Alice Pung is a writer, editor, teacher and lawyer. She has won numerous awards for her two memoirs, and her writing has appeared in The Monthly, The Age, Meanjin, Best Australian Stories and Best Australian Essays. In 2017 she is the Artist in Residence at the Janet Clarke Hall at the University of Melbourne.
Her long-form works include:
- Unpolished Gem (2007), received the Newcomer of the Year Award in the Australia Book Industry Awards for her first book Unpolished Gem.
- Her Father's Daughter (2011), was awarded the Western Australia Premier's Book Award for Non Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Premier's Literary Awards in Victoria and New South Wales, as well as the Queensland Literary Awards.
- Laurinda (2014), Alice's first novel, was awarded the Ethel Turner Prize at the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
- And the Marly Series (Meet Marly, Marly's Business, Marly and the Goat, Marly Walks on the Moon).
Alice also edited Growing Up Asian in Australia.
- Alice published Alice Pung on John Marsden in 2017, and you can listen to our interview with John here.
- Erik Jensen also contributed to the Writers on Writers series with Erik Jensen on Kate Jennings.
- Christos Tsiolkas, along with Zadie Smith, Donna Tartt and John Marsden, are on Alice's ideal dinner party guest list.
- Alice was named after Alice in Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
- Alice doesn’t understand the arguments to sanitise YA fiction when teenagers are still expect to engage with the violence and poverty in Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
- Alice acknowledges Australian authors Melina Marchetta (especially Looking for Alibrandi) and John Marsden’s work as significant influences in her teenage years, as well as Canadian author Robert Cormier, who wrote After the First Death and The Chocolate War. She also read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and the works of Judy Blume and Anne Rice.
- Alice took one creative writing course while she studied law at the University of Melbourne, and was in the same class as Clementine Ford.
- Alice counts Arnold Zable, another prominent writer in the Australian literary landscape, as a friend.
Nic: Alice Pung is an award-winning writer, journalist, and essayist. Her first book, the memoir Unpolished Gem, won the Australian Book Industry Newcomer of the Year Award. She followed it with another memoir, Her Father's Daughter. And in the novel Laurinda, Alice is one of the rising stars of Australian writing. I started my conversation with Alice by asking her about the origin of her first name.
Alice: Thanks so much for having me, Nic.
Nic: Absolute pleasure. I believe you were named after Alice in Wonderland. Is that true and if so, does that mean you grew up in a house of books and literature?
Alice: Oh, yes it is true, Nic. I was named after Alice in Wonderland. So, my parents were born in Cambodia. They came here; and my father survived the killing fields. So when he came to Australia he thought it was a wonderland. So, he named me after Lewis Carroll's book, because he read it in high school in Chinese, because we're ethnically Chinese. But to be honest, we didn't grow up in a house full of books. My mother is illiterate, so my father has a year ten education. He's ten years older than my mum.
So, when the first stage of ethnic cleansing in Cambodia, they closed down all the Chinese schools, so my mother has a grade two education. So, the literature she read around our house came twice a week, in the form of Safeway, Bi-Lo, Target ads. So, those are the books we had, besides the ones we borrowed from the library, and this book that was given to us by the Australian Government, when every new refugee arrives, about poisonous animals in Australia.
Alice and Nic: [Laughter]
Nic: Goodness me. So was it a family then, if it wasn't a family obviously of books, was it a family where stories were told and encouraged, where conversation was very much story-based?
Alice: Yes, it was. And you know, I had these parents and this grandmother, came straight out of the killing fields, my grandmother – five thousand people in a collective, she was the only old person to survive, and she was a great storyteller. So, I grew up in this house where my father would tell stories, like we'd have dinner, and we might have calamari and he'd say, ‘This calamari's delicious. But you know, nothing will ever beat that belt I once ate’. And if you didn't know my family, you'd presume he ate a belt of beef liquorice or jerky that morning. But he'd actually… when he was starving he ate his belt that he wore around his waist. He cut it into tiny pieces, boiled it for hours, and fed some to my grandmother, ate some himself. And he said, ‘That's what kept us alive for the next couple of days until we could forage for more food’.
