Karen Viggers is the author of The Stranding (2008), The Lightkeeper’s Wife (2011), The Grass Castle (2014) and The Orchardist's Daughter (2019). Her work enjoys particular success in France, where she has sold more than 800,000 copies. The Lightkeeper's Wife (La Memoire de embruns) received the Les Petits Mots des Libraires Prix Litteraire.
Karen is also a wildlife veterinarian who has worked in the remotest areas on Earth, including the Kimberley and Antartica - experience that informs all of her writing.
ASTRID: Karen Viggers is a Melbourne-based novelist who has achieved remarkable international success. Her four novels have sold more than 800,000 copies, receiving particular literary recognition and awards in France. Karen also happens to be a wildlife veterinarian. She has a PhD in wildlife health and has lived and worked in the remote Australian locations she sets her work.
Karen, welcome to The Garret.
KAREN: Hello Astrid. Thanks for having me.
ASTRID: All of your novels are place-based with the ability to bring to life the environments and locations of the story. And of course, I'm referring to Bruny Island off Southern Tasmania, mainland Tasmania, and even Antarctica. How do you use language to achieve this?
KAREN: What I try to do when I'm bringing place to life, and you're right, place is at the core of the things that I write and at the core of my work, and we'll talk about the reasons for that later. But what I try to do with my actual writing and the words that I select and everything is to take the reader to that place. I want some description, but I don't want it to be heavy, detailed description. I'm trying to bring about a sense of what it feels like to be in that place. What the movement of the air feels like, what the smell of the air is like, what people can see around them without infinite detail. That's an interesting question. It's about using the senses to bring a place to life.
For instance, in my latest novel, The Orchardist's Daughter, it's set in the tall, old-growth eucalypt forests of Southern Tasmania. And I've spent a lot of time in those forests down there, but even more in the forest close to Melbourne, up near Marysville and beyond in those mountain ash forest. And what I'm trying to do is to give people the sense of standing in those incredibly ancient forests beneath those massive trees, and so to get a sense of the height of the tree and the shifting of wind in the leaves and the sound of bark slapping against the trunk in the breeze, and the minty scent of the understory, and the scent of the aromas that come from the wet earth and that sort of thing. But it's all threaded in with the human story, so you don't feel like, ‘Oh, here's a really detailed description of place’.
ASTRID: So not only have you been to these locations, but you have lived and worked there. I'm interested in how your veterinarian career, your scientific career has informed your novels.
KAREN: Okay, so there's a lot to unpack in that statement because I've always wanted to be a writer. And in my early stages, I had an uncle that discouraged me from it because it's difficult to make a living as a writer. And so, I'm really glad... In a way it sort of seems sad that he did that, but in a way it sent me on my veterinary pathway which has given me a whole plethora of amazing experiences and knowledge to draw upon for my writing. My regular work – I work both as a domestic veterinarian, domestic animal veterinarian, but also as a wildlife veterinarian – my domestic work brings about many of the themes that are threaded through my novels of grief and recovery from loss, because that's something I deal with daily in veterinary practise, helping to guide people on that journey with their animals through life and towards their choices at the end of life, and how to do that in a humane way, which we often don't have options for in the human world.
For instance, in The Lightkeeper's Wife, really the underlying theme of that story, which is about an old woman approaching the end of her life and how she tries to take things into her own hands to make her own choices, that probably has come from my experiences in the veterinary world. A lot of the themes that I write about too, about nature, about hovering above various conservation issues without trying to dictate an opinion or be didactic. That often comes from my background as a wildlife veterinarian. And I have had the amazing privilege of working with many different species of Australian native animals in the field, in their natural habitats. I had the opportunity to be a zoo vet at various stages. I applied for jobs, but I made a definite choice that I wanted to be working with animals where they belonged out in nature and helping scientists to understand their habitat requirements and needs, conservation needs so that they could remain in situ, where they're meant to be.
