Charlotte WoodInterviewLiterary fictionNon-fictionPopular fictionThe Stella PrizeWriter

Charlotte Wood

Charlotte Wood is one of Australia's most provocative writers. In 2019 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant services to literature, and was named one of the Australian Financial Review's 100 Women of Influence.

Charlotte has published six novels and two books of non-fiction. She is best known for The Natural Way of Things, which received the 2016 Stella Prize, the 2016 Indie Book of the Year and Novel of the Year, was joint winner of the Prime Minister's Literary Award for Fiction and was the University of Canberra Book of the Year for 2019. In late 2019 she released The Weekend, which has already been longlisted in the 2019 Indie Book Awards.

Her non-fiction works include The Writer’s Room, a collection of interviews with authors about the creative process.

Charlotte Wood

TRANSCRIPT

ASTRID: Charlotte Wood welcome to The Garret.

CHARLOTTE: Thank you so much Astrid.

ASTRID: I'm so happy to be talking to you today. But before we get into the heart of our interview I believe congratulations for all of 2019 are in order for you. You've had some massive achievements this year which I am pretty overwhelmed by. You became a member of the Order of Australia for services to literature.

CHARLOTTE: I did. That was a major surprise to say the least.

ASTRID: You were listed as one of the Australian Financial Review's 100 Women of Influence and you released your seventh novel The Weekend which social media tells me in the last 24 hours you have been long listed for the Indie Book of the Year award. Congratulations.

CHARLOTTE: Thank you very much. It's actually my sixth novel, not my seventh.

ASTRID: Really?

CHARLOTTE: Yeah.

ASTRID: I'm so sorry. That's because you also have two works of non-fiction as well.

CHARLOTTE: Yeah, yeah. So, I've got eight books altogether – six novels, two non-fiction.

ASTRID: I can't count very well. I'm really embarrassed right now.

CHARLOTTE: No, don’t worry.

ASTRID: But on a serious note that is an incredible list of achievements in 2019. But what does services to literature actually mean?

CHARLOTTE: Well it's a bit of a mystery to me too but I think it means, you know, writing for starters.

ASTRID: You don't get an Order of Australia just for publishing some great books.

CHARLOTTE: No but I think, you know, Sophie Cunningham also got one the same day that I did which was great. And I would think looking at Sophie's career it's not just writing but an involvement in the literary community, I guess. And I imagine that my evidence of that was things like my involvement with Varuna the Writers House – sort of a bit in the past now I have to say. But, you know, doing things like prize judgings and generally supporting your fellow writers I think. So, I mean I'm thinking of Sophie when I say this particularly, I think maybe teaching that kind of stuff, so sort of slightly more involvement than just writing your own books but being part of a literary community which has always been important to me.

ASTRID: What are your thoughts on the Australian literary community? And do you notice differences between states or cities?

CHARLOTTE: Well, I can't speak for other cities and states except I guess Melbourne's very.. Victoria is, you know, because of the Wheeler Centre I think and the UNESCO City of  Literature stuff has maybe a more organisationally visible literary community. But certainly in New South Wales I've always had, I guess it may be more informal networks of writing friends and buddies but Varuna the Writers House is a definite kind of hub for writers in New South Wales and there's all kinds of networks that spin out from that, that are then maintained over, you know, decades really.

ASTRID: So going on from services to literature and thinking about, you know, Melbourne's UNESCO's City of Literature and Varuna in New South Wales, in your experience and your observation, and across the course of your career, what role do you think writing and literature can play in, you know, our society and our culture, or maybe should play?

CHARLOTTE: I’d love to see writing literature taking a more central role. I think that quite a lot of society sees literature as a nice sort of entertaining luxury on the side of real life. And I'm, you know I think – I'm sure you're the same – anyone who loves books feels that they're central to our lives and that actually I think often show us how to live. So it would be nice if our institutions and governments and so on took more notice of the arts in general really. But there are encouraging signs I think in initiatives like the Writer in Residence program at the Charles Perkins Centre which I was lucky enough to be the first recipient of in 2016.

ASTRID: I have so many questions about this. It strikes me as fascinating and beautiful.

