I have just returned from an inspiring evening in which we got to see Aussie author Charlotte Wood in conversation with Guardian Australia’s Katharine Murphy. It more than made up for our disappointment last year when Wood had to pull out of the Canberra Writers Festival due to illness. Tonight’s event was presented “in association with the Canberra Writers Festival” and had the support of the National Library of Australia where it was held.
As the post title suggests, the evening was framed around Wood’s latest novel, The natural way of things (my review), which is partly why I was very keen to go because this is a provocative book that doesn’t leave you in a hurry. Wood started by describing the set-up, and explaining that the main plotline is like any prison novel. In other words, the question is: Will they escape or won’t they? I liked the simplicity of this!
Anger and the book’s genesis
Murphy asked her to talk a little about her comment, elsewhere, that anger had inspired the book. Wood explained that she didn’t realise how angry she was when she started writing the book. She talked about hearing a radio documentary about the Hay Institution whose inmates were described by the government as the “ten worst girls in the state”. The anger-inducing thing is that these girls had all been sexually assaulted in some way, and had been locked up for “being in moral danger”. They were locked up because they were in moral danger? You can see why Wood was angry – why any of us would be – on hearing that. Why were the victims locked up?
Wood then explained that her original story was historical, realist, in style, and it wasn’t working. Then, because when you are writing, “everything is about your book”, she started noticing contemporary stories – the army girl raped by a co-cadet, the woman employee sexually harassed by the David Jones CEO, etc – and decided to try a contemporary approach …
… but, while she was writing it, Julia Gillard became Australia’s first PM, and she saw a photo of Gillard, Quentin Bryce, and Anna Bligh together. They presented such a positive picture of female achievement that she thought her book was no longer needed. We all laughed at that! She then spoke of the hatred directed at Julia and her own distressed reaction to this. This is where her writing comes in: art helps you understand incomprehensible things, she said, you can give them shape.
Later, during the Q&A, she spoke more on the anger issue. She’s uncomfortable with anger, she said – a little self-deprecatingly. She likes it when the book is described as “ferocious” or “fierce” rather than as “angry”. She talked about the importance of humour, of its being the essential companion to anger. (There is humour in the book, as I noted in my review). She quoted American thinker, Patricia Williams (she thought), who talks of the “gift of intelligent rage”. Wood saw this as anger/rage which encompasses positive energy.
The discussion then turned to the ending, and its ambiguity. Murphy worried that Wood seemed to be suggesting that the answer is “separatism, opting out”. The ending is certainly the aspect that gave me some pause. It wasn’t that image that bothered many readers of the women pouncing on the designer handbags. No, for me, as for Murphy, it was the ambiguity. I like ambiguity, but here I was a little uncertain about what I was taking away.
Wood’s response was helpful. She said the book has different endings depending on who you are following, and that some readers come away feeling triumphant, while others feel demoralised. She said that for Yolanda, her only liberation was to “separate” herself, to go feral, to become an animal in fact, but that wasn’t Verla’s answer. This gave me a little structure for my thinking.
While she doesn’t like to talk in terms of messages, she agreed that part of it was that in order to be free you have to separate yourself to a degree from a culture that hates women. This can mean not reading women’s magazines that hurt/harm you, not laughing at sexist jokes, and so on.
She talked about another issue that intrigued me, and that’s to do with the men – the prison guards – ending up being trapped too. This is where the balance of power started to shift a little – and is the part of the novel she liked writing!
Murphy then asked her “nerdy stuff”, that is, about her writing process. I won’t spend a lot of time on this (though nerdy me was interested too). I’ll just share a couple of comments. One was that although she now has five novels to her name, she is still always unsure when she sits down to write, but one thing experience has given her is that she is now “quicker at diagnosing problems”. She has also learnt more about the “craft” of writing, such as how to shape stories.
She described writing as hard – it’s hard making up stuff out of your head, she said. She knows when she’s got the momentum up – it’s when her current book is in her dreams, when she thinks about it as soon as she wakes up. She referred to her PhD on the cognitive aspects of creativity. She found some commonalities between writers, but knowing what these are doesn’t help you do it, she said! Encouraging eh?
Murphy asked whether she kept a notebook to jot down ideas she comes across, things she hears. She said she does this a bit, but wishes she did notebooks as well as Helen Garner. Mentioning the notebook excerpts in Garner’s latest book, Everywhere I look (my review), she said she admires “the precision of her [Garner’s] observations”.
Plausibility in fiction
Early in the conversation, Wood referred to some readers questioning plausibility in the book. I followed this up at question-time, as it was an issue in my reading group. I loved her answer because – as you regular readers here will see – it concurred with my views!
She said it depends, partly, on the sort of novel you’re writing. She wanted this novel to be strange and weird. Her usual benchmark is to ask what she herself would believe. Her question for readers is: “Are you going with it. If you start worrying about factual details, you risk missing out on what’s true.” Yes! So, in this book, in particular, she didn’t “care” much about plausibility. Her next book is more realist so the facts will matter more, but I got the sense that fundamentally she focuses more on what she is trying to do, to say, than on getting all the facts right.
There was more, but I’ll leave it here on my question – and conclude by saying that Wood came across as warm, natural (!), thoughtful, and openly sharing of herself. This made it a most enjoyable event – the hour went way too fast.