Monthly Archives: August 2013

Writers ask writers: author for a day

kirstenkrauth_webThis month in our Writers Ask Writers series, the question posed is: If you could jump into the life of another author, past or present, for one day, who would it be and why? And it’s a pleasure to welcome, as guest blogger for August, Kirsten Krauth, who has recently released her accomplished debut novel, just_a_girl, described as ‘a Puberty Blues for the digital age’. There are links at the end to Kirsten’s choice of author, along with those of Annabel Smith, Natasha Lester, Sara Foster, Emma Chapman and Dawn Barker.


Katharine Susannah Prichard seems to have been a presence in my life since the beginning of my writing career. The first validation I ever received as a writer was as winner of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Short Fiction Award in 1996. And a few years later, a story of mine called ‘The prospect of grace’, which draws on the lives of four famous couples including Katharine Susannah Prichard and Hugo Throssell, won the Patricia Hackett Prize for best contribution to the literary journal Westerly (the story has since been included in Inherited).

DSCN3567I have been a member of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, in the Perth hills suburb of Greenmount, for many years, and last weekend I spent a few hours there fulfilling my duties as a member of the Literary Advisory Board. Serendipitous, because it gave me an opportunity to take a photograph of the lovely old weatherboard house that was once Katharine’s home and place of work, and is now still a place where writers work—and learn and share writerly things.

Katharine Susannah Prichard was productive in her long lifetime. It makes me reel to think of what she achieved: 13 novels (translated into 13 foreign languages for international publication), 10 plays, five short story collections, two volumes of poetry, an autobiography, a work of non-fiction, and many pamphlets and articles. I doubt there are many literary writers who could come close today.


While I admire this amazing output, it is not the reason I would choose to be Katharine Susannah Prichard for a day.

Nor is it because she had an especially happy life. She did not—or so it appears, at this distance, to me. I don’t doubt that there was happiness, both through her writing and in her personal life; one only has to read the passionate dedication to Hugo Throssell in her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, to know there was love:

To you, all those wild weeds
and wind flowers of my life,
I bring, my lord,
and lay them at your feet;
they are not frankincense
or myrrh
but you were Krishna, Christ and Dionysus
in your beauty, tenderness and strength.

But she also lived through unbearable personal sadness, losing her father and, later, her husband to suicide. And as someone who cared deeply about social justice, and believed in fighting for something better for all of humanity, happiness frequently eluded her.

As a young journalist, she worked in the slums of Melbourne, witnessing the plight of women slaving in sweatshops. In 1908–09, she spent a year in England, a time of hunger marches, Salvation Army soup kitchens and extreme poverty—symptomatic of a fraying social fabric (as Virginia Woolf was to say, ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed’). Returning to England just before the First World War, she remained there throughout the war years, and took part in suffragette marches and feminist lectures on women’s issues such as birth control. For a week in 1914 she reported from the battlefront in France.

These experiences deepened her compassion for the powerless, a thread running through so many of her novels—exploited Aboriginal women in Coonardoo (and the play Brumby Innes), returned servicemen in Intimate Strangers, struggling timber workers in Working Bullocks.

DSCN3573They also formed in her a great interest in pacifism and socialism and, later, in communism—and this last made her a target of official inquiry. It took guts to be a communist in those times. She became known as ‘the Red Witch of Greenmount’, and during the years of the Second World War her house was searched and she was put under surveillance amid fears that she was signalling from the hills to enemy craft at sea!

It’s not because I long to be notorious that I would wish myself into Katharine’s skin.

But I admire Katharine Susannah Prichard. I admire her commitment and her compassion—and especially her fearlessness. And that is why I would like to be her for a day. I would like to feel that kind of fearlessness in my blood. I harbour a suspicion that I might also find it an adulterated brew, tainted with the self-doubt and uncertainty that are found in any writer. But I imagine, I am sure, there is much I could learn about courage from this remarkable woman, this compassionate writer.


