Kate Richards is a memoirist, poet and most recently, a novelist. Her work goes where few writers have ever gone. It is profound and honest, and represents not only a contribution to Australian literature, but a contribution to literature on mental health and identity.
Her first work, 2013's Madness: A Memoir, received the Adelaide Festival's Award for Literature and was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards. Kate followed that stunning debut with 2014's Is There No Place For Me: Making Sense of Madness, which was shortlisted for the Human Rights Award. In 2019 Kate has moved the world of fiction with her first novel, Fusion.
* This episode comes with a content warning, as Kate's memoir and our discussion of it touches on trauma and mental illness.
ASTRID: Kate Richards is a memoirist, poet and most recently, a novelist. Her first work 2013's Madness: A Memoir, received the Adelaide Festival's Award for Literature and was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards. Kate followed that stunning debut with 2014's No Place For Me: Making Sense of Madness, which was a Penguin Special and shortlisted for the Human Rights Award. In 2019 Kate has moved the world of fiction with her first novel, Fusion.
Welcome to The Garret, Kate.
KATE: Astrid, thank you so much for having me. It's really lovely to be here.
ASTRID: I wanted to meet you for so long so I'm extremely excited to talk to you. And I would like to take your three works in chronological order, if that's okay, starting with Madness: A Memoir.
And I don't normally do this, but I wanted to let you know that I knew about your book when you first published it in 2013, and I was too scared to read it. And when I saw that you were releasing your first novel Fusion this year, I got in touch with your publisher and I told myself, 'Now is the year that I'm going to read Madness: A Memoir'. I lost my first love to mental ill health. And yeah... I read Madness: A Memoir last week and it is beautiful. So thank you.
KATE: Oh, well thank you. And I'm deeply sorry to hear about your loss, truly. I think it's one of the things that most of us don't really I guess. Have a really good sense of goods not right but have a sense of with mental illness and that is that it's exactly as serious in terms of being life threatening as many kinds of physical illness. And I think you know that's it's it's something that we we just sort of don't because I guess it's like any of those illnesses where it in some ways the suffering is hidden or it's not sort of... it's not really clearly on view that we can be lulled into a false sense of security about the seriousness of it. And I mean that in a very general way about a lot of different mental illnesses. But I think it's one of the things that as a as a community we've we've got to get better at recognising the seriousness of it.
ASTRID: I agree. And I think your memoir Madness: A Memoir is a profound contribution to that in Australia.
Also on a personal note - I'm full of them today, Kate - full disclosure. You studied at RMIT University in the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing, and I now teach there. And I believe one of my colleagues, Clare Strahan, was actually a classmate of yours.
KATE: Yes. Clare and I studied Advanced Novel, as it was called then, Olga Lorenzo was our teacher for that. And since then we've been firm friends. So that's I think since... when did we do that, back in 2011 or 2012... and Claire and I are now part of a very close knit writing group, which is a wholly sustaining I think for all of us in our writing lives. And it started off being quite a serious group where we'd bring work to be edited amongst ourselves and really now it turned into drinking a lot of champagne.
But look, for the sort of communal support and for sort of nutting out problems, talking about things that have happened to us, debriefing, camaraderie, friendship it's invaluable.
ASTRID: Sounds like the perfect writers group.
KATE: It is, in my very humble opinion, yes. I wouldn't swap it for the world.
ASTRID: Now, if I'm correct, you started what became Madness: A Memoir while you were a student. Had you - and I know you'd always kept the journal and been writing a lot - but in terms of like writing a memoir, can you tell us about the genesis of that, and also how workshopping. What's it like to workshop?
KATE: Yeah, yeah, definitely. So I hadn't written a single word of Madness before I started a class called Non-fiction Project with Di Morrissey, our teacher. And yes, so literally I turned up on the first day with this really strong idea in my head about what I wanted to write, but I literally had not written a single word. So the entire first draft of Madness was written in the Non-fiction Project class.
