Charlotte Wood is one of Australia's most provocative writers. This interview is an in-depth exploration of her most famous work, The Natural Way of Things, which is on its way to becoming an international classic. Be warned, there are spoilers.
The Natural Way of Things 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 2019 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia for significant services to literature, and was named one of the Australian Financial Review's 100 Women of Influence.
You can also listen to this interview with Charlotte, recorded in late 2019 about her other works.
ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret Charlotte!
CHARLOTTE: Thank you Astrid!
ASTRID: We’ve spoken before about your writing career, but here we are just going to examine The Natural Way of Things, which of course was published in 2015 and swept the awards season in 2016 I have to say. For those listening—spoiler alert. We will be discussing plot, character and what happens in the end. So, to kick off Charlotte—how would you summarise The Natural Way of Things?
CHARLOTTE: The Natural Way of Things I guess theme-wise is about misogyny. But story wise it’s about a bunch of teenage girls who wake up from a drugged state to find themselves having been abducted from their homes in the city and dumped in an abandoned sheep station in the middle of nowhere. And they don’t know why they’re there or who each other are. And they’re held captive there by two male guards and a so-called nurse called Nancy—we later discover she isn’t a nurse at all. But the girls discover reasonably quickly that the thing that binds all of them is that they’ve each been involved in some sort of sexual ‘scandal’—scandal in inverted commas—with a powerful man or men. And they have either been found out, or they’ve told somebody about it and there’s been a public outcry. There’s a private company called Hardings International that is employed to go around and pickup troublesome women and dump them in this place. And so, the question at the beginning of the book is first of all why they’re there, and then are these girls going to get out of this place?
ASTRID: And that is certainly a question that is kind of answered and kind of not at the end. Because even when they leave, we don’t know what’s going to happen to them.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, that’s true.
Astrid: Now we’re going to discuss the main characters: Yolanda, Verla, Hetty, Nancy and the two men Boncer and Teddy. But first, before we get into really examining the characters, I’d like to quickly talk about point-of-view, structure and of course your main theme misogyny to set us up. To start with point-of-view, most of the work is told from the point-of-view of two of the girls Yolanda and Verla but it’s not close first person. I was wondering if you could talk us through that—is that a peripheral narrator?
CHARLOTTE: I feel a bit embarrassed that I never know the names of these things, but I would say…
ASTRID: Well I had to look it up, so (laughs).
CHARLOTTE: (Laughs) I would probably call it close third person perhaps. It’s told in the third person officially in that it’s ‘she’, ‘her’ etc… But there are alternating chapters most of the way through, either from Verla’s point-of-view or from Yolanda’s point-of-view. So when you’re looking through Yolanda’s eyes you don’t know what’s happening in other people’s heads, and when you’re in Verla’s head you don’t know what’s happening in the others. It’s almost first person in its effect, I suppose, but it’s third person in its language.
ASTRID: Because for the reader it does feel like we are with that particular girl, but we are not exactly in her head—there’s no ‘I’, we’re not getting the intimate thoughts. By choosing to write from this point-of-view, what did that enable you to do as a writer?
CHARLOTTE: I guess it enabled me to step back from the girls a little bit even though it’s still from their point-of-view. But in a way that’s why third person is so useful to writers, because I could look at Verla from behind, or through a door from another room even though she’s sort of doing the looking if that makes sense. It just gives you a bit more flexibility. And the other thing I did technically with point-of-view I guess, is muck around with the tenses—Yolanda’s story is told in the present-tense and Verla’s in the past-tense even though they’re at the same time. And I did that because I wanted there to be this sort of constant feeling of destabilising. I mean, you get into the rhythm of it pretty quickly so it’s not that destabilising. But I wanted a sense of unnerving shifts because I wanted the reader to feel like the girls feel, which is where are we? what’s happening? I don’t understand this—that constant state of anxiety. And I felt that the tense shift was just another little tool in my toolbox to create that sense of unevenness or slight dissociation.
ASTRID: Let’s talk about structure. The work is divided into three parts: summer, autumn and winter. And I can’t help but notice Charlotte, that there is no spring, and spring is a time for renewal, rebirth, hopes and happy endings. Was that deliberate?
CHARLOTTE: I have to say yes. I mean, the seasons were quite useful to me in a technical way in that one of the problems with a narrative like this, where you’ve got them stuck in this place and they don’t know not only where they are, but when they are—they lose track of time pretty quickly, because all of their belongings are taken from them, so they don’t have their watches or phones, they don’t have any way of contacting the outside world. The people who are keeping them captive there are not telling them anything. So, they fairly quickly lose track of how long they been there for etc… And that was kind of necessary for the story, but for the reader I also needed a way of saying that time is passing and for the reader to know how long they’ve been there. So, I hit upon that idea of using the seasons as a staging post, I suppose so you can go, okay well three months has gone by now.
And you’re right that I didn’t keep spring in the picture, and I guess when we come to talk about the end, I feel like spring is there for the reader to either make or not make him or herself. Whatever you think of the ending, I suppose it’s how hopeful you are in your own mind about what’s going to happen to these girls. And so, if you’re a hopeful, optimistic sort of person you may think they are going into spring. If you’re a more pessimistic person, perhaps not.
ASTRID: Charlotte, I have to say I think both—I think some of the girls are heading towards Spring and some are not going to make it to the end of Winter. Now, misogyny—this is the grand theme of The Natural Way of Things and I have no doubt that as we discuss this book it’s going to keep coming out because it’s pervasive and you explore it from all different angles. But as an introductory question to the theme: why was this place, this setting, this story the right way for you as a writer to explore misogyny?
CHARLOTTE: Well, I never wanted to write a book about misogyny (chuckles). If someone said, ‘Why don’t you write a book about misogyny?’ I would’ve said, ‘No thank you.’ Who wants to live in that material for the three years or so that it takes me to write a book? But I heard a story on Radio National about a real prison for teenage girls that was operating in New South Wales in a country town in the far-west of the state called Hay and it was called the Hay Institution for Girls. And that place was operating when I was about to become a teenager—so in the 1960s and ‘70s. It didn’t close down until 1974. And it was a place run by the state government of New South Wales, it was an offshoot of a place called the Parramatta Girls Home which was in Sydney and ten young women were taken from Parramatta, put on a train, drugged and taken to this town called Hay because they were deemed to be—and this was their official description—the ten worst girls in the state.
