Jane Caro on writing realistic fiction

Jane Caro is a Walkley Award-winning columnist, novelist, broadcaster and social commentator.

She has published twelve books, including a young adult trilogy about the life of Elizabeth Tudor, her memoir Plain Speaking Jane, and The Mother (her first novel for adults).

She created and edited Unbreakable, which featured stories women writers had never told before and was published just before the Harvey Weinstein revelations.

Her most recent non-fiction work is Accidental Feminists, about the fate of women over 50. Jane has previously appeared on The Garret, and in this interview she reflects on her non-fiction works and Accidental Feminists.

Jane Caro on writing realistic fiction


ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret, Jane Caro.

JANE: Thank you very much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

ASTRID: Now we spoke way back in 2019 after the publication of your previous book, Accidental Feminist, which was a non-fiction work exploring the lives and choices of women over 55. So much has changed in that time. Now, you have just published The Mother, a novel, a thriller with a grandmother as a protagonist, which gives me great delight, Jane. And you are also running as a Reason Party candidate for the New South Wales Senate in the upcoming federal election. I have questions relating to that, but let's start with The Mother. It's new, it's just hit shells. Can you give us the 30 second elevator pitch, so the audience knows what we're talking about?

JANE: Well, we're really talking about a mother and eventually a grandmother who becomes increasingly concerned about her youngest daughter and her youngest daughter's relationship with her relatively new husband. But she's also held at arm's length. She can't get close to this daughter. They've never been as close as she has been with her other daughter. She's confused as to whether she ought to give her space or that she ought to push a bit more. She's in that state of doubt that mothers will be so familiar with, particularly with adult children. And then as time goes on and the daughter and the two grandchildren, as there are eventually, suddenly land on her doorstep in fear. She finds out just how bad things have been, but she still has no idea just how much worse they're going to get.

ASTRID: I wanted to ask, when you sat down to write The Mother, firstly, did you write it during the pandemic? And secondly, did you ever think that you would be essentially on the book tour trail as well as campaigning at the same time?

JANE: I did write it during the COVID lockdowns. I must say it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. And for authors with a contract and a book to write, it was kind of a opportune thing. You couldn't do anything else, so you wrote your book. But did I expect the two things to happen at the same time? Absolutely not. I would never have designed it that way. I've never been busier in my life. Now, there has turned out to be advantages, but one of them is that I'm not that I'm well rested and fresh as a daisy. No, not at all. No, it's complete coincidence. When I was writing this book, we expected Scott Morrison to call an election last year. Everyone said November. And I also had no real idea at that point, even when I handed the book into the publisher, that when it would be published. You don't know those things, all that, until sometime into the process once the editors had a little... They've all decided it's good enough. And that's when you find out when it might be going to be published. So no, these two things are a complete coincidence. I wouldn't recommend it.

ASTRID: Well, no, I mean, I did want to ask because a book tour is exhausting in and of itself. If you want your book to sell, you have to get it out there. Campaigning is beyond my experience, Jane, but I can only imagine it is excruciatingly exhausting. I know you've only been campaigning for a little while, but have you had people that you meet in that capacity as a candidate, talk about your book? I mean, your book brings up topical things that are in the national debate right now. Does it bleed that way from the campaign back into your book?

JANE: I think it does. People are very interested in both. So, there's almost not been an event or an interview... And most of them, to be honest with you, are around the book... where they haven't then turned around and asked also about the Senate run. That's one of the advantages because we are just a small team trying to run my candidacy for the Reason Party. We would never have been able to generate this kind of publicity or all these events that Allen and I wouldn't have been able to do for the book and get these audiences and pay for my travel and all that kind of thing without it. In some ways, it's been a really lucky coincidence. Just that when I get to the end of this... And I keep telling myself because it's got to call the election, 21 May is the final date for it... that after the 21 May, I'm just going to take to my bed and sleep for about three weeks, I think. I'm not too concerned about my health at the moment and it's holding up so far. No COVID even, which surprises me. I'll keep on going and I'll keep on running because it seems to me that both of them are incredibly important. Obviously, I'm really proud about the book. But it's also, as you say, about a very topical and important subject. And it's one of the things that actually spurred me on to run to the Senate, that our country is run by a bunch of blokes and they just don't seem to get the problems we're facing. And they're certainly not interested, it seems to me, in finding solutions.

