The Natural Way of Things
Charlotte Wood and Katharine Murphy
Talks / Lecture
Charlotte Wood and Katharine Murphy
8 March 2017
The Guardian's Katharine Murphy joins author Charlotte Wood as they delve deep into Wood's provocative, fearless novel.
Speakers: Katharine Murphy (K), Charlotte Wood (C)
Location: National Library of Australia
Typist’s notes: inaudibles caused by distance from mic/diction
K: Look at this wonderful crowd. It’s fabulous. Well hello, everyone and welcome to this very special event that’s associated with the Canberra Writers’ Festival. For people who don’t know me I’m Katharine Murphy. During daylight hours I’m the political editor of Guardian Australia and sadly often during the evening hours as well but anyway I’m here this evening and I’m completely delighted. Now folks where else would you be on International Women’s Day, you know? Hello. But in the National Library, this wonderful secular cathedral and with one of Australia’s finest writers so let’s just make Charlotte welcome.
Now just some salutations I need to get into before we plough into the conversation that I’m really looking forward to. Now tonight’s event would not be possible without the generous support of our hosts, the National Library, of course and we thank the Library very much for the use of this wonderful venue. I’d also – and of course for their ongoing support of the Canberra Writers’ Festival which many people in this room will know kicked off last year and is heading into its second year very excitingly. I’d like to welcome the board of the Festival along to tonight’s event and of course before we begin our proceedings I’d like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Nanbury peoples.
Now to Charlotte. For people in the audience who are unfamiliar with Charlotte’s work she is the author of five novels, Pieces of a Girl, The Submerged Cathedral, The Children, Animal People and of course The Natural Way of Things which we’re here to talk about tonight. She’s also written a collection of interviews with Australian writers called The Writer’s Room and she’s also written – there’s a collection of personal reflections on cooking which I haven’t read which I’d really like to read called Love and Hunger. She also was an editor of an anthology of writing about siblings called Brothers and Sisters. Her latest book, The Natural Way of Things, the work we are looking at this evening won a bunch of prizes, so many prizes. Stella, the Indie Book Awards Novel of the Year and Book of the Year and she co-won the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction and that was announced here in the Library as well. And the book was also shortlisted for various other prizes including the Miles Franklin and we were just talking out in the corridor, it’s also been optioned for a film which is very, very exciting. Yes, it is. Whoohoo.
Now I don’t know about you guys but I found it so gripping I devoured it in a single sitting. I was on a night flight back from Hong Kong at Christmastime and I had saved Charlotte’s book up for my Christmas break and I opened it with great anticipation on the flight and I couldn’t put it down, it’s just absolutely sensational. And so let’s rip into the conversation. Thank you. So let’s not assume – because when I talked about this event on my Facebook page a couple of people said oh I can’t come because I haven’t read the book. So if you’re one of those people who I persuaded to come having not read the book don’t fret because I think we should start by –
C: Special things away.
K: - let’s just tell the audience, give the audience a sense of what the book’s about.
C: Okay, the book is – thank you for having me by the way and I’m really sorry I couldn’t be here when I was supposed to be here last year at the Festival, I got a vile vomiting bug in Melbourne, stuck there for three days so it’s nice to be here. The book is – it opens when two young women wake up from a drugged state and find themselves imprisoned in sort of an abandoned sheep station in the middle of nowhere in Australia. And they’re contemporary young women, they’ve been living in cities going about their lives but – and they don’t know why they’re there or where they are, they’re – they realise very quickly that they’re held captive by two men and a fem – they eventually learn of the existence of a female sort of guard. She’s supposed to be a nurse but it turns out she actually has no nursing qualifications. She used to work in a hot bread shop, in fact. But – so these girls discover quickly that there are eight other girls there and I say girls, they’re you know aged between about 18 and 24 or 22, I think and they – for a long time they have no idea what’s happening and I think at one point one of them says I think we’re in a reality show. And actually when you see The Bachelor it’s like –
C: Completely plausible. They – but what they – they fairly soon discover that what unites them is that each of them has been involved in some sort of public sexual scandal with a powerful man or men, different scenarios but – and there’s a company called Hardings International that has basically abducted each of them from their lives and brought them to this place. And that’s what we – that’s where we are at the beginning of the book and gradually you know the big question with any book I guess set in a prison is that will they escape or will they not? So yeah, that’s the scenario.
K: And we can develop that a little bit as we talk. I read an interview where you said that this novel was born from anger, that in the writing you encountered some sort of psychic tipping point. I think you said of the anger it came from 50 years of being a woman. Now anger’s a really interesting thing to explore. I think I know what you mean but anger at what specifically and I’m very interested in how you manage anger creatively because you wrangle anger into a fully-fledged dystopian fable, it’s not 300 pages of ranting so how do you allow your anger to escape and control it as well?
