Angela Savage is an award-winning author and the Director of Writers Victoria.
Angela is known for her crime fiction. Her debut novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and all three of her Jayne Keeney PI novels were shortlisted for Ned Kelly Awards. The Dying Beach was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award.
In 2019 she made the move to literary fiction with Mother of Pearl, the novel for which she was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing from Monash University.
ASTRID: Angela Savage has a wonderful career in the literary sector. She's just released her fourth novel, Mother of Pearl, which is literary fiction, and her previous three novels are all crime fiction and all of which were listed for the Ned Kelly awards. Angela's also the director of Writers Victoria, Australia's largest membership organisation for writers.
Angela Savage, welcome to The Garret.
ANGELA: Thanks so much, Astrid. It's a real pleasure to be here.
ASTRID: First off, I believe dual congratulations are in order. You've recently finished your PhD in creative writing from Monash University, and you've also just published the fourth book Mother of Pearl.
ANGELA: Correct. So, I get to call myself Dr. Savage. Sounds very much like a Bond villain name. And Mother of Pearl is the novel that I wrote as the creative component of my PhD in creative writing.
ANGELA: Thank you.
ASTRID: Now my first question, you've actually moved from crime, a genre that you've written and love, to literary fiction. What drove that change?
ANGELA: It's a great question. The short answer is that I wanted to extend myself as a writer. In saying that, I am not ashamed of being a genre writer and I love being part of the Australian crime writing community, which is seriously one of the most chilled communities you could ever meet. We have a theory it's because we get all our murderous fantasies out on the page. And also, there's a bit of a backstory to this because I didn't actually realise I was a genre writer when I first started writing. I had no idea. I was this naive. I'd never studied writing formally. I came to writing as a reader and I had no idea that there was this kind of snobbism around genre. So, when I wrote my first... well, my first attempt at a novel was just went nowhere.
The second attempt, which became Behind the Night Bazaar, my first published novel, I kind of chose the crime format because A, I was really bad at plotting and that was going to be a very good discipline for me. And B, crime fiction seemed like a really great vehicle for the kind of issues that I wanted to write about. At the time I had been living in Southeast Asia for a long time and working cross-culturally for many years. And that was a lot like being a detective. You were trying to work out a big picture from a small set of clues. You were trying to work out a reliable source from someone trying to take you for a ride, and often looking for meanings lost in translation. So, crime really fitted the kinds of ideas that I wanted to explore.
With Mother of Pearl, there are actually some wonderful crime novels written on the subject of surrogacy, transnational commercial surrogacy, which is specifically what my book is about. But there are payoffs with crime that I wanted to free myself from. Most significantly, as I think S.S. Van Dine said in an early essay about the rules of writing crime fiction, you must have a corpse in crime fiction and the deader the corpse, the better. And most crime novels about surrogacy kill off at least one of the major parties to the surrogacy arrangement. Whereas I consciously wanted everyone left standing at the end of my novel to kind of reckon with the complexity of what they'd gone into. So that was one thing.
And the second thing relates to the setting because there's a certain expectation with crime fiction that the setting to some degree at least has to kind of be seedy, corrupt, dark. And whilst I wanted to write a nuanced account of Bangkok, which is one of the major settings in this novel, I also wanted to be released from those kinds of genre reader expectations, where I could explore a city I really love and have known for more than 30 years, to write a kind of love letter to that city, albeit in a nuanced way. They were the sort of major reasons for that shift, switch of genres.
ASTRID: So that's your internal switch. How have you found, I don't know, the perception from readers, but also publishers moving from genre, which as you mentioned, can be... there is an element of snobbery in some places in the industry, to literary fiction?
ANGELA: Well, the first thing to note is that the publisher of my crime novels, Text Publishing, elected not to publish this novel, which is not a crime novel. That didn't really surprise me because I had picked up that it's tricky for publishers when writers shift genres. I was disappointed, but I wasn't surprised. And it's always hard to know with when you're kind of seeking a publisher for a work what's at the basis of who rejects and who embraces what it is that you have to offer. I kind of felt that the harder ask with this book was the fact that it's a three hander and the narrative points of view, the three main narrative points of view written from the perspective of two Australian sisters and a Thai woman. And knowing that own voices is really a focus at this stage. And that kind of writing across lines of identities is not... can I say not fashionable? I thought that was probably the harder ask in terms of finding a publisher. I'd be lying if I didn't say that certain doors have opened to me now that I have moved away from genre that weren't open to me before, but as I say, I am the first person to kind of defend genre writing. And I think that there's a really false dichotomy between... to imply that there's not good writing in genre is just ignorance, quite frankly.