Here are the links to companion posts from our group and guest Kirsten Krauth:

Kirsten Krauth: When I was a kid, a family member was obsessed with [Leonard Cohen] … I always rolled my eyes; it’s so embarrassing when adults think their music is cool.—Read more here

Annabel Smith: [As Truman Capote] the day would begin with me lounging in my smoking jacket while I opened my mail, including fan mail, letters of outrage about my sexuality and moral degeneracy …—Read more here

Natasha Lester: [Joan Didion] made meaning out of her life. She wrote about unique experiences in a way that made them seem commonplace and connective.—Read more here

Sara Foster: I will go back to a day in 1990 on a crowded train and become JK Rowling the moment she met Harry Potter in her imagination for the first time …—Read more here

Emma Chapman: I wanted to write about the stereotype of the ideal writer: someone who is free to write when they want, read when they want, and take the day off when they want. That’s the life I wanted …—Read more here

Dawn Barker: Mary Shelley … had lots of trauma in her life, but she had one wonderful summer that would change her life and propel her into literary history.—Read more here

PWFC author collage


Filed under Writers ask writers

The latest book Q&A…

imagesThe lovely Felicity Young, author of the historical detective fiction series featuring Dr Dody McCleland (A Dissection of Murder and Antidote to Murder), has tagged me in this latest books-and-authors questionnaire (the ‘rules’ are pasted at the end of the post). You can read Felicity’s answers here.

What are you reading right now?
Traitor by Stephen Daisley, which won the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction and a slew of other awards, and I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get to this brilliant novel. I’m also dipping into Paul Hetherington’s beautiful new poetry collection, Six Different Windows.

Do you have any idea what you’ll read when your done with that?
There’s a pile. Isn’t there always? Towards the top are The Fine Colour of Rust by P. A. O’Reilly, Shore and Shelter by Keith McLeod and Canada by Richard Ford.

What 5 books have you always wanted to read but haven’t got round to?
Poor Fellow My Country by Xavier Herbert (when I have a spare month)
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
The Watchtower by Elizabeth Harrower

What magazines do you have in your bathroom/lounge right now?
I don’t read magazines, but the West’s TV guide is usually on the coffee table and a couple of issues of Australian Book Review are there too.

What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?
I read something awful by Jackie Collins many years ago. It was like paint-by-numbers but with words.

What book seemed really popular but you didn’t like?
A Visit by the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?
Perfume by Patrick Süskind. (Recommending books is always risky: one friend threw Perfume back at me with the comment ‘You’re a strange woman, Amanda Curtin.’)

What are your three favourite poems?
Too hard. Three that spring to mind:
‘The Lady of Shallott’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson
‘Diving into the Wreck’ by Adrienne Rich
‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife’ by Barbara Temperton

Where do you usually get your books?
Independent bookshops, usually. My ‘local’ is Beaufort Street Books. If I need something out of print or difficult to find, I’ll buy online, and because I do have a Kindle for travelling, I have to buy some from Amazon.

Where do you usually read your books?
Never in bed. Usually on the sofa in our family room. But I take my current book with me wherever I go in case I have a few spare minutes—for example, while waiting for the physio.

When you were little, did you have any particular reading habits?
I remember reading while lying on the floor with my legs on the sofa or over my head, almost upside down. (Hence the physio.)

What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down?
I’ve read some brilliant novels this year, but some that I’ve loved the most I’ve wanted to savour rather than consume avidly. One that did have that compulsive effect on me was Courtney Collins’s The Burial (my review is here).

Have you ever ‘faked’ reading a book?
No, but there were several lit theory books I read at uni that I might as well have faked, for all that I understood them.

Have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover?
No. But in a bookshop I know I am more likely to pick up a book with a human figure on the cover than something abstract.

What book changed your life?
I did a blog post on this not so long ago, so I’m going to cheat and just give the link.

What is your favourite passage from a book?
I can’t choose between these two:

For…if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.
—Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

Truly, he thinks, for all our desires and ambitions, lives mapped out, pledges made, in the end we live from day to day, as fragile as twigs, needing to be loved, urged on by hope and acts of kindness.
—Robyn Mundy, The Nature of Ice

Who are your top five favourite authors?
Only five? Aarrgghh! Gail Jones, Anne Michaels, Simone Lazaroo, Annie Proulx, Michael Cunningham…

What book has no one heard about but should read?
It isn’t true to say no one’s heard about it, as it won several awards, but I don’t think enough people have read Simone Lazaroo’s superb The Travel Writer.

What 3 books are you an ‘evangelist’ for?
Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson
Sixty Lights by Gail Jones
Letters to the End of Love by Yvette Walker
Whisky Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith
(Numerically challenged, I know.)