ASTRID: Now, let's dive into the themes of The Mother and there is so much in there. And I feel like, having interviewed you before and read your works, that so many of the themes in The Mother have actually come from and been informed by your previous work. So obviously, the role and power of older women, the inadequate institutional response that is so prevalent in so many different areas in our society. Why choose fiction to explore these areas that you were so knowledgeable about?

JANE: It's a good question. Partly it is that when the idea came to me, it was a fiction idea. Like it wasn't a non-fiction idea. So partly it had its own imperatives, but it's also because I think that non-fiction's really important and it does an amazing job. I mean, Jess Hill's fabulous See What You Made Me Do was a really important resource for this book and I'm so glad she's written it. And it's deserved all of its accolades and awards. So I'm not saying non-fiction isn't important and doesn't do a great job, but I do think that fiction takes you to a different place. When you're doing a non-fiction book like Accidental Feminists, like See What You Made Me Do, you are to some extent working with the intellect with facts, figures. You are accumulating evidence, you are making an argument and you are persuading via facts and rationality. And that's really important and we need to do that.

But in the end, fiction takes you out of your intellect. It takes you into your heart and your guts. And successful fiction, I describe it... It's not time travel exactly, though it can be if it's a historical or a futuristic novel. But it's people travel. So, what you're really doing is you're occupying the life of someone else for the time period that you are reading that book and you are literally seeing life through another person's eyes, and you are experiencing things that you may never have experienced and probably never will experience yourself. But you are getting a kind of taste of what that might feel like. And so, it seemed to me that fiction was a really good way of getting another audience for the truth of the harm that coercive control and domestic violence can do to people.

But it also, even amongst those who are aware of it and think they know a lot about it, I think it probably takes you into a deeper understanding of why all the stuff we say about it, the judgements we make. ‘Why didn't she just leave?’ Or the worst of all that I've heard, which is, ‘Well, why did she keep his children away from him then? What did she think was going to happen?’ Fiction takes you right out of that and makes you go, ‘Oh, crikey, I understand how you would feel, why you would react the way you did? Why you would deny the behaviour? Why you would long to return to the relationship that you thought you had? Why you would blame yourself? Why it's so hard to leave? Why you can't get the help you need when you need it?’ And really in a visceral way, get people to imaginatively engage with these topics. And I think that's something that only good fiction can do.

ASTRID: You mentioned a few moments ago finding a new audience or a different audience with fiction. And I confess, I had a vision pop into my head of our current prime minister reading The Mother when you're talking about empathy.

JANE: I doubt it.

ASTRID: I also doubt it, but he was not your intended audience. But when you say a new audience, who are you trying to reach? Is it as simple as people who don't read non-fiction? Is it people who aren't women? Who were you going for?

JANE: Very hard to reach people who aren't women with a book by a woman. It is still a fact that male readers are extremely narrow and will not often read books written by women. Women readers are much broader, we will read books by just about anybody. This is a real failing on the part of men, and they really need to grow up and get over it. And it's holding women back because it means that when you publish a woman, you know you've got a smaller potential audience, although women of course are much greater readers than men. So, it is better that way than the other way around. In fact, women could probably get their revenge by saying, ‘We're not going to read any books by men for the next five years until these guys open up a bit and read ours’. And that would hurt the male authors a great deal.

ASTRID: Can we start a campaign to do that once you've had a rest after the 21st of May?

JANE: Yeah, it could be a really interesting experiment, wouldn't it? I think we'd get a few male authors screeching in horror at the very idea.

So, no, I don't expect Scott Morrison to read it. And I don't necessarily know that a lot of men will, which is a real shame, because I wish they would. But I do think that women who might think, oh, I couldn't read See What You Made... or a non-fiction, it's too dark. I don't want to get into that, blah, blah, blah, but who like a good thriller. And I mean, people describe it as both crime fiction and a thriller. And so, I think we feel safe when we explore the darkness in a fictional capacity via the genre of thriller or crime. And women love exploring the darkness in that way. I don't necessarily mean a different type of audience. I guess, I mean an audience who might not otherwise read about a subject that is as confronting as this one, but happy to read about serial killers in a fictional sense. So why not read this?