ASTRID: It is ignorance. I couldn't agree more with you. Crime is not my love, fantasy and science fiction is my genre love, despite the fact that I clearly read plenty of literary fiction and everything else that Australia produces. Genre is beautiful.
ANGELA: Absolutely. And there's some stunning, stunning writing in genre. And some people would argue, China Miéville being one of them, that genre imposes rules that make it even trickier for the authors and for writers to kind of succeed in that space, in that literary space is a harder ask. I've also heard Cate Kennedy say that the writing mind loves limitations. So sometimes that kind of formula, for want of a better word, because I think you can play very fast and loose with formulae…
ASTRID: The best genres…
ANGELA: That's right. But can also be a creative incentive, perhaps.
ASTRID: I agree. Now, Mother of Pearl, as you mentioned, is the result of a PhD. You were already previously published in crime. What was the impetus to go and do a PhD in creative writing?
ANGELA: Honest answer?
ANGELA: I was seeking a scholarship to do the PhD and thought that if I could secure a scholarship, having spent ten years of my life fitting writing around paid work, a scholarship would give me the opportunity to fit paid work around writing. It was a very pragmatic kind of decision, plus there was the allure of being able to call myself Dr Savage at the end of it all.
ASTRID: That's never going to get old.
ANGELA: And look, perhaps I had a kind of fantasy at one point that this might signal a late career change for me, but it took only six months of the PhD to work out that academia wasn't going to be my future. But all of that said, I think what I hadn't estimated and what proved to be a great boon was not only the kind of collegiality and support of the people I met at the university, but also the access to resources, like extraordinary access to information and material, but also resources for doing field work and for attending conferences and all that kind of thing. It added a dimension to the whole exercise.
I remember someone asking me recently did I regret it? Would I recommend doing it? Is it worth? Should you just kind of find another way of resourcing yourself to write a novel? Would it have taken as long? Et cetera. And I think one of the conclusions I came to about... because I really baulked at the academic writing at first, but learned to quite love it by the end of the PhD. And now I have a novel and an exegesis. And the exegesis is all about the content and writing of the novel. So, it's kind of fantastic, because I've sort of got all the answers to questions about the book thought through in advance of actually releasing the book. So that's kind of exciting as well.
ASTRID: Oh, it completely is. And Australian literature has produced some beautiful works of creative fiction from PhDs. The one I'm most aware of is Hannah Kent's Burial Rites.
ANGELA: Absolutely. And Emily Bitto's The Strays also.
ASTRID: Exactly. So what, if anything, changed in the writing process for you? I mean, I know we talked about genre, but you did have a supervisor, you were in a different environment with resources to draw upon. So how did that impact your writing?
Well, I think having a supervisor was fantastic. My supervisor is a literary fiction writer herself and she... because I think one of the mistakes I'd made in an early draught was although it wasn't a crime novel, I'd actually structured it like it was, building up to a big reveal at the end. And she had to point out that actually, if something like that had happened in people's lives, they'd be thinking about it, their interior monologue would kind of touch on that much earlier in the novel. So even though there is a kind of reveal at the end, it's signposted a lot earlier in this version than it originally was.
And the other aspect that I really enjoyed, I guess I'd probably read differently while I was doing a PhD in particular. I mean, I've always read extremely broadly, but I probably read more literary fiction relative to other genres in that time. And I really enjoyed the spaces that that opened up. I actually, at one stage I was writing a section of my exegesis on literary fiction, what it was, did it actually result in empathy, did it build empathy in the reader, there's incredible scholarly debate about this. And in the end, I kind of backed away from that argument because I could not find a definitive definition of what made a work literary or not.
