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 Singapore and raised in Sydney, in the inner west. I studied English and Fine Arts at Sydney Uni and went to the US in 1998 to do a PhD in English at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I ended up specialising in English Renaissance poetry and lived in New York for around eight years while I studied.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At 12 I had no idea. A visual artist, perhaps – I was always drawn to visual art, particularly photography.
At thirty I was in the middle of my PhD and wanted to be an academic, but with a strong sense of how hard that would be as the job market shrank and conditions for academics worsened. It was an enormous relief when a publisher wanted to buy my first novel (I was 36 by then.) I still love teaching and would hate to give it up altogether.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I was a lot more judgemental than I am now.
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?
1. Anne of Green Gables by L.M.Montgomery. I was a very lonely child at school, and with these books in particular I discovered the ways in which fiction could provide a world of the imagination, a place to escape to, and I was fascinated by the passionate forms of friendship in those novels – all the romance around it, Diana and Anne signalling to one another with candles in their windows from across the meadow at night. It was something I felt excluded from in life until I changed schools and made friends in year 5. Friendship is a theme I can’t stop writing about.
2. Bill Henson’s photography. I distinctly remember attending a show of Henson’s in the early 90s at an Eastern suburbs gallery, and being moved, appalled and fascinated by the brutality and beauty of his pictures of girls and boys; they were gorgeous, corrupt, erotic, violent, attractive, repellent, and evoked disturbing power dynamics. They were utterly compelling, and at the same time I didn’t trust my own reactions or responses to them. I think I learned something about how art can be unsettling in a productive way, and can evoke meanings that exist in tension or even contradiction with each other.
3. Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Ever since reading this novel as an undergraduate I’ve been obsessed and troubled by it, by what it says about women and ambition, and the way the heroine Isabel appears to be punished so dreadfully for her desire for independence. My first novel, The Legacy, was my attempt to form a response to it, and create a version of the story that revised its horrible ending.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I had a story I wanted to tell that could only be told through the form of a novel. I didn’t feel as though I had any choice about it. It felt like a compulsion. As much as I’m drawn to visual art, I’m primarily someone who relates to the world through language, so the choice of form felt natural.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
It’s called A Common Loss, and it focuses on a group of male friends who meet up in Las Vegas every year. We meet them in Vegas ten years after their first visit, a few months after one of them, Dylan, has died in a road accident. The book is narrated by Elliot, a member of the group who has always seen himself as the detached, intelligent observer, but who soon learns that he’s been wrong about many things to do with his friends for a long time. The story traces the eventual implosion of the group as Dylan’s death leads to the revelation of secrets from each of their pasts.
(BBGuru: Publisher’s Blurb – They were originally five. Elliot. Brian. Tallis. Cameron. And Dylan — charismatic Dylan — the mediator, the leader, the man each one turned to in a time of crisis. Five close friends, bonded in college, still coming together for their annual trip to Las Vegas.
This year they are four. Four friends, sharing a common loss: Dylan’s tragic death. A common loss that, upon their arrival in Vegas, will bring with it a common threat: one that will make them question who their departed friend really was, and whether he is even worthy of their grief.
A COMMON LOSS is Kirsten Tranter’s follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut, The Legacy. Yet again, Tranter’s weave of watertight prose and literary sensibilities shows her to be a born writer with a precocious control of storytelling and style. )
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope my work does that thing that I value in writing – that it creates the sensation of stepping into another world, seeing things through a different set of eyes. On the one hand I want readers to recognize the emotional experiences I’m writing about – and on the other hand, I want them to feel as though I’m offering a new perspective on them, or representing them in a new way, or evoking aspects of complexity or ambivalence that are usually hidden or hard to admit.
Donna Tartt is the writer of the past 20 years I most admire and I hope she produces another book one day. I love the sheer elegance of her writing, the way she establishes voice and character so deftly, and the way she explores the darker side of feelings involved in friendship and love. I especially admire writers who explore the boundaries of genre, and bring a literary sensibility to genre fiction: John Banville’s Benjamin Black novels are great, and I’m a huge fan of China Miéville as well. I adore Martin Amis’ style despite my deep reservations about his crazy politics.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I don’t know whether I have any very lofty goals. I try to do the best work I can. There’s an ideal version of each of my novels that exists in my head. I want my finished book to be as close as possible to that ideal, to do justice to it.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read as widely as you can, and train your eye to see what good writers are doing well and how they do it. Bring to your writing the kind of passion and urgency that Donna Tartt‘s narrator describes in the prologue to The Secret History: “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.” I think I was only able to find the courage to write my first novel once I truly felt that myself.
Kirsten, thank you for playing.
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.