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2, 2 and 2: Alice Nelson talks about The Children’s House

Alice Nelson
The Children’s House
(Penguin Random House)
LITERARY FICTION

ALICE NELSON PHOTO

It’s such a pleasure to introduce Perth author Alice Nelson talking about her second novel and one of my favourite reads of 2018. The Children’s House, released last October, was longlisted for the 2019 Indie Awards and has been described by Better Reading as ‘spellbinding storytelling at its best and purest’ .

Alice’s first novel, The Last Sky—another favourite of mine (I featured it in this post)—was shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award and was shortlisted for the Australian Society of Authors’ Barbara Jefferis Award, and Alice was named Best Young Australian Novelist of 2009 in the Sydney Morning Herald’s national awards program. Her short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Sydney Review of Books, The Asia Literary Review, Southerly, the West Australian Newspaper and the Australian Book Review.

The blurb for The Children’s House reads:

The Children’s House explores the traumas that divide families and the love and hope that creates them.

Marina Hirsch is a young professor teaching at Columbia, made famous by a book on the Romani people. In her small academic circle, she is known as ‘the Gypsy scholar’, a chronicler of hermetic communities.

Recently moved into a Harlem brownstone with her psychoanalyst husband, one hot summer day she witnesses a Rwandan refugee woman—Constance—leave her tiny son in the middle of the sidewalk. Scooping the boy up, Marina hurries to his mother and hands him back. The year is 1997, three years after the Rwandan genocide.

As the summer progresses, the two women form a tentative relationship, but soon Marina’s fierce attachment to the young boy and the dark opacity of Constance’s past threaten to test the boundaries of love, motherhood and power.

If you haven’t already read The Children’s House, I feel sure you will want to after reading this beautiful guest post by Alice…

FCA

2 things that inspired The Children’s House

There’s a line in a novel by Anne Michaels that seemed to me to so beautifully summarise the complex terrain that I wanted to explore in The Children’s House. Michaels writes:

‘There is nothing a man will not do to another. But there’s also nothing a man will not do for another.’

My novel ventures into some difficult territory and while it is about some of the terrible things humans are capable of, I also wanted to explore acts of grace and empathy; the profound echoes that compassion and generosity can have. I wanted to write about consolation and restoration as well as loss and exile, and Michaels’ beautiful lines were a reminder for me of the ways that kindness and goodwill can be incredibly potent forces in an individual life and in a community, and acted as an encouragement for me to write a novel that was about the co-existence of acts of horror and acts of compassion.

Another literary gift that inspired me to continue writing this often unwieldy and difficult novel over many years was listening to the Irish writer Anne Enright talk about the way that the work of writing a novel is also a process of educating the heart, and that we have to become equal to the books we wish to write. I write very slowly and painstakingly and this particular novel took several years to write, so hearing Enright’s words of encouragement gave me faith that the work I was doing was a way for me to spend a sustained period of time dwelling with some of the questions and preoccupations that haunt me; questions about memory, loss, inheritance and the possibilities of restoration and solace.

2 places that inspired The Children’s House

One of the interesting things about the writing of The Children’s House was the way that particular houses exerted such a profound influence on the story, even to the point of altering the narrative arc. There is the brownstone in Harlem where the novel is set, which is actually the house that I lived in during my years in New York. I never consciously planned that the characters in the novel would live in that brownstone, but it was a place that I was enormously attached to for a long time and as the novel took shape, it seemed to be the natural home for my characters. Towards the end of the writing process, I actually went back and stayed in the New York brownstone for three months. It was a somewhat surreal experience because I felt like I had been transplanted into the world of my novel and I kept expecting that I might glimpse one of my characters disappearing around a corner ahead of me, but it was also incredibly useful in making sure that the texture of Harlem was authentic, that I had got it right.

Harlem Brownstones

The section of the book that is set in Cape Cod came about because I spent a winter there writing in a little cottage above the dunes in Truro. It was a very cold, bitter winter and all of the nearby houses had been shut up for the season. The insufficient midwinter light, the windswept beach and the isolation made a deep impression on me and it was during that time that I wrote the sections about my central character Marina travelling to Cape Cod to try and uncover the mystery of her mother’s disappearance many years earlier. That winter house above the dunes became Marina’s mother’s house, and the section of the book set there turned out to be very important to the narrative trajectory.

Cape Cod Cottage

2 influences that helped me to solve particular problems in the novel

The Children’s House is a complex novel and my challenge in writing it was to find a way in which echoes, patterns and symmetries could be brought together to form a coherent whole. It’s also a novel that slips in and out of the consciousness of different characters and contains several voices. I play the piano and I was working through Bach’s Preludes and Fugues when I was writing the novel, and at one point I realised that what I was trying to create was almost a literary version of a fugue, where there is a main theme and then several voices in contrapuntal motion. The form can be quite intricate and very complicated technically, with three or four voices interweaving, but Bach is masterful in creating the most harmonious wholes, these glorious polyphonic pieces. So conceiving of the structural problems I was having in these musical metaphors was very helpful and gave me a new way to look at what was happening on the page.

Another influence on the novel was my extensive reading of psychoanalytic literature, and in particular, a paper called ‘Ghosts in the Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant–Mother Relationships’. The Children’s House is very much concerned with the ways that we inherit the unresolved lives of our parents, and the different ways that our psyches are shadowed by history—both personal and collective—so my deepening understandings of psychoanalytic theory were immensely helpful.

