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Interview with Wendy James - Part 2

The first part of this interview was published yesterday.
Wendy's novel, Out of the Silence, was reviewed here on Matilda last month.

Matilda: Sounds to me more like the trial-and-error methodology you ended up with worked for the best. Though it probably didn't feel like it at the time. Did you ever think the whole thing wouldn't come together at all?

Wendy James: Oh, yes! In the end it was really the necessary evil of getting dates straight, of tying the two narratives together chronologically, that forced me to get it together. I had to do a great deal of literal cutting and pasting (actually, cutting and stapling) to get the narrative into a sensible shape. Even then I ended up with some odd things -- like a pregnancy that lasted 18 months or so...

M: I hope the 18 month pregnancy was the literary one.

Do you see parallels between what Maggie suffered though and what happens today with the abortion/adoption debates, and the whole fertility arguments that erupt?

WJ: Ah - you might have something there: perhaps I transferred my two to Maggie's one - I hadn't considered that....

The parallels are quite startling, aren't they? Obviously, the emphases aren't quite the same, but it seems many of the dilemmas confronting women haven't changed as much as you'd imagine, and I guess this is because we're still struggling to work out what equality actually entails. I think we're still experimenting: trying to work out how the raising of children and careers can be combined... & without one compromising the other. And no matter how laws are changed, as well as societal expectations, our biology - the fact that women are the ones who physically bear children - hasn't. I think the expectation of greater paternal involvement in childrearing is one very positive change ... In terms of political similarities, at around this period there was a pretty significant decrease in the birth-rate -- one of the conclusions (as stated in the NSW commission, and by many other interested parties) was that the selfishness of the 'New Woman" was to blame...naturally.

M: Did you have a contract in place when you finished the novel or did you have to shop it around agents and publishers?

WJ: I sent it to an agent as soon as it was in reasonable shape, and I was pretty lucky -- there were a couple of rejections, but Random were only the 3rd of fourth publisher to read it! So I've really had a bit of a dream run.

M: And what was it like, selling that first novel?

WJ: The stuff of dreams!! The advance was good - not huge, but it meant I didn't have to scrounge up bits of work for the next few months - and they contracted me for a second novel as well. So I was VERY fortunate.

M: What are you working on now? Is there anything you feel you can tell us?

WJ: The second novel's nearly ready to be sent off. My editor's yet to work her magic, so I won't say finished... I'd actually started it while I was researching OOTS (in a bid to enter the Vogel before it was too late, before I got too old) and after rereading - and at the insistence of my sister, who'd read and enjoyed the initial drafts - I decided it was worth reworking. The characters were still bugging me, anyway, obviously desperate for me to resolve their situation. It's very different to OOTS - much lighter - a contemporary domestic drama/mystery - maybe a little farcical. And no first person! A missing sister returns to claim an inheritance ... and if I say any more I'll spoil it. It's due out early 2007, and I think will be titled: THE RETURN.

The third novel is in the planning stages - it'll be heavier, darker, partly historical - and back to that abandoned child/motherhood trope, I'm afraid.

M: To finish up, you've been writing a lot lately, but what is the best you've read over the past twelve months?

WJ: The best I've read..? It's hard to choose, really. My big discovery has been the US writer Richard Yates -- his novel of domestic strife, Revolutionary Road, is quite a revelation, as is Easter Parade, and his short stories are mostly very fine. But I've read some other great stuff, all worth mentioning: John Harwood's The Ghost Writer; Susan Johnson's Broken Book; Carrie Tiffany's debut, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living; Andrew McGahan's White Earth; Gail Jones's Sixty Lights. Barry Maitland's detective fiction. Anne Manne's Motherhood should be read by all parents - though it can be quite confronting.... oh, and I've just come across UK writer Kate Atkinson (a little late) - her Case Histories is thrilling & moving, and I'm currently reading her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which is somehow making me laugh AND cry simultaneously. I have to mention Alice Monroe's latest volume of short stories Runaway - she's said that this might be her last, and that's making me cry, too....

M: Thanks for your time, Wendy, and good luck with the upcoming book.

