At the moment, with so many places locked down around the world, it seems a great privilege to be able to attend a writers festival in person. I always look forward to the Margaret River Readers & Writers Festival, in our beautiful South West wine region, but this year more than ever.
The festival will run from Friday 14 to Sunday 16 May, in venues in and around Margaret River but primarily at Margaret River HEART, the region’s new entertainment hub in the centre of town.
Congratulations to new festival director Sian Baker, who has put together an ambitious program of events. Among the many authors taking part are Julia Baird, Kate Mildenhall, Pip Williams, Karen Wyld, Chris Flynn, Bob Brown, Craig Silvey, Donna Mazza, Elizabeth Tan, Brigid Lowry, David Whish-Wilson, Natasha Lester and Emily Sun. The full program is here.
A book high on my ‘to buy list’ is a new book of essays by Brigid Lowry, A Year of Loving Kindness to Myself. Brigid is a wonderful writer and a lovely person, wise and funny, and I would read pretty much anything she wrote. This one sounds like a perfect Mother’s Day release, and a collection of and for these crazy times we are living through…
A beautifully presented and uplifting book of contemplative, wry, sometimes funny essays about living thoughtfully and with care amidst life’s challenges. If you’re struggling to maintain grace and good humour amidst daily potholes and pitfalls, Brigid Lowry may be just the warm, wise and witty companion you need. Informed by contemporary psychology and Buddhist philosophy, Brigid’s essays offer reflections on everything from friendship to grief, and from gratitude to self-care. Give this book to a friend or gift it to yourself. A Year of Loving Kindness to Myself is all the encouragement you’ll need to nurture you and those around you.
Another new autumn release is Emma Young’s The Last Bookshop. I’ve already bought a copy of this for a friend, who loved it, and it sounds like another good one for Mother’s Day. Emma has worked as a bookseller and a journalist, and The Last Bookshop, in its manuscript form, was shortlisted for the 2019 Fogarty Literary Award…
Cait Copper’s best friends have always been books—along with the rare souls who love them as much as she does, like the grandmotherly June. When Cait set up her shop, Book Fiend, right in the heart of the city, she thought she’d skipped straight to ‘happily ever after’. But things are changing, and fast. June’s sudden interest in Cait’s lacklustre love life and the appearance of the handsome ‘Mystery Shopper’ force her to concede there might be more to happiness than her shop and her cat. The city is transforming, with luxury chain stores circling Book Fiend’s prime location. And meanwhile, a far more personal tragedy is brewing. Soon Cait is questioning not only the viability of the shop, but the life she’s shaped around it. An unlikely band of allies is determined she won’t face these questions alone; but is a love of books enough to halt the march of progress and time?
In case you missed it, I also recently interviewed another WA writer (currently living in London), Michael Burrows, about his original and deeply moving novel about war, love and heroism, 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.
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.
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?
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!
This week marked the anniversary of the death of Western Australia’s celebrated Engineer-in-Chief, C.Y. O’Connor, on 10 March 1902. O’Connor, exhausted and suffering intolerable stress—much of it caused by vitriolic personal attacks on him in the press—rode his horse into the sea in the early morning and shot himself.
On Wednesday morning, I joined O’Connor’s descendants at the beach that bears his name, as I do every year. It is always an uplifting gathering, in spite of the sadness at the core of the memorial. Flowers are cast onto the water and members of the family carry them out to adorn the bronze horse-and-rider statue (the work of sculptor Tony Jones) anchored to the sea bed 100 metres offshore.
I always bring sunflowers, to honour C.Y.’s artist daughter Kathleen (Kate) O’Connor and the close relationship she had with her father. Brilliant sunflowers worked in oil are among Kate’s most famous paintings, and she painted them obsessively late in life.
This year’s commemoration was made more special, and more poignant, by the presence of four beautiful horses among the swimmers.
As I watched Kate’s sunflowers float away, I also remembered standing in the same place a year ago, on the day the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. I think it was only just dawning on me that I wouldn’t be going to Europe in April, as planned, but I had no sense that the world was about to change so dramatically. That people would lose their livelihoods, their homes, their sense of security, their loved ones. That families would be separated, people would be stranded, and the world would become infinitely more uncertain. That well over two million people would die in the next twelve months.
I feel immensely grateful to be here, grateful and hopeful. I hope that ‘this’ is not forever. That the incredible effort put into developing vaccines will bring relief the world over. That what we’ve learned over the past year—new ways of working and communicating, new ways of experiencing the world from afar and looking more closely at our own backyards—will have lasting benefits. And hopeful that we have come far enough in our attitudes towards mental health, over the past one hundred and nineteen years, that people suffering intolerable stress will feel more able to reach out for help.
If you’re an emerging or established writer in the Perth metropolitan area, you might be interested in a series of six masterclasses being presented over April and May at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge. The series consists of the following three-hour masterclasses presented by six award-winning writers:
You can book individual sessions, but there is a great offer available for those interested in attending all six.
I’m delighted to be taking part in this series alongside writers whose work I love and respect, and I might even book a few sessions myself.
The editing masterclass I’m presenting is designed to assist writers look at their manuscript objectively, examine the prose, architecture and effects of the work, and polish it to the highest level within their capability prior to submission. If that sounds like something for you, there are more details on the link above.
I’d love to see you there!