What are your favourite books by a first-time author?
Books by friends whose journeys to publication I have followed, cheering all the way:
The Nature of Ice by Robyn Mundy
The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood
A New Map of the Universe by Annabel Smith
Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt
Arrhythmia by Richard Rossiter
The Albanian by Donna Mazza

What is your favourite classic book?
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Five other notable mentions?
The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels
The Last Sky by Alice Nelson
An Unknown Sky by Susan Midalia
Incendiary by Chris Cleave
Bereft by Chris Womersley
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Unless by Carol Shields

1. Post these rules
2. Post a photo of your favourite book cover
[see two of my favourites below]
3. Answer the questions above
4. Tag a few people to answer them too
5. Go to their blog/twitter and tell them you’ve tagged them
6. Make sure you tell the person who tagged you that you’ve taken part!

I’m tagging Lynne Leonhardt, Dianne Touchell and Natasha Lester (without obligation, of course!)—but everyone’s free to join in, so please don’t wait to be tagged.



Filed under Favourite books

History, fiction and ‘truth’ in The Sinkings

History, fiction and truth seem to be on the agenda for discussion again in the wake of recent novels such as Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. Here’s a version of a talk I presented at the Perth Writers’ Festival in 2009, subsequently published on the website of the late (and lamented) journal Indigo.


DSCN3520A discussion about history and notions of ‘truth’ as these relate to a work of fiction seems to demand some explanation from the writer of what is ‘real’ in the novel.

The inspiration for The Sinkings came from reports (recorded in many sources) that the remains of a murdered former convict known at the time of his death, in 1882, as Little Jock were initially identified at autopsy as those of a woman. This ‘fact’ comes from the historical record and is in that sense ‘real’.

Much of the historical narrative in The Sinkings—the events leading up to the murder—is constructed using names, dates, places, events and reportage found in archives. But I can’t claim ‘truth’ for these ‘real’ aspects of The Sinkings.

I’m a novelist interested in history, not a historian. My fascination with history always veers towards the ‘what if?’ questions, an imaginative connection with people and events as a way in to art, rather than an objective pursuit of evidence and facts—although the latter undeniably has its seductions.

Many of the named characters who inhabit the historical narrative did exist, but you can’t divine character from fragments of fact found in archives, and I’ve had to imagine these people into being. I tried, wherever possible, to be attentive to little clues I saw in the records, but being faithful to the record is not the same thing as being faithful to the person. What I’ve written is a product of my imaginative engagement with what I found.

Similarly, I have had to invent scenes and events to fill in the significant gaps in the story of ‘what happens’—things that are simply unknowable of a life seen from a distance of 150 years.

The subjective nature of how I’ve used and interpreted these ‘real’ elements in The Sinkings is, to some extent, transparent. The novel’s structure has a contemporary narrative (Willa’s story) documenting the process of research for a historical narrative (Little Jock’s story), so a reader can witness, from what Willa discovers and what eludes her, where the limits of ‘knowing’ are and where the inventions lie.

The voice of the historical strand, too, announces its own ambivalence, its invention, when it says:

Perhaps it begins with a lone carrion crow flying over a cabin.

It’s a version of ‘once upon a time’, clearly outside the realm of the factual. This ‘perhaps’ voice reappears from time to time, a reminder that although the inspiration for the story might be ‘real’, this is fiction.

History and truth are, in any case, uneasy bedfellows.

When I was researching The Sinkings, I happened to read about a device that landscape artists used to use for sketching, called a camera obscura. It’s a box-like device that captures an accurate outline of the landscape in front of the artist, who then uses this flat image a guide, or a base on which to create.

It occurred to me that in some ways, a writer’s research can be like this. We go to archives in search of facts, records, evidence to use as a base, later to be reworked into story, made three-dimensional. But then I realised that there’s a crucial difference. The evidence of the camera obscura—the flat image of veracity, of truth—is unmediated in the way that archival records are.

I don’t think I really appreciated this before I began my research, but I came to understand that sometimes the sources we value highly as ‘truth’ are subjective because they are mediated. They are the product of fallible human beings.

Here’s an example from my experience. In Scotland, there was no system of compulsory registration of births, deaths and marriages until 1855; before this, people often just guessed how old they were. Many times in primary sources, I came across comments like ‘I am about 14’, ‘I think I’m 35’. So a census record giving a person’s age might not be true.

And there are also the matters of intention and accident. A scene in The Sinkings with a census-taker trying to get information out of Little Jock’s family shows how a process of questions asked and answers given might result in a fabrication. What if the person being questioned has cause to give a false answer? What if the interviewer has an interest in falsifying the record? Or is lazy or incompetent? Or simply mishears or misinterprets the answers? A hundred and fifty years later, we read the census data and accept it as truth, but, in the words of a learned philosopher, it ain’t necessarily so.