CHARLOTTE: It's amazing. So the Charles Perkins Centre is a health and science research facility – a world leading, multidisciplinary research facility based at Sydney University and the head of that organisation Steve Simpson who is a biologist, when he started the centre up about five or six years ago, knew that from the start he wanted a Writer in Residence in the building – a creative Writer in Residence. So there are plenty of researchers who are writing stuff all the time obviously but not imaginative writing or not what I would call art. So it took a while for them to find a philanthropist to fund this amazing program and they did eventually find the wonderful Judy Harris. It's now called the Judy Harris fellowship. And Judy Harris has given – I think we're on the sixth person now or fifth – one hundred thousand dollars for a writer for a year to be in residence at the University at the Charles Perkins Centre to basically just brush up against scientists and see what happens with the kind of exchange of ideas and things that can happen in a very loose and informal way which gives a writer this incredible freedom. And more freedom than I've ever seen in any arts funding grant or anything.

So that has been amazing and what I, you know we had the launch of my book, my book The Weekend came out of that. And at the launch I was able to thank Judy and Steve for really claiming creativity and artists as centrally important to solving the huge problems of society and the Charles Perkins Centre's mission is to address things like cardiovascular disease and obesity. But in a very systems oriented public health way. So, they see that they need scientists but they also need philosophers and, you know, clinicians, mathematicians, historians and they need artists. So that to me is really thrilling to see that art is value, being recognised by some of the world's smartest people. Basically, these people are all you know from Oxford and Harvard and all over the place and they are saying we need artists to help us.

And there's another thing that I was involved in. The University of Canberra chooses a book of the year each year and they give that book and it's usually a novel to every new student and every staff member, and this year they chose The Natural Way of Things. And again, and they encourage all their staff to use in their teaching. So no matter what the course is, so computer science, you know, young man doing Computer Science, he's never even read a novel, is presented with a novel and his teacher is encouraged to use that fiction in teaching stuff like behavioural economics or nursing or all kinds of subjects. And again to me the really encouraging thing about that is that the University of Canberra is seeing literature as centrally important to everybody in the institution. So I would love to see that sort of attitude just spreading really.

ASTRID: Spreading everywhere not just into universities but into our companies, our governments – all of it.

CHARLOTTE: Yeah. I mean I think, you know, every, every sort of New Year or Christmas or whatever, you see lists of books that politicians might be wise to read and, you know, I can't I don't think I can think of an Australian politician who's ever talked about reading a novel. Barack Obama talked about reading fiction a lot and that he learned about civil society by reading fiction. But I think our country is really anti-intellectual and anti-arts from a leadership perspective. So, you know, in my dreams, one day that might change.

ASTRID: I think maybe our leaders are lacking a lot of other things, including a reverence for the arts. I want to go back to the Charles Perkins, your time at the Charles Perkins Centre as Writer in Residence. Did you go into that kind of with the idea of The Weekend bubbling away, and, you know, gathering thoughts and ideas and insights about aging? Or did the idea come from that time there? Did you pitch that you were going to write a novel about aging?

CHARLOTTE: I did. So, the call for applications stated that they wanted applications from high-calibre Australian writers and mine was the first one so nobody really knew how it was going to pan out. But the only kind of criteria really for the application was that it bore some relationship to one of the areas of research that goes on in the Charles Perkins Centre. When you look at their website in detail and drill down, the research is so enormously wide ranging that, you know, it's not hard to find a link between really anything you're writing and what they're doing. But the word aging was used in there. For example, you know, this, that, the other, aging, something else, wellbeing, something else.

So I had in mind a story about friendship and getting older and I knew I had three characters in mind. I hadn't written any of it yet so I just had sort of brief character sketches and I knew that I would bring them together for a short period of time and we'd see what happened.

And I knew I wanted to kind of push back against some of the perhaps clichés that we have about what ‘old age’ is like and I'm sort of using quote marks around old age there because I don't think we even have a clear definition of what that is and—

ASTRID: It’s changing

CHARLOTTE: Somebody once told me its old age is always ten years older than you are. But I, you know, I guess I've felt that quite a lot of the representation of older people in popular culture and in literature and so on is about frailty and decline and stasis. And I wanted to write some women who were none of those things and then just see what happened.

ASTRID: So for any listeners who haven't quite read The Weekend yet, Charlotte can you give us an introduction to Adele, Jude, Wendy, and of course the departed Sylvie?

