You’ve said in the past that you felt writing chose you. Where did it all begin for you and what motivated you to pursue writing?
As a child, I always felt I wanted to write. I was a big reader and I wanted to try out those things that gave me so much joy. But I also had this notion that, as a kid, you can’t just go out and write the great Australian novel. You must earn it; get some life experience. And I think the best way to do that was journalism, make money by writing. I became quite seduced by the newsroom.
It took me about 20 years to find my way out of that lovely job. I loved it. It was wonderful. But after a while you find that what you’re writing is just the surface. I really wanted to dig deeper than that. So, I thought it was time to give it a go. I left my job and started working part-time and began the long apprenticeship. Learning how to do it, but it always taught me through the way I understand the world. The way I map the world and my place in it, that hasn’t changed in all that time.
Do you have any idols that you feel have influenced your writing?
God, you won’t be able to stop me. The one that comes to mind immediately is Michael Ondaatje. He’s a Canadian-Sri-Lankan writer and his work has always meant a great deal to me. I always look for, apart from the ideas, I look for the cadence and the rhythm of the writing. The way ideas are embedded in the writing. You always find someone whose writing feels like you would like to write as well as they do. Ondaatje’s books have always been close – on my desk or close by me – as a reminder of the standard. He has always been a big influence.
Lots of women writers as well of course, some of them Australian. In my early days of writing I was taken by Margaret Drabble, I loved her early books and read every one. I have always been inspired by writers like Pat Barker, Gayl Jones, Drusilla Modjeska, Virginia Wolfe, and Kate Grenville. And of course, the Australian male writers too, I’ve always loved Patrick White and David Malouf, among others. I’ll regret those I haven’t mentioned.
I’ve become fond of the good-nature writing folks, writers like Robert McFarlane and Barry Lopez are very close to me as well for when I need reassurance or just to read some lovely rhythmic writing I go to them as well. Sometimes it can be overwhelming because you think oh wow, they are just so good,but I don’t think in any way that my writing compares to theirs; there is just a lovely compilation of writing in the world that I can go to any time. We are lucky as writers and readers that we have those ways of consoling ourselves right at hand or just there on the bookshelf.
Your novel ‘Shell’ is coming out soon. Where did the novel start for you and what attracted you to writing about this time period?
It’s always mysterious the way ideas come. Well, my family is half Swedish and half Australian. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of political neutrality. Sweden has been a politically neutral country for a very long time; that is, they don’t take part in conflict. I’d always been informed of that and, in a way, pleased that my family had some from a country that would resist that idea of jumping into any war.
It wasn’t until my own politicisation as an adult that I came to see what a contested notion neutrality really is. What it gives and what it takes away from a country. I had also recorded my feelings as a young journalist. In those days, the rule was that you had to be completely objective. You couldn’t give away in any of your writing that you came down on one side or the other.
For me, it became this interesting dichotomy that I was so pleased about Sweden not jumping in the war as Australia had. At the same time, I was becoming increasingly worried about that objectivity in my day job. There were some subjects that I was unwilling to be objective about. When talking about disadvantage and injustice, I found it very hard not to let that leak into my stories. I was really interested in what it means not to take a side in the political and in the personal level and I was keen to find some way of writing that.
I had never thought about writing about the Opera House. It isn’t in my city. I love it, but it’s not in my general subconscious. When one of my Norwegian nieces came out to visit, she really wanted to see the Opera House. So, we flew down. As we all crawled over the building, I found myself seeing it through her eyes, through Scandinavian eyes, and she just loved it.
The part of me that was also Scandinavian was seeing this building in this different way. I knew there had been controversy around the building and I knew the story. The architect was a Dane. I started to realise there was this other way of seeing, not just the Opera House, but our own culture and the country.
These two characters started to evolve in my head, one was a Swedish glassmaker and the other, an Australian journalist. And I wanted to interrogate the idea of what it is to take a side or to not take a side through their eyes. I set it in the year of 1965, when Utzon, the architect, was imbuing popularity in government and media. Not completely among the people, but certainly at a topical level. It was also the year Australia entered the Vietnam War and reintroduced conscription. So those things were right there in front of me in terms of what I wanted to look into.
Around that time, I was also reading a lot of stuff, politically and socially, and I noticed some of the rhetoric used in the mid-sixties is absolutely being used again in Australia around the present time. In terms of how politicians talk about Australia; how they keep referring to the ‘Australian people’ as if we’re all one big mob who are exactly the same, without any differences. It was really startling to me: that making of one core homogenous mob who all think the same and could be made to vote the same. The rhetoric of how politics is on both sides allude to this thing like ‘Australian people,’ there was a lot more to that to me. I became really alarmed when I realised that had never gone away.
