Her latest work is a book of essays on cooking, Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food. Her last novel, Animal People, won the People’s Choice medal in the 2013 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, was shortlisted for the 2013 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Her earlier novels were also shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Award and regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
Charlotte writes an occasional blog at www.howtoshuckanoyster.com, lives in Sydney with her husband and is working on her fifth novel.
Did you grow up in a bookish house? What was your early relationship with books?
Yes, our house was full of books. My father was an obsessive sci-fi and how-things-work non-fiction fan. I remember shelves of dusky Isaac Asimov spines alongside those blue and green Penguin paperbacks with titles like ‘Plastics in the Service of Man’, or ‘The Etruscans’. My mother was a more literary reader, alternating quite highbrow stuff with what I suppose you might call popular literary fiction. Doris Lessing or Thomas Keneally, say, or Updike. And books like The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m just calling these up from memory now as I write. My own childish and early adolescent tastes were very mainstream and quite juvenile – Enid Blyton, Nancy Drewe mysteries and those world-weary adolescent Paul Zindel books where the kid was always hating his parents and drinking Harvey Wallbangers, dotted with the occasional foray into grownup novels I found lying about the house. I remember being deeply affected by a strange book by Richard Adams (Watership Down man) called The Plague Dogs. Then high school English dictated my reading. I loved reading in that deliberate, thoughtful way, and loved writing essays on books.
When did you begin writing in a serious way, and what motivated that?
After my mother died, when I was twenty-nine. My father had died ten years before that. I had begun writing little snippets of ‘creative’ things at university where I’d gone as a mature age student at 23, but only once my mother had died did life separate, very potently, into ‘important’ and ‘unimportant’ categories. Writing suddenly became something very urgent for me to commit to and take seriously. I think my parents’ deaths on some level became, without my understanding or knowing it, the ‘deep and always hidden wound’ that Flaubert said was the wellspring of fiction.
Bizarrely easily. I had spent a few years writing it in little patches, though with great seriousness of intent. I had a couple of fellowships at Varuna the Writers’ House, including, at the last, with the editor Judith Lukin-Amundsen. She declared the book finished during the week we worked together and sent it on my behalf to Picador, who made an offer within days. It was only with my second novel, The Submerged Cathedral, that my naively blithe attitude to publishing took a giant knock; it was rejected by Picador and I was devastated. Happily for me, Jane Palfreyman, then of Random House, now Allen & Unwin, loved it and has been my staunch supporter ever since. Thank god.
Hmm, I don’t know that there was any ‘inspiration’ – I think at the beginning it arose more from a kind of spirit of technical experimentalism for myself. I wanted to write a book that was funny and that was set in a single day. It was a reaction against my previous novel The Children which I’d found very wearing to write. As it turns out Animal People is probably much sadder than it is funny, but I still enjoyed flexing my humour muscles.
I had had several friends who’d been very sick, and I wanted to put together a short practical guide to cooking for sick people. I had been blogging about cooking for a few years by then, and wrote a proposal for my publisher of this practical guide. The proposal included a quite personal introduction – which the publisher asked for more of. So it morphed from a practical guide into a sort-of-memoir, with recipes. It was fun to take a complete break from fiction for a little while, though I still feel that fiction is my natural home.
Have you had any surprising or unusual reader responses to your books?
Not that I can recall … I am always so gratified when readers get in touch with their responses about the books if they’ve meant something to them. Mostly they are lovely. Occasionally I’ve had a reaction in a book club or festival setting that sets me back on my heels a bit – like the time a man told me Animal People was a book about hating men because I cast all Australian men as failures. Or another time I was castigated for using the present tense in a novel … often the tone of these passionately negative responses seem to say more about the asker than the book. But doubtless there are loads more people who hate my work but are not so impolite as to get in touch and tell me about it. Bless them.
What are your writing habits?
My writing habits are like surges rather than a steady flow. I seem to have bursts of intense and difficult activity, as well as long periods of regular, though trickling, output. I am slow and very rarely feel a sense of abundance. I have an overactive, relentlessly self-critical faculty that I am learning to change – it doesn’t make the work any better, especially in the early generative first-draft phase, and can simply make life quite miserable. A typical good day is any where I make progress – in the first draft this is sticking to a 1000-words-a-day output, regardless of its quality. In the second draft, where I am now, it’s a lower output as much of it involves cutting as much as adding. I find writing exceptionally difficult and often very discouraging, but I need to do it to make sense of the world in which I live, to feel that I am a productive human being, and most of all, I simply find enormous satisfaction in ‘making’. It makes me feel good to have created something from nothing, even if the process of doing it is, most of the time, basically beyond my capacity.
What do you do when you feel creatively stuck?
Keep going. I try to weigh up the balance of ‘waiting’ – accepting that much of what is best in my work comes mysteriously and without being forced – with the other essential approach to the writing life – sheer, dogged, bloody-minded perseverance. If I am really stuck – as I was yesterday – I might slightly alter my working setup, like moving from working at the desk to the bed, or take a break by going for a walk, or reading something dreamy. But then I go back to it. I hate the feeling that it’s beaten me, even for a day. Yesterday I got over a difficult hump by sheer rage at the book for making me feel like shit. I needed to retaliate, in a quite savage way. I thought, fuck you – how dare you make me feel so bad. I needed to sort of bear down on it, dominate it. Weird, obviously – and exhausting – but it worked. I think I might need to use that sense of retaliation more often. Basically I do whatever I can clutch at in the moment to get me through. It’s strange how often – after publishing five books – one is at a complete loss as to how to proceed. But I now accept that this is just what it’s like.
What are you working on now?
A very dark, strange, not-very-realistic novel about a bunch of girls in a prison in the middle of the Australian nowhere. It is freaking me out a fair bit and I am keen to be done with it. It’s not a nice book.
What’s your favourite book by an Australian female author?
I can’t answer these questions; my favourites change all the time. An enduring one of recent years is Joan London’s The Good Parents … London has a new book out soon and I am very excited about its arrival.
Reviews of Charlotte’s Books:
Annabel Smith is the author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. She has had short fiction and commentary published in Westerly and Southerly and holds a PhD in Writing from Edith Cowan University. Her forthcoming interactive digital novel/app The Ark will be published in September 2014.