CHARLOTTE: Yeah. So these are friends, they've been friends for 40 years. Sylvie has recently died, and she was sort of the glue holding this group of friends together. And as the book, the book is set over a kind of long, hot weekend just before Christmas when the remaining three women Jude, Wendy and Adele, come together at Sylvie's old beach house to clean it out to get it ready for sale. Sylvie's partner Gail has gone back to Ireland and she's basically said to them ‘look, you know, take anything you want from the house and then I'm going to sell it.’ So they sort of reluctantly come together. They have quite a scratchy friendship. They, they're grieving the loss of Sylvie who was sort of so important to all of them. They each kind of think that, sort of secretly, that they were Sylvie's best friend and so they're really struggling to connect with each other around this great hole that Sylvie's left in their lives. And they've each got other sort of struggles going on fairly privately that they don't necessarily share with each other. Jude is a, has been a very well-known restaurateur, sort of one of those amazing front of house restaurant women. I think every city has these women who run the city's best restaurants for decades. She hasn't worked in a while. She's financially okay, largely because her married lover Daniel sort of pays for her life basically. And she's been seeing him for also around about 40 years. The others, Wendy who's a still working feminist scholar and writer. She's had very successful books in the past that were, you know, that are still on university lists around the world, and she's still working in her mind on a new book. And she's sort of quite annoyed to have to be there when she just wants to work on her new idea which is going to be her really big breakthrough book, she thinks.

ASTRID: I love that, that she was having her breakthrough book in her 70s!

CHARLOTTE: Yeah well I think, you know, I don't, I don't think that people stop having ideas when they're older and some people have more and more urgent ideas I think as they get older.

So that's Wendy. The main loves of her life have been her husband Lance who died 20 years ago and her very now ancient and very frail old dog Finn who she brings along to the beach house much to the chagrin of Jude because Finn is falling apart basically. He's dementing, he's a little bit incontinent, he's just sort of collapsing in every way. And he sort of represents all our cultural fears about aging I guess. But Wendy loves him. And you know various people think he should have been put down a long time ago. But to Wendy he's not suffering and she can't bear to part with him. So he's still there.

And the last character in the trio is Adele and she's an actress. She's been a very well-known stage actress. She hasn't had a job in a year by the time the book opens. And also on the morning that they go to the beach house it dawns on her that her girlfriend is breaking up with her. She's been living with Liz for the past year or so and now she realises that she has to find somewhere else to live. And being an out of work actress she's also broke, so she has this sort of looming potential disaster on her hands. She's too embarrassed to tell her friends about the breakup because it's the kind of thing that has happened to her quite a bit and so she arrives with this kind of distressing secret. And so they're all under all different kinds of pressure when they come together and that pressure just builds basically.

ASTRID: It does. And they're all grieving as you said. Now I've been doing my research on you Charlotte and I heard that you'd described The Weekend as, and I quote, ‘a cautionary self-portrait’. What did you mean?

CHARLOTTE: Well I had started to think about what it might be like to be old and I weirdly possibly had never really considered that before I would start you know into my own 50s. Looking back I think now because my parents both died in their 50s and I think like a lot of people I was matching my life expectancy to my parents’ life expectancy and because they died before they were 60 I never considered that I would even get old. Now I'm a year older than my father was when he died. And a few years younger than my mum was. So I started to think, well maybe I won't die young, you know? I mean, I think there's a big superstitious part of me that thinks I still will but it occurred to me that I'd spent so much time thinking about how I would cope with my own impending early death – it was both my parents knew before they died that this was going to happen soon – so I'd spent a lot of time thinking about that but I'd never spent any time thinking about what kind of old woman might I be.

So that was...

And you know I was thinking well I'm 54 now. In the next 20 years I don't think I'm going to change so radically that I will be unrecognisable to myself. I mean I think I will change a lot and I hope I do but I don't think my fundamental character will radically alter. I doubt that I will become politically very conservative. I doubt that, you know, I’ll …  I don't know, I think certain characteristics are fairly fundamental by now. So the idea that I would suddenly become a little old frail lady wearing floral, you know, dresses and sitting in a rocking chair thinking about my glorious youth. I just it's not going to be me and it's not the women that I see around me and some of my friends who are in their 70s and 80s are not like that. So I wanted to write about the kind of woman that I might become but also you know the cautionary part of that self-portrait is looking at the struggles in maintaining friendships over many decades because as a childless person I think by the time I get to be… Well you know I have a fantastic partner now. But a lot of older women outlive their partners. I guess I've always thought ‘well I'll die first so that'll be fine’. But if I don't, you know, who will I have as my people? And I've got family but I've also got my friends. And so how, you know, how is it, is it possible to maintain really good truthful, loving friendships over 30 and 40 years? So I’m interested in that as a, as a question.

ASTRID: On the surface, when I first started, you know, when I picked up The Weekend it felt like it was going to be wildly different than The Natural Way of Things. For obvious reasons. I mean, you know, The Natural Way of Things is kind of, well it is young women. And it is this fearsome, feminist, misogynist dystopia, for, you know, want of a better summary, and this is a distressing weekend before Christmas with older women grieving their dearly departed.