Some of those young women, some of the ones in Parramatta—and I’ve since discovered, I have to say, all over Australia there would be places in Victoria, certainly South Australia, Western Australia and all over the world there were places where young women who were deemed to be wayward or promiscuous or troublesome with a sexual evocation about that, were locked up when they made a noise about what had happened to them. An example that I was told about, and I think it was somewhere in Victoria, a thirteen-year-old girl had been raped by her father and she told somebody and that was enough to get her locked up. So, this insane response to young women saying, ‘Hey, I have been harmed, I’ve been assaulted, I’ve been molested,’—the response of our culture back then was not to investigate it and lock up the perpetrator, but to investigate it and lock up these young girls. And I just found that so staggering.
And the thing that really gripped me from that documentary was the fact that it was this speaking about it that got them into trouble—if they had just shut up about it, they would’ve been left alone. But it was dangerous to society to have these young women speaking out. And that just sort of enraged me so deeply when I heard it, and the kind of insanity of it—the absolute absence of logic as a response to a thing that’s happened. It was so absurd; I couldn’t really believe it, though of course it was true. I didn’t want to write about it, but it didn’t let me go so I started writing about a place like that and it was set in the past and the writing wasn’t working, it was just a disastrous, flat, boring…
ASTRID: It’s a first draft! (Laughs)
CHARLOTTE: Yeah and I’m used to having very bad first drafts, but this was dead. And I think for me, the only way that a book can work is to keep following the live material and cut out the dead material, but the whole thing was dead. So sometimes when I’m in desperation, when something’s not working, I would try the opposite. So, at that point it was set in the past, I thought what if I set it in the future? Or, not the past—it might be the present, or slightly in the future. And then instead of writing it in a strictly realist, naturalistic tone I thought, what if I make it a bit weird? A bit surrealistic, or a bit exaggerated?
But also it turned out to be a much more contemporary story because I’d started thinking about these girls and what had happened to them, I began noticing stuff that was still happening around me right now in our culture and in our media. Examples like, at that point there was the CEO of David Jones and he had sexually harassed a young woman who was employed by them. She took legal action as she was absolutely right to do, but she was pilloried in the media often by other women I have to say. There was a young army cadet who had been filmed having sex without her knowledge and that was broadcast to the blokes’ friends. When she complained, she was the one who got in trouble—she was hauled up before her superiors and disciplined. And that’s just two of a whole lot of other examples that seemed to be happening all around me all the time. And it was once again that the punishment was for the speaking. And it sort of was like a little bucket of cold water that told me that attitude is not over. And then, later on, so this book was published in 2015, of course at the end of 2017 came the Me Too movement, which was just a torrent of stories like this—of young women being punished, their careers ruined, their lives ruined for speaking up about the assaults that happened to them at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, but then a squillion other stories. So, I felt like I had no choice but to write this stuff.
ASTRID: I’m very glad that you did, Charlotte.
CHARLOTTE: Thank you.
ASTRID: It is a phenomenal, confronting and in many ways beautiful—if a hard story to read. I’d like to talk about Yolanda Kovacs—Yolanda is the first of the girls that we meet and in many ways the heroine, or the strongest girl. And we do find out a little bit about what happened to her. In snippets throughout the book we find out she was gang-raped or pack-raped by footballers and she was accused of wanting it, of asking for it. When she told her boyfriend Robbie, he didn’t really believe her or he kind of considered her now to be tainted goods. And she suspects that her boyfriend Robbie and her own brother Darren [are] the men who essentially hand her over or facilitate Hardings coming to take her. We don’t really find out the details of that, but she thinks she was given up by the men in her life. We also find out that back before she was taken, she was considered by others to be unusually beautiful and this is the only girl who that’s made very clear about. She grew up and has always heard throughout her life, and I’m quoting here: ‘what a beauty,’ ‘exotic,’ ‘a touch of the tar,’ about her her whole life. And people have objectified her based on what she looks like. What role did Yolanda play for you? I mean, you’re bringing in a woman who spoke up about something horrific that happened to her and was not her fault, but a woman who has always been objectified as well.
CHARLOTTE: Well Yolanda is one of those young women who’s always been incredibly beautiful since childhood. And you see those girls—and boys, but more girls I think—in the way the culture responds to them. Even when they’re tiny, people say to their parents, ‘oh boy, you’re going to have trouble when she’s fifteen,’ or, ‘look at her, you’ll have to lock her up,’—weird things to say about children that are supposed to be compliments. I think at one point she says she looked in the mirror, I think she was naked, to see what’s the fuss about—this body of hers has caused her nothing but trouble. She’s always been, as you say, objectified. But she’s also a person of the body—she inhabits her body in a really physical way, and she was the only one who really when Hardings came she says, ‘my body knew before I did,’ that something bad was happening. She was supposed to be signing a waiver, disclaimer thing with the woman employed by the football code—the gender equity officer, or something. And she sees that woman turn away when these other guys, sort of legally looking blokes, turn up. She thinks something’s wrong here and she says, ‘my dumb dog’s body knew before I did’. And she kicks and screams and fights and tries to get away, whereas Verla by contrast who sees herself as a smarter and more educated person, was sort of oblivious until too late what was happening to her. So, Yolanda is a very physically powerful and strong person—gutsy, street-smart and brave. When she and Verla first meet, Verla is surprised. She sort of realises that this is the first person she’s met who is stronger than her. And so, Yolanda through the book divests herself of the female human identity—she starts really identifying with the animals around her.
ASTRID: Particularly the rabbits.
CHARLOTTE: Particularly the rabbits and she kind of turns into an animal, a rabbit. And she’s happier there than she’s ever been in her girl’s body…
ASTRID: She’s safer, too.
CHARLOTTE: She’s safer.
ASTRID: This might be me reading too much into it, Charlotte, but as Yolanda progressed through the story and she became more independent, she became stronger, she started to feed everybody by hunting the rabbits, it really struck me that she reminded me of the feminine archetype Artemis. She’s the huntress, she’s out there, she’s independent, not waiting for anyone, man or woman.