At Little Jock’s trial in 1857 for stealing a red woollen shirt, many people were supposedly telling ‘the truth’. Little Jock himself was one of them: And this I declare to be truth, he said, after telling the court, among other lies, that his name was Peter Lennie. Then came a raft of witnesses contradicting his account, all saying, And this is truth. Court officials then testified to his previous convictions in different names, each official declaring, And this is truth.

I imagined another kind of truth: Mary, the woman Little Jock calls Mother, watching all of this, knowing that these superficial lies are only the tip of the iceberg:

His name is not Peter Lennie, she thinks. He is not a native of Belfast. There is much else that is false in his declaration of truth—but then he knows for himself, and because of the pact between them, that truth is a servant, not a master. He is not Peter Lennie. He is not Patrick Lunney. But she weeps because he is hers. And this is truth.

sinkings_cover copyWhat I’ve brought to the page in The Sinkings is historical but not history, informed ‘let’s pretend’, not truth. I gratefully acknowledge the debt of the fiction to its sources without making any claims on them. But as Willa says in The Sinkings: there are all kinds of memorials. It mattered to me, and I would like readers to know, that in the view recorded by the camera obscura, there once really was the small, indeterminate figure of a maybe-man called Little Jock.

© Amanda Curtin 2009


Filed under The Sinkings, Writing

Reasons to love a novel: the wise child

I have just finished reading Chris Womersley’s 2010 novel Bereft, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award and in the same year won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Indie Award for Fiction. I was late in coming to this one, but I now join the horde of admirers of this brilliant novel that fits into what I’m beginning to think of as a small sub-genre of Australian literary fiction: Australian historical gothic. I would put Courtney Collins’s The Burial (my review here) into this cluster. At a pinch (because it’s a hybrid of historical and contemporary), The Sinkings might find a place there too.

There are so many things to love about Bereft, but perhaps the greatest of these, for me, is the mysterious orphan child, Sadie Fox, a character who takes on the archetypal role of helper, appearing almost by magic to aid the journey of the novel’s protagonist, Quinn Walker. Quinn, returning from the trenches of World War I as a ‘hero’ but in many ways barely more than a boy himself, is drawn back to the hometown from which he fled ten years earlier after the rape and murder of his young sister. But it is a dangerous return, as Quinn is believed to have committed this horrific crime. He hides in the surrounding hills, observing what is left of the home of his past, venturing down to visit his dying mother. Enter the child Sadie, also hiding from those in town who would do her harm—Sadie, whose practical knowledge and almost preternatural wisdom will be the difference between life and death for Quinn.

bereft_B finalcrop‘What happened to your face?’

Quinn blushed and kicked at the edges of the fire. ‘The war. I got injured.’

‘I always live up here. I live in these hills.’

Quinn doubted this boast, but nodded by way of answer. He had wandered these ranges as a boy and knew there was little here apart from boulders and bushes, the dark and disordered press of trees. No people lived up here now the miners had gone.

The girl licked her lips. ‘I have a house. A whole house, hidden away where no one can find it.’ She looked inordinately pleased to have told Quinn this and said nothing more for a few minutes, before standing to stretch and yawn. Now she was upright, Quinn could see she was a bony cat of a girl, all angles and joints. ‘But you never answered my question.’

‘What question?’

‘Why are you up here when your house is down there?’

‘How do you know where I used to live?’

Her smile was thin-lipped, as if what she prepared to reveal pained her. ‘I know all sorts of things.’

—Chris Womersley, Bereft (2010)

I suspect Sadie is going to be one of those characters who remain with me for a long time.

Thinking about Sadie and her role in Bereft brought to mind another novel with a ‘wise child’ character who, in a very different way, helps, guides, saves. Who recognises—and is it not recognition that sometimes saves us?

Selena, in Natasha Lester’s T.A.G. Hungerford Award winner, What Is Left Over, After, is a far more realist character than the otherworldly Sadie, but she is no less memorable for that. Loud, larger than life, disarmingly vulnerable, thirteen-year-old Selena foists her company onto the grieving, reclusive Gaelle, a young woman who has fled her home to a seaside town on the other side of Australia. Selena’s curiosity and blunt questions draw Gaelle, at first reluctantly, into a storytelling of mothers and motherhood, fabrication and truth.

whatisleftoverafterSelena stops just before we reach her house and turns to me, cheeks flushed, eyes bright against the dusk.

‘Take a photo of me now, Gaelle,’ she says, and takes off again, riding around in a circle, arms lifted off the handlebars, grinning.