Interview with Wendy James - Part 1

Wendy James is the author of Out of the Silence which was published in 2005 by Random House. It was the only Australian debut novel published by the company during that year. Wendy is a regular commenter to this weblog and recently agreed to be interviewed by me by email.

Matilda: This is your first novel so a lot of readers won't know much about you. Can you give a potted history of your writing career to date?

Wendy James: I really only began writing in 1992: I was 25, had had two children, and I figured this probably meant I was a bona fide 'grown-up' ... so thought I'd better get going. I started out writing short stories and to my great surprise my first stories were very well-received - I won a couple of prizes, and was published in journals and anthologies pretty regularly: Voices, Ulitarra, Meanjin, Australian Short Stories, Southerly, Westerly, etc, and in James Bradley's Gen-X anthology Blur (though I think I may have been a bit of anomaly in that collection - being married, living in the suburbs, having children etc, and not really a stereotypical gen-xer). When I finished my undergrad degree at Sydney Uni - which I'd done fairly slowly, due to work, kids, etc, I did an MA writing at the University of Technology, Sydney, and then having discovered the story of Maggie Heffernan, applied to write her story as my Doctorate of Creative Arts. We moved to Armidale in 1998 (my husband's a police officer, and Armidale was a very welcome transfer from Kings-X where he'd been for 6 years) and UTS wasn't really set up for external studies, so I applied to Deakin. I was given a place in their PhD program - and a postgrad scholarship - which made the whole project possible.

The novel took about five years to write -- I had another 2 children during that time -- and sadly the theoretical component of the PhD still hasn't been written. I'm waiting for no 1 to finish school, and No 4 to start...

M: So, all the way through you've been juggling the raising of four children and starting a writing career. You must have found it difficult just to find the time and energy to put pen to paper. What kept you going?

WJ: Well, for a long while we were only raising two... I'm not sure about energy, but I think perhaps it was the experience of motherhood (for which I was totally unprepared, and sort of isolated - most of my friends pursued careers first, and started their families later) that sharpened everything and somehow galvanised me into action. Looking back, there was a degree of criticism, and I probably felt like I had a lot to prove. Actually, looking back 10 years or so, when I was studying part time, working part time, and writing, I do feel a bit exhausted, and can't quite remember how I managed it (ah, youth!) I don't think I could do it now. Maybe the eldest two spent an awful lot of time in front of the television... But I don't think mine's an isolated case -- most writers have to work at something else to keep body and soul together. And most - all - parents become adept at keeping all those balls in the air...

M: Yes, it seems to never end. How did you come across the story of Maggie Heffernan? And what was it about her story that sparked the idea of a novel?

WJ: I first discovered Maggie's story in Verity Burgmann & Jenny Lee's People's History of Australia. Just browsing, as you do... In Marilyn Lake's essay, "Intimate Strangers", which examines the consequences of the traditional sexual division of labour, I came across this brief but compelling snippet of history:

Maggie Heffernan, an unmarried domestic servant...had given birth at the Women's Hospital then transferred to a home in the suburbs of Armadale. When released from there she walked the city attempting to find accommodation. She had nothing to eat and was unable to feed her screaming baby. Down near the river she quietly undressed her screaming child and dropped him in the river. Frightened at what she had done Heffernan tried to get a position as a wet-nurse in Hawthorn where she was arrested and charged with murder.

Initially I noted these details down thinking I might use them in a short story - I hadn't quite dared to think about the possibility of writing a novel. I suspect the story struck a chord because at the time I first encountered it I was haunted (as I think many new mothers are) by the dreadful spectre of separation for whatever reason from my children. Anyway, I became particularly preoccupied by the compelling and terrifying figure of the abandoning/relinquishing mother and all the questions the act of abandonment raises: What it might mean for the mother -- what forces could drive her to relinquish or abandon her children, how this would shape her subsequent existence; and then what are the effects on the children themselves, what might it mean to have your mother leave you. A number of my short stories seem to have this theme, these questions, running through them. So I guess to tackle a story based around an infanticide - the ultimate relinquishment - was to follow a natural (if somewhat grim) trajectory - perhaps there's a sense of staring the very worst thing in the face, I'm not quite sure...