I’ve also always had a fixation with conscription. That whole idea that you can just spin marbles in a barrel and pull out numbers, and if that’s your birthday and you’re twenty that year (and male), well you’re off to war. I had never been able to figure out why. I was only a child in ’65, I had no idea what it meant.
I realised much later that it had come from my mother. My previous book Boy Lostis the story of what happened to her. She had a child stolen from her, which we didn’t know as children. Her son was of conscription age and she didn’t know where he was, and we didn’t even know he existed. She did talk about it. She used to say to my son, ‘You’ll never go to a war like that. I will shoot off one of your toes.’ Or, ‘We will hide you.’ So this was always in my head.
It wasn’t until Peter appeared in our lives that I realised what it had meant to her. That this was why our lives had this preoccupation with conscription. All these things started to coalesce in my head around Sydney in 1965. It surprised me as much as it would surprise anyone else that I was about to embark on writing a Sydney novel. In some ways I think being outside of it gave me a different, maybe better, perspective than if I had lived there my whole life.
How has your career in Journalism influenced your novel writing?
Certainly, journalism enriched my writing life. I got the chance to write features and longer pieces of literary journalism before I left. It was an amazing training ground. Journalism gives you a lot of things as a writer; the ability to work under a great deal of pressure; to a certain time; to work with phones ringing and typewriters banging around you and people yelling and editors screaming for copy.
It teaches you that way of insulating yourself while still being able to get the work done. So, it certainly gave me all of that. But I think it also gave me that lovely bird’s-eye-view, which is a great privilege. Journalists are a very privileged witnesses to the world on behalf of all of us. They get to be the ones of the front line, looking at things on our behalf, on behalf of all of those that can’t be there. So, I got a lot of that and I think it expanded me a great deal.I don’t regret one day of it. Not at all. I don’t think I would be a writer or the writer I am without having done those years in the newsroom.
How would you compare your experiences in writing fiction to writing memoir? Were there processes that were similar or different for you?
Well, writing has always, for me, like beating my head against the desk until there’s blood coming from my eyes. It’s slow, it’s slow and it’s hard. I average about four-to-five years to get a book done. It just takes me a long time. I think to have leapt from fiction to non-fiction, back to fiction then back to non-fiction with every book has happened without any permission from me. That whole thing that they pitch in creative writing, ‘Write what you know,’ I find a bit crazy. It’s always about something I don’t know. It’s always about a question or a bunch of questions and I am in pursuit of some answer.
The book becomes a way of looking at the question from all sides. I think it’s Nicholas Shakespeare, a Tasmania writer, who talks about characters in that way: that they’re like light bulbs you have to spin and look at from every side. I think that’s what it’s like with every aspect of writing. For me, the questions just keep going. The end of the book doesn’t come because of answers, like Tim Winton says, ‘You don’t finish a book, you give up on it.’ Certainly, for me they have similar challenges and problems and rewards and joys.
As I said, I don’t choose to flip from fiction or non-fiction, it’s just the way the ideas roll. They chose me. But looking back I can see that there is a similar bedrock of preoccupation through all the books, whether they emerged as fiction or non-fiction. They were all this bedrock of me scratching away at something, like an itch on your back.
Literary fiction and non-fiction have a lot of similarities and I really love them both. When I’m in the middle of non-fiction, I don’t think I’ll ever write non-fiction again. When I’m in the middle of writing fiction I ask myself why I would ever write a novel again. It’s just what you’re inside at the time and what it allows, what it gives you, and all its rewards.
Shell is coming out soon, but I’ve been working on a new book for a while now and it’s non-fiction again. I’m deeply inside it and I’m not getting a huge amount of time now, so it will just have to wait for a while. But I’m just loving what it reveals within the hard work. That it reveals bits and pieces in the same way as fiction does, if you worry away at it enough, if you patiently just scratch away at whatever you’re trying to find.
So, I think the challenges are very similar, it’s full of research and demands. For me, they both require the same demands when it comes to the actual writing. There’s always a lot of imagery and metaphor in both, as well as the rhythm of the sentence. I write at sentence level and the rhythm of the sentence is where I find meaning.
What has been your greatest challenge in your career and how did you overcome it?
Every book has its moments where you think, ‘God, I will never get over this problem’ and with Shella couple of things took a long time to reveal themselves properly. For me to nut out who they really were and really round them up and make them move across the page. That’s always a big thing for me. And I’m not a plotter. I never ever have a plot, so it reveals itself to me through the characters and their motivations. It’s difficult but it’s not an impossibility. It just is one of the harder bits for me. Working out an arc or a shape that will carry the novel through; it usually takes a couple of years at least for me to sort that out.
