In her new novel, Michelle de Kretser explores the art of fiction and how art can transform and sustain, as well as belittle and betray. Her meditations on time and loss make us laugh and also feel a little paranoid!
*Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Andrea Ho (AH), Michelle de Kretser (M)
*Location: National Library of Australia
K: Good evening. I've been stranded without the lectern tonight, that's a bit of a strange sensation. I feel like I should burst in karaoke or something but I'll save you from that. Thank you for coming to the National Library this evening. My name's Kathryn Favelle. For those of you who haven't seen me here before I look after the Community Outreach programs at the Library and it's always a thrill for me to have great writers here for great discussions about great books, so we're going to have a terrific evening. As we begin, I'd like to begin by acknowledging the first traditional owners of the land, the Nandawula nanburi people and thank their Elders past and present for looking after this land that we are privileged to call our home.
Now I was having a little scoodle around Google, as you do, before these events and I realised that it's nearly 20 years since I first came across Michelle de Kretser and her beautiful book, the Rose Grower. And that made me start to think about how books can have an imaginative scent because all the books of Michelle's that I've read linger in my mind in some way like a fine perfume. You know that feeling that you get when suddenly it could be vanilla essence and you're back in the kitchen with your mum making chocolate chip cookies. Every now and then something from Michelle's books triggers my memory in that way, something will trigger a memory; it could be Sophie from the Rose Grower trying to create the great crimson rose, it could be Tom in his cabin in the bush suddenly having to look for his lost dog. Or there's a memory, Michelle, that I have of Laura leaving a rather dingy publisher's office in Sydney and a back alley and every now and then these little memories of the books arrive and capture my imagination again and make me think back to that reading journey.
Tonight we're going on a new reading journey with Michelle with her new book, the Life to Come and I know it's going to take us not just to Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka but into thoughts and ideas and memories and remembrances of things past and things future that perhaps we haven't experienced yet or will remind us of things we have experienced. Joining Michelle tonight is a familiar face, Andrea Ho, who many of you will know from her many years at Triple 6. Andrea's just started a new job with the ABC which maybe you'll hear a little bit about too so to talk to Michelle about her new book, please welcome Michelle and Andrea.
AH: Thank you. And it is very much my pleasure to say hello to Michelle de Kretser and to meet you face to face for the very first time. And I like this because it is such an intimate room because there really aren't very many of us, that I'd like you very much to be a part of the conversation as well. So this evening, we do have room for questions at the end but the end if such a boring place to have questions so if you've got a burning question that you want to ask, raise your hand, there are people here from the Library who can give a microphone to you, and let's actually make this nice and interactive, a great conversation, but before we get going I want to find out a little bit about you. I know that this is a very new book, this is what it looks like here. Has anybody actually got around to reading it yet? It's only been released for about a fortnight or so. Oh, look, at the book nerds at the front.
M: Yeah, and in the front, we'll quiz them.
AH: Awesome, you come up with the hard questions. That is to be expected. Well I didn't necessarily even expect two book nerds this evening, but how many of you have read some of Michelle's other works?
M: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.
AH: Well so you're familiar then with her work. The lovely thing is that at points this evening Michelle is actually going to read a little from The Life to Come and I think that that's a great privilege so we'll call on you to give us a little performance shortly. But if we were to describe this novel, if I were to say what is my first impression coming away from this, to me it's a novel of people and it's a novel about their lives. It's by turns funny and also excoriating. It's quite intense at points, but there are points of banality, it's really interesting. It's filled with a lot of bright and sharply drawn snapshots in time which is the kind of thing that Kathryn was talking about. At the same time it sweeps broadly across both places and time as well. So it does a lot of different things at once. But at its core it's a novel about writers and about writing, so how lucky are we to be able to explore those things with the writer this evening.
It thought it might be nice to introduce us to some of the characters. If there's a central character it's a writer whose name is Pippa, but other characters loom large as well, characters such as George, Celeste, Cristobel. Others pass through and leave their mark as well. Let's meet a couple of them, shall we, Michelle, and read a little for us to introduce us to Pippa and to Celeste.
