Charlotte Wood is a renowned Australian fiction author. She has published five novels and two works of non-fiction.
Her awards and honours include:
- The Natural Way of Things (2016), was awarded the 2016 Stella Prize and the 2016 Indie Book of the Year and Novel of the Year, and was the joint winner of the Prime Minister's Literary Award for Fiction
- Animal People (2012), was awarded the People's Choice Award in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards and was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award
- The Submerged Cathedral (2005), was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize
- Pieces of a Girl (1999), was awarded the Dobbie Award and the Jim Hamilton Prize.
Charlotte received the Writer in Residence Fellowship at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre in 2016. She was a guest curator of the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2018.
- Charlotte mentions her conversation with Hannie Rayson about the writers life.
- Charlotte also mentions Christos Tsiolkas, who she interviewed for her non-fiction work The Writers Room. We have recorded two interviews with Christos, the first in 2017 and the second recorded in front of a live audience in 2018.
Nic Brasch: Charlotte Wood is the author of five novels, among them, The Natural Way of Things, which won the 2016 Stella Prize, and the Indie Book of the Year, and was the joint winner of the Prime Minister's Literary Award for Fiction. Her non-fiction includes The Writer's Room, in which she interviewed writers about how they think and work and what drives them. So she's the perfect guest to have on The Garret.
Charlotte Wood: Thank you so much, Nic.
Nic: Which writers and books made their mark on you early in your life?
Charlotte: I think I was a very indiscriminate reader when I was young. I mean I read, you know, I was one of those kids, like all writers, who got in trouble for reading under the covers and all that stuff.
So, when I was really little, we were read to all the time, my parents both read to us. I remember my father reading The Magic Pudding to me, and Blinky Bill was a favourite, and I was all over Enid Blyton and all that crap. And then I was a big fan of Nancy Drew actually, I remember I loved her sports car and the fact that she had a boyfriend but he wasn't really involved in anything, he was sort of just at home.
And then, you know, as I got older, I guess I was reading what we had on the school list, which I always loved. I remember being very taken by Brideshead Revisited. And of course now I can't remember anything else.
Nic: When did you start writing? Through school, were you writing?
Charlotte: No, I was quite late compared to lots of writers. I loved English, I loved writing essays and all that sort of stuff, but I never, it never occurred to me to write creatively at all until I went to university, really. But I got a job – I grew up in the country – and I got a job and I left school on the local paper, so I mean I think I probably always wanted to write, but without really knowing it, you know. And also I remember somebody saying something to me once when I was this little cadet journalist something about, ‘Oh, maybe you'll write a novel one day’. And I was just, there was no question in my mind that, that would never happen because I thought, what would I have to say?
Nic: What did prompt you then to write your first novel, Pieces of a Girl?
Charlotte: I, it probably sounds a bit dramatic, but my mother died. And my father had already died when I was 19. And my mother died when I was 29. And I had started doing writing classes at university by then. So, I went to uni after I did my cadetship, so I went to uni as a mature age student, which find hilarious now, at 23 I thought I was ancient. I started writing a few little scraps and things, and I understood then that I did want to write, but it was sort of little vignettes and poetic things, full of longing and absolutely no tension or narrative at all. But I sort of dabbled in it, but I didn't really take it very seriously.
And then when my mum died, I had that feeling that I think is common to a lot of people when something like that happens, of life really clarified into important things and unimportant things. And I knew then really urgently that I wanted to write. I really wanted to commit to it and work hard and try and finish something. So off I went to community writing classes, and that's where I started writing my first novel.
Nic: And was writing it what you expected it to be, both the process and then the time? Did you do think you're going to whip it up in six months? Maybe you did.
Charlotte: No, no, no. I mean, I sort of had been taught by then that you didn't have to know what you were doing at the beginning, which was a huge gift to understand that, you know, to think, I don't know what my novel's going to be about. So I guess at that point is when I discovered voice, you know, that I found a voice that I could work with.
Nic: How do you find a voice?
Charlotte: Well, I don't know. It's really, you know, it's something that people always ask as students and I just never know how to answer it, but at that point I was reading Making Stories, the Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe book, which I loved. And so did a lot of writers of my generation, that's a kind of Bible for us as you know, as baby writers. And I'm going to Kate Grenville talking about voice in that book in her interview and she said she'd found a voice when she was writing Lillian's Story. And she said it wasn't my voice, but it was a new voice and I think she said something like, ‘That I could use with joy and confidence and I could keep going back to it and finding a whole new kind of seam of work inside it’.