M: So where did that snippet of history lead you? Was there any major historical document you could examine for details of the case?

WJ: The snippet didn't really lead anywhere until I happened to read Janette Bomford's biography of Vida Goldstein... That's when the two narratives really meshed: Maggie's tragedy, Vida's championing of her - and then the story of the suffrage. Suddenly I could see a very big story taking shape.

Initially the bulk of the information on Maggie came from one secondary source - there's an honours thesis dealing with nineteenth century 'reproductive crime' that examines her case, but eventually I had to visit the Victorian Public record office at Laverton (my first trip to Melbourne!) and go through the papers there. Of course, that was a goldmine....

M: You then had two major threads of the case in Maggie Heffernan and Vida Goldstein, and decided to add another. Was this for a sense of balance to the story, to add the viewpoint of Elizabeth, the upper middle-class Englishwoman?

WJ: I'd intended, when I first began planning the novel, to have the character of Vida Goldstein centre stage; to have her story, and the story of the suffrage, from her perspective. I read as much as I could find about her during this particular period - and read pages and pages of her journalism - but I just wasn't able to get a grip on her: she's a rather opaque figure -- and so highly politically motivated (for obvious reasons) during this time, that the private person - the private life - was difficult to discern. Then I tried writing a diary from the perspective of Goldstein's great friend Celia John, who was her constant companion in later years. Celia would have been very young at the time the novel was set, a music student newly arrived from Tasmania, and there's no actual record of their meeting then, so the relationship that I developed was entirely imaginary -- and became quite silly. It was very much the diary of a besotted young admirer -- whose main concern was Vida Goldstein's life rather than her own (though I did develop some nice metaphors based around Celia's interest in music and eurythmics...ah well). Her awed admiration for Vida and her work also became tedious -- I needed a slightly more critical perspective. Somehow I couldn't get this relationship to provide any narrative momentum - I toyed with the idea of a lesbian relationship -- but this seemed a terrible literary cliche and historically unlikely. Then, to spice things up, I thought I'd have Vida have an affair with some Labor politician. I did a heap of research on likely candidates, but again, it was historically inaccurate -- and pretty silly. Somehow (hard to remember how exactly!) I realised I needed to make Vida the secondary character - that a diary about her but written by another character could never feel authentic. I needed a real person with a real life -- and that person would have to be imaginary. This sounds odd, I know, when other trajectories were abandoned because of historical inaccuracy -- but the 'big lie' of the invented cousins, and Vida's stay with them, didn't significantly alter anything we know about Goldstein's character...and that seemed a very important ethical consideration, in fictionalising a public figure. In my early research I'd done some reading around the subject of female immigration - shipboard diaries, diaries and letters of women who'd come to escape the poor conditions, and social constrictions of Britain - who'd come hoping for a new life (and of course, some of them hoping for marriage, perhaps) - and these women seemed so immensely brave, making that long journey, with no guarantee of return if it all went wrong, often arriving with no money, no connections. And then their experiences here were sometimes so wretched, so utterly at odds with their expectations. The character of Elizabeth came from all this. In one sense she was, I suppose, the solution to a narrative problem, but her actual (ok, imaginary) predicament soon became quite compelling...That Elizabeth provided such a neat counterpoint to Maggie (in terms of class, experience, etc) was just good luck really -- and not good planning.

The second part of this interview will appear tomorrow.

Interview with Lucy Sussex - Part 2

This is the second part of the Lucy Sussex interview I conducted via email over the past month or so. The first was published yesterday.

As I stated in part one, Lucy has been writing for the past twenty years or so, and in that time she has been awarded the Ditmar (Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award) for "My Lady Tongue" (1989), The Scarlet Rider (1997) and "La Sentinelle" (2004). "La Sentinelle" also won an Aurealis award in 2003.

Matilda: I seem to remember you saying you were rather annoyed when you read POSSESSION and came to the realisation of how similar it was to what you were working on at the time. Did that realisation change the direction of the book or cause you any "trouble" later on?