CHARLOTTE: And she’s prepared to be violent in a way that the other girls wouldn’t necessarily have the capacity to do. But once Yolanda realises that, she finds these rabbit traps and she can a). provide food for all of them—because by this time the food has run out—but she can also threaten Boncer and the others. And she realises all of a sudden that Boncer is weak, he’s not strong. And she is strong. So, the power completely shifts around at that point and she’s the strongest.
ASTRID: Let’s talk about Verla Learmont—she is the other girl who we see the story from her point of view, or we follow the story through her eyes. As you alluded to before, she thinks that she’s quite educated and well connected. We find out that she was a parliamentary intern who had an affair, or a long-term relationship with a man named Andrew—presumably a minister or someone quite high up in the government. He took her on an international infrastructure transport junket and no doubt spent lots of taxpayer’s money etc… And when this was found out she was blamed, not Andrew. And so, he has cut off contact and she’s been in the media, whether she asked for it or no,m and now she’s been taken by Hardings as well. Now, throughout the book, Verla does insist repeatedly that she is not like the other girls.
ASTRID: Why does she do that?
CHARLOTTE: She thinks that, look, these poor girls are all victims. They’ve been raped and assaulted and whatever, I wasn’t. I was in a consensual relationship; she was absolutely up for it. She knows that Andrew loves her, she loves him. She sort of feels that she wasn’t dumb enough to let herself be taken advantage of in the way these other girls were. She is more highly educated—she thinks that means she’s smarter. And she thinks the whole time, well look, this whole place is wrong obviously, but I am actually here unlawfully. And obviously Andrew is working to get me out and when I get out, I will advocate for these girls, because they shouldn’t be here. But I, absolutely, this is like you know… There’s a sense that she feels like, look, this is unfortunate they’re here, but they kind of brought it on themselves. Whereas I am a different case altogether.
I wanted to that in the book because I feel like that’s what we all do. The thing that these girls are told by the guards and by the culture that has put them there is that you’re all one thing, and that one thing is a slut, basically. Now, of course, they are individual human beings with absolutely private, intimate lives and personalities and backgrounds and all of this stuff that’s completely different from one another. And one of the ways they hang onto their individuality is to say, ‘I’m not like them. I’m me and I’m different’. And Verla is the one who does that the most, I think. Quite a few people have a problem with the fact that the girls don’t all band together and overcome the enemy and get away and that was deliberate on my part, because I just don’t see that happening. Somebody said to me quite soon after the book was published, ‘why didn’t they just unite and band together and get what they want?’ And I said, ‘well, why don’t we do that as women?’ We just don’t, because we’re individual human beings—men don’t do it either—but it’s sort of assumed that if we did do that we might have equal pay (chuckles) and not be continually assaulted and all of those things. But because we’re human, the fact that we share some difficulties in the culture doesn’t mean that we’re going to all agree with each other. And also, especially when you’re under duress—these young women are under extreme pressure. And when I was thinking about them being in this place and in jail, I realised that I’ve always wondered, you know you hear about people in the holocaust and how they survived. And I sort of feel ashamed because I know that I would not be one of the good ones, I feel that I would’ve been one of the more cowardly ones. I would not necessarily be sticking up for and saving other people, I would be trying to survive myself. And that’s what these girls are doing—they’re trying to survive, and they certainly make some alliances within the group, but they don’t all get along. They don’t even like each other. That’s just the truth of how we’ve all been at school, we’ve all been on a tour bus or something—it doesn’t mean because you’re in the same place you’re going to go, ‘we all get along’. And, in fact I feel like often that’s the situation where I’m least likely to band together with others because I feel like I just want to be me, I don’t want to be the same as other people. And there certainly are attempts on their part, and eventually successfully, but it doesn’t come through them all being good, united feminist activists.
ASTRID: No, they certainly in some ways bring in society with them, and they have a pecking order, and they’ve seen each other in the media or heard each other’s stories and they remember those and think about it.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, and they remember how they judged each other.
ASTRID: And how they were judged.
ASTRID: Which doesn’t facilitate friendship, I don’t think. Staying with Verla for another moment, there is a lot of animal imagery throughout the book. We’ve mentioned Yolanda and the rabbits. Verla has a white horse—she thinks a white horse is within the confines of the property, the sheep station, that they’re on within the electric fence, and she thinks that the white horse comes to visit her. The other girls don’t believe her. And she thinks she’s special because the white horse maybe is kind of her symbol, her talisman. And of course, near the end of the novel, she and Yolanda find the white horse and the horse is dead. Now again, maybe I’m reading too much into your story Charlotte, but Verla was the kind of girl who I thought expects a knight in shining armour, maybe on a grand white horse to walk in and save her. And she literally has a dead horse decomposing in a paddock. What did the horse symbolise?
CHARLOTTE: Well the horse is one of those really odd things that comes, of course, from that sort of fairy tale imagery, but also from real life. It was one of those things you sort of realise after the fact, that of course it’s knight in shining armour and all of that. But the truth of how it came into the book was that when I was writing at my friend’s farm out in the west of New South Wales, I was staying in a little studio apart from the house. And outside the house at night I could hear this horse eating, pulling grass from the ground. And it was such a powerful sound: in the middle of silence and darkness this ripping and chewing noise. Anyway, it turned out to be my friend’s very ancient, old white horse called Gidgy.
CHARLOTTE: And then, while I was writing I would just see off in the trees Gidgy moving through and then disappearing, and then coming back and I just liked the otherworldliness of that. Now, clearly my subconscious seized on that because it had all that other baggage—the imagery that especially little girls grow up with of fairy tales. If you think of Disney cartoons and all of that, there’s always some prince or someone on the white horse. Verla thinks about the horse, she thinks about lying on the horse’s back, she thinks the horse is coming for her. None of the other girls ever see this horse and it sort of remains unspoken or unrealised whether the horse is even real. And even in my mind I don’t know if the horse is real, except that she and Yolanda both see the silver cups of its hooves in the ground and they see that it’s dead. And that was Gidgy too—when I went back to my friend’s house, Gidgy died. And on farms in the middle of nowhere there’s not really any point in burying an animal as enormous as a horse, so Gidgy just faded slowly into the ground and I saw her old body. And it was sort of very moving to me and poignant. And then it provided a really powerful turning point for Verla, because that’s when she finally understands that she’s not any better than the other girls and no one’s coming to save her. And if she’s going to be saved, she has to do it herself.