M: Okay, terrific. So the novel is - I should just explain, it's in five different sections which are completely self-contained, but there are also links between the five. So the middle bit, third bit, is set in Paris and the - in this portion there's a translator called Celeste who is significant here and Pippa who's the character who appears in each of the five sections. Who's - in this section she's got a residency, a writer's residency, in Paris. So I'll just read from the beginning of the section.
The exhibition of paintings of the Australian Embassy was opened by Professor Wilks, a stately Aboriginal man, a specialist in international law, he was in Paris to give an address at UNESCO. The Embassy, the work of a famous architect, was on a monumental scale. It was rumoured that the architect had sought to shrink the French down to size. The echoing corridors that could have passed as tunnels, the reception rooms vast as stations, provided a heroic frame for long-boned Australians while turning the local service staff into beetles.
Introducing Professor Wilkes, Valerie, the cultural attaché said, oh we couldn't get Robert or Germaine or Clive, but luckily Brendan was available. Valerie had the carrying voice and clear brilliant complexion of someone who lives on an [inaudible 7:11] The first thing Pippa said afterwards was, didn't you just die when Valerie came up with that stuff? I felt so ashamed, that poor man having to stand there and listen to it. I went straight over afterwards and told him I loved his speech. He was just so dignified and lovely.
Pippa was wearing coral lipstick, a green dress with a stiff ruffled skirt like a lampshade and awful shoes. Her head was too small for the massive skirt, she looked like a broomstick at a ball. When it was time to leave, she placed a red beret at a careful angle on her cropped hair, effort so far in excess of achievement couldn't fail to move. When Pippa looked around at the sound of her name, her skirt seemed to turn more slowly than her hips. Her big teeth contrasting with her neat little features would always surprise when she smiled. She agreed readily to meet for a drink near Celeste's apartment in the Ninth.
AH: Of course we have to clap when there's a performance. That - well apart from the fact that did we all laugh at the right points.
M: Yes you did.
AH: Okay, that's great. We passed so that's terrific. I can never rely on that. Some writers spend a lot of time in their characters heads, talking to us about what they're thinking, how they've over-thought, all of those things, but you've spent a lot of time in sections of the book describing what we see so that I can get a real picture as I read of time and place. Why is that important for you in your writing?
M: It's important for me because that's what I enjoy reading in other people's books. I like books with a strong sense of place, of setting and of period and those kinds of novels where there's something about the old man arrived in the city with the little girl and they went into a café and they all - and they had a meal. Well I always want to know, what is the old man's name, how old was he, where had he come from, what was the child's name, why were they in this city, what did they eat. All of that I think for me is what I really enjoy reading about because I think it's so revealing of character.
So in this book each section is narrated from the point of view of one or sometimes two different characters, sometimes as in that one there's a bit of an anonymously and narrator, but Celeste is the main character so a lot of it is filtered through her. So the idea was that Pippa, although she was the only character, so Pippa's the Australian novelist. Although she's the only character who appears in each section, I was glad that when you were introducing her you said, if there is a central character it's Pippa because it's a good question. Is there a central character? Because Pippa in some of the sections is a very minor character, so would you agree having read it?
M: So she gets one whole section to herself but in others she can be an equal character, she's in this one or in some she's really a very - a minor character on the edge of the action, although she has an effect on it. So I like that way of revealing character by showing us someone at different times of their life and in different contexts.
AH: It requires me as a reader to work a little harder because just as I'm getting into George's head, then suddenly I'm in Celeste's head and then finally I'm in Pippa's but before I get to Pippa I've learnt a lot about her from other characters. How do you put yourself into the minds of so many different characters most people, most writers really only spend their time in the minds of one?
M: Oh, well I like world building as a novelist. This is horribly revealing of megalomania, I'm sure, but I enjoy creating different worlds, I just find it satisfying. And so in this novel I was able to indulge my taste for that by making up these five different worlds. And you mentioned George and he's of interest to me because he - George is the main character in the first section and he's also a writer. He's older than Pippa, in fact he's been her university tutor.
And one summer she has nowhere to live and he invites her to share his house for the summer. And my idea when I started writing this book was that George would be the linking character whom we would meet in various guises and at various stages of his life. Except that by the time I had finished writing section one George was of no interest to me anymore whatsoever. I felt I knew everything I needed to know about George and that therefore the reader knew everything they needed to know about George. So he appears later on but very fleetingly. Whereas Pippa interested me much more, I thought she was a more complex character. I that with George what you see is what you get, you understand George, but Pippa was mercurial and that interested me more and so I went with Pippa.