The night before I was due to workshop a piece of Madness for the first time, I didn't sleep. I was so terrified I couldn't even close my eyes. I was shaking and... it was a funny thing, it felt like there was something driving me forward despite this intense fear. So I started by workshopping what is still the first page of the book, pretty much exactly as it is in the book. And I tried to read it out aloud without my voice shaking too much, but I think it probably shook quite a bit, and I hadn't had any sleep, and I was I was absolutely terrified. I mean, there's just no other way to put it. I knew I had to do it because there's no way I could have written the book without the support of that class and without the feedback, which is just essential.
But I was obviously worried about what they would think. So I hadn't disclosed that I had any kind of mental illness until that point in the class, and I hadn't told anyone what I was writing. So it was all new for the class, and their response was the thing that probably kept me writing I think. The the way that they took it so seriously, that they were supportive, they had really constructive critical feedback, which is not to say that they said, 'Oh this is wonderful, love everything'. It wasn't like that, although you know people would say, 'Oh I'm not sure about that' or 'that's a bit confusing' or 'you've jumped around here' or you know 'you've lost me' or 'I've pulled out of the story' or... so all of those things were really...
I mean, I think the thing about writing is as we all know it's solitary. And so what can happen to most of us - and certainly happens to me - is that you become so intensely connected to your work that you lose a sense of objectivity about it, so it becomes harder and harder to to critically analyse your own work. And that's where feedback from a class like the Non-fiction Project class at RMIT was absolutely essential. And so I got out...
You know, I think one of the skills that we had to learn as part of that class was how to take on board critical feedback, because of course, your first reaction is an emotional one. You sort of want to yell at the person who said something, or argue, or try and justify your work. But our teacher, Di Morrissey, was really wonderful at teaching us to just sit and listen to feedback, no matter what it was, no matter if we agreed or disagreed with it, and to thank the person for their for their input, and then to think about it carefully and come back the following week.
And I found that... I found that technique was exactly what was useful later on down the track working with an actual editor and a publisher, because it's the same thing happens, you get the same feedback and it's difficult to hear, or it might be something about your work that you feel is very dear to you, and so, you know, your editor reads it and says, 'no that's that's not right' or 'we don't need it'. I had a few scenes that that my editor felt didn't need to be in the book and she was right. But it took me a week to kind of calm down and let go of my emotional connection to that work and to see that she actually was on the money. And really, that's where I learnt how to do that, in the the RMIT class.
ASTRID: So after presenting, after doing that first workshopping experience the first time you've essentially spoken publicly about this memoir that you decided to write, how long did it take to get the first complete manuscript draft?
KATE: So what happened was that about halfway through the class that year... So I must have had about 10,000, I think I had about 12,000 words written of the first draft, and we had - as happens throughout the RMIT course - various publishers and editors from different publishing houses would come in and talk to us about what they do, and what they publish, and we all got an opportunity to sort of pitch our work. And so one of the... the actual senior non-fiction publisher from Penguin, Andrea McNamara, came in, and we all had an opportunity to stand up and sort of five minutes to pitch, which we'd all practiced the week before in class, we'd all written it down very dutifully and we'd all practiced what we were going to say and we were all there in our nice clothes and things, and really nervous. And so Andrea came and talked to us about what she does, and then we all had an opportunity to to sort of give the pitch.
And at the end of the class she said, well she sort of pulled me back and said that she was interested in the idea of the project of Madness. And she asked me how many words I'd written, and I had the 12,000, and so she gave me her email and said 'send them to me'. So I did. And then about a week later I got a very short reply, which was basically 'I like it, write another I think it was 40,000 words and send it to me and I'll see where we go'. So it wasn't in any way a contract or anything like that, but the thrill of having someone interested in what I was doing...
ASTRID: And the validation...
ASTRID: From Penguin no less.
KATE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, that day that I got that tiny little e-mail was still one of the best days of my life, without question. I've never felt exhilaration like it really. So I did so for the rest of the year in that class I wrote the next 40,000 words. So by the end of the class I reckon I was about two thirds of the way through the first draft. I'm a really slow writer.
ASTRID: That's still exceptionally fast.