ASTRID: But in the process of kind of doing that investigation, I was made aware of a whole lot of techniques that were quite exciting to me as a writer. Things like leaving space for the reader to fill in and posing questions that didn't have to have answers and leaving things at a slightly loose end and metaphor and synonym. All of which come into well-written crime fiction as well, but I think there's just a little bit of a loosening, a kind of freeing up that I really enjoyed in that process.
ASTRID: Tell me if you can about your personal writer's group, your personal network that gave you feedback?
ANGELA: I'm very fortunate because my personal feedback group is Christos Tsiolkas.
ASTRID: I know, that's why I asked the question. I thought I'd let you say it.
ANGELA: Yeah. So, Christos and I've been working together since... I mean I say this going... I'm blushing because it just feels so outrageously privileged. We found ourselves living together in Canberra at the same time in 1999. He was working on Dead Europe and I was working on what became Behind the Night Bazaar, which at the time was called Thai Died. So that was quite amusing. So, Christos, together with my partner Andrew Nette, who's also a writer, they're my kind of first two writers. At Monash I had another group, my study buddy group, made up of Kate Brabon, Jen Anderson and Rosie Chang. Kate went on to win the Vogel for her PhD novel The Hunger Artist, Jen went on to win the Dean's prize and a medal for the best thesis in Arts that year, and Rosie's doing hers part-time so she's still in the middle of it and I have every confidence that he's going to write something outstanding. So, I just felt so privileged to be surrounded by that kind of calibre of wonderful writers and I don't underestimate how lucky I am in that respect.
ASTRID: Well, in addition to being lucky, can you tell me about the role of feedback?
ANGELA: It's a really interesting question because I think you can get too much of it. And I think I probably did that in my rookie days. I think I kind of consulted too many readers, so I've become a little bit more discerning. I think it's very hard to write well without feedback, without kind of critical review, without peer review. I think you kind of have to get your head out of your own ass to put it bluntly. And really, and particularly for a writer like me who's writing across boundaries of culture and all of that kind of thing, I've got to be really open to criticism or the scope for really stuffing it up is significantly augmented. I come to that feedback process as I come to the editing process, with enormous gratitude to people. Because there is nothing as valuable for me as people who are prepared to put time into paying attention to your own creative process.
Christos and I will go out sometimes and we will spend hours talking about people who don't exist because we're talking through character and plot and consistency and all of that kind of stuff. Greater love hath no friend than to do that. But I think all of that stuff is very important. That said, I think it's about resonance. So, it's got to be your work. And I've heard plenty of examples of authors who've resisted pressure to change things to the betterment of the work. It's really got to be that that kind of feedback resonates. And I think the best editors, like the best kind of beta readers, what they do... and I heard Nadine Davidoff talk about this once, is that you identify the problems, but you don't identify the solution. You kind of enable or facilitate the writer to come up with that solution. But usually, you'll kind of know in your gut too, when something's not working well. And then to work with someone who can kind of say to you, look, just push that, tweak it, go back, rethink. And often you will come up with something much better.
ASTRID: That was a lovely description of the value of feedback. Now I'm going to ask you an obvious question and then hopefully a less obvious question. Given your professional history, you have spent many, many years in Southeast Asia, how much of you do you think is in the work, given that there's some professional linkages?
ANGELA: I gave Anna, the character of Anna, who is a... when the book opens, Anna has spent I think 12 years in Southeast Asia and she's just moved back to Australia after that long time. And she's quite unsettled and not really knowing where she fits in or where she belongs. I gave Anna a lot of my CV, but she spent way longer in the region than I did. And I came back quite conscious that I didn't want to end up in Anna's position of that kind of feeling of not belonging anymore. As kind of conflicted as I feel coming from settler Australian culture in Australia, I sort of kind of knew I had to go back and face that music. So yes, Anna shares a CV with me and there's a couple of moments in the novel which are very much derived from my own experience working in international development, and in HIV in particular, because I really wanted those moments to be in the book. I think that epidemic has a really important history. Where we sit now is almost miraculous compared to where it was only a few decades ago. But I kind of wanted a couple of those key moments to be in the work. So there's that.
