Charlotte Wood

PhotoJoyce Fraser interviewed Australian author Charlotte Wood at the Auckland Writer and Readers Festival 2012. Her interview ranges from how to cut an onion, the challenges of writing a novel set in a single day, her pathological Twitter addiction and concepts of manhood in contemporary Australia.

How I write

Your novels capture the day-to-day minutiae of domestic life. Have you always been keenly observant? And do you keep a little book of observed vignettes?
I have always been observant, a watchful child. And I do keep a notebook of things I see but more when I’m in a writing phase. My antennae are up when I’m writing. I was listening to Emily Perkins talk the other day, and she talked about this, and I agree with her, that the pleasure is in the detail, in getting it right. Frank O’Connor the short-story writer said to William Maxwell that happiness is getting it down right and that is a great joy in writing, and a similar pleasure in cooking. Using focused concentration on doing a small thing well. I love observing textures and the sensory world.

Short stories are harder than novels. The structure of them is so important. With a novel you can wallow around finding your way, they have more room for mucking around. I’m only just learning how to write short stories and find them very difficult. It is a mistaken belief to think that short-story writing is a stepping-stone to writing novels and most novelists agree that writing short stories is much harder!

Charlotte on her book Animal people

Find out about Charlotte

Is Stephen based on a real character? And what is it about Stephen that compelled you to continue his story from The Children? And why does he need to dump Fiona?
Stephen is an idiot. The book hinges on the reader accepting that this just is, that there isn’t a proper reason and that Stephen doesn’t really know why he needs to break away from Fiona. He has an unformed feeling of being trapped that has nothing to do with Fiona. I didn’t model him on any one person but I have known several guys like that and I was interested in looking at what our ideas of successful manhood in contemporary Australian society are.

Some reviewers have straight away called him a loser and I think in some people’s eyes he is a loser because he doesn’t own a house, or cars and all that crap. He doesn’t have a decent job and he has no career ambition whatsoever. All of which I can respect as I have no particular respect for career ambition for its own sake. But I think that men who don’t have any career ambition are seen as failures in some way. Stephen is a loser in that he distances himself from life and the possibility of a really good life with Fiona. I think that her family circumstances with her ex-husband, her brother who is also Stephen’s ex-brother-in-law and her parent’s who can’t stand Stephen are just too difficult for him.

I had a lot of fun writing Fiona’s parents, maybe too much fun! I’ve really enjoyed readers saying that they recognise the characters from the novel as real people. I’ve had several blokes sidling up at parties saying, I read your book, and I’m him, I’m Stephen. What I can say is I’m him, I’m Stephen too. If Stephen were a female character I’d be asked how autobiographical the novel is but because he’s a male character no one asks but actually Stephen is the character I most identify with. I feel he is an innocent even though he is too old to be innocent but he is going around in the world thinking this is madness and noticing the class differences and the disparities between the way people emote about animals but treat human beings like garbage. But also realising that the way he sneers at things is a way of distancing him from things that are frightening. He understands this at the end of the novel and I wanted him to have this massive, psychic meltdown that almost would be invisible to anyone walking by but until that end scene he is just a man on the street. One of things I’m interested in is how at times of great crisis in your life you still walk around and go to the shop for milk and whatever and nobody looking at you would realise you are disintegrating. But it was also about writing the portrait of a city, a snapshot of contemporary urban life.
CoverWith Animal People what were the challenges in writing a novel set in a single day?
There were challenges but some aspects were helpful. The helpfulness was that the shape was already determined as I started out and given that there isn’t a lot of high drama in the book the timing helped to propel things so that the reader knows you are getting close to this potentially catastrophic event and the reader is saying don’t do it, don’t destroy yourself. It is like a little ticking clock but because it is only one day I had to really work out how much can happen. I had to really pile things in, initially I was going to have him go to work, dump Fiona and that is the end but I really needed more things to happen. They were small things but through the day it is a process of him being trapped and escaping, trapped and escaping.