KATE: Some people write amazingly quickly. I find... just extraordinarily quickly... and I do feel that I'm very ponderous, I think about every word. Slow slow writer. So that was the end of that class, and then because Penguin was still interested in the work I went on to finish. No, actually I signed the contract at that point when I had about 50,000 words in total I think. But there was a caveat in the contract - as there should have been - that said if the remainder of the work is not at the standard that we expect we have the right to to nullify the contract. So, it wasn't a done deal but it was wonderfully exciting. For it for someone who really... I mean, I just didn't have any experience and I no background other than having a deep love of books and literature all my life. So then the following year I wrote the rest of the first draft and then we hit the editing process from there.
ASTRID: Tell me about that editing process which you've already alluded to, building on the experience you've got with peer to peer workshopping.
KATE: Yes. So the book wouldn't be the book it is without that editing process. The first draft that I submitted to Penguin was a manuscript and the editing process was about turning that funny old manuscript into an actual book that was cohesive, that was satisfying to read, that had the right sort of amount of light and shade in it that was explanatory without being a textbook that wasn't too overwhelming. There are parts of it that are quite difficult to read, but originally there were quite a few more of those those. I mean, Andrea was wonderful at having a sense of the importance of balance, and that even though what I wanted to write was almost like a stream of consciousness thing that went from one point and just didn't let up until the end, Andrea quite rightly would say, 'but people have to have a chance to breathe, Kate, when they're reading it, and they need a chance to see some of the ordinary things that you were doing in your life, or you know a chance for that lightness as well as the darkness, and that the rhythm doesn't have to be at fever pitch from beginning to end, what works in long form books - as as it does in poetry and short form work - is that that rhythm is changing all the time and that gives readers a sense of the ebb and flow that there is in life'.
And she was absolutely right and I was furious with her. So we had quite a few heated email exchanges, but the thing I would say about that that's so important, and that's partly what I learnt from workshopping in RMIT, is that it's a professional relationship, and that the the criticism or the kind of back and forth argument that might happen between her and as an author is at that professional level. I t's not a personal attack. You know I think it's really important to learn to keep it at that level and to work through it at that level.
I think sometimes it's really hard for authors - including myself - because you're so close emotionally to your work and it's so much a part of who you are as a person.
ASTRID: Particularly when you're running memoir.
KATE: Absolutely. But even fiction, I think, it's hard to let that go. And and sometimes we can feel like criticism, constructive criticism, is a personal attack and respond in that way by being defensive. So, it took me a while to learn that. And I think yeah it was that RMIT course, going through various classes where we would workshop one another's work and give feedback, and learning to accept that feedback as being a valid point of view even if you don't agree with it was essential.
And it's really heartbreaking to hear of some fantastic writers who've got to that point of working with a publisher and really haven't felt that they could let their work go enough to give it a really strong edit. And so the relationship hasn't continued on and the work hasn't ended up being published. I just, I feel that's such a tragedy and it does happen and I completely understand it from the author's point of view as well, but I think it's a skill, and it's something that you're not born with it. It takes it takes practice and consideration and there were times when I got it wrong, you know, when I sort of rage and say, I'm right. I did send a couple of e-mails back to Andrea in capitals, bold and red.
ASTRID: Oh my goodness.
KATE: My whole email went back and she wrote back and said, 'are you shouting at me?' And I wrote back and said, 'Yes I am'. But again, it was up to me then to really step back, take a breath, give myself a week to think through it, and by the end of the week I'd be like, 'Damn she's right, she's absolutely right'. And so that that editorial relationship was how Madness became the book it is I think and it wouldn't have been without that. I mean, there's no question. It was it was a really odd manuscript. There was a lot more poetry in it that unfortunately for me had to be taken out, and that's one of those things, that's the Kill Your Darlings moment, where I really... you know, it was important to me that poetry, but Andrea was quite right that that it was... There was the risk that it would pull people out of the story, and the last thing you want to do as a writer is have something that creates a disconnection between your work and the reader. And she was right. So. I do really honestly consider it a joint effort. And whenever we sort of - I say we - whenever we sort of got some short listings and things, or when a couple of prizes, and it was very much in my mind it was 'we won' or 'we were shortlisted' or we got a nice review' or whatever it was.