Lucy Sussex: Not really. I heard about it well before I read it, and even by then I had SCARLET RIDER pretty much planned (up to chapter outlines, although you never quite know what will come out of the subconscious). I read POSSESSION essentially to see whether I would have to kill off the project. But the two books weren't much similar, after all. And I figured that by the time I got my novel written, edited and published, POSSESSION would have less currency. Which doesn't stop reviewers making the comparison, of course...

M: THE SCARLET RIDER was released in 1996. Have you been working on any other novels for adults since then, or concentrating on shorter fiction and young adult material?

LS: What happened is that I've been doing a PhD thesis, which will be a book, on the mothers of detective fiction. This involved rethinking the early history of detective fiction, and also a number of surprises, such as the writer Catherine Crowe, who necessitated a research trip to the UK. So much research and work...

I've written many short fictions, for adult and younger in my spare time (ha ha) - some of these will be collected later this year (title to be announced) by Mirrordanse. I just published the story "Matricide" on SCIFI.COM. I did a book in the Quentaris series (THE REVOGNASE, 2003). Several times I started novels, but the goer so far is a mixture of C19th female detective novel, werewolves and er, quantum physics. I may, or may not, be able to bring it off.

M: Sounds like a very strange mix - I look forward to it. You mentioned the novel you wrote for the Quentaris series, how did that come about? And did it require a special sort of mind-set on your behalf?

LS: What happened was that I wrote one of the first two texts in the series. Paul Collins and Michael Pryor approached me to write 3 chapters of a Quentaris text. Michael had written a complete Quentaris novella, but Paul had time constraints. They basically paid me to write a text as part of a sample for publishers. If the series didn't sell, then I had the beginnings of a fantasy novel for teens I could probably adapt and sell independently. If it did sell, then I paid them back, and wrote the whole of my novel for the publisher.

I had two free weeks, so I did write the sample, using as plot outline a device I'd found in a 1930s crime novel (which I acknowledge at the beginning of THE REVOGNASE): hot potato. You have a object that nobody knows what it is, but everybody wants it, and so it passes from hand to hand, the viewpoint basically going with it. Of course being me, I started the text not knowing what it was either, and the subconscious supplied the answer, which was actually quite disgusting.

I think I was supposed to write three chapters but I was enjoying myself so much I wrote six. I had a ball writing what was basically screwball fantasy comedy. Now I know why Terry Pratchett is so prolific: it's fun.

In terms of constraints, working to a pre-existing setting meant that you didn't have to do world-building, which freed you up in other areas. After all, Shakespeare used pre-existing plots for nearly all of his plays.

I'd actually got to the end of the text, and found Paul & Michael had made a change in their Quentaris Bible: consolidated the fantasy security elements. I'd actually gone to some trouble to set up tension between the bodyguards' Guild and the Watch, and now there was only the Watch. But making Storm, who is one of my protagonists, the head of the watch worked very well, and was surprisingly easy to do.

I'd love to write another Quentaris book sometime.

M: To finish up, I know you've been reviewing a large number of books lately but what is the best you've read over the past twelve months?

LS: Best true crime - THE GATTON MURDERS (Pan) by Stephanie Bennett. I respect a true crime writer who can really research, as Bennett does. I'm not the only person to think she solved the crime. Remarkable.

Best younger readers: THE SCARECROW AND HIS SERVANT (Dobuleday) Phillip Pullman. Here is a work in lighter mood than the dark materials, but showing enviable control of form and style. Also delightfully inventive.

Best novel - the best novels are the ones you come to blind, which stand totally on their own merits. Such is CRESCENT by Diana Abu-Jaber (Picador) about middle eastern exiles living in LA. It avoids every possible cliche you can think of about Arabs and the Moslem world.

Best non-fiction. Kevin Phillips' AMERICAN DYNASTY: ARISTOCRACY, FORTUNE AND THE POLITICS OF DECEIT IN THE HOUSE OF BUSH. The title says it all. Thoroughly researched, by a former Nixon staffer. Quote: 'I am not talking about ordinary lack of business ethics or financial corruption.' Indeed.

Best out of left-field: TROLL, by Johanna Sinisalo. Imagine Tom of Finland and the Moomintrolls in the same book. Only a Finn could get away with it.

M: Thanks for your time and patience.

