Amanda Curtin is the author of two novels, Elemental (shortlisted for the 2014 WA Premier’s Book Awards) and The Sinkings, and a short story collection, Inherited. She has also worked as a freelance book editor for many years (AE, Institute of Professional Editors), and is currently the fiction editor for the literary journal Westerly. She lives in an old house in an old suburb of Perth with her husband and an extremely opinionated Siamese cat.
Her official website is www.amandacurtin.com/
What was your early relationship with books?
When I loved a book, I loved it to death. I read Little Women so many times that I could recite the dialogue. (I also re-read the sequel, Little Men, a few times in the hope, and with a degree of inexplicable optimism, that I would grow to like it, but I never did.)
Another of my favourites was Heidi by Johanna Spyri. That book was given to me by a family friend who said the cover illustration looked like me. I remember staring at that little girl with blonde plaits and no freckles, running across an Alpine field in her rustic pinafore—searching for myself, in vain, in that pastel world. (My first thought on remembering this: the narcissism of children! But, on reflection, children always seem avid for anything that might tell them who they are. And perhaps this was my first revelation that the way others see us isn’t always the way we see ourselves—a lesson for life and a lesson for writing, too.)
I was always keen on series books, like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven and Malory Towers sets and, later, the Trixie Belden series by Julie Campbell Tatham. There was a character in the Trixie Belden gang who had an adventurous vocabulary, and it was he who introduced me to words like ephemeral—glorious, even though he happened to be describing doughnuts.
When did you begin writing in a serious way, and what motivated that?
After working as a book editor for many years, I began an undergraduate degree in English and took elective creative writing units because I thought they would help me to become a better editor. But they also revived in me the desire to be a writer that I’d had at a very early age—and dismissed because it seemed as impossible as wanting to be an astronaut or Sophia Loren.
It was a while before I gained the confidence to pursue it seriously. Winning a couple of awards and being encouraged by tutors I admired gave me more courage than I could otherwise have managed. Even so, I only started describing myself a writer, as opposed to an editor, very recently.
How did your debut novel, The Sinkings, come to be written and published?
I wrote The Sinkings as part of my PhD in Creative Writing. I don’t think there is any other context in which I could have written that novel. It took twelve months of full-time research in archives and libraries here and in the northern hemisphere before I wrote a word—and only with the help of a scholarship could I have done that.
The Sinkings is based on the life of a real person who was transported to the Swan River Colony (Western Australia) as a convict in the mid-nineteenth century and was murdered near Albany in 1882. When the body was discovered—dismembered and the pieces buried at a campsite known as the Sinkings, it was initially determined to be female, but was later identified as being that of male sandalwood cutter and former convict, Little Jock. I heard about those bare facts many years ago and never forgot them, never stopped being intrigued by them, and I always thought I would read a book about Little Jock one day. That didn’t happen, so it was an obvious choice for my PhD project.
Terri-ann White, director of UWA Publishing, heard about the manuscript and expressed interest in reading it. I was thrilled when she chose it for her list.
I began with three words: fishermen, butterflies, consequences. Cryptic, but they carried a weight of thinking and pondering over many years. And the nature of research is such that initial ideas grow, gather to themselves new threads, turn into other things. The first word—fishermen—related to Scottish fishing superstitions I had come across during my research for The Sinkings. When I began to read further, I discovered the herring girls of the early twentieth century and knew immediately that I’d found the key to the trajectory of my main character Meggie’s life.
What are your writing habits?
It depends on what else I am juggling. At the start of a project I try to isolate some concentrated time for writing and nothing else. When this happens, I work all day, usually editing the previous day’s work and perhaps doing some research in the morning and writing solidly in the afternoon (and often late at night). Someone asked me recently why I don’t write in the morning ‘when I’m fresh’. Thing is, in spite of being an early riser, I’m not a morning person; I feel fresher after lunch!
What are you working on now?
Something very different from my two published novels—short rather than long, contemporary rather than historical, set in France rather than Scotland or Australia.
What’s your favourite book by an Australian female author?
An impossible question! Sixty Lights by Gail Jones, Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson, The Travel Writer by Simone Lazaroo, The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood, Reunion by Andrea Goldsmith, The Nature of Ice by Robyn Mundy… I’m going to force-quit here because that’s only scratching the surface.
Reviews of Amanda’s books
Annabel Smith is the author of interactive digital novel/appThe Ark; 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, holds a PhD in Writing from Edith Cowan University and is on the editorial board of Margaret River Press.