Category Archives: Talking (new) fiction

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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Filed under New books, Talking (new) fiction

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