C: It’s a good question. At first I didn’t know how angry I was until I began writing, I think so the very genesis of the book came from a radio documentary that I heard about the Hay Institution for Girls. I don’t know if any of you know of that hellish prison for young women that was operating in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the town of Hay. And that was a place where 10 young women were taken from the Parramatta Girls’ Home, drugged and put on the train and taken out to this place that was newly created for them and they were called the 10 worst girls in the state, that was their official – that’s what they were called by the government. And the thing that sort of started that anger burning was when I understood that one of the reasons that a lot of these young women were in Hay and in Paramatta and I’ve since learned in squillions of places all over the country was that they had been sexually assaulted and they told somebody. So they might have been a 13-year-old girl raped by her father and she told somebody and she was taken to the police station and charged with a crime called being exposed to moral danger. It’s mad.
K: Completely mad.
C: And locked up for you know however long and – but Hay was a place for the worst girls who – they had caused a riot on the roof of the Paramatta Girls’ Home protesting about the conditions and as soon as you hear protesters on a roof of course you think immigration detention you know there’s sort of all these images that kept coming and going. And so when I knew that they were there because they had been a victim but they were locked up that’s what you know that burn of anger starts. And then there was all kinds of problems in – I started writing about it, I didn’t want to write about - I didn’t want to write about you know nasty, angry stuff like that because I’m nice and I’ve been well brought up and you know and frankly I am afraid of anger you know I think a lot of women are. I’m kind of less afraid of it now but I was very afraid of it and I – so I spent a lot of time trying to avoid it in the writing of the book.
All kinds of things were wrong with the way I started writing it which was set in the past in a place sort of like Hay and it was very realist and sort of – anyway just wasn’t working at all, it was just terrible, terrible writing so I sort of suddenly realised – well my antenna was up because of this thing about these young women being blamed for what had happened to them and then you know when you’re writing anything - a lot of writers will recognise this - sort of syndromes where suddenly everything in the world is about your book, you know? And - because your antenna’s up for this stuff and so I started suddenly noticing things that had been going on forever, the cases in the contemporary news where - so at that point – oh there was the young woman in the army, that Skype –
C: - slut as she became known. There was the young woman sexually harassed by Mark McInnes, the head of David Jones, anyone who’s been following the Channel 7 story will see the same thing happens and happens and happens and happens so then I flipped my timeframe and started making it about a contemporary – in a contemporary world where really I just had to you know look around each day, whoop, there’s another one, there’s another one, there’s another one. And so getting back – this is a long rambling answer but to the question of anger – it was also when Julia Gillard was the Prime Minister. I had started writing it before she became Prime Minister and I remember this – such a naïve day – when – well the day that she became Prime Minister and she was walking down that corridor with Quentin Bryce and somebody else, another woman – I can’t remember who – and I thought oh my god, look at that. Ah was it Anna Bligh? There were three of them walking together and it was like three women in major positions of power and I remember thinking oh I don’t need to write my book.
K: Oh dear.
C: But anyway obviously I was sort of already into it so – but it did feel like a big change had happened, really suddenly and then we saw what happened. And that - the way that you know I think Julia Gillard’s government did a lot of really terrible things but the way that – the vilification of her was so –
C: Visceral and so – I found it so upsetting. I used to get really angry and really upset about – I used to wake up in the night worrying about Julia Gillard’s you know would she kill herself? That’s what I actually thought ‘cause I thought that’s what I would do under that sort of pressure with that sort of hatred directed at you that is so specifically gender-orientated. Anyway so all of that was going on so it just sort of – but you know that remark about 50 years of being a woman ‘cause the book is quite different from my previous work and so I had all these people you know friends and people saying yeah, once they read it they were sort of like oh my god you know –
K: I had no idea you were that person.
C: We’ve been having dinner with you and you know and all of this is going on inside you and they said where has it come from? And I was like well it comes from opening your eyes to what our culture thinks about women. And it comes from I think internalising 50 years – I had just turned 50 when the book came out – you know when you’re a girl you have terrible things said about you from the day you’re born and you can’t not internalise these things. And I think for me it just did get to a point where I had to get it out and to get it out of me somehow and make – somehow express it but I didn’t even understand what it was that I felt. So you know the great thing about art is that it gives you a way to understand incomprehensible things in a way because you can give a shape to them and you can externalise them and then go okay, this is what, this big ugly mess, now what do I do with it? And make it into a shape and make it into a story. I you know get to know these young women and try and give them some autonomy in this system that doesn’t want them to have any.
K: Yeah well they certainly develop –
C: They take it.
K: Yes, they certainly do that. So where do you think the story lands ultimately? Because it is a little bit ambiguous, you can sort of read it in a number of different ways. For me my take-home message on the plane in Hong Kong in the middle – over Hong Kong in the middle of the night was that – my conclusion was that sexually liberated women are only safe and free to the extent that anyone ever is through separatism, through actually opting out. And I wanted to ask you, Charlotte, is that a reasonable interpretation? And if it is how do we remain optimistic?
C: Yeah well that’s a good question. I mean at the – so the book has a kind of split ending and there are several – I mean it depends – I think it depends now who as a reader you’re following at the end of the book. And I had these two young women come to me in Melbourne and say we need to talk to you about the ending and I mean a lot of people feel like that and I’m not going to say what happens in the end but one of them said you know I read your book and I just got my best friend, I said you have to read this now, I need to talk to you about it and she said and when I finished it I felt utterly triumphant and when her best friend finished it she felt utterly demoralised and defeated and they said –
K: I think I felt both, strangely.