AH: So you're telling me that you didn't know how the book was going to finish, that -
M: Oh no, I did, I always know. I always know the ending of each section. So in other books where I've only had more or less a single narrative, I've known how that's going to end and with each of these I knew exactly how it was going to end.
AH: But the characters have a life of their own?
AH: It seems as though they do.
M: Well Pippa did. I mean I like them to do exactly what I tell them and mostly they do. It was just that - a novel is quite a long thing, a big undertaking, and I want to be interested by the characters and, as I said, I just thought Pippa was a shiftier character than George and -
AH: Who's already pretty shifty in his own right.
M: But that Pippa had more surprises in her that her - she - I think George is set on his path very early on. He has a very clear idea of what he's going to do and the books he's going to write, and I just felt I knew people like George, not exactly but Pippa was mmm, I could have more fun with Pippa I felt.
AH: You said two very interesting things just now. You've talked about world building and you've talked about the megalomania you have as a writer. It strikes me that you're not a benevolent god of the universe you're creating, right. You don't spare your gaze when you look at these characters, you're pretty rough with some of them. Do you actually like your characters?
M: Well some more than others, I would say. And my feelings about them shifted, and I felt that the readers feelings about Pippa for instance shift over the course of the books so that when you see her in different contexts doing different things that something that seemed quite benevolent when you first meet Pippa or at least harmless I suppose, might seem a lot less harmless by the time you get to the end. So it was part of the surprise of revealing Pippa, for me.
Asked whether I like them or not, in a way that doesn't have much meaning for me because they are just - they're not real people, they don't exist so they - I'm aware of how I have pulled the strings and made them do stuff. So my interest in them is how they interact with other people and how they are in the world, but when I've finished writing them they are gone for me. People sometimes say do you think about your characters after the book has ended, what might their lives be after the novel has ended? Well whatever you like because at that point you know as much about them as I do so anything.
AH: Isn't that interesting, so for me as a reader that's very revealing. I get very invested in the people who I read about and so when you come to characters and things happen to them, you're very caught up in the emotion of the moment, I think.
AH: I wonder about the order biographical aspects of books. This is as we said, a book also about writers and about the business of writing and I think it's funny that a lot of the characters in the book are given - Pippa gives them her books and they don't read them, that's interesting in and of itself. But then also too they have parallels with aspects of your life as it's told in biography, so they've lived in the places that you've lived; Sydney, Paris, Sri Lanka, Colombo, these are all places where you've lived and studied and grown up, and they're writers themselves -
AH: - as well. How much do you draw on yourself and the people around you, and there is a scene towards the end of the book where Pippa's neighbour is revealed as a character in her most successful book. This is the book that becomes successful, and it's really awful for that person to realise that she's been picked up like a barrel of words, picked her up and just put her there as a shiny little object.
AH: Have you ever had that happen?
M: Oh, I have never put someone I know into the book, not I would add because I'm above it ethically. Sadly I would possibly be capable of it but I would be bored by it. As I said, with George, for instance, I felt I knew him, not that I knew a George in real life but by the time I'd finished writing that section I felt I had no more interest in him. So if I knew you well I would have no interest in putting you in a book because I feel I know you, or not here, I don't know you very well so I think everything is possible. But I'm not - I need to be interested in the character and for them, as I said, to be able to move in surprising ways. If I knew - if I was trying to put you in a book I would feel constrained, oh but Andrea wouldn't do that in real life so I wouldn't be able to invent Andrea.
The dogs, however are completely drawn from life and completely exploited. So they are my figures from real life. As for place well I'm always interested in place and I've just written about places that I know in this book and so in that sense that place there is an autobiographical link. Although I send some characters to Romania where I have never been, but I checked it, I checked it - ran it past people who had been to Romania and it could pass so that was okay. And I don't know why Romania, I just woke up one day and thought they're going to Romania, you see. But yeah, no, it was of course there are observations from real life about place. Actually I might just read a tiny bit.
