This is the third in my occasional series of Spotlight posts inspired by Annette Marfording’s Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors. (See the end of this post for links to the first two.) Since Charlotte Wood won this year’s Stella Prize, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction (NSW Premier’s Literary Awards), and has just been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award for her latest novel The natural way of things, who better to choose for my third post.
Charlotte Wood is no stranger to awards. She has written five novels to date, and each of them has won or been shortlisted for awards, which is a pretty impressive achievement. She has also written a non-fiction work on food, Love and hunger, and edited an anthology, Brothers & sisters. Oh, and she has numerous essays, and newspaper and journal articles under her belt too. She is about to publish another book, The Writer’s Room, which will contain interviews with Australian writers selected from the digital magazine of the same name that she edited for three years.
And this makes a good place to segue to Annette Marfording’s interview with her, which took place back in 2010. Marfording’s first question was about awards. Wood indicated that she was “anti-awards” and that the book she thought was her best, The children (at that time she’d published three novels), had received the least notice in awards listings. She says:
I guess it’s easy when you’ve been shortlisted a couple of times to start dismissing it, but the whole prize culture is kind of damaging to literature, I think. It turns books into a horserace and it’s not good for writers and it’s not good for writing either.
This is not an uncommon view, and I do understand her point. The arts are not something that can be objectively measured like, say, a 50m freestyle swim or a high jump, but the money and recognition can, on the other hand, be very helpful to careers, particularly, I suspect, early ones. Wood admits that the money is useful, and can help writers keep writing.
Marfording then asks Wood about some of the ideas that recur in her novels – family, and abuse and violence. Regarding family, Wood says that it’s because “the intensity of human relationships plays out so well in families”. She doesn’t think that abuse and violence are strong themes – in those first three books – though agrees that there’s an abusive relationship in Pieces of a girl, and there is psychological warfare in her books. As she says “A story without any friction is not a story.” True!
Some questions naturally come up in most interviews with writers – recurrent themes being one. Another relates to the writing process, use of research, drawing from other people’s lives, and so on. Marfording asked Wood about these as well. Regarding her process, Wood said that “I start writing and see what happens”. She doesn’t plan, so sometimes the shape of the book comes quickly, other times not so. She doesn’t do a lot of research she says, but may check out the odd specific thing.
And then of course there’s that issue of writing from the perspective of other, such as a male point of view. Wood said that she used to worry about this, but her view is that, despite gender, we are not all that different in the way we think. So, she tries to avoid focusing on the physical issues – which are different – and keeps instead to the mental space.
They also discussed her writing, which is often described as “lyrical”. Wood says that with more experience she had become “sparer”, that at first she was “so lyrical that it kind of made you throw up”. Imagery, it seems, comes easily to her. In this she reminded me of Thea Astley who also found imagery easy and did put some readers off. She too became a little more spare in her later years, though perhaps not to the degree that Wood describes herself doing. Wood talks of actively focusing on character, plot and structure, and balancing that with her interest in language and lyricism.
Other topics discussed included the anthology, Brothers & sisters that she edited, and the place of short fiction in Australia. Re the latter, Wood said she felt things were improving, with new works by Cate Kennedy, Paddy O’Reilly, Robert Drewe, Tony Birch and Nam Le recently appearing. Wood says that:
a short story is perceived as a step to a novel, and there is nothing less true. I find them so hard to write that I hardly ever write them.
The interview concludes with some discussions about the “business end” of writing – publishing, editing and writing courses – topics which always interest me, even though I have no plans to write a novel, memoir or any other book!
A question they didn’t really cover, but which was asked by Booktopia in their Q&A with her in 2011, was which writers she admires. She tells them:
I admire any writer who has the courage to push through the barriers of ambition and vanity to get to the real thing – truth and beauty. Some of the best writers I know are struggling to get published, but they keep going because they are real artists. For the same reasons – truth and beauty – I respect and admire Alice Munro, Helen Garner, Anne Enright, Marilynne Robinson, Kim Scott, Richard Ford, Joan London, William Maxwell and Nina Bawden, among others.
What a lovely range of writers – they give a great sense of her writerly values don’t they?
Wood comes across as calm and level-headed – and I have heard other writers say that she’s generous in mentoring others. I have decided that my next book has to be The natural way of things.
Previous Spotlight posts:
Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors
Self published, 2015