But as I read them both – and I re-read them over the weekend – they strike me as very similar and radical in the way that by writing these books and putting them out there you're asserting not just something obvious like women's stories matter but the type of stories that you've told are often those that don't get public space, public attention. You know, the tales of older women are often marginalised at best, erased more often, and you're making what some might interpret as a radical statement that this matters. And this is worth buying and reading and celebrating and … I love it!

CHARLOTTE: Thank you!

ASTRID: So, what fascinates you about these, all of these women? And their stories?

CHARLOTTE: It's interesting so quite a few people have said that about the relationship between those two books. I guess when I started The Weekend I was thinking, ‘right I want a radical departure from The Natural Way of Things.’ You know it's not a fun book to read and it certainly wasn't a fun book to write, so I wanted to write something with much more joy in it, with much more playfulness. And I realise even, you know, these things you always realise after the fact, but it's sort of almost as mechanical as, you know, The Natural Way of Things with young women sit in the middle of the bush. This is old women at the beach, and it's kind of, I mean not embarrassing to see that but, but you know…

ASTRID: I didn't mean that as an insult I meant that as a genuine… Those two books are so different and yet to read them together was an intellectual exercise for me like, that's very cool.

CHARLOTTE: Well thank you. I mean I, I struggle I guess to articulate, you know, why they might matter. But I certainly felt a frustration with looking around at contemporary culture about older women or older people in general really being sort of caricatured or just absent. Well quite often there'll be one old person in a book and they'll be in the background or they'll be, so they’re the kind of one old person then have to be representative of all old people. So that's why I wanted more than one.

So I've got, I mean the tricky thing with this book was to write something that felt honest about aging given that I'm not there yet, but also not, not entering into the cultural disgust and the, you know, pessimism and misery about old age that we just see as the reality. So within these three women, Adele is very fit. She's very beautiful. She takes, she’s taken very good care of herself physically, she bounds up and down the stairs of this holiday house where the others are kind of—

ASTRID: She's got the best breasts!

CHARLOTTE: She's got great boobs that she’s very proud of. She, you know, she is physically alive and vibrant and as healthy as I am at 54, probably more so. But I also didn't want to write a kind of retirement brochure where everyone's like that, so the others that, you know, have got a few physical frailties and glitches and things, you know? Jude's got a bad back, Wendy’s got a bad knee. Wendy’s sort of a bit out of breath. She's also in the past had a mastectomy. So they're, you know, their bodies are a bit beaten up.

But it's quite interesting for me seeing people's responses to the bodies in this book because some people are kind of disgusted by the fact that, you know, that things happen to bodies. And I mean I kind of find that amusing because most of the things that have happened to the women in this book have happened to me, you know. So you don’t need to be 75, I’ve had a bad back since I was 25. You know or um and I've got asthma and you know there's all kinds of things that I've just slightly stretched or enlarged or not, in them, in the making of these women. But they're not just their frailties or their physicality and they, you know, they still have professional ambition. They have, they're not thinking about the past particularly, they're thinking about the now and the future and that's kind of what I, when I started… Sometimes when I start a book I have a little technical challenge to myself that sort of guides me through it. And for this one I don't even know if it's technical really, maybe it's more thematic, but it was ‘I want to write a book about aging that's not about the past’.

And I said that if you and people would ask me, you know, I've had over the years that you're writing a book and quite often when I said that people would laugh as if that was kind of a crazy thing to think. And I thought, ‘wow that's revealing that we think aging is only about, that you couldn't write a book about aging that's not about the past.’ So that was interesting to me.

ASTRID: I really enjoyed the three women's internal views and kind of internal monologues about really the only live male human in the work, and he was, he's in his late 40s or something, and they call him the young thing and they think he's very, very young and they all have differing, possibly negative opinions of him. But I really enjoyed a bunch of older women, you know, objectifying to despising this middle-aged guy.

CHARLOTTE: Yeah. And this middle-aged guy’s called Joe Gillespie and he's a director of a major theatre company, sort of artistic director of a major theatre company.

ASTRID: He's very important.

CHARLOTTE: He's very important to Adele particularly because she's broke. She needs work. He's in a position to give her work. So there is a kind of plotline around that, that we won't go into too much.

But yeah as they, these women see Joe Gillespie is um well he certainly presents as quite vain, they, that he turns up is sort of bestowing them with his company. You know he thinks they're going to be grateful for him, you know, chatting with them and visiting them. And that's something I've actually noticed myself over the years with some young guys where, particularly in people not related to my own life particularly, but say um my husband's colleagues or something where, it's just this weird vibe that um, you know, I'm say a generation older and it's almost, this sounds, it's kind of, I haven't said this before. Trying to work out how to articulate it. It's not quite flirtatious, but it's some sort of act of generosity to speak to someone who's older than you but kind of, you know you see it maybe with young men talking to their friends; mothers or something there's a kind of um

ASTRID: They think they have like a largesse to give or share.