I was watching the film The Graduate and I realised liked Benjamin, Stephen is a very passive character, which is a difficult thing to steer in a novel. For a long time in The Graduate Benjamin is trapped, the film opens with him at a party at his parent’s house and this person and that person bail him up, the man in plastics and then Mrs Robinson but he does act when he decides to get the girl. Stephen is always at the mercy of other people’s actions so that was the difficulty, his passivity.
Unlike the bittersweet ending of The Graduate where Benjamin gets the girl and then wonders what on earth he is going to do now, I felt positive that Stephen was now, finally going to make good choices.
The ending has polarised readers. Some people have said it is so tragic and I’m like ‘But it was happy right?” and they are like really, that’s happy? but I want there to be a glimmer of hope!
The thing with that type of character based on people that I’ve actually known is that Stephen is a romantic; one of the reasons he wants to break up with Fiona is that it isn’t perfect. He isn’t a grown-up; he can’t accept that things don’t have to be perfect to be profound and worthwhile. By the end he can see he has missed the opportunity to be a grown-up but that opportunity through the goodness of her is presented back to him.

I’ve been really gratified by readers responses to the children within the novel and I wanted the girls to seem real. I don’t have kids but between my husband and myself I have 20 nephews and nieces so we’ve always had lots and lots of kids around. I’ve always loved observing the private world of children and the way they spent their days doing industrious things that make no sense to adults. Stephanie Johnston brought up the story of little girls sticking tissues together with spit. I called up my niece one day and asked what she was up to; she said she was trying to get these tissues to stick together. ‘Ok good luck with that’ I said, but I loved the way she was so serious. Stephen understands that children should be respected and that is why he is so distressed when Ella has her meltdown at the birthday party. A more grown-up adult would just shrug it off and say she’s just having a spac-attack, she’ll be fine but he sees it as this existential crisis and he has to save her. It is a good impulse and he is a good guy.

The literary life

Do you enjoy lampooning pretentious people?
I’m often lampooning my friends and myself but in, I hope, an affectionate way! I wanted to make the point that indie, middle-class white people often think they are so individual but we are following the herd as much as anyone.
How do you deal with pretentious people in real life? Is the literary world pretentious?
I don’t find the literary world pretentious, well you meet a few tossers but then you meet them anywhere. It’s very easy to wave and move on.¬† Writers are just people. There is a lot of machinery around the industry especially at events like this; festival etc. but people shouldn’t believe the mystique. All the writers have their best clothes on and make-up, and are on their best behaviour. When they go home they are back in their trackie daks like everyone else!
Novels dealing with big global themes of conflict, terrorism and their repercussions often seem to be valued over quieter domestic pieces. Do you agree with this statement?
This is a discussion about women’s writing that has gone on for a long time, and in women’s painting and the arts in general and even in the types of jobs that women do. The domestic is seen as trivial, small and I want to be really careful about this because I don’t feel like I’ve been hard-done to or anything but I do feel sometimes that a novel about a family or the domestic sphere by a man like say like, Jonathan Franzen who writes beautifully about families, might get more attention than a woman writing on a similar theme.

I think it is sometimes easier to identify important themes if they are seen as global, and here it is about the readers more than the writers, what they see as the important strands. One of my favourite writers Richard Ford said, Everything starts with two people in a room If I’m reading a novel about say a Prime Minister I’m interested in the people around him, his wife, his kids, what is happening at the breakfast table. I’m interested in intimate family life as much as how an individual’s politics are influencing global events. There are plenty of women writers who do cut straight to it, like Lionel Shriver and her wonderful book about the American medical system So Much For That, it focuses on a woman who is sick and her marriage but it is also a really savage critique of the America health system.
I don’t really want to get into a simplistic argument about women being hard done-by in the literary world but there certainly are cases to answer.
New Zealanders sometimes seem a bit hazy on Australian writers, who should they be reading?
Lots of great people. I think Australians are really hazy on New Zealand writers and I want to go back with a big list of N.Z. writers I should know. One of my favourites is a friend of mine Vicky Hastrich who wrote The Great Arch. There is also a fantastic female crime writer called P.M. Newton who is an ex-homicide detective.