But I was really conscious, I made the mistake with my earlier books of making my central character, Jane Keeney, giving her dark curly hair and so everyone thought she was me. She clearly wasn't. So, I was really conscious of making sure that no characters look like me in this book. And of course, Anna has a sister younger sister Meg, Meg's gone through years of unfruitful IVF. She's had this experience of infertility. I had an experience of failed pregnancies before having my daughter. So, there's also stuff that I've drawn on to craft Meg as a character. But again, not me. Quite consciously not me.
And consciously, not anyone else either. I met a lot of people in the course of my research. I met people who had hired surrogates. I had met people who had been surrogates. I have friends who were probably even more similar to Anna than I am, but all the way through, I was really conscious of this not being their story, but a story of my own making. And in fact, the only time I had writer's block in the writing of this was after I had consulted with an Australian woman who'd had two children via Thai surrogates and I got caught up by her, the reality of her story and feeling like, oh, should the story be reflecting her experience? And I had to really stop and step back and go, no, this isn't her story. This is someone else's story.
ASTRID: There are quite a few moments in Mother of Pearl that really stood out for me, but one actually I thought was beautiful. And it's not even about surrogacy, which is the overall theme. It's where Anna is musing about the Black Saturday fires and about how we process public grief in Australia and how that contrasts with how we deal with natural disasters and public grief from elsewhere in the world, including Southeast Asia.
ANGELA: I'm so glad you've highlighted that bit Astrid, because it was a really difficult bit to write, to respect the kind of terrible outcomes of Black Saturday. But I just felt having come from Southeast Asia, having been in... we'd actually spent a year in Cambodia just prior, then came back within days of Black Saturday happening. And seeing some terrible natural disasters play out there as well, I just felt there was this lost opportunity for seeing that experience as part of what connects us to the rest of the world rather than what separates us from it. And I guess there's a bit of a metaphor there because it's only that distancing that to my mind enables something like overseas surrogacy to be able to happen. If we lost the capacity to distance ourselves from that person emotionally, to kind of suggest that the other is really othered, I don't think we could in all consciousness go down that path. Thank you for highlighting that story.
ASTRID: I think that's about an event that happened in Australia, but it does weave in with the other ideas and viewpoints that you look at throughout the work. You are analysing infertility and fertility, surrogacy, and to a much lesser extent, adoption and abortion from all different angles. Women in different situations, women from different cultures, different ages. I actually sat down after finishing it, Angela, and thought, which viewpoint did Angela leave out? I couldn't actually think of a really obvious viewpoint that you hadn't covered. I guess my question from that ramble is how conscious were you of representing all sides of what is a very, very delicate concept?
ANGELA: Very multifaceted. I guess the first thing to say is when I did the exegetical research, the academic research for my PhD, it emerged fairly clearly from the scholarly writing and from the media coverage of surrogacy that there were pretty much three camps, three positions around it. One was this kind of neo-liberal, the market will deliver, it's all about a fair exchange, it's all about choice. I buy a service, you provide the service. So kind of wildly in favour of surrogacy, which I called the neo-liberal position. Other end of the spectrum, this kind of vehemently opposed abolitionist perspective. Even if it's unpaid, if it's altruistic surrogacy, it's all wrong, it's all exploitative. And then in the middle, the harm reductionists who were like, well, this is probably going to happen, so we should try and make sure it happens as ethically as possible with regulation, with standards, with human rights framework.
And there are problems with all three of those positions and they're mutually polarising. So the whole idea of writing fiction was to get away from those polarities and to allow the reader to tread in what I found was very shifting territory. Over the three years that I did that research, I mean, you probably remember the Baby Gammy story, which was the misnomer, he was actually Grammy. His nickname was Grammy. But the Baby Gammy story, as it was reported in the Australian press, happened six months into my research. And that just kind of flipped... almost flipped everything that I was studying on its head. Here's me going, ‘I'm trying not to write a crime novel, would you all stop behaving like criminals?’ But also, it was an incredible lens through which to explore specifically surrogacy in Thailand.
