Unpublished manuscript awards such as the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award and the Fogarty Literary Award have brought into the light many new writers with impressive manuscripts. It’s my great pleasure to introduce Brooke Dunnell and her debut novel, The Glass House, which won the 2021 Fogarty Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript by a WA writer aged 18 to 35.
Brooke’s short fiction has been widely published (I remember choosing one of her stories for the journal Westerly when I was fiction editor), and her collection Female(s and) Dogs was a finalist for the 2020 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. She is well known in Western Australia as a creative writing teacher, mentor and workshop presenter.
Julia Lambett heads across the country to her hometown where she’s been given the job of moving her recalcitrant father out of his home and into care. But when Julia arrives at the 1970s suburban palace of her childhood, she finds her father has adopted a mysterious dog and refuses to leave.
Frustrated and alone, when a childhood friend crosses her path, Julia turns to Davina for comfort and support. But quite soon Julia begins to doubt Davina’s motivations. Why is Davina taking a determined interest in all the things that Julia hoped she had left behind? Soon Julia starts having troubling dreams, and with four decades of possessions to be managed and dispersed, she uncovers long-forgotten, deeply unsettling memories.
AC: Brooke, The Glass House dives deep and wide into contemporary life, giving us a story about parenting, marriage, childhood and ageing, among other things. Can you tell us about the genesis and development of the novel?
BD: It’s often really hard to know exactly where a novel originated, especially when it was so long ago!
For a while, I’d been exploring the idea of a character who is trying to decide whether to have children when they’re put in a position of responsibility for their own parent. Seeing the parent ageing and looking back on the decisions they made in their life would be a way of giving the character a different perspective on their desire for children of their own.
The concept by itself ended up being a bit too navel-gazey, with a lot of looking back at the past and not so much in the present. There wasn’t much momentum until I thought about adding the third generation—a child. I was interested in that moment of early teenagerhood and the issues and vulnerabilities that can come along with it. Once I hit on the idea of the main character not only putting herself in the position of being a parent, but also of being a child, then things got moving in a much more promising way.
A house, a suburb
AC: The Glass House is set mostly in Perth, where Julia travels from Melbourne to care for her elderly father and to help him pack up his house and his life. The house and the suburb, which play a major role in characterisation and plot, feel entirely authentic, and I wondered whether you adapted something familiar to your own childhood in creating them.
BD: Thank you so much, that’s wonderful to hear! I definitely mined elements from my childhood, though I haven’t identified it as taking place anywhere too specific because I wanted to be able to fictionalise places like the river and shopping centre in order to suit my own purposes.
I grew up in Willetton and our house was a late nineteen-seventies build on a big block, with a front yard, backyard, pool, Hills Hoist—the whole shebang. All my friends’ houses were similar. They don’t have the same charm as other architectural styles (apologies to anyone who particularly likes brown-brick bungalows with cathedral ceilings and sunken lounges!), but to me they have a lot of personality.
Wherever you grow up, I think most kids just see their house and area as ‘the norm’ and it’s hard to get an outside perspective until you have more experience. For Julia, the contrast of living in a flat in Melbourne and coming back to this really big house with a big yard in a quiet family suburb allows her to see the home, her father and her childhood in a new way.
AC: The relationship between your main character, Julia, and her stepdaughter Evie is such a tender portrait of mothering, avoiding the common trope of the child damaged by parental separation. Evie is beautifully mothered by both Julia and her biological mother, Samara, in ways that are supportive and complementary. Could you talk about your development of this aspect of the novel?
BD: It was important to me that Evie have a good relationship with her parents and with Julia, and for Julia and Samara to have a fairly good relationship as well, because I was interested in the fact that things can go wrong even when you’re trying really hard to do everything right. Evie is a very strong young woman, and this is in part due to her parents and Julia putting her best interests first. I gave Evie that personality to contrast with how Julia saw herself at a similar age, which was much less assertive and more desperate for approval.