The Children’s House is available now in Australia,
and is forthcoming in other territories this year
Find out more at Penguin Random House
Contact Alice via her website

 

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2, 2 and 2: Julia Lawrinson talks about Before You Forget

julia-lawrinson-2016-headshot

Julia Lawrinson has long been one of my favourite writers. She’s also one of the smartest and most articulate people I know,  someone I admire and respect enormously, so it is a thrill, and a privilege, to have this opportunity to feature her new novel, Before You Forget.

Julia has an impressive publication record: 13 novels for children and young adults since 2001. Her books include Obsession, 2001 (winner, Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards), Bye Beautiful, 2006 (Notable Book in the Children’s Book Council Awards, shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Book Awards, shortlisted for Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards), The Push, 2008 (shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Book Awards) and Chess Nuts, 2010 (Notable Book in the Children’s Book Council Awards). She appears regularly at schools and writers events, including the Melbourne and Perth Writers Festivals, the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (Singapore), the Celebrate Reading Conference at the Literature Centre, Voices on the Coast (Queensland) and Kindling Words East (Vermont, USA), as well as in regional Western Australia (Albany, Geraldton, Bunbury, Newman and Port Hedland) for Children’s Book Week and for the Literature Centre’s Youth Literature days.

What Julia has written in response to the 2, 2 and 2 questions below gives a deeply moving context for this new work—in terms of its subject matter and her motivation for writing it. I would always be looking forward to having another Julia Lawrinson on my bookshelves, but this one feels special even before I read it.

Here is the blurb for Before You Forget (Penguin Random House):

Year Twelve is not off to a good start for Amelia. Art is her world, but her art teacher hates everything she does; her best friend has stopped talking to her; her mother and father may as well be living in separate houses; and her father is slowly forgetting everything. Even Amelia.

At times funny, at times heartbreaking, this is an ultimately uplifting story about the delicate fabric of family and friendship, and the painful realisation that not everything can remain the same forever.

And now, here’s Julia…

beforeyouforget_final-cover-1

2 things that inspired the book

1 My daughter’s struggle with her father’s younger onset Alzheimer’s disease
My daughter was 12 when her father started displaying the alarming symptoms of younger onset Alzheimer’s disease, and 15 when he was finally diagnosed. The most noticeable thing about younger onset is not so much memory loss, at first, but personality change. Her dad began stockpiling food, bringing strange men home and giving them money, getting up in the middle of the night and bellowing at us, driving erratically, and becoming furious over the smallest things. Worse, he was unaware of what was happening, unable to acknowledge or discuss it. The change in personhood was disconcerting, disorienting and difficult for me, and worse for my daughter. It was hard to understand, to deal with, to explain to others. So, the need for the novel.

2 The transformative power of art in everyday life
I’m not sure where I picked up the idea that any difficulty in life is endurable if only you can transform it into art, but I became convinced of this from an early age. In Before You Forget, Amelia is an art student who struggles to find visual form for what is happening to her father, and to their relationship. But she also experiences that sense of losing yourself in the act of creation, which is the pleasure of any art form, whether it is writing, music, painting, acting. Making something from what has been destroyed, or has disappeared.

2 places connected with the book

1 Fremantle
I spent a lot of time wandering around Fremantle when I was writing Before You Forget. It was a terrible time in my life, but walking soothed, and I tried to get as close to the water as I could. I was sprayed by water in winter as I walked into the wind at South Mole; picked my way around seaweed on Bathers Beach, listening to the hush of waves; watched dogs large and small gambolling on South Beach, fetching sticks and balls, racing each other on the sand. I like to think that the rhythm of those walks can be felt in the writing. Certainly, Fremantle features large in the novel.

2 Ground Zero
Amelia is obsessed with watching and re-watching 9/11 footage: the unanticipated horror of it is her personal disaster writ large, as well as an exemplar of the randomness of fate. She wants to understand how people survived it, how they found a way to think about what had happened. How life, however changed, continues after catastrophes of all kinds.

When I took my daughter to New York, we spent sobering days at the memorial and the museum. In the museum, the Virgil quotation ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time’ (repurposed from its original context) stretches out among a sea of blue tiles. Many of the exhibitions are dedicated to remembering those who perished by recording the ordinariness of their extinguished lives: when they were born, things their families and friends most recall, their favourite subject at school. It struck me as a worthy aim of any memorial: to provide a continuing existence for the spirits who are lost, to honour the past for the comfort of the living. A testament to the centrality of memory.

no-day-shall

2 favourite characters

1 Hecta the Jack Russell
Hecta in the novel is very much based on our Hecta in real life. As Simon’s condition deteriorates, fictional Hecta behaves much as actual Hecta did: becoming naughtier and naughtier. He escapes out of carelessly open front doors, climbs onto tables, steals carers’ sandwiches out of their handbags, and eats the same, still covered in cling wrap. Anyone who has had an untrainable Jack Russell (is there any other kind?!) will recognise Hecta’s antics!

hecta-by-annie

Hecta, by Annie Lawrinson

2 Ms M the art teacher
Ms M is a formidable art teacher who expects her charges to do their best work, and is not afraid of sharing her disapprobation if they do not. Ms M is reliable in a way Amelia’s parents suddenly are not, and the art room becomes her haven. Although I am entirely unskilled in the visual arts, the teacher and the space were analogous to my supportive English teachers, and, of course, the library with its written treasures.

Before You Forget (Penguin Random House) will be available
in bookshops and online
on 30 January
You can contact Julia via her website

 

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