And even though it’s a pose of the worst kind, I pull the camera out of my backpack, move closer to her and use the difference between what I see in the viewing lens and what the film will see in the taking lens to misalign her head and shoulders. I want the error. The detachment. The vanished body.

After the flash fades, Selena turns her bike towards home. Then she stops. ‘Do you have kids, Gaelle?’

‘Yes. One. She’s just a baby.’

‘I thought you did.’ She cycles away, waving.

‘Why?’ I start to ask, but stop. She moves too quickly on her bike; she cannot hear me now. The words come out anyway, in a whisper. ‘Why did you think that?’ She could tell that I was a mother. Why is she the only one who can?

—Natasha Lester, What Is Left Over, After (2010)

Coincidentally, a novel I am currently editing, for a Western Australian publisher and author, has among its cast of characters a wise child who is breaking my heart. I look forward to being able to tell you about that one in 2014.


Filed under Reasons to love a novel

Editing fiction: accuracy

iStock_000018482964XSmallI’ve been an editor longer than I’ve been a writer, and editing is still part of my professional life. In June I posted a piece about the author–editor relationship that featured the views of fifteen wonderful writers from all over the world. Here I’m posting an older essay that gives voice to eight of my editor colleagues. It’s a version of a paper I gave at the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) national conference in Hobart, Tasmania, in 2007, which was subsequently published in Island (no. 110, Spring 2007).

‘But it’s fiction!’: Getting it right when you’re editing fiction

When fiction editors point out inaccuracies, implausibilities or inconsistencies, they are sometimes met with the incredulous response ‘But it’s fiction!’ It suggests that editors are nitpickers fussing over minutiae that couldn’t possibly bother anyone else. Depending on the tone in which it is conveyed, such a response could be seen as either staking a claim to the superiority of fiction or seriously devaluing it. The first position implies that because fiction is read for qualities other than factuality or accuracy, fiction authors need not address them; the second carries the protest ‘But it’s only fiction,’ and getting it right doesn’t matter in a genre that is about imagination, invention, and playing fast and loose with notions of truth.

I reject both of these positions.

I’ll start with the second. Fiction authors themselves seldom protest that ‘it’s only fiction,’ but it’s an opinion one does hear from time to time. I heard a version of it, for example, when I was writing a novel [later published as The Sinkings] as the creative component of a PhD in Writing. Why was it necessary, I was sometimes asked, to undertake so much research when it’s only a novel. It’s insulting to writers of fiction to assume that their work will be read without discernment; it’s just as insulting to readers of fiction. Works considered ‘literature’, along with those thought to fall squarely in the category of ‘entertainment’, are successful when they are convincing and credible on their own terms.

As for the proposition that ‘getting it right’ is of no great importance to the fiction author because this is not the focus of the reading experience, I would argue that ‘getting it wrong’ can undermine the very qualities of fiction that readers value: compelling characters, intriguing plot, linguistic inventiveness, structural patterning, thought-provoking ideas, the sense of being carried into a world outside one’s own experience. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction[1], puts a good deal of faith in reader goodwill, suggesting that where ‘superficial slips’ are concerned, the reader will ‘silently correct’ and move on. But it’s perhaps a risk to rely on such indulgence when readers have so many books to choose from, so many other ways they could spend their time. While continuity errors in films are considered funny, even endearing, errors in books are usually held up as examples of bad writing—or, more often, bad editing. And one person’s ‘superficial slip’ can be another’s egregious error. A colleague tells the story of an irate reader who phoned a publisher to complain that pavlova was not invented until two years after it had been served to a character in a particular book!

Whenever a reader’s attention is distracted, even minutely, by a name that doesn’t seem quite right, a date that doesn’t fit with another, an expression that seems wrong for a character, an error of fact—that’s a fracture in the bond between the reader and the text, a moment when they’re disengaging from the fictional world. I remember hearing a lovely expression for this: ‘garden-pathing the reader’, allowing their attention to wander up the garden path and away from the words on the page. The aims of ‘getting it right’ must therefore be cast in the negative—not getting it wrong, not distracting, not fracturing the bond, not garden-pathing the reader—and there’s nothing trivial or nitpicking about that. Rather, it cuts to the heart of the reading experience.