ASTRID: Which brings us to mushrooms. Although Yolanda often feels like the strongest girl—she’s the one out there physically moving, trapping, skinning rabbits and feeding them—Verla does harvest mushrooms and not only does she harvest mushrooms, and that helps add to their very meagre diet, she tests the mushrooms that she finds on herself hoping to find a poisonous one to kill her captors. That shows a lot of independence and initiative and she doesn’t really tell the other girls about this, although it’s suggested that Yolanda maybe figures a little bit of it out. Poison has always been considered a woman’s way of murder and it does go into old archetypes: the crone and the evil witch. Were you aiming for that?
CHARLOTTE: I was. For quite a long time when I started the book, I was quite frightened of the darkness of the material and the anger that was coming out of me and I kept trying to sort of work around it and turn it into a nicer book and then it wasn’t working. And in the end, I just thought, I just have to go with this and see what happens. Then I just let everything just kind of pour out—not that it came quickly, but it came in lots of really simple symbols and archetypes, as you say, and things that I didn’t realise that I had absorbed my whole life from childhood. Things about girls and things about women and, yes, the fact that poisoning as a way of killing someone was seen to be a woman’s crime. So then I thought, well I’ll use that. Instead of resisting all these things, I thought whatever comes my way I’m going to throw in there and use it. And for Verla I also wanted her to get out… The problem with a narrative like this is that it’s very static, you know. There’s a narrative gift in having people in a prison, because you’ve got this very urgent narrative question which is are they going to get out of prison? But the problem with a prison is that they’re all just there—they can’t do anything and go anywhere. So once the power shift happens when the food runs out—they’re still held in there by this electric fence and they still don’t know where the hell they are so even if they got out of the electric fence where are they and what would they do?—but they can range around within the property, it’s quite big. So then Verla sort of goes out ranging in the paddocks with Yolanda, even though Yolanda by this point is almost not speaking anymore. She’s sort of becoming so other than human that they don’t talk about it. Even though they really love each other and they’re really close friends by the end…
ASTRID: They do, I actually have two quotes here. The friendship between them is beautiful but quite unspoken, not just because Yolanda speaks less and less but they don’t need to define it. The first quote is, ‘Verla understood, and that was enough’ giving comfort to Yolanda. And then later in the book there’s a longer quote: ‘Sometimes the two girls looked at each other, and Yolanda felt understood. To Yolanda, Verla was better than the rest of them, better than herself’. I really like that sentence because Verla has been trying to convince herself that she is better than everybody and here is Yolanda looking at her friend and giving her that. I thought that was quite beautiful.
CHARLOTTE: Thank you. I don’t remember writing that (chuckles).
ASTRID: You did Charlotte, you did (laughs). Now, we’ve spent most of the time talking about Yolanda and Verla, but of course there are eight other girls who have been kidnapped for exactly the same type of reasons. There is Isobel who is sometimes known as Izzy, there is Hetty, Maitlynd, Barbs, Rhiannon, Lydia, Leandra and Joy. We find out a little bit about each of their backgrounds, but the common thread as you described for us before is that all have been abused, or raped, or vilified, or have drawn or had public attention imposed on them for something to do with their gender, their body, their sex. And I have another quote from Verla here: ‘The reason for their captivity has a blank clarity: they are hated’. Now that’s a weighty sentence. What are you saying here?
CHARLOTTE: Well, I think the girls spend a lot of time trying to work out what did I do? What is the crime that I’m here for? and there’s all the detail of the particular person they were involved with or assaulted by and the place and the time and everything. But when they’re all there together, it’s just sort of really clear that they’re there because they’re women and they’re hated. And they’re hated not just by the person who assaulted them, but by a whole society that allows this place to exist and for these people to be brought there. And I think it’s really shocking—well it was really shocking for me as a young woman to realise that sometimes men just hate women. And it doesn’t make any sense. And it’s almost like they don’t know they don’t hate women, but everything they do shows that they do on some really deep, primal, primitive level. And it’s not to do with anything you did, or deserved, or didn’t deserve, or cause and effect, it’s just that at some level you are so other that you’re not deserving of any ordinary human respect.
ASTRID: Misogyny and sexism just can’t be grappled with—we can’t make an attempt to even understand them—without acknowledging the female body, which is other if you’re coming at it from a place of maleness. A female body is what they represent and what they are capable of, which of course is very different than what a male body is capable of. And one of the areas that this plays out in The Natural Way of Things is hair, of all things. You’re laughing at me now Charlotte, but hair—the right to remove it, the right to have it, the right to show it—has been at the heart of the battle over female bodies for centuries in all different cultures. In The Natural Way of Things the first and most obvious example is the girls have their heads shaved as soon as they are kidnapped. And that deidentifies them and takes away their femininity and their power and the way they chose to wear their hair. Throughout the book the men objectify the girls and there are several instances of Teddy, one of the male captors, talking about or remembering the hairiness of his ex-girlfriend in a really demeaning way. But also, three of the girls—Lydia, Joy and Izzy—actually bargain a set of tweezers from the fake nurse Nancy and spend all their time plucking each other in some kind of attempt at… well I’m not sure. Hair is everywhere here, so what were you exploring?
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, it is (chuckles). I know, it sounds so weird…
ASTRID: No but it’s not! It’s really powerful!
CHARLOTTE: Well I think our culture has a really weird obsession with women’s hair being in the right place and not in the wrong place. I remember when I was writing this book, I was so aware of every message. You know, women walk out the door in the morning and by the time you walk in your own door in the evening, I don’t know how many negative messages you’ve received about being a woman—about all the things that are wrong with you, but there are a hell of a lot. And there used to be a billboard near my house which is near some shops that said, ‘Do you have unsightly hair?’
ASTRID: (Chuckles) Oh gosh.
CHARLOTTE: And I was like, ‘my god I do! I’m sure I do, I must’. And you know, we can’t have hairy legs or hairy underarms, but we do want long, luxurious, beautiful, shiny hair on our heads. But we can’t really have really bushy eyebrows, but then if you have no eyebrows when you get older that’s bad, so you have to get them put on.
ASTRID: You can’t have a hairy lip.
