Maria Papas’s wise, moving, beautifully lyrical novel Skimming Stones is the most recent winner of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award, which has been instrumental in introducing many exciting new Western Australian voices. It was published late last year, and an appreciative early review from Lisa at ANZ LitLovers does justice to the novel’s many qualities.
Maria works as an English teacher and sessional academic based in Perth, and her fiction, non-fiction and academic essays have been published in Australian and international journals. Skimming Stones is her debut novel.
Grace first met her lover, Nate, as a teenager, their bond forged in the corridors and waiting rooms where siblings of cancer patients sit on the sidelines. Now an adult, for Grace, nursing is a comforting world of science and certainty. But the paediatric ward is also a place of miracles and heartbreak and, when faced with a dramatic emergency, Grace is confronted with memories of her sister’s illness. Heading south to Lake Clifton and the haunts of her childhood, Grace discovers that a stone cast across a lake sends out ripples long after the stone has gone.
Connecting past and present
AC: Maria, Skimming Stones is narrated by your character Grace, across two main time-frames. We first meet her in her role as a nurse in a paediatric oncology ward, but the narrative takes us back to the child Grace, who, at the age of 13, also inhabits a paediatric oncology ward, in a very different role. Could you please begin by talking about this specific connection between the 13-year-old Grace and the adult she has become?
MP: There was a time in my life when I drew a lot of strength from asking nurses what made them choose their career paths. Commonly, aside from having parents or grandparents who were also nurses, many said that either they or someone they loved had once spent a lot of time in hospital. It wasn’t uncommon, I discovered, for children who had serious illness, their siblings, or even their parents to later choose nursing or care work as a profession. In a way, Grace’s experiences do shape her choices. It felt logical for her to become a nurse, and logical that as an adult she should go back to reflect on her past. Those connections did feel real to me.
Listening to a voice
AC: I adore Grace’s voice and her unique perspective on those around her. Did the first-person point of view come naturally to you as a way to tell this story?
MP: When I write fiction my most comfortable default is third person, present tense. With this novel, though, first person felt more honest. For many reasons, I needed to hear Grace’s story myself, so the writing of the whole book was almost an act of listening to someone like Grace. She’s strong, she’s knowledgeable, she has been through a lot, and she is reflective, so why not let the story come from within her?
At the most basic level, yes, her voice did come naturally. I am the eldest of three sisters, so the older sibling was one I could easily draw from. Having said that, writing from the perspective of a character who had witnessed her sibling’s cancer raised ethical concerns for me. Was I writing this voice well? Was the representation sensitive? I did second guess myself, but in the end, the first-person voice was the one that spoke most clearly to me.
He touched my mother. He rested his hands on her shoulders, kissed her crown, and then left for work as if there was no hole in the pantry door.
There’s such power in this brief observation. From a writer’s point of view, I admire the craft—the restraint, the metonymy—but I also admire it for what it tells us about Grace as a character, her quiet, observing eye, her struggle to make meaning from incongruent things. I’m going off track a bit because my question relates back to the substance of the sentence: the troubled relationship between Grace’s parents. What function does this play in the novel?
MP: One of my aims for the novel was to write about the way illness can impact families, but I didn’t want to oversimplify and focus on just the illness alone. Instead, I wanted to acknowledge that there are often many pre-existing concerns, and that these won’t go away just because something more worrying or pressing has arisen. In addition, I also wanted to acknowledge that people have different ways of coping with tumultuous emotions—some healthy, some unhealthy—and that such mechanisms are likely to continue and have an effect through difficult times. The toxicity between Grace’s parents impacts Grace’s worldview and, alongside her sister’s illness, has its hand in forming her relationships as an adult.
Sharing a language
AC: Grace’s friend Nate is an important character, and I found it interesting that the psychic space he occupies in the novel is far greater than his actual presence in the narrative. Could you please tell us about Nate?
MP: Nate and Grace each have shared memories of hospital and of being somewhat cast aside while the focus of parenting is redirected towards a sibling in crisis. Nate’s presence in the adult narrative and his relationship with Grace does conflate past and present, but it also provides Grace a space in which she is understood without having to explain her past. To Grace’s mind, she and Nate share a language. She doesn’t have to speak or think about her experiences because Nate already knows. Having said this, it is precisely this relationship that puts Grace at a set of crossroads and prompts her to revisit her past. So, in a way, while Grace’s relationship with Nate seemingly allows her to leave a difficult experience unexamined, it also inevitably brings that experience forth and insists it be examined.