CHARLOTTE: Yeah. When you know I think that woman’s got her own life, you know, she's really like, ‘whatever buddy!’ Anyway, that's very garbled kind of articulation of that, but that's what Joe Gillespie is like. He, he assumes that because of his youth and his power he is automatically very appealing to these women. And in their own heads they're just sort of slightly embarrassed by him really.

ASTRID: Let's talk about Finn, the dog. He's gorgeous. His storyline is stressful. I mean, he's aging and decrepit and possibly in pain. All of the women are attached to him or interact with him in very, very different ways. And how much he is able to interact with them kind of changes. He's not the first animal that you've used in your book, I'm staring at a copy of The Natural Way of Things and you have rabbits and the horse is very important in that story. Why do you use animals to tell your stories?

CHARLOTTE: This is interesting because I didn't really realise that I was doing it so much until this one. Well maybe The Natural Way of Things but you know I realise now that I have had animals all the way through all of my books, and there was a book called Animal People. You know you’d think I would be actually, I mean that was a conscious use of animals, I guess. To me animals are so interesting and useful in fiction because they bring what, they can bring what Amanda Lohrey has called a message from another realm. And I love this sense that there is this sort of other plane of existence or of meaning, that the people in the book aren't necessarily aware of.

And that is never fully articulated but there's a slight sense of mystery or other worldliness or yearning, you know, in The Natural Way of Things Yolanda basically becomes an animal. You know, her way of dealing with what has happened to her at the hands of these, of the misogynist culture is to kind of divest herself not only of her womanhood but her human, you know, her personhood and that becoming an animal is a form of freedom for her. The horse in The Natural Way of Things is something that Verla sees, this sort of ghostly white horse moving through the trees at a distance. She can hear it at night eating outside her cell block but you never know if this is real. This horse is real, nobody else ever sees it. Only Verla. And of course a white horse is you know an image of a rescue, of fairy tale ideas of girls being rescued. Not rescuing themselves.

So that, I mean the actual horse in The Natural Way of Things came from a real white horse. When I was writing a bit of that book at my friend's farm in western New South Wales she had an old white horse that was always sort of just ambling around and eating outside my room at night. So it took me a while to, so I just wrote old Gidgy into my book and then after a while I'm like ‘Oh my God that’s so obvious’. But it's one of those I guess really deep archetypal symbols for girls. You know there's one thing about girls and horses and so I suppose it's a way of creating another layer of meaning through a book that is quite, almost unspoken in a way. And it doesn't have to be spoken about and it doesn't have to be recognised by a reader. But it's just there if you, if you want to think about it.

And with Finn I guess it was more conscious in that the dog presented, this came straight out of the Charles Perkins Centre fellowship actually because I was speaking with one of the scientists there about something else that I wanted to know and he sort of didn't seem that fascinated by my line of questioning. And he said ‘look I'd like to see some evolutionary biology in your book’. And I thought that was kind of a weird thing to say and, but because I'd made a decision to really open up myself to influence while I was there, because that was the whole point of being there I kept on with the conversation instead of shutting it down like I normally would. And I asked him what he meant and he, he said ‘well animal aging is very, it's really accelerated compared to human aging. So maybe that could be, enter into your book in some way’, which I found really interesting.

And then at the same time my friend, my friend Prue's old dog called Finn was very much in the state that Finn in the book is in, dementing and just very frail, and her Finn was eventually put down. But once I thought of that, of using the dog in that way, it made complete sense because I wanted to write these women who are older but who have no interest in the fact that they're older. So, they don't talk about ‘oh what are my fears about dementia’ or ‘what are my inner feelings about being old’. They don't even consider those things which is part of their problem in a way. So it was that, it was so helpful to have that dog being a useful carrier of all our cultural fear and disgust about aging, and at the same time, as you said, Finn, Finn has an interaction with each of the women that's completely different. And it's not just about being old, Adele has a very sort of profound epiphany really looking at Finn one day. Jude has another interaction, a few interactions with Finn that makes her very afraid and makes her sort of realise that she's not as in control of her life as she has always thought. Wendy's love of Finn is revealed to maybe kind of mask some things that she really should have been looking at in her own life. So I hope that Finn is quite a complex mechanism, for want of a better word, in the book as well as just also being an opportunity for a bit of comedy and also a very useful driver of conflict.