ASTRID: That speaks very well of your relationship with your editor.
KATE: Yeah, yeah. And that's luck, you know, who you get pinned with.
ASTRID: So although the poetry came out, there are at least in my version, actual images of some of your previous writing, handwritten journal writing. So everything was taken out by any means. And you wrote those during periods of mania. So hat is it like for you to reread your old journals, but also read what you wrote in a period of mania
KATE: Really hard. It's a funny thing with madness. One of the questions I get asked most often, not by fellow writers or fellow sort of, I suppose, people who were interested in the process of writing and literature, but often by folks who just who you know just picked it up and read it. And the most common question is was it therapeutic to write the book? And it was not. And I think sometimes people feel a bit disappointed to hear that because there is certainly a very valid, I suppose, a place within psychology to write as a form of healing. And I think that's really important. But writing for publication is quite different. And so I found it really hard to go back and look at those notebooks, because I was immediately tumbled back into into that time in my life. And the delusional nature of it would come straight back to me and I'd remember what I was like, and what I was doing, the risks I was taking, the damage I was causing to people around me, and the chaos also.
And the thing about mania is that although at one level it's exhilarating it's also very frightening, because the world is is becoming something different and your perception of yourself and everyone around you is different. And because everything is very vivid and sounds are louder than normal, you know, the light is different, music suddenly becomes quite literally alive, and one level that's exhilarating and great, from a creation creativity point of view. But on another level it's terrifying because you can't shut it off when you want to. You can't suddenly say, 'okay this was pretty amazing, I've had enough of this now'. I don't know, I've never taken LSD or magic mushrooms, but I wonder whether... or acid, whatever, any kind of hallucinogen, and I wonder whether you have a similar kind of experience. But then hopefully after 24 or 48 hours it's over and you're back to who you normally are. Whereas the thing about mental illness is you can't turn it off, even when you want to. And so it just spirals. And so I'd read that the little notebooks - I wouldn't call them diaries, they were more they were really just notebooks - and yeah, I'd be right back there. And it was really scary and hard, hard to read.
ASTRID: I interviewed Sam Twyford-Moore last year after he published the Rapids, which is a personal memoir about mania. He actually references your work in his work, alongside Joan Didion's The White Album. Now that's pretty amazing. But he talks about one of his goals of writing the rapids was to demystify mania. Did you have a goal like that?
KATE: I think mine was a somewhat more general goal, and that is that... The way I thought I could personally make a difference to our... I mean how we are in relationship to those of us in our community who are mentally unwell was to... not start a conversation but be part of a broader conversation. So, you know I always thought I wanted to do something about reducing the stigma around mental illness, and that's such a massively general thing and impossible for an individual to do. But I thought the small thing I could do was to tell my story in part, like Sam says, to kind of not normalise that but bring those experiences to light. And I think the second thing was that I wrote it for all of us who have a mental illness, in that one of the things a lot of us feel is very alone and very isolated and very much that our experience is completely foreign from anyone else's experience of the world. And that sense of isolation is so deep, and so I felt maybe some folks, even one or two, if they read it and feel a little bit less alone a little bit less like their experience is alien to others, then I'm really happy. So I guess that was the other thing.
And I suppose to for people who haven't experienced such a thing but have family or friends who have. And part of the reason why I chose to write Madness in the first person and also in the present tense was that it might give people a kind of really... You almost have that sense of being able to embody what I was experiencing at the time, and so there's less of a gap or a chasm between the experience and the writing of the experience. And so, if that was at all helpful for people to read and have and sort of then maybe go, 'Oh I see a little more about what that must feel like'. E specially I think the stuff around psychosis because it's completely different from from any other kind of way of perceiving the world and perceiving ourselves, and it's really hard, even the sense of where your body ends and the rest of the world begins kind of melts away, and other people take on completely different roles, and I understand that if you've never experienced that... you can't sort of put yourself in someone's shoes with psychosis because it's so it is so different. And so I thought if I can at least elucidate my experience of that then perhaps for family and friends it's a little bit easier to kind of see what's happening to their own loved one.
