February 2018

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Life and The Life to Come: Alexandra Watkins interviews Michelle de Kretser

In this first ever Creative Lives interview the acclaimed novelist Michelle de Kretser (winner of Australia’s Miles Franklin Prize in 2013 and 2018) reveals the starting point of her highly successful international literary career. She pinpoints a tête-à-tête on French history as the catalyst of her first attempt at creative writing, a piece that ultimately developed into her first novel. In conversation with Alexandra Watkins, De Kretser divulges her literary inspirations in life and writing, whilst also shedding light on her process of composition, characters, and strategies. De Kretser, Sri Lankan born, is the author of six books, including The Rose Grower (1999), The Hamilton Case (2003), The Lost Dog (2007), Questions of Travel (2012), Springtime: A Ghost Story (2014), and The Life to Come (2017). She is an Honorary Associate of the English Department at the University of Sydney, has taught literature and creative writing, and in former life she worked as a publisher for Lonely Planet. This interview was conducted by Skype in late October 2017; Michelle was in Sydney and Alexandra in Melbourne. 

Alexandra Watkins: Congratulations on The Life to Come! It’s very impressive, beautifully written, and so intriguing. Also, the structure is magnificent. There’s a marvellous weaving of storylines in it a style that you’re known for, although these new storylines, have a kind of independence about them that feels new. Where does a novel like this novel begin? Was it with a particular character?

Michelle de Kretser: It began with the first section, and with George, who is the main character in it. He was supposed to be less dominant in the rest of the book, but he was going to be the character I followed.

This plan was revised by the end of writing the first section, when I suddenly realised that I knew everything there was to know about George. I knew what sort of person he was and that he wouldn’t change much over time. My feelings towards him wouldn’t change, and the reader’s feelings towards him wouldn’t change. He was steadfast, and I felt I’d already shown everything essential about him. Whereas Pippa seemed far more mercurial and interested me for that reason. I knew that there was more to explore with Pippa. She would sustain a novel.

Alexandra: So, was the book written in a linear way?

Michelle: The order in which it was written was part one, three, two, five and four. I left number four until the end because it shows Pippa from her own perspective. I wanted to see her through other people’s eyes first, the better to imagine how she might view herself. By the time I came to write her version of herself, I felt I knew her well and that gave me confidence to imagine her fully.

Alexandra: A great strategy. And in relation to Pippa, I think there’s some play with temporality, too.

Michelle: Yes. So, through Cassie, who has been at high school with Pippa, we learn a little bit about what she was like as a teenager. And another thing that I did, which was a bit risky as it disrupts chronology, was to drop in a story told from Pippa’s mother’s point of view. It takes the reader back in time to when Pippa’s parents are still married, and Pippa is a little girl called Narelle. It enabled me to show what Pippa was like as a child, as well as what kind of family she came from. It was a way to fill out Pippa’s backstory, a way to achieve a greater depth of character and narrative in a short space. The reader can compare the child Pippa with the older person, and reach a greater understanding of her.

There’s risk in this method, as the reader might feel disorientated for a page or two when new characters suddenly appear in the middle of Pippa’s narrative. But personally, I enjoy books that respect my intelligence and expect me to fill in some gaps and join some dots. It’s a pleasurable disorientation –- at least I hope so!

The other thing is that by showing Pippa from different perspectives — holding her up to the light at various angles — I hoped to complicate the reader’s response to her. Again, that’s a slightly risky strategy: a certain kind of reader only wants to engage with ‘likeable’ characters, for a start. But I wanted my reader’s feelings about Pippa to shift over the course of the novel, rather than settling into a simplistic like/dislike, good person/bad person groove. I’m interested in morally ambivalent characters – they’re fascinating to write. And after all, our feelings about people shift with changing circumstances and contexts.

Alexandra: Thinking now about the writing process, was it similar or different to the experience of writing your earlier novels?

Michelle de Kretser:  Every novel is different. By the same token, all books are alike in requiring work! Also, I always experience similar frustrations regarding the start of a book and the same exhilaration when it comes to ending one. Because this new novel is in five sections, I had to go through the somewhat painful process of five different beginnings; but then I had the delight of five separate endings, and finally the pleasure of finishing the final section, the satisfaction of finishing the whole thing and feeling that it really did hang together.

The structure of five sections without a single narrative thread was another thing that felt risky. Would it work? Pippa is in each of the five sections, but I don’t feel that she is a central character in the conventional sense. In some sections she’s pretty marginal; in others she’s more prominent. So, I worried about not having that single, main character for readers to follow. Still, I decided to trust that people would understand what I’m trying to do.