ASTRID: Yes.

CHARLOTTE: If you've got a novel you need stuff to happen, and tensions to build and rise and there's really nothing like an old, incontinent dog in a holiday house, uninvited, to you know help create, ratchet up attention.

ASTRID: Definitely. Now I'd like to ask you about all the reader responses that you've got over the last several years for The Natural Way of Things which has been published internationally and as you mentioned before has been a Book of the Year at University of Canberra. But also what you've received so far about The Weekend which came out this year.

CHARLOTTE: Yeah so The Weekend has been out about six weeks now I guess. I'm getting some very intense emails from women and some very kind of loving responses from men as well. Some of them are on social media some of them are directly, quite a lot of emails from women saying ‘this is exactly my circumstance’. I mean weirdly quite a few saying ‘I have three friends and our fourth friend has just died and we don't know what to do and we're kind of lost from each other’. It's quite, I wasn't prepared for that. Also what I'm discovering is that how many women there are having 30 and 40 year affairs with married men which really surprised me. They're not writing to me but their friends are writing to me. But, you know, then I know a very, very smart and lovely 86 I think year old man who said ‘this isn't about women this is about me’. You know, um, you know, not only about women I guess. And he said it really made him reflect on his friendships and what they mean at this time of life. So, you know, they're, they're just really generous emails really about what the book has made them see or shown them about their own lives and relationships. The Natural Way of Things. It's interesting to me how many really young women love that book. And wherever I go to talk about The Weekend you know it's quite often at least one or two women in their early 20s with their copy of The Natural Way of Things that they want signed and they say ‘I love this book’ you know. There's quite a really deep passionate response to it from that age group in particular which is amazing.

One young woman in Melbourne said, oh or maybe she's in Brisbane, she said ‘I love this book. It really helped me when I was young’. And now she's 23. So she read, you know, whatever four years ago and I don't know, there seems to be a connection with the kind of anger in that book from those young women and that they feel like it's sort of articulated some stuff for them, and also was sort of cathartic in some way and made them feel strong. And that, you know, that's the most amazing gift for a writer to have these young women say that the book helped them feel more powerful. That's something I couldn't have wished any more for.

ASTRID: The Natural Way of Things came out just before Me Too hit and remains part of that zeitgeist, after, you know, in the post to Me Too world. Aging which is what you take on and explore in The Weekend is only going to become more of a topic as we all age and many of us live much longer than previous generations. Charlotte you strike me as an incredibly well put together writer and professional and intellectual. Do you strategise these things? I mean not that anyone can predict the future but, you know, like you seem to be talking about things at the right moment.

CHARLOTTE: Well thank you Astrid. That's very sweet, but I, no I don't. I mean I don't think you can really. Or maybe you can but I can't. So, I mean those two books, so this word zeitgeist is being used a bit now about me which I find, you know, kinda flattering—

ASTRID: I just used it, now I’m a little embarrassed.

CHARLOTTE: No it's great! But it, it's as if I know something about the zeitgeist and I think I don't. One thing I I'm sort of putting this down to is that, if an artist is properly attentive to the world and only their, you know that particularly, their own particular interests, your job as an artist is to notice things and so maybe artists when they are given the space and time as I have been now for several years, to just be really looking at the world all the time. Because I can now write full time I don't have to sort of just have four hours a week where I'm really looking properly at the world. I mean, I'm sure that other writers are always looking at the world but, you know, you get distracted and caught up with things. But so I and, you know, I just write about stuff that interests me in a really personal way.

And I think any connection with, you know, a cultural moment or what it is kind of coincidental and, well certainly The Natural Way of Things was published in 2015, was published in Europe in 2017 and I did, I went to France and Spain and Germany when that book came out. And the main talk then was about the TV show The Handmaid's Tale. On the plane on the way home I was looking at a newspaper and I said to my husband ‘What's this Harvey Weinstein story, why are people talking about Harvey Weinstein?’ And he went ‘Oh well there's just been this thing’. So it was kind of like oh my you know I'm talking about the book was pretty much over by the time the Me Too thing really blasted off. So, you know, the book The Natural Way of Things has kept on selling and kept on being talked about and so on. But I suppose it was, I mean I think, oh I just must have in some subconscious way tapped into the feeling that was building and building and building. Because you know I was writing it for three years before it came out. So there was that sense of, this stuff is in the air and it's reaching, reaching a tipping point. And my personal tipping point maybe came a couple of years before that Weinstein tipping point. Obviously there are 50 million other, you know, examples of misogyny – widespread, institutional, cultural misogyny – that aren’t to do with Harvey Weinstein. But I think my tipping point came at a time that just people were ready to, to experience their own tipping point through that.