The Centre for Stories is located at 100 Aberdeen Street, Northbridge, and each masterclass is run on a Saturday afternoon, 1–4pm.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
I saw a comment on Facebook recently that made me think. A writer was bemoaning the lack, in this year’s Perth Literature and Ideas Festival program, of sessions bringing authors together to discuss particular topics, in favour of sessions where authors were just discussing their books. I have, of course, no problem with this writer expressing their opinion; it just prompted some thought about what writers festivals mean to me.
I’ve certainly enjoyed many of the issues-based panels I’ve attended over many years of festival-going, but I have to confess that those I’m most drawn to are one-on-one author interviews, or panels of two or three authors, usually loosely connected, talking about their books. Issues and ideas, as well as aspects of writing and publishing, fall very naturally into sessions like these, and it’s not often that I come away without feeling I’ve learned something.
I was dismayed a few years ago when I scoured the program of a highly regarded writers festival and struggled to find a single session in which an author talked about a book. I know that festival directors have a formidable task in trying to satisfy competing interests, wanting to honour their traditional audiences, needing to grow their audience base and especially to attract younger members. But the core elements of a writers festival are surely books and authors, and I applaud the directors who put these elements front and centre while finding interesting ways to present them.
Since Covid rushed in and took over our lives, hats off to every festival director in the country for navigating their way around restrictions and uncertainty and new technologies to keep their festivals alive. And congratulations in particular to Sisonke Msimang, director of this weekend’s Perth festival.
Due to other commitments, I’ll only be attending two live sessions, as well as two ‘watch-at-homes’, and look forward to the opportunity to listen to Susan Midalia, Josephine Taylor, Lucy Peach, Bron Bateman, Julia Gillard, Britt Bennett, Donna Mazza and Laura Jean McKay. If you‘re going, I wish you a happy and fulfilling weekend. If you haven’t booked anything yet, there may still be a few tickets left. And for anyone distant from Perth, there are some great ‘watch-at home’ sessions. You can check the program here.
I always carry a list, tucked into the case of my mobile phone, of books that will be my next purchases. It’s not that I’m ever desperate for something to read—far from it! One of the joys of acquiring books is that I always have a stack of interesting titles just waiting for when I finish the one I’m reading. Sometimes I’m well and truly ready to move on to something new; other times, it’s a wrench to emerge from a fictional world, and I need some time before choosing to enter another.
Yes, this one’s for young people (ages 11–14), which I’m not!, but I adore Rebecca’s writing and won’t be letting that stop me. Here’s the blurb:
What I feel most days is that nothing is ever going to change. That my life won’t even start, and that I’ll be stuck like this forever.
Wen Zhou is the daughter and only child of Chinese immigrants whose move to the lucky country has proven to be not so lucky. Wen and her friend, Henry Xiao—whose mum and dad are also struggling immigrants—both dream of escape from their unhappy circumstances, and form a plan to sit an entrance exam to a selective high school far from home. But when tragedy strikes, it will take all of Wen’s resilience and resourcefulness to get herself and Henry through the storm that follows.
Tiger Daughter is a novel that will grab hold of you and not let go.
I’m looking forward to reading this debut novel from Irma Gold, who has previously published a short fiction collection and is widely published in journals. The Breaking, with themes of animal exploitation and female friendship, is due for release in March.
Hannah Bird has just arrived in Thailand. Disoriented and out of her depth, she meets Deven, a fierce and gutsy Australian expat who sweeps her into thrilling adventures rescuing elephants.
As they head deeper and deeper into the fraught world of elephant tourism, their lives become tangled in ways Hannah never imagined. But how far will they go to save a life?
Hannah is about to make a critical decision from which there will be no turning back, with shattering consequences.
The Breaking is an extraordinary debut. Sharply observed and richly vivid, it is an intensely moving story about the magnetic bond between two young women and the enduring cost of animal exploitation. It is at once devastating and exhilarating, and ultimately transformative.
This new release from Fremantle Press, authored by publisher/editor Georgia Richter and writer/lecturer Deborah Hunn, is an essential guide for new, emerging and established authors in Australia on the business aspects of authorship. There are countless books out there on how to write—the one thing this one does not cover—but none that I know of that deal so comprehensively, and in a specifically Australian context, with the dizzying array of other things that writers need to know, whether they want to or not.
The cover displays some of the subjects the book tackles, although there are many more. There’s plenty of solid industry advice, lists of dos and don’ts, and answers to the kinds of questions that Richter and Hunn routinely field in the course of their professional lives.
The authors also canvassed a group of authors and industry professionals, across a range of genres and specialisations, for tips, experiences and practical advice on particular subjects. I’m proud to be included in this stellar group:
Liz Byrski, Alan Carter, Nandi Chinna, Tim Coronel, Amanda Curtin, Daniel de Lorne, Deb Fitzpatrick, James Foley, Alecia Hancock, Stephen Kinnane, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Natasha Lester, Brigid Lowry, Caitlin Maling, Meg McKinlay, Claire Miller, Brendan Ritchie, Rachel Robertson, Holden Sheppard, Sasha Wasley, David Whish-Wilson and Anne-Louise Willoughby.
The book is entertaining, well written, well designed and easy to navigate, and includes a great section on resources and a useful index.
It’s the kind of book that I wish had been around when I was starting out—and even now I know I’ll be consulting it again and again!
Author of KATHLEEN O’CONNOR OF PARIS (narrative non-fiction), ELEMENTAL and THE SINKINGS (novels) and INHERITED (short story collection). looking up/looking down is an occasional blog about writing, reading and watching the world...