ASTRID: There were number of themes and kind of plot devices that I wanted to chat with you about. The first one is becoming a widow and the grief that comes with losing a member of your family and losing a pretty decent guy, if I can summarise the whole plot in that way. Contrasted, of course, with the experience of the protagonist daughter, who is being coercively controlled, who is in a dangerous and unsafe situation, as are her children. And of course, behind all of that, and what I guess leads to the crime and the moral conundrum, is the systemic failure. The police aren't there, the law courts aren't there, the systems in place aren't doing what they need to do to keep people safe.

When the story came to you and you sat down to write – you've already mentioned Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do – how aware were you that you were writing directly to a topic of current national conversation and debate? And how did you take that research and that current ongoing commentary and put it into fiction in a way that felt true? Because for those who haven't read the book yet, you thank quite a lot of people at the back. And you obviously paid attention to the research and the context.

JANE: Yeah. I was very aware that I was writing about something that's happening to real people right now. When you're writing about something that's happening to real people right now, fiction or not, you have a responsibility to tread carefully and to be as accurate and authentic as you can be. One of the reasons I set it in a very middle class, upper middle class, household and kind of circle was because I know that area well. That's kind of well where I live. And so I felt that it wasn't appropriating or trying to present experiences that I had no lived experience of. That was partly it. I also wanted to dispel the myth that this only happens to marginalised groups of people already in deficit. I didn't want that to be what I was trying to say at all. I was trying to say this can happen to anyone.

I was aware that it was very much topical, but I've always, I guess, been involved in the debates that are happening right now. So they didn't frighten me very much, it spurred me on to go and talk to the right people to get good information to make sure that people who worked in the sector felt that this was a worthwhile project. And they did, they endorsed it. That was really important. And they also helped me out with lots of really good information and where to go and who to talk to and what to seek out. But really, I approached it as any fiction writer probably does. I had an idea, it nagged at me. I put my fingers on the keyboard and I started to write it. And Miriam appeared straight away, and Peter appeared straight away.

And I just went at it the way I went at my historical novels about Elizabeth I, from my heart and my gut. And I think you have to apply... I mean, writing a fiction novel is interesting. And it's probably the same as writing non-fiction, but the other way around. In fiction, you work from your heart and your gut to start with. And then you apply your skill, your intellect, your technical knowledge as a novelist and all those things, but it's sort of second to this. In non-fiction, it's kind of the other way around, you are working from your intellect, all of that, and then you apply a heart and soul if it's going to really resonate with readers. So it's the same process, but perhaps there's a difference of emphasis. So, no. Well, I basically let the spirit guide my... I was going to say pen, but of course we don't use pens anymore. But metaphorically, my pen.

ASTRID: I'd like to talk about the moral conundrum and that is a spoiler. And I think that there is a fascinating confronting choice. There is an ethical dilemma here that you are making the reader experience in the safe confines of a crime thriller novel. I feel like I don't want to be the one to spoil it for those listening, so can you talk me through the big reveal. But also, what comes afterwards, because I really love those pages afterwards.

JANE: Yeah. I'm glad you said that. Well, basically, Miriam finally comes to realise that this man is obsessed, narcissistic, unfathomable really, son-in-law of hers is never going to let her daughter and grandchildren go. And that one day, and sooner probably than later, he will take them from her, and he will take their lives, that she becomes utterly convinced. And basically, there is no getting away from that. And I create that situation in the novel quite determinedly.

And so she has a decision to make, will she lose them or will she, in a way, lose her own freedom and future life by removing the threat? And she in the end decides that the only thing to do is to remove the threat. So she makes plans. I mean, that's the thing, it's to some extent premeditated. She doesn't know she's going to go through with it when she buys the gun. She's buying it to give herself a sense of some power and control. Because the thing about coercive control, it's aim is to take away your power completely, to leave you utterly at the mercy of the perpetrator and to feel like you have no agency.