And I asked him once, I said, ‘What inspired you to eat a belt, Dad?’ And his stories always change. So, the first time he told me, he said, ‘Nothing you learn is ever useless’. Because when he was a teenager at school, he read stories about the Chinese Communists going on the long march, and they dropped off like flies. They died. It was cold, they were starving and freezing. And one of them looked at his boots and decided to eat the leather of his boots to stay alive. So, my dad said this to make us more studious. And another time, a family friend asked him. He said, ‘Kwan, you're a genius. How did you know about... Why did you look at a belt and decide you could eat it?’ My dad said, "Oh I watched a lot of Charlie Chaplin films in Cambodia, and in a Charlie Chaplin film, I think he ate... He was the tramp and he ate his shoelaces and his Boots’. If you can remember those…
Nic: Yeah, absolutely.
Alice: Yeah. So, our stories were based on popular culture, based on personal history. And it was only when I got to university that I could place them in the larger historical context.
Nic: Sure. So once your parents had come to this wonderland, I mean, psychologically did they really distance themselves from Cambodia? Did they... I know they started again physically, but did they psychologically mentally start again? Did they put Cambodia behind them, or was there still that ongoing connection that they…
Alice: Oh absolutely. So, I've been to Cambodia. It's a beautiful country, but it's very sad. They say about half of the population is under 18, because they killed so many of the adults. Now they're probably in their 20s, but you know. At one stage half of the population in the early 2000s was under 18. And because my family were ethnically Chinese – so they were quote persecuted, the Chinese – so my dad doesn't... Even though it was his birthplace, Australia was his home. And still is.
Nic: Yeah. I know you've written an extended piece recently about John Marsden, who is obviously an important influence on you. Tell me about your love of John Marsden's works and how you came upon them, and what it was about his works that really thrilled you.
Alice: Oh well Nic, I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, and for listeners who don't come from Victoria, the western suburbs of Melbourne, once you cross the river it's like a different world, isn't it? It's where the factories were first built. It was where the first minimum wage decision in the world was decided: the Sunshine Harvester factory.
Nic: That's right. The Harvester case, yeah.
Alice: Yeah. So, it's a very different environment, and it was quite rough when I was growing up. And so, we'd get all these well-intentioned books in our school libraries, but we'd have a lot of John Marsden books. And his kids, you know they're in jail, they're in mental institutions, they're in hospitals, they fight wars. And some libraries I speak to say, ‘We don't ... These books are a bit too violent for our girls’. But the kids I grew up with had survived wars. They were refugees, they came from... Some of them came from really rough families. Some of them had been in jail, some juvenile detention, some have been in hospital for mental illness, and we really understood that someone got us, for once.
Nic: So, you connected with the characters and reality of John's works, and the fact that there was this griminess and this real worldly appeal of them?
Alice: Yeah. And what is so fascinating is that we make a distinction between young adult literature and capital L literature, because there's griminess and violence and death in Shakespeare, there's quite horrible things that you're asking 14 to 17 year olds to grapple with, with great maturity and great insight. And they do. They read Shakespeare, they read Jane Austen, they read Charles Dicken. There's this enormous poverty in those books. There's eccentric characters who probably... you know, Miss Havisham, clearly, is someone who's mentally ill.And yet, when you go into the realm of young adult literature, then it has to be sterilised. I don't understand this disjuncture.
Nic: And I think that has changed and is changing, because there's lots of young adult books that really do push the boundaries and they've been more accepted for it. But certainly, let's hope that continues because there's no reason for it.
Alice: Yeah, let's hope it does.
Nic: As you worked your way through your teens, then, who else and what else were you reading that really captured your imagination?