And that has definitely informed my writing. And in this latest novel, The Orchardist's Daughter, I hover above the issue of forestry. And we can talk more about that later, about sustainability and the impact of mechanisation on people's lives. But I also touch on... I like to discuss some sort of wildlife for native animal issue in most of my novels. And in this particular novel I talk about the endangered Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagles and some of the issues focusing that they face, so I just touch on that. But I also talk about Tasmanian devils and the problems that those wild populations have experienced with devil facial tumour disease, and how we're trying to assist those populations to recover. But again, this sounds like that's the focus of my novels, which are really very much a human story. But I'm able to weave and thread those other issues through the journeys of my characters.
ASTRID: Thank you for that explanation. I actually do have questions that I'll go to later about how you avoid being didactic while still creating an entire story in a community of loggers, but not critiquing the luggers but allowing for the fact that maybe it'd be better if we didn't log. It's a beautiful way of presenting different sides of a story so the reader can put themselves in all of the different characters' shoes and think about issues from different angles. And if we go back to the beginning of The Orchardist's Daughter, it's not actually a sequel to The Lightkeeper's Wife, but it certainly does continue the story of what is a relatively minor character in your previous work, Leon. Can you tell me why you made that decision to further explore his character?
KAREN: Well, Leon was an unplanned character in The Lightkeeper's Wife. He came to life as somebody who would drop in occasionally to check on Mary, who was the lightkeeper's wife, after she'd escaped to Bruny Island to live out her last days and reflect on her journey of life and the mistakes she'd made, and the good in the bed. But Leon popped up as somebody who was to pop in and check on her and provide her with anything that she needed from time to time. And they developed, within the context of that narrative and that story, they developed a really strong relationship and Leon emerged with his own issues. But he had a really clear and distinct voice. And by the end of The Lightkeeper's Wife I wasn't at that point ready to go on with him, but he stayed with me and he wanted me to tell his journey next. And I guess he was the stepping point into this new novel, The Orchardist's Daughter. But yeah, it was because he was such a strong character and I felt his voice came to life clearly and distinctly for me.
ASTRID: I was really excited when I realised that's what you've done. It actually reminded me of what Jane Harper has done recently with her third book, which is take a tangential family character and create her third book, The Lost Man. And I liked the way that you're able to continue to explore a character but in a different way, in a different location, in a different setting whilst bringing your readers on what becomes a more involved story. Because of course we can reflect, as a reader, back on the previous work and what we learned there, and I thought it was beautiful.
KAREN: And yet the novels are standalone. You can read one without the other, because Leon carries some of the issues that he has, of course, because we try to go somewhere else but we carry our problems with us. He carries those issues with him into The Orchardist's Daughter. But his life on Bruny Island had progressed to a point where he could leave. And this is his next step, because we know, in The Lightkeeper's Wife, that he's always wanted to work in a bigger park and have more connection with the public and to help them see the natural world. So it works really well, but of course he has a difficult situation in that he is an outsider trying to belong. A national parks ranger in a timber town, he's not particularly welcomed. So that is what this new novel's about. And often these are recurrent themes of isolation and belonging in my novels.
ASTRID: It makes me think, will you write another novel following any of these characters? Will you do that device again? Maybe Mikey?
KAREN: Well, it's interesting because I had to felt that this was the finish and then readers have been saying to me, ‘Oh, these characters have depth and complexity, and it feels like we would like to go further with them. We don't want everything tied up’. But they have journeys ahead of them. Because of course, when we leave Mikey at the end of this novel she is just beginning to step into the world. And so yes, she does have a significant journey ahead of her. I may come back to that.
And I feel almost like I'm unfinished. I thought I was finished with The Lightkeeper's Wife as well, but there was some interesting... One of the main protagonists, Tom, is still in an interesting phase of his life, and I've been considering whether I'd take him. Sometimes I say, ‘Oh, as a serious writer I shouldn't be doing that’. But then I think about Tim Winton as well, and he often revisits characters or looks at them from different perspectives in different phases of their lives. And so I feel that, yeah, there is scope to do that. And I haven't quite decided where I'm going next.