Social media

You use new media to promote your work: blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Do you enjoy writing for these different forums and does the promotion of your work distract from the writing?
I love Twitter and I’m quite addicted in a fairly serious, pathological way! Facebook I mainly use to talk to my family and friends in a private way. I really enjoy technology and I while I’m not a seriously early adopter of new technology, I do want to get in there.¬†Twitter is very conversational, and I love the humour in it and the way it is a great medium for writers and people who love language. It is challenging and for people who are really good at it, it is an art form.

When I started writing the blog it was fun. Initially it was going to be sharing recipes with my friends as most of my good friends like to cook and I thought we could stick stuff up on the web for each other but it grew from there. I wanted it to be fast, throw away writing in contrast to novel writing. I wanted it to have a free style, a conversational, intimate voice. It has helped me develop a voice of my own that wasn’t fictional.
In Animal People I wanted to use humour a lot more than I had in previous novels and Malcolm Knox who helped launch the novel said it was the first of my books that seemed like me, and I wonder if the blog had some influence on that.


On your Love and Hunger blog you say Cooking is creativity in its purest form. Where does creative writing fit on the scale?
When you work in a creative field, it is work. It is deeply pleasurable and satisfying but it is not after a while entirely for its own sake and you are really aware of the expectations of other people, and of yourself and that you are trying to develop your artistry and become a better novelist. It is so hard. Writing fiction is incredibly demanding. Cooking is play and while I’ve always found it to be deeply creative there is no pressure, no expectations. I can do what I want. People are universally happy with what you feed them, sometimes you feed them better food than at other times but it gives you license to do whatever you want. Cooking allows experimentation and while you can do that with fiction it is challenging. Writing is my work not my leisure. Cooking is instantly gratifying and sociable, bringing people together. Writing is a solitary and sometimes lonely business.
Do you enjoy TV cookery shows, what chefs or cooks do you admire?
I do, I’m not very secretly addicted to MasterChef. I love learning from certain cooking shows like Jamie Oliver and Maggie Beer. I love MasterChef for its entertainment but it has nothing to do with real cooking. All that drama and stress, the timer and the judge’s criticism etc can lead to performance anxiety about home cooking. Restaurants are a whole other thing. I can’t imagine anything worse than being a restaurant chef. They work so hard, for so little reward. It seems very glamorous but it is long hours for not much money. Stressful and dramatic but that is as far removed from my home cooking as singing in the shower is from being on stage with Beyoncé. So I love the entertainment, and the entertainment requires drama and high emotion and stress but that is entertainment not cooking.

I think it is quite easy to become a good cook; you just have to want to do it. I understand that some people don’t want to do it and have no interest in it and good luck to you if you can get someone else to cook for you, fantastic. Cooking is something that most of us have to do and it is a shame if you can’t find some pleasure in it. I have a chapter in Love and Hunger about the practicalities of how to chop an onion. Once I’d learned how to cut onion properly I was like ok, I can do this.
What is your onion technique?
I half the onion with the root intact, then do one horizontal slice before cutting downwards slices.

What next?

CoverCan you divulge some details on your latest writing project?
I’ve just started a novel set in a girl’s reform school but that is all I know really and it is going to be quite different from The Children and Animal People in tone. It isn’t going to be contemporary realist but again that could all change in a minute, I don’t really know. This is starting with the place, not a real but an imagined place in Australia It is a closed society of school/prison and I have a couple of real beginnings of characters but it could all fall apart next week and be chucked in the bin but I hope not! I try and write 1000 words a day. Sometimes that will take me two hours and other times a full day and I’ll still only get to 800 words. That goal keeps my bum glued to the seat and I can’t leave. I generally manage it.
Would you return to the characters you developed in The Children and Animal People?
People ask me about continuing with Connolly family but Mandy as a character is finished and Cathy is too nice and sane and sensible to be good fodder for fiction. I like to know that the characters are there if I need them but I have no plans to go back at this stage. At a book event I was challenged to come back to Stephen in 10 or 15 years and I though Oh that would be an interesting time, by then he’d be in his mid-50s. There is a natural feeling there should be three so who knows.
Interview, May 2012