This might be a good time because I moved up from Melbourne to Sydney eight years ago and one of the things - although it's not that far and obviously it's the same country but it is very different. And one of the first things I noticed was a completely different aesthetic in terms of what people wear. So I might just read a little bit. So this is George who's been born in Sydney but has spent most of his life in Melbourne then he's moved back to Sydney to study and he's gone to Pippa's house. She's invited him to party, this is before she and she are sharing a place. And well this is just some ruminations.
It's - the weather which has been warm when George leaves home has turned cold by the time he's got to the party and so he is walking around this party feeling he can't get out of cold draughts. The girls didn't seem to notice it, they were Sydney girls with short skirts and long bare arms. Recently George had gone to an opening at a gallery in the company of a visiting lecturer from Berlin. The artist was fashionable and the gallery's three rooms were packed. Over dinner the German woman expressed mild astonishment at the number of sex workers who at attended the opening. Is this typical in Australia, she asked. George had to explain that she had misunderstood the significance of shouty makeup, tiny shiny dresses and jewels so large they looked fake, eastern suburbs cast marks, then identified the arty bookish daughters of property developers and CEOs. George was still adjusting to them himself after Melbourne, where the brainy girls wore stiff dark clothes, like the inmates of 19th century institutions, with here and there an exhibitionist in grey.
So I read this in Melbourne last week and then they went, oh no, we're all - no, we do colours now and look at the audience black, grey, some exhibitionists in navy but basically nothing has changed. It's all the same.
AH: Well so how much of what you write then is observation and how much is actually commentary? Notice some of the really tight language used there, jewels so large they looked fake. Within a half a sentence we've got a world of commentary going on there and there are so many subjects in there, there's the commentary about writers, Australian writers, not reading Australian novelists or people who are interested in literature not reading Australian novelists. There's the commentary about the way that we curate an image of ourselves on social media. Some of it is really quite searing. Are you actually wanting to take a swipe at us or is this just what you see and you just put it in the book?
M: Oh it's just what I see. There are certain things I certainly want to draw to a reader's attention, like Australia's hideous policies concerning asylum seekers so I'm always happy to take a swipe at any government that maintains our current line on that. I - yeah I do write about what I see, I'm not making stuff up, I don't think, in terms of social commentary. But I like to leave the reader, as I said, I think the crucial thing for me is with character that I want to leave the reader free to make up his or her own mind about what they think of these people. I present them, you decide.
There's no-one here from Perth, is there? Oh, now come on, come on, I'm not - so Celeste has grown up in Perth but now she's been living in Paris for 30 years and her half brother and his family come to visit and they bring her an Ottolenghi cookbook as a present and talk about how they've been cooking from that all through the summer heatwaves and Celeste is, who hasn't been back, is turning these pages and go, when did they start eating pomegranates in Perth? But that's the typical ex-pat thing, okay, you leave a place and you think that it has frozen in time. So that is probably - says more about an ex-pat mentality than it does about Perth.
AH: Oh I don't know. I get the undercurrent of if we're to use a commonly used phrase, cashed up bogan going on there too.
M: Oh, cruel. Oh you see but you make up your own mind, that's right.
AH: That's right, your characters really do have a life of their own. And I was - I guess I suppose I was interested too about the undercurrent of plus in your novel.
AH: First Pippa changes her name from Narelle because people called Narelle don't win awards.
M: Yeah, Pippa has decided at a very early age that she's going to be a writer and on her 18th birthday she changes her name to Narelle saying - from Narelle to Pippa saying no‑one called Narelle is ever going to win the booker. So there you go.
AH: So she starts by dreaming up, but then she educates up and then she marries up.
M: Yeah, and marries up.
AH: But the thing that I - for me and I guess everyone's reaction to character is going to be different, so please don't take my interpretation as read, you will all have your own interpretation about character, but for me the more middle class that Pippa became, the more hideous she became for me. The patronising tone to her liberalism, the social media activism which really have a read of the beautifully crafted phrases about the way that we curate in the social media world, it's horrible. The criticism of the Anglo-Australian middle class seems pretty severe. Am I being really tough, am I being unfair?
M: Well that's a certain little slice of it. I suppose the thing about the Pippa curating herself on social media was, it's not really so different from the way Pippa curates herself in real life, so the thing about Pippa is that she's not one of those people who can do good or be good or be kind unconsciously, she's always very aware that she has done a kind thing or said a kind thing. So she performs kindness, she performs outrage as in that section I read where she's outraged on behalf of Brendan and she does this on social media as well.