ASTRID: Speaking purely as a reader, I really enjoy it when writers do that because it doesn't feel like it's just a sequel and a sequel and a sequel and I have to keep reading. It feels like there is a world that I can dip into and I can learn things from, and it's quite a lovely experience from the reader's point of view, I have to say. I guess I'm going to ask about how you explored domestic violence in The Orchardist's Daughter. I felt like it came in a variety of different ways and guises. There's physical abuse, but there's financial abuse, there's emotional abuse, there's psychological abuse between partners and in families. And it's not an enjoyable topic, but I thought you handled it from so many different points of view really deftly. And I wanted to ask how you wove that into the small timber town.
KAREN: Yeah. That's an interesting question because I think it's fantastic that there has been a focus on domestic violence in recent times in novels, and it is a heavy topic, but I didn't want to deal with it in a heavy way. I suppose a lot of it is via suggestion. And I also wanted to look at the more subtle forms that you've just mentioned of domestic violence, like bullying, like restriction and control of people's lives, like psychological abuse. But at the same time, I didn't want it to be a weight... These are heavy issues, but I didn't want that to be a weight for the reader through these things. I tried to do it not with humour but with a lightness of touch so that there is hope and positivity without everything having to be completely wrapped up and resolved.
But I guess we should start with Leon if we talk about this, because, as who's read The Lightkeeper's Wife will know, he's come from a situation where his family is subject to domestic violence. His father is an alcoholic who, when nobody is around and he comes home from the bar because he's unemployed from an injury, he was a timber worker, used to work in a sawmill and was pensioned off from an injury, he would beat Leon's mother. Leon made this choice, rather than to further his career, to stay home and be there when his father came home so he could manage the situation. I guess in a way he felt he was unable to resolve that because his mother wouldn't leave. And in that is the case, many women feel disempowered to leave.
And men often promise that they're not going to continue with violence, but it is a recurring theme. Sorry, this is a lot of detail. But I need that to then bring him into the town. With that as his background, he has an awareness. And even though he's an outsider, he has awareness of what's going on. And I wanted to use a small town because I think it lacks the dilution and the ability to hide that you can often have in a city. So people know what's going on. But the concern for me in that situation and the questions I asked myself was, well, who is responsible when they know somebody is being beaten or they know something underhand is going on? Who is responsible for reaching out and helping, and what does it take for us actually to do that? Or because we know everyone, do we just ignore and do we set it aside and let it play out its journey? Which we shouldn't be doing. I guess Leon comes in as a little bit of an aggravator, a little bit of a princess and the pea because he is not able to make those changes, but in what ways can he connect with people in the community and potentially bring about change in the way people see things?
ASTRID: There was a really powerful scene that I've actually found myself reflecting on quite a bit, two men in a car. One man driving in the front and another man cradling an injured dog. And they're taking the dog to a vet. And they have this very stilted, very awkward discussion about the fact that they know or very strongly suspect that another man in the community is abusing his wife physically. And they don't have a good conversation, but you can see they're really trying to get to a point where they figure out what to do or what could be done. And it struck me as very strong, because that would be a horrible conversation to have in real life. And there is no answer. And even if you do decide to intervene, then the question is how to do it. And I don't think as a reader I've ever seen a scene like that in a novel.
KAREN: Well, I think, and I'm just thinking about this now, Astrid, is that there's that moment of vulnerability, because they're both concerned about the injured dog, and that bonds these two men who really don't have any bonds. That bonds these two men in that little moment in time, and the conversation, yeah, it's stilted but Leon dares to make a mention. And that can be the beginning of change. And I guess in that way it can be quite powerful.
ASTRID: It was for me, I have to say. Now, we've touched on this a little bit but talk to me about the intergenerational themes. Leon, across two books, has made connections first with Mary, an older woman, and now in The Orchardist's Daughter he refinds his grandfather and builds what is a real relationship there. But there's also Mikey the memory of her parents, which is a very strange area to explore. And even little Max and his father. I really like the character of Max.