Denim slacks and donkey’s years

Editing fiction is often thought to be instinctive, perhaps even a little mysterious or alchemical, and the practical issues are rarely discussed. I had been mulling over this practical issue of ‘getting it right’ and decided to canvass other editors of fiction about their experiences.[2]

I asked whether there were examples of implausibilities, inaccuracies or inconsistencies that remained vivid in my colleagues’ minds. Inappropriate language was commonly cited:

‘Do kids still use this expression?’ is a common query back to authors…One recent manuscript used the word ‘rotter’—I am familiar with this from my childhood reading of prewar British authors but I doubt if many, or any, Australian children know or use it.

Errors of tone…are embarrassing. (I’m copyediting something at the moment that is filled with modern children saying things like ‘it’s been donkey’s years’.) It’s complicated by the fact that they’re sometimes subjective calls, and often the hardest thing to convince an author to change.

In my experience, this conversation between writer and editor over the intricacies and fidelities of what is, after all, a created world—things that are subjective—is exciting and challenging, but not always successful. I remember tactfully suggesting that it seemed unlikely that a certain character would utter a certain phrase, only to have the author write waspishly at the end of my long note: ‘Well, he did!’ Fair enough.

It’s not only in children’s literature that language can be a problem. One editor said:

I find myself wondering whether many 25-year-old women wear ‘denim slacks’ these days (especially teamed with a ‘denim blouse’ in the particular example I am thinking of).

Another remarked:

I recently read a thriller set in late 17th century London in which the characters kept asking each other ‘How was your day?’ This jarred on me because I don’t think this concept of a ‘day’—meaning out and about in public life—was known then. I think the 17th century division between public and private was different to ours.

Dialogue was cited as another problem area, with one editor complaining of ‘dialogue that seems like it’s been composed on a keyboard but never been spoken aloud.’ Another gave the example of a character recounting word-for-word a long conversation between two other characters that happened many years before, and at which she was not actually present and had only read about in a letter.

Names were also mentioned:

I’ve worked on several manuscripts in which characters had names that were inappropriate to their age and background: for example, young women in novels with contemporary Australian settings with names like Beryl or Edna. I think it’s fine to give a character an old-fashioned name, but the anachronism needs to be acknowledged—perhaps commented upon briefly or explained in some way. (For example, ‘She had never met another Edna her own age. It had been her grandmother’s name, and as a child she’d hated it,’ or something similar.)

Inaccuracies involving chronology, geography and spatial relationships are common. For example, an author I worked with had a character travelling from one Australian state to another and cheerfully cited a distance that would have landed the character in another continent. But there’s also the issue of chronological inaccuracy of plot elements set against verifiable external events: historical landmarks, natural disasters, years when particular songs were popular. Internal chronology can be just as difficult: when I constructed a timeline for one novel, it became clear that one would have to have been married at the age of ten.

Sometimes when I mention to an author that I’ve drawn up a timeline for their novel, or a family tree, or a map, they look at me with something akin to benevolent pity—but this simple tool can be so helpful that many authors say they’ll use these tools themselves in future.

Of course, they don’t always work! In one novel I observed that the weather was fine and hot one day and on the next the characters were lighting a fire in the living room. I was unaware that the weather in the town where the book is set is precisely this changeable. However, the author, to her credit, understood the point, and made some reference to the capricious nature of the weather in that place to explain what, to an outsider, could seem like a chronological slip.

The reactions from authors when problems are identified vary:

…most authors I work with are perfectionists and think of details that haven’t occurred to me. For example, one author agonised about which version of the Catholic missal to use for a quote in a novel for 10-to-14-year-olds; [and] she researched guns so that she was clear about the range of a pistol as opposed to a larger gun.

Most authors (say 90%) have been grateful to be saved from embarrassment, but I can think of three who pigheadedly insisted that it didn’t matter, draft after draft. One had accuracy problems in terms of timeline and geography but felt that only the history mattered.

This last editor kindly gave me a set of notes from a third review of the manuscript concerned, and I really sympathised with her plaintive comment to the author: ‘Please, oh please, let us have a mud map.’

The following represents the negative end of the spectrum of responses:

Questioning inaccuracy and inconsistency in fiction can create problems—sometimes even the smallest requests can put an author offside, even in cases where a heavy structural edit went smoothly. This sort of fact-checking can give us a bad reputation—making us seem like detail-obsessed control-freaks who’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.

But at the positive end was this:

Something I have frequently found: when a seemingly difficult glitch is found, it presents an opportunity for the author to come up with something really original in order to fix it, something the author would never have thought of in the absence of such a glitch. Thus, from a more positive perspective, the identification of infelicities, and the insistence that they be addressed, may be the source of true innovation in writing—invention that arises from necessity rather than merely trying to be clever.