And Miriam in way, in the end, refuses to accept this. She literally buys a symbol of male power, a gun. And eventually, she uses it. And she doesn't try to get away with it. She uses it in the most spectacular way possible. She shoots him on the steps of the family court where they're about to go in and have yet again another custody or access court case hearing, which has been going on for years and years and years. And the terror of him taking the children off them is also something that she and her daughter find almost impossible to live with. She's arrested. She is taken to this police station, charged, cautioned. She goes to jail. She goes into remand. She goes through the legal process and she her day in court. But she doesn't have a trial because she's admitted to guilt. And so, she has a sentencing hearing and she is sentenced. And she gets quite a hefty sentence because it's considered not self defence, even though the court is sympathetic, but it's not self defence. It doesn't fit that. And so she goes to jail and we get a little bit of her experience in jail.

So one of the reasons she had to be widowed at the beginning, partly because this dilemma needs to be hers and hers alone. I wanted her to go through that moral and ethical struggle, just like the reader does. I also wanted it to be a decision where the person who's paying the price is her, not someone who loves her and who shares her life, because that then becomes another kind of moral dilemma. Do you have the right to impose that misery on someone else? And also, I felt that given our sexist society, we would assume that it would be her husband's duty to do something like this. And I wanted it to be there's no one, but her. ‘I'm the only one between my daughter at my grandchildren and the abyss, so I'm going to have to stop it’.

I'm glad you liked the pages after the sort of climax, because I've often read novels and what happened to it? Like what happened after that? Miriam is someone who has, not deliberately but the way so many of us do, left behind some things about her own youth, upbringing, childhood that she's preferred not to look at. And this extraordinary experience where she's really taken out of her own life and plunged into something she never imagined she'd have to deal with. She's forced against her will to face these things. And I thought that was really important because this is also the story of a little bit spoiled, a little bit smart, a protected, I'd almost say cosseted woman. Her husband adored her, so he did keep the realities of life at bay for her.

This is about a woman absolutely banging up against the hard, hardest of hard edges of life, and finding a way to deal with them, satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and growing and changing. And by the end of the novel, I hope the reader recognises that she is at last an adult, and she's never really been one before. And that maybe in the cosseted, protected west, we are all a little bit like Miriam. We don't really know what... Some of us do, of course. But as a whole, if you think about what people in some other countries in the world face, we are, like Miriam, almost too safe to be fully adult. So it was also that watching a woman... And it's the classic trope, isn't it, of fiction, you take someone out of their day-to-day life that we can all recognise and identify, and you put them into an extreme situation. And then you see how they react. And that's kind of the fun of it.

ASTRID: You absolutely had Miriam continuing to grow as a person after she's made this choice. The thing that I keep remembering though, Jane, as a reader of The Mother is the little hints you give us about how other women and the guards treated her in prison, and the little bits of media reporting and stuff that we kind of get to know about. And of course, people are horrified that this crime has been committed. But there's also this idea, this recognition, or at least I read into your words, this recognition that the system failed. And she did something terrible, but also the alternative was terrible. And I just thought, projecting forward from where we are as a country now and how we can change the next five, 10 years... Obviously, I don't want people to be vigilantes and taking things into their own hands.

JANE: No, and nor do I.

ASTRID: But the idea that change might come and people who go out of their comfort zones and advocate for change in all of our institutions, in the courts, with the police that, that might come and it might be soon. I don't know, just those little hints you gave me felt like you were painting a place where we might get to, that might be better.

JANE: Well, I hope so. And I don't think vigilantism is right at all. The core, perhaps for me of my attitude to the whole thing is the judges summing up. I kind of think that, that's the moral heart of the book, what the judge says is, I think, right. And so there is a part of me that's saying although the law not capable of protecting Allison and the children, it's still a good thing. And it's still around the principles that I believe in. And we're lucky to have it, we should value our legal system and our courts. And I'm at pains not to demonise the police. I don't want to say that anybody is doing this deliberately, apart from the protagonist. But I recognise that it's incredibly hard to deal with an obsessed and really half mad.

If someone is that determined to cause terrible harm, then it's very hard for blunt instruments like the police and the law to stop them before it happens. They can punish them after, but there's not a lot they can do before. But I did want to imply at least that we need to think carefully about the romantic myth about this idea of the great love of the perfect man, the Mr. right, the suitor from Central Casting. Frankly, if he's too good to be true, he's too good to be true. Run a mile. And that we need to really interrogate why we managed to turn... There's a point where Miriam says... She's watching Teddy, her grandson fast asleep. And she's looking at him and she thinks what happened to Nick? He must once have been a beautiful openhearted, generous, sweet, loving little boy like Teddy. What happened that turned him into this total monster really underneath his charming exterior? What happened and how do we stop that happening?