ASTRID: Sam mentioned that he had been told his book the Rapids was found in the medical section in university libraries as well as the kind of health section in bookstores, even though it's pure memoir. Have you had that experience? Where is your book placed?
KATE: It is in some university libraries. It's also a required text in some medical schools for medical students to read.
ASTRID: Now I find that fascinating because you of course are a trained medical professional. So you live in that world. How has publishing a memoir on mental ill health affected your professional career in that field?
KATE: Well, I guess the first thing to say is that I don't practice as a doctor because of the illness. So, I could never complete my early years as a hospital trainee because you've got to do three months of night shifts and I can't work at night like that because it'll tip me over into a manic episode if I switch around with my sleep wake cycle too much. And back then in my early 20s I was in and out of psyche hospital as well, which is the time I would need to have been putting in long hours at the hospital as a doctor.
So I don't work as a medical practitioner, but I do work at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and Peter Mac in a more supportive role. So I think for the most part it's... Certainly where I was working at the time when the memoir came out my colleagues were wonderfully supportive. I was scared but they were they were really wonderfully supportive, except one person who was my direct manager at the time who for whatever reason found it found it difficult, and that was hard and we never resolved it. So I guess that's always the risk, and I knew, I mean I think one of the things I thought about at the start when I was writing it, and a couple of my teachers at RMIT counselled me on the risk, and I really felt like I had to give it 100 per cent and put the truth down or not write it at all. One thing I didn't want to do was kind of write a sanitised version, so the risk is still there I guess, and we'll always be there. That's something I live with.
And you know, the illness is a part of me it's not going away. So I do feel kind of if you accept me you accept the illness, and if you don't you don't. And you might not for all sorts of reasons that are to do with yourself and not me and I can't do anything about that. So that's the way I kind of move forward, and luckily I haven't been in hospital for ten years, and so in terms of my professional life things are very stable, which of course is helpful.
ASTRID: That's what everyone wants.
KATE: Yeah absolutely, absolutely. But you know it's like anyone with an illness that's long term, you never know.
ASTRID: You never know.
KATE: You never know.
ASTRID: This is a personal question. But do you regret publishing it?
KATE: No, I really don't.
ASTRID: That is wonderful.
KATE: No, not at all. In fact if you said to me, 'would you publish it today if it hadn't been published before?' I would say, 'yes, absolutely yes'. And that is not to say it hasn't been hard, and there hasn't been times when I've... sometimes I read it...
So, when it first came out, you know, there were writers festival events and things and people asked lots of questions, and I did have times where I felt like I was standing on stage naked. You know, it's that kind of vulnerability. And yeah, it would take me several days to recover from some of those, because I really felt so peeled back in front of a room of 100 strangers, and I found that really hard. I'm an introvert, very shy. So that's all challenging. But I kind of think it's about putting it in perspective, and in the big scheme of things I'm just one tiny little person, and everyone's got their own lives. You know that saying where... Often people who are getting older, one of the things they say is that they would have done more and they would have taken more risks because in the end people are generally thinking a lot more about themselves than they are about you, if you want to look at look at it like that.
So the way I kind of got myself up on stage was by thinking things like, you know, 'the woman in the third row there, she's probably trying to work out what she's going to do for dinner tonight', and 'the guy in the fifth throw on the edge there, he's probably thinking now, I hope this finishes soon because I got to go and pick up the kids from school'. I tried to sort of give them their own lives that was separate from my little thing that was going for half an hour or whatever, and I found that really helpful. I
ASTRID: That is a great tip for anyone who gets up on stage.
ASTRID: Particularly the introverts among us. I'd like to move on to Is There No Place For Me: Making Sense of Madness, which was a Penguin Special that came out about a year later, a non-fiction work but not memoir, arguing that patients and loved ones should be an integral part and empowered by the treatment and the medical profession. What was that like going from memoir to straight non-fiction?
