Category Archives: Talking (new) fiction

Talking (new) fiction: Maria Papas’s Skimming Stones

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.

*Maria will be a guest of the Perth Festival Writers Weekend, to be held at the Fremantle Arts Centre 26–27 February. Her event, ‘How It Begins’, may be booked here.*

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.

Toxic relationships

AC:

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.

Mothering

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

AC:

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.

Skimming Stones is published by Fremantle Press
Follow Maria via her website, Twitter and Instagram

Photo credits: author photo (top) by Pamela Souris; author photo (bottom) by L. Watters

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Another year of reading…

This year, like the last, has thrown up many things that have taken time away from reading, but I seem to have found more solace in books than ever before. Perhaps that’s attributable to what I’ve chosen to read; perhaps it’s also that I instinctively turn to books when the world around me makes no sense. I’m grateful to all the authors who have allowed me to travel vicariously and who have reminded me that one of the greatest gifts of reading is a fostering of compassion.

A few stats:

  • Books read: 26 (excluding the many read for research)
  • Women authors: 19
  • Australian authors: 21
  • Western Australian authors: 15
  • Indigenous authors: 2 (obvious room for improvement)
  • Debut novels: 7
  • Genres: 18 fiction, 3 non-fiction, 1 hybrid, 1 poetry, 2 YA, 1 junior fiction

I’m never good at choosing one favourite anything, but I will admit to feeling bereft on finishing Donald Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, and it took me ages to recover from it. And Robyn Mundy’s Cold Coast took my breath away—literary historical fiction at its finest. One of the highlights of the year, for me, was the chance to interview Robyn live at Beaufort Street Books in November, her fleeting visit to Perth just squeezing in before the borders between WA and Tasmania closed.

This year I introduced a new series of author interviews, Talking (new) fiction, and featured six new novels that I loved, and loved delving into:

Huge thanks to Jo, Susan, Michael, Zoe, Robyn and John for their time, their goodwill and their thoughtful, often thought-provoking responses.

Next year’s interview list is already in preparation, and the first post ready to go. I’m looking forward to spending time with some exciting new works.

But for now, thanks to you for reading and for all your valued comments. I hope reading has brought you much to think about in 2021, along with an abundance of joy.

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Talking (new) fiction: John Hughes’ The Dogs

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Upswell, the new imprint of publishing dynamo Terri-ann White. Today it’s my pleasure to feature one of the titles on Upswell’s 2021 list, the recently released novel The Dogs by John Hughes.

Sydney writer John Hughes has published six acclaimed books, including novels The Remnants, Asylum, and No One (shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award). He has won the National Biography Award, the Adelaide Festival Award for Innovation, and NSW and Queensland Premier’s Book Awards.

Since its recent release, The Dogs has garnered outstanding reviews and has been described (Newtown Review of Books) as

a seductive shaping of memory and imagination…superbly plotted literary fiction, a historical-contemporary cross; widescale and microscopic, metaphysical in aims…

It’s a novel I know I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

The story of a life is a secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all.—Elias Canetti

Is it possible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead?

Michael Shamanov is a man running away from life’s responsibilities. His marriage is over, he barely sees his son and he hasn’t seen his mother since banishing her to a nursing home two years earlier. A successful screen writer, Michael’s encounter with his mother’s nurse leads him to discover that the greatest story he’s never heard may lie with his dying mother. And perhaps it’s her life he’s been running away from and not his own. Is the past ever finished? Should we respect another’s silence? And if so, is it ever possible to understand and put to rest the strange idea of family that travels through the flesh?

From the Miles Franklin shortlisted author of No One comes a haunting gem of family secrets and impossible decisions.

Always further to fall

AC: Can you tell us a bit about your protagonist, Michael Shamanov, and the situation he finds himself in?

JH: Michael Shamanov is a television scriptwriter in his late fifties. He has a fraught relationship with his mother (who is suffering from dementia and whom he put into a nursing home against her will), and with his son Leo, a Gold Coast property developer, with whom he has barely kept in contact since a fractious divorce when Leo was still very young. He’s smart and articulate (and hopefully funny), but he’s also selfish and unpleasant, and a failure in pretty much all his human dealings, incapable, it would seem, of change. The novel begins with him at the nadir of his life, with apparently nowhere further to fall. Though as he remarks later, ‘That’s the beauty of existence, isn’t it, that there’s always further to fall, always something worse. Fear of something worse might even pass for a definition of what it means to be alive.’ That’s Michael Shamanov in a nutshell.

Talking ten to the dozen

AC: Years ago I read—with great alarm, as I was at the time writing a novel in the first person—that Henry James described the use of first-person point of view in any long fiction as ‘barbaric’, an ‘act of violence on the reader’. Obviously, neither of us is with Henry on this point!

The use of Michael Shamanov’s voice in The Dogs is masterful. We learn so much about who he is and the way his mind works from what he says, what he does not say, and in particular the digressions and tangents that he weaves through his narration. Did you know, from the outset, that you were going to use this perspective, and did you encounter any pitfalls along the way?

JH: Yes, James loathed the first person, he thought it was like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. And for the kind of novel he wanted to write, I take his point. But the writers of Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, obviously thought otherwise.

The Dogs came to me with Michael Shamanov talking ten to the dozen, he was telling his story even before I knew what that story was, so there was no way it could be anything other for me than first person. And unlike Henry James, I think writing in the first person allows you to do two things for the price of one, because even when your narrator is telling you something about someone else, he’s also revealing something of himself, as you say: with every characterisation, he’s also characterising himself. The main problem with a narrator like Shamanov, though, was getting him to shut up, even if his ire was directed mostly against himself!

To know what has to come

AC: The Dogs has one of the most arresting prefaces/prologues I’ve read in a long time. Anna’s reference to ‘the dogs’ chilled me to the bone, and that was before I understood what she meant. What, for you, is the purpose of a preface, or this preface?

JH: I wrote prefaces for my first two books–The Idea of Home and Someone Else–because my publisher thought the books needed them. I wrote them grudgingly, after everything else was done. Yet many readers have told me it’s the prefaces they love, especially the one to Someone Else. It was my first lesson in realising your publisher always knows better than you do! But seriously, though I didn’t enjoy writing them at the time, I think now they make each book. So I’m glad I dragged myself to the task.

In this book, the preface again came at the end of the writing, though this time the impetus was mine. It wasn’t that I felt the book was incomplete, it was just that the preface could do a lot of historical work in a short space, setting up the relationship between Michael and his mother Anna, and how they’ve got to where they are when the novel begins. But mainly it’s as you write in the question, I wanted the prolepsis: to create in the reader an acute feeling of anticipation, and of terror at the prospect of it being fulfilled; to know what is to come has to come, there can be no other way.

Silence as a weapon

AC: Anna, always a determinedly elusive mother to Michael, now has the ‘crumbly brain’ of an Alzheimer’s patient. We encounter her as an inmate in a nursing home, unable to perform basic functions like feeding herself, but in spite of her apparent helplessness, what struck me when I was reading was her strength, the power she holds over Michael. Could you please talk about the sources of this kind of power?

JH: Silence, like coldness, is an incredibly powerful weapon. Michael wants only a sign of love from his mother, the vaguest idea of why she is the person she is, but she gives him neither. About herself, she will say nothing. She can so easily satisfy his strongest desire, and yet she will not. Worse even than the power over life and death—Anna destroys her son while keeping him alive. That is the power of her silence.

Magnetic energy

AC: I’m always intrigued by characters who are outright unlikeable or (as in this case) sometimes not easy to like. Michael’s narration of his own failings is painfully honest and often shocking to read—as, for example, in the following passage:

I had access to Leo on weekends. I used to pick him up early on Saturday mornings on the way across from Bondi. But sometimes, when I knew Sarah had booked a weekend up the coast with her new ‘partner’, I wouldn’t show. It’s petty, I know, but it amused me all the same. The phone would ring over and over again. It felt good hearing it ring out…I didn’t think of Leo.

That last sentence!

Likeability does not, of course, equal engagement: a character readers loathe can be as compelling as one they love—or even more so. But did it ever feel like a risk, writing Michael in this way?

JH: Yes, it did feel a risk (if only because given his age, and background, he has many resemblances to me, and it’s an easy step for a reader to mistake the narrator for his author!). It’s all about getting the balance right, I think. I wanted to make real the damage that inherited trauma can do, to give it flesh and blood, and to do that I had to create a highly damaged character. So damaged, in fact, that even though he recognises what his mother has done to him, it doesn’t stop him perpetuating the damage in his son—its transmission is as irresistible to him as a virus, or the passing on of our DNA. The key was to balance this with traits the reader might enjoy—his humour, for instance, the self-lacerating nature of his criticism, but mainly, the fact that his failings may not be as bad as he thinks they are, that beneath them there is someone who loves and wants to be loved, even if he can’t help but put his foot in his mouth! I think there is something compelling about failure, and I hope readers do too, but I hope too that there’s also something compelling about the voice, and it’s this energy that’s magnetic, pulling readers in, even as it seems to drive them away.

Across generations

AC: Research has shown that trauma can be transferred across generations genetically as well as by social means, and an inheritance of trauma is evident in The Dogs. As Anna’s story is gradually revealed we can see threads involving silence, evasion and withholding at work, connecting Anna’s mother, Ravenna, to Anna herself, and to Michael. I’m wondering about Michael’s son’s, Leo: is he the one to break the pattern?

