author of Floodline
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I grew up in New South Wales, mainly in Lake Macquarie, where I sailed, kayaked and swam – pleasures that continue to sustain me. I was the youngest child of five, in a single parent household and I was both the wild one and the precociously studious one, which must have been an infuriating combination for those around me. As a student I headed off to the UK and stayed for well over a decade, studying, writing, falling in love, getting married and then, later, having babies. The wildness had been massaged out of me by then. Most of it, anyway.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve I wanted to be a writer. I begged for a typewriter for Christmas that year (and got one: a black Brother which I loved more than I had loved any object before). I had no writers in my world – but every Saturday I would gather up all the change in the house and walk down to the local charity shop and buy up boxes of books. I was, let’s be honest, a slightly odd child (I also had a penchant for knitted vests purchased from those same charity shops and adorned with punk badges. This being the tail end of the seventies, they were easy to come by). I spent a lot of time sending submissions off to the only literary journals that I had access to in my house: New Idea and Women’s Day. Astonishingly, neither of them ever published my witty and insightful hand-written contributions to their pages.
At eighteen I wanted to be a writer but decided I should take a more sensible and secure career path. So I went to drama school and became an actor.
At thirty I had my first novel, The Breaking, published. The advance paid to me after an auction in London seemed enormous; certainly it gave me a huge sense of possibility, of my hard work and determined faith paying off. What I didn’t realise at the time was that the hard work was only just beginning.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That I knew more than the rest of the world and that no-one would ever understand me.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
There are so many – the music of Arvo Paert and also Joni Mitchell; the art of Kandinski, Turner and Stanley Spencer; the novels of Oscar Wilde, Carol Shields, Tove Jansson, Tim Winton, Flaubert. When I try and unpick the common elements across these artists, I think the reason their work has such impact on me is that they are each totally themselves; they pursue their own artistic vision with single-mindedness. When I stand in front of the paintings of Spencer’s fat monks in the desert, or listen to Blue, or re-read Cloudstreet, I feel transformed and thrilled by the possibilities of art. I don’t find myself thinking, with any of those artists, “If only I could be more like them, then I’d be a great artist.” No, I find myself thinking, “I need to be more true to my own voice, my own vision, my own self.” Without that, I don’t think anyone can make great or even good art.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I’m not sure that it’s a rational decision in the way that this question implies – but I do love that as a writer and as a reader the time you spend with a novel creates an utterly submersive experience. As opposed to film or theatre, which are deep experiences but as an audience you are only with those stories for a couple of hours.
With a novel, the reader spends many hours, over many days, returning to the story. I love that, this feeling that a reader is carrying around my characters alongside their lives. And I love it as a reader too, that desperate desire on the train, or in the evening, to get back to the book I’m reading. There’s a depth of experience and a depth of story that you can get with a novel that is hard to find in any other medium.
6. Please tell us about your novel.
Partly inspired by some shocking events that happened in a hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Floodline is about a woman who makes the decision to take her children on a mercy mission to a flooded city – almost losing everything dear to her as a result. The characters in the novel have to make enormous life-altering decisions in extreme circumstances; I’m interested in that – if we have to, how do we choose who to save? – and in the extraordinary strength that we find when we have to. Fundamentally, Floodline is a story about the unexpected salvation that can be found on the edge of disaster.
Funny, moving and utterly compelling, Floodline tells of the unexpected salvation that can be found on the edge of disaster.
When the city of Horneville is destroyed by a flood on the eve of a huge gay Mardi Gras, Mikey Brown – the feisty, sexy and dynamic host of a Christian shopping channel – knows exactly what she needs to do. Taking her sons with her, she sets out on a grand mercy mission. The journey is more than a flood clean-up for Mikey – she wants to save the city and teach the godless inhabitants a lesson. Her husband was lost to her after attempting to ‘mission’ to this same festival and this is her chance to lay the past to rest. Mustard – an enthusiastic, ebullient, 8 year old – doesn’t believe his father is dead. In fact, he is determined to find him and knows that Horneville is the place to start looking. If anyone can bring him back, Mustard can – and his determination to do so will lead him to terrible danger.
Down in the city, the floodwater surrounding the Horneville City Hospital is steadily rising, turning what has been a place of refuge into a disaster zone. Deep in the hospital chaos, Nurse Gina Donaldson is forced to make a life and death decision with shattering repercussions.
The arrival of Mikey’s little troupe helps Gina find hope in the most unlikely places. Both Mikey and Gina must stare down their pasts in order to find salvation, but will they have the courage?
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
In general my work is about the possibility of redemption and this novel in particular is about hope – if I’m driven to put something in the world, it’s the idea that we have endless moments, endless opportunities, and therefore endless responsibility, to change our stories, to be better people.
Tove Jansson, the Finnish writer who created the much loved Moomins. Jansson also wrote for adults, and it’s her clarity of vision that I admire. She never tried to mimic other writers, was utterly herself, even when this appeared to be unfashionable. And her works have such wisdom and wit and love in them, with never a wasted word.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Oh god. Many of them are secret, like wishes. It’s a big list, actually. But a few of the highlights include: writing the truth, always; listening to my instinct; being rigorous; making each book better than the last; continuing to write to the last breath; giving voice to those who might not otherwise be heard. There’s a difference between the internal goals – the elements you can control – and the external goals of publishing, awards, translations, acclaim. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t want those things, but we’re not in control of them. So we need to keep the focus on the goals we can control – the story, the writing, the vision.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
When I was eighteen I had a part-time job waitressing for a film events firm and at one of those events I met a Very Successful Screenwriter. At the end of the night I cornered the poor man and explained that although it looked like I was a waitress I was actually a writer and would love his advice. What should I do, to become a real writer? He asked me what I’d written and I explained that although I was – in my heart – a writer, I hadn’t actually managed to, errr, produce anything yet.
Desperate to get back to the dregs of his party, he smiled grimly and said, “If you want to be a writer, just write.” At the time, I felt completely humiliated (how had he not seen my implicit genius?) but now it’s exactly the advice I’d pass on to new writers:
Write. That’s what makes you a writer. Just keep writing.
Kathryn, thank you for playing
Pick up a copy of Floodline here
Watch Booktopia’s Caroline Baum interview Kathryn Heyman:
Read Caroline Baum’s review:
Kathryn Heyman’s latest novel taps into very recent memories of natural disaster and the way people behave under extreme duress.
The setting is a flood, much like the recent ones in Queensland. So it’s not hard to imagine the scenes of chaos in a Brisbane hospital as a nurse is forced to make triage decisions about who to save when resources start to run out.
Faith, hope, charity all come into play in this satirical yet dark morality tale.
Pick up a copy of Floodline here