So that's what happened when I started writing that novel. When I look at it now, I can see it playing out all kinds of stuff about my Mum. You know, about malignancy and, not that, of course everyone… The book is about a very weird mother and very damaged, screwed up relationship, and I do remember the publisher of that book taking me out for lunch and saying, ‘So, tell me about your mother’. And me being an idiot saying, ‘Oh, she was wonderful, you know, blah, blah blah’. And then it dawned on me that she thought the book was about my mother, like oh, no. My mother would have found that very amusing, I think.
Nic: So how did you get it published? Did you get an agent first or did you go straight to a publisher?
Charlotte: I had a bizarrely fortunate first publishing experience. My second publishing experience was not that way, but I had been involved with Varuna, the writer's house in the Blue Mountains. I'd had a couple of mentorships there with some fantastic writers like Brenda Walker and the editor, Judith Lukan-Amundsen, and while I was on this residential week with Judith, she said, ‘Okay, I think this book is finished now’, and I was like, ‘Really? Okay, good’. And she said, ‘Would you like me to take it to a publisher for you?’. ‘I went, um, okay. That'd be great’.
In the meantime, an agent, who is not working as an agent anymore, Fran Bryson, had visited. We did some reading. She asked me to send her my work when it was done, so it's this very strange thing, within sort of a period of about a week, I had an agent and a publisher, so I thought, ‘Oh good. That was easy’. I expected it to be really difficult and it was very easy.
Then when my second book was rejected by that publisher so, I had that much more normal experience the second time around. But I had an agent by then as well.
Nic: Why did an existing publisher reject a second one? That's interesting.
Charlotte: I think it happens a lot. It happens a lot.
Nic: Yeah. But I ask that because when they take on a first time novelist, they're often thinking about investing for the future. So…
Charlotte: Well they talked about that.
Nic: Okay, so tell me.
Charlotte: I think it's a real shame when, you know, I can see why, you know, my first novel sold nothing. You know, it died a quick and painless death. I mean, weirdly the second one went on to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. And you know, I think there's a lot of things wrong with that book, I had no idea why they rejected it except that I imagine they didn't... It was very slow. You know, that deathly phrase ‘a quiet novel’ that publishers hate. And you know, obviously they didn't think it would fly in the market. And they were probably right, to be frank. It sold okay, but I do think the development of a writer is a long process, and if you can find a publisher like I did then with Jane Palfreyman, where she is one of those quite rare I think publishers who really looks to the long term.
Nic: You said before, in hindsight there were mistakes with that novel. I'm wondering, can you identify what those mistakes were, or in regard to any novel in hindsight…
Charlotte: Which one, I could go through every single one.
Nic: Well, give me some examples in hindsight. How would you have written any of your novels differently?
Charlotte: Well, you sort of, you discover by writing it what's wrong with it, but by then it's sort of in the DNA of it or something, you know, you can't... It's sort of a process of making scar tissue and then you go, ‘Oh, look at that lumpy thing, that really could be done a lot better, but I can't do it better now’. So I think often writing the next book is sort of motivated by, ‘I'm going to do it right this time. I'm going to write a better book, or a different book, anyway’. But hopefully, I mean I'm always wanting to write a better book.
Nic: So you are aware of it while you're writing, that this isn't as good as it could be?
Charlotte: Oh God, yeah.
Nic: Yeah? Not every writer says that.
Nic: No, a lot of writers think that when they finish this as good as it can possibly be. So that's why, I'm interested that you know while you're doing it that this is not quite...
Charlotte: Well, I think it's an exercise in continual frustration at not being able to get what's in your head on the page, or you see it on the page and think, ‘Oh no, that's not it’. I mean, I'm sort of better at not falling apart over it now, but it's such a, you know, writing a book is such a weird pursuit. It’s so slow, especially for a writer like me. It's so complex. There's so much to control and hopefully the longer you go on, you're trying more ambitious stuff, so hopefully it is more complex. But also I guess as you go on, you're aware of all the things that, you know when you write your first novel, it's kind of lovely, oblivious sort of dream in a way. You don't know that you have no control of the narrative thread, and you don't know that the voice was kind of stifling, and you don't know that it's actually very slow and certain kinds of readers won't go for it and all of that. You're just in a little private bubble of just doing your own thing. Whereas once you've published something, then you're much more aware of how people can respond to it. And I think for me often each book is a kind of reaction against the one before.