Her mother‑in‑law who Pippa doesn't get on with and one reason they don't get on is they're actually not that different from each other. Her mother-in-law does this, who's not on social media but does this quite unselfconsciously in real life, so Pippa will do something like make a meal for someone who's ill and then post about it on Facebook or on her blog or something and then everyone says, oh Pippa, you're so wonderful, you're so kind. And Eva, the mother‑in‑law has parties of which in all the catering is done by an organisation that only employs asylum seekers and she follows these women around the room saying, she's a refugee, you know. Just to let you know that she's doing the right thing. So I guess I was just - the social media curation of the self is not so different from - the performative aspect of the way people present themselves.
AH: And yet the unforgiving eye that you put on these characters, because I'm invested in the character as a reader, right, you've got them, you're winding them up like little figures and they're going off and they're doing their thing but I'm very invested in these figures.
AH: They make me look very hard at myself, it's a very hard read in that sense because you laugh. Truly, it's so excruciating, you're just laughing to yourself and you just think, oh my God I'm laughing at all this terrible behaviour and I'm sure I'm equally as bad if not worse. And so it is a very interesting experience in which you're actually quite drawn into these characters.
M: Well I think it's a very generous response actually, to say I'm reading this and it's making me think about myself rather than I'm reading this and I am pushing it away because it's making me feel uncomfortable. So thank you for that because I think it is - it's a generosity on the part of you as a reader to look at it that way. I think art should make us a little bit unsettled and uncomfortable, a little bit of pearl-clutching is not bad. [Inaudible 20:32] just checking.
AH: [Inaudible 29:33]. You touched them so hard, they just -
M: It's sprung everywhere, if they've gone their own way. Let's look at the way we live now and think about it.
AH: And I will repeat my offer to you that ask a question now, you'll have time very soon but please if you've got a question burning at this point about not only this novel but the one that you've read or the ones that you've read then you have Michelle right in front of you, take advantage of that. In the meantime, that exploration of people for me was not just about the individual characters but also the nature of friendship and relationships.
M: Oh, thank you.
AH: So there was a lot about the way that they interact as people. Some of that very positive, as being friends about remaking friendships over time, some of it quite challenging, so the theme of infidelity runs right through the different sections of the book in very different ways.
AH: It's dealt with or tackled in a [inaudible 30:28] ways.
M: I hadn't realised this, believe it or not.
M: My publisher read it and said to me, look, there's men having affairs all over the place. And I thought about it and thought, well yes but actually not only men. No.
AH: We also hear directly from the women who are involved.
M: Yes. And I'm so glad you talked about friendship because this is another thing that I hadn't really thought about when I was writing. There's so much that one does unconsciously and then afterwards you see patterns but I think that as I was writing this book I just became more and more interested in the ideal female friendship. And this is not a novel about female friendship at all.
AH: Not at all.
M: But I was - it would just occur to me that I don't know of many novels that have adult female friendships at their centre. Not talking about adolescent girls of which there are many, many, many novels. I'm not talking about relationships that are sexual, I'm talking about just female friendships. And I think one of the reasons that the Ferrante series, the Naples books were so compelling was that that did place a female friendship at the heart of those novels. I would also argue that for me the most intense of those books, I think there are four or five now, was the first one where they are actually adolescent girls, because as I suppose people get older romantic relationships tend to intervene and novelists focus on these because there are the obvious dramatic possibilities of love gone wrong or love gone right or whatever. There are the more highs and lows, but friendship is harder, I suspect, to write about.
AH: And you have several in this book, not one but several female friendships, none of which are straight forward, I might add.
AH: And several of which span large amounts of times so there are adolescent years but they go right to the other end of the scale too so there is actually something in this novel for every one of us.
M: But that is so interesting because I swear I wasn't aware of that when -
AH: Oh really?
M: - I was writing it. I was interested in the idea of friendship but thinking - I was asking people to recommend me a book about female friendship, I was thinking about reading it rather than writing it. And someone said the other day, talking to a reader, she said there is pairs in these sections. Well it seems obvious to me now and rather embarrassing that I just didn't notice that.