C: Well and they said who’s right? And I said well you’re both right because I think it depends which of the characters you linger with and which way they go. And for Yolande who – there are two main characters, Yolande and Virla, and Yolande’s always been an incredibly beautiful girl and young woman and that beauty gets her into a horrible situation with a bunch of footballers. And for her, really her only liberation can come from not just separatism but separating herself from being human you know she pretty much sort of becomes an animal, she goes feral in the feralist of ways. But Virla, not so much and I think that was very character-driven decision for me about what would they – how would they as individuals be liberated but I do think there’s certainly you know I think - I hate saying the message of the book because I didn’t have a message, I just had to examine things but certainly I think what I understood about myself maybe is that in order to be free you do have to separate yourself to a degree from a culture that hates women, you know. You have to opt out of certain crap that you know for – in order to not detest yourself you have to say right, I don’t do certain things, I don’t read women’s magazines that make me feel like crap, I don’t you know laugh along with sexist jokes, I don’t – and that is – it takes guts to you know not to read – not read women’s magazines but it does take courage to stand up against it.
K: Well and just not allow yourself to be defined in those terms.
K: But it’s more than that, it’s more than not allowing yourself to be defined in those terms, it’s – you also give these characters incredible – even though they’re confined, even though they’re in a prison setting against their will you give them incredible agency and it’s that agency that sort of gives them their freedom.
C: Yeah well it’s a decision to be free you know and so they’re in this prison – it’s like a broken down sort of sheep station, everything’s broken, nothing works. There's no phone or internet or anything. There is one very effective piece of technology which is this huge electric fence that runs around the whole place, completely impossibly as it’s been pointed out to me by various people but I don’t care. In this book it works.
A: <inaudible> 19:09.
C: It wasn’t –
K: It seems very plausible, it seems plausible.
C: But at a certain point what the captors understand is that actually they are captive as well and that Hardings International who they keep saying oh Hardings is coming and this will happen then and you’ll be sorry when Hardings gets here and so they’re waiting and waiting for kind of head office to show up and it gradually dawns on them that head office doesn’t give a shit about them – well head office has abandoned them so they’re all stuck there in this place and that’s when the power can – the balance of power can start to shift. And they all start going a bit feral you know they’re in this place, they start going into the landscape a little more and some of them a lot more and that was when it got interesting for me to go okay well what can they do? What do they do? How do they conceive of themselves in this place? And what level of agency can they choose for themselves?
K: Yes, it’s really interesting. Now I want to get into now – and we will come to questions so I know you guys will have lots of questions for Charlotte and lots of observations you might want to share so I’m going to try and not hold the stage entirely but – and I know this is a preoccupation of yours, having written the book on how writers work but I’m a serious nerd about how people work. I’m really – I’m endlessly fascinated by how people work –
C: Me too.
K: - and their processes so I want to ask a few questions in that vein even though I feel nervous given you’ve set a high benchmark. Anyway let’s just try so how do you work? I mean this in a very practical sense, right? So what’s your routine? Do you write at home? Do you write somewhere else? Do you work early in the morning? Do you work late at night? Are you plugged into the world? Are you disconnected from the world? Let’s talk about some of your processes.
C: Yes, I love all that stuff, I love all that. I’m obsessed about other writers and how they do it ‘cause you always think I obviously do it wrong, everybody else <inaudible> 21:18 so I did, I wrote a whole book of interviews about – saying tell me how you do it, tell me. So I go through what one friend describes as sort of seasons of writing so I don’t write everyday. You know you read all these writers who say you have to write every day otherwise you’re not a real writer, blah, blah, blah which is bollocks. The great thing about The Writer’s Room which is a book of interviews with Australian writers, the biggest discovery I made in there was to really understand how utterly individual it is and how the only thing you have to do is whatever works for you. So what works for me is that when I’m in a – so I’m back in writing a new novel now - so last year when I was doing a lot of speaking and stuff I found it very hard to work on my new book ‘cause your head’s sort of in two places at once but now I’m back into it I do the thousand words a day, that sort of is the way that I can just feel like I’m pushing forward. I tend to get to the desk early but I don’t tend to do anything until – what I loved was Amanda Laurie in The Writer’s Room book saying I just have an 11:00 switch and then I can work. I’m like oh, I think I’ve got that too.
K: So you say you don’t do anything, what do you do? What do you do?
C: Well I sort of faff around, I mean I do the – I saw some writer call it the internet ablutions that you do in the morning, emails and all of that and I sort of get – and I can’t remember who said it so I can’t attribute it properly but I kind of have to work up to it you know like I always – I’m always afraid, I’m always afraid. Every day I sit down to the bloody work and I’m – it’s ridiculous to be afraid –
K: What are you afraid of?
C: I think how hard it is, it’s just so har – and now I’m writing another book you know and you start - and whenever you’re not writing you just go oh wish I was writing you know I can’t wait to get back to the desk and you have all these lovely little fritter thoughts about your beautiful new book that is going to be easy and fun and really intelligent and all these things and then you get there and it’s like oh I don’t know how to do it like every book, you just think you should know something but you don’t.
K: You must, though, you must acquire a certain amount of – I’m sure you’re being entirely too modest but you must acquire some sort of muscle memory about how to write a novel, though.