Nic: How slow is it for you, you said you're slow, let's take The Natural Way of Things as an example, because the one most of the listeners will be familiar with. How long did that take?
Charlotte: Well, they seem to have settled into a pattern of around three years. And some people, I mean I don't think that's terribly slow, but it feels very slow when I'm doing it. And my first draft might take two years, so that first draft period is really, like I just, I hope, finished a first draft of my new novel and you know, The Natural Way of Things came out in 2015, I'd already, because there's that the year of lag while it's being edited and everything, I'd already started on this one. So that feels like a really long time ago for me that I started it. And hopefully it'll be finished soon.
Nic: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Charlotte: Well, I'm not a plotter. I find that term kind of... I don't know why, it's always annoyed me, the pantser bit. A pantser that sounds like you sort of just flying through it, whereas mine's much slower...
Nic: Well, I'll ask it differently. Do you know where you're going when you start?
Charlotte: No, I've got no idea.
Nic: No idea, okay.
Charlotte: But I think I have an understanding now that the premise does quite a lot of work for you. So for example, in The Natural Way of Things, you know, once you have a prison, you've got a fairly urgent narrative question, which is, are they going to get out or they're not going to get out?
Nic: Or in the case of yours, why are they in there?
Charlotte: Yeah. But that thing that's propelling the plot is, you know, you want them to get out. And there's also, of course the question of why they're in there, but I guess that's more a thematic concern. So for me, the first draft is finding out what happens, and that can take ages because you go down a lot of dead ends and well, you know, you think, ‘Oh yeah, that's it, that's what happens!’ And then, you know, a bit later go back and go, ‘Oh, that's terrible. No, that's not what happens’.
So it's sort of, you know, rather than, a pantser approach, it's a more like a sort of slow groping in the dark, I think.
Nic: Do you need to get to the point where you are so familiar with the characters that they lead you there. Is that what happens with you?
Charlotte: Sort of, only I think it's... I've only recently understood it and probably really only when writing The Natural Way of Things did I really get it, that if you pay enough attention to the book it will tell you how to write it, which sounds kind of oogie boogie but I think it's actually really true now that paying attention to...
So it's not so much the characters as the whole piece of work. So some things like the voice will be important or the situation, you know, the place. But I mean it is a mysterious process to me still. So I'm never really certain of how to go about anything because each book is different. You're different person by the time you get to the end of writing a book. So what might've worked for the last book doesn't work for the next one. Or you're so bored by the last one that you can't stand through anything like it the next time. Even though other people might think, you know, there's a similarity between things and they're probably right, but it doesn't feel like that.
Nic: Although in the past you have taken a character from something… Is that because you particularly, you didn't want to let go of that character or did it come back to you later? How does that happen?
Charlotte: So this was, the book was called The Children and it was a about a family, and the main character of that book was a woman called Mandy and she had a younger brother called Stephen. So the next book Animal People was about Stephen. I don't know why actually, I think I sort of thought about a character like him and then realised actually he's just like Stephen and maybe I could... I did feel that I hadn't figured him out as much as the others in that book, I guess. And I was also quite interested in that idea of a companion book, not so much a sequel even though you know, the events of that happened after the events of the other one. But you know, you wouldn't, there's no prior knowledge required or anything.
I was, I think at that time I was reading quite a lot of Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe books, and I loved how it's a different stage… Each book, each Frank Bascombe book, it's a different stage of that character's life, sort of 10 years has gone by or something and so he's actually a different person even though he's the same ostensibly, but his whole life has changed. And so I liked the idea of playing with that and seeing what would come if I return to that character, say four years later or whatever it was.
Nic: How far do you have to work through a novel before you'd know it's going to work or not?
Charlotte: Too bloody long. Well, I think it's really at that, I've just had this experience with the one I'm writing now, so I've been going for probably three years or two and a half years. And really only in February this year I thought, ‘Oh thank God it's going to work now’. Whether or not it's a good book as another thing, but I've found it was something to do with the setting. I had a kind of logic problem that I couldn't figure out, and then once I realised it was to do with the setting, I thought, ‘Ah’. It was like a, actually I was talking to Hannie Rayson about this – I know that you've interviewed her – and I was telling her and she said, ‘Oh, I know exactly that feeling. It's like the cog, the wheel just slots into the right place so then everything can turn. Whereas before that you kind of, you know, it's a wheel that's going around but it's not making any contact to move the whole vehicle’, you know?