Alice: Well, the other Australian author who was quite prominent at that time, Melina Marchetta, because she wrote the first Australian book where an ethnic girl was, Alibrandi was the main character, and she was a heroine of the book, she wasn't a sidekick. And her story revolved around her very Italian family, but it wasn't slapstick, and it wasn't a cultural lesson, it was just a normal Italian Australian girl. So that really influenced me, just because my friends in the western suburbs were Italian, Maltese, Greek. And I understood their lives, they understood mine.
Nic: So, who else and what else did you…
Alice: Okay, there was a Canadian author who's dead now, named Robert Cormier, who I really enjoyed his books. He wrote a book called After the First Death, a book called The Chocolate War, which was about this severe form of bullying in an all boys' private school that the teachers didn't know about. And the reason I loved his books was he didn't deal with difficult issues, making them capital I issues. He dealt with them sensitively and with great nuance. A lot of the time, in young adult books, if they deal with serious issues, drugs, that kind of... There is a didactic lesson at the end of it. But his books weren't like that. They left it for the reader to make their own judgments.
Nic: Yes. And while you were at school, were you being... Were you getting into the books and the authors that you were being taught in English, or was there some resistance because you weren't connecting with them?
Alice: Oh, well yeah, of course. I got into Lord of the Flies, because that's an adolescent book, isn't it? To be honest, I didn't get into Jane Austen as much as the Brontë sisters, and I realise consistently the books that I didn't get into were the books that… they seemed so farfetched from my reality. Jane Austen is about class, but her impoverished class are not the servants, are not the people behind the scenes. They're the people who lost their wealth but are still quite comfortable.
Nic: Were you writing while you were at school?
Alice: Yeah, yes.
Nic: Yes. And what were you writing? What were you interested in?
Alice: Oh, what was I interested in? I wasn't a very good writer when I was younger, and this gives students hope, when I visit schools. Because I read back over my old writing as a teenager. Like most students I wrote vampire stories, because Anne Rice books were in, I wrote stories set in New York because that's where most of the interesting things happen in Judy Blume books. And I didn't know that you could write stories set in your own hometown. I thought, ‘I grow up in two suburbs. How boring is that?’
Nic: So, at what point did you start looking around and writing about your own experiences and about your own world?
Alice: Well only when I went to university. And that's when I realised my own world was really different from a lot of people with whom I went to Melbourne Law School. I realised that not many people from the west go to Melbourne Law School.
Alice: It's a completely different world once you catch that bus out of Footscray. It's a park field.
Nic: It's as distant as a Jane Austen world, in some ways.
Alice: Yeah. And that was when people found me interesting. Because I wasn't that interesting. I was just one of the crowd. Do you know what I mean?
Nic: Yeah, no absolutely.
Alice: One of my friends, and they all came from different ethnic backgrounds. Then you get to university and you're a real cultural experience. I was like a permanent exchange student that had an Australian accent. So, I thought, ‘Oh, wow’. And I'd give these tours of my suburb, where I'd grown up, Footscray. So, I'd take friends to Footscray, and they'd never seen anything like it and I thought, ‘Wow. I probably grew up in a quite an interesting area’.
Nic: Fantastic. So, it took the perception of outsiders, as it often does, to realise that you do live in an interesting world.
Alice: Yeah. In a Zadie Smith novel. The multiculturalism that the working class take for granted is quite a novelty to…
Nic: Absolutely, absolutely.
Alice: To other people.
Nic: What led you to studying law?
Alice: Oh look, to be honest, I'd got the marks, and I had not done any math since I was in Year 10. So I thought, ‘This is interesting’. And I had no aspirations to be... I guess I wanted to be a teacher first and foremost, but I got the marks and my parents said, ‘Oh, you got really good marks. You shouldn't waste them’. As if you'd waste…
Nic: Being a teacher is a waste?
Alice: Yeah, as if teaching is a waste. But I'm quite happy now, because I get to teach. I teach students of all ages, and I live at the university, and I still practise three days a week. I work in legal research at the Fair Work Commission.
Alice: So, it's a good balance.