AH: Isn't that interesting.
M: So, read, it's good to talk to readers because you learn all sorts of stuff about what is going on in your own unconscious at the time.
AH: Well, so there is your invitation then. Who has a question that you would like to ask Michelle at this point? I'm tired of the sound of my own voice. Somebody else here must have something that you'd like to put to Michelle. Please, just pop your hand up. Oh, if we might wait until the microphone gets to you, if you wouldn't mind. The other thing I would say is that this is being recorded to be published online so just please be aware. Say your name, your first name at least.
Audience: Dennis, is that coming through?
Audience: Good. Look, I'm interested to take you back to Romania and just get a sense of how it is that with an emphasis on place as you mentioned you create a sense of that place is you haven't actually been there.
M: Oh okay, thank you, that's a good question. It's a very short section of the novel, it would be a few thousand words and the characters in that section go for a long walk mostly through the Romanian countryside, and I've done many long walks through the French countryside, it's not that different from what I can gather. So I just [inaudible 25:02] to those places and then so I was just describing the landscape for most of that section, which is only, as I said, maybe 4,000 words, maybe not even that long. And then I have a scene in a house which was just like films I've seen about central Europe.
AH: But an extension of that question I think too, is how do you bring a place alive, even if it's a place that you know for someone who hasn't been there. So if you haven't been to Paris, if you haven't been to the rural French countryside, if you haven't been to Colombo and don't have a sense of those places, you bring those alive, I think, for me, the reader. How do you do that, what are you doing when you write. This is an aspect now about craft, I suppose.
M: Well I'm glad they came alive for you. I guess it's just like any kind of writing, it's about the selection of detail and what you include that seems to make it vivid for the reader and of course what you leave out. All writing is really a matter of selection. So you just try and write about things - I try and write about things that strike me, whether it's a particular kind of cart crack with weeds and flowers growing up along the central ridge in the section on Romania, which is something you see a lot when you're walking in the countryside. Or it might be the fruit bats rotting on the powerlines in Sydney. Or it might be -
AH: The road kill on the roads of -
M: The road kill on the roads of New Zealand. So it's just trying to find the details that will bring it alive for the reader. And really if it's - it's usually things you can remember yourself. Memory is a pretty good filter, I think, you remember the things that are striking. And if they are of interest to you they are probably going to work for other people as well.
AH: Thank you, Dennis. It begs another question, you talked about what you leave out and a novel can contain the whole world and nobody would ever get through it, it would be deathly boring. How do you choose what to leave out?
M: Well therein lies the art, I guess. You just try and make a shapely narrative that you hope is compelling to people to read. I edit and edit and edit.
AH: So how much would you start with, how much would you throw out in an editing process?
M: Oh, I don't know because one of the things about word processing is you don't keep track of what you're doing day to day. At the end of a draft I will print the whole thing out and then edit on paper and then do another draft and print that thing out and edit that on paper. So I could show you those and they're probably about five or six of them. But I can't show you the daily labour of what I've done of a morning because it's been lost with word processing. So it's not like manuscript which preserves all those crossings out.
AH: Gosh, how the craft has changed over time. Someone else question from the floor? Remember to introduce yourself.
Audience: Hi Michelle, I'm Michael.
Audience: I'm just interested in, as a writer, and when you're - what patterns of reading - do you read for leisure, do you read to learn things to enable you to write better?
Audience: And have you read anything that's really impressed you of recent times?
M: Yes those are all good questions. Yes, I'm completely a reader. I am addicted to reading. All writers come from readers, right, I think if you're not a passionate reader you probably won't end up being a writer. So I do read some things when I'm in the middle of writing a book for purely research purposes and there are quite a few of those things which would range from history books or Wikipedia entries, textbooks of one kind or another that I want for a particular purpose, scholarly books. And then of course I'm just reading for pleasure and leisure of an evening, for instance. And one thing I've found is that it's always good to read something you admire last thing at night or it's good for me anyway because just before falling asleep I'll read a few pages of prose that I think is wonderful and that enters your mind when you sleep.
When I was a student learning languages, learning French, for instance, I always found it helpful to read over repeat rules of grammar or whatever I was trying to learn, lists of vocabulary, last thing at night. And I find that helps with writing as well. You wake up and there's rhythms in your mind, so that transfers to a day's writing.
