Amanda Lohrey on investigating meaning via fiction

Amanda Lohrey on investigating meaning via fiction

Amanda Lohrey writes fiction and non-fiction. Her latest novel, The Conversion, was released in 2023. Her previous novel, The Labyrinth (2021), won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, a Prime Minister’s Literary Award, a Tasmanian Literary Award and the Voss Literary Prize.

Amanda is also a regular contributor to the Monthly magazine and a former senior fellow of the Australia Council’s Literature Board.

Amanda Lohrey


ASTRID: Amanda, thank you so much for joining me today. Congratulations on The Conversion. I am looking at my copy right now, and this was a delightful read.

Before we go into the plot and structure and characters of The Conversion, a big question for you. Why do you write and in 2022 and 2023, as you're working on this novel, what draws you to fiction?

AMANDA: Well, I think, a love of storytelling, which we all share. I mean, it's in our DNA. But also, I think the ways of investigating meaning that only a story can offer. I mean, there are other legitimate forms – philosophy, the essay, whatever. But there's something very aggressive and complex, and at the same time accessible, about a story and plot. I just think we have a deep, primitive connection to story. Sure, I could write, you know, an essay about a lot of the things in The Conversion that interest me. Some of the things in The Conversion I've written about in a non-fiction format! But it's not the same, it's not the same. One of the great pleasures of reading, I think, is surprise, following a story and thinking it's going to go this way, but it goes that way. For some reason, this is a pleasure. For us, we like surprise, but it's got to be a credible surprise, it can't be a silly or an outrageous one. So, there are all these very special places related to story. That's why I write fiction.

ASTRID: That was a beautiful phrase that you said a moment ago, the idea of investigating meaning via fiction. Now, if I counted correctly, I think The Conversion is your ninth novel. The novel that you published immediately before was The Labyrinth. It did win a whole host of awards in 2021, including the Miles Franklin and many others. As you were working on The Conversion, noting that you've published many novels before and also non-fiction, I wanted to know if that literary acclaim, that prize, winning multiple prizes… did that affect your writing process, or how you felt about sharing your work with us all?

AMANDA: I have to say not in the least. But that was because of my age. If I were a young writer starting out, I think I might have felt you know, I've won these awards, maybe I can't live up to them. But by the time you publish a certain number of books and you reach a certain age, the thing you've learned is – I've said this before, but it's fundamental – whatever you write, some people will like it, some people won't. And really, you can't worry about that. You just have to write what's absorbing you, what's intriguing you, what gives you pleasure at the time, and then you hope other people are reading. But there's a reason for that too, you know, because I know there was a conversation between my unconscious and yours. And so, no two readers read the same book because each reader brings themselves to it, their experience, their loves, their likes, their dislikes. We've all had that experience where we read a book we like and we give it to a friend and say this is wonderful, and then they read it and they say well, actually I didn't like because... You can never tell the reader what the book means. You could never tell them how they should respond to it. It's a very private, very subjective experience.

ASTRID: Now The Conversion – as I read the novel, Amanda – I was continually pulled up by your insight. I guess that was because I was reading this novel in a particular way. I am one of those people who left the city. I left Melbourne after the lockdowns, and I moved to a regional town. In the process of moving to a regional town, I spent many nights looking up churches for sale. It is quite the rabbit hole. And of course, that is a major plot point. A major preoccupation with this novel is the idea of city people moving into churches, to be really blunt about it. It is a fascinating, weird mental space to even consider. I just want to say for the record, I do not live in a church and I am very, very glad that I don't. But I wanted to interrogate where that idea came from. And for you, do you build a novel around your characters and story? Is it characters and a theme? Do you have something?

AMANDA: Oh, I don't want historical novels. I'm interested in the way we live now, and I'm particularly interested in the way we keep reinventing ourselves. I wrote a novel called Camille's Bread many years ago about something I'd observed that young people in Sydney, where I was living at the time. Often those who'd had addictions, alcohol or drugs, would be drawn towards Eastern methods of diet and exercise and they would be literally seeking to reinvent their body. So that's the kind of thing that interests me. With The Labyrinth, I noticed around the world in many cultures people were starting to build labyrinths, and I thought, why? What does this mean? What sort of person would build a labyrinth? I started with The Labyrinth, not the character.