Nic: So when that happens, do you try different sittings through to see which one fits or does it somehow...
Charlotte: It wasn't so much a difference, it's the same setting, but it was about a reason for them being in this setting. And I tried a million, grasped at a million straws about why are these people together in this place, and had all kinds of sort of bandaid treatments for that which were find for a while because it allowed me to go on with other stuff. But it's like, ‘Oh, thank God I finally actually understand what the point of all this is’. Then the whole thing started to get some momentum. We hope, I mean, who knows.
Nic: And was a that moment of discovering, that was an enormous feeling of elation?
Charlotte: Relief. Just absolute relief.
Nic: Do things flow easier as a result?
Charlotte: You have a sort of sense of purpose perhaps, they flow with the greater sense of confidence that there's a reason for doing all this. I find writing very hard, very, you know, I find it just really difficult. So I don't feel that anything ever flows in that way that people seem to mean. But I just felt like I could start to get some more authority on the thing now, you know, some sort of control, really, instead of just desperately grasping around at any passing thing to see, does that work? Does that work? So now it's like, no, I know that's not going to work. I'll look over here for this thing instead.
Nic: Does get harder and harder? Or does it get easier? Or does it just...
Charlotte: Some things get easier. I think the craft stuff gets easier because you can sort of foresee problems. You can think, okay, I'll do that, but say, I can see that's a stray plot line that's not going to be really connected to the whole thing, or I can see that I need to… that there's is a kind of soggy patch in the middle of that needs something to happen. But it is weird how much you have to kind of rediscover this every time, which is extremely frustrating.
I mean, I had this one really, really, really terrible day in February when I went back to it after a break and I thought, ‘Okay, there isn't anything here, there's no book at all and this is going to be kind of humiliating’. And then I went back, I went inside, I have a studio at the back of my house and I said to my husband, ‘There's a really terrible, terrible situation’. And he said, ‘Oh, welcome back to work’. And he said, ‘You always say that’. And that may be true.
But, but I also had kind of by the end of that day I saved it, saved that session anyway because I understood what had gone wrong and that was that there was no movement. I had a lot of people in very static situation. So the whole thing started to feel dead rather than, I'm like, ‘Oh no, they need to move and they need to…’ You know, if you've got people actually moving, then you've got some sort of a propulsion of the whole story and these three scenes that I begin given with are necessarily quite static. But anyway, I just figured out a way of suddenly throwing some movement into one of these scenes.
So I think experience helps you do that, kind of... So, by the end of the day, I know what's wrong, whereas I might've taken six months to figure that out before. So those things make it easier.
But, you know, I think people always think you're going to be more confident the more you go on. And that's not true unless you decide to be more confident, you know? And I always say to students, ‘You don't earn it, you don't write three books and then suddenly confidence is bestowed upon you. You have to actually create it yourself’. And a friend of mine did a long interview with Tim Winton many years ago, and he'd said confidence is a discipline, and I thought, yeah, you got to practice it. At first you just have to fake it I think. But it's something that I really, whenever I'm teaching or mentoring or whatever, I really try and guide people towards a sense that you can't just wait around for confidence before you do anything because you'll never, you'll never write anything. So it's sort of, you have to decide that you're confident and then you have to practise it and you know, it's a self fulfilling thing.
But the idea that when you write a book and people say nice things about it, then that will give you confidence. I mean, it gives you a little bit but it evaporates, something's hard next time.
Nic: And as you said before, the more you write I guess the more that you raise the bar, you try different things to become, that comes from confidence. But then again, once you're trying it, then it can get rid of the confidence because it's so hard.
Charlotte: And also the work needs, you need to take risks, right? Because that's where energy comes from in any book, I think. The author taking a risk that… And my risk might be something really easy for somebody else, but it's a risk for me. And it somehow gives a sense of energy and, I don't know, I keep rubbing my fingers together at some substance that I can't find. So the risk means that you can't be confident, you know, you can't feel that I know exactly how to do this, because then there's no risk involved. And to me it's a sense of, if I think I know how to do this, then the book will just die, you know, because there's also nothing to find out. There's no reason to...