KATE: I loved it because it wasn't so obviously my story anymore, and I could think a lot more broadly about... because one of the things that I had to be really careful with with Madness is talking about the people I was in hospital with, because even though they had a profound effect on my life, and a couple of them are still really good friends, and their stories and their experiences have never left me, but I had to be really careful in terms of confidentiality not to include much of that in Madness, whereas I could include bits of various people's stories as vignettes in the essa
And that I really enjoyed it, and I am very passionate about the idea of patient and families centred care in mental health, because I think it's so commonly that... Certainly when I was - so this is going back 20 years when I was first in hospital - but back then it was felt that the patient was too unwell to possibly have any kind of say in what was happening to them or even any kind of explanation about what was happening to them. And families often also felt very much kept in the dark. And I think the more we have autonomy over our own bodies and our own health, and the more we understand about what's happening to us and what our illnesses are and how best to help keep them stable, the better. And it's empowering for a start, and it gives us a sense of hope. I think if you feel that you don't have any control over your illness or what's happening to you it's... You do end up sort of not caring, and not kind of... if you feel like there's nothing you can do to make a difference then you lose you hope, and hope is essential. And that was one of the things I was writing about in Is There No Place For Me, that instilling hope - and part of hope in mental illness in a lot of long term illnesses is about agency, is about being a partner in the treatment or management of the illness, and feeling that you can actually do things to make things better yourself, as well as needing the support from medical professionals or allied health or whoever it is, nursing staff - who are wonderful, by the way - in mental health, so that was the key thing for me in in writing the essay was to I guess talk about this idea, because back then patient and family centred care was starting to come in in in hospitals for physical illness but it was a long way away for people with mental illness. So I think I guess my contention is that there are times in our lives when we've got a serious mental illness where we can't be a part of what's happening to us because we're too unwell, but those moments are few and far between for most of us and so... Okay we could sort of have to give up our control in those times when we're really really unwell, but at all other times we are able to have some kind of opinion about what's happening. We should be allowed to ask as many questions as we like, and the relationship between doctor and patient has been paternalistic for so long.
ASTRID: It should be peer to peer.
KATE: Absolutely no question. I think that... I mean I don't know but I would have thought that would be more rewarding in the long term for the clinician as well as for the patient. You know, if you feel like you're working together towards a common goal, which might be stability, however you see that. I mean some aims for people are really, you know, 'today my aim is to go to the shops and buy some fresh fruit'. Brilliant, fabulous. It doesn't matter what it is but if you feel that you're doing that in partnership rather than being forced into something or being say forced to take a medication that you don't understand. Yeah, I think I think they're poles apart. So getting there slowly.
ASTRID: We are. Listeners of The Garret will know that I am fascinated by writers who put language around chronic kill health and all of the things that happen to our bodies. I think that as a long term patient myself it helps empower all of us who are patients with the words to talk to our doctors, because without writing on it it's kind of hard to verbalie what the hell is happening.
KATE: Absolutely. Absolutely.
ASTRID: I would now like to ask you about Fusion. So this is your first public foray into fiction. It is beautiful, haunting and I have to say a little bit uncomfortable. For those - it's new just released - for those listeners who haven't yet read Fusion. Can you give us the 30 second rundown.
KATE: Yeah. So Fusion is the story of Sea and Serene, who are adult conjoined twins. They have two heads but one body so they are what is technically called dicephalic paraphagus, which means that they're joined side to side not front or back. And dicephalic is that they have the two heads. So Serene has the control of the right arm and leg, and Sea of the left arm and leg. And so they live with their cousin Wren up in the alpine wilderness of south eastern Australia around the Mount Kosciusko area. And their life is while unusual at least fairly sort of stable, I would say, and they're happy. But one day Wren finds an unconscious woman on the side of the road and he brings her back to the house, and the twins nurse her back to health. And really, she becomes the catalyst for them to, I think, probably examine who they are and what their relationship is with one another in ways that they'd never thought of before. And so as as the story sort of moves on the twins go from a place of seeing themselves entirely whole as one person to a point where they're not sure whether it's actually tenable to remain alive, I guess, because that the opportunity for them to be separated absolutely doesn't exist. So that's I guess the crux, without giving away the ending.