Julia remains a fairly passive person as an adult and so it’s natural that she defers to Samara, not only because Samara is Evie’s mother but because she’s also a strong person. Samara could have used this influence negatively, but I wanted her to be kind and caring so that Julia slowly realises what friendships between adult women should be like.
When a friend might not be
AC: The sinister tone that gradually enters this suburban domestic scenario is subtly realised, which of course makes it all the more sinister! One of the sources of Julia’s (and the reader’s) unease is the character Davina. Please tell us about her.
BD: Davina was Julia’s friend when they were little, and she’s there when Julia returns to Perth and wants to be best friends again. Because Julia’s feeling exhausted, frustrated and vulnerable, having left her marriage in Melbourne on uncertain terms and facing the difficulty of moving her father and all his stuff, she’s flattered by Davina’s attention and confides in her a lot. After a while, she starts to realise that she’s not getting much back from Davina, who’s opaque about her own life and cagey when it comes to the past. Over the course of the novel, as she goes through the family belongings, Julia begins to work out just why she stopped being friends with Davina in the first place.
AC: The main narrative is interspersed with fragments from Julia’s dreams, which escalate tension and that sinister tone. If it’s possible to do so without introducing spoilers, could you tell us how these work in the story?
BD: Julia’s understandably stressed while she’s back in Perth. She’s put a pause on a marriage that’s having problems, and part of that is telling her husband Rowan that they shouldn’t contact one another for a while, so they can see what it’s like to be apart. She starts having bad dreams about her stepdaughter Evie being pursued by a sinister male figure, and because she can’t contact Rowan and ask what’s going on, the situation just exacerbates. Julia’s not the type who believes in prophetic dreams or anything like that, but the nightmares are so realistic, she wonders if she’s losing her mind.
Starring role for Biscuit
AC: Biscuit, the dog, must take a bow as one of the most important canine characters I’ve ever met—oddly so, since he ambles through the narrative in typical old-dog fashion! What do animal characters allow a writer to bring to a narrative?
BD: I love Biscuit! I love all dogs, obviously—even the fictional ones.
I think animals, in fiction as well as in life, can be good intermediaries between people. Biscuit forms a bit of a buffer between Julia and her father, and it’s good, because if he wasn’t there, the interactions between the two of them might be even more fraught. The dog is a symbol of Don’s independence; a way he can show Julia that he can still make his own decisions and be in control. For Julia, the dog is just a manifestation of Don’s stubbornness and denial.
I think animals also become carriers of the personalities and stories we assign to them. Both Don and Julia put a lot of meaning into Biscuit. For Don, the dog needs to be protected and kept stable, not subjected to anything that might unsettle him. For Julia, the dog is at risk just being in Don’s company, because Don doesn’t have the capacity to walk him or give him mental stimulation. Living with Don, the dog has food, shelter and company, which Julia doesn’t think is enough. But Biscuit ends up having a side to him that even Don and Julia didn’t realise.
AC: How did you find the leap from writing short fiction to writing a novel?
BD: I didn’t find it too arduous, because I’ve been trying to write novels for a long time. It’s definitely a different process—a novel gives you much more space to go off in different directions, have elements evolve at a slower pace, and introduce a wider range of themes. One of the pleasures of writing a short story is that you can keep the whole thing in your head at once, and that’s far more difficult with a novel! I plan to keep writing in both genres, because that gives me the scope to explore a wider range of ideas.
AC: What has been the most surprising thing about your journey towards the publication of The Glass House?
BD: In practical terms, I’ve been surprised in various ways at how the book publishing process works—the lead time needed, how interest gets drummed up, that type of thing. It’s been fascinating to see the different aspects come together, and it’s made me admire people who work in publishing and bookselling even more. They put so much hard work and passion into producing and promoting books they didn’t even write! Thank God for them.
More generally, I’ve been surprised and moved by the number of people who genuinely care about the fact that I’ve written a novel and are interested in it! I knew the WA writing community was close and supportive, but it’s been to a greater extent than I ever expected. Readers and even people I meet in passing can be really enthusiastic, too. I’ve been in a perpetual state of the warm fuzzies for a while now!