Interview with Lucy Sussex - Part 1

Lucy Sussex, New Zealand born and Melbourne resident, has been writing since the mid-1980s, producing one novel for adults, several children's novels and a number of short stories. Her best known works are "My Lady Tongue" from 1988 (later the title story for her major short story collection) and the novel The Scarlet Rider. Most of her shorter work has been in the genre of sf/fantasy but she is aso well-known in Australian literary circles as the researcher who uncovered the long-lost identity of one of the world's first female writers of detective fiction, Mary Fortune.

Lucy is currently working on her doctorate in English literature, which she aims to present this year, and produces short reviews for "The Sunday Age" on a weekly basis. I should admit a bit of a bias here: I've known Lucy for almost 20 years, and her partner is one of my regular drinking buddies. Oddly enough, it was only after I'd been going out with the woman who was to become my wife that I found out she had known Lucy in university, but had lost touch over the years. Sometimes the world can seem very small indeed.

Matilda: You've written fiction in the genres of fantasy, sf, children and young adult; is there any particular form you feel more comfortable in?

Lucy Sussex: Not especially. It depends on the idea, and what form in which it is most likely to work. And I'm not sure that being 'comfortable' in a genre actually produces the best writing. If you're slightly at odds with a genre, writing against it, that can produce an edge. Makes you different, at least.

I just had a story of mine termed highly modernist realism. I'm tickled - never happened before.

M: So the story idea leads to the form? You don't feel constrained to work in any one genre over any of the others?

LS: Or you can be in a situation where you have to work in a form, eg a theme anthology, and you have to work out an idea that will go with it. Eg, an anthology on the theme of song, and I knew as it was US, I would have to be different, ie Australian. What Australian song is well-known in the US? Waltzing Matilda. So I got out the lyrics and decided they didn't make sense. The result was 'Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies'.

If I felt constrained the fun would go out of writing.

M: So the major force behind your writing is the fun of it? Or is there something else?

LS: Ha! Well I wouldn't do it if I didn't like it - that way madness lies. But who knows what lies behind the creative impulse.

M: But sometimes you must feel that you can look back on piece you've written and be able to identify where it came from? I'm thinking particularly of THE SCARLET RIDER. Can you tell us how that book came about?

LS: I had been researching the life of Mary Fortune, pioneer female detective writer (Irish-Canadian-Australian, wrote the longest early detective serial, from 1867-1907). She was on the goldfields and married a policeman, so a lot of the research went into the book. By the way she didn't commit infanticide, but certainly bigamy, was wanted by the police at one time, and seemed to know a suspicious amount about illegal stills. During the course of the research, my life changed dramatically: I ended and started relationships, found a new writing direction, and became grimly determined about getting published. With the result that within several years, I had three books out, THE PEACE GARDEN, THE FORTUNES OF MARY FORTUNE (which I edited), and MY LADY TONGUE, all in different areas from different publishers. All involved considerable hurdles, which might have defeated a less bloody-minded writer (which is what I'd become). PEACE had an editor leave, then the press got taken over; THE FORTUNES got one rejection, but an acceptance via an editor at the first firm alerting the second about it; MY LADY TONGUE got a rejection and an acceptance within the course of a single day.

It was hard not to think something of Fortune's determination (and conditions were much, much harder for writers in colonial Australia) had been an object lesson or had somehow transferred across the ether. I was dreaming about her, although I never learnt anything useful from the dreams. At some point I became aware I was getting a bit peculiar, and made an effort to retreat from such a close identification with her. Which was necessary, as Fortune's life was appalling.

Later I found out that this phenomenon is quite common with biographers. Nadia Wheatley calls it 'the madness'. I quizzed quite a few people on the subject, from Michael Holroyd (name drop, clunk) to Brenda Niall. What I found was most had a sense of a kind of 'haunting'. Russell McDougall (Xavier Herbert) said that if he wrote something critical about his subject he had a sense of someone looking over his shoulder and going: 'Tut, tut.'

From there it was a quantum jump to voodoo, probably via William Gibson's COUNT ZERO. It was purely coincidental that A. S. Byatt's POSSESSION had a similar subject, although she eschewed the fantasy - I went for it!

[To be continued.]

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