I didn't want to write the Gammy story. I wanted to write a book that showed how something like what happened to Grammy could happen. Like when you read this book, I hope at the end you go, ‘Oh yeah, well, there were so many vulnerabilities there. Of course something like this could go wrong’. But equally, I mentioned the three hander, there's the three characters, I didn't want the three characters just to reflect one of those three major positions. I really did want the polarity, the polyphony of voices, the sort of extraordinary, often contradictory kind of opinions that people can hold on these topics. I sort of wanted that all in there. And specifically, I want readers to come to the book and to make up their own minds about it. I've been very, very conscious of it not being a didactic text, despite the fact that I really wanted to explore these kind of big issues.
ASTRID: You mentioned own voices before. Tell me about writing the character of Mod?
ANGELA: I have been writing characters, I've been running from Thai points of view ever since I started publishing. In fact, my novels are written from kind of all kinds of... now, in retrospect I think wildly, possibly inappropriate cultural points of view. I write from the point of view... deep third, not first person, but deep third of people of colour, of Thai people, of people whose gender orientation isn't the same as mine. I've just kind of been doing this for quite some time. And largely that was inspired because I love reading books like that. I wanted to write a book like that. I love reading own voices work. I also love reading accounts by outsiders. I kind of think the magic of fiction, and Malla Nunn talked about this recently in an article, is that extraordinary capacity for empathetic imagining. That said, I also get the political arguments around own voices and representation and equal share and all that kind of stuff. And I personally am the first person to champion Asian Australian writing for example, and anything I can find by Thai writers and all of that kind of thing.
ASTRID: As you do at Writers Victoria.
ANGELA: Exactly. So that's a really strong... I don't see it as an either or at all. Mod comes from the North East part of Thailand, which is the poorest part of Thailand. It shares a big border with Laos and culturally is very similar to Laos. And Laos is a country I lived in for three years in the early nineties. I actually speak better Lao than I do Thai. To Thai people I sound like a country bumpkin. And I really wanted to kind of honour... There's an extraordinary compassion and generosity and hospitality in those cultures. There's also an incredible pragmatism. And so, I kind of wanted in a way to honour some of that stuff without it falling into stereotype.
So Mod kind of emerged... And so there's a lot of different Thai women actually in this story and they all have kind of quite different personalities and I've tried to kind of explore class differences as well. That was a really important task. In the end, I had a really great advantage of meeting a Thai woman in Australia who had read my crime novels and liked them, and who said to me offhandedly, ‘Hey, if you ever want me to read one of your manuscripts, I'd be happy to’. She'd actually started reading Western accounts of Thai women. She'd become intrigued by it. Most of them of course are written by men. And so when she stumbled across my book, she was really like, ‘Ooh, what does an Australian woman have to say about Thai women?’ And thankfully she really liked them.
So I had her read my manuscript a couple of times and we talked through Mod's character and it was incredibly helpful. Her number one feedback was, ‘You're too nice! These Thai people, they're too nice! They'd be nastier than that’. And I kind of kept saying to her, well, you could write that book. I can't write that book. You could write that book. But there were a couple key moments in the story where I'd written a draught of what happened and I thought I'm really not sure about this. And I went back and said, ‘Would it really play out this way? Or is it more likely to play out that way?’ And time and time again, she confirmed my misgivings. So that was an extraordinary resource. I think that's what people call sensitivity readers. That kind of was brought to bear on Mod's character as well.
There's a whole... and I think it's mentioned in the book quite significantly, in Thai Buddhism, there's this tradition of making merit. It's something you do to kind of pave your way and pave the way of your loved ones to a better next life. And the very term for surrogate mother in Thai there's traditional surrogacy, which is a sister who doesn't have a child might be given a child by another sister to raises their own, all of that kind of thing. So surrogacy is not necessarily seen as shameful in Thai society. Of course, it means that that cultural predilection then meets with market forces and then there's a whole lot of other kinds of vulnerabilities and issues that come up.
But I kind of wanted to convey just how nuanced surrogacy in Thailand could be. And certainly my research suggests that when a woman goes through having a baby for a couple, which is an extraordinary, extraordinary gift, and one that however much you convince yourself, you're never going to pay back with money. And then turns around and says, ‘If you'd like a second one, I'll have one for you as well’. That's a really different dynamic to kind of some of the narratives around poverty and vulnerability, which are equally real, but I just wanted to kind of muddy that, all of those kinds of stereotypes and preconceptions, I guess.