JH: Without giving too much of the novel away, it’s clear that Leo too is damaged, and repeats, in many ways, the story of his father. But I like to think the last part of the novel reveals him as a different kind of man, and that even while on the surface he appears to be doing something many might consider terrible to help his father, he is doing it out of love, and Michael recognises this, and it breaks him inside and shows him that in his son, at least, he is more than his failings. Trauma is difficult to dilute, even across four generations, but I hope by the novel’s end there is some small sense of hope, even given (I might almost say because of) its final action.

A story made out of stories

AC: I was deeply moved by the piece you wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald about the experience of sitting with your grandmother as she lay dying—and I recommend it to anyone interested in ageing, legacy and honouring the past and the lives of those we love. You describe this experience as having inspired The Dogs, although the novel does not tell your grandmother’s story.

Your grandmother, as a young woman and mother, lived through a tragic time in history, the Great Ukrainian Famine of the early 1930s. It is obviously a powerful narrative, and one intimately connected with your very existence. You have used the emotional weight of that story of survival but none of the details, and I’m wondering whether you consciously rejected the idea of using the story itself. Must we always transform our own experiences and those of people close to us—tell them slant—in order to see the dogs for ourselves?

JH: In his long poem ‘Phantom’, the Scottish poet Don Paterson writes:

what kind of twisted ape ends up believing
the rushlight of his little human art
truer than the great sun on his back?
I knew the game was up for me the day
I stood before my father’s corpse and thought
If I can’t get a poem out of this…

John Hughes’ grandmother with his aunt and mother (front)

As you say, I knew the game was up for me the day I sat beside my grandmother, who lay dying of dementia in a nursing home bed. Though I didn’t think the thought in such an explicit way, it must surely have been there. If I can’t get a novel out of this…Writers are terrible cannibals of their family and friends. Where else do our characters and stories come from? From other literature, perhaps, but mainly from those we know best (including ourselves, although there I’d say there’s no one alive who doesn’t know the self they want to be far better than the self they are—when it comes to self-knowledge, that is, all of us are idealists!).

But in this case, although the novel came out of my experience sitting beside my grandmother’s bed, and the way of its telling corresponds closely to the way her story was revealed to me, I also knew that the story itself had to be different, and not only because I needed to spare my grandmother. Because I knew when I started writing the book that it is, in one way, a story about second-hand stories. History comes to us as Anna’s memories come to Michael—fragmented, contradictory, incomplete—and we have to make sense of it, as Michael does, in his self-conscious and highly allusive stories that dominate the second part of the novel. All our stories of the time before us can’t help but be second-hand. For this reason, I needed Anna’s story to feel like a pastiche—a story made out of stories. The reader is given the source, in the fragments of Anna’s edited transcript, and then the story Michael makes of these. First-hand accounts, like that of his mother, say, ‘This is what happened.’ Second-hand accounts ask, ‘What happened? How do we know?’ Michael—who wasn’t there and doesn’t know—must build his mother’s story then out of other stories, to demonstrate his helplessness in the face of his mother’s experience. (And mine too!)

In a way the second part of the novel is really about writing itself, about being a writer, and the process of putting a story together out of what we don’t know. So yes, it made sense for me to tell the story slant, in part to respect my grandmother’s privacy, but also because the novel demanded it be told that way. And yet, it’s also true that in the way it explores intergenerational trauma and the secrets that run through even the most ordinary of families, it begins and ends with my grandmother in that bed, and the knowledge that I did ‘get a novel out of this’, one in which I hope I have done her justice, and for which my family will forgive me, and hopefully continue speaking to me, if only until I turn the spotlight on them!

The Dogs is published by Upswell
Follow John on Instagram @johnhughes185

Photo credits: author photo by Tim Derricourt; family photo photographer unknown

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Talking (new) fiction: Robyn Mundy’s Cold Coast

All year I have been looking forward to interviewing Robyn Mundy about her brilliant new novel, Cold Coast. Robyn is the author of The Nature of Ice, set in Antarctica, and Wildlight, set on remote Maatsuyker Island, off Tasmania’s southern coast (read a post about Wildlight here), and this new novel takes readers to another of the wild places of the world: Arctic Norway. As the photos below show, it is as rugged as it is stunningly beautiful.

Among many endorsements for Cold Coast is this from award-winning novelist Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites:

Cold Coast summons the raw beauty of Svalbard with achingly evocative prose. At once visceral and lyrical, I was totally absorbed in the story of Wanny Woldstad and her yearning for wilder freedoms.

When Robyn is not writing or travelling (in the days when that was possible), she teaches writing and works as a volunteer marine radio operator. She shares her home in Tasmania with a penguin biologist and a Blue Heeler.

She is also a dear friend of so many years that they can probably be measured in decades now, and is one of my favourite writers.

Perth readers: Robyn will be in conversation at Beaufort Street Books on Tuesday 30 November. Bookings here

In 1932, Wanny Woldstad, a young widow, travels to Svalbard, daring to enter the Norwegian trappers’ fiercely guarded male domain. She must prove to Anders Sæterdal, her trapping partner who makes no secret of his disdain, that a woman is fit for the task. Over the course of a Svalbard winter, Wanny and Sæterdal will confront polar bears, traverse glaciers, withstand blizzards and the dangers of sea ice, and hike miles to trap Arctic fox, all in the frigid darkness of the four-month polar night. For Wanny, the darkness hides her own deceptions that, if exposed, speak to the untenable sacrifice of a 1930s woman longing to fulfil a dream.

Alongside the raw, confronting nature of the trappers’ work is the story of a young blue Arctic fox, itself a hunter, who must eke out a living and navigate the trappers’ world if it is to survive its first Arctic winter.

A cabin with a story

AC: Robyn, while Cold Coast is a work of fiction, Wanny Woldstad (pronounced ‘Vonny Volstad’) was indeed Svalbard’s first female hunter and trapper. How did you come upon her story?

RM: I spend several months of each year working as a ship-based guide on tourist expeditions to the polar regions, north and south. Our voyages include Svalbard, an extraordinary archipelago in the High Arctic, way north of Norway. A favourite site to visit is Hornsund in the south-west corner of Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island. At the inner end of the fjord sits a pint-sized trapper’s cabin, set at the foot of a mountain with cliffs and ledges alive with the shrieks of breeding seabirds. When I discovered that the cabin was used by Wanny Woldstad in the early 1930s, and that she was Svalbard’s first female trapper and hunter, I wanted to know more. How did a woman—a young widow—break into a fiercely guarded male domain? What was the experience of months of winter darkness in bitterly cold conditions? Those questions set me on a course of research and writing that became Cold Coast.

Wanny’s hut, Gnalodden, colloquially known as Fuglefjell (Bird Mountain). Photo by Robyn Mundy
Robyn with tour group at Wanny’s hut. Photo by Gary Miller

A scaffold for imagination

AC: Creating a character drawn from real life, a novel inspired by a true story, is not without its challenges. Wanny published her own story in the 1950s, and I’m wondering whether this was a help or a hindrance to your development of the character we read about in Cold Coast.

RM: Wanny’s published memoir, First Woman Trapper on Svalbard, proved utterly invaluable. It took me six months to get hold of a copy through a local library document delivery service (hallelujah for our fantastic libraries and the services they provide), and several months more to have it translated from Norwegian to English. While I often craved more of Wanny’s internal world—her thoughts and feelings, her anxieties and misgivings—she offered a sparkling window into the day-to-day life of an Arctic trapper: the practical challenges, the physical exhaustion of the work that meant trekking 20 kilometres a day to check and reset fox traps, rowing a leaky boat six hours in dodgy weather to reach their outer cabin, crossing a glacier on foot in the dead of winter, encountering polar bears. Just as importantly, I gained an intimate sense of domestic life inside the hut—the room where they cooked and ate and slept, the same space where Wanny set aside her embroidery to flay fox and bear pelts. Her memoir provided the scaffolding that gave structure to my own story and ignited numerous scenes.

Robyn on bear guard, Ardneset. Photo by Gary Miller

Tougher than bears and blizzards

AC: There are many journeys in Cold Coast—physical, into a wild place that poses life-threatening challenges; psychological, testing mind and spirit in the pursuit of a formidable dream. And with only two main characters for most of the narrative, there’s also the journey of a complex relationship. Could you please tell us about Wanny’s trapping partner, Anders?

RM: I hope readers will pay a nod to Anders Sæterdal who, despite his grave reservations about a woman trapper and having to withstand derision from fellow trappers, afforded Wanny her chance to go north. Anders acknowledged two crucial qualities in Wanny: as Tromsø’s first taxi driver, operating her own cab, he saw a get-up-and-go, self-made woman; and she had formidable skill with a rifle—Wanny regularly won target shooting championships. That blend of independence, determination and practical prowess was Wanny’s ticket to the Arctic, yet Anders immediately regretted the decision to take her. In turn, he proved an unyielding taskmaster. Out in the field he expected Wanny to take care of herself, get herself out of trouble; she had to learn fast and work hard. I suspect the effort of proving herself to Anders Sæterdal was a far tougher undertaking for Wanny than it might have been for a first-time male trapper.

