Like many bookshops, Muse Canberra offers a wonderful program of book events. Unfortunately, I get to very few, but I did get to this weekend’s conversation between local poet (among other things) Sarah St Vincent Welch and Irma Gold about Gold’s debut novel The breaking (my review).
Irma Gold has appeared a few times on this blog, including for her collection of short stories, Two steps forward (my review), her children’s picture book, Megumi and the bear (my review), the Canberra centenary anthology she edited, The invisible thread (my review), and now, of course, The breaking. Irma is also a professional editor, and co-produces the podcast Secrets from the Green Room.
Sarah St Vincent Welch has also appeared in this blog, though more subtly. Besides having a piece included in The invisible thread, Sarah, a lovely past work colleague of mine, was the person behind my taking part in a public reading of Behrooz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains in March 2019. Sarah is a published poet and organises various arts events in Canberra, including a weekly poetry event, That Poetry Thing That Is On At Smiths Every Monday.
Irma and Sarah know each other well – not just because they are both actively involved in Canberra’s literary scene but because they had been in the same short fiction writing group. This, I’m sure, helped make the conversation seem so effortless, but only partly, because Sarah’s natural warmth and Irma’s relaxed, thoughtful engagement with the questions made the conversation a delight. It covered a lot of ground, so I am going to use headings for the main questions Sarah asked. It started with a brief reading from the book.
Character or issue-led?
Nothing like getting straight into the nitty-gritty, and that’s what Sarah did with her opening question. Character-led, said Irma, not the elephant cruelty issue. Indeed, she said, she didn’t know at the start that the book was going to be about elephants. It started with the two characters, Deven and Hannah, who arrived fully formed on the page. But, here’s the thing – it also started as a short story, which, with interest from her writers’ group, became two linked short stories. At this point, John Clanchy (whose writing I love) suggested that she was writing a novel. Irma said she’s glad it was the characters who drove the book, because if it had been the elephants, it would have been more polemical. (That was one of my potential questions gone!)
Can a novel effect change?
Another great to-the-point question. Irma, who admitted she loves fiction best anyhow, said she believes fiction can investigate complex issues in a way that non-fiction can’t. Readers can be put in the shoes of characters to “see” the issues. Through characters, fiction can explore complex issues, like the elephant situation, without offering answers.
Irma hopes that what her book (and fiction like it) can do is lead people to make different decisions, which, in this case, means not buying into the elephant tourism – not riding elephants, not attending elephant shows, etc. She feels that her novel is timely, because the current hiatus in travel gives us the opportunity to consider our travel decisions, and how we engage with another culture. This includes the practice of westerners volunteering (as she herself did). Are we helping or interfering? She mentioned the Instagram selfie culture, in which tourists take selfies with elephants, not seeing what’s going on behind them to keep that elephant in check.
Irma talked a little about the cruelty practised on elephants, but I won’t repeat that here. It is in the book, and is not pleasant reading, but is necessary knowledge, particularly for tourists to Asia. She also talked about how her love of elephants started in childhood.
Surpises as a debut novelist?
The best surprise has been the positive feedback, she said, as she’d steeled herself for criticism. She was particularly thrilled with an email from a long term Thai resident who thanked her for getting Thailand right, for avoiding cliches.
This led to a discussion about the work involved in writing the novel, because while she’d been to Thailand and worked in elephant rescue, she hasn’t lived there. She worked hard to get Thai life and culture right. She talked about working in the elephant sanctuaries where the two main groups of volunteers were young people in their 20s who have no strong sense of where their lives are going, and those in their 50s and 6Os.
On writing short stories versus novels
As a lover of both forms, I appreciated Irma’s practical responses. First, she said, you can hold all of a short story in head at one time. This is harder with a novel, so you need concentrated time, which she organised for herself. Then, she said, pacing is different in a novel, and, of course, a novel involves longer-term character development.
Place of her novel in the literary landscape
Another question up my alley! Irma said more novels are engaging with this sort of thing. She commented that one reader had asked her if her book was like We are all completely beside ourselves. She was surprised because it’s a very different book, but it was in fact an inspiration for her novel.
More books, she added, are engaging with animal rights. There’s a growing awareness she said, but she hopes, too, that the book is an enjoyable read.
Sarah ended by saying that as well as being about elephants, the novel is about madcap behaviour and the joy of love and life. Irma agreed, saying that everyone wants to talk about elephants, but she wanted to write about joy. She loved writing Deven she said.
Q & A
There was quite an engaged Q&A, but I will keep it brief:
- On the aspect of the book most difficult to confront in herself: Irma likes to write from what she knows to doesn’t know, believing there is no black and white, but the most difficult thing was watching the “breaking”/phajaan videos.
- On writing about “delicate” things: Irma understood the questioner’s not wanting to give plot points away, so let’s just say that she talked about how fiction, by definition, will involve writing about things that are not your lived experience, and that you have to consult.
- On whether there is more Hannah or Deven in her: Irma is drawn to confident, intense people like Deven, so she has probably come out of that. However, she feels these characters came from nowhere, or, from the girls she saw at the sanctuary
- On what we can do given the complexity of the problem: Irma said that the elephant industry only exists because of tourists, so the main answer is awareness! She hopes that not only will readers of her book become aware, but will talk to others. Tourists, though, need to make choices consciously and carefully because places will pretend to be what they are not. The Save Elephant Foundation is a good place to start.
- On the editing process: There was quite a bit of talk about this. Irma, as an editor herself enjoyed the process – for the help it gave her book, and what it taught her about her own work as an editor. (I loved her comment about authors having “go to” words – bloggers do too – and the need to get those out!) Irma concluded by acknowledging John Clanchy for the immense help he gave her.
Irma Gold in conversation with Sarah St Vincent Welch
Muse (Food Wine Books)
Sunday 23 May 2021, 3-4pm