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Talking with Alan Gould

May 3, 2011
Joseph Conrad

Conrad, 1904, a favourite writer for Gould (Photo: George Charles Beresford, Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

I didn’t say in my recent review of Alan Gould‘s The lakewoman that Gould attended my reading group’s discussion of his book. I had so much to say – so many thoughts – about the book, that I thought I’d save a report on his comments for another post, so here goes … but first …

Becky of PageTurners wrote a post recently on the impact of having an author attend a reading group discussion of his/her book. She suggested that it can be hard for group members to be honest when the author is present. That’s true of course. Few of us are willing to “attack” an author face to face, particularly when we see what heart (not to mention sheer sweat) has gone into writing the book under discussion. Fortunately, being honest didn’t seem to be a big issue in my reading group’s discussion with Alan Gould. Some found it slow at the start, and some asked him about the resolution, but all seemed to have enjoyed the book and his writing as a whole. For me, having an author present can add benefits that outweigh this honesty concern. See what you think from this report of our meeting with an author, because Gould, like Halligan when she joined us for her book, was articulate and generous in sharing his ideas with us.

Gould on his influences

  • Joseph Conrad (and, before him, Emily Bronte), who taught him about timing, something Gould plays particular attention to in his writing. I particularly liked the timing and pacing in The lakewoman, but I wrote a little about that in my review so won’t go on about it here.
  • Thomas Hardy, who uses coincidence, arguing that it’s coincidence that makes a story a story, if you know what I mean. Gould did say though that Hardy tended to use coincidence in a realist setting, whereas for him coincidence helped create the sense of magic or enchantment. He said his aim was to use coincidence in a way that would be psychologically or practically plausible but that also added a sense of mystery. One of the things I enjoyed about the novel was its somewhat mystical tone – the sense that things were occurring on a slightly “higher” plane than pure logic.
  • Shakespeare, who taught him that the key to writing a novel is to quickly establish “the calibre of the character’s intelligence”, that is what makes that character tick, what his/her mind is like. He gave Iago as an example and explained how Shakespeare establishes early on “who” Iago is. This is certainly what Gould does with Alec Dearborn in the novel. We get into his head quite early and gain a clear understanding of what sort of person he is and why he might be open to Viva’s influence.
  • Roger McDonald, an Australian novelist, who encouraged him to try writing a novel (instead of poetry) by saying that “a novel begins with a sentence”. Gould then talked about a few of his books and how this idea works for him. This first sentence, he said, does not always end up being the first sentence of the book but it is the kernel that gets him going.

Gould on writing novels versus poetry

Gould started as a poet and now writes both. He told us that he writes them alternately, that he can’t write poetry and a novel concurrently, because it’s like “changing from an art form tilted to music to one tilted to history”. He further explained this as being related to “time”. Poetry is a case of “and now and now and now” while novels are more “and then and then and then”. I’d love to hear what you think of this. I found it an interesting concept, though my first reaction was to think “but…” And yet I think I see his point, at least in general terms because of course there are always exceptions. Poetry is, I suppose, often about capturing a moment, while a novel does usually cover a period of time with at least some elements of cause-and-effect (even those novels, like Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway or McEwan’s Saturday that take place in a day).

Gould on The lakewoman

And of course, he talked about the book, in particular. It was inspired he said by the poet David Campbell, though Alec Dearborn is not Campbell. Rather, it is Campbell’s combination of physicality (he, like Dearborn, was a rugby player) and “a lyric sensibility” that Gould tried (successfully I think) to capture.

He also wanted to write a “romance” in the old sense of the word. He defines this as being about a hero on a quest, who thinks he knows what he’s about until he meets someone who shakes up this idea. Viva is this catalyst for Alec. She is an utterly practical woman – something we see played out through the novel from the way she saves Alec from drowning at the beginning to how she plans to conceive a child towards the end – and yet she has an aura of enchantment, starting from that first moment when she appears by the lake as he lands from the sky!

He said a lot more – particularly about some of the images and motifs he used in the novel – but I’ve probably written enough, so I’ll just share his answer to my last question, which was about his favourite contemporary writers. After prevaricating a bit on the definition of contemporary, he named the following Australian writers and books: Inga Clendinnen (not a novelist), Helen Hodgman’s Blue skies, Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus, Kate Jennings’ Snake, Christina Stead’s For love alone, Randolph Stow, and Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. No wonder I enjoyed his novel, he has great taste.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2011 3:07 am

    Gould – on writing just poetry and then novels.
    Murakami alternates between short stories and novels. Even these forms are close to each other, the short story is more compact than the novel and you have to stay on top of it. In a novel, you can veer off a bit. Murakami has written that sometimes a story can’t sit still in his mind and sometimes it becomes a novel.

    A poem is more structured than a short story. You really have to concentrate hard to write one. So, Gould is right to alternate.

    • May 4, 2011 9:59 am

      Thanks Isabel … a writer’s perspective n’est-ce pas? I thought he made a lot of sense – though I’m not a writer.

  2. May 4, 2011 6:36 pm

    Oh wow, first Halligan and now Gould…
    I wish I could belong to your book group!

    • May 4, 2011 8:46 pm

      It’s a great group though we’ve only had 3 authors in 23 years so there are no guarantees! (Our first author was before I started blogging, and was Geoff Page.)

  3. May 6, 2011 1:39 am

    It sounds like Gould was a nice visitor to your group. What he said about his influences is really interesting as is what he said about writing poetry and fiction. I understand what he means and I feel your “but…” Poetry isn’t always about the now especially narrative and epic poetry, two forms that, granted, aren’t much written these days.

    • May 6, 2011 6:23 pm

      Thanks Stefanie for “seeing” my but. I guess it works as a generalisation doesn’t it? I loved hearing about his influences – it’s interesting hearing writers talk about the technical aspects of writing and how they learn their craft isn’t it.

  4. May 11, 2011 6:06 pm

    I like the list of influences which provides some thought provoking points – timing, coincidence etc.

    re the author attending book groups – we have a BBC radio programme where authors discuss books in front of audiences who are allowed to ask questions. I find it strangely uninteresting – I don’t generally find that authors add much to the experience of reading – its as though the book takes on a life of its own and meeting the author is a little like bursting the bubble of the reality that reading has created in your mind.

    • May 11, 2011 6:22 pm

      Hi Tom, I think hearing/meeting authors can be extremely variable but I have had some great experiences. The worst part of audience events though can be the question parts – people seem to either ask the obvious or they can show off their own knowledge. But in my small group experiences the author attendance has been great.

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