Keeping faith with the reader

When I asked my colleagues why they thought ‘getting it right’ matters, their focus was, as expected, very much on the reader.

Anna Crago commented:

If a reader is beginning to question anything, I think it does matter, because once you’ve questioned something maybe you’re more likely to question something else. It’s all about suspension of disbelief, and that’s quite a fragile thing.

Annabel Blay echoed this:

We all know that as a reader, it only takes the teensiest inconsistency or factual inaccuracy to completely undermine the reading experience. As editors, we feel responsible for protecting our beloved authors from this.

Janet Blagg, speaking about glitches in a children’s book, said:

I tried to tell the author that if smart kids saw the flaws in some aspects of the work, they would not perhaps trust accuracy in other aspects…I feel that leaving loose and wrong ends is an insult to the intelligence of the reader.

For Sarah Brenan:

Imaginative integrity (wholeness and consistency) is important…If a book announces itself as having an actual setting, then the events portrayed should fit that setting. If it is set in a specific period, the characters’ ideas and actions should be consonant with that. Alternatively, the author should make it clear that he/she is playing with or extemporising from history and geography…For me it’s a matter of keeping faith with the reader.

Michelle Madden said:

I think it’s important to remember that most readers of novels expect not to be misled by what they read, and some readers actively look to fiction for non-fiction information. In novels for children, there is almost always an assumption that there will be some sort of educational benefit derived from the reading.

Saskia Adams highlights the more public responses of readers:

In terms of how the book is received, it matters greatly in reducing the likelihood of bad reviews that may highlight errors in the novel to potential readers. This reflects badly on everyone…and can affect sales.

Reviewers do notice inaccuracies, and can even feature them. In a review of a gothic horror novel, Dave Luckett lists one after the other:

How could a slight girl—no matter how feisty—‘push’ two fit men simultaneously face-down on the ground by grabbing them by their throats?…Do vicarages usually have battlements?…Would anyone in the 18th century say, ‘What’s with the pistol?’[3]

Another reviewer, Dianna Simmonds, describes how ‘a tangible lack of verity’ can make the reader feel ‘uneasy’:

Part of the enduring magic of fiction is the reader’s willingness to trust the author. To carry the weight of that trust, the author must construct a reality that is unshakeable. It can be utter nonsense but it must be authentic nonsense.[4]

Where to draw the line

I asked my colleagues if they thought there were times when getting it right didn’t matter. There was some difference in opinion about how this applies to fantasy. One said:

I work a lot on fantasy titles, and I do have a certain affection for my authors’ ability to say, ‘Ah well, magic did it’.

Another suggested that getting it right might not matter ‘in speculative fiction where implausibilities are irrelevant anyway!’

Others disagreed, focusing again on the need for internal logic in any genre:

A novel might be comic science fiction and make up all sorts of things to get itself out of tight corners…but these devices have to work in their own framework. Every planet has to conform to the laws of physics unless you create a plausible new set of laws, and then they have to conform to them.

And perhaps there are times when too much precision can be a distraction. An author I worked with chose to retain the phrase ‘flakes of lead’ in referring to pencil shavings, even though we discussed the fact that the flakes would actually be of graphite rather than lead. I agreed with her that the term ‘lead pencil’ was sufficiently embedded in language to transcend its own inaccuracy.

One of my colleagues felt it was possible to take dedication to accuracy too far:

I had an author who was…very concerned about getting it right and ended up walking along night-time streets with a lantern to ensure that the shadows cast on the wall were similar to those he’d described (and so on, until I began to worry about his mental health)!

Interestingly, both Sarah Brenan and Janet Mackenzie recalled a meeting of the Victorian Society of Editors in which by legendary proofreader John Bangsund described querying a character whistling a Mozart aria that couldn’t actually be whistled (he’d tried), and the date of a party that was supposed to have taken place under a full moon (he had consulted a perpetual calendar and found there wasn’t a full moon on the date mentioned). Sarah commented: ‘I wouldn’t go to those lengths. (I would have been more likely to ask why give the exact date in a novel?)’

It can be hard to know where to draw the line. It’s an exercise of judgment—by authors, by editors—on what is going to matter to the reader. The trouble is: ‘the reader’ doesn’t exist. There are many readers. The ones who don’t know and don’t care how many kilometres are between point A and point B when they are enmeshed in a beautifully told story of human relationships. The ones who will throw down a book in disgust if it confuses Apollo 10 and Apollo 11, because they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing on the days each one was reported. The ones who will silently correct, and indulgently forgive, the unexplained change of a protagonist’s hair from long black ponytail to short brown bob. The ones who will take the time to phone a publishing company to point out when pavlova was invented.