ASTRID: Now tell me about your use of Thai language in the work.
ANGELA: I've always sort of peppered my writing with Thai. That came out early on. Before I started writing the first book, I read this really dreadful novel set in Bali where all of the dialogue was in this dreadful pigeon English, guest house English. It was ghastly. And it's actually quite common in Western writing about Thailand, from what I can gather, it's a way of infantilizing the Thai other, and also it kind of... But equally there's a kind of complexity too, because the language barrier can also serve as a kind of form of protection and distancing for both parties.
when I first wrote Behind the Night Bazaar, I made my main character a fluent Thai speaker. And I've used Thai to sort of signal to the reader that, hey, this conversation is taking place in Thai. But now it can take place in English on the page in a kind of sophisticated way. And of course, I did the same thing with Mother of Pearl in making the central character, Anna, a Thai speaker. She learned Lao first as I did, and then became a Thai speaker. And that was quite deliberate, again, to get away from that risk. If I play with that kind of guesthouse English in the book, it's got quite a deliberate, strategic purpose.
I love studying language in terms of idiom and proverbs and sayings, and so I love taking... there's a couple of really simple or classic ones. Our English expression, 'out of the frying pan, into the fire' has its Thai equivalent in, 'escape the tiger, meet the crocodile'. So exactly the same sense, but completely different concepts. Same concept, but different language, very culturally specific. I love playing with all of that. I love the fact that the wording can be so different and yet we know what each other means exactly by that stuff. So that's part of the play of it. That's part of the joy of it. Because cross-cultural engagement, sure, produces drama and tension, but also can produce very rich moments of humour and laughter. I wanted to kind of capture some of that, and language is a really great way of doing that.
ASTRID: I also love your use of the English language, Angela, you taught me a word. That doesn't happen in every book I read. You taught me whelk.
ANGELA: Oh, whelk.
ASTRID: It's like a sea snail?
ASTRID: Yeah. I did not know what that was.
ANGELA: Oh, there you go.
ASTRID: I actually had to go and look it up.
ANGELA: And it's such a great name, whelk. It's like a suction cup of a sea animal. And so, it's got that lovely kind of almost onomatopoeic quality.
ASTRID: Totally. Now Angela, I want to ask, you are the director of Writers Victoria, and that means that you constantly come across writers at all stages of their careers, writers who are published, writers who are about to be published, and people who have been writing at home for years for personal practise or people who've never even picked up a pen or opened a Word document. What is the question that you get asked most often that you think is the wrong thing for writers to be focused on?
ANGELA: How do I get published?
ANGELA: And look, the reason why this is the wrong thing to be focused on is the point in people's careers at which they ask that question. We have been doing surveys of writers and aspiring writers in order to do programme planning. And we ask which topics would you most like to attend, which workshops would you most like to? How to get published is always the top pick. But then when we crosscheck the data against the level of writing experience, it's disproportionate number of people who actually don't have any writing experience or have done very little writing. So it's the cart before the horse stuff. It's like, really that question is so far down the track. How do you write, how do you make time to write, how do you develop a writing practise, how do you find your tribe in terms of your people who can give you feedback that you trust?
ASTRID: How do you find your very own personal Christos Tsiolkas?
ANGELA: That's right. How do you find Christos. But also, how do you get the words on the page? And then how do you go from a first draught to a polished draught? Another big gap in people's understanding is their assumptions that a first draught is enough. We can tell when someone sends a manuscript in for assessment at Writers Victoria, which is a service that we offer, we can tell when no one else has seen it. I guess that they're the sort of common mistakes I think that people make of assuming that... well, I don't know whether it's assuming or the mistakes, but basically you can't... I think you can call yourself a writer at any time, but it's really hard to quiz of writer if you haven't actually written anything. Geoffrey McGeachin, who's an Australian crime writer, I love quoting him where he says, ‘Writing a manuscript won't necessarily guarantee you of getting published, but it puts you way ahead of everyone who hasn't written anything. A hundred percent of published authors have actually written a manuscript’. So my first response to that question is write something.
ASTRID: Excellent advice. Angela, thank you so much for coming to The Garret.
ANGELA: My absolute pleasure Astrid.