Author interview: Lauren Chater

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Interview by Nik Shone


What motivated you to start writing and what draws you to historical fiction?

I always wanted to be a writer, I suppose. I had my son in 2011 and that was what kickstarted my writing journey and when I committed to writing properly. I had time off work and I had nothing much else to do. I had a bit of postnatal depression and so writing was a really good way to internalise what I was feeling.

I like the fact that in exploring the past, it forces us to look on what we’re doing now, you know, what’s working and what’s not. If we just let the past go and never acknowledge what happened, then I don’t think we ever sort of learn anything, so that’s what I love about historical fiction. It’s also just got a distance and it’s not so immediate. You’re not right in the zeitgeist of the moment, so being able to look back at things that happened gives you a different perspective.

What were your greatest challenges when you were writing The Lace Weaver?

Greatest challenges were time; I have two young children. When I started writing The Lace Weaver, my daughter was only six weeks old. So, I went to the Blue Mountains with some friends; we did our own writers retreat, and I took her with me. I just incorporated her into my writing. I knew it was going to be really hard the second time, so I just kind of plotted her in and she fit in neatly. But it was also very hard to find the time as she was growing older, and I’ve still got my son who has special needs as well, so it’s really hard to find the time. You have to be a little bit selfish about it I think, and he’s at school now, so that’s a bit easier for me. Also, I think when you’re writing your first novel, there’s lots of self-doubt.

What advice would you give to yourself from when you started writing the novel?

I would say just go for it and don’t worry about what it looks like. Some scenes come out almost perfectly and it’s fantastic. But there are always going to be scenes that need rewriting. There are always going to be times when you are tired and exhausted, and you just have to push through those moments. And just let your drafts be really rubbish. You can always fix them up on the rewriting. It takes lots of drafts, but nobody wants to hear that. No one wants to acknowledge that it takes lots of drafts to write a novel. But sadly, it does. I think you’d probably have less work to do structurally if you did it properly the first time, but I would just go bang it out and then go back and rewrite it.

In terms of time management, I think all writers procrastinate a lot. But luckily, I think when you’re a newbie writer, you don’t have that distraction. There aren’t people wanting to talk to you and things like that, so in a way it’s a blessing. You can just get on with the work. I don’t really procrastinate a huge amount because I have children. So much of my time is spent wanting to write, but not actually writing. When I get the opportunity to write, I use it. I can’t wait. In a way it is nice to have that delayed gratification.

Who are your biggest influences?

In terms of writing influences, I love Geraldine Brooks. And Sandra Leigh Price is a new favourite; she lives in Sydney and she writes the most beautiful historical fiction. I did a lot of really great writing courses. I did a few with Kate Forsyth; she’s an Australian writer who writes historical fiction. So, I did quite a few courses with her and we’ve just kept in touch. It’s always nice to have your mentors close by so you can ask them questions and things like that. I was also chosen to take part in the Fiona McIntosh Masterclass Scholarship program a couple of years ago. I got to go to her classes as well. It was like a five-day boot-camp, which was really good as well.

What was your ‘foot in the door’ moment?

It was probably getting that Fiona McIntosh Scholarship. Before I won that, I was submitting some probably not great stories to competitions and literary journals. I think you have to go through those early stages so that you can then look back and think, ‘Oh, you know that’s why it wasn’t working,’ and have that perspective. So that was probably the moment where I felt like someone of some consequence recognised that I’d been putting all this work in and that I do have some spec of talent, so that was probably the best moment. I was home with my daughter and she was about six months old, so I just did my own fist bump and got on with it.

What was your inspiration behind The Lace Weaver?

I was working at my local library at the time and I was putting the books away and I found a book called The Knitted Lace of Estonia. I’d actually never heard of Estonia, but I was intrigued by the beautiful Estonian lace shawls and the history of this little Baltic country that had been occupied by the Danes, and then the Baltic Germans, and the Soviets and the Nazis. So really, the seed of the idea was planted when I read that book. I thought about those beautiful lace shawls and how they’ve managed to keep the tradition going despite all of the occupations that had taken place in Estonia. I wondered if the shawls could be a voice for the women who had been oppressed and couldn’t communicate their beautiful traditions and stories. They knit the lace so it’s so fine it could be pulled through a wedding ring – which is like its test of whether it’s a good shawl or not. Though it’s beautiful, really finely-knitted lace.

What would you say was most valuable about taking a research trip?

Personally, I think you should go to the place you’re writing about if you can because it’s very hard to capture the spirit, not only of the place you’re going to, but the people. Nordic people are very different to Australians, so you kind of want to communicate that in your novel, or I did. So, I spent a lot of time meeting Estonians and trying to understand where they were coming from. They are quiet people; they don’t say a lot at first but when you are part of the group, they are very welcoming and very generous. So, I think going there really brought the story to life for me.

