What a treat it was to witness a conversation between two lively, intelligent Australian women writers in the company of other writers. I mean, as you can see from the post title, Miles-Franklin award-winning author Sofie Laguna and local writer Karen Viggers whose book The lighthousekeeper’s wife has just hit 500,000 copies sold in France!
I must say that I felt a bit like an interloper, given the event was organised by the ACT Writers Centre in their “Developing Writers and their Work” program, but I did enjoy eavesdropping on what writers talk about and want to know!
“I wasn’t ready to win”
The evening started with Sofie (I’m going to use first names) reading from the second chapter of her new book, The choke. Then we got down to business, starting with how Sofie handled her Miles Franklin win for The eye of the sheep (a book which still sits on the pile next to my bed, I’m afraid.) She had a new baby at the time and wasn’t expecting to win. She felt out of her depth. She had no speech prepared, and was suddenly surrounded by media and the press. It was both too much and something you want, she said. However, she felt the prize would be positive for many years to come, and said it made her feel her work was now validated by the literary establishment.
Karen then asked her about her experience as a woman in the industry, but Sofie turned this back on Karen – as she did several times during the conversation! Karen, though, was up for the challenge. She commented that she did feel her gender has impacted her career, including such things as the covers of her books.
Sofie agreed that she works in an unfair world, and that women get less attention. She talked about dealing with practical demands of winning the prize and managing a baby. It helps, she said, to trust your instincts. However, “you still have to empty the dishwasher every day”. That got a rueful laugh from many!
“Character IS the plot”
Karen asked her how she “found” Justine’s voice, the 10-year-old girl living on the Murray with her war-damaged grandfather in The choke. Sofie referred to her training as an actor, and how actors discover that some characters are easier to inhabit than others; she finds young voices easy. Young protagonists, she said, can have a fresh view on the world. Moreover, the more vulnerable voice of child characters frees her to comment on the adult world in a more powerful way.
Sofie then talked about Justine’s Pop. He’s narcissistic. He cares about Justine, albeit not necessarily as he should or could. She admitted that yes, he was another damaged character, but that seeing him that way was too simplistic. Many of us, she said, are damaged in some way. It was clear that she felt there’d been too much focus in interviews on “damage”!
Nonetheless, Karen commented, Sofie did write demanding books, to which Sofie responded that she’d grown up with war-caused loss and damage in her family, something she hadn’t talked about before.
The conversation then returned to Justine, who is dyslexic and generally powerless. Karen asked whether there were ways in which Justine was powerful. Sofie said that while Justine’s in a difficult world, she has the power – can choose – to respond in positive ways. She’s able to form connections. Unlike Pop, she’s not self-absorbed, and can enter other people’s worlds, can empathise. Sofie believes there’s much positivity in the book.
Sofie said that it’s the characters and the tensions between and within them that drive the narrative.
Later, when asked whether her books are character- or plot-driven, whether the plot fits the character or vice versa, she said that character IS the plot.
While character is Sofie’s focus, Karen noted that place is significant in the novel. Sofie described how the Murray River and the Barmah Choke inspired her setting. She said the Murray is brown and gritty which works metaphorically in her story. The choke is where the river becomes narrower. Trees in the choke may look like they’re dying, but they don’t die, they keep growing, which makes a lesson for Justine.
Sofie believes that hope is important. She quoted a writer’s adage, which is that you want readers thinking:
“I fear she won’t, but I hope she will”
Writing to this tension keeps readers reading. (I love this, and will try to remember it.)
Around here, the issue of writing about disadvantage came up. Sofie said that people living disadvantaged lives often find themselves in self-destructive patterns. And yet, like the women in her book who don’t have much power, they can find ways to survive. However, she said, her subject is the richness of world, not specifically poverty and disadvantage. Her stories would not work if she decided to write about disadvantage. She sees her job as being to endow world with life not to be a spokesperson for marginalisation. Anyhow, privilege doesn’t save people from suicide, crime, etc, she argued.
The writing process
Given that the session’s focus was “developing writers”, Karen concluded by turning to the writing process. A lesser interviewer would have been flummoxed at this point when Sofie responded that she had “no answers for questions about how she does it”. But, of course, she did have answers, and she shared them. She:
- plunges in with a plan
- writes millions of drafts
- doesn’t always write from beginning to end, and sometimes stops when she has more to say which can make it easier to start next sitting
- has found that, with experience, writing has got faster over the years
- knows her character’s “soul”, but the rest she gets to know as she writes. She noted that initially she found it hard to differentiate Justine from The eye of the sheep’s Jimmy, but Justine’s character developed as she kept writing
- prefers one-person to multi-person narratives
- doesn’t choose to write for a specific audience (i.e. young people or adults) but writes for character, and the audience falls into place
- likes to have some time and space between books (partly because of the promotion she needs to undertake for the most recent book)
It felt at times that Sofie was discovering more about her book as she discussed it with Karen. Her excitement and Karen’s flexibility in going with it made the conversation fun and engaging. It was one of the liveliest I’ve been to, and we all laughed when Sofie said that she wasn’t like this at the breakfast table! I’m glad I decided to go.