Nic: So, at what point do you then... So, you're at university, you realised you were living in this world that was interesting. Do you remember when you started writing about your world? Was it your first memoir? Or were there stories that came before that, or essays?
Alice: Yeah. It was in a creative writing class, and a lot of the students had been overseas many times. A lot of them had been to Europe, so they wrote about their overseas adventures. My dad never let me travel anywhere when I was at university, people would go away, because he just didn't want me to be unsafe. He was so paranoid after surviving the killing fields. Especially, he wouldn't let me go to southeast Asia, which was the most interesting part of the world at that time. East Timor was gaining its independence. Cambodia was having elections. All my friends went, and I was the Chinese Cambodian one and I stayed at home, working at my dad's Retravision store, which is an electrical appliance store.
And I just... Because it was boring, a lot of the time. I had a notebook with me, so I'd just take notes on the customers, and things like that. And then in this creative writing class, I thought, ‘Nothing interesting has happened to me. There's this woman who's had children, man who's joined the Labour Party, these people travelled overseas’. So, I just wrote a story about working at the Retravision store, and people found that interesting. Then I wrote a story about peeing my pants in kindergarten, because my grandmother dressed me up in this mouse suit for photo day, and I was too embarrassed. And then they found that interesting too, so that's how it began.
Nic: Well what made you take a creative writing class? Was it at Melbourne University, or was it…
Nic: Okay, so what made you…
Alice: I had one subject left over.
Alice: And I thought, ‘I've always enjoyed writing. I'm going to take this class’. And I don't remember it now, but Clementine Ford, who's a Melbourne writer, said, ‘We were in the same class. It was a wonderful class’. Led by such an excellent teacher, Marion May Campbell, who is a very innovative writer. And she was very encouraging.
Nic: Okay. And so those stories that you were writing, or those... Well, the essays in a way, is that what led to Unpolished Gem, the first memoir then?
Alice: Yes, it was.
Nic: So, there was just... You thought, ‘Why not do it?’
Alice: Yeah. It's just a whole series of short stories that I enjoyed doing.
Nic: So how do you go from that? How did you get it published? Did you approach a publisher? Do they approach you? At what point did you collect all these stories and then give it to someone, or did you just have a couple and you gave it to a publisher?
Alice: Oh, well I kept writing short stories, and I kept submitting them to different publications. And eventually I got published in Meanjin, and the editor of that time, of Black Inc, Chris Feik, who now edits The Monthly and The Saturday Paper... I think he read my short story, because he gave me a call out of the blue and said, ‘You've got a really interesting and unique voice, and your story sounds like it's part of a novel’. Because at the age of 19 I wasn't very good at short story, so it sounded unfinished, I reckon.
Alice: And he said, ‘It sounds like it's a part of a novel. Is it?’ And Chris knows this, so I can tell you this story. And I said,’"Yes, yes it is’. And he said, ‘Great, I'd love to see some chapters’. And I'd say, ‘Sure. They're a bit rough, so I'll just edit them and I'll bring them over’. So, I just... I didn't have any chapters and I didn't have any novel, so I sat down and I wrote 30,000 words, and I watched a movie the night before I visited. I wasn't even going to visit Chris, but I'd seen the movie Frieda with two of my best friends, and I went to bed that night, and I realised how brave Frieda was. She brought her paintings to Diego Rivera and she said, ‘Hey, Diego, you want to look at my paintings?’ And that night I thought, ‘Maybe I'll show Chris my stories’. So, I didn't even call him for an interview, because I was stupid. I didn't know how these things worked at the age of 19 or 20. I just walked up to his office. And he was in a meeting, and it was the first meeting for The Monthly magazine as I later discovered. But to his credit, he got out of this meeting to talk to this 19, 20 year old, and to accept my stories which were published in a font that I thought was classy but was probably ridiculous.
Alice: And that's how it began.
Nic: Okay, but he was under the impression it was a novel, and so…
Alice: Or that, yeah, that I had something ongoing, when I just had a few short stories.