I think one of the challenges for all writers is just to survive financially. I’ve made the choice to leave good full-time jobs to concentrate on the work and then somehow just patched a living together. Because I take so long to get a book out, it does mean going without. Not getting haircuts or new clothes. But I find the trade off a fair one. I get to spend the time with the book and try to make it the best it can be. That’s not saying that other people don’t. I’ve got good friends who write quicker than I do and they produce beautiful, beautiful books. I think everyone’s process is different.
I work more than full time because I also work to make a living as well as try and get the writing done, so I don’t get many days off. But that’s okay, it’s just all about having the energy to cover all bases. I’ve been incredibly fortunate as well in my writing life that my books have found their place in the world and people have said lovely things about them. It’s not as if I’m scribbling away in the dark and not getting anything back for it. I have certainly from the past few books, received some really lovely responses from readers. And that makes me very happy. The writing itself is its own reward. But of course, you want readers and of course you want them to love it. You really want it to resound with readers. You want to fall into their hearts and resonate with them.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Just keep going. ‘Keep going’ was the best piece of advice I had, and I guess I would say that to my younger self as well. Back yourself. If writing is what you do and what you really want to do, then back yourself. And that means, as far as you can, (with the constraints of earning a living and family obligations and obligations to the wider world) read and write and talk writing and go to writing things and immerse yourself in the world of books. Not just books, but all art. All kinds of art: visual, music, you never know where ideas are going to come from. Certainly, being open to what all art forms have to offer is a good start.
Sometimes it surprises you, what you find happening under your pen. You realised that you’ve come to understand something, or something has clicked with you in a way because you have spent the time sinking into your own work and other good writing and art forms. So I would say, it’s hard, don’t expect it not to be hard. But it’s also a calling and if that’s your calling then follow it and give it what it asks of you. Make sure you give yourself the best chance to get by. You just must keep coming to the desk every day if possible, even for an hour. You just have to keep turning up.
Have there been any stand out themes that have been particularly difficult to write?
Well, when we talk about the themes through my work, what I can see now is that it had been about a missing child, a boy of course because there was a missing boy for so much of our life that we didn’t know about. So that’s always been there and sometimes I guess it’s what has been subconscious all along. All of it has been subconscious, except of course for the book Boy Lost which I found incredibly hard to write. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I think it was a book that taught me the most about myself, not just about my mother and Peter. It was about who I was and what made me tick; and why that made me behave in certain ways and have certain attitudes to things. And just having to rip your heart out every day and examine it closely and intently is the most challenging thing. And to write that with utter honesty and generosity and compassion.
The book taught me how to write it. All books do in the end. It’s about walking around skinless in the world while you’re writing on certain topics and allowing that to happen because that’s the way you learn about yourself and that’s the only way you’ll learn how to write about that stuff as well.
Writing is completely vulnerable; it’s about that sense of exposing yourself as if you are naked. If you don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable, well it shows up in the work. And I think readers respond to that humility that’s necessary in writing. I’m not sure that you could write terribly well if you didn’t have that humility; no matter how many Miles Franklins you’ve won or no matter how your writing career has gone or how successful or acclaimed you are. You have to come to the page with that utter humility every day, again, naked and skinless. And start over and learn how to write the next book. There’s no other way I could think of doing it other than to bring that humility and wide-eyed-ness to the desk every day.
What would you say is your greatest achievement? What are you most proud of?
In my writing life, just getting the writing done is what I’m most proud of. Just actually turning up every day and getting the work done feels like my greatest achievement. I’m also involved in some social justice stuff; I wouldn’t call that an achievement but I’m very pleased with all the choices that I’ve made around my lifestyle in terms of writing to have allowed me extra time that a full-time job wouldn’t give me.
My ability to be involved in an organisation, particularly Sisters Inside that advocates for women in prison, is very close to my heart. I wouldn’t say I’ve really achieved anything there but I’ve been involved for nearly twenty years now and the organisation certainly has achieved great things. My involvement feels very important to me.
My involvement with my family and my children and grandchildren, my relationship with them is very dear to me and that I’m very proud of. But workwise I’m proud that I’ve been able to make decisions for the work. That I’ve been able to put the work first. Not first among my children, but first among other choices that I have. That I’ve made this work the centre of my life in that way and fought off the temptation no to when it gets bloody hard. That feels like an achievement. Not walking away. Of course, some days not walking away feels like an achievement, and others, well you wouldn’t turn away from it for all the tea in China.
If you could choose anyone in the world to read your book, who would it be?
Michael Ondaatje. He has a new book out now. The book of his that is always next to me, In the Skin of a Lion, is just startlingly beautiful. He’s just won the Booker Prize in the UK. They had this competition recently where they got judges to pick the best one of the best of each of the decades of last five decades. And out of those best of the decades they chose one it was his The English Patientwhich became an amazing movie. He is very loved. He’s not everyone’s taste that’s for sure but he’s very memorable. And if I could choose one person to read it, it would be him.