The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of Lost & Found
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 was born in Geelong Hospital in Victoria, and my family (Mum, Dad, and my two brothers) lived on ten acres in a quiet nearby bush town called Bellbrae. It was pretty idyllic: the air smelled of eucalyptus, we had the space to play and imagine, and we were friends with all our neighbours. I went to Bellbrae Primary School, and, later as a teenager, went to a public high school near Geelong called Belmont High. When I was seven, we had a three year stint in Florida in the U.S., while my dad completed his doctorate in Sports Psychology. I went to Walter T. Moore Elementary School while we were there. My brothers and I developed weird, hybrid accents, and people often asked me to ‘say Paul Hogan’. It was such a valuable time: it helped me to learn that the world was bigger than my own corner of it. It also helped me to learn that adding peanut butter to anything is always a good idea.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Twelve: a writer.
Eighteen: a cricket player.
Thirty: alive, and not an idiot.
By the time I reached my thirties, I’d kind of reconfigured what it meant to ‘be something’. I just wanted to live a life that I was proud of.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
Oh, man, so many things. That ‘The Phantom Menace’ was going to be good. That I would marry Patrick Rafter. That ‘Party of Five’ was awesome. That waiting for four hours for a ten second movie trailer to download on our family computer was totally worth it. That I was going to be a sport scientist. That we would have hover-boards by now. That eighteen is old. That thirty-four is really old.
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?
I find it difficult to pinpoint those ah-ha moments where one piece of art has made time stand still and everything from then on was forever changed. My thirty-odd years of writing feels like a vague blob of reading lots and just flat-out copying my favourite writers. When I was a kid, it was Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Robin Klein, John Marsden, Paul Jennings, L.M. Montgomery and Emily Rodda. They were imaginative, funny, different from each other, and I never felt patronised when I read them. I also remember being really taken with Tim Winton’s ‘Lochie Leonard’ books—he captured the sound of the Australian accent so beautifully and I hadn’t realised that you could do that in writing, that you could give a character the sound of your own voice.
These days, writing that has the greatest effect on me is writing that makes me dizzy with the distance between what they can do and what I can do. I can see the gap between myself and them and I think: I want to be there. I want to be able to do what they do. Alice Munro, George Saunders, and Janet Frame are some of the writers doing that for me now.
But, really, I feel like I’m always taking in art and it’s always having an impact on my writing: music that might open me up to something, paintings that blast me with colour, photographs of very ordinary people. My writing feels like it’s a process of absorbing everything around me and trying to turn all of that into language, and subsequently into narrative.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Hmm. ‘Innumerable’ is a strong word! I wish that writing a novel was the thing I chose at the expense of writing orchestral musical scores, or touring the world with the Riverdance crew. The reality is, I’m not very good at anything else: I’m a particularly terrible singer, and my artistic career peaked at about age seven when I drew a sun wearing sunglasses (still pretty proud of that).
The book is very much a work of fiction but it comes from a really personal place. Essentially while writing it I was trying to work out how you live knowing that anyone you love can die at any moment. About seven years ago, I was on a trip around the world and rang home to find out my mum had died in a freak accident. It took me ages to start writing fiction again, but when I did, the character that came first was a little girl obsessed with death. She’d become seven year-old Millie Bird in ‘Lost & Found’. Agatha Pantha came next, an elderly and grumpy woman who didn’t want to know about death. About two years into the writing of the novel, Karl the Touch Typist—an elderly man wanting to relive his youth—became a part of the story, too.
In ‘Lost & Found’, these three characters live in a small town on the South West Coast of WA. At the beginning, Millie has just been abandoned at a department store by her mum, Agatha hasn’t left her house in seven years since her husband died, and Karl has just escaped from his nursing home. They meet, and, together, go on a pretty unusual road trip across Australia.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
That’s a tough question. I don’t really know. Something like: we’re all in this together, so let’s be kind. George Saunders said in an acceptance speech for an award recently that he writes to ‘soften borders’ between him and his characters, and best-case-scenario for readers of Lost & Found would be that they felt a bit of understanding towards my characters, and as a result, people in real life who weren’t themselves. But I don’t want to get too grand about it! I guess it’d be nice if it made them laugh sometimes.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
My older brother, Rhett. When I was growing up, I couldn’t imagine ever being able to write as well as he did. Lovely sentences and big words and original ideas seemed to come to him so effortlessly. He was my total writing hero. He stopped writing for about ten years when he kind of fell into being a grown up, earning good money and being a responsible human (unlike his sister!). I was sad for him, but his life seemed to be the way he wanted, so I never said anything. But not long after our mum died, he decided he was going to spend an entire year a) reading a book a week, and b) writing for an hour every night after work. The point of the exercise was not to judge himself on the writing he did, and not put any pressure on himself to publish. He did that for a whole year. He was disciplined and methodical about it. At the end of the year, he had a whole heap of ideas and thoughts and starts and ends and had a renewed sense of energy. He was teaching himself to write again, playing catch up with all that time he had ignored his own creativity.
Now, about six years later, he’s quit his job and moved to Canada to complete his MFA (Creative Writing) at UBC. He’s published a load of original and imaginative and profound short stories, and he’s working hard on his first novel. That decision—to pursue writing when the end point of that is not clear or stable—was a very difficult one for him to make. I’m so proud of him. He’s such a brave dude.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
I feel a bit odd giving out writing advice, to be honest. I’m still very much learning, and suppose I will be learning till the day I die, or stop writing, whichever comes first. But I guess there are two main thoughts on writing that I keep close to me.
The first one is to read and write and read and write and read and write. Reading—and articulating what it is that a writer does that appeals to me—and writing are the only ways I know of to become a better writer.
The second is a quote from Hemingway: ‘the first draft of anything is sh*t.’ It’s so important to allow myself time and space to fail at writing in those early stages. I might write two thousand words in a day and only come up with one sentence or one idea that is usable, or good enough, but every single one of those two thousand words was important for me to write. I need to have stages where I write with the freedom of someone who doesn’t care about perfect sentences.
Perhaps there’s three things, then, because in the rewriting I have to do the opposite of not care about perfect sentences. It’s important at this stage for me to take the time to look carefully at every single word, and make a case for their presence in the narrative. So the third thing might be to understand when the right time is to swoop back in make all my words work for me. I’ve only been able to work that out through trial and error.
It’s a very messy business, this writing thing. You’ve got to work most things out for yourself.
Brooke, thank you for playing.