It was also really helpful being able to see everything from street level. You know, you have to be kind of accurate, so that’s really hard to do using Google Maps or something. So, on-the-ground research is really important. There were other things I did—like I went to a place in a forest that was used by the anti-resistance movement—and just amazing things that I went to. I went to an abandoned factory and that was incredible; it’s one of the settings in my book. I think you need to be able to capture the atmosphere and really going there is a way to do that.

In terms of your writing process, what did you find worked for you when writing The Lace Weaver and have you continued with that same process as you take on your next book?

I just wrote a couple of days a week. My mother looked after my daughter. My son started school last year. So that was good having the childcare. I really needed it so I could focus on my book. So, I would drop him off and my mum would come look after my daughter and I would just get on with my work. I do most of my writing on a little desk in my room, so it’s not glamorous or anything. It’s just an old wooden desk and I do my writing there. I do like cafes, but I find that they’re quite distracting. When I actually need to get down and do the work, not just imagine that I’m doing the work, I have to do it at my desk. It’s my workplace and I think having that is really important to my writing process.

I had forgotten how hard it was to start again. It’s like when you have kids and I was in the labour ward thinking, ‘What was I thinking actually having another child? It is so incredibly hard.’ It’s like that with books. I think you forget how hard it is to start again. You need to go through all those early drafts, you need to be rubbish again, you have to live with yourself when it’s bad. I understand it’s so hard and yet I think it’s just the process, or it’s my process, maybe not everyone’s process. But I did do another research trip last year, so I did that again and I actually think that I need to go to these places before I start writing. Because for me, it’s just written and I’m not getting the actual feeling of a place. The next book I’m writing is set in London and I thought it would be a little bit easier, and it’s not. It’s so not. I think it may be even harder because it’s set in the seventeenth century and it’s like another world. At least in the WWII era, you can assume certain things. You can make an educated guess. But with the seventeenth century, you have to get it right.

I’m doing all the research again. I’ve got all my research books—that’s another reason I like writing at my desk, because I can have all of my books there and just pull out what I need. I just need to throw myself into it and I haven’t quite comitted to doing that yet. Once I’m in, nothing else will exist, so I’m just trying to carve out the time to do that. I’ll be a very vague mother when that happens. I know it’s coming and it’s just a necessary part of the process, and my husband and mum will have to pick up the slack for me. I was talking to another writer today and we were saying you almost have to be possessed by the writing in order to get the momentum going, and then the story just takes over and you’re just scribing. You’re just following the story rather than the other way around. With the writing process again, I think it’s just going to be the exact same thing where I have to throw myself into it and get it done, and then I can always rewrite afterwards.

What has been the hardest scene for you to write?

There were quite a few actually. When I submitted my book, there were quite a few scenes missing. They were the scenes I didn’t want to write. There was a birth scene; there was a sex scene. These are the scenes that can be confronting because you have to make yourself very vulnerable to write them. They were probably the scenes I had avoided writing, but editors have a way of making you go to the places you don’t want to go. The birth scene in my book was really challenging because I have given birth, but I have never watched someone else give birth before, so I had to ask my mum about it— she’s a midwife. I had to ask her what it’s like to watch someone give birth and it was just a totally different experience just hearing her describe it. I tried to make that as authentic as I could in the book.

What sets your protagonists apart from other characters in their world?

Kati is my main protagonist and I also have Lydia who is a Russian girl. Kati was always in the earlier drafts. I found it harder to integrate Lydia, but Kati has always been the main character. She’s a lace knitter. Her grandmother was a master knitter, which in Estonia is one of the women who pass on the tradition of the shawl making and they teach the young and things like that. Kati, now that her grandmother has passed away, has been left in charge of the shawls and the knitting circle. She’s acknowledged as being this really good knitter. She organises the women and makes sure that the shawls that they’re making will sell, and helps teach the women who need help. So that’s probably what sets her apart from the other people in the village that I was writing about. Lydia is a different kind of character, but I based her on Stalin’s daughter. Stalin’s daughter was actually named Svetlana Stalin and she was sixteen at the time of WWII and I really wanted to use her as a character. I had to create a character that had some of her backstory and her history. She’s got a very different background to Kati; she’s very privileged, but their lives are intertwined by the knitted lace.

If you could choose any person to read your book, who would it be?

Well, the people I would already love to read my book are already reading it, so I would say people who love WWII stories and people who love history. If I could get one person to read it, I suppose it would be Geraldine Brooks or someone like that, but that’s probably not going to happen—let’s be honest. I would love her to read it if she would. I just hope that people who read it do want to learn more about lace knitting and more of the history of Estonia, just like I did. I can’t put everything in the book. I didn’t want to be too heavy-handed with it, but it’s such a different place that we did have to put in quite a bit of information about the backstory of Estonia and how it had been occupied. People don’t know in Australia; it’s a completely different world.