And sometimes that's been the problem when you're working where you think, ‘Oh yeah, I know I'll do this, this and that will happen there. And then this person…’ And then you think, ‘Well, I can't be bothered writing it now. There's nothing to discover’. And those moments of discovery, I think are really what you live for, when you suddenly understand something or something you've been really struggling with and you suddenly make the connection between that thing and the other thing that's always been there, but you didn't know why. So they're the moments that are very exciting and that's why I do it.
Nic: You used the expression earlier, ‘save that session’. Do you work in sessions?
Charlotte: Well, I guess I mean a day, a writing day.
Nic: And do you, when you're not promoting a book you are writing constantly every day at particular times? Or...
Charlotte: Well, I'm not one of those people who writes every day. And I think writers are always ashamed when we admit that, because everyone tells you you have to write every day and you have to be out at three in the morning or something. So I don't.
And another screenwriter friend of mine called David Roach, I think it was him, he said he has seasons of writing. So you know, everyone's got to earn money. Everyone's got families and stuff to do in their life. And then when you have a book come out, then you're promoting it for awhile. And The Natural Way of Things was such a delight to me that it did so well, but it also means that I've been talking about it a lot longer than other books. And it's quite hard to have your head in two books at once. So if I'm going around the festival circuit talking about that and trying to inhabit my new book, I'm not very good at doing that. Sometimes I can plug away at it, but it's better if I have a kind of separation.
But when I'm in a writing period – so after, in May I've got a whole lot of stuff to do, travel and stuff – but then from June onwards I'm pretty much full time on the new book. And then I'll do probably sort of three to four days a week, and my kind of measure is a 1,000 words a day. So I might get those done in three hours, I probably won't. Probably get about 800 done in two hours and think, oh, nearly there. And then take, you know, all the rest of the day to do the next bit.
Nic: You wrote in an article about your experiences interviewing writers for The Writer's Room, that, and I quote, ‘The men I spoke to often seemed blissfully unconcerned about other people's opinions of them or their work’. So I'm wondering whether you've perceived other differences in the way that women and men approach both writing and the publishing industry?
Charlotte: That was something of a generalisation, because then when I think about Kim Scott, I don't think he was like that at all, but if there are any generalisations to be drawn, I do think the women that I interviewed seem to be more concerned about whether they were doing it right, whether... Because now I'm saying that I think of Amanda Laurie who wouldn't ever consider such a dull question, and yeah, maybe I'm just projecting my own stuff onto them.
But men say, like Malcolm Knox, you know, he's a fantastic writer. And I said to him, ‘So, do you worry about this or that?’ And he just looked at me as if I was mad and said, ‘No, why would I worry about that?’ I mean he has other... he worries about how the book will work and his craft and everything, but he doesn't think am I going to… I was in the middle of writing The Natural Way of Things and I was very sort of keyed up about how dark it was, and how much could I get away with without the reader just turning off, and how much was I know how much was too much. Whereas Malcolm would say, ‘Doesn't enter my head, that question’. Or something like Craig Sherborne, who's just brilliantly sort of dismissive of anything he would see is bullshit.
Nic: That was Craig you were referring to.
Charlotte: Oh, was it? Yeah. Yeah, he was. I mean, I loved interviewing him. There is a sort of, and I do think that's hard to, you know, it's hard to, you can't discount the whole enculturation of women to be small and fearful and all that crap. So I think men are brought up to take up more space to have their voice heard, all of that stuff that women have had to overcome. And I hope that's really changing now.
Nic: But perhaps, just continuing that sort of thing for the moment, I'm wondering have you found that women and men have reacted differently to reading The Natural Way of Things? And if so, in what ways?
Charlotte: Well I've had a lot of feedback from both men and women actually, and more from women because I think women generally read fiction more, but also more response from men to that book than any of my other books. Positive response. I'm sure there's loads who hate it and very kindly don't come and tell me about it. And loads of women who hate it too. But I had a lot of men say that they were really deeply affected by it and kind of frightened by it. And I've had one man say, ‘I think it's, I want my sons to read it and I want his friends to read it’.