KAREN: Yeah, Max, I really enjoyed that opportunity to explore the world from a child's perspective. Children have about them an ability to see things as they are, but also often without the judgement and without bringing their own baggage that we as adults often do. And so there's an innocence but there's a reality to the way Max sees the world. It is interesting to observe his parents' relationship from his eyes. His parents are having a bit of a rough time. The father's a timber worker. There is some forest issues going on, which put pressure on the family with respect to finances and travelling time to logging coops and stuff like that. But Max's observations of his family and also the pressure his father puts on him, what he expects of his son even though he has not necessarily fulfilled his own journey.
ASTRID: Now, changing tracks a little bit, you mentioned so many books in this novel. I enjoyed that, Jane Eyre most prominently, but there's so many books. There's The Little Prince, The Lord of the Rings. And I was wondering, what was your intention there?
KAREN: I guess it's important to explain one of the main protagonists, Mikey, has grown up in isolation on an apple orchard in southern Tasmania.
ASTRID: She is the orchardist's daughter.
KAREN: She's the orchardist's daughter. And her parents, for religious reasons, have elected to home-school her and give her a very restricted life. And near the beginning of the novel, we find that she's now living with her brother Kurt, who's ten years older than her. Living in this small timber town. Living and working in the take-away shop in town. But Kurt, because of the life experiences that he has or hasn't had as well, he has elected to continue this restriction and this hemming in of her life. She has very little contact with the outside world, though she does observe people coming in. She's not allowed to speak to people apart from taking their orders. She's not allowed to go to school, and he locks her in when he goes out.
And this is not an unrealistic scenario. I have had experiences. I've known people that have... And not all home-schooling is bad, but I have known very restrictive home-schooling situations, and that was part of why I wanted to write this story. Anyway, one thing that Mikey does have is three novels that she saved from the family farm when she and Kurt had to leave, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. And I chose those books because there were strong female characters in those are novels that Mikey could connect with or had things that she could learn from them. But there's also this wonderful journey, because even though Mikey's oppressed, she finds small ways to be powerful. And she does find a way to get out.
And she meets a lovely lady who tries to show her about the world by giving her novels that she thinks will help, and allows the novels to do the talking. And I just feel myself, there is so much that I learn from immersing myself in the journey of characters within novels. I thought this was a beautiful way for Mikey to start to learn about the outside world.
ASTRID: I loved it when she asked, ‘Well, what would Jane Eyre do?’
KAREN: Well, she knows she doesn't have anyone that she can talk to. Her brother, Kurt, is very limited in the discussions he'll have with her. And because she doesn't initially have friends, that's who she turns to. Her real friends are the characters in these novels.
ASTRID: Tell me now about your writing process. How do you bring these stories to life?
KAREN: It's not a rapid process, though my first draft can be pretty quick. I think pretty quick is six months. That is pretty quick. I'm not really... Let's go back a step. I feel like my real training in writing initially was doing my PhD, because in doing... And that was not in literature, it was in science. And in doing that PhD, what I feel I learned is how to complete a large project, because I think a thesis is almost the equivalent of a novel. I also learned a lot about editing and I learned about how to accept and use criticism constructively. I really now enjoy that journey of working with an editor. Then I had to make the transition from being a science writer, writing scientific papers which are very recipe driven and very structured and a different language. I had to make the transition to fiction, which is what I had always wanted to do. And I spent some time, I used a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, to loosen myself up and to just get some stream of consciousness going.
And I brought that, and I still bring that to my work when I start a new novel. It's difficult. It's interesting these days, because when you make that shift to starting a new work, you've just finished a work in which your editor is at their most strident. And you have to find a way to set that editor aside and begin to go on a new journey with new characters. My husband's written 700 scientific papers and 47 books. He's a scientist who works in forest. And his advice always to me was, ‘Get it down and then get it right’. In my first draft, I like it to be quite free. And I really love it. But when I come back to it, I hate it. I'm not precious about what I put down. I let the flow come out.