CHARLOTTE: You can’t have a hairy lip. You can’t have natural pubic hair. But when I was a teenager short hair was quite popular among girls and women, but that’s just gone. It seems to be these days a real statement about your identity if you have really short hair as a girl. And a woman said to me recently—so I’ve got short hair, mainly because I can’t grow long hair because my hair’s so fine—anyway, she said, ‘short hair’s a really good statement about how confident you are’. I’m like really? It’s just because I haven’t got enough hair.
ASTRID: And maybe it’s just convenient!
CHARLOTTE: And maybe it’s just whatever. And the thing about shaving the girl’s heads—that happens to women collaborators during the war, women who were deemed to sleep with the enemy would be paraded and have their head shaved. The shaving of women’s heads is a real, definite strategy that’s been used throughout history as a marker of shame and punishment and so on. And I think it’s often been used as a health thing, where we’re shaving your head to get rid of the possibility of lice or whatever…
ASTRID: Girls have lice anyway and they have no hair on their heads (laughs).
CHARLOTTE: (Laughs) It’s a way to punish and shame. But the thing about the tweezers—I don’t know if it was before the book, but I don’t know if you remember Schapelle Corby who was an Australian young woman who was imprisoned in Bali for supposedly trafficking drugs. And whenever I saw her on television, I was always really struck by how incredibly finely plucked her eyebrows were, even in this hellhole prison in Indonesia—absolute slum, filth, awful place. And I thought, well if that’s what you did to feel that you were yourself and attractive and whatever then why wouldn’t you keep trying to maintain these tiny little routines of your idea of beauty in a place that is full of ugliness? And I found that just so poignant. So that’s why I gave that to those girls. They sort of have a weird little beauty spa.
ASTRID: They do.
CHARLOTTE: Plucking each other’s hair. And then it was I guess the evocations of animal grooming and all that. Because they all go a bit crazy, these girls in this place.
ASTRID: Understandably so. One of the most stunning and uncomfortable storylines involving hair actually is the doll that they make: Ransom. This is a doll made from straw and socks and discarded material, whatever they can find, and then the hair of Yolanda, Verla and Hetty is sewn into it. So, at one point the girls actually find the hair of their ponytails that were chopped off the day they arrived, and they sew it into this doll called Ransom. And the doll is described, and I quote: ‘It could be a warrior, voodoo doll, goddess, corpse’. That’s a potent little doll.
CHARLOTTE: It’s a very creepy little doll.
ASTRID: Why call it Ransom and what was its role?
CHARLOTTE: Well Ransom the doll came to me for a number of strange reasons. One of them was that years ago I’d read about the artists of the Heide circle outside Melbourne: Sunday Reed and Joy Hester and a bunch of men, Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker etc… But Sunday Reed and Joy Hester had this very close friendship. And there was this very strange, to me, scenario where Sunday Reed desperately wanted to have a baby but could not and they made a doll together that she would sort of carry around with her—this is an adult woman—and this doll was called Gethsemane. Now Gethsemane for those who don’t know is the garden where Jesus was supposed to have spent his last night before he was crucified—this sort of sacrificial sense. Anyway, I always just found that so weird and sort of moving, but creepy, but powerful, but odd. And anyway, it was just sort of tucked away in my subconscious.
Now at a certain point in the narrative of The Natural Way of Things there’s always a feeling that Boncer and Teddy are going to get sick of not having sex, even though in the beginning they talk to each other about how they’re getting paid by Hardings and one of the things they are not allowed to do as part of their job commissions is to get involved with the girls and they get bonuses if they don’t. But after a while it becomes clear that Hardings has forgotten about all of them and they’re all captives there. And then the girls can feel that Teddy, and Boncer in particular, is circling them and getting closer and closer and the one they want is Yolanda. But then once Yolanda becomes quite strong and too powerful for Boncer, she holds it off for a bit longer. But then there comes a day where they realise that we can’t hold them off anymore—someone has to sort of offer themselves up to Boncer. And Hetty is the one who steps forward and says, ‘I’ll do it’. And they’re so relieved that someone else has offered. And she says, ‘right, I want certain things—I want your shoes, I want your dress’. And they all run around giving her what she wants. And then she says, ‘and I want a doll’. And they’re like, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ And she says, ‘I want it by tomorrow’. I mean it’s pretty mad, but she in my mind—it’s never really explained why she wants this doll—but in my mind she wants someone to go with her. She wants to not be alone when she goes into Boncer’s room—she takes Ransom with her. And she calls it Ransom because it’s just an allusion to a hostage, I guess.
ASTRID: They’re all hostages and Hetty is the first to go. Now, women have made these kinds of bargains throughout history. She gets privileges from the men and from the girls, and she gets a degree of protection as well. It’s very uncomfortable, but women have been doing this for centuries and millennia.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, and you know in lots of ways why would you not?
CHARLOTTE: She’s got to survive. She thinks, get over it, big deal, I’ll do it. How bad can it be?
ASTRID: From Hetty who does make this bargain with their male captors, let’s move to Nancy. Nancy is the fake nurse—we find out very quickly she’s not a real nurse. I mean, the first time we meet her she’s literally playing nurse dress-ups and trying to put on essentially some kind of costume.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, like a play nurse outfit.
ASTRID: Nancy’s a woman who is clued in from the start against other women. Now, again that has happened for centuries as well. What is her role in the narrative and why was that important?
CHARLOTTE: When it became clear that the book was about misogyny, I wanted to include female misogyny and the internalised hatred that women have towards themselves because they’ve been told that they’re worth nothing. And quite a lot of women believe that they’re worth nothing and they believe that other women are worth nothing. But also, when we’re talking about power struggles it’s often quite effective, for a time, anyway, for a woman to collude with male power in order to get her own power. So that’s Nancy’s role from the start. She’s right in there with the boys in laughing at the girls, in insulting them, in deriding them and insulting them because they’re women. And I always find this really tragic when I see women doing this. And I remembered being in Melbourne and being at an art gallery, just wandering around. And I heard two security guards at the art gallery talking to each other—one was a man and one was a woman. And the woman was really sort of ingratiating herself with the man by—at the time the Prime Minister was Julia Gillard—and she was just really insulting and belittling Julia Gillard’s what she said ‘playing the woman card’. It was very clear to me that the way for her to get approval from this man was for her to say, on some level, I think women are shit as well. So, I’m like you, I’m not like them. And I just found that so sad, because I thought, you know what lady? He thinks that about you too. You’re not going to escape.