Anyway, I was talking about this with a female friend of mine and she said her partner and had been really deeply affected by it. And I said, ‘I don't know what it is. I don't know why’. Like, what is it? I haven't interrogated these people to say, well, what do you think is so great about my book? But she said, ‘I think there's a whole lot of men who understand feminism to be a good thing and they've got partners who are feminists and they've always been so supportive, but they've never understand what it feels like to be treated like in the way that the women in my book are treated’. And that somehow the kind of visceral nature of the prose or the story or whatever it is gets them in the gut, in the body rather than in the intellect. And I had that response from a lot of people actually, that it was sort of that they felt as though they were reading it with their body. And I felt like I was writing it with my body half the time. It was a very weird...
Nic: You can feel and smell and touch everything when you read it, yeah.
Charlotte: And it's sort of... I mean that book's a really strange book to me because, you know, I look at it there on the table here and I sort of feel like somebody else wrote it. Maybe that's because it's been successful and my other books have never had that.
Nic: That confidence thing again.
Charlotte: But also it was, you know, it's quite a different book from my other in terms of stylistically and that sort of stuff. Although weirdly my first work was much more similar to this one than the others.
Nic: Changing tack entirely, you mentioned before having an agent. I actually realised I haven't actually asked a writer this, the relationship between the agent and the writer. From a writer's perspective, how does that work? What you get out of an agent? What do they do for you?
Charlotte: Well, I think they're fantastic and my agent now is Jenny Darling, who's a wonderful, wonderful agent.
Sometimes I have, you know, young writers ask me about, do I really need an agent? And I always say yes, I think you do. Partly because the agent is on your side and they represent you – obviously literally – but also they have the confidence that you don't have to have about money, and also the knowledge about contracts and territories and all that stuff that I wouldn't have the faintest idea how to, or interest, frankly, in figuring out how to sell a book in six different countries.
Nic: Or the time to do it.
Charlotte: Or the time. It's a complete, you know, it's a very high level of expertise. But also, you know, my agent and I don't have a lot of contact outside the time that a book is sort of in the marketplace, I guess, being sold. And with this one we have had much more contact because there's things like film rights and all that sort of stuff. But I think it's important to have an agent that you really trust and respect in terms of their expertise and their experience.
But I think a lot of, especially younger writers think, ‘I need an agent for sort of emotional support’. And I think that's a really, it's not something that you should expect or even want from an agent. They have a kind of disenchantment with your work that is required to be tough about it, you know. Also, I mean, Jenny reads my work, and I have a couple of a writer friends who read it first and give me feedback, but then Jenny will see it before the publisher and at least a couple of times has said, ‘This isn't ready’. Which, you know, is not what you want to hear because you're so sick of it. I'm so sick of it by the time I send it to her that...
Nic: Okay so at what point do you show to her or anybody for the first time?
Charlotte: For the first time, I wouldn't send it to her until I'd done everything I could possibly could on my own or with other readers. So Jenny would probably see a third draft, maybe more.
Nic: And your other readers?
Charlotte: My other readers would... I've got to a point where I never show anyone the first draft. And then like a good solid second draft, I'd show it to a couple of very close writer friends. But sometimes I'll have more readers than that, sort of depends on the book and what I need, what sort of feedback I need. People have different styles of feedback. So, I guess I'll go to different people for different sort of questions.
Nic: After having written so many books or novels, how are you still at receiving both harsh or constructive feedback from those people, but also from, let's say a harsh edit from the editor? How do you go with that? Do you have a thick skin?
Charlotte: I don't have a thick skin at all, but I know who I can trust to give me honest feedback. And sometimes that's very painful. It's not painful because they've said it. It's painful because I've got to do more work.
Nic: That's what I was just going to make that point.
Charlotte: And sometimes it's painful when you think, ‘Oh, I thought that really worked’, you know? But the people who I go to for this stuff, Tegan Bennet Daylight is a writer who has taught me an enormous amount and she probably ends up being my first reader a lot of the time. And she's tough, man. Like you have to go, ‘Okay, am I ready for this?’ Even though she's extremely sensitive and generous, but she will not lie to you. And I think I do that for her as well and a couple of other writer friends. But I don't want to be lied to. I don't want someone to say, ‘Oh, it's wonderful’. Because I want the thing to work. So they're protecting me from, you know, when they're telling me the truth, they're protecting me from more failure than I might otherwise have. Once it's done, of course, all you want is massive praise.
Nic: Of course, of course.