C: I think – look, the thing that you – I think you’re quicker at diagnosing problems so you can go okay, I’m going to write this but – and then you think actually that won’t work because then the narrative will split and that’ll happen there and then I’ll have to do flashbacks and I don’t want them and so you’re better at sort of structure knowledge, I think. But also hopefully you’re trying something new and something you haven’t done before. Now I’m in a bit of a pickle because I’m trying to not to repeat myself and so I’ve got five novels now and every time – now I’m starting you know these things and I think oh no because then it’s just like The Children by the Sea and then it’s just like Animal People but with old women and it’s just – and I was with these writing friends last week and they were just saying oh shut up, just get over – that’s ridiculous.
Because I suppose things that I learned in writing those books were craft things as well as all kinds of stuff but to me the – it’s very satisfying to learn more and more about how to craft and shape a story and do that thing where you - you know I never thought in my wildest dreams that I could write a book that people said I read it in one sitting and I couldn’t put it down, it was a page-turner. That was never something I’d be able to do. So now I feel like I’ve figured out or have learned from others and – how to do that a bit. But – so then if you do it again you feel like oh I’m just – when in fact it’s just learning your craft and you’re applying bits of the craft that you’ve learnt. But you know I do – a lot of writers say it’s not just me, that you do feel like you know nothing all over again and yeah obviously you must, you’re right of course but you feel – I think – I was thinking the other day, I just had this week away writing every day solidly and you forget that it’s just really hard to make things up out of your head that don’t exist.
K: Well this is my endless fascination with fiction writers, it’s sort of like what process of cognition have you got to go through in order to literally invent a world? ‘Cause it seems to me like that you would have to be in some sort of quite submerged state.
C: Well it’s best when you can get into that and I think the – a lot of the time it’s about momentum and getting into that and that’s why like I don’t really want to do hardly any public speaking this year about my work, I’m chairing other things and whatever but to get the momentum where you just stay with the story and you stay with the book, it does get easier when you’ve got a rhythm going you know and even if – I mean I’ve written books when I had fulltime jobs and all of that so it’s not – doesn’t mean you have to have you know fulltime writing but I think you get in there, you just get in the thing of that it’s in your head all the time and I know it’s – I’m getting into it properly when I start dreaming about it or I think about it when I wake up or I – and you know of course the dreams are completely useless for the book but they’re sort of – the people in my book are in my dreams or – but you’re sort of inhabiting it. But there are – I did a PhD last year, the year – year before last.
I mean I finished it the year before last and part of it was on cognitive processes of creativity and I got these writers that I know and recorded our conversations about our work in progress over a year ‘cause I wanted to know did – were they cognitive things that we were doing that we didn’t know we were doing? And there were in fact. So then I wanted to see were they – so I transcribed these things and looked for similar processes and whether we had them in common and we did and some of them are very you know well-known established ones like – now I won’t be able to think of any – oh you know there’s the incubation period and then there’s what some people call illumination or the fl – you know when you’re in the shower and suddenly you’ve got the solution to your problem or whatever. But there were all kinds of other ones where you’re sort of working away and then that’s not working so you turn it upside down which is what I did with the timeframe thing for this book. Anyway there’s a whole bunch of other ones but in a way knowing what they are doesn’t help you do it which is the really frustrating thing.
K: But about things like do you – full nerd – sorry, morning –
C: No, this is all good stuff, everyone wants to know this.
K: But notebooks like I know myself I don’t – I don’t write fiction obviously but I like to keep –
K: Opened myself up for that one, people. But I keep books, I keep little books of – a little pink moleskin book that I keep observations in that I don’t want to forget you know little bits of things people say that kind of resonate with me. I’m sort of – I’m a collector so –
C: Yeah well I do all that.
K: Do you do that?
C: Yeah, yeah and again I know when I’m really in the book when it’s like oh everything is useful you know everything is – so when you – or when you see – public transport’s really good for novelists, I spend a lot of time on buses and sort of just you know spying on people and overhearing things but sort of just looking carefully and listening to just things going about in the world. But I’m sort of – I wish I was a better notebook keeper like Helen Garner you know her famous notebooks. You know that SA collection of hers at the moment? Everywhere I look and there’s those three or four things which are just snippets from her notebooks? I would read 10 volumes of that, I just think they’re fantastic. And it’s about the precision of her observation and that sort of – but I write it down – sometimes the act of writing it down just makes me remember it and then other times I go back and I look at it and I go what the hell? I don’t – A, I can’t read it and B, I can read it but why did I write this down? But I do – I used to be much more sort of diligent about using a notebook. I think I may be better at just knowing what - things coming to me that I’ve kept a mental note of –
K: Yeah well you don’t have to document in quite the same way, that’s presumably –
C: Yeah but you sort of – you know – when you’ve got a project on the go you’re also going oh yeah, I can use that you know you’re kind of looking for things to use so it’s not so much I have a bank that I go to and go oh I can use that, I’m sort of – I’m out in the world sort of you know using people.
K: Yeah well that’s the craft of the writer, that’s absolutely the craft of the writer. What about just fun things?
C: Fun things?