ASTRID: And Nancy does not.
CHARLOTTE: Nancy does not.
ASTRID: She has a measure of power—she’s certainly not locked up in a dog kennel like the girls—but she’s not treated well by either of the men. Which of course brings us to Boncer and Teddy who we haven’t really talked about much.
CHARLOTTE: Actually, just before we go onto that, I don’t know if this was a national story but last week I just heard a news story about women prison guards being harassed and insulted by their male colleagues and this is 2020. Women who have lost their capacity to work, they’ve been so traumatised by the abuse that they suffered at the hands of their male colleagues. And it was like, wow so it’s not… you know being in a position of power in a prison, it’s all relative.
ASTRID: There are always different power structures. That’s a really horrific story.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah and it didn’t surprise me one little bit, but it’s just interesting that we’re talking about this today and that was like three days ago.
ASTRID: One of the first things that we hear a man say in The Natural Way of Things is Boncer and he says to Verla, ‘Oh sweetie. You need to know what you are’ which really stuck with me Charlotte, because immediately he doesn’t even see them as individual girls, he just sees them as this mass of femaleness, of womanhood and it’s all terrible, and it’s all beneath him and they are things to him. Boncer, I suspect, is a man who wouldn’t have that much status in the real world—he is employed by Hardings because he can disappear for six months sitting in a sheep station with no internet and no phone. But they pay him well enough for him to do it and he finds himself in a position of power—he is probably the strongest male to start with. And he contrasts quite a bit with Teddy, who is a dreadlocked yoga devotee who eats his goji berries and salutes the sun and thinks he’s all very special even though he spends a lot of time paying out his ex-girlfriend Hannah. The two are quite menacing, and yet would have no real authority in the real world. Where did you find them?
CHARLOTTE: I had trouble writing them for a while, because I knew if you’ve got a prison you have to have prison guards. And of course the first sketches that I had of prison guards were the kind of people you would expect to be prison guards: big, burly, beefy, gruff, blokey men. And that just wasn’t working at all because I wanted to think about systems of oppression and how the people who are working as the oppressors are also in their own way sort of victims. And I was thinking at the time a lot about our refugee detention centres, because when you’re writing a book, you’re looking for images all around you of stuff to pull in to use for research. And of course, in the news, most of the images we have seen are not very often inside these places, but the refugee detention centres both offshore and in Australia which are run by private companies. And I was thinking about people who work in those places and how, obviously to be incarcerated in those places is hellish, but also I think to work in those places must be also hellish in a different way. And that it would do something to do your soul to work in a place like that.
So, I wanted to explore people who were given power, didn’t know how to use it well and the corruption of power, I suppose. I realised that they needed to have weaknesses in order for me to be able to make them real. And so, I just started developing Boncer as this petty, whiney, resentful, quite moody… he’s like a whingey teenager, he’s not like a person of authority really at all. But because he’s got a weapon and he’s the boss, he can sort of do what he wants and that makes him more menacing than anything. I was really struggling with the second guy and thinking what kind of a person could he be? And then, this is kind of mechanical as sometimes it is in the process, I was staring out the window of my house in inner-Sydney thinking how am I going to do this? And this guy walked past the window who was this golden-skinned, dreadlocked, peaceful looking yoga boy. And I thought what if he was my prison guard? And then it just all kind of fizzled alive because I thought, that’s really useful because men’s sexism towards women doesn’t only come from big thick-necked blokes who play Rugby League, it can come equally from supposedly peace-loving conservation activists who still think women are shit.
ASTRID: It can, I found what you did with Teddy quite interesting. You know, you make it really clear that physically he’s probably quite attractive to a lot of the girls who are there. And I have a quote from Izzy here—Izzy thinks that Teddy would be the kind of guy, and I quote, ‘that would be out telling his mates how small your tits are the minute after you’ve sucked his dick’. And that was a really different way of looking at misogyny—this guy who probably got as many women as he wanted in the real world because of his looks. You know, the girls are looking at him knowing that he’s attractive and just knowing that he’d be horrible, that there’s nothing nice in him.
CHARLOTTE: And the way he expresses his misogyny is talking about his previous girlfriend Hannah. Whenever he talks about her, he just belittles everything about her—she went on and on and on about how he didn’t do the washing up, and she also was too hairy. And I think he says something like, ‘some of them are like that’—she’s too hairy and her toes were not the right shape and she was just sort of wrong. And also, one of his things is she just didn’t look after herself the way he did–she got too fat basically. And there’s a whole world of sexism in our culture that is masquerading as health and wellbeing, wellness stuff which is all about get skinny and shut up.
ASTRID: And look pretty for men.
CHARLOTTE: And look pretty and be quiet. So Teddy was a way for me to bring in a little bit of that and I actually laughed a lot when I had a review that said—and so Teddy’s constantly doing yoga—a review that said every woman has shared a yoga mat with Teddy at some time.
CHARLOTTE: And actually, someone else sent me a screenshot from their Facebook page of a friend of theirs who was at some yoga retreat overseas and this woman said, ‘oh you know, it’s all going really well. Of course, that guy out of Charlotte Wood’s book is there every day in the front row’. It just made me laugh.
ASTRID: (Laughs) You’re tapping into something their Charlotte.
CHARLOTTE: And actually, young women have said to me, ‘Boncer’s really terrifying and awful, but I know Teddy. He’s in my group of friends’. I was a bit surprised and very gratified about how many young women recognised Teddy as a real person. And it’s awful that they do, but they do.
ASTRID: Let’s talk about power. Power is a word that we’ve said a few times already in this talk—there are power structures in society and there are also power structures in the little world that is created by Hardings on the sheep station. To go right back to the beginning, the moment the girls start to wake up from the sedation when they’ve been stripped of their autonomy, power is taken from them in so many ways. Not only are they kidnapped and drugged, but their clothes are taken and they’re clothed in really old-fashioned, uncomfortable clothes, their hair is shaven, they’re given no information so they have no ability to understand what’s happening, they’re chained like dogs to each other but then they’re locked in essentially dog kennels, they’re forced to do meaningless manual labour—to literally move rocks around—and they’re beaten on a whim. So, the threat of physical violence and sexual violence is always there. And it’s horrific to start, and it really sets the tone for the rest of the novel. But I guess my question here in relation to power is why are those things important in order to take someone’s power away? Or to establish someone else in a new power hierarchy?