Charlotte: Every now and again you get a review that's actually really useful for the next book. You think, ‘Oh, I see’. You know, if it's a critical review that points out stuff that you weren't aware of, but that's very, very rare. Mostly they just tell the plot.
Nic: Have you written novels that have never been published? Do you have a drawer full of them...
Charlotte: I don't. I haven't had that happen. Partly I think because I'm so slow. So someone like Malcolm Knox writes a novel every six months and throws it away. And I always think, well that day is going to come at some point, that a book would really die on me. But I think partly because I'm so slow at getting a first draft, and also because I'm so kind of desperate, that I only have one idea at a time. It's like I haven't gotten anything else. This has got to work, you know, so I stay with it maybe longer than other people would because they might have three other great book ideas waiting for them. Whereas I'm just like, ‘I've got nothing else’. But you know, I'm well aware that, and in fact, you know, a few months ago I thought that what had happened with this new novel. And who knows, I haven't finished it yet.
Nic: Similarly then maybe, have you ever had an idea that you thought was going to work and you started processing it and maybe just started, so before you could call it a novel, but then realised it wasn't going to work? Or maybe someone talked you out of it and said that's going to be difficult to publish or.
Charlotte: No, I haven't had that, but I've had, well every book I write has 50 other failed books inside it, you know, because I start with so little, I start with maybe a place.
With this new one, I started with… I thought I want to write about three older women and friendship. I though, okay, that's what I know. And then you, I went through all these different directions and so, you know, it's like growing arms that you then cut off all the time, so the whole thing is covered in scars of all these amputated limbs. But I've never done a whole book or, or had a whole… I feel like I never have a whole idea. I only have the beginning of an idea and then I follow it and then by the time it's written, hopefully it's a whole idea, but it took me the writing of it to find out what the idea was.
Nic: And along the way bits have been lopped off.
Charlotte: Yeah. I remember counting up one time when I was doing some teaching. Well, when I wrote The Children, I remember getting a point of I had written 50,000 words and then I thought, I have to have a look and see what's going on here because it seemed very flabby, and I realised I didn't know whose story it was. And then I figured out, okay it's this. So it was about a whole family, but I'd written sort of equally about everybody. Actually, it's really only about her. So then I cut out everything that wasn't to do with her. So over my 50,000 words, I then threw out 30,000 words in this one, sort of horrible amputation. And I'm quite, I do that quite a lot, throw out quite a lot and don't tend to bring those bits back in much, or maybe just like a sentence out of, you know, 10,000 words.
Nic: How much then gets changed in the actual edit, working with your editor? And have you had a long term, the same editor for a while? If so, tell us how that works.
Charlotte: I've had a couple of different editors. For the first several books I had an editor called Judith Lukin-Amundsen Aramson, who's fantastic, and then I've been working with an editor called Ali Lavau, who's very well known and work a lot with Allen and Unwin, and she's wonderful as well.
So I guess the structural edit is where I find most of that big work takes place, although I pretty much have it in shape before it gets to the editor because I've had these other readers, you know, give me the hard news, the tough news. So it's quite often the structural edit is not so much about really changing much, but it's saying we don't know enough about this person, or this bits a bit slow.
I know actually one of the things with The Natural Way of Things was I had my two main characters and then I had all the other girls. So there are 10 girls in this prison. And the editor said, ‘I just want to have a clearer idea of the other girls, just as more solid identity for each one’. I'd sort of tended to sort of blur them all into one. And actually at one point she said, ‘Do you realise you've actually got 11 girls in here? Not 10’. Like what? Because I had an extra name that I'd sort of threw in somewhere.
Nic: The quiet one in the corner.
Charlotte: Yeah. So I though, oh, I'll just change her name to one of the other ones.
But yeah, mainly it's often about fleshing something out more than really changing the plot or anything like that.
And then the copy edit. I try to do a lot of work in the copy edit to just really refine the language. But also it took me a while to understand that you can do a lot of what ends up kind of being structural work but at a really fine micro level, and you can sort of really solidify ideas and things like that on the line rather than in the big edit. But sometimes it's a matter of making sure you've got enough fuel in the tank, you know, to keep working with that level of energy right to the end, which can be hard when you just really exhausted by the whole thing.
Nic: Of course.
Charlotte: But I did learn that with, I think it was Animal People, that I think somebody, I can't remember who it was, said to me, ‘Don't stop thinking too soon’. You think, oh, okay, it's done now. Now I've just got to do the copy edit. But actually the copy edit can be really important for still developing ideas and thinking about everything in the book.