K: In terms of your rituals like you know do you – I don’t know –
C: I have a little sleep sometimes, that’s a good –
K: I mean – well sleep, sleep, yes or anything –
C: I often have a nap in the afternoons. Now I’m working – I’ve got this amazing residency at Sydney University, it’s a bit harder to have a nap in the office.
K: Can’t you just lock the door?
C: I can but it’s got a glass wall –
K: Oh bugger.
C: I meant they wouldn’t care, they want me to be there to do you know to be this sort of artist freak in the science building and they’re amazing people but yeah, no so I don’t sleep there but I mean half the time that’s ‘cause I’m so bored with what I’m doing that I just kind of literally – it’s true. I mean I think one of the really underestimated things about writing is how boring it is a lot of the time.
K: Boring in what way? Boring.
C: Bore – you just bore yourself to death.
K: Oh well sure like that I get.
C: You know you’re writing stuff that’s just like – my friend, Tegan Bennett Daylight, who’s a beautiful writer, emailed the other day and she said oh well here I am, I’m on a writing day and I’m just up shit creek without a paddle. And I knew exactly what she meant you know but she’s still doing it but it’s just nothing’s happening. And then the next day she said oh so I’m back at the shit creek paddle interface.
K: Paddling away.
C: And it was [marginal] 32:35 but you know the only way through it is to keep pushing through it.
K: Keep pushing.
C: But that awful time when it’s just sludge you know there’s – you haven’t got any engine or – it’s like when you’re in a car and you know the battery’s flat or whatever – when it doesn’t work, when you’re sort of trying to rev it and it’s just not going anywhere. And then eventually there’s that sense that it’s moving, some you know I don’t know where it’s going or it could conk out again in a minute but once it’s moving then you know the fear sort of subsides but –
K: And you don’t have to drink.
C: I wouldn’t go that far.
K: Now I hope you’ve got your thinking caps on because I think we’ll get some microphones going around so that we’ll spare Charlotte from full nerd for a period of time. Who’s got a question?
C: I love full nerd.
K: Totally full nerd, sorry, mate. We’ve got loads here.
C: I think we have –
K: Microphones. Do we have microphones, guys? Thank you. Just in the middle, I think.
A: Which one am I going to? Charlotte, I just would like to thank you for being here, it’s great to – I usually see you in the Blue Mountains but this morning on Radio National Julia Gillard - somebody texted in as a comment on Julia Gillard in the women who made it you know made a change in my life and this woman had texted in to say that – to recognise Julia Gillard for in particular the Commission – Royal Commission on Institutional Abuse and I think that all politicians do things we don’t like and things that we do like and appreciate and sometimes those are surprises but Gillard certainly copped that really – I think ‘cause Anne Summers drew out, really drew out the misogyny so – and I was wondering, given the – your awareness, are you – through this book – would you ever consider, do you think you’d ever consider writing an interesting page-turning book about female politicians in Australia?
C: Well somebody should write that book, shouldn’t they? I don’t think it would be me. Well who knows? Me but – I don’t think of myself as a political animal, really, I think what Julia Gillard did was incredible, I think her achievements were incredible given the pressure and the abuse that she suffered very much also from within her own party and I just think - imagine what she could have done if that wasn’t happening, imagine. But she also you know she kind of sacrificed herself as the first female Prime Minister. Whoever it was was going to cop that stuff, I think.
K: Well and she said when she departed that whoever came next, it would be easier.
C: Easier. Well let’s hope, let’s hope. I mean it was shameful. I remember the day of that you know that hideous menu thing, the big red box. I just cried my eyes out that day, I was so – and I still get really emotional about it but just the sort of carving up of the body and the derision and the personal hatred that – and you think it’s personal and then you see exactly the same thing said about Hillary you know the KFC Hillary burger, exactly the same wording. So you know it’s kind of textbook misogyny, how to shut a woman up, I guess but I would love someone to write that novel. I don’t think I would go into that territory but who knows? Thank you for the question.
K: Others? We had a couple of in the middle. Really? It’ll be back to full nerd, I warn you.
A: Sorry. Thank you both and thank you for the full nerd questions ‘cause they were right up my alley. I wanted to ask how you find the process of having book covers designed when someone else has a visual response to your words that will then present them to others.
C: Thank you. It’s interesting because this book is now being published in quite a lot of different countries and so I’m having this process over and over again which is really interesting. So in Australia I have a wonderful publisher called Jane Palfreyman who always really shows me a lot of the design. For this one I think – I don’t know how many desi – they did about oh over 50 different cover designs before they settled on the one that it has. A lot of them were much darker and more sort of threatening-looking and then you know there’s a lot of marketing that goes into book cover choices and there’s always a feeling with – I don’t know, if it was a thriller thriller they would probably love it to be full of you know gory stuff but – so basically you know it’s a very pretty cover with a few creepy elements in it and that was pretty much a marketing decision to not put people off, you know? A ranty feminist novel. And I love the cover, I think it’s very beautiful and I like the you know the nature references to the place where they are and everything. The British used that same cover but in a different colour.
K: What colour?
C: The Americans –
K: What colour?
C: A sort of bluey-green, it was really lovely.
K: ‘Cause it’s pink if you haven’t seen the Australian cover.