All care and no responsibility?

When considering the responsibilities of editors when it comes to getting things right, a distinction is conventionally made between content, thought to be the sole responsibility of the author, and expression, in which the editor plays an important role. In reality, as the experiences here suggest, the lines are a little more blurred than that. Editors have cited matters of expression such as tone, idiom, dialogue, internal consistency and consonance—but have also given examples involving dates, distances, historical facts, scientific facts, reflecting the way the fictional world often cannot be separated from the real world. What editors do when they’re editing fiction, when they’re engaging with the work and projecting themselves into the reading position, inevitably involves the negotiation of these two worlds and how they intersect.

Australian Standards for Editing Practice[5] acknowledges the role a good editor plays, without diluting the responsibilities of the author: Standard E3.3 requires editors to be aware of ‘When statements seem, from general knowledge, to require checking.’[6]

Janet Mackenzie, in The Editor’s Companion, puts it more bluntly: ‘The editor is not a fact-checker: you take all care but no responsibility for accuracy of content.’[7] If only this could be tattooed onto the writing hand of every reviewer in the country so that they’d stop attributing errors in content to ‘declining editorial standards’!

Elizabeth Flann and Beryl Hill are also unequivocal in The Australian Editing Handbook: ‘Accuracy is the author’s responsibility, so if you find errors return the manuscript to the author for detailed checking.’[8] True, but if an author believes the manuscript is ‘final draft’ when they submit it, are they objective enough to interrogate their work in this way? How can they know what they don’t know?

Editors at all stages of the process—proofreaders, too—represent the last line of defence, the author’s backstop, and it’s hard not to feel some responsibility.

The Victorian Society of Editors meeting referred to earlier, at which proofreader John Bangsund and editor Bruce Sims were speakers, concluded with a discussion on whether it was the editor’s responsibility to take on detailed fact-checking. According to the account of that meeting:

Bangsund affirmed that it is, adding that one should not trust even little things to the uncertainties of memory…Sims was inclined to think this was admirable though not essential. Others were divided over the matter, largely on account of the time necessary to achieve such standards relative to the remuneration that the publisher is likely to allow.[9]

Michelle Madden astutely reframes the question of responsibility as an ethical one:

…it is, in the end, a matter for the author. We’ve done our job if we have raised it, and if an inaccuracy is glaring, might affect the internal logic or is likely to expose the author to ridicule, then we have a further responsibility to push harder, but ultimately it’s their name on the book.

Perhaps, then, the responsibility of editors lies in raising awareness, especially in new authors, that this matter of getting it right is part of the compact they make with readers when they invite them into the pages of a book, and that it’s to the advantage of all that authors care about it as much as editors—and readers—do.

© Amanda Curtin 2007, 2013

[1]           John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, Vintage, New York, 1991, p. 4.

[2]           I gratefully acknowledge the generous contributions of Saskia Adams, Janet Blagg, Annabel Blay, Sarah Brenan, Elizabeth Cowell, Anna Crago, Janet Mackenzie and Michelle Madden, who responded to an email survey. For reasons of confidentiality, authors and works are not identified, and editors’ names are attached only to general comments.

[3]           Dave Luckett, ‘Gothic novel introduces new horror—sloppy writing’, The West Australian, 1 December 2003.

[4]           Diana Simmonds, ‘Lovers bogged down in writer’s research’, Weekend Australian, 31 March – 1 April 2007, ‘Review’ section, pp. 8–9.

[5]           Australian Standards for Editing Practice, Council of Australian Societies of Editors [now IPEd, Institute of Professional Editors], 2001.

[6]           Australian Standards for Editing Practice, p. 12.

[7]           Janet Mackenzie, The Editor’s Companion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, p. 60.

[8]           Elizabeth Flann & Beryl Hill, The Australian Editing Handbook, rev. 2nd edn, John Wiley &Sons, Milton, Qld, 2004, p. 52.

[9]           Diane Carlyle, ‘Editing: A case study’ (review of a talk by John Bangsund and Bruce Sims), in At the Typeface: Selections from the Newsletter of the Victorian Society of Editors, ed. Janet Mackenzie, Society of Editors (Vic.) Inc., 2005, p. 79.


Filed under Editing