Alexandra: When did you first write “creatively”? Was it during your childhood?

Michelle: Not at all, although I was always a huge reader. I read so much as a child — in fact, throughout my life. I think writers always come from readers. That’s not necessarily to say people who have been to university, or had formal training in reading or literary analysis, but rather people who have invested in literature. From a very early age, I was immersed in words and in books, and that’s what eventually led to my writing.

Alexandra: Which authors and/or books influenced you most in those early years?

Michelle: I read a vast amount of poetry when I was young – that’s hugely important in acquiring an ear for rhythm and a taste for precise language. Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Co was an important book later on, although for life rather than writing. I read it when I was about fifteen. It filled me with a dream of studying French and going to live in Paris, which I did; both my degrees are in French Literature. Hemingway’s A Movable Feast, his account of the “lost generation” of expatriate American writers in 1920s Paris, was also influential in setting up that romantic vision.

Another book that I remember well was Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica. I read it when I was fourteen – around the time that my family had moved to Australia. We had moved from Colombo, in Sri Lanka, to Elwood, an inner suburb of Melbourne. And it was there that I discovered the joy of the St Kilda Public Library. I would visit it every week and come back with a haul of books. At fourteen you’re transitioning between books for children and books for adults, and of course in my day there was no such thing as YA. So instead we read genre novels, or I did anyway — historical novels, crime fiction, etcetera. Well, I remember this particular novel because I had read the back cover, which said that it was about a group of children, and so I assumed that it was a children’s book. I was completely wrong, of course.

I’ve never forgotten an extraordinary episode in that book. The children are travelling, without their parents, from Jamaica to England on a ship that is captured by pirates. The adults are killed or otherwise out of the way, and at that point the novel seems like a children’s adventure story. It’s that typical situation where children find themselves without adult guidance and must rely on their wits to defend themselves. Well, there’s a very striking scene in which one of the boys (the eldest, I think) goes up the rigging, and falls off. He hits the deck and he dies. He’s disposed of in a single sentence. And there is no warning about this. You do not know that John is going to die, there is no hint at what is to come, and life goes on. John is disposed of and life goes on. Although shocking to me then and still now, I thought it was a highly effective way to give your reader a jolt. It taught me the value of not letting a reader guess what might happen next, of always being one step ahead.  Keep something in reserve, and don’t be afraid to surprise your readers. And then — this is the crucial bit — don’t linger on it. Just do it and move on.

Alexandra: So, when did you start writing creatively?

Michelle: It was when I left my job at Lonely Planet. I was working as a publisher there when the company brought in a policy whereby you could have twelve months off without pay. I’d been working there for ten years and I was tired of it. My partner was also working as a junior academic, which is very full on, as you know, and our lives were extremely busy. So I thought it would be good to have a year of “slow living”, as it were. I would read, I would cook, I would garden. But what I soon discovered was that when you’re used to working very long hours you can cook, garden, and read, but it doesn’t fill all the hours of the day. There is a lot of time left over.

One of the things that I was interested in doing that year was to get back into reviewing, because I’d done quite a lot of that when I was younger and missed that professional engagement with literature. So I wrote off to literary editors of newspapers and magazines with my CV. While I was waiting to hear back, I decided I would start writing something to practise fitting words together, because for a long time I’d written nothing but author briefs and reports on books, just rote, work-related things.

The previous year, my partner, Chris, and I had been on a long walk in France through a region called the Gers, which is the present-day name for the old region of Gascony. Chris was teaching French literature at Melbourne University and he was about to start a course on 18th-Century writing, so we were talking about that period in French history. It occurred to me that I’d like to read about life in this remote area of France during the Revolution. Pretty much everything that I knew about the Revolution, including its representations in literature and film, was focussed on Paris. That’s where all the exciting stuff happened, all the world-historical events. But we had been walking in this area of France which felt so remote from the life of the capital, and this at the end of the 20th Century, two hundred years after the Revolution – what must have it been like at the time, how would the Revolution have manifested itself in that place? If I had found a book about it, that would have satisfied my curiosity; and so I wouldn’t have written my first novel, The Rose Grower. But I didn’t, and so in order to make writing a regular practice during my year away from paid employment, I tried to imagine what life might have been like for a group of people during that time and in that place. And that’s where the novel began.