If the characters want to go on some tangent, I go with it. I may delete a whole lot of later, but it's awful. And I think Hemingway said, ‘First drafts are crap’. And my first drafts are definitely crap. There's lots of cliche, there's lots of really awful over-writing and laboured descriptions and all of that sort of thing. And then I do lots of editing. So it's editing and rewriting and rethreading and replanning and ditching and writing again. And it's an iterative, recurrent process. And I'm probably a perfectionist, so what has now become more important to me with my writing than it was initially when I first started writing novels, my first novel was published in 2008. What's now become really important to me is the music of the language and the literary techniques that hopefully are buried so deeply that it becomes an easy read for the reader, but those are all there.
ASTRID: Do you think about your reader as you're writing?
KAREN: Not initially, because I have to write what's in my heart and I have to write that's true to me because otherwise it won't be convincing. I do write fiction. I might use threads of people that I know or moments that I've experienced myself, but my characters are not me. So later in the process of writing, I do think about my readers, because I think it's really important that, for the reader, it should be a smooth journey without hiccups or jolts. I pick up The Orchardist's Daughter now and I look at it and I think, ‘Oh, it looks like the writing is so simple’, and yet it's taken so much hard work to make it look so easy, to get it so right so that the rhythm is comfortable and there's little bits of alliteration and hidden assonance in there and that sort of thing that you will only see if you're looking for.
ASTRID: At what point do you share your work, and who is your first reader?
KAREN: My husband's my first reader. At what point do I share it? That varies quite a bit. He reads my novels far more than anyone should have to, so he'd probably read four to six times. He's my first reader. I have to wait until I'm not embarrassed to show it to somebody, so it's usually somewhere between three to six drafts before I would show it to somebody. And if I feel like I can still make progress myself, I'm not ready to show it. And then when do I show it to my publisher? Well, I had to show... With this novel, I was struggling with it a bit. So it's good for people to know that all writers struggle.
I was struggling with it a bit and I sent it through to her. And she asked me to come in for a meeting. It was a pretty shattering meeting. I knew it wasn't right and I was looking for help, but she really gave it to me. And gave me a couple of tips about where to re-begin. And I completely rewrote the whole novel.
ASTRID: And how long did that rewrite take? Because that's a huge undertaking.
KAREN: It is a huge undertaking. But when I think... It took about six months and it was so much a better work because even though I'd had two years of work before that, that wasn't all useless. Really it was only one scene that I picked up and took across, heavily edited again, but from the original work that I gave her two years in. There was only one scene that I lifted directly into the novel. The rest of it was completely rewritten. However, what I had before provided a really sound foundation upon which I could rewrite. Initially the novel was too bleak. She said to me, and this is a really useful thing for writers to think about. She said to me, ‘Think about how you want your readers to feel at the end of the novel’. And you don't want, necessarily, happy happily ever after, but you want people to feel some sort of hope and some sort of upbeat. And so that really helped me with the rewriting.
ASTRID: So to do a complete rewrite after your editor tells you that it needs it, have you worked with that editor before? Did you have a great deal of trust?
KAREN: Definite trust. My publisher – I'm published by Allen & Unwin – and my publisher there is Jane Paul Freeman, who is the one who knows. She has the most amazing... I think she's got six Miles Franklin winners, and many, many shortlisted writers. She is an amazing publisher and she really does know what will work and what won't. And she gives it to you straight. ‘We cannot publish it like this’. Okay, so now I have to go home, rethink. And she's there to talk to if I want to along the way, but I do find a lot of it is stuff I have to grapple with myself. But she forces me to go deep and to go within to find the heart of the story and how to rebuild. And even though it's hard, that is the real joy of writing, I feel, is that journey, the ups and downs of self-discovery, of recognising your errors and mistakes. And that rebuilding is what brings about characters that feel real. I write contemporary realist fiction, so that's what I'm aiming for.