Myths and boundaries
AC: For all that Skimming Stones presents an authentic, intimately rendered account of the experience of illness and how it affects those who live with and alongside it, it is broad in its concerns and resists any easy categorisation as an ‘issues novel’. Among the many things I was drawn to is the way a geographical place—Lake Clifton in Western Australia’s south-west—becomes not only a character in the novel but a character in Grace’s life. How did this come about?
MP: Years ago, I remembered an old childhood memory that I think is attributable to the thrombolites. Soon after, I visited the lake and it struck me how ancient and mysterious the thrombolites were. You can’t touch a thrombolite and you’re not allowed to enter the lake, and so no matter how much I wanted to know what those structures were like, I had to leave comfortable with the uncertainty of not knowing. I am of Greek heritage, and something about the landscape put me in mind of mythological characters who cross boundaries into unknowable worlds. The lake was one of those boundary spaces for me. It was a place that allowed me to imagine, but not the kind of place I could ever fully understand. Grace has an ambivalent relationship with the lake. She exists on its edges. She is drawn to it, feels it as a healing place, but it is also a place of terrible drama. Metaphorically, the lake is central to Grace’s concerns. It urges her to consider how much we can know, and what we must be satisfied with not knowing.
AC: Is the novel a narrative of motherhood, or perhaps as much about mothering as it is about motherhood?
MP: I think this is my favourite question that I have ever been asked. The whole time I was writing, I thought Skimming Stones was a novel about siblings, but now that I look back, I see that it is absolutely about all the things we conflate when we consider the word ‘mother’ alongside the word ‘care’. The narrative represents mothering within a nuclear family, parental conflict, and then motherhood after separation and divorce. There is mothering under tense circumstances, the desperation of mothering a sick child, the fear of becoming a mother, of not knowing what that might mean. There is also the kind of mothering that many people do when they participate in the upbringing of children that are not biologically their own. Harriet, for example, is very much a mother for Grace. People think of her as a surrogate or ‘childless’, but she is not childless to me. Her experience of motherhood is highly tragic, but she is still a mother, and when it comes to Grace, she shows us a version of herself and a version of mothering that extends well beyond the typical family structure into the community. Motherhood is definitely an underlying theme.
A place called Cancer
Nate knew cancer like I knew cancer. We were both from cancer. We shared it like a password between travellers in a foreign country. Or that moment in a crowd when someone says something or another and they carry just the right inflection, an accent you recognise, the sound of home…He knew where I had come from.
You write with an intimate knowledge of the foreign country that is cancer, and I’m wondering about the experience of revisiting that place emotionally in order to create this powerfully moving narrative—whether it was painful, whether you felt compelled to go there anyway. Did it feel inevitable to you as a writer that you would wrest from that place you once ‘came from’ a narrative of some kind, or did this story emerge more by stealth?
MP: To be fair, I wasn’t revisiting when I was writing; I was firmly a resident. I had begun this novel as part of a PhD, and for about a year or so I was working on themes to do with the kindness of strangers. In these early drafts, the sisters, Harriet, the lake and the boy already existed but in more sketchy forms. Then, out of the blue, one of my children developed leukaemia. For a while, I couldn’t read let alone write, and later, when I did start writing again, I couldn’t engage with the story I had previously worked on. All I wanted was to begin processing the experience that had since changed my family, but I was tied to the PhD, and I am the kind of person who must finish what I start. At the time, I remember considering changing my project to non-fiction, but I also recognised that I didn’t yet have the distance to reflect well. In a way, creating Grace and Emma from the sisters within an already existing fiction allowed me to garner the strength to look at the spaces I had just occupied with my children, really for the first time. It wasn’t painful, no, but it was difficult to write, primarily because writing and researching became a teacher for me. I was learning while I was writing. Oddly, it was later, after I won the Hungerford Award and throughout this publication process that I felt I was revisiting this long-ago place, and that did feel disorientating at first. It took me a while to know how to talk about the connections between my novel and my real-life experience, but again I garnered strength from the place I had come from and all the people who had once visited it and since talked about it. Ultimately, I think that’s important: that we do revisit and talk. It helps us not just to make sense, but also to acknowledge what people genuinely go through. It can be quite releasing simply to acknowledge.
Photo credits: author photo (top) by Pamela Souris; author photo (bottom) by L. Watters