Looking back on it, I think that I probably did have the wish to write fiction but I had to trick myself into it. I think that if, at the beginning of that year, I had sat down and said to myself that I was going to write a novel, I wouldn’t have done it. It would have seemed too immense, too presumptuous, and just too difficult. Beginning without properly acknowledging the task was a way of tricking myself into doing it. In fact, it took me around a month to realise what I was really doing and admit it to myself, and it was about three months before I told my partner. I said nothing to anyone else until I had a complete first draft because I wasn’t sure if I could get there.

Alexandra: Your partner Chris Andrews is also a writer, a poet, and a scholar, who has recently published on “post-conflict literature” and “intertextuality and murder”. Now, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I do see an overlapping of themes in your work and his. Collective interests… It’s brought me to thinking about the inner world of some other literary couplings, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which I teach in genre studies, and of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, the subject of a Netflix documentary that I watched recently. I’m not making direct comparisons, but I am interested in how you might influence and/or support one another. Is writing a collaborative practice in your household? Editing and so forth?

Michelle: Not really, although we are each other’s first reader. Chris sees my novels when they’re finished, or rather when I’ve got a complete first draft, or maybe even a second one; ditto for me reading his poetry or scholarly work. Chris is excellent at pointing out details that don’t work at the sentence level; I’m deeply indebted to his careful and intelligent reading of my work. But he writes poetry, not fiction, and I while think we have some overlapping interests — we both like noticing the detail of the world and rendering it — there’s no collaboration, as such. 

We share an interest in French writing and France. Chris’s main scholarly interest is the OuLiPo, a group of experimental French writers. The essay on “post-conflict literature” was really a one-off for him that grew out of his interest in South American writing. As you may know, he’s also a widely acclaimed translator, best known for translating the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño.

Alexandra: Is writing discussed at your breakfast table?

We’re probably discussing our dogs at the breakfast table. We could be discussing books we’ve read, essays we’ve read, articles we’ve read, but rarely our own work.

Alexandra: In your latest novel, The Life to Come, your protagonist Pippa (eventually a celebrity novelist) is an average student in another character George Meshaw’s undergraduate unit “The fictive self”. Tell me about this concept.

Michelle: The idea of fictive selves is one that I tried to follow throughout the novel. It refers to the different ways in which we create our sense of self, which includes how we view ourselves privately as well as the ways we represent ourselves to others — our public selves. Since Pippa is a novelist, the fictive self also refers to fictional characters, who might or might not be based on fictional versions of real people. I don’t exactly know what George’s seminar is about, but I imagine that it’s about autobiographical representations of the self — that’s another kind of fictional self.

In the course of the novel, Pippa changes her name because she thinks that Narelle doesn’t sound right for a writer of literary fiction; that is a rejection of class, of course, although Pippa is unable to articulate it as such — she might not even recognise it as being about class. But she is actually spot on about the way class operates in the literary world — her instincts are altogether sound in that respect. Anyway, she changes from a working-class name to a high-toned one, the kind of name she thinks will look good on a book and attract acclaim. She also curates a public self on Twitter and on other social media platforms. So throughout the novel, I was interested in reflecting various strategies Pippa employs to produce versions of herself.

There’s also Eva, Pippa’s mother-in-law. Pippa and she don’t particularly hit it off, probably because Eva, too, transparently curates “fictive selves” — underlying the two women’s mutual antipathy is common ground. Eva performs goodness, performs ethics, and refers to herself as “a citizen of conscience”. Performance is a key element of the “the fictive self”. We are all slightly different people according to the context in which we find ourselves. One could ask, is one of these “selves” truer, more authentic, more real than the others? Well, I would say probably not. I think the self is a collection of performances, or performative selves. Some people mask it more subtly, that’s all.

When Pippa posts on Facebook about making soup for a friend who is ill, or publicly proclaims her solidarity with a Muslim woman, we might find it reprehensible that she’s boasting about her good deeds. Nevertheless, she is doing them. The same goes for Eva. I think we can do without boastfulness, there’s far too much of it around. All the same, these characters are trying to do good in the world, even if their motives in might be questionable.

 Alexandra: Gustave Flaubert is famous for saying, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”. Do you, like Flaubert, share certain characteristics with your female protagonists? Do you find parts of yourself manifested within them?

Michelle: Of course. I share them with all my protagonists, male or female. They are all created by me so they have to have something of me in them. They are not self-portraits, but they bear my DNA; every character in a novel carries the writer’s DNA.