Nic: Particularly, I mean, everything's linked together. So making changes even at that stage here is going to affect here and here and here.
Charlotte: And there can be structural problems that can be fixed at a line level. And I think we tend to, a lot of people tend to think of copy editing as just like proofreading.
Charlotte: But I think it's really important to bring the level of attention and energy to the copy edit that you have given to the whole thing, which, you know, that's tiring.
Nic: How important are awards such as the Stella Prize in the Australian scene?
Charlotte: It was just really amazing for me to win that prize. I think prizes are tricky. On the whole they’re, I'm not sure how healthy it is to have a lot of prizes. I mean, it's really great when you win it, so great when you win it. Especially financially, but also for your morale and all of that. I'm really glad that I was quite old when I won my first price. I think if you won a big prize with your first book, it could be sort of dangerous and it also could just sort of puts a pressure on you that you don't need at an early stage. Whereas, you know, by the time I won The Stella and then shared the Prime Minister's Prize, you know, it was so joyful. It was just such a fantastic fun year, and I had so many people being so nice to me about things and I think quite a lot of people who thought you have worked so hard.
Nic: You probably thought you’d earned it after working so hard for so long.
Charlotte: Because you know, that's my sixth or seventh book or something. And so I had this, what was really beautiful about it was this sort of response that I had from people who hadn't had contact with in ages, but people are so happy for you when you win something like that. And it was just this sheer joy.
At the same time, you know, I had friends on that short list, and I don't think my book is better than their book. And I think the whole nature of the prize sort of system is a bit... I don't like the way it turns making art into a competition because we're not... I mean it's hard to make a living. It's so hard to make a living, as everybody knows, writing books. And a prize can sort of up the ante in a way that sort of can be very demoralising when you don't win it. And I've been on every bloody short list on every prize. And I'd actually come to a really good place about like, it doesn't matter to me anymore. And then I won some prizes and was like, ‘Oh, that's going to really screw with my philosophy now’.
But I guess by the time I won a couple of prizes, I feel like I know what that is and I know what it isn't. And what it isn't is some kind of statement about my level of achievement as a writer. There's so much luck involved. There really, really is.
Nic: And who were the judges of what did they like, it can be different every year, can't it?
Charlotte: Yeah. If prizes were an actual measure of quality, then the same books would win all the prizes. And they don't.
Nic: That's true.
Charlotte: So it's a beautiful, joyful thing for the person who wins it. Hopefully being shortlisted, I think it's really fantastic now that shortlists like The Stella and the Miles Franklin are giving money to the shortlist, and also The Stella Prize shortlist includes the three week retreat at Grass Trees down near Arieys Inlet, and it is an amazing gift. So I think when the more prizes can sort of ‘reward’ in inverted commas, a whole shortlist, that's really fantastic. But also I know, I know what it's like to be shortlisted time and time again and never win anything and think... it can really screw with your head and it can really hurt.
I heard Tony Birch once, he was asked about, he said, ‘I've been shortlisted so many times I've never won. And people said congratulations on being shortlisted and I said, you know what? I just want to win one of them. I just want to damn well win one of them. It's not good’. And of course he has since then.
Charlotte: I think sometimes that... Christos Tsiolkas was so great about this when I interviewed him. I asked you about The Slap and the success of that and what it did that maybe isn't so good for a writer. And he said he wasn't prepared for a whole lot of things about that. And the thing that really struck home to me was he said, ‘I didn't like the way... I wasn't prepared for how greedy it makes you’. And I thought that... I was so glad that I had talked to him and thought about that a lot before I won anything because I totally get it. And it's like you can go, ‘Oh well now I have to win the next one’. And it's creepy. It's not good.
And also you can, if you buy into it too much, you can really turn into a real jerk. And I've seen that too, and it's horrible, and it damages your writing. That's what it does. Once people start feeling entitled about prizes and getting angry when they don't get shortlisted for something, that's like, ‘Dude, you've got to just stop there’. It's not, it's bad for writing.
Nic: Charlotte it's been an absolute pleasure chatting to you today.
Charlotte: Thank you. It's been a really lovely chat.
Nic: And I've really really enjoyed it and I know our listeners will get a lot out of it, so thank you very much.
Charlotte: Thanks for having me.