AH: Were you looking for recommendation there, Michael?
Audience: No, I was just interested where - and not necessarily, just interested to find out what [inaudible 41:15] write all the time what [inaudible] interested in. So thank you.
M: Thank you.
AH: Okay, another question? And remember too that at the end you'll have a chance to have your book signed by Michelle and talk to her at the end as well.
Audience: Thanks. My name's Jackie and my question was stimulated by your question, Andrea, about how do you know what to leave out. And it's how do you know when you've given enough for a reader to get the character and the plot, I suppose, but particularly the character in the way that you want them to?
M: Well I guess it's - because I guess because it's so much in your head, the characters, so it's always that thing when you trying to know well have I written enough to get what's in my head into someone else's head.
AH: And indeed because this contains several lifetimes, but you wouldn't necessarily know it just to look at it, would you.
M: Yes. I don't know how I know and I suppose in a way there was first readings by people other than me are important for that so you get feedback from editors, for instance, or from my agent. I guess it's just from experience as a reader partly that you think about what other writers do in terms of character and how you find that satisfying and then you try and do something similar yourself. I don't know is the answer. That answer will vary for everyone, I think. You just try and write the best you can and try and give as much information as possible in a short space of time. One of the things that was an advantage, I think, with this book for me was that because it's in different sections there is stuff about Pippa for instance that I think the reader just fills in by themselves, leaping across time and place, but Pippa has moved from the country to the city to study.
Well I don't go into a great deal of detail about that, you just know that Pippa grew up somewhere and is now living somewhere else. And I think the reader can fill in some of those blanks for themselves. And because you see her when she - through different perspectives when she's young, from the point of view of a girl she was at school with, from the point of view of a neighbour who is quite dazzled by the fact that she's a writer, from the point of view of George who's not very impressed with her at all. You get to see different aspects of her character but whether it's enough to satisfy a reader, well you just - it's - you just hope that it is.
AH: To me this is interesting because it describes the active writing and then the active reading receiving your writing as being a bit of an interactive process.
AH: Your Pippa must therefore, from what you're saying, be different than my Pippa or your Pippa and it's very rare that you get an opportunity then to interact with the writer because usually you have the book and that's as far as the interaction goes. We have the great fortune to be able to reflect on this in the room and that the circle completes, in other words, because usually it stops with us but now it's coming back around to you here in this one room which is interesting me.
M: Well I think all this reading is what completes the act of writing, always. And we all read a different book always. And I'm conscious of reading - re-reading books that - at different times of life and having sometimes the same reaction and sometimes very different ones.
AH: Are you re-readers, by the way, do you re-read books? See, look, there's a whole mix, isn't there. I'm a terrible re-reader, I love re-reading books.
AH: Because at different times of your life -
M: Your life.
AH: - they mean different things.
M: So what that suggests to me is that it's really what the reader brings to the book, determines to a large part what the reader will take out - take away from the book.
AH: So there you go. Now we're coming close to the end here and I feel as though I can just indulge myself for a moment here or two. There are, for me, many moments in the Life to Come that I find quite moving, that feel a little bit like universal truths and I actually think that you might find different ones. Everybody has a different reaction, as we've said, to the book that we read. So I'm just going to very quickly ask you for a quick reaction for a couple of these. Cristobel in response to Bunty towards the end of the book says, it's all right to have no use for the past but it's what they were stuck with. What's the relationship between the past and the future and who we are as people?
M: Oh, that's a rather large question to leave until the end. What's the relationship between the past and future. I think that what we come from will always determine to some extent how we see the world, but it doesn't mean that we're fixed in those ways, we can always change as Pippa changes over the course of the book. That's in the context of someone saying well I wish that my life had been different if we hadn't been born in Sri Lanka, if we'd been born in Sweden we could have had these quite different careers. And the other person responds by saying, well but this is what we are stuck with, we have to make the best of what we have, so yeah.
AH: And then a last one, Pippa's father-in-law, Keith, is dying of cancer and he's calming down his pet dog and he says, there's the dog, one of them, everyone just wants to be held. Is that not true? And I think on that note we'll thank you very much, Michelle.
M: Oh, thank you, Andrea. Thank you.
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