Nic: So, at what point did it then become memoir rather than novel?
Alice: Oh, when it become memoir? I don't know, I just kept writing and sending him short stories every month. And he was starting out as well, about... All those years ago, about 16, 17 years ago. He said he was a new editor, and I was a new writer. So, we worked quite unconventionally. I said, ‘Can I send you a story every month, to get me writing? You don't have to read it. You just keep it in your inbox’. And he said, ‘That's a great technique’. And he actually read them all. So, this went on for years and years.
Nic: Oh really.
Alice: Yes, because some months I'd be too busy with university. And then I eventually became a lawyer and I... So not every month I sent him a story, until he said, ‘Stop. You have enough stories. Let's put them together into a book’. And that's how it came about.
Nic: Wow. How fantastic.
Nic: And it was a creative success? A literary success, and…
Alice: Yeah, look I didn't expect it to be.
Nic: You didn't expect it, you just... No.
Alice: He took a big risk on me. And over the course of, gosh, three and a half years, almost four years... We had no contract, we had no... I just sent him stories, in good faith. He read them in good faith. And that's how we…
Nic: So, when it was published, and then when it was the success that it was at that point, did you go, ‘Ooh, I could be a writer’.
Alice: Yeah, I guess so.
Nic: Or, ‘I am a writer’.
Alice: Because I thought there'd be copies in the Footscray library and my parents would buy up the rest, and that would be my publishing foray. Yeah.
Nic: Your next memoir was Her Father's Daughter, and you're obviously a much more mature writer by then. You certainly switch narrative perspective, and I'm wondering how and why that decision was made, because it's not first person. Was that because you were then more confident as a writer and trying different things, and had more confidence?
Alice: Oh, no. I had less confidence, to be honest, Nic, for my second book. They talk about the second book syndrome. And no one had expected Unpolished Gem to be such a success that it was really tricky to write Her Father's Daughter, because the stories in Unpolished Gem, that's the voice of a 19 year old, literally a 19 year old, 19 to 23, 24. And Her Father's Daughter I finished at 29 and it was published when I was 29, so it was a decade older. And I wanted... It was in third person because I wanted to write my father's story. But I was, I guess, wise enough to know that at the age of 29 I don't have the voice of a sixty year old man, and that would be ridiculous to pretend that I did. So, I wrote his story in second… Sorry, in third person. And then I realised if I wrote my own part in first person, it would just be another memoir about me talking about my dad. So that's why. It had to achieve a balance, they both had to be in third person.
Nic: Yes, from two different perspectives.
Nic: Yeah. It's a beautifully gentle book.
Alice: Oh, thank you.
Nic: Yes, it's the best way I can describe it. There's so many issues and dilemmas associated with writing memoir, I'm interested to know how you deal with using other people's stories, obviously particularly your family's, and maintaining relationships. Is that difficult to do? Have there been issues at all? And how comfortable you are with taking other people's stories.
Alice: Oh, that's a great question. I was really anxious when Unpolished Gem came out, because my family hadn't read it. And I'd written about them, with great love of course, but still, I'd taken their stories and written about them. But it turned out quite well. My dad read the book a couple of times and at the launch he was really proud of me.
And sometimes he'd come with me to book events. And whenever someone asked that question, ‘How do your family feel about your book?’ I'd say, ‘Well I think my dad's in the audience. He'll answer it’. And he'll stand up and he'd say, ‘Well, I'm really proud of Alice. Really pleased about this book. But if she'd shown it beforehand, there might have been a bit we wouldn't have let her put in’.