Robyn driving a Zodiac at guillemot cliffs at Alkefjellet, Svalvard. Photo by Gary Miller

Foxcam

AC: There are other stories circling Wanny’s during her year on Svalbard that give us a different perspective on the world she and Anders have entered and what they are there for. I found the main interleaving narrative—the chapters headed ‘Fox’—utterly compelling, and a remarkable feat of imaginative engagement with the non-human world. What was behind your decision to include these other narratives?

RM: Thank you, Amanda. From the start I wanted to offer a contrasting experience to that of the human hunters. I chose the perspective of an Arctic fox. The fox itself is hunter and hunted, a small animal prized for its pelt, needing to eke out sufficient food to survive its first Arctic winter as it navigates the trappers’ perilous world. The fox chapters are purposely concise, adhering to the fox’s ‘creature-ness’. I wasn’t sure how this strand of the narrative would play out, only that the interplay offered the capacity for affection between Wanny and this small Arctic fox, along with the inevitable tension for a starving fox tempted each and every day by a trap baited with its favourite ptarmigan meat.

Imagining beyond the human

AC: Staying with the ‘Fox’ chapters for the moment: they are so detailed in their minute observations of the animals’ behaviour that it feels like we are there, watching, feeling, seeing through their eyes. How did you, as a writer, enter that space?

RM: One of my cherished experiences of travelling regularly to the Arctic has been encounters with Arctic fox. I won’t forget standing on the slopes right beside Wanny’s hut, watching a family of fox kits romp through snow and tussle together, as playful as puppies or kittens. I am fascinated by Arctic foxes—their speed and agility in navigating death-defying mountain ledges and near vertical slopes in order to hunt, their capacity to snooze in a howling gale, their ability to vanish then reappear in an entirely different place. Some of the old trapper accounts talk about having a house fox each season, an animal so tame it would stay around the cabin and take scraps of food from a trapper’s hand. In writing from a fox’s perspective, the characterisation of the fox comes solely through its actions; I loved falling into the fox world and imagining those moments.

A receding landscape

AC: Svalbard—situated between mainland Norway and the North Pole—is one of the stars of the novel, fully alive on the page. Climatic extremes, plant and animal life, geographical features, rare phenomena—beautiful, often surprising descriptions that come from your own intimate knowledge of place are among my favourite passages. Here are two examples, but I could give pages of them:

…it is neither night nor day. Soft, it feels to Anders, this silky in-between, the sky all lilac and butter.

Leaves of Arctic willow turn gold and russet; they wither, consumed into the permafrost’s water-logged skin.

How different are they, the Svalbard you know and the Svalbard of Wanny’s time?

RM: Part of my research was to pore over maps, terrain and distances, and to investigate changes to the glacier that Wanny and Anders regularly crossed on foot. Now could be a moment where a picture paints a thousand words. This map shows the extent of ice in Wanny’s time in 1932 (dark green), the recession of the glacier by 1990 (mid green) and further diminishment through to 2010 (light green). Sadly, the melting of ice from increased global temperatures is consistent across the Arctic latitudes.

Contextualising the visceral

AC: There is no getting away from the gruesomeness of the trappers’ work, and readers have to be prepared to set aside the modern lens through which we view the trapping of animals for their skins today. Some scenes are confronting to read, but I know, from having myself written of a horrific historical murder, that it can also be confronting to write of such visceral things. How did you approach that aspect of the writing?

RM: Vivid scenes of trapping and hunting represent a small part of the novel, but as you so capably know, Amanda, often the most visceral images reside in the unspoken. Nonetheless, there was a stage of writing where I needed a break from tackling the more gruesome aspects. One scene I wrote never made it to the final cut, the publisher deeming it too confronting. I simply had to be true to the trappers of the time, to the pragmatism of their work, to their reason for being in Svalbard. On reading Wanny’s memoir, seeing her overt disapproval of the ‘one-sided nature’ of trapping, along with her mention of ‘the vanity of women providing we trappers an income’, I suspect that the work, for her, came second to simply experiencing the Arctic and its wildlife.

Cold Coast is published by Ultimo Press
Follow Robyn via her website and on Instagram at @robyncmundy

Author photo by Matt Horspool

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Talking (new) fiction: Zoe Deleuil talks about The Night Village

Today it’s my great pleasure to be talking with another debut Western Australian novelist: Zoe Deleuil. Zoe’s accomplished psychological suspense novel, The Night Village, was shortlisted for the Hungerford Award in 2018 and subsequently picked up by Fremantle Press. (What a wonderful vehicle such awards are for unearthing new talent and exciting manuscripts!)

Zoe’s short fiction and poetry have been published in literary journals and anthologies, and she also writes feature articles for newspapers and magazines.

She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University in the UK, and currently lives with her family in Berlin.

When Simone arrives in London from Perth for a working holiday, a newborn baby is not on her agenda. But she is determined to be a good mother, even though she barely knows her boyfriend, Paul. Even though his apartment at the Barbican is grey and isolated. Even though she feels utterly unprepared for motherhood. When his cousin Rachel comes to stay, the claustrophobic apartment starts to feel even smaller, as Simone begins to wonder why Rachel has come, and what secrets the cousins share.

Sinister roots

AC: Zoe, The Night Village is a psychological thriller, a tale that burrows into the darkness of what seems, on the surface, a domestic scenario. I must commend you: you do sinister very well! But I wondered where all of this came from.

ZD: It’s strange trying to trace the story’s development, as when I started writing I didn’t expect it to turn into a suspense novel. Looking back, though, I do remember visiting my local library a lot, accompanied by two rowdy toddlers. With no time to look for the perfect novel, I’d always take something from the Librarian’s Pick of the Week table, and most of those books were psychological suspense and thrillers—SJ Watson, Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, Susan Hill and more. So when I started writing The Night Village I had that style fresh in my mind. I always wondered which librarian picked the books, but when I asked one day I was told they all did!

Having said that, my imagination does veer quickly towards the sinister—anything from a closed shower curtain to a creaking branch can set me off. Writing a novel at least puts that tendency to good use.

Alien places

AC: The novel is set in London, and in particular in the Barbican Estate, a large postwar residential complex in the ‘Brutalist’ architectural style. Could you please talk about what role/s the city and the estate play in the world of the novel?

ZD: With its soaring concrete towers and fortress-like design, the Barbican Estate is revered by many architects, but to visitors it can feel almost post-apocalyptic on a winter’s day. Simone can’t hear her neighbours through the thick walls, at night she looks out to empty offices, and the apartment itself is sealed and quiet and colourless. All these elements increase her sense of isolation and unease, and hopefully add to the spooky atmosphere.

London itself also drives the story forward, as Simone is constantly bumping up against strangers, both friendly and menacing. There’s a beautiful novel by Russell Hoban called Amaryllis Night and Day and much of the narrative is simply the main character wandering around London to his own unique map. As a new mother, Simone also creates a new map of the city, ending up somewhere very different from where she started.

That other country, Motherhood

AC: Motherhood is at the centre of the novel, and there is so much that could be discussed concerning your portrayal of Simone’s entry into this new world. I imagine book clubs are going to love doing just that! I’ll confine myself to asking about the issue of motherhood and gender roles—as expressed, for example, in the following passage:

[The use of valium in the 1960s and SSRIs today] made it easier for us to keep smiling and to keep doing and to not feel quite so very, very angry, because despite everything nothing had changed. We got to work, yes, but we still had to do everything else.

How much did this sense of ‘ordinary madness’ (I’m borrowing the term from Susan Midalia’s superb novel of the same name) caused by socially constructed parental roles play into the development of your characters?

ZD: For Paul and Simone, what had been a pleasant and undemanding relationship changes overnight with the arrival of an unplanned baby. After two weeks of paternity leave Paul returns to work, while Simone is left at home, holding a wailing newborn, her identity reduced to one word: mother. Add sleep deprivation, the impact of pregnancy and birth and her isolation in an unfamiliar city, and Susan Midalia’s wonderfully accurate ‘everyday madness’ soon descends. Simone feels isolated and unsupported, while Paul doesn’t really know how he can help apart from going out and earning money. It’s a dynamic familiar to many new parents, and in Paul and Simone’s case the tension is ramped up further by the fact that they don’t really know each other. From a storytelling point of view, it gave me a lot to work with.

When a character knocks on your door…

AC: Into the fraught situation of new motherhood comes a character who destabilises the already unstable. Could you talk, please, about Rachel (without, of course, giving away any spoilers)?

ZD: Rachel turned up at the door of the apartment, much as she does in the novel, when I was writing one day. Until that happened, I never believed writers who say that a character can just appear fully formed, but now I only hope it happens again. She felt like someone whose story I was getting to know as I wrote, and she’s a persistent and shadowy presence who is probably more than a little inspired by all the gothic novels I’ve read over the years.

Wise elders

AC: I loved your character Jennifer, who works at the V&A Museum of Childhood. She seems to play a pivotal role in Simone’s story. Could you tell us about her and what she represents?

ZD: Jennifer is a sixty-something woman who befriends Simone one day when she visits the museum with her baby. She makes Simone a cup of tea, sits with her, listens, and is a kind of substitute parent and wise elder when Simone’s own mother is far away. So much of parenting is simply being present, being there and nowhere else, and I think that’s the lesson that Jennifer brings.