ASTRID: Now, I have to ask. Why do you think that your novels are so popular in France?
KAREN: This is a really interesting question. And part of must be escapism, because Australia is so different from France. But there's more to it than that, because I did have the great, wonderful experience of going over to help release some of my novels in France a couple of years ago. And I asked my readers, ‘What is it?’ My French readers, ‘What is it that you connect with in my novels?’ And there's are a number of things. The French really love the natural world. They really love nature, and they really value it. And their country has some beautiful wild places, but many altered places. And Australia is so fortunate to have so many places that are comparatively pristine. They love nature. They love and revere their rural landscapes and rural communities. They feel very strongly about the rights of their farmers, and often my stories are set in rural towns.
They also love a good philosophical question to grapple with, and so each of my novels hovers above an issue. The Stranding, my first novel, was about the ethics of wildlife rescue and modern wailing. The second novel was about choices at the end of life and the ethics of wildlife research. The third novel, The Grass Castle, hovered above kangaroo culling and this novel hovers above forestry and sustainability of forestry. And they like that. They like something that challenges them and that they have to look at different perspectives. The French also don't need a happily ever after, pretty romance ending. For instance, that amazing book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog had quite a shocking ending, but for me that made the novel, and the French loved that novel.
ASTRID: For those listening, on your Australian author page you have a page in French. All of your books have been translated into French, and you've won literary awards in France, which is unusual for an Australian author. Can you tell me about the translation process and what it is like for you to be writing a work in English for it to live in a different language?
KAREN: Well, it's completely delightful. And I did six years of French at school, and if my novels were ever going to go well somewhere else other than Australia, it's delightful, for me, that it's in France. Because when I went over, I spent several months trying to revive my terrible schoolgirl French.
ASTRID: You didn't do the translation, did you?
KAREN: No. They have expert translators who they select themselves. What's interesting for me, and I would like to improve my French further, is to see... It's an art form in itself, translation, isn't it? Because you're taking the work of somebody else and the music and rhythm and cadence of another language and trying to bring that to life in your own language. I did get to meet one of my translators when I was in France, and she speaks beautifully, incredibly fluent English. But of course, she obviously has good French. And look, I spoke to readers and they said the language was beautiful, so she must have done a good job. But you do wonder how I sweat, as I said, over the rhythm of the words and the music. So how does she do that in French? And one day I hope my French is good enough to have a look at that.
ASTRID: Yeah, I was just wondering. I think every writer would love to win a prize, and I was wondering how I would feel if my work won a prize, but I wasn't necessarily sure that every word was mine. That sounds fascinating.
KAREN: You're scaring me now. I haven't thought about that.
ASTRID: No, I think it's beautiful.
KAREN: You're scaring me. Yeah. So obviously this translator, Isabel Chapman her name is. She hasn't translated all of my novels, but The Lightkeeper's Wife was the one that's won awards in France. She must've done a very beautiful job. And of course, she's acknowledged on the front page of the novel as the translator.
ASTRID: Would you ever set a novel in France?
KAREN: I don't know. I guess I might. I was thinking once my children leave home and I have a little more freedom to travel, I would like to go and do some sort of residency in France and perhaps write in France. But my heart is in Australia. And I've always loved Australian natural landscapes. I guess that brings me to one of the reasons why I write my novels in Australia and why natural landscapes are so important to me, and that is because I have this probably ridiculous ambition through my writing to reconnect Australians with wild landscapes. Many of us love our bush and our nature, but I think in our increasingly urbanised society with increasing dependence on technology and social media, often I think we're becoming more isolated from nature. And yet our world, the planet forever cannot continue unless we respect and look after natural places and our soils and river systems and that sort of thing.
It's ambitious but what I'm hoping to do is reconnect people with wild places, remind them of the benefits to humanity in nature. Even just the personal benefits of solace and peace and comfort and healing and stopping and reflecting. All those things that we can gain by going out into the natural world. I hope through the journeys of my characters and connecting with those characters, that Australians too will go back out into those places and appreciate and enjoy them. And if they care, then they might fight to save them.