Alexandra: Is your writing process anything akin to Pippa’s? She describes the act of writing a novel as similar to solving a puzzle. Do you also see it this way?

Michelle: Not really. Pippa has taken over that concept from Matt, her husband. Matt has said early on in their relationship that he thinks of art as something strict and formal, and that he approaches it in the way an engineer might approach a technical drawing. This appeals to Pippa, and so she parrots it when talking to Christabel later on. I suppose what I would agree with in Matt’s definition is that I think of a novel as work, and not really about self-expression; I think that underlies what he says. I mean, certainly I’m expressing ideas that I hold, but I’m not writing about myself, I’m not writing autofiction. I’m not interested in that. I’m very happy to read it if it’s well done, and if other writers want to do it that’s terrific; but I have always been more interested in other people than in myself and it shows in my fiction, as I like piecing together invented characters. That is one of the deep pleasures of writing for me. At the same time, it’s inevitable that the characters I invent are going to bear some resemblance to me — a thread, however faint, must link us; we might stand in metaphorical relationship to each other. Still, I really feel when I am writing that I am making people up and that is wonderfully satisfying to me.

Alexandra: There are several books entitled French Lessons including one by the American author, Ellen Sussman, and another a travel/gastronomy narrative by Peter Mayle which seems to be aligned with the style of your character Pippa? What’s the connection here?

Michelle: I haven’t read either of those and I wasn’t aware of them. But I do remember reading a long time ago a book called French Lessons: A Memoir by Alice Kaplan. It’s about Kaplan’s experience of learning French in France. It describes her anxiety about learning and speaking a foreign language, the mistakes she makes — that any foreigner makes. Kaplan is a very self-conscious person, so she talks about being deeply embarrassed when she gets something wrong — a grammatical point, or pronunciation or whatever. Whereas when I speak French, I try to do it correctly, of course, but I think the French will forgive me when I make a mistake because they know I’m a foreigner. It’s different for Kaplan, who was teaching French and therefore highly invested in the idea that her grasp of the language it had to be perfect —  it involved her professional status. So I do remember that book but, honestly, I just gave Pippa a novel with that title because she was writing a book set partly in France, and that was the title that came to me. No intertextual relationship intended!

Alexandra: Was there anyone in particular who inspired you to write the character of Pippa?

Michelle: God, no. But she seems to me to be the kind of writer who is very dependent on external validation (in the form of sales and acclaim), and in that sense she conforms to a type that can be observed in any group of writers. There’s a pathetic aspect to Pippa because she needs success in a way that George doesn’t. I feel that George would keep writing his novels regardless of their reception. Whereas Pippa has always got half an eye on George and is following his career and envies what she perceives as the recognition his work receives. I’d locate myself somewhere on the spectrum between those two. I’d like to think I’m closer to George, but there are no doubt times when I slide towards the Pippa end of the scale.

Alexandra: Does your award-winning status change your approach to writing, and subject matters?

Michelle: It’s wonderful to win awards. But they’re always for a previous book, so they don’t really help you with the book that you’re trying to write. I don’t want to sound ungrateful or blasé about it. I’m not. It’s been lovely to win those awards, and I feel extremely lucky to have them. But does it influence my writing or my process? Not at all.

Alexandra: What’s the story with Australians and coffee (mentioned several times in the new book)? What does our obsession with coffee say about us as a nation?

Michelle: I think Australians are very particular about their coffee, Melbournians especially so. Perhaps we don’t have more important things to be concerned about – a happy state of affairs.

The other thing is that I’m always interested in changing fashions of one kind or another and I noticed that there had been a shift from lattes to flat whites some years ago: more and more people were ordering the latter. So that went into the novel. But is anyone really sneered at for ordering a latte?  I hope not. I exaggerate these things for comic effect.

Alexandra: As is also the case in your previous work, this new novel The Life to Come includes Sri Lankan characters and stories. There’s Ash, The “Ashfield Tamil”, and finally, Bunty and Christabel. Do correct me if I’ve missed anyone.

Michelle: That’s it, although Bunty’s not an ethnic Sri Lankan, of course, she’s English, but she’s grown up in Sri Lanka.

Alexandra: Do you find that you are especially drawn to Sri Lankan diaspora characters?

