I went to two author talks last week (both were free events) and I was reminded why it’s ace living in a UNESCO City of Literature.
The first event was part of the Wheeler Centre’s Double Booked series. Favel Parrett and Anna Krien talked about their new books, There Was Still Love and Act of Grace respectively). At the second event, hosted by Readings, Charlotte Wood talked about her latest book, The Weekend (review to come but spoiler alert: I LOVED it).
Favel Parrett and Anna Krien
Parrett and Krien’s books both deal with the pain of being disconnected.
In her novel about an Australian soldier returned from Baghdad and a musician fleeing Saddam Hussein, Krien wanted to convey the feeling of being “…connected to the dirt, to the country, but not the regime.”
Parrett’s book is set in Melbourne and Prague in 1980 and although fictional, the story is based on memories of her grandparents – “My grandparents never spoke of the war. Migrants look forward.” As a result, there are things that she still doesn’t know about them, such as how and why her grandmother left Czechoslovakia. “As writers, we try to make people feel. I want people to read the suitcase bit and know that war has never stopped.”
Krien is a journalist by trade, and said that the inspiration for the novel came from writing about the war in Iraq – “You’d never know that Australia has been involved in a 12 year war in Iraq if you only looked at Australian literature. It’s misleading. The Americans are good at this, constantly memorialising their wars, but in Australia it is amnesia.” She recognised that fiction can achieve different things than journalism and so decided to write a novel. “I wanted to get beyond binaries – no one is ever ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Writing sees the nuances.”
Parrett has returned to familiar territory in writing from a child’s perspective – “I’m fascinated by the voice of children – they’re constantly trying to work out what’s going on, and they’re completely at the mercy of adult decisions.” In writing There Was Still Love, she relied on her cousin in Czechoslovakia, Martin, for details about his childhood – “It gave me permission to be a boy in Prague.”
Martin was one of the first people to read the novel and when finished, asked Parrett if she had a head injury because she’d paired chicken schnitzel with potato dumplings in a description of a meal – Parrett laughingly told the audience, “Schnitzel and dumplings? Not done. I changed it to fried potato.” Martin’s next message to her was that he’d cried for days because although the story is fictional, it is also very real. In establishing the tone, Parrett said, “You have to feel something twenty-times greater than what ends up on the page.” Concluding, she said, “It might not be my best book but it’s my best writing. It’s a love letter to my grandparents.”
The Weekend, focuses on a group of women. The women have been friends for decades and are grappling with grief, ageing, and the boundaries of their friendship.
Initially, the book was inspired by Wood’s interest in friendships that carry on regardless of partnerships and family obligations, because “…women are often presented in the context of family.”
Characters in the book were borne from Wood’s outrage after reading a review of Edna O’Brien’s last novel, Little Red Chairs. The reviewer (“a minor writer”), said of O’Brien’s writing, “…for her dignity, she should stop”. Wood felt that although things change as we age, it’s wrong to assume differences are negative. “The Edna O’Brien review really made me mad…and I wondered why we are squeamish about old age. When I hear people say ‘I’m terrified of getting old’, I wonder what are you terrified of? Pain?” Thinking of her own friends, many had experienced tremendous pain in their younger and middle-aged years – migraines, miscarriage, depression – so she wondered what it was about old age that was more terrifying?
Wood’s parents both died in their 50s, so when she passed the age her parents had been, it was a shock to think she might live a long life. She wondered, “What will I be like in twenty years?” – writing the novel gave her the opportunity to “…explore possible versions of myself.”
The novel also stemmed from the question of whether we become more ‘distilled’ with age and in particular, what that means for friendships (here Wood referred to James Hillman’s book, The Force of Character). “I don’t think it’s inevitable that we know ourselves better as we age. I think we change right up until the minute we die. I think crises in friendships happen when we see those changes and are uncomfortable.” She went on to ask, “Are we still porous and flexible, the things friendship requires? Long friendships can be cemented into shape.”
I was very interested to discover that Wood was the first creative writer in residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at Sydney University, a research facility focused on global health. What incredible insight to combine science and the arts! Although Wood had no obligation to link her novel to the work of the Centre, Professor David Raubenheimer, an expert in nutritional ecology, casually said to Wood, “I’d like to see some evolutionary biology in this novel of yours.” Quite the challenge but it was how the dog Finn came to be such an important part of the novel. “Animals age at an accelerated rate, therefore Finn the dog became a mirror for their submerged thoughts about ageing.”