ASTRID: This brings me to a question I really would like to explore with you. You are a storyteller and you're creating these experiences for us to reconnect, but you're also a scientist and you did use the word didactic at the beginning of our interview. Have you ever thought of writing non-fiction, or do you think that's not a powerful way of connecting?
KAREN: I think it is a powerful way of connecting, and I have thought about it. But the creative process in fiction is what speaks to my soul. And this is interesting you should ask this, I actually feel like I could be more honest in fiction than I can be in non-fiction. I can dive into issues in a different way in fiction than I would in non-fiction. I've thought of writing about my husband's life as a scientist working in the mountain ash forests here near Melbourne. He's worked on Leadbeater's possum and various other species that have now become threatened and endangered that weren't before. And I've often thought about writing from a non-fiction perspective. And I may get to that. And I've planned things, but then I sit down and I don't feel the energy that I need for writing. And I get that from fiction.
ASTRID: Tell me about that, the energy you need from writing.
KAREN: It does take a lot of energy, and there's different energy for different phases of the writing process. I need to feel inspired. Obviously I need to feel inspiration and that sense of the muse. And people often ask, ‘Where do you get that from?’ Well, I get it from nature but I also get it from having a strong sense of discipline. I don't know. My sister said to me, ‘When will, when will it be enough, and what do you aim for with your writing? Is it fame?’ She said to me, which was quite a confronting question. We all want fame. But I don't think I'd want to be somebody that people stopped in the street to speak to, as well. I like my anonymity. I think I was born to write. And I think it's always been there inside me, this need to express myself, to communicate, to explore ideas.
And this idea of hovering above an issue is a challenge for me. I have my own opinions, obviously, on some of the things I write about, but the challenge for me is to not tell readers what to think but to look at the different perspectives on the argument and see if I can put myself inside the skin of those characters and have more compassion and understanding of their world and the stresses and pressures that they're experiencing. In The Orchardist's Daughter, this is a timber community, a small town. And nobody's getting rich. The timber workers aren't the ones... They're dealing with poverty and a lot of stresses on their lives. Perhaps the people that own the machines or who are sending all the wood chips offshore are the ones that might be making money from the process, but often not those people. So understanding their worlds and what they're fighting against helps me maybe even to see what possible pathways there might be to move away more towards tourism or to sustainability without having to say, ‘This is what you must do’.
ASTRID: After four successful novels, what is the most powerful lesson you've learned about storytelling?
KAREN: Well, not to be didactic. I think that's really important. And to show, not tell. Often when I'm embarking on a new journey of writing a novel, I'm trying to come to grips with what's in my mind and what I'm trying to do at the same time as dumping the ideas down. And often it will come out as real lecture-y, as I said, overwritten. And I'll tell rather than showing. And then it's really hard to take a step back from that and say, ‘Well, how can I show this through the actions, the thoughts, or the dialogue of my characters? How can I show it rather than tell it?’ Or even just the description of a room. For instance, one of the lovely bits in The Orchardist's Daughter is when Mikey goes to the home on her own. She is given the key and goes into the home of Geraldine, who's the lovely lady who offers her books.
And we see a lot of Geraldine's life just from the few little things that Mikey notes as she comes into this house. She notes how neat and tidy everything is, how even the fruit looks tidy in the bowl, and the newspaper's been left neatly folded on the table. And when you go into Geraldine's room, her slippers just peeping out from under the bedspread of the tidily made bed, and the books by her bed with her glasses folded on them. We can show things that... Or the bookshelf in Geraldine's house, the books that are on the shelf. We can show and bring characters to life by simple descriptions not of who they are, but by showing what their lives and their worlds are like.
ASTRID: The environment they're in.
ASTRID: Karen, thank you so much for your time on The Garret.
KAREN: Thank you. It's has been wonderful to be here.