Similarly, with the church in The Conversion, I noticed that suddenly the Church is selling off not dozens, but hundreds around the world. What does this mean? What's going on? What does it tell us about who we are now? What kind of person buys a church? And for what reasons? And then when they live in it? What do they do with the fact that they have inherited a whole tradition that goes back 2000 years? What are they going to do with this? They're surrounded by beautiful stained-glass windows, for example. Could you live with them? I couldn't, what sort of person could? So those are the sorts of questions that I start with. Then I find the character, again, the church code first, then the characters.

ASTRID: The church, the physical church, that the character Zoe moves into and begins to renovate is very much a part of the story that is, I guess, to do with real estate and the housing market in Australia. It is Zoey and Nick, you know, a couple in their 60s who have this idea to move to a regional church. I guess, as I read this novel, and I, you know, was experiencing Zoe's story, I couldn't help but think of all the contemporary stuff, the housing crisis, the rental crisis, the difference between how that is playing out in the cities and the regions. And, you know, as someone who was bringing out the story, Amanda, how do you place the novel that you have created in this time that readers are going to be reading it?

AMANDA: Well, it's about living now. So, what people do with churches tells you a lot about the way we live now. Some of them are turned into nightclubs, some are turned into restaurants, some are turned into museums, and each renovation reflects a whole set of values and a whole disposition. Then there's the thing about moving from the city to the country, which is an inexhaustible thing, not just in Australia, but in most countries. So, the divide between city and country. What the pastoral form, you know, the big, bad city is expensive, polluted, and we're going to live in rural environment. I mean, that a very old idea, it goes back to the Romans. And so that interests me too, because we've all lived it at some point or another, or most of us have, and we come and go – I can go between the coast in the city. It brings into focus a whole lot of issues that bother us at the moment, like the price of real estate, like the polarity in cultural and subcultural politics and dispositions. Look at the trends in any developed country, and there's a stark difference between city and country and their values. So when people move to the country, they often experience an unexpected clash of values with the locals, or they may feel embraced for the first time and part of the community for the first time. I mean, how could you not be interested in this?

ASTRID: I agree, Amanda. Now, obviously, a church –  not religion as such, but a church – and the idea of that physicality of religion is present throughout the novel, and then opens up to, I guess, Christian imagery. I mean, quite literally, much of it takes place in a church. But you know, for example, there is a snake barring the entrance on the very first page, and the snake is very much a symbol taken from Christianity. When we think about craft and writing, and what words you chose to put on the page and present it to the reader, I wanted to ask you about how bringing in church and Christianity let you do things with imagery and questions that maybe you couldn't in, you know, a world that didn't have a physical church in it?

AMANDA: Well, the religious traditions are what Carl Jung calls the text content of a culture. You don't have to be religious to acknowledge that a lot of your values, even your secular values, have been shaped by your religious traditions. We're at a point now where we're abandoning traditional religions – the majority of us particularly in Australia, the most secular country in the world – and we're reinventing other forms of meaning and ritual.

You know, one of the things that's always interested me… I once wrote a piece for The Monthly magazine on this, the rise of the civil celebrant procedures. Australian marriages are now conducted by civil servants. Think about that. That's extraordinary. And that's happened in basically 40 years. And so, the couple go to the celebrant. If I start from scratch, there's no ritual, there's no scripture, they reinvent, or they invent a paradigm of meaning that's meaningful to them. And, in fact, a character in The Conversion, a secondary character, is a civil servant. She's become one of the linchpins of the community, whereas the vicar has gone off and started up farming. He is no longer central. I mean, it's all about meanings for me. What is meaningful at any moment? How do we construct that? How do we differ? How do we agree and what is meaningful? There's a secular baptism in the novel that's conducted by a civil celebrant that is based on a ritual that one of my friends does. Everybody has a great time, and it's quite moving. But they started from scratch, you know, they started from 0.0, ground zero. And yet the residues of religious teaching that influence influences in ways we don't always recognise or realise.

But there's also the fact now that one of my preoccupations is architecture and domestic design, and the way we relate to the space we're in. You know, we all have this experience where we walk into a building and immediately our spirits rise. And that's always fascinated me. Why do I feel this when I walk into this building? I've got a doctor's appointment, the first time with a specialist, and I walk into the foyer of this building and I just think I have to get out of here. And so, there's the whole question of how we relate to space, and the desire that many of us have, I mean, the spectrum of this.

One of the characters in the novel, Nick, the husband, here's at one end of the spectrum, he's looking for the perfect space, the perfect design. He's got this obsession with perfection and perfectionist interests. Me too. I think it's a noble and fatal obsession. You're never going to get there. And he thinks, right, you just bought the church, you reinvent it, you put your stamp on it, it's yours. And his wife's always more skeptical. She thinks this building was designed as a beautifully integrated space for a particular purpose. To what degree can we run interference on them? They disagree from the beginning.