C: Yeah, it’s pink, I mean a pink – I always thought oh whoever thought I’d have a pink cover on a book? And then I realised actually I’ve had about three pink covers.
K: Sort of dusky dirty pink.
C: But the American cover is red dust, a rusty chain and something else. The – I think it was the Dutch cover, they sent us this really strange image of a young woman floating in water and so my book set in the middle of like the outback and so we had a little bit of query like mm, there’s all this water, where does that come from?
K: With a crocodile or –
C: Oh no like it’s sort of the subconscious. Anyway I mean I used to really be very concerned about covers when I started out or having a part of the process but now I just think they know who they’re you know if you think of it as a marketing exercise which sadly that’s really what it is, all I want is a cover that’s going to make someone pick it up in the shop and have a look and then if they put it down, fine but – but at Allen and Unwin they put a lot of beautiful work and effort into covers. I know other – some – I’ve seen other writers have really kind of depressing cover experiences where – and I know two writers who were offered the same cover ‘cause one of them got it and the other one said they tried to give me that cover and she said oh well I was the idiot who said alright which is just sort of a generic you know woman looking out a window and there’s all that whole - and there’s actually lots of really funny stuff online about you know headless women, headless women’s backs. That was I guess the one thing I did not want on this cover, was a headless naked woman. There are plenty of them and actually my first book had a headless naked woman on it. I was –
K: This is just –
C: - consciousness –
K: It’s a stock image or something like –
C: Well it’s not the same headless naked woman, it’s you know but it’s sort of – so it can be you know every woman but the nakedness is just because you know well –
K: Or just because.
C: Just because like it is with everything and naked women. But the naked back is the kind of more literary version, you know? It’s pretty funny when you look at – when various designers and people have blogs where they just lay them all out in a row and it’s like oh my god or you know the red dress on the jetty or the you know that kind of thing. There’s sort of – but then again you know lots of those are marketed to a – really specific people who – like the image is part of the recognition of what kind of book it is so – so I just sort of go you know do what you want now.
K: That answered the question. Anyone else? Here we go.
A: Do you say do what you want even if you don’t like the cover?
C: That question why do I say do what you want if I don’t like the cover? Well with some of the ones in Europe now so I just got the German cover which to me looks like a really dated kind of – it’s a sort of illustration – I hope none of the German publishers listen to this podcast –
K: It’s alright, shh.
C: It’s just a completely different vibe than an Australian book would have and they’re making a lot of the kind of deserty thing, whatever but – so I don’t love it but I respect you know I don’t hate it. I’ve never had a cover that I’ve hated, actually because I’ve had publishers who are really nice to me and you know want me to be happy. Every now and again when I’ve seen you know the range of – but they’re quite smart the way they do it you know they know the one they want, they show you, they go well we’ve got these and then everyone was really taken with this one. So you kind of know that well you’re not getting that one – and sometimes I’ve liked a different one more than the one they’ve shown me but often they’re very similar, might be a slightly different typeface or you know – I’m sure there’s loads that they don’t show me that I would have loved but you know. And it’s not – I don’t think it’s the author’s job really to – because you know plenty of authors have got terrible taste in design so I don’t – and I think this is their – that’s their expertise so I let them go with that. Others in the middle –
K: With the microphone there.
A: Yes, oh great – oh. Oh – oh sorry. Thanks Charlotte, lovely hearing you, you’re wonderful.
C: Thank you.
A: We discussed the book in our reading group as I’m sure a lot of people here have and we had a rather hysterical discussion because a lot of people got caught up on the plausibility issue and so we had things like no, the electric fence wouldn’t work, don’t they know it wouldn’t have worked? No, no one would get that many rabbits. No, no, there’s no mushroom season would last that long.
C: I knew that about the mushrooms.
K: Are there engineers in your reading group perhaps?
C: Actually I don’t know.
K: Righto, anyway, just curious.
A: So I’d like to know what you think about this whole plausibility factor in fiction, what do you think about it and also how much research you’d do to get facts right?
C: It’s a really good question. I think – sort of depends what kind of a novel you’re writing like with this one I wanted it to be strange and weird and that meant I could take all kinds of liberties with reality. I mean you know women don’t generally sort of turn into rabbits so you know I knew we were kind of going into a place that was not – but it also does – it needed to be as convincing as I – I guess my benchmark is would I believe it if I read it in a book? And would I believe it utterly depends on my faith in the author’s voice, in the characterisation so stuff like that kind of logistical fence issue and however many rabbits and even the mushrooms which I did think about. And also you know that – I got in trouble from someone because I didn’t name the plants properly and that thing wouldn’t grow there and it would grow – and then luckily I thought to myself well that was in a dream anyway so it did grow there. But I actually – in this novel I couldn’t give a rat’s about any of that and to me it’s like are you going with – if you as a reader are going to resist to that extent then I think you’re losing out on some other things that are true, you know? That if I’m sort of not at ease with the book from the beginning then I’ll be pernickety about all those things you know as a reader myself, I’ll think oh that didn’t happen but it’s because I don’t trust anything in the book.
