Recently longlisted for The Stella Prize, Sofie Laguna’s The Choke is a brilliant, haunting novel about a child navigating an often dark and uncaring world of male power and violence, in which grown-ups can’t be trusted and comfort can only be found in nature. I read The Choke prior to its release last year and was deeply affected by the insight and authenticity of the novel, its themes, despite being set in the 1970s, still so relevant today. It gives me great pleasure to welcome Sofie to Sunday Spotlight.
I was inspired to write the book after watching Nick Broomfield’s documentary about Aileen Wuournos who was executed in 2002. Wuournos was known as one of America’s most notorious serial killers – but the documentary did not sensationalize her story in any way. It described the childhood she had endured, and I was so outraged by the injustice of it I felt compelled to give that thirteen-year-old that Aileen once was, a voice. As my writing unfolded, however, it became clear that I was telling a completely different story, with its own protagonist – Justine. Justine was Australian, and she lived in Victoria, in a town near the Murray River.
The Murray River is almost a character itself in The Choke and Justine’s connection to it was so important to her well-being. Is this a place you have lived yourself or are you drawing on any other personal connections to the natural elements?
The Murray river is a source of comfort to my central character, Justine, who is a witness to adult violence. Because it is a wild place, her imagination is free to wander when she is there. Nature is Justine’s escape; it gives her privacy and a space where her fantasies can live. She is captivated by the way water flows forward. The river symbolises determination, and a way out for Justine. She sees the way the red gums that grow in the forest around the Murray survive underwater. Nothing can destroy them. I think the trees give Justine hope and act as a mirror to her own resilience. I think this is the way nature works for people; it restores us to ourselves, it gives us peace and space.
I relished setting the novel in my own country. So much material – beautiful and funny and familiar. I could use the vernacular, I could go to the locations – literally drive there and immerse myself in the natural settings I had chosen. I knew its cast of characters. I knew the highways, the weather, the redgums and I could get to know the river. I didn’t know it particularly well, although I had been camping on the river in my twenties and I do recall being mesmerized by the trees and the water and the way it seemed to eat into the landscape.
Each of your novels for adults have been told through the eyes of children, a uniquely powerful way to present the series issues these stories have dealt with. Has your writing for children and younger readers influenced this perspective preference?
Writing in the voice of a very young character comes naturally to me; I find it a really liberating, joyful, insightful and perceptive way to see the world. Children have less baggage; they are a mirror to the adult world, which is what I am really interested in exploring, or exposing. I loved playing a child in my work as an actor too, but as a writer it’s even better because I get to ‘play’ the other characters in my stories too, and they are all ages. The greatest difference for me, between writing for children and adults, is that when I write for adults I don’t have to protect my reader from some difficult and ugly truths. It is open territory, and I really love that. But essentially all the writing comes from the same place. And the same principles remain important; I still have to work just as hard, apply the same discipline and care for my craft.
You write for a wide readership, from picture books for very young children, to series for older children, to novels for adults, as well as screenplays and stage plays. Out of these different styles of writing, is there any one which you enjoy the most?
At this stage it would have to be novels for adults – novels give me the opportunity to spend a lot of time in a character’s world – I can get to them very intimately and really lose myself in a whole other universe. I enjoy the control and the escape in this. All forms of fiction do this for me, but the novel is the best. And it’s the way I like to read too. I think every novel I read teaches me more about the craft of writing, whether I love it or hate it. I am not conscious of particular books influencing me, but I know that my writing is a product of everything I have read and experienced. The kinds of books I love the most are driven by character, and there is a musicality to the way words are used on the page.
Has winning the Miles Franklin award for The Eye of the Sheep added a layer of pressure, in terms of public expectations, to each new writing project you embark on? Has it changed the way you view your own writing?
The early months of writing The Choke were pretty challenging – I was a bit tortured about whether I could live up to the Miles Franklin and all that. But soon enough the book took over; I became deeply connected to my characters, more and more, word by word. It became an escape for me, from the challenges of ordinary life. I could go there, to that world, over and over and over, like being in a trance. Time flew, with me in another world. The Choke gave me a double life. I wrote it in grabs, but many of them. I wanted to go there. Be there in that world. I wrote fast. There were no excuses. I was always so pushed for time. I wrote in the dark living room before the children woke. I was always tired. But the novel felt like it put lights inside me. I am so glad and grateful to it.
And now, six months on from publishing The Choke, I don’t think about the fact that I won an award at all. I just want to write. I never think it’s any good for anybody else anyway – just for me. I do what I need to do on the page without thinking of the world outside. I just know I need to do it – for my own sanity. And for reasons I can’t name. My hands and mind and soul just goes to it, does it. I don’t think about why, its too much of a burning need to ask why. I naturally assume it will be terrible but I still feel driven to do it. All success feels like a temporary reprieve from fear and anxiety.
Can we expect any of your novels for adults to be made into films?
Everything has been contracted but you just never know in the film business – you just have to cross your fingers.
What are you working on next?
I can’t say! I can never say. It feels too private.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Walk, run, see movies, see friends, dance, swim in the ocean, read, lie in the bath with a glass of red wine. I have little kids so I am pretty much busy all the time. My idea of heaven is the movies.
If you could write a letter to your teenage self, what would be your main piece of advice?
My main piece of advice?
It’s going to get better. A lot better. You will find your way.
Sofie Laguna’s second novel for adults, The Eye of the Sheep, was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, shortlisted for the Stella Prize and won the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Her first novel for adults, One Foot Wrong, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Sofie’s many books for young people have been published in the US, the UK and in translation throughout Europe and Asia. Sofie lives in Melbourne with her husband and two sons.
About The Choke:
I never had words to ask anybody the questions, so I never had the answers.
Abandoned by her mother and only occasionally visited by her secretive father, Justine is raised by her pop, a man tormented by visions of the Burma Railway. Justine finds sanctuary in Pop’s chooks and The Choke, where the banks of the Murray River are so narrow it seems they might touch – a place of staggering natural beauty. But the river can’t protect Justine from danger. Her father is a criminal, and the world he exposes her to can be lethal.
Justine is overlooked and underestimated, a shy and often silent observer of her chaotic world. She learns that she has to make sense of it on her own. She has to find ways to survive so much neglect. She must hang on to friendship when it comes, she must hide when she has to, and ultimately she must fight back.