CHARLOTTE: You mean the methods that are used? Well I guess it’s that dehumanising thing, right? First of all, you take away someone’s belongings—so Yolanda wakes up and thinks where the hell am I and where are my clothes? And then she does a sort of inventory of all the things that are missing: her phone, her little necklace that her brother had given her, her rings from Bali, her new jeans. Somebody else talks about their Chloé boots that they just bought.
ASTRID: Chloe boots, very important.
CHARLOTTE: (Laughs) And these things identify them as individual young women and their belongings bring their story with them and their worlds that they carry around on their bodies. So, when they’re taken away, that’s a whole lot of identifying material that’s gone. And then, of course, they don’t know where they are. I think Verla says straight away, ‘I need a phone and I need to put in an official complaint’ and Boncer just laughs at her, like ‘sure. Who are you gonna tell?’ you know. And I did think a lot about our refugee detention system when I was writing this book and the kind of dehumanising and numbering of people—your name is taken away, you’re given a number, that’s like medieval stuff. And this is done by private corporations. There’s a little slogan in the place that’s on the plates and the tea towels and everything that says Hardings International: dignity and respect in a safe environment. That slogan came directly from the website of Serco which is one of the companies that used to—I don’t know if it still does—run detention centres for the Australian government. That was a real slogan. That’s like insane.
ASTRID: I did enjoy how throughout the novel the slogan was kind of getting washed off the plates (chuckles) until there was less respect and dignity there.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, the tea-towels that get ripped up and made into rags and bandages.
ASTRID: Now it’s Yolanda who finally completely changes the power balance. She does this in a number of ways, but the first definitive change in the hierarchy and the way things are running is when not only does Yolanda procure food by catching rabbits, but when Boncer follows her out and he tells her to give him a blow job. And not only does she say no, but she humiliates him—he’s the one to feel shame, to feel belittled—and he no longer is able to threaten her with violence or sexual attack. It’s a pretty hard scene. Why was it important to give Yolanda that change?
CHARLOTTE: I don’t know, it’s a tricky scene too because she just says, ‘No’. By this time, she’s got these rabbit traps and she’s got spiky metal objects in her hands. And she suddenly realises that Boncer is weak—that she’s stronger than him and she can frighten him. Before that she hasn’t realised that he’s as weak as he is. So that’s the turning point—when she realises, oh I have power if I want to use it. Now, of course, there’s a real danger in that in suggesting that all you have to do as a girl under threat is to say, ‘I’m powerful’ and then it’ll all go away which clearly does not happen and it doesn’t happen in the book either. But it happens for Yolanda.
ASTRID: And she very much earns that. She’s out doing the work that no one else will do, or has thought to do, or is capable of doing.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah and she’s brave. I think in this book, and this book doesn’t represent the world (chuckles), but in this story the ones who are brave and the ones who can choose, as much as they can to, choose freedom are the ones who will be free. And Yolanda, she sheds a whole lot of things: she sheds bonds with other people, she’s completely separate from the culture, she really separates herself from the whole of humanity by turning herself into an animal. And I know that some readers have been upset by the idea that, is this the only way forward for a girl to say I’m not even a girl anymore, that is how I’ll be free? But, that’s how it is for Yolanda.
ASTRID: That is how it is for Yolanda and that can contrast with the other potentially happy ending of Verla. Yolanda does make an offer to Verla to follow—Verla doesn’t take that path even though she is offered it—but she creates her own. And it’s also dangerous and lonely, but I’m going to bet it’s probably better than the other eight girls who stay on the bus.
CHARLOTTE: Yep. And you know, that’s a statement about it’s hard to be free. To be a free human being you have to sacrifice the need to belong, in a way. And sometimes you can still belong and be free but sometimes you can’t, and I think for women it’s often easier to just go with the flow because it’s exhausting to resist every instance of sexism that comes your way. It’s exhausting. Sometimes it’s just easier to just let the sexist joke go by, or to laugh along with the boys at school who are saying something horrible about another girl, because if you don’t then you are making yourself a target, possibly or you are alone. But I guess I’m arguing in the book that being alone and being free is better than being part of a…
ASTRID: It’s better than being on that bus.
CHARLOTTE: It’s better than being on that bus and it’s better than being part of a toxic culture.
ASTRID: Now two of the women, Nancy and Hetty, or two of the girls—I know I am alternating between using women and girls and they are girls that are also young, but also they have had such an experience that I do think of them as women by the end of it.
ASTRID: Two, Nancy and Hetty, don’t survive. Now it’s very clear that Hetty chooses to commit suicide, she goes to the electric fence—she and the other girls know that she is now pregnant with Boncer’s child. And then Nancy dies of an overdose, it’s completely unclear whether that was an accident or not. Now the women cremate Nancy and they bury Hetty—they look after the dead. The men don’t, Boncer and Teddy literally cry and wander around and don’t actually do anything. And there’s a quote I’d like to read you. You write in The Natural Way of Things, ‘Here, laying the dead to rest, like washing and feeding and birth, is women’s work’. That’s another sentence that really struck me because we’re talking about femaleness and the weight of being female and misogyny against everything that is not male. And that comes down to women’s work as well, I mean Boncer and Teddy are useless even though essentially their two girlfriends have just died.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah. Well the girls, they care for each other even though as I’ve said people find that their behaviour isn’t very nice towards each other. When it comes down to it, they do what has to be done for each other. And they are kind of as surprised to find that they are doing this women’s work as anybody else. But they know that—Boncer and Teddy are very freaked out by these deaths—but they would just walk away and leave these young women to I don’t know what… rot. But the girls—and I call them girls. Of course, they’re young women—they’re sort of aged between 17 and 22 or something—but they refer to themselves as girls, so I do too. They kind of ritualise this loss—they have strange little funeral, they sing pop songs as hymns.
ASTRID: Lana Del Rey, Lady Gaga.
CHARLOTTE: (Laughs) Yeah. They grieve and I guess they know it could be them—that they are bound to these women who have not treated them well, either. But they feel sorry for Nancy in the end, even though Nancy has behaved appallingly towards them. They can see what Nancy can’t see which is, you are just like us and they’re going to get you too.