Writing place from afar

AC: Zoe, I understand you were born and raised in Perth, went to London to live and work (as your character Simone does) and now live with your family in Germany. With The Night Village set in London, I was wondering about your connection with place. Is it a major inspiration for your work? And as someone who finds it easier to write about a place when I’m not in it, may I ask about your take on whether it’s easier to write about a place from afar?

ZD: Place seems to come first when I start a story, and then I think about who might live there and how they respond to their environment. I wrote The Night Village in Perth, and in some ways remembering London—the milky winter light, the warmth of buses and museums, the streets and sounds—was as good as being there.

I moved to Berlin, my husband’s hometown, in 2018, thinking rather blithely that I’d set a novel here. But the longer I stay, the less qualified I feel to write about Germany. I’m learning German and maybe, if I’m lucky, a story will come. Strangely enough, my imagination is now directed towards Perth. So yes, I am with you, Amanda, on finding it easier to write about a place when you aren’t there.

The title from within

AC: As a book editor, I’ve often had to assure the writers I’ve worked with that titles can be the devil, and that probably every writer, at least once in their career, has had to go through the agonising experience of discovering that the title they love and are wedded to has not found favour with the publisher’s marketing department. The Night Village strikes me as a very effective title for this story. Did it emerge organically, or was it a difficult one to get right?

ZD: This manuscript was originally called She Came To Stay, borrowed from the Simone de Beauvoir novel when I needed to quickly come up with a title before submitting it to the Hungerford Award. The Night Village did emerge organically, first as I wrote about the doll houses at the Museum of Childhood and then as I started to think about an unseen village of wakeful parents and children, all in their separate houses yet somehow connected across every sleepless night.

The Night Village is published by Fremantle Press
Follow Zoe via her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

Image credits: author photo by Jan Radke; Barbican image by Max Whitehead

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Talking (new) fiction: Michael Burrows’ Where the Line Breaks

I was intrigued from the moment I heard about Michael Burrows’ debut novel, Where the Line Breaks, and so I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to talk to him about it and to be bringing you that interview today.

Michael was born and raised in Perth, but currently lives in London, where he first travelled to work at the 2012 Olympics. He says that after he backpacked through Europe for a year, the great British weather persuaded him to settle in the UK.

He completed his MA in 2017 at City, University of London, where he wrote the first draft of this novel. Where the Line Breaks was shortlisted for the 2019 Fogarty Literary Award.

Matthew Denton, a starry-eyed Australian completing his PhD in London, is determined to prove that the Unknown Digger—Australia’s answer to England’s Soldier Poets—is none other than war hero Lieutenant Alan Lewis VC of the 10th Light Horse.

Like Lieutenant Lewis, Matthew is in love, and fighting for what he believes in—but the footnotes to Matt’s thesis come to reveal that all is not fair in love and war.

One hundred years and a lifetime’s experience apart, it becomes more and more difficult to say what makes a hero, especially if that hero is supposed to be you.

When two strands become three

AC: Michael, I’m always fascinated with the architecture of a novel, so I’d like to begin with that. The structure of Where the Line Breaks is one of the most inventive I’ve come across. On the face of it, a reader approaches the novel very much aware (because of the book’s internal design) that they are about to read a dual narrative. One narrative is presented in the form of a PhD thesis written by the present-day protagonist, student Matthew Denton; the second tells the story of the subject of Matthew’s thesis, Australian war hero Alan Lewis of the 10th Light Horse. But the reader is in for a surprise: this dual-narrative novel quickly evolves into a triple narrative. Without giving away any spoilers, could you please talk about this third strand and how it operates in the novel?

MB: From very early on in the writing process I knew that I needed some way of laying out the established historical timeline, that is, the story that the world has come to know, so that I could reveal the truth behind those events in the Alan Lewis storyline. I also wanted a way to comment on the major themes of the book directly—the ideas of heroism and romance and patriotism—and the thesis allowed me to do that in a fun, slightly different way.

What complicated it was that I also needed a way to tell Matt’s own story, and you can’t really do that in the thesis while maintaining the academic language. My solution was for Matt to reveal his own story through the footnotes to the thesis, occasionally dropping in personal thoughts and relating the historical timeline to his own life in a way that felt realistic. I really tried to make his narrative emerge organically; his story is triggered by related things in the thesis itself, as much as possible. As the thesis goes on, Matt’s story starts to take on a life of its own and grows bigger and more complicated, and the footnotes expand accordingly.

It’s a structure that I find really intriguing, and I hope people enjoy reading, because it gave me a lot of levels on which to play with the truth, to comment on things, and to echo relevant beats in the other storylines.

I’m not sure that this thesis would be marked particularly well as a proper PhD thesis, but I think it’s a lot more fun to read than a real PhD.

Fabricating authenticity

AC: Matthew’s academic argument is that Lewis is the (fictional) ‘Unknown Digger’ of the First World War, the previously anonymous poet responsible for a collection of poems that have become iconic artefacts in Australian literature since their discovery in the 1990s. I imagine it must have been great fun to create the various conceits at work here—the literary and cultural landscape in which the poems have achieved almost mythic status; the academic quest to counter existing beliefs about the identity of the Unknown Digger and to definitively prove an alternative; the ‘Unknown Digger industry’ and those texts and specialists who are part of it. I’m also wondering how demanding it was. How did you keep track of all your fabrications, and was it difficult to keep yourself separate from this parallel world of your own creation?

MB: I had a little too much fun constructing Matt’s arguments, inventing relevant sources, and creating the various historians and cultural icons he references. When it came time to sort the fact from the fiction for acknowledgement in the finished book, I had forgotten which sections I made up and which were real. Or, I found I had somehow placed a fictional quote into a very real reference book, or vice versa, which I then had to remedy.

There was a lot of fun had in creating titles and publishers for books—there may be a few puns in there that were purely for my own pleasure. I was also very lucky that Fremantle Press appreciated the fact that I had added a few of my fictional titles to their backlist—before I ever dreamed I would be lucky enough to get published by them—and allowed them to stay.

Like for any good thesis, I kept a bibliography (and even thought about adding it to the book at one stage) in order to keep tabs on all the various sources. I definitely enjoyed it—that freedom to create the perfect quote for whatever section of Matt’s thesis needed it was dangerous! If I‘d been able to do that in my own academic writing at university I might never have left.

Imperfect heroes

AC: The Alan Lewis narrative is woven around Matthew’s thesis, telling a story that is sometimes consonant with the thesis and sometimes a counter to it (and to the arguments of other theorists). In doing so, it unpicks truths and shows up hagiography for the way it renders individuals one-dimensional, denying them full humanity. Did you intend this to be the novel’s moral centre?

MB: It’s tough as a writer, and you will know this, because you fall in love with your characters and want them to be loved and quoted and maybe even looked up to, while still wanting them to be imperfect, rounded, fully-dimensional people. So, yes, sometimes they have to do less than perfect things in service of the story. I was definitely looking to question the way we mythologise war heroes and plaster them with these unattainable levels of perfection, but my real intention was just to muddy the area a little, and to examine why we feel the need to create these unattainable ideals in the first place. If the novel has a moral centre then it’s probably a bit of an unstable quagmire—my characters are not perfect, they don’t necessarily do the right things, but I think they are more realistic that way.

Would you trust this man?

AC: How reliable as the narrator of his own story is Matthew Denton?

MB: Matt is trying to prove that Alan Lewis is the Unknown Digger, and he is willing to do that by manhandling the facts in whatever way he can to support his argument, so I wouldn’t call him a paradigm of reliability. The fun of writing Matt’s thesis was finding the right level of control Matt had—in a way he’s writing the footnotes almost automatically, but at the same time he’s very aware he’s writing the footnotes and telling a story and he wants to be the hero in his own life, so how far can we trust him?

But, at the end of the day, he’s an academic, and interested in finding the truth, so while there is fun to be had in deciphering what’s real, I don’t think he’s malicious. If anything, there are points when he is too honest!

Accumulating research, letting it go

AC: Many times I caught my breath at the sensory qualities of the prose. One example (of many):

…powder dry on his lips, the limestone taste of zinc cream. The powdery residue is in his eyelashes, and tears spring from the corners of his eyes, attempting to wash away the dirt, but with each blink it grows worse. He closes his eyes but no matter which direction they roll the tiny grains push into the soft wet whites, caught beneath the thin skin of his eyelids, pricking and tearing.

I was also drawn to the minute experiential details:

Red spent four hours last week picking [lice] from his shirt and throwing them on the fire. They make a little pop as they burn.

Did research play a role in your ability to project yourself so convincingly into the brutal physical world of the novel, and also to occupy that emotional landscape? And did this take a toll on you?

MB: I love the research period on a project—losing yourself in the minutiae of a topic and finding these wonderful little morsels of information that you’ll probably never even use. I did a lot of research for this novel, but I found that once I’d done enough, I was able to put the research aside and immerse myself in the landscape without the need to constantly be looking at notes and checking accuracy. I was only able to get to that place because I had done the research.

I wouldn’t say it took a toll on me, but it would sometimes take a while to get into that space again, especially if I’d spent a bit of time working on the thesis storyline and was coming back to the Alan Lewis storyline. Often I would find it easier to write by playing a specific song on repeat, sometimes for hours on end, to stay in the right tone. Whatever works, right?

Multiple obsessions

AC: Writing a PhD requires many things, and obsession surely has to be one of them. That can be seen very clearly in Matthew’s work, but the more I read, the more I began to feel that this is actually a novel of obsession. Is it possible for you to talk about the other obsessions at work here without giving too much away?