But here's the difference though, Nic, between writing someone's story and interviewing them. And I've been interviewed before. When you're interviewed for your story, your self-editor kicks in, with anyone. You know, they edit themselves, not because they're being sneaky, but they want to get a story out there. And I knew if I sat my parents down and interviewed them for this book, it would just be the migrant success narrative. They'd say, ‘Oh when we came to Australia, we came with nothing’. And it was true-
Nic: Yes. One suitcase and…
Alice: ‘One suitcase, and that was all. And then we worked really hard for two decades and we made it, and you all went to university’. That was the narrative. But there are some things that narrative doesn't show. For example. when my parents first got their second hand clothes from the Brotherhood of St. Laurence, they were so proud that they stood in front of people's houses and got photographs taken, and tried to fob off those houses as their own.
Alice: ‘We've made it. We're living this Australian dream’. And they'd send these photographs overseas to other relatives who'd survived, and they'd say, ‘Look. Look at us. We've made it’. And they were so proud of these second hand clothes. But when they tell the story, if you sat them down, they'd say, ‘We're so ashamed of our second hand clothes. We're so poor’. And the photographs tell a different story.
Nic: Tell a very different story.
Alice: They tell the reality of the moment. And so that's why I didn't interview them, because it was a different truth.
Nic: Sure. Absolutely.
Alice: It was the truth of the moment. And my dad knew it wasn't a lie, because I had the photographic evidence of their ecstasy wearing these 1970s flared pants.
Nic: That word truth is so interesting to me in my writing, because there's such a difference between truth and fact. And truth being someone's perspective of something which can be totally different to someone else's, but that doesn't make it less true.
Alice: Yeah. Yeah there's a great line in the Torah. My friend Arnold Zable, he's a Jewish writer, goes, ‘The Torah says we do not see things as they are. We see things as we are’. And I thought that's really true as a memoir writer, isn't it?
Nic: Yeah. I think one reason you get away with that whole thing of taking stories from your family and from others is, I said before, your writing's got a very gentle quality. But there's enormous respect for the stories in there that comes through, and I think that really helps, as sort of... There's just so much respect in your writing.
Alice: Oh thanks, Nic. So, if I'm not writing about my family, if I'm doing journalism, I always show the person I'm writing about their piece, before…
Nic: Oh,you do.
Alice: I do.
Alice: Yes, I do.
Nic: Okay. That's unusual.
Alice: Yeah, it's unusual, but I do, just because it's a sign of respect, if someone's given you their story.
Nic: So, what happens, if they're not happy with something? It's a very fine line. As a journalist, you're independent. You're trying to tell…
Alice: Yes, it is.
Nic: That particular story, so…
Alice: Absolutely true.
Nic: So, what happens if they say, "No I'm really not happy with that." Does it stay in? Does it go? Do you negotiate?
Alice: Well to be honest I've never had that experience. Because I've always spent quite a while with the people I've interviewed to get their story. And also, I've never done profiles of people. It's always a person, their profession or something interesting. I've never had to write a character study of a famous person. Most people I interview, ... In fact, all of them I've interviewed, for my profile pieces, haven't been that famous, so ... It's different when you're dealing with famous people. You have to present…
Nic: I guess the other people are just so happy to be in print somewhere.
Alice: Yes. Yeah.
Nic: So why did you then turn to the novel as a form, with Laurinda? At what point did you go, ‘Okay, now I'm going write a novel. Maybe write that novel I should have written at the beginning’.
Alice: Yes. When I ran out of stories.
Nic: When you ran out of stories.
Nic: Is that what happened?
Alice: Yeah, I'm 36. I can't mine my life for any more things.
Alice and Nic: [Laughter]
Nic: Although it's obviously based on events or life or people that you know. So, there's a fine line between, I think between a memoir and… particularly also a first novel. There's always so much of a person in it, isn't there?
Alice: Yes, it's true. So, my first novel, Laurinda, is set in the suburb I grew up, Braybrook, which is where I spent a lot of my schooling, it's about ten minutes from Footscray. It's a very poor suburb. Every year it rates in the top ten of the poorest suburbs of Victoria. And I just wanted to write a satire about class in Australia, because not many people besides Christos Tsiolkas write or talk about class.
Nic: Yeah and it's evident, it's out there, isn't it?