And with The Weekend I don't know. I mean, you know, we are, obviously there are more and more of us who are getting older and older. And what, I mean one thing that I'm interested in now about aging is again that I learned very quickly at the Charles Perkins Centre which is so obvious that it's so embarrassing that I even saw it as a discovery. But it's that old age is a million different ages. You know the difference between 60 and 98 is generations of people so that we tend to culturally think of, very foolishly, youth, middle age and old age as if there are three phases of life when of course youth, basically is you know it's every different kind of experience within each of those categories and then with each of these subcategories of those so you know this book is about women in, they're probably ‘young old age’ or ‘middle old age’ before those kind of really big changes are forced upon them by things like you know real disability or dementia or whatever.

But again, you know, I know, 89-year-olds who are living at home, working, you know, being artists and—…

ASTRID: I had a grand uncle who just turned 94 and he has a girlfriend and travels and he is my hero.

CHARLOTTE: Yeah. So, we all know those people but we tend to see them as the aberration. And, you know, definite, obviously things happen to your body and your mind that, that's inevitable and I guess part of, I’m interested now in how to look those things in the face without thinking they're just too disgusting to think about, let's switch off. Because we're going to have to – if we're lucky we're going to have to think about them.

ASTRID: And society is going to have to think about them too and not have an issue with getting old.

I'd like to turn now to, you’ve done a PhD, in the cognitive process of creativity. I did not know that, Charlotte. And my question is, what was the driver for that? And is that what The Writer’s Room came from?

CHARLOTTE: Ah, no it’s probably more the other way around. So, The Writer’s Room started as a series of, well I pretentiously called it a magazine, it was actually just a PDF file. But one interview every two months with an Australian or a New Zealand writer about their writing process. And I was very fascinated, I still am very fascinated by processes of creativity and, but that magazine which later turned into a book was a kind of sneaky way of getting a little masterclass from all these writers that I really admired. So I'd say ‘Can I talk to you about how you work?’ and then, you know, I was writing The Natural Way of Things through that time and I can track my problems with The Natural Way of Things by the questions that I was asking these writers you know, like asking Malcolm Knox about ‘do you worry so much about the darkness of your material?’ And then he would say ‘nuh!’ And I’d think ‘Ooh great!’ So taking a lot of cues from those people.

So I was doing a PhD as many writers do, as a kind of way of financially supporting yourself basically with a research grant. And I was writing The Natural Way of Things as that part of that program. And so the dissertation was to be something about writing and I didn't want to write a book about the writing of a book because I find those things quite tedious but, because I'd started talking to people in real detail about how they worked I decided that my dissertation would be about these cognitive processes involved and I had a fantastic supervisor called Dorottya Fabian, who was actually from the music school at the University of New South Wales, who totally got what I wanted to do, which was interesting to me that the music person was more into my ideas than the English school. But she was so helpful and one of the things I ended up doing was a kind of tiny baby longitudinal study of five writers who I know, tracking their processes over the course of a year, through recording conversations.

So these people including me would get together every month or so and just talk about our work and what was happening and what's going wrong generally. So I recorded those conversations and then I transcribed them and then coded them to see… What I wanted to know is are these people using processes that they don't know they're using, that are common to each other? And I discovered that yes there were. I could identify I think nine different processes that, nobody called them ‘here's process number two, you know, disruption.’ But the language that they used for ‘this is what I'm trying to do now and that didn't work, so I tried this thing’ and over time I could see that where you're calling it, you know, ‘flipping things’ and the other person is calling it ‘trying the opposite’ and somebody else is calling it, you know, something else but they're all the same kind of process.

So, so I've found those nine processes and then I compared those with the existing research into cognition and creativity to see where, when sort of models of creativity. And then I came up with my own model of creativity, which sometimes overlapped with the existing ones. But to my, in my experience and then borne out with these, this little study, was that the existing models were very orderly and they usually involve steps. So step one, step two, step three, step four, and my, what I discovered was that there are no steps. There are these different things that are used at all different, random times, sometimes together sometimes not at all, you know. So, it was a much more chaotic and haphazard.

ASTRID: Is this published anywhere? Outside of the PhD?

CHARLOTTE: No, I've sort of thought about trying to do something with it and I might one day. But I mean at the moment it's very, you know, academic.

ASTRID: So, I'm sitting here and, you know, The Writer’s Room is a is a go to book for writers in Australia. And I kind of want to read your exegesis in your PhD. So I think someone should put it out there.