It's almost too late by the time these boys grow into men. The harm, the damage of a toxic masculine ideal has already been done. This idea that it is part of their manhood to dominate and totally possess their wife and children or partner and children, this idea that that person can have no free will, no agency never defy them or even threaten them in any way by being better than them at something, that they have to snap that out of them real fast. That attitude, that idea that that's what it is to be a man, that I think is the core problem. And I hope this book sort of gives you an indication that that's the thing we have to look at.

The courts and the police will do their best, and we are improving that. There is moves to make coercive control a criminal offence now in New South Wales and it's starting to happen in other places. And it certainly happened in parts of, I think it's Scotland and a few other places overseas. This is all good. And the fact that we understand and that women will speak up about their experiences now, where it was shameful and hidden, all that kind of thing, all of these are great improvements. And yes, we are moving to a place where I think women and children can be safer than they have been before. But fundamentally, we've got to change the way we bring up little boys and little girls. We got to stop little boys being brought up tacitly encouraged to assert their authority over others and little girls being brought up to think that's a good thing and is in some way romantic and is representative of love. It's not. It's not love. Love is about being equal partners. It's not one in charge and one submissive, that ain't love. That's unhealthy shit.

ASTRID: As I was reading The Mother, Jane, I couldn't help, but be continually reminded that The Mother is going to be a great Book Club pick because everybody is going to have a different personal response to so many different elements of the story and the novel.

I have one final question for you. Now, this is a podcast for writers and for people who care about storytelling and getting the point across in real life, fiction or non-fiction. Then you understand the media, you understand advertising, you have written fiction and you have written non-fiction. How are you using that, how are you using storytelling in your ability to get the point across in a political campaign, with reason at the heart of it?

JANE: Well, I'm just being myself and I'm just talking the way that I always have. And I think I'm always slightly surprised, people seem to find me very... They call it forthright or outspoken. I just think it's getting to the point and just saying what I think. And this seems to shock a lot of people that somehow you would just get out there, and when somebody says something that you think is not correct or not particularly insightful, that you would take that on and explain why you don't agree, or why you think wrong. And you would do that without deferring, or being timid, or apologising, but just do it. I mean, I'm not rude. Well, I have been on occasions, but mostly I'm not. But I am up front and I'm not going to take it back a step, I don't see why I should. And I don't do it in my fiction, and I don't do it in my non-fiction, and I don't do it in my campaigning either. I am determined to say what I think is really going on.

And the only skill I've ever had is in the use of words, that's always been the thing I was good at, and I can use them in different mediums. So some writers hate to speak, some speakers hate to write, but I'm comfortable in either. If it's a word, I'll use it. And so, I use those skills, my vocabulary, my ability to, I think, put things succinctly, and that's the advertising training. I mean, copywriting every word costs money. You are taught how to be brief and to the point, which can feel a bit blunt to some people, but it's just economical and straightforward.

I'm going to use that to the best of my ability to further the things that I believe in, the causes that I think are just, and the desperate, as I see it, urgency for this country to tackle some of the wicked problems that we are facing in the same way as Miriam, I guess, tackles this terrible problem that she's facing. And whether she does the wrong or the right thing, she says all the time, ‘I've done the wrong thing, a terribly wrong thing, but I've done it for the right reasons’.

Well, in a way, I think I'm sort of saying to the country, we may have to do some things that we find extremely uncomfortable and difficult, but we have to do them because the alternative is unthinkable and we are heading towards it so fast. And we know what to do. We know what to do to fix... We can start to mitigate climate change tomorrow if we've got the will to do it. We lifted a million people out of poverty in Australia just with JobKeeper and JobSeeker during COVID. So we know how to do it. What do we do? We slam them right back down into that poverty again. I mean, what kind of a country are we for God's sake?

So we know what to do. What we lack is the political will to do it. We need representative, governments with integrity, elected in a democracy to make decisions that will make the society better and safer for everyone. We need a bloody mother.

ASTRID: Well said, Jane. Thank you so much for returning to The Garret.

JANE: My pleasure. Thank you for asking me.