’s so much fun to be interviewed by you today. So, I'm Sally Colin-James and I was born and live in Australia. I've travelled the world following my passion and penchant for research and writing, and I'm here celebrating the launch of my debut novel, 'One Illumined Thread'.

You’ve mentioned the importance of communication to you, in previous interviews and elsewhere online. That said, do you define yourself as an author or a communicator?

I am comfortable with 'writer' or 'author', but sitting underneath all of that is being a communicator. I find it interesting that writers tend to withhold the label of 'author' until they have a tangible, commercial presence. They may be authors in the academic world yet hold back from the title. Before the book, I probably saw myself more as a philosopher but now it's both.

Keeping with this reflection on your journey, if given the opportunity to have a do-over of undergraduate study, would you choose to pursue journalism over communication?

No. I know at the time, having followed bad advice from a regional school, I felt my hopes were dashed, that I’d missed out on journalism. Having done the hard yards to become an author, it embodied the classic entrepreneurial saying the hard/easy rule. My path was the harder pathway, but in terms of my outlets for communication, and for having the conversations we need to be having as a species, I have reached the right place for me.

What if we broaden the question to encapsulate your whole journey, if you could pop something in or out, what would you change?

Do what I love earlier. I struggled to give myself permission; I always wanted to write. Something in my mind, from being told at school "You should be a pharmacist … you should do something useful", stopped me. I was also a pianist, so I had a creative outlet. Still, I wish I’d followed that tenacity earlier, that inner tenacity of spirit that knew exactly what it wanted to do. That being said, I wouldn't have come to writing with the level of bravery that I have now.

You mention finding the courage, within yourself, to write. How did that come about and how was that linked to writing your debut novel?

The whole process involved the deeply personal ownership of a profound moment, and it began with writing the novel. The origin story for 'One Illumined Thread' began with a moment before a painting. I was researching for my doctorate and got lost in the Uffizi Gallery and found myself standing before this 2.5 x 1.5-metre painting. For the first time in my life, I was in the presence of an experience I could not articulate. It was so deeply profound. Over the ensuing decades, though I knew I would find a way to express the clarity I’d experienced, it seemed to evade all my attempts to think about it in language. Until 4 years ago, when I thought about writing a different novel. I found I was finally ready to put that feeling into words. It began with the writing, and not in the way I expected. Previously, because of my academic background, my usual way would be to begin with an idea, with a first line or first character and then begin my research.

Having published your first novel, what is your approach like now and what has changed for you?

I have learnt that the best way for me to write a novel or narrative non-fiction, is to get to the page before there's too much thinking. It sounds basic, but it took me so long to come to that system and I would have described my process so differently 5 years ago. Now, it's about getting to the page in the morning, usually 7 am, and just allowing inspiration to converge with intellect. In that order, it’s about making space for inspiration. I've spent 10 years at university, after you've done a certain amount of academic study you don't need to work on that sort of writing anymore. That becomes like a safety net, and writing becomes about how willing you are to trust it'll be there when you need it.

How did the title, 'One Illumined Thread' come about?

For the longest time, the title was 'The Recipe for White', because it was about white paint. It may interest you to know, that I started with three narratives. I initially dropped the modern narrative; I thought historical fiction readers would be less interested in it. But then one of the publishers said 'It feels like Sally's keeping something from us. It's almost like there needs to be a modern narrative'. So, I reinstalled it and realised the old title was defunct. Even though the whole idea of looking for the recipe for white paint — the search of women undertaking creative endeavours to find something new to bring into the world — was there, when I’d finished, I felt the title wasn't really working anymore. As I read it, I thought, what stitches this together? I was bamboozled for a good week and then I suddenly woke up one day and the title was just there in my mind. For me, the whole idea of using the word illumined, if I'm allowed to stretch the etymology a little, infers lit from within, an inherent radiance. I feel my responsibility as a writer in English is to bring back that luminosity to words, to bring back the things that have been left, lost, and destroyed from history. I believe writing offers the opportunity to flesh those things back out.

Blitz Editor

Anandi Ganguly

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