ASTRID: Of course, without giving away the ending. No spoilers here. What made you move to fiction?
KATE: Fiction has always been my greatest love to read. That is not to say that... I mean poetry, narrative non-fiction are really close up there as well.
ASTRID: You are a literary writer.
KATE: Yeah. And that's really I mean that's one of my main sustenance in life, it is reading. And the things I love to read are challenging, in the sense that I love to read things that make me think about the world and myself differently, or challenge me to broaden my own perspective or opinion on something, or make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I love that. And so I suppose in terms of writing fiction, the idea that everything within the world, the universe and beyond is is available, which isn't the case obviously in non-fiction. And I think in non-fiction, particularly with memoir, you have a story that's been lived and your job as a writer is to bring it to life for readers who haven't lived it. Whereas fiction is completely different because you can you can create anything you like.
And so what I wanted to do was I suppose grapple with some questions I had about how we come to understand ourselves and why we come to understand ourselves as we do. And so it was really based on a quote from an Egyptian philosopher which I believe in and that is that inside every person we think we know very well is a person we don't know at all. And I think that's very true.
And I was thinking one day about whether there was any instance in life where that wouldn't be the case between two people - that they knew each other so well that there were absolutely no secrets of any kind between them. And that's when the idea came to me about writing about twins. And first I was going to write about identical twins, and then because it's fiction I thought well... And actually, it was one of my lecturers at RMIT, Toni Jordan, who said to us in our novel class that when you have your idea for your work how far can you push it, can you push it further than you ever thought you could push it, because it's fiction you know. And that was in terms of really thinking about drama and that's what we love to read. And so I think that's when I moved from the idea of identical twins to conjoined twins, because it's this completely unique relationship you've got.
ASTRID: It is one of a kind.
KATE: Yeah. Two people with two personalities, two hearts, two minds, two souls, but within their physical being they have no real sense of individuality.
ASTRID: Or autonomy. So you published Fusion with Penguin.
ASTRID: Do you have the same editor?
KATE: No. So Andrea MacNamara, who edited Madness and published Madness, only works with non-fiction, and she's actually now working freelance as a publishing consultant. So I worked with Ben Ball, who was the literary director at Penguin Random House, and then he... aw he was involved in commissioning the book and in the early first draft. And then after Ben left, poor Meredith Curnow got lumped with my book, and I really felt for her. I kind of feel like from a publisher's point of view it must be so hard to come in during the second half of a work's production, but she was absolutely fantastic. Really, she gave it a really strong structural edit, and it was at the pages stage!
So pages are when a book has had its edits, and it's been copy edited, and it's ready to sort of look like a book, it goes from a manuscript to looking like a book, and it's typeset with the page numbers and everything. And at that point you are really at the end, you know, you sort of do a final run through.
And so that's where we were when when Meredith came on board. And so it was quite a challenge to kind of structurally try and edit the book at that point, but I'm so glad and so grateful to her for her input, because really you know she could have said, 'Oh look, at this point there's nothing more I can do'. And she'd be quite within her right to do that. I do feel very grateful. And it was edited by Rachel Scully, who is a very experienced editor at Penguin. And so we worked sort of as a threesome in the in the later stages.
ASTRID: This fascinates me. I devoured Fusion, but as I was reading I actually kept stopping and kind of marvelling at the writing craft, which I don't normally do with works, fiction or non-fiction. I t felt truly a feat, and I'd like to explore this.
I would normally describe a Fusion as kind of close first person, but of course it's not one person it's two people who share a body, and you often do use plural, 'we', but it still feels like you're just inside one head. So tell me about the technical nature of writing, you know, at the sentence level it.