Michelle: Not necessarily.  I’ve avoided them quite easily in other books! But with The Life to Come, there were particular histories and situations that I wanted to explore and they required these particular characters. Ash, for instance, is an academic, a political scientist. He’s written a book about the global subaltern. The diaspora is his field. So the narrative that involves him looks at those ideas. Whereas Christabel is not an intellectual. But the fact that she’s Sri Lankan from a specific ethnic community is what has brought her to Australia. So she represents one embodiment of the diaspora but in a completely different way from Ash. The diaspora, of course, is made up of everyone who’s a part of it. And I tried to show something of that range through these very different characters.

Alexandra: Your work offers various portraits and caricatures of Australians and Australian culture. Tell me about this. Do you directly set out to engage with Australian culture when you write, or does it just happen?

Michelle: Wanting to write about Australia —  as well as about Sri Lanka and France — was deliberate but exactly how the novel would engage with those subjects only revealed itself fully in the course of the writing. One thing I was keen to do was to include characters from a variety of backgrounds. Bunty, Christabel, Rashida and the Tamil shopkeeper, who are migrants to Australia, and Ash, an expat from the UK who works here for a while, are as much a part of the national imaginary as settler Australians like Pippa and Cassie, or George, who has a European background. Céleste, who was born in France, grew up in Australia, and has now returned to France, is part of the scene too. It was important to me to unsettle nationalistic mythmaking by showing that “the Australian story” is really a web of cosmopolitan narratives.

 Alexandra: My latest theory is that there’s a critiquing of commodity fetishism in your recent novels, and in other Sri Lankan diaspora texts, which may reflect wider trends in World Literature. For instance, this seems to be shown quite clearly in Questions of Travel in your representations of tourism and the tourism industry. Now, in The Life to Come, there seems be a refreshed focus on fetishism, albeit now with a culinary flavor.

Michelle: Absolutely. It’s all through this novel in the fetishizing of food and fashions in food (from which I am far from immune, I must sadly confess). The only thing that really matters about food is who has it and who hasn’t — we all know that, at heart… Angela Carter, of course, wrote a wonderfully perceptive essay about foodie-ism back in the 80s, when the phenomenon was in its early days, critiquing its boastfulness and indifference to global inequality. In this context, signalling status and cool by showing your familiarity with the latest Ottolenghi recipe for freekah, or ordering a latte rather than a flat white — things like these are the small symptoms of decadent late capitalism.

Céleste thinks she’s dodged the worst of consumerism because she’s chosen to live a modest life in Paris, living in a rented studio and devoting her days to working as a translator and English teacher, neither of which brings in a whole heap of money. When her rich half-brother and his family come to visit, she’s destabilised suddenly by realising what her life looks like to them. One of her nephews mistakes her television for a computer because it’s so small — that kind of thing — and Céleste starts to wonder if she’s made a mistake in not pursuing wealth, the acquisition of property and so on. The pull of consumer capitalism is considerable. Yet one feels that Celeste has more integrity precisely because she isn’t invested in socio-economic status as a measure of worth.

Alexandra: So, what’s on the horizon?

Michelle: Well, I’m actually writing non-fiction at the moment. It’s for the Melbourne publisher Black Inc., who have commissioned essays on Australian writers for a series called “Writers on Writers”. My essay will be on Shirley Hazzard.

Alexandra: Shirley Hazzard. Excellent! She’s also mentioned in The Life to Come, of course. What is it that interests you about her?

Michelle: Well, she is very witty for one thing — that’s all too rare in literary fiction, where seriousness is often conflated with earnestness (and downright tedium). I hugely admire Hazzard’s ability to write compelling, superbly crafted fiction that sees individuals in the context of world-historical events. What especially engages her attention is the Second World War and its consequences. She sets her characters and their detailed, personal stories against that vast background. Her understanding of psychology and interpersonal dynamics is profound; her characters are vividly and movingly drawn, and so is their moment in history. So you see the connections between the small picture and the larger one in her work. And then, there’s the wonder of her prose! Her sentences embody her way of looking at the world, which strikes me as lucid and unafraid. Beauty in art tends to be an underrated quality, and Hazzard’s writing is extremely beautiful. But she’s not writing empty, decorative sentences – her fiction has real social and ethical heft. And that’s quite something!

Alexandra: It is, indeed. Also, it reminds me of someone else, another author. I won’t say who.

Michelle: Thanks, Alix. You’re very kind!

Alexandra: Thank you, Michelle! Thank you so much for your time today. Have a great afternoon! I’ll look forward to your Hazzard essay. And, finally, congratulations once again on The Life to Come!

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