ASTRID: After Nancy and Hetty die, Hardings eventually turns up—the yellow bus literally rolls in. And there’s one man on the bus and that man doesn’t seem to notice or care that the two men are now gone and there are two less women than presumably his list says. And he says, ‘you poor girls’. First off, that’s patronising, but also it’s very clear that he’s thinking about what will come—what is about to happen to them. So, what more could be done to these women? You leave it open, obviously, but the threat is there Charlotte.
CHARLOTTE: Well they get on the bus. They’re all pretty crazy by this stage—they’re filthy dirty, they’ve been in this place for months and months and months. He gets off the bus and he speaks to them with real kindness and he says, ‘you poor girls’. And they think somebody is here to save us, finally someone’s here. And he gets his little presents out, these little bags of goodies. They’re so desperate for kindness and beauty and they dive into these little showbag things. Because he said, ‘you poor girls,’ he’s articulated what has happened to them on some level. And it’s only really Verla, I think, who realises once they’re on the bus—they think they’re all going home finally; this terrible ordeal is over—and then Verla realises he’s not talking about what’s happened to them up ‘till now. He’s talking about what’s going to happen to them from here. And that’s when she finally acts and says, ‘I’m out of here. Get me off this bus’. I don’t know what could happen to them. People have often said to me, ‘so what happens in the next bit?’ and I’m like I know as much as you know. And there is no sequel as various other people have asked me (chuckles). I’m not going back to that. I guess I don’t know what could be worse, but it’s fairly clear that for the girls who stay on the bus…
ASTRID: There is no spring.
CHARLOTTE: There’s no spring and it’s not going to get better and they’re not going home.
ASTRID: Now, at various points while I was reading The Natural Way of Things, I actually thought of The Handmaids Tale which is one of my favourite books of all time and the most influential on my psyche, so that is great praise from me personally Charlotte.
CHARLOTTE: Thank you.
ASTRID: And that of course is a great dystopian work of feminist fiction. And the similarity was the not knowing who is perpetrating these monstrosities in the way that the handmaids don’t—I mean they could put a name to it, the girls here could say it’s Hardings—but they don’t really know how or why. And I was wondering what books influenced you, if any? That is a leading question.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, so a lot has been made of The Handmaids Tale similarity, I guess. And I had never read The Handmaids Tale—I read it after I finished the book. Of course, I knew about The Handmaids Tale but also I was writing this book years and years before the TV show of The Handmaids Tale came out. The Handmaids Tale was a book that was around when I was at University.
ASTRID: I did it at school.
CHARLOTTE: I think it was published in 1987 and it’s very chilling how prescient Margaret Atwood was. It’s so shocking to realise she was talking about all this well before most of the people who are listening to us talking were born and now it’s as hyper-relevant as ever. So, The Handmaids Tale was not one of the books I was reading because at a certain point I realised that there are going to be some parallels. All I knew about The Handmaids Tale was that it was a closed society of women held captive. So, I deliberately did not read that until I had finished mine.
But I read a book that was really important, which probably seems a bit left field is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I absolutely love. And it’s about a bunch of young people in a sort of boarding school and you realise fairly quickly, that they are there as human clones for organ harvesting. And it’s an incredibly moving and sad book, but I loved how he made the place this sort of contemporary but futuristic, weird but completely normal, this quite disconcerting layer of well this is fine, something’s weird, what the hell’s going on here? That creeping sense of dread—I found that really instructive. And then other books, let me think. I was reading Elizabeth Harrower, an Australian writer who’s sort of been rediscovered in the past few years, a book called The Watch Tower that was about a horrible relationship—not a political thing, but of course about a dominating man over a couple of women. What else was I reading? The one that really stays in my mind is Never Let Me Go, but over three years I read a lot of books. Anything that I can grab hold of to… Often it was about the voice—a strange, almost stylised voice rather than what the book was about.
ASTRID: So talk to me about the title of The Natural Way of Things. There is a passage in the book which I’m going to read, and I think it’s possibly the only section of the book that’s not obviously from Yolanda or Verla’s point-of-view. So, I’ll read it to you and let you comment. ‘Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.’
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, that’s one of I think there may be two or three little passages that are in what I think of as a sort of aerial voice, or aerial gaze looking down on the girls and that passage that you read starts with, ‘what would people in their old lives be saying?’ Like, is anyone even missing these girls? At the beginning they think, well obviously my parents and my friends, there’ll be Facebook groups campaigning to save us…
ASTRID: Search parties.
CHARLOTTE: Search parties. And they slowly realise that no one’s looking for them. You know, I think things like racism and misogyny and hatred of a certain group of people is often perpetuated because on some level we think it’s natural. That that’s just the way things are. It’s not something we’ve done, it’s just the way it’s always been and it’s the way that the world is so it’s natural. And you still hear it—it’s the whole ‘boys will be boys’ thing. That’s just unfortunately, you can’t really do anything about it, it’s just the way it is. So I wrote that passage into the book and it’s been amazing to me how frequently people quote that passage. But I have to be honest and say that I didn’t have a title for the book when I sent it to my publisher—I had all these really terrible titles that I knew were wrong that were just bad and I couldn’t find a way to get at what the book was about. And so, my publisher Jane Palfreyman said, well what about this? What about The Natural Way of Things? And I thought about it for a day or so and then it just seemed to have more and more power. And I think she was right, so that’s why you have a great publisher (chuckles) to find these things for you. But obviously, she just took it straight out of the middle of the book.
ASTRID: Charlotte can you tell me about the setting and the landscape of The Natural Way of Things?
CHARLOTTE: For me when I was writing, the book was so dark and so bleak a lot of the time. I had to find beauty in order for me to keep writing it and the source of that beauty in the book was the natural world. At first the girls turn up in this place and they feel like they’re on the moon—they’ve never seen such a barren, and I think they say, ‘is this what the outback is?’ Nobody even knows what the outback is because they’re all girls from the city. But slowly over time even though this place is hell to them they, particularly Yolanda and Verla, can see that it is also beautiful because it’s the natural world.
ASTRID: Charlotte thank you so much for your time today. I really hope that this helps teachers and students bring The Natural Way of Things into the classroom.
CHARLOTTE: Thanks so much Astrid, I’ve loved talking to you.