MB: I’m glad you felt it wasn’t just Matt obsessing over the PhD, because I think Matt and Alan are both grappling with their own obsessions, based around their ideas of heroism and bravery and, on another level, masculinity. What the dual narratives allowed me to do was to tackle those themes from opposite sides, almost, so that Alan’s obsessions lead him, eventually, to a certain crucial point. Then Matt, with the weight of history, and the benefit of hindsight, moving away from it in time, is obsessed in his own way with living up to that point. I also wanted the book to explore this modern day obsession I think we all have with defining everything, breaking everything down to right or wrong, good or bad, black or white. Focusing on the various obsessions in the novel, and the tunnel vision it gives both Matt and Alan, was a really great way of confronting those ideas.

Aspects of the self

AC: Where the Line Breaks is your first novel, and it’s been said of first novels that many, if not most, contain autobiographical threads. In fact, Kerryn Goldsworthy put forward the idea that in this respect, the debut novel is a little sub-genre of its own. I firmly believed that mine had no autobiographical element whatsoever until others pointed out that one of my main characters, like me, is a book editor, lives in an old house, has a cat, etc.—minor details, but still! I noticed a few such correlations between your life and Matthew Denton’s. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

MB: There is definitely some correlation between my life and Matt’s. I think in a very early draft he was even named Matt Burroughs, because I figured that if people were going to draw comparisons then I might as well state it plainly—the difference between us being the lengths we are willing to go to in order to prove ourselves correct. I certainly drew on my own experiences of moving away from Perth, finding somewhere to live in London, and studying at university, but then I had to start making things up because my life in London was and is quite normal and uneventful, and as you and I both know, things need to happen in a book.

Likewise, though, there is something of me in Alan Lewis too. Both these characters started with something of me (that old adage of ‘write what you know’), in Alan’s case it was that need to prove himself, and that fear that he won’t be able to when the time comes, which I think we all grapple with. The joy of being a writer is that you can then explore those aspects of yourself by pushing your characters to extremes.

Those damn footnotes!
(said every editor, ever)

AC: I alluded earlier to the internal design of the book, which incorporates, as one strand, the full text of Matthew’s thesis complete with the apparatus of title page, abstract, contents page, acknowledgments and, critically, footnotes. I couldn’t help wondering just how unpopular this made you with your editor and graphic designer!

MB: On the night of the Fogarty Literary Award presentation, when Fremantle Press announced that they would be offering all three shortlisted novels publication,* my editor Georgia Richter approached me and the first thing she said was that the footnotes were going to be interesting to work with! I’m so thankful for Georgia and the designers who persevered with it, making sure everything worked on the page, because it was hard! The problem is that if you take out a chunk of thesis when you’re editing, then the footnotes move position too, so then you have to go back over every page to make sure it hasn’t messed up the formatting a few pages later. We got there eventually, though, and the finished book looks incredible, and that is all thanks to them!

Where the Line Breaks is published by Fremantle Press
You can follow Michael on Twitter and via his website

*The other two shortlisted titles were The History of Mischief by Rebecca Higgie (published in 2020), and The Last Bookshop by Emma Young (published this year). The award was won by Rebecca Higgie.

Image credit: author photo by Rosalind Alcazar

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Talking (new) fiction: Susan Midalia’s Everyday Madness

What a great pleasure it is to introduce a new book by Susan Midalia on the blog today. Susan is well known in the Western Australian writing community—and beyond—as a writer, editor, workshop presenter and mentor, and is usually, I’ve found, the wittiest person in the room! I have valued her friendship over many years, and have many times been grateful for her careful eye and sage advice.

Her three short story collections (The History of the Beanbag; An Unknown Sky; Feet to the Stars) were all shortlisted for major awards, and her first novel, The Art of Persuasion, established her as just as much of a force in longer form fiction.

The work we are discussing today is Susan’s new novel, Everyday Madness.

Life sucks when you’re a vacuum cleaner salesman facing redundancy, and your wife of nearly forty years fills your days and nights with incessant chatter. But when Gloria suddenly and alarmingly stops talking, the silence is more than fifty-nine-year-old Bernard can bear.

In desperation, Bernard turns to his ex-daughter-in-law for help. Meg has issues of her own, and her bright and funny daughter Ella sometimes wonders if her mum is trying so hard to keep her safe that it stops both of them from spreading their wings. Will Meg’s suspicious nature thwart her chance encounter with the kindly but enigmatic Hal? And is there still hope for Bernard and Gloria on the other side of silence?

Creating voices

AC: Susan, some years ago, when you were talking about one of your short fiction collections, I remember you saying that you’d set yourself the challenge of writing from many points of view, trying to capture the voices of people of different age, gender, background. I thought of this when reading your new novel, which is told from four alternating and very different points of view: married couple Bernard and Gloria, their former daughter-in-law, Meg, and their granddaughter, Ella. Could you please talk about the challenges involved in creating, and sustaining, four distinct voices in a longer narrative?

SM: I’ve long been fascinated by the complex psychology, indeed the irreducible mystery, of different forms of selfhood. I’m what the writer Zadie Smith describes, in less high-falutin’ terms, as ‘an equal-opportunity voyeur’. Creating four different perspectives in Everyday Madness was certainly a challenge, particularly because the characters are in many ways unlike me. I had to think about the content of their interior monologues and dialogue: what, for example, might a middle-aged man think about being thrown out of work? What are the preoccupations of a ‘typical’ housewife? I also thought of them as individuals with their own distinctive voices. Bernard is an arrogant cynic; Gloria is dejected and bewildered; Meg is a jaded divorcee and an over-anxious mother; and Ella is a smart and lively twelve-year-old. Capturing their voices meant considering their outlook on life, their characteristic vocabulary and use of syntax, even the rhythms of their sentences. I also had to modify their voices as their perceptions changed, while maintaining the bedrock of their character. As just one example: Bernard’s increasing capacity for self-doubt and self-criticism is shown through the use of questions and self-mockery in his later interior monologues.

I created those four voices in the same way that I create all my fictional material: by wide reading, close observation of people, attentiveness to popular culture, and remaining politically informed. Another crucial part of the process was reading my drafts aloud. I do this regardless of the book I’m writing, but it’s particularly useful for any writer who wants to practise the art of ventriloquism. The voice has to sound plausible, distinctive and engaging.

I must say that capturing Ella’s voice was the toughest challenge of all. It’s a long time since I’ve been twelve years old! I received some really helpful feedback from a friend’s granddaughter, and I re-read a couple of Sonya Hartnett’s YA novels for her brilliant evocation of adolescent anxiety and thwarted desire. And I used the internet, of course, to find the right cultural references for a young girl living in contemporary Perth: her taste in music, her leisure activities, the ubiquitous presence of the mobile phone. I belong to a generation in which the telegram was the fastest form of technology!

What ‘madness’ isn’t

AC: Mental health issues, and the stigma surrounding them, are prominent in the novel, in several ways. Could you talk about how you handled these?

SM: The most explicit example in my novel of a mental health issue is Gloria’s diagnosed depression. I had two important aims in writing about her illness. One was addressing the misconception that depression is nothing worse than an occasional case of ‘the blues’, by showing the serious nature of Gloria’s symptoms. Her depression begins with protracted insomnia and an inability to eat, then spirals into visual and auditory hallucinations and near-catatonia. I wanted readers to feel the lived experience of her illness: her intense fear, her sense of bodily assailment, the anguish of her isolation, her irrational sense of shame. My second aim was to de-stigmatise clinical depression by using a medical, not a moral, model to explain its cause. Gloria’s depression is diagnosed as exogamous—environmentally caused—instead of being seen, as it sometimes is, as a sign of weakness or self-pity; and her recovery is effected by medication. Importantly, too, I wanted to show the therapeutic value of understanding and compassionate friends in Gloria’s road to recovery.

In writing about Gloria’s illness, I remembered, and re-read, William Styron’s book about his terrifying descent into clinical depression. His Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness ends with tentative words of hope: ‘[w]hoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair against despair.’ And while Styron understands that different people respond to different treatments, he’s adamant that medication saved his life.

Other characters in my novel experience ‘madness’ in less frightening, non-clinical ways: anxiety, abjection, self-aggrandisement, unfounded suspicions. I’ve explored the process through which so-called ‘normal’ or rational people can become irrational under the pressure of social or personal circumstances. Losing a job, being anxious about a child’s safety, a burning desire for approval: these are the experiences that make my characters lose their capacity for sound judgment. As my novel’s title suggests, I wanted to show how a lapse into irrationality by normally rational people is common, indeed a defining characteristic of our selfhood. The eighteenth-century writer Jonathan Swift summed it up perfectly: ‘Man [sic] is not a rational animal, but a creature capable of reason.’