So – but the other weird thing is that a lot of this plausibility stuff and the kind of extremity of what I was writing about, it actually isn’t that extreme you know like the stuff that you know there’s a scene in the book that’s – not giving anything away but the girls sort of find some like sanitary pads and things and they haven’t been given any and it’s awful and they find them and it’s this sort of magical moment, you know? And then you read about you know Nauru or wherever, girls having to wash out rags because they’re not even being given sanitary products and it’s like well there you go, it’s not very dystopian after all. I mean and the other – I was reading stuff when I was writing at - about the makeup company, Garnier, sending beauty products to women in the Israeli army just so they could feel nice about themselves you know that’s like okay so –
K: Put your makeup on before you shoot someone.
C: Yeah like we live in a very weird world and so it’s a very longwinded answer but basically I don’t care about plausibility stuff. In my next book which is a much more realist naturalistic world I will have – I do care you know so to me once I was into that strange other worldly kind of vibe that was the great thing about it, I could do anything and not care whether you know the fence would work really or blah blah. But I know that some people, it does bother them but that’s alright, that’s you know – they’re allowed.
K: Who’s next?
C: Now this young woman is –
A: Hi, thanks for talking to us today, Charlotte. I was just wondering what was the thought behind having no chapter titles or chapter numbers. I know you have the seasons for each of the parts but for the individual chapters it was just blank. I was wondering what the thought was behind that.
C: It’s a good question too. I did originally have chapter 1, chapter 2 etc and then I decided against it because I wanted the kind of structure of the book to be part of the dislocation you know that feeling of not knowing how long we’re here, how – where we are, what – so the only markers that the girls had were the seasons so I just decided that that would be the markers for the reader as well. And there was also a tense thing that I think some people have issues with where Yolande’s voice – I can’t even remember which one now – one of them’s in the present tense and one’s in the past tense even though they’re at the same time and again I wanted that to be a sort of dislocating thing, to have the reader never really knowing exactly where they are until you sort of get into the rhythm of it.
K: It’s true, yeah. I hadn’t thought of that but it’s true.
C: So that you – you know that you sort of feel it – there isn’t too much distance between you as a reader and them in their situation.
K: Who’s next?
A: Hi Charlotte.
A: You’ve mentioned that you had some resistance from readers and I was wondering on International Women’s Day if you had any interesting male responses to the book?
K: There’s a good question.
C: The weirdest thing in the world is that I have had so many men love this book which is so heartening. I mean I’m sure there are millions who hate it but they don’t write me letters. I actually was quite afraid to go out talking about this book in public because I was really afraid of this figure that I had in my mind of angry ranting library man because I’ve seen it happen with people writing much more innocuous stuff. And I was actually interviewing another writer about three months before my book came out and hers was a book about Paris and it was you know the most inoffensive you would think book in the world and this man just got up and went for her in this really vicious way and I couldn’t really understand what the problem was until I just thought you just don’t like that you have had to be quiet for an hour and listen to this woman speaking. And it was the only explanation I could have. So I was quite frightened that I would have you know aggressive – I heard a few people say shitty things on the internet but you know you get that -
K: You do get that.
C: - for breathing so – but I’ve had so many like I’ve had other books with really nice men in them and I’ve never had the response from men that I’ve had to this book. Like pretty much once a week even now I’ll get an email or – from a man telling me how much it’s meant to him, how much it’s made him think about things, how much he wants his sons to read it and he’s buying it for his you know son’s friends and – or young men you know it’s kind of really staggered me how – and some of the best reviews I’ve had have been from men especially in America and Canada. So yeah surprising and very heartening to me, I think.
K: Oh God, we’re up against time, this always happens to me. There’s got to be – let’s do two more. Yeah, go for it.
A: Hi Charlotte.
A: My question to you is about your anger. I feel like as women one of the things society tell us is that we’re not allowed to be angry. There’s a range of things we’re not allowed to be, angry is one of them so my question to you is how important do you think it is for women to be angry? And have you had any backlash since you wrote an angry book?
C: It’s hard, isn’t it? ‘Cause even – I have so much resistance to that word, angry, it’s like I don’t want to be an angry writer, I’m not angry, I’m nice. But – and it’s a word that is sort of tainted. When I’ve had reviews that have said this book is ferocious and fierce then I feel really great. When they say it’s angry I feel like oh I’m not allowed to be that. So maybe part of it for us as women is to recast it for yourself and think I’m not angry, I’m ferocious and that – I also think one of the things that I wanted to save the book from too much anger is humour and you know I know it’s not a laugh a minute but – and actually at the launch of the book I was so anxious about it being so dark I remembered saying to everyone - all my friends – look you know it’s pretty dark but there are some funny bits and here’s one and I read it and as I was reading it I’m thinking oh – I was just looking at these faces, these stricken – and –
K: Not so funny.
C: My lovely friend, Georgia Blain, who many of you will know who we lost heartbreakingly last year, Georgia, straight after I got down she said that wasn’t funny. She said there are funny bits in it but that wasn’t one, I’ll tell you what to read now. So – but I think like for me just going around the world humour is a really essential companion to anger or as I heard, I think an American feminist called Patricia Williams, I think - I’m going to get that wrong – called having the gift of intelligent rage and I really love that expression, thought that’s – intelligent rage is again – it’s not just screaming in a corner, there’s something constructive in it. And I think for me that sense of having something to do with – rather than just sort of impotent rage, that’s not a good thing but if you can channel it, use it somewhere you know to make something beautiful or powerful or fun or funny then you know I think that’s the way that I can manage it. Thank you for the question.