CHARLOTTE: Well yeah, I don't know. I'll see, I'll see. I mean some of it… The thing is that I'm not sure it's actually that useful. Even when you know, I’m like ‘great, I'm going to be able to use this all the time to help me write my book’ and it actually isn't because it’s almost like I feel that you have to be in this state of unknowing all the time. I mean I suppose there are things that I might try now, and think ‘that's not working’ and I do this overturning one quite a lot which is just try the opposite, which I used to call the George Costanza approach. So there's that, but it's almost like you have to discover it yourself at the time that you need it, and that having somebody else say ‘here try this thing.’ It could help maybe, but I'm just not sure, like it's one of those things it sounds like it’ll be ‘Oh my God how amazing I'm gonna get that book and it'll show me how to get rid of all the anxiety and the, and the kind of uncertainty and the terrible not knowing’ which is you know an attendant part of any creative life. But I think now that the not knowing is kind of essential and that you make your own discoveries, you know. So maybe it's kind of a diagnostic thing after the fact I think rather than how to do it. I should get it out and have a look at it again and see. See what could be done with it.

ASTRID: Well, I’d buy it Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE: Okay! Sale number one!

ASTRID: But that brings me to my next question. I mean you published two non-fiction books before. Obviously The Writer’s Room and also one on, exploring food. Are you gonna go back to non-fiction? What are you working on now?

CHARLOTTE: I'm just starting a new novel. I feel like fiction is kind of my natural home really. And the non-fiction, well The Writer’s Room, you know, you know, it's kind a slight cheat to say I even wrote that because I interviewed people and wrote down what they said and edited and all that but, so it's kind of a collection of other people's words really. I don't, I can't, I mean unless I would put together stuff that I've written, you know, little essays and things, I've thought about that sometimes. But I don't have any burning idea for a non-fiction work and I feel, I mean, oddly I've done a bit of, just since I finished the book I’ve been commissioned to write a few essays and things which I find very difficult.

ASTRID: Really?

CHARLOTTE: Yeah. I don't know why it's somehow more… Well I guess writing anything to order is, I find it quite stressful.

ASTRID: It takes away the freedom.

CHARLOTTE: Yeah. If you're writing a novel and it's not working you just chuck it out.

ASTRID: You say that with such confidence!

CHARLOTTE: I don’t mean a whole novel! I would, I would not say that lightly but, you know, bits of it, you’re going in the wrong direction and you think ‘oh yeah, I'll write about this’ and then you realise there's nothing there. Then you just throw that and turn a corner and do something else. But when you've said ‘yes I'll write a four thousand word essay about the aging and our culture’ then it's, you know, it's funny that you start writing and think ‘oh no’ but you push through and I hope I've got something. It's not something I enjoy so much as fiction. Well as soon as I start writing fiction I think ‘Oh, I love writing non-fiction’.

ASTRID: The grass is always greener.

CHARLOTTE: Exactly.

ASTRID: Charlotte I have one final question for you. You have a brilliant literary career in Australia and US. Well you do, don’t laugh, it's true! Many writers would like a career like yours. Awards, sales, recognition. You’re at a time when I assume that, you know, you're one of the authors in Australia who could get a book contract if you wanted to publish something. So you could take risks. What is still risky for you? What challenges you?

CHARLOTTE: Just writing well. You know it's so hard to do and every, you know, I feel immensely lucky, you know, to think that I can write what I want and, you know, make a living out of writing which is something I never, ever ever envisaged in my life. And actually I think it's probably a temporary state of affairs because fashions change and, you know, I've seen enough writers who are, you know, in really solid careers and then, you know, the book doesn't do so well and then you're back to where you were. But that's fine, you know, it's just what the life is like. But I do feel incredibly lucky that something happened with The Natural Way of Things that just changed my, it just gave me breathing space particularly financially to be honest. But, you know writing a book that I'm proud of that that I would. I haven't reached that yet really. So I'm proud of what they have done for themselves and I am, you know, I think, you know, anyone listening to this who's writing a book will know how hard it is to do that. To finish something is hard, to write something that people want to read is really difficult. So I'm proud that I've done that a few times but, you know, it's that sense of ‘no I want to write a really good book’. I want to write the book that, you know it's never, it never comes out in the way that you know, all writers say this, is the thing you have in your head is always grander and, and somehow perfect. And the thing that comes out is not. So I would like, you know the challenge is to just write better, to write a better book.

ASTRID: You've just laid down a high bar for all of us Charlotte. Thank you so much for your time today.

CHARLOTTE: Thanks Astrid for having me.