Unlikeable characters and second chances

AC: I was interested to read that Everyday Madness has its genesis in a previously published short story of yours (‘Working It Out’, in the collection Feet to the Stars). You say that the character Bernard (Alan in the story) offered you ‘the challenge of making an unlikeable character capable of change’. I found this idea fascinating—almost a ‘sliding doors’ scenario, with the character taking one path in the story and another in the novel. It also made me wonder about the question of likeable/unlikeable characters. I’ve often heard readers say they haven’t liked a book because they didn’t like/couldn’t relate to a particular character, or any of the characters. I confess I’ve occasionally said the same thing myself! And yet isn’t fiction full of, and enlivened by, unlikeable characters? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

SM: I’ve always considered my short stories self-contained or complete, but for some inexplicable reason, the character of Alan kept asking me to give him a second chance. So I gave a cynical, self-pitying, arrogant man the opportunity for redemption over the course of an extended narrative. I made a deliberate decision to begin my novel with the voice of this highly unlikeable character as a way of confronting readers with the reality of human nastiness and frailty, and in the knowledge that readers of novels always have an expectation of character development or change. I wanted readers to ask: why is Bernard like this? What’s his backstory? Where might he go from here? An unlikeable character, then, can pique the reader’s curiosity, animate the plot, generate strong emotions and encourage readers to reflect on their own values and beliefs. These seem to me highly ‘enjoyable’ aspects of the reading experience. I must admit that I don’t understand the tendency in contemporary culture to dismiss books with unlikeable characters. After all, some of the most complex and compelling figures in literature have been thoroughly despicable or repulsive women or men. Iago, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Uriah Heap, Hannibal Lecter…there are thousands more of such beasts. But I ‘enjoy’ their characters, and the books in which they appear, because I admire the aesthetic skill with which they’ve been created; for the way they drive or complicate a plot; for the insights they provide about human psychology and the society they inhabit.

I’m also disconcerted by the current desire for ‘relatable’ characters. I don’t want to dismiss it entirely; I think it’s important for readers to know that their experiences have been respected by a writer. Some readers might ‘relate’ to Bernard when he loses his job. Others might ‘relate’ to Gloria’s experience of depression or Meg’s experience of divorce. This kind of reader identification can be comforting or consoling; as the novelist C.S. Lewis observed: ‘We read to know that we are not alone.’ But on the other hand, I feel very strongly that the readerly desire for ‘relatable’ characters can lead to a narrowing of our interests, a diminishment of our imaginative capacities. I like to think that reading can expand the limits of our world, complicate our beliefs, help us to learn about other cultures and periods of history. And I would, quite frankly, be bored if I kept reading books that were merely a reflection of my own experiences; of myself.

That’s how I feel about writing as well. What impels me as a writer is imagining someone who’s not me. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a means of understanding difference instead of merely judging it. Consider, for example, Gloria, a mother who doesn’t love her child. Because I love both my children deeply, it would be easy for me to assume that a mother like Gloria is morally deficient. The much more difficult task for a writer, as well as in our own lives, is to ask why. Why might a mother feel this way? Why might a woman like Meg be an over-protective mother? Why might a girl like Ella feel estranged from her father? The novel as a genre is one of the best art forms we have for charting the evolution of characters over time; for helping us understand the choices people make and who they might become.

Men changing themselves

AC: You offer us various negative versions of masculinity throughout the novel—a cheating husband, a patriarch at times careless and at others emotionally abusive, a superior, entitled son, a father who stares at young women at the beach…The most positive of your male characters is rather an enigma, and I don’t want to introduce any spoilers, but could you talk in general terms about where the heart of positive masculinity lies in the novel?

SM: As a feminist, and I hope as a decent human being, I abhor the systemic sexism and misogyny that continues to violate, demean or trivialise women, and to deny them justice. And yes, there are several examples in my novel of men behaving badly, with varying degrees of severity: references to rape and paedophilia; a husband’s emotional and psychological abuse of his wife; and casual, everyday sexism. But as a feminist, I also believe in the possibility of and necessity for social change. For me, this means a commitment to social activism and political writing, but it also means believing that men have to change themselves. They have to learn to be more self-reflective and self-critical, to treat women as equals, to listen to women instead of deriding or silencing them. There are two important examples in my novel of men who change for the better. And yes, to avoid spoilers, I’ll respond in general terms. One of the male characters learns humility, the other acknowledges his shame. Humility and shame—two qualities traditionally gendered ‘feminine’—and which ultimately enable the male characters to develop more honest, more expansive ways of being in the world. While my novel never loses sight of the reality of toxic masculinity, I also wanted to honour those men who are willing to be ‘feminised’—willing to become good men.

In writing a feminist novel, I also wanted to avoid the ‘blame game’ that automatically casts men as the oppressors and women as their victims. My treatment of the experience of adultery is a case in point; in my view, simply labelling a man an ‘adulterer’ does little to address the complexities of human relationships. My novel also recognises that women can be self-victimisers as well as victims. Using Meg again as an example: her investment in an ideal of maternal devotion results in smothering her daughter with ‘care’. And while she’s a good feminist who knows that a woman shouldn’t be valued for her sex appeal, Meg continues to feel anxious about her sexual desirability. This raises an important point about the nature of ideology: that it is both propositional and performative. Thus, feminism ‘proposes’ that a woman’s appearance has nothing to do with her worth. Women know this, rationally. But the images of sexually desirable women with which we’re constantly bombarded ‘perform’ on our emotions, fuel our desire to look beautiful. To compare ourselves to other women. To fear growing old. Bah, humbug, I say. When I’m able to think rationally, that is.

Transcendent friendships

AC: Female friendship is a strong element of the novel. We have the adolescent girls—three firm friends, and the destabilising effect when a fourth is introduced. We have the older women, Gloria and Donna, and the younger, Meg and Hanna. And then, the cross-generational, in-law friendship of Gloria and Meg, a relationship rich with opportunities for conflict and misunderstanding, but which for me shines through as one of the most interesting and most uplifting elements of the novel. Where did this come from, Susan, and how did you go about developing this strand of the narrative?

SM: Yes, female friendships are important in my novel, as well as in my life. I wanted to show how such friendships can be emotionally and psychologically nourishing and a source of political solidarity, as well as capable of accommodating differences. And I’m so pleased, Amanda, that you particularly warmed to the intergenerational friendship between Meg and her former mother-in-law Gloria. It’s one of my favourite relationships in the novel because it involves transcending the superficialities of personality and recognising the value of character. Meg has long been irritated by Gloria’s garrulousness and her apparent vacuousness, but she comes to learn that Gloria is far more astute than she’s given her credit for; that she’s kind and thoughtful, and without a shred of self-pity. One of the most difficult sections for me to write was the ‘reconciliation scene’ between the two women. I didn’t want it to be overly sentimental or implausibly transformational; I hope I’ve avoided those pitfalls.

In developing this relationship, I drew partly on my own inclination, as a highly educated woman who values the life of the mind, to be an intellectual snob. So in this sense, Meg is like me: she has to overcome her arrogant assumptions about Gloria and recognise the woman’s essential goodness. I also had in mind Jane Austen’s novel Emma, in which the heroine is given a right royal lecture about her public humiliation of the garrulous, irritating spinster Miss Bates. Badly done, Emma! Mr Knightley declares. It was badly done, indeed! It’s the classic conflict between head and heart. Do we value intelligence more than a generous heart? Emma, like Meg, comes to understand that intellectual snobbery is both a grievous misuse of one’s intelligence and a profound moral failing.

These specifics aside, I also developed the Meg–Gloria relationship in the same way that I’ve developed all the relationships—marital, familial, platonic—in both my novels. I don’t begin with a plan; I never use a plot summary or even the rudiments of a narrative arc. I have hunches; vague outlines; a few fragments of speech; a name; an occupation. Then I begin to develop the characters, give them a story, by imagining what they might think, feel, say or do in a given situation. I make many changes over the course of many drafts until I reach what I had no idea would be the end until I arrive there. I know some novelists are meticulous planners who summarise the content of each chapter, but I can’t, nor do I wish to, work in that way. One of the reasons I love writing fiction is encountering the unexpected: characters who refuse to act in ways I’d intended; intuiting the need for a new character; even ending up writing a comic novel that I thought would be much darker.

Valuing interior space

AC: I realised when I finished reading that I didn’t have a strong sense of the time and place of the novel, other than a general idea that it was contemporary and set in Australia. Does this reflect a conscious decision on your part—a kind of de-identification—or are time and place simply subordinate to the role of characters and relationships for you as a writer (and perhaps as a reader)?

SM: A realist novel like mine needs to create some sense of time and place to make it convincing for readers. I’ve ‘signposted’ my novel’s historical context by referring in the opening section to Australia’s Mandarin-speaking prime minister (Kevin Rudd); and then, towards the end of the novel, I show Bernard’s disillusionment with the same prime minister’s lack of action on climate change. He also refers to the possibility of the country’s first female prime minister (Julia Gillard). These details allow readers to work out the novel’s time frame for themselves. I’ve also included some descriptions of suburbs (Dianella, Mt Lawley) and interior settings to provide a sense of physical location.

But the absence of a strong sense of time and place in my novel wasn’t a conscious decision. Instead, it simply reflects the kind of imagination I happen to possess. It’s auditory and empathetic rather than visual: I’m attuned to conversations and voices, and I seem to be intent on imagining what it might be like to be someone other than me. Many other writers are endowed with the same kind of imagination. Here’s Jane Austen, again! Her six completed novels rarely describe what places look like, and when they do, it’s usually in generalised terms. Her novels rarely specify the historical period in which they are set, but their depiction of the class structure, customs, social activities and conversations makes their social and historical contexts seem vividly real. While I wouldn’t for one moment presume to elevate my writing to lofty Austenian heights, I think my novelworks in the same Austenian way. It represents contemporary Perth less as a physical place and more as an atmosphere, with its own recognisable rhythms, textures and ways of life.