Nic: It's not so obvious as it is perhaps in Britain or something, but it is.
Alice: No, it's so…
Nic: It is. And it's a different type of class than in Britain I think.
Alice: It is. But it's so glaringly obvious Nic, when you go and visit schools.
Nic: Yes. Oh, it's the biggest…
Alice: You can be blind to class, until you visit a school with a swimming pool the size of an Olympic swimming pool…
Nic: That is so true.
Alice: And then you go and visit a school where there's a whole unit of day care, because there are 20 teenage mums in that school. It's so different.
Nic: Yeah. Laurinda is the longest letter I've ever read in my life. Tell me about your decision to structure it basically as a letter, and why you did that, and how easy or were there difficulties in maintaining that for a whole novel length?
Alice: Oh, without giving too much away, I decided on the letter format because it had to be a book where it was written to one person quite intimately, to reveal all the details of going to this new school. And secondly, with a letter I could use first person. But the first person had to observe everything that was going around them, because as a teenager you can be quite insular, as a first person. You could talk about your feelings all the time, not see what's going on around you. So that letter format helped, in that way.
Nic: Okay. You think a lot about perspective, don't you?
Alice: I do, yes.
Nic: Do you try different perspectives or different things and see what works out, or do you make your mind up from the very beginning that this is what you're going to go through? Tell me about that thought process, because it's a very, very deliberate decision.
Alice: Yeah. Oh yes, perspective is very deliberate for me, because I'm not a plot-based writer. I'm a character-based writer. So, once I get the character down pat, then the plot follows the character. And so, the character first and foremost is the most important thing to me. And the character's voice, therefore, I have to get it just right, because you can't sustain a novel of 280 pages if you don't get a consistent voice in that character.
Nic: So, you do... As I said before, do you know that voice beforehand, or do you try something and see what works and then try something else?
Alice: So, the character of Lucy was quite strong beforehand. But I did try, I tried to write it in second person. That didn't work. I tried to write it in third person. That was too distant. The only way I could get that character to crack the jokes she did, to reveal parts of her personality that she wouldn't reveal to her parents or her other friends, was through the letter format. So that format serviced the voice and character.
Nic: But in a way, it also raises a... I would imagine a bit of a problem. You've got two audiences. You've got the character she's writing to, as an audience, but you've also got your reader as an audience. And it starts off being, the audience being that other person, but then it quite quickly… that goes right into the background and it then becomes more about the reader. Was that, is that a fair description?
Alice: Yes, yeah that's true. Because no one writes letters that are 20 pages long, detailing all the things they see and hear, and all the conversations. No one has that photographic memory to... You don't write like that in a letter. So, I guess it was just a device. I needed to illustrate how you can cleave yourself in half, in a different environment.
Nic: Wow. What were the main differences for you between writing the memoir and writing novel?
Alice: Oh, one of the biggest differences, Nic, was that, in the memoir, if Chris told me to cut 5,000 words, I would think, ‘Oh crap. How am I going to find 5,000 more words of life experience. That's something I can't make up’. Whereas, in the novel, if I had to cut 15,000 words, I felt great. He's a great editor. He's getting rid of the bad bits. I'm going to write this part from scratch. And your imagination is boundless. It's infinite, whereas your experience is finite. So, if you're cutting out your experience, it's a lot trickier to replace.
Nic: You've also written children's books, essays, short stories, articles... Does all of that represent the realities of earning a living as a writer in Australia? The need to diversify, if you like? Or is it just that you love the diversity of writing.
Alice: Oh, I love the diversity to be honest, Nic. I have a day job. Three days a week I work at the Fair Work Commission. I've had... I've been working since I was quite young, and I've always had a job, or two or three jobs going on at the same time, since I was about 18. But because I can make a living independently of my writing, the diversity is just something I love doing.