ASTRID: Talking about Nick and Zoe… Zoe, you know, in my reading, Zoe was the protagonist for me. And I was very much in with Zoe. But the structure of The Conversion, I mean, it's divided into two parts. There is one called ‘Windows’, one called ‘The Conversion’. And again, coming back to your craft and the craft of writing, Amanda, part of the novel, one section is written in the past tense, and one is playing out in the present. When you are thinking about that kind of thing, talk us through how you approach that point of view and structuring words.

AMANDA: Every novel you write is a new project, and what you did in the last one isn't going to help you. You try things out. Usually what I do is I write the first 20,000 words over and over again until I get the sound that I want. It's literally a sound, I hear the voice in my head. And I think, that doesn't sound right, it doesn't sound right. If it is in the past tense, third person and don't like it, I'll move it into the first-person past tense. If that doesn't work, I'll move it into the present tense first person. You get the idea, I won't read through all the options, but you get the idea. Until you get what feels right, what feels natural. To me, if it doesn't feel right to me, I'm not going to interest any readers.

The first half is in the past tense because one of the main characters is going to die before the church is occupied. And then, the second part is in the present tense, because then she's in the church. It's not a spoiler to say the husband dies, because it's given away early in the narrative. She's been in the church. Then you're in the present moment, like, okay, all this stuff's gone on before. Now what happens? And the present tense is the more appropriate to that exploratory process of what the hell is she going to do with this place? She doesn't really want to be there, she is not sure what to do with it. You want the reader to feel that they're in that moment with her, weighing things up, taking the journey.

ASTRID: W hat kind of responses have you gotten so far from readers?

AMANDA: Well, you only ever get favourable responses. But I mean, it hasn't been out that long. It came out just before Christmas. But the response so far has been very favourable, but again, you know, you're not getting the negative feedback. Probably the last, the only really negative feedback I've had is I would have liked it to go on longer.

ASTRID: That's not negative feedback, that's a compliment.

AMANDA: Well, it's a sort of compliment. I mean, they could be saying, you know, I think you dealt with certain characters too briefly. But I like to shorten it up. If I were to find a list of my favourite novels, most of them would be short, not all of them, but I’m a pretty impatient reader, and I tend to write a long draft and then cut. What can I lose here? What is absolutely not necessary? And you always write what you would want to read. As a reader, I like a few gaps. I like to have an input, you know, I like to be interpreting the text. And I like a subtext that's insinuating and I have to make something of it. If you want everything spilled out on every page, I'm probably not your writer.

ASTRID: I don't know if there's any readers who want everything spelled out on every page.

AMANDA: I think so. I mean, I don't like obscure novels. I like the fact I am for a certain kind of clarity in the writing. There are no long descriptions or poetic passages because as a reader, when I get to them, I start to skim them. But when it comes to things like, you know, her reaction to the stained-glass windows and her complex feelings, I tried not to editorialise. I tried to leave it to the reader to think well, if I was in deposition, how would I feel? What would my response be? ASTRID: ASTRID: Amanda, when you consider your body of work, which includes fiction and non-fiction, do you see any resonances between the works that you have published?

AMANDA: Oh, yes. There's an enduring preoccupation with the home and the spaces we live in. One American writer and psychologist calls the house a self. That comes up a lot in my work, that's the preoccupation with the reinvention of self. Who am I? How can I make myself something better? Something different? How do I fit into the current culture? Or how do I react against the current culture? That's an enduring preoccupation. As I keep saying, the way we live now, the kind of madnesses and sadnesses. You know, I'm a terrible voyeur. I'm always in coffee shops, eavesdropping on people's conversations, making notes unobtrusively. And, you know, the Australian landscape. Bushfire comes up and several of my works. I've lived through one, luckily without damage. And the way in which we relate to place, the purely Australian sense of spaciousness. We've got it, we've got more than anyone else, we're not quite sure exactly what to do with it. This has only really been compromised in the last few years with the housing crisis, where we no longer have options, multiple options and the kind of space we want to create around us. For example, in the 1970s when the Back to Nature train started, it was no big deal to buy a property in the country and do a little hippie shaking, you know, and grow your own wheat and whatever. It was easy to do. It wasn't expensive, lots of people did it. And five years later, they went back to the city. But anyway, all of this now is heavily compromised and constrained.