It’s also certainly the case that I’m more interested, as both a writer and a reader, in psychological or interior space than external space. I’m particularly drawn to the reality that people are essentially unknowable or opaque. How can we ever know, with any certainty, what someone is thinking or feeling, even when they tell us? This concept of the self is a distinctly western and relatively recent historical phenomenon, and it’s one that’s had a huge impact on both the content and mode of contemporary literature. In my novel, characters often read people’s external signs as symbols of their inner life, but they are often denied the satisfaction of ultimate revelations. I also wanted to show the capacity of my characters to be surprised by others, in ways that can be either affirming or unsettling, elating or confronting. It’s rich terrain for a novelist, offering as it does the possibility of misunderstandings, misrecognitions, conflicts—all the drama of human existence, in tragic or comic guise.

The concept of ‘unknowability’ is also enacted in my novel’s mode of narration. Instead of using an omniscient narrator—the kind who tells us precisely what’s happening in a character’s head—I’ve used four different narrative perspectives. In this way, the reader gets a kaleidoscope of views, a jostling of opinions, as characters try to work each other out. Which is, after all, what real life is like.

Language as psychological action

AC: One of the concerns in your novel is the nature and functions of language. Tell us how this interest weaves its way into Everyday Madness.

SM: As a writer focused on characters and their relationships, I’m particularly interested in language as a form of psychological action: on what people do to one another with words. Sometimes the action is destructive: Bernard, for example, uses sarcastic jibes to humiliate his wife, and perfunctory responses to her questions as a means of avoiding intimacy. But language can also be healing. In my novel, the simple, sincerely meant words ‘I’m sorry’ are, in the context in which they’re used, a plea for reconnection.

Language can also be an assertion of power, or an expression of powerlessness. Gloria, for example, a run-at-the-mouth irritation to her husband, later tells him that ‘[w]hen people don’t see you, you try to make them hear you’. Language is also a means of overcoming isolation. My novel uses Meg’s studies as a speech pathologist to show how meaningful verbal communication can create a sense of belonging, and a life-enhancing reciprocity between self and other.

I also enjoyed using a language other than English in my novel: German, which I grew up speaking. Bernard is a postwar immigrant, and his retention of some German words is both a nostalgic yearning for his childhood and a commitment to the present, as he begins teaching the language to his granddaughter Ella. It also gave me the opportunity to have a bit of fun with those unbelievably long German compound nouns. How could we not fall in love with Freundschaftsbeziehung?

But English remains my one true love. One of my early memories is my father’s purchase of a huge Webster’s Dictionary—obscenely fat, dauntingly weighty—with helpfully indented marks to show the letters of the alphabet. The size of that dictionary was an irresistible invitation to discover a multitude of words. The English language has more words than any other, partly because it has so many linguistic influences, and partly because it’s so highly connotative. How could I not be a reader? Or a writer?

They’re everywhere!

AC: And finally, Susan, let’s get to the really in-depth stuff. Why do you think the world has gone crazy over flamingos over the last few years?

SM: This is astonishing to me, Amanda! Before I even conceived of my novel, with its various references to flamingos, a friend gifted me a carry bag covered with images of that very same bird. I also bought myself two flamingo treats: sturdy bookends, and a doorstopper. Maybe I have prescient powers! Since posting news of my novel’s release, I have been given flamingos in the form of congratulatory cards, a pencil-holder and a pair of socks. Now, whenever I go shopping, I see those birds on so many items: pyjamas; men’s shorts; umbrellas; lanterns; even a chardonnay called ‘The Magnificent Journey of Mimi Flamingo’! So why the current rage for flamingos? I think it’s a combination of their gracefulness, their colour—which varies from a soft, lovely pink to an intense orange—and their endearing way of tucking their heads into their necks. And maybe people are fascinated by the fact that, as one of my characters says, no one knows why flamingos stand on one leg. I might use this as the title for my next novel: No One Knows Why Flamingos Stand On One Leg. Subtitled: How years of scientific research have failed to arrive at a definitive answer, plus a raft of other puzzles and conundrums that variously inspire, intrigue or piss people off.

Everyday Madness is published by Fremantle Press
Check Susan’s website for coming events; follow her on Twitter or Instagram

Image credits: author photo by Jen Bowden, 2018; flamingo photo by Susan Midalia

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Talking (new) fiction: Josephine Taylor’s Eye of a Rook

Happy New Year, fellow readers, writers and watchers of the world. Here’s hoping 2021 turns out to be memorable in a more positive way.

Today I’m delighted to be introducing a new series to the blog as the first post of the year. ‘Talking (new) fiction’ is similar to the ‘2, 2 and 2’ series, begun in 2014 (56 posts), in that it features authors talking about their newly released books. However, I have decided to rest the ‘2, 2 and 2’ series for now, in favour of more in-depth conversations with authors about works of literary fiction that I’m excited about.

My first guest is Perth writer and editor Josephine Taylor. I’ve admired Jo’s work ever since I came across it while I was fiction editor of the journal Westerly. Her story ‘Sigh-Co’ went straight to my shortlist and was published in volume 60, no. 2 (2015).

Jo’s own story has shaped the trajectory of her career and her writing, as will become clear in our discussion here. She was forced to surrender her profession as a psychotherapist after developing chronic gynaecological pain in 2000. Years later, research into the condition informed her prize-winning PhD thesis, an investigative memoir. She is now Associate Editor at Westerly and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Writing at Edith Cowan University. She teaches in literary fiction and creative non-fiction, and presents on disorder and creativity. Her writing has been anthologised and published widely.

The book we are discussing is Jo’s debut novel, Eye of a Rook

‘Now, Mr Rochdale.’ The surgeon leans back in his leather chair. ‘Before I give you my diagnosis, I require some facts from you about your wife. Is she restless—perhaps, excitable? Or is she of a melancholic disposition? Even…shall we say…withdrawn from you?’

In Victorian London, Arthur Rochdale’s wife Emily is struck down by a pain for which she can find no words. In desperation, Arthur seeks the aid of Isaac Baker Brown and contemplates the surgeon’s terrifying treatment for ‘hysterical’ women at his London Surgical Home.

Almost 150 years later, writer and academic Alice Tennant explores the history of hysteria to make sense of her own mystifying and private pain. Although she has direct access to a medical profession that should be able to help her, it seems that little has changed since 1866.

Circling ever closer to Arthur and Emily’s story, Alice begins to question her own life and marriage. With understanding comes the discovery of the possibilities of creativity—and a newfound knowledge of self that will change the course of Alice’s life.

‘Following where it took me…’

AC: The opening lines of a novel often contain within them a glimpse of the whole. Sometimes this is so oblique as to be barely discernible, but in Eye of a Rook, the first lines are immediately arresting in their directness and immediately revelatory of the novel’s territory:

It hurts.

It hurts like a toothache that pierces the bones of your face and shoots through your thoughts, scattering them like frightened birds.

What else? Alice opened herself to her body, registering the sensations she usually fled.

It hurts like an earache that squats in your skull and scrawls graffiti on its walls, trashing the house that was once your home.

It’s an introduction that foregrounds, lyrically and powerfully, the experience of Alice’s bodily pain. What it hints at, and what emerges as the novel progresses, is the impact of that pain—the difficult, inconvenient, unstoppable alteration of daily lives, careers, relationships, identities wrought by chronic illness.

I hasten to add that Eye of a Rook is also ‘about’ many other things—love, compassion and resilience among them—but my first question concerns the choice, as a subject for fiction, of pain in general, and the devastating pain of the gynaecological condition vulvodynia, which is poorly understood even by the medical profession. Jo, did you choose it or did it choose you?

JT: Oh, it definitely chose me! I spent a lot of years trying to get away from vulvodynia, trying to get back to the me I was before it began in 2000. After a few years I realised I wasn’t getting any better, for the moment at least, so I began to research vulvodynia and to reach out to other women, initiating a support group. Then in 2007 I began a PhD, writing a memoir that became a detective story—an investigation into the history of genital pain and hysteria, and an inquiry into the misinterpretation of women’s bodies and the silencing of their voices. I was still trying to get away from vulvodynia, but there was something in the writing of the PhD thesis that helped me realise I couldn’t. So I gradually developed a different relationship with vulvodynia, listening to it and following where it took me.

After I’d finished my PhD, I found I was still gripped by the anger I’d felt years before. My frustrated questions were still the same: Why is there such a yawning gap between the incidence of female genital pain and knowledge or awareness around it? Why does it take women so long to be diagnosed? Why is there no adequate treatment? Why is no-one talking about vulvodynia?

I think if I’d recovered or didn’t have constant symptoms, I might not have written more. But I hadn’t and I did, so when two Victorian men came to me in response to a workshop prompt in 2013, I wrote them. That image developed into a scene in my short story ‘That Hand’, in which a man in 1860s London—Arthur Rochdale—is consulting with surgeon Isaac Baker Brown about his wife Emily’s mystifying pain; the scene then segued into part of the opening chapter of Eye of a Rook, and a focus on Arthur’s pivotal decision.