Alice: And the ability to choose my own subjects, and to... The thing with having another career as a writer – I mean, George Orwell also was a public servant – is that you're not dependent on reviews. If you get a bad review, you don't get depressed for a week. You don't care, because it's not going to influence your finances. It's not going to influence what you write next. It doesn't take the love away. So, to me, a lot of the time it still feels a little bit like a hobby, and with a hobby you can perfect it. If it was my job, I'd be so anxious about it. I'd be a perfectionist, instead of someone constantly trying to perfect a craft.
Nic: As such a prolific writer, and you also work three days a week, you're obviously a very well organised person. How do you maintain the load?
Alice: That's a good question. I've always been quite busy. Because I'm one of four kids, and I had a lot of responsibility when I was growing up, so I had to balance that with translating for my mum who didn't read any English with schoolwork. So, I've always been quite good at balancing a number of different things, and so I continued through uni, and I wrote a book while I was going through university, and getting my first job. So my life has happened concurrently with my writing.
I've never stopped everything for the writing, ever, and I don't think I'd want to. I think I tried to write Her Father's Daughter, at some point, I tried to go full time as a writer just to finish the book. I got really depressed, because I was by myself all the time with my own thoughts, which gets tedious after a while, because you might have ten minutes of inspiration, and you know… the rest of the day…
Nic: How much planning do you do before you start writing a piece, particularly your book? And if you are a planner, if you like, you do that planning, how good are your first drafts at the end of it? How much work needs to be done?
Alice: Oh, lots of work. It depends what I'm planning. So, for example, I wrote a series of children's books, and they were a specific commission. You had to write one book every three months, because it was over a year and each book had to be 15,000 words, and each book had to have a character arc, and the whole four books had to have a plot arc. So that was a lot of extensive planning, because I had to submit that to Penguin, for their approval. But with a book like Her Father's Daughter, that could take about ten years to interview people, to really get my father's voice, to surreptitiously listen in on their conversations, and things like that.
Nic: Do you find that the more planning you do, the more likely your early draft is going to be closer to publishable form if you like, or need less editing than those that aren't planned?
Alice: No, not really.
Nic: No? Okay.
Alice: No, that's a good question, Nic. So, with Laurinda, as I said the voice was more important first and foremost, and I couldn't really plan it except four or five major events that happened in the character's timeline. But that was it. And then the rest I was just letting the character direct me.
Nic: Okay. Okay.
Nic: You're currently Artist in Residence at the Janet Clarke Hall at the University of Melbourne. What does that involve? It sounds wonderful.
Alice: It is wonderful. So, I live there with my husband and my little boy Leo, who's two and a half, and I mentor students. So, a lot of the students come from overseas or they come from rural areas. Fifty per cent of our students are on scholarship, so it's a very different college. It has a different feel. It was the first women's college in Australia, in the Southern Hemisphere, so it's a gentler college. And so, I mentor, settle the students in, make sure they're doing okay. And then if they're creative writers, if they're artistic students, they get advice from me. And in the meanwhile, I have a place. I have a flat to write, which is where I live, which is a wonderful thing. Living in college, you don't have to cook for seven months a year when the semester time... And that frees up so much time.
Nic: It's a great location too.
Nic: Just finally, a hypothetical. If I say to you that you could invite four writers over for dinner, I'm interested in knowing who you would choose and why. They could be living or dead.
Alice: Oh, wow.
Nic: It's a big one, on the spot.
Alice: Well, first I'd have John Marsden, because I love John Marsden. And I think I'd have Zadie Smith, because she's really fascinating, her voice. And just, when she gives interviews. I would have another writer named, if she would come – she's very introverted – Donna Tartt, because she spends ten years writing each book. So that's such a true craftsman at work.
Nic: Sure. You got one more.
Alice: And I'd have Christos Tsiolkas, because he would bring some coarseness into the mix. He'd be funny as!
Nic: What a great dinner party. I'd love to be a fly on the wall at that one. That's fantastic. Alice it's been an absolute pleasure, talking to you today. Thank you so much for giving us your valuable time.
Alice: Thank you so much, Nic. Thank you.