From finance to fiction, a UQ grad is making waves

Katie Rowney, an avid reader, emerging author and all-round lover of books set in Brisbane, speaks with UQ alumnus Kirsty Eagar about her fourth novel.

A Master of Economics might not seem like the best base to build a writing career, but graduate and author Kirsty Eagar says her time at The University of Queensland was a key to her career as a writer – mostly because her latest novel, Summer Skin, is set at the sprawling St Lucia Campus.

The book follows Jess and Mitch, two UQ students who live in on-campus residential colleges and are struggling to balance study, social life and self-discovery.

It’s a story that will feel authentic to many – tales of Kirsty’s own university days will probably ring true for a lot of students. She moved from Rockhampton into one of the residential colleges, thinking it would be a good way to meet people.

“It was also pretty distracting: I scraped through my first semester exams, only just made it to one of them because I’d pulled two all-nighters and slept in, went to sleep in another … the usual,” she says.

“After that I began juggling jobs to help pay my way through college, and having less time available meant, not surprisingly, that I used it more wisely.

“The highlights for me revolved around the uni lifestyle. I loved the social side of college life and used to go out a lot, especially in the first few weeks of each semester.

“And I loved living on campus just because the place itself is so picturesque: the river, the sports ovals, the lakes.”

Kirsty went from undergrad to masters in an attempt to better her job prospects, but naturally, there wasn’t a lot of creative writing in her economics courses.

“The big thing I took from my course was an understanding of the learning process itself, and how to break a seemingly insurmountable task down into a sequence of steps,” she says.

“Also, thanks to my masters, I learned -- the hard way -- that you can’t cram a thesis. A book is the same. You can cram an article, but a book is a marathon. And if you count all the drafts, and then the edits, you’re better off pretending there is no finish line.”

"It sparked a dormant dream to write a book..."

Despite landing a job at the Reserve Bank in Sydney and subsequently being seconded to the Bank of England in London, it soon became clear Kirsty’s heart wasn’t in finance – but it wasn’t in writing yet either. Instead, Kirsty wanted to find a job that let her spend her time pursuing her true passion: surfing.

She quit economics and moved back to Australia, travelling from beach to beach to surf with her partner while working a string of jobs.

“While we were doing that, I decided to write a few articles for surf magazines in an attempt to earn some extra coin. They got published and it sparked a dormant dream to write a book,” Kirsty says.

“I didn’t for a moment think that writing would become the main game. It was just something I’d always really wanted to try. I’ve always been an avid reader, so the DNA was there. Once I started in earnest, though, I was hooked.”

The transition from finance to fiction was a slow process.

“It took six years and two failed manuscripts before I got published,” she says.

“Each big failure really hurt, and I had to make peace with the fact that I might never get there. I might have given up altogether, except that I missed the writing. Life works better when I’m creating.

“So I decided to write something just for me. That story was Raw Blue, and it taught me to write what matters to you. I cared about that story and its characters so much I would have done it regardless, even if nobody ever saw it. As it turned out, it was the one. It got me a two-book deal with Penguin and won the Victorian Premier’s award for Young Adult literature.”

Summer Skin is Kirsty’s fourth book. All her works have a focus on strong female characters and honest conversations about sex.

She says there are three “sensible rules for modern living” she’d like readers to take away from the book

“Firstly, whether it’s just a one-off or a relationship, you deserve to be treated well, and your pleasure matters.

“Secondly, don’t waste time worrying about whether people are judging you. They’re busy worrying about whether other people are judging them. How you feel about yourself is the only thing that counts.

“Finally, friends are the people who make you feel good, so learn to recognise them, and when you do, try to repay the favour.”

"It’s such a great, hedonistic in-between."

Kirsty (centre) at the rec club during her student days.

Kirsty says she was inspired to write a novel that covered the transitory years from teenager to adult as she felt like there wasn’t a lot of literature based on Australian university life.

“It’s such a great, hedonistic in-between. You’re starting to take control of and be responsible for your own life, but you’re not yet constrained by the rigid routine of full-time work.

“There are some really high-pressure periods, like exams, but they’re worth it for the glorious release afterwards.”

And for those young writers looking to find their way in to the industry, Kirsty has this advice: “Tap into what you feel most strongly about—and don’t prejudge it by trying to second-guess whether or not it’s publishable. Nobody can say what’s publishable, even publishers. They’re never going to ignore a voice that demands they sit up and pay attention.

“And don’t panic if life gets in the way. That’s where you get your best material. If you’re faced with the pressing need to make a living, there is nothing wrong with putting that first for a while. Time spent at a keyboard is only one part of writing. A lot of it is observation and a lot of it is reflection. Don’t be afraid to follow your own curiosity.”

Kirsty will be appearing at the Brisbane Writers Festival - find a list of her events here.

Current author photos taken by Carol Gibbons.
Summer Skin cover image from Allen & Unwin.