And hence the attraction for churches because he usually cheap, but when you get anyone to renovate, where is yourself? Who are you in this church? You know, if you strip all the religious stuff out, you end up with a rather bland sort of Town Hall Effect. On the other hand, I know there's a church in the novel, called St John the Baptist. The windows, stained glass windows with St John's head on a platter. And you think, what can do with it, you know, can you eat your breakfast for it being up there? All of these very practical problems, but at the same time, they challenge your beliefs and who you are. For example, why do people around the world, why am I, building a library? You know, it's a deep archetypal pattern that recurs and occurs? So, these are things that you can explore through storytelling in a particular way.

ASTRID: Amanda, I asked you how you conceive of your own work and whether you see resonances. I'd kind of like to flip the same question and ask how you feel, or what is the experience of being written about by others. I guess I'm meaning criticism, but I'm specifically meaning long form work. So, Julianne Lemond wrote an entire book about your body of work. What is that experience like?

AMANDA: I feel detached about it, because it was her take. I think the book is good because one of the things I like about it, it's very readable. It's very accessible. It's not theoretical and academic. I mean, it's very insightful, you can give it to anyone. It has a terrific chapter, for example, on the role of bushfire in Australian fiction, which most readers could relate to. But basically, it's her take on the work. Yeah, Julianne was a bit shocked, because she asked if she could see my archive, correspondence and draft work. And I had to tell her that I don't have an archive. Because after I publish, I burn everything, for the very practical reason that otherwise I'd be living in a house full of paper. Anyway, she got over that and just focus on the actual published work.

ASTRID: For those listening, the expression on your face now is amazing, Amanda. And this is actually reminding me of a time I spoke to Carmel Bird, and she casually informed me that she cuts up books that are too heavy. She'll just like get a knife, and if it's too heavy to read in bed, she'll cut it into pieces and throw them out as she goes. Or if she likes the book, she'll tie it together with string at the end and keep it in its cut up form.

AMANDA: I love the practicality, I love the absence of piety. You know, this is dreadful thing we impose on children with reading as some kind of virtue, like the10 commandments. It's not only a pleasure, it's a fantastic psychological resource. When you're in a book, no matter your problems, no one can get in. You go into the Bible, and you draw strength and solace from that process. And so the book is not a precious object. You know, my father had a thing that if he started a book he’d finish it, so if he started a boring book he would flog himself through, and in the end that put him off reading. I used to say, just put a put the book down. But that's the way you've been brought up, you know, with this kind of sanctimonious approach to reading. I'm love the cut off.

ASTRID: Yeah, I know. I seriously am considering cutting up books in the future as well.

Amanda, my final question for you relate to non-fiction. I started the interview asking you about fiction and you have published long form essays and other non-fiction. I happen to adore the Quarterly Essay series and you wrote Voting for Jesus and Groundswell, both of which I have read. ASTRID: I guess my question is, how different is writing non-fiction for you than fiction? Is it still a way of meaning making? Or is it more practical? Where do you come down on that?

AMANDA: It is meaning making, without a doubt. You know, writing a letter of apology for missing lunches is meaning making. Writers are famous for drafting their small notes several times. I mean, I did do some novelistic techniques in the Quarterly Essays. In the beginning of Voting for Jesus I've got three young women in the room and I'm interviewing them. I'm trying to capture their voices and create a scene as you would in a novel, and not be magisterial about it but make the reader feel that they're exploring, that this is an open ended process, and they're exploring something. It's like reading a novel. And you know, you're trying to control the material in such a way that you put an argument. The main difference, though, I think, is that when you write non-fiction, you pretty much know where you're going. You're mapping it out – this will be the conclusion and this will be the middle. You've done your research rather than sometimes you surprise yourself. But when you write fiction, oh, this is true of me. Not all writers have the faintest idea where their going. I start with an image, the church, that labyrinth, whatever, I write several drafts and then start again. And the whole fun of it is not to know and to surprise yourself, and to make connections you didn't know you could make. And well, family joins us. Maybe the reveal – and this is quirky – The Conversion to think that the reader is going to be hooked by what is going to happen to this church? Is it going to end up in nightclub? Where is she going with this? Well, when I started I didn't know.

ASTRID: I want to recommend The Conversion to everybody listening and share with you Amanda. The Conversion is a book I want my mother to read. I'm going to give her my copy, and I want to talk to my mother about it to see how what are the differences and similarities in our readings?

AMANDA: Thank you so much. Thanks for your interest.