K: So be fierce. One more.
A: Oh thanks so much –
C: Hi there.
A: - for talking tonight, Charlotte. As – I think I’m the only man questioner so I feel like I have to be angry for being <inaudible> 55:15 –
C: Stand up and suddenly –
K: You got to be that guy in the library.
A: But I’m just – I think you’ve left Twitter recently –
C: Yeah, I did.
A: - and I’m wondering if that’s a writing method thing or if that’s about the toxicity of Twitter?
C: Bit of both. So I was on Twitter for ages and I loved it, I was – this was years ago – I was absolutely in love with it and I think it’s an amazing you know it’s changed our world in really lately terrifying ways but I was completely addicted to it then and I was just never off it and that thing of – when you’re writing a book you do need to be private you know you need to be quiet or I need to be quiet. So I went off Twitter for nine months when I was writing this book, The Natural Way of Things and then I went back on and really enjoyed it for a while and then – I find that – I don’t get – I never got all the hideous trolling foul stuff that women on Twitter I have seen you know get, the most disgusting abuse which really, really upset me, seeing that – other women get that. I never got any of that myself but I still was really affected by seeing it around but also I find – ‘cause all the people that I followed who I thought were interesting are all politically engaged people and concerned about the world and – but just the onslaught of you know what you deal with everyday, I find it hard to keep my mental health frankly.
So the combination of – I sort of was not using it a lot and then just before the inauguration my American publisher asked me to do a week of Tweeting from their account about stuff to do with the book and whatever and you know leading up to the women’s march on Washington and all of that so I did that so that meant I was solidly on it for a week ‘cause you had to respond to people and all of that and I found that really draining. And I do miss it, I miss it but I also think I won’t probably be back on it even when I’ve finished this book because it’s a big time suck for me. Like for writers you know anything to avoid writing so you can get onto Twitter and you end up in a really interesting conversation or a really you know –
K: Unproductive conversation.
C: Unproductive conversation. I did stop doing that years ago, I stopped having arguments on social media. But I’d still you know you see something awful said to somebody, you do want to jump in and sort of stick up for them so there’s – and it’s just you know you could spend your whole life doing it. You’re on Twitter, I take it? You must be. And you don’t find it like that?
A: <inaudible> 58:14.
C: But now mainly it’s just so I can get my next book written so maybe I’ll – I mean I might go back, I don’t know. When Donald Trump’s not there anymore maybe I’ll go back.
K: Yes, hang onto your hats. Do you want to tell us a little bit about the next book? Or is it a secret?
C: It’s not a secret but it’s just – there’s so little there. But it’s about ageing, it’s about three women friends in their 70s who are not frail little old ladies but cool –
K: Cool, fierce ladies.
C: Fierce ladies but you know having to deal with the you know what goes on in your body and your mind as we are all getting older and basically about you know our society hates women, they really hate old women so yeah, I’m interested in ageism, I guess. So we’ll see. And it’s partly a response to you know I wrote about young – it’s that thing of having to flip and change tack even though – yeah who knows? Well they won’t be a prison, that’ll be good.
K: No, that’s like – yeah well Helen Garner writes about the invisibility of ageing women which is –
K: - you know there’s lots of material about –
C: And there’s so many ways to go with it. It’s actually really completely fascinating and – and I don’t know if I can do it, that’s the other thing, to think you know who do you – you know but that thing of thinking – I don’t know, I mean I’ve always felt about 30 years older than I am anyway so – but I’m finding myself now I’m going shopping going oh that’s a nice blouse. I think hang on, you’re not 80 yet, you can –
K: Well you’re conditioning your mind to this new project.
C: Yeah well I’m sort of in there, I’m them now you see, wearing some nice – getting a nice walking stick, you know?
K: Unfortunately we do have to wrap so as – couple of housekeeping things I’ll go through in a minute but please thank our guest.
C: Thank you. And thank you so much, Katharine. Can I just say – I’ll just quickly say what a pleasure it is to have such a wonderful interviewer when you have such a full-on life and I really appreciate it –
K: It’s absolutely my pleasure. Thank you.
K: Now just some thanks before housekeeping instructions. Thank you very much to the marvellous Canberra Writers’ Festival volunteers, the wonderful people in the green t-shirts who have been looking after us very well this evening and thank you again to the Library which is a sacred site for me and I’m sure for many others in Canberra. The Library rescues me most Fridays to write my weekend column and this is just a place I love and adore. Now while I have your attention, everybody do get out your diaries, mental or otherwise, please save the date for the second annual Canberra Writers’ Festival which will be August 25 to 27, make sure you don’t leave town, it’ll be fantastic. I had a fantastic time last year and I plan on having another fantastic time for this year.
Now Charlotte’s going to stay, she will be in the foyer, there are books outside, she’s very happy to sign your books and have a chat. Please take advantage of that, I’m going to get her to sign mine, of course. So head off to the foyer. Happy Women’s Day again everybody, hope you're enjoying it in suitable fashion and thanks for coming out.
C: Thank you very much.
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