Wounds and scars

AC: I was reminded recently of a piece of advice concerning the writing of trauma that I’ve heard several authors refer to: ‘Write from your scars, not from your wounds’ (attributed to Sisonke Msimang, author of Always Another Country and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela). I understand this to be about putting some space between the living out of trauma and the writing (and, to some extent, the re-living) of that experience. Has that advice resonated with you? And I wonder, in the case of a writer experiencing vulvodynia, whether there might be some difficulty in separating the scars from the wounds.

JT: Yes, that advice does resonate with me, and I’ve referred to it myself on at least one occasion. I think it’s especially relevant and important for those who’ve experienced a discrete trauma and need to put some distance between themselves and the event or experience before writing it; to let the wound become a scar.

As vulvodynia is something I can always feel, and must then live with, it can’t become a scar. I do find, though, that the longer I have it and the more I write about it, the more I create a little distance from the wounding and develop more agency and confidence. Writing fiction has been especially important in this process, though I’ve noticed my pain increase around the time I’m writing scenes that reach a crisis or in which I immerse the reader in the sensations. I’m not sure how coincidental that is, but I think it helps me write more persuasively and in a more embodied fashion. Moving out of that state again shifts my relationship with the pain in quite profound ways.

I’d also say that even for those whose trauma is in a distant past, the feelings and sensations around it can continue in a strange kind of present. I think it’s important to be attentive to and kind with ourselves when writing from these complex and intense spaces.

Shaking the trappings

AC: There are parts of Eye of a Rook that are tough to read at the same time as being utterly compelling, and I’m thinking here particularly about Isaac Baker Brown and the horrific implements he used to ‘cure’ women of their so-called hysteria in the 1860s. But just as horrifying is the societal and legal positioning of women at this time as the chattels of men, ‘the weaker sex’, which meant that decisions about their bodies (and much else) could be made by doctors, husbands, fathers, without consent or even consultation. These are dark spaces in women’s history, and I’m wondering how much they contributed to your decision to make Eye of a Rook a dual narrative.

JT: Definitely! It felt so important to make space for that history, partly because the present-day understanding and treatment of vulvodynia is informed by it. But including the historical narrative also happened spontaneously or intuitively, which is so often the case in writing, right?

After Arthur had announced himself to me, I did make a conscious choice to continue using a male perspective for the historical narrative. I wanted to contrast Alice’s agency in contemporary Perth with Emily’s lack of agency in Victorian England. I was also really interested in what Arthur would do with the power he holds when he also feels so deeply for Emily.

The more shocking elements in the novel around Isaac Baker Brown, his dealings with women and the operations he conducted were very difficult to write, so I’m sure they’re hard to read, if compelling. But there is nothing gratuitous in this: I want people to understand how the past informs current medical and societal attitudes towards inexplicable female disorder. We need to shake the trappings that diminish women’s pain and suffering, replacing them with knowledge, compassion and trust in the woman herself.

When research takes you by surprise

AC: Jo, it seems that Eye of a Rook is interwoven with many layers of your life—not only pain but also your work as a creative writer, your academic life, your previous profession as a psychotherapist. But what about the flights into the unknown that writing this novel has required of you? Did the narrative take you in surprising directions or lead you to new areas of research?

JT: I deliberately placed Alice’s narrative within the time period during which I completed my PhD. This strategy meant I didn’t have to conduct any more research into vulvodynia, and it also meant that I could base Alice’s discoveries on my own.

I hadn’t anticipated how much further research I’d have to conduct into Victorian society and medicine. Fortunately, I loved it! I also continued research into the recipient of a dedication found in a copy of Isaac Baker Brown’s On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females (1866): ‘…with the affectionate love, of The Author’. I was trying to work out exactly how I felt about Isaac; I wanted to separate my fictional Isaac from the historical Isaac and to flesh out someone sketchily comprehended and easily demonised, without minimising the trauma he must have caused to countless women and their families. I did have Alice researching the dedicatee in the novel, but my wonderful and wise mentor, Susan Midalia, advised that it complicated the narrative unnecessarily, so I wrote a personal essay on it instead!

I didn’t anticipate Emily’s letters, but I knew I had to include her voice somehow while keeping Arthur’s perspective central. I really enjoyed discovering just who she was by writing her letters to Beatrice, Arthur’s sister. I also didn’t know, at the outset, whether Alice or Emily would recover or the fate of Alice’s marriage, and I allowed the writing to determine that, which brought several surprises.

Creating place

AC: I’m always interested in connections between people and place, and the historical strand of Eye of a Rook is set in England—London and beyond. I sensed an intimacy in the way you wrote about the rural locations—the Rochdale family’s Hierde House in the fictional Herdley, and Rugby School. Were these created/re-created from personal associations?

JT: You’re very perceptive, Amanda.

Even at the very beginning, I knew Arthur grew from my father and my sons.

I knew some of Dad’s history, but writing Arthur gave me the opportunity to research it with him in a more detailed way, and this brought us even closer during his final years.

Dad was born in Rochdale, England. He was twelve when the family moved to the Naze House in Chinley, Derbyshire, and he boarded at Seascale Preparatory School, then Worksop College. Like Arthur, Dad experienced a loss that changed the direction of his life, and the news of it was delivered to him by the headmaster in much the same way. Dad was a great walker, and Arthur’s walks with Taffy to and around the Naze in Herdley are informed by Dad’s walks with his terrier Punch. In all of this I was reaching towards something to do with love and mothering that affects who Arthur becomes and the decision he must make on Emily’s behalf.

The Naze, Chinley
Dad and Punch

I was born on a farm near Rugby, so there are childhood sensations and memories from there lodged in my bones, though I don’t have any memories of Rugby School itself. I can’t travel easily, so didn’t return to England while writing Eye of a Rook, but I found I could research Rugby School quite thoroughly from a distance, and Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), by Thomas Hughes, immersed me in that time and place from a boy’s perspective. The Temple Reading Room at Rugby School also provided helpful information.

I did get stuck in these two chapters from Arthur’s early life for some time, but I think that was necessary in order to write and understand him properly. Dad died a couple of months before I finished the final draft, and the constellation of love, loss, mothering and creativity that formed then helped me complete the novel.

Inspiring objects

AC: When writing, I usually surround myself with photographs, maps, artefacts—things that speak, at least to me, of the world I’m trying to create. Part of that is because I am blessed with a dedicated writing space, but even when I’m writing somewhere else I manage to take a portable version of my clutter with me. So I’m wondering about your writing space, Jo, and whether you’re also a collector of bits and pieces. And if so, whether you would be willing to speak about some item that has been part of the journey of writing this novel.

JT: My bits and pieces are mainly paper based. I had many sentences drawn from novels stuck to my walls while I wrote Eye of a Rook. I’m still very much an emerging fiction writer; I learned so much about voice, expression and perspective from these favourite quotes, and would turn to them for inspiration when I was stuck. I also drew pictures of houses and clothes and purses, making sense of the habits and patterns of daily life in Victorian England, and detailed family trees for Arthur and Emily—I kept all these at hand.

A family treasure from my mother’s side of the family was used as inspiration for some of the meals mentioned in the novel: The Housekeepers’ Friend, by ‘A Lady’, published in Norwich in 1852. It’s strange yet endearing to see the childhood scribbles of my great-grandfather Harry Edrich inside the cover. In the novel, I repurposed my mother’s memories of her grandfather (Harry) in Ena’s memories of her grandparents’ marriage: Them that are lashed to the post must take the strikes.

The most useful item was Edward Weller’s Map of London, from 1868. I printed sections of the map as I determined where the characters lived and walked, and sticky-taped them together. Often Victorian London remained laid out on the floor, and I had to jump over it to get out of the office! It was a wonderful surprise when Fremantle Press sent me the concept cover, and designer Nada Backovic had incorporated this map into the background. I’m very grateful for everyone’s patience as I requested shifts in the positioning of the map! I wanted visible the location of Emily and Arthur’s home on Portland Place and parts of the routes taken by Arthur in his city walks. I’m just thrilled with the result.

‘Silently and under the cover of night’

AC: Rooks appear throughout Eye of a Rook and on that striking cover. Without entering into the territory of spoilers, can you talk about how they work metaphorically in the novel? Did they enter into the writing by stealth or was there always a rook guiding you?

JT: Rooks appeared in Eye of a Rook by stealth: silently and under cover of night. After deliberately writing the rooks from Thomas Hughes’ 19th-century Rugby School into Arthur’s school narrative, they started popping up unbidden. When I discovered, while researching the 1860s streets of London, that ‘rookery’ meant ‘slum’ as well as the place where rooks gather and nest, some of my thoughts and feelings around mothering and caring for others less fortunate coalesced.

Increasingly, the rook acts as a reflection of Arthur’s state of mind; through that, I was also gesturing towards Alice’s understanding of two bodies, reached through her experience of pain: ‘One, a symmetrical image reflected in the mirror and the sight of other bodies, whole and cohesive. The other, a figure in fragments, its bits and pieces scattered through the brain.’ Without giving too much away, the rook is critical in the creative process of bringing fragments together and making something whole and good. Again, I felt that this decided itself in some ways, the rook guiding me in the later stages.

And, yes, I love the glossy rook on the cover!

Eye of a Rook is published by Fremantle Press
Follow Josephine Taylor via her website or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Image credits: author photo by Charlotte Guest, 2018; photos of the Naze and the author’s father from Taylor family records

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Filed under Talking (new) fiction