The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of The World Without Us
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 Sydney, raised in Fiji, England, New Zealand and Australia. My primary schooling was in Castle Hill, in Sydney’s Bible belt. Religion was entirely mysterious to me, though alluring. I had a writer’s sense of never quite fitting in, so when I learned of my family’s German Jewish heritage, it seemed to offer some explanations for unspoken things—it opened me up to an entirely other world.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
My mother was a librarian and I credit her for an early love of reading and for feeling at home around the Dewey Decimal System. At twelve after borrowing some books about autistic children, I decided to cure autism. But this grandiose plan was really about reconciling my own sensitivity, which wasn’t especially prized in my world. It took me a long time to accept the quieter, pensive side of myself.
At thirty I was teaching, doing a PhD, headed for academia. My first novel was published but I still didn’t have the audacity to call myself a writer, I was shadowed by that particularly Australian shame around creative achievement.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen I thought my identity was fixed and immoveable, that the depression from which I’d suffered was innate. Happily I now know this was something I would pass through. But still I had to dismantle the belief that melancholy was the source of writing ability. James Baldwin says of this: ‘No one works better out of anguish at all; that’s an incredible literary conceit.’ I had to learn you could write in any state of mind.
Literature was immensely consoling during this time. I read and wrote poetry. Tsvetaeva, Rilke, Celan and Wallace Stevens are still often by the bed with Anne Carson. I like Lacan’s advice to read the poets ‘not for wisdom, but for the dismantling of wisdom’. That’s also what I hope to do when I write.
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?
Hard to choose three, for there’s Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Duras, Bachelard, Barthes, Benjamin, DeLillo. But here goes…
Poem of the End, Marina Tsvetaeva’s magisterial incantatory sequence about the end of an affair, longing and belonging, loss and separation. A dissident writer under Stalin, Tsvetaeva’s poem seems to foreshadow other histories of displacement and loss.
Diane Arbus’s audacious photographs, and her raw and marvelous journal entries collected recently in Revelations.
Speedboat, Renata Adler’s fragmented novel of ideas, which boldly collaged diary entries with cultural observations of her time as a reporter in 1970s New York. Wry, blazingly smart, worldly and hypnotic. A grittier Joan Didion.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I begin with an idea, which usually transfigures as I think and write around it. It often becomes a short work, and if it still captures my interest, I’ll keep going. I don’t necessarily set out to write a novel (and I’ve just written a long essay by way of exploring some new themes). I let my fascination guide me, and the process tends to demand a particular form.
The novel is one of several forms that help me discover what I believe, that dismantles receive wisdoms. It has the capacity to sustain several questions and the novelists I prefer are less interested in answers than encompassing in their stories mystery, curiosity, doubt.
It’s difficult to describe a work you’ve lived with so long—you see it from the inside out. I started The World Without Us with several questions: what happens when the landscapes so familiar to us, so consoling—whether inside or beyond the home become unrecognizable? Do our histories conceal or reveal who we are?
Central to the novel is young Tess Müller, who hasn’t spoken for six months. Her silence is a mystery to her beekeeping father and her younger sister Meg. But the more urgent puzzle for the girls is where their mother disappears to and why he’s become so absent to the family, and to herself. The novel asks how a child’s silence protects what’s hidden in the family, how we survive our childhoods, and how we are formed or deformed by our rapidly changing environments.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope to make the reader think, feel, and become fully absorbed in an otherworld. I aimed to create a powerful and atmospheric sense of this clannish rainforest town, and the family’s dilapidated farmhouse—floating and dreamlike. I hope I’ve summoned some of the complexity of this particular human community, without diluting its mysteries. I hope I’ve made people feel, and question what they believe about coming of age, repression and the longing for human connection.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I admire writers who are utterly committed to their work rather than the attention it may attract, who take creative risks regardless of the market and have a distinctive style. I most admire writers who inhabit the literary world with courage, humility and ethical tact. They’re alert to the many voices we don’t hear in mainstream publishing, reminding us of literature’s diversity and complexity. I’ve been guided by some quietly brilliant writers and thinkers in Australia—Michelle de Kretser, Gail Jones, Ross Gibson, Ivor Indyk. From afar I admire Deborah Levy, Rachel Kushner, Svetlana Alexievich, Ali Smith, Adam Phillips, John Berger, Anne Carson, Rebecca Solnit.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
My ambitions centre on the work itself, rather than its outcomes, which are usually beyond the author’s control. I think of writing as a long apprenticeship in which I continually experiment with and refine new literary techniques. Hopefully this experimentation forms the bedrock of each work, and allows it to be audacious, dynamic. It’s important that the style emerges from the content, so that the novel is intensely engaged with its central themes at every level. With each new book I hope to depart from the last in style, tone, point of view, preoccupation and setting.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Persist and trust your instincts. Don’t allow what’s unique about your style, or voice to become diluted by well-intentioned, but colonising advice. Be humble enough to accept guidance but seek it from reliable sources and let it percolate before you follow it.
Mireille, thank you for playing.
The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau
Their sweet cells gild the cover of one of the finest novels I’ve read this year: a lyrical story of secrets and grief that reveals itself in a finely structured honeycomb. The sedate pace at which the story unfolds mirrors the bees own unhurried production.
Since her younger sister died after a long illness, Tess has fallen silent though her mind is anything but quiet. Her mother, Evangeline, has stopped painting. Her father, Stefan, is worried about his hives. And then he finds the wreckage of a truck and two skeletons in the lush bush where they have made their farm home. The local township, which includes former members of the alternative Hive community where Evangeline once lived before it burned down, speculates on who the victims might be.
Currents and cross currents flow through every system of nature and society in Juchau’s world: the river, where Jim first sees Evangeline and joins her in the fast running waters; among the bees, where production is slowing. And within the community, where much is unsaid. Tess is drawn with especially fine sensitivity and affection, on the cusp of adolescence, struggling to understand how adults navigate the world.
Reviewed by Caroline Baum
About the Author
Mireille is a hugely talented, up and coming Australian novelist and The World Without Us is her third novel. Her first, Machines for Feeling was shortlisted for the 1999 Vogel/Australian Literary Award and the second, Burning In, was published by Giramondo Publishing in 2007. It was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award 2008, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2008, the Age Book of the Year Award 2008 and the Nita B. Kibble Award 2008.
About the Contributor
Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.
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