KATE: It took probably 12 months to find the twins voices, so there was literally 12 months - pretty much the whole of 2014 or about half of 2014, half of 2015 - I didn't write a word. But what I had to do was find those two voices that were in some ways exactly the same and in some ways wholly different. And I really felt that before I started writing that had to be very clear for me in my mind, because otherwise the whole thing could be just become a jumble and become so confusing. I mean, I know there are probably parts of it that are a bit confusing anyway, which I don't mind, I like reading things that confuse me. So I think that was the critical thing from a craft point of view, to to feel that if someone asked me 'What would Sea think about this?' or 'What would Serene say about that?' I felt I had the answers, and that they were peculiar to these two individuals despite their one body. And they had to remain fairly closed in the beginning, and then my idea was that that sort of spread out like a ripple effect, but it spread in different directions, so one went one way and one went the other.
And that's the thing about craft, you know, somehow you have to have that knowledge in your head but you can't put it down on the page like that because that's just boring as bat shit. So somehow you have to bring that... make that alive and make it sort of somehow seamless in the sense that it's not, 'now we're going to talk...' And that that took me a long time.
So this book took me... well I mean I was working at the hospital three or four days a week for the whole time I wrote it. But I still took a long time, I think, to write it. And that was because... I'm really glad that you felt that the craft is there, because I think that's something I look for when I'm reading, and you know when you read books where the craft is extraordinary, like I think every time I pick up a book by Toni Morrison, and if I just read a single page, and William Faulkner is like that, and there are many others as well, it just shines and it takes my breath away. And so I guess you do your best to try and create something that has something vaguely like that. I mean, it's all learning.
ASTRID: I think that there will be, there are, multiple readings of Fusion. One of the themes that struck me and I found myself pondering is obviously identity - what is identity, how we can find our own and redefine if that's possible. Which brings me to a really obvious question but I'm going to ask it anyway. This is your first novel, and first novelists always get asked how much is biographical. This is in no way your first work, but you know Madness: A Memoir is also a search for identity.
KATE: Yes, yes I guess that's something that preoccupies me in that I think a lot about. And I'm intensely interested in people and they're their own individual sense of identity and where that comes from and why we have the fears of things that we do that are really peculiar to ourselves and how we come to be in relationships with other people. And so I suppose that plays out a little bit in Fusion, and I think I'm also interested in the idea that what shapes us in a lot of ways as adults is our experiences as children and as adolescents, and that's also very much part of Fusion. So, although it's certainly nothing to do with my story, there are some things in Fusion that come from stories of other people within my fami
I'm particularly thinking of my grandparents generation, experiences that they had as children or things that they told me that had affected them deeply happened to the characters in Fusion. And again that's me wondering about that. So, I think one of the things about my grandparents... M y grandparents were both born in the very early nineteen hundreds, and I think that generation, they survived two world wars, they survived the Great Depression, there wasn't a lot of time for looking deeply within yourself and wondering about why you are the way you are, because... there's a lot of survival that went on. And so I think a lot of those things weren't... People were just the way they were, particularly with people who survived the war in whatever form that when they came back they just were how they were. And I think I've always been intensely curious to think about well what actually happened that that's the case now with someone. And so, I guess I'm thinking a lot about my grandparents experiences, and then how the kind of people they were then as older adults was something that I'm kind of playing out in a way in Fusion, I'm sort of asking the questions I guess.
KATE: What if this happened? How might this affect someone for the rest of their lives? Or how might grappling with that or not. So in Wren's case, he chooses to deny or to be in denial about a lot of aspects of himself, and he would rather not face them and he would rather not undergo any form of self-examination. So that's very much one way of surviving. And the twins are quite different. They Th take another tack with it, they are interested, but it takes a while.
ASTRID: I'm going to remember the twins for quite a while.
KATE: Thank you.
ASTRID: I want to... because this a podcast for writers, I really want to explore what it was like for you to move to fiction, both with Penguin, with the industry, but also with the public. Dare I say it you carved out a space for yourself in the mental health writing non-fiction sphere. Fusion is different. You are now you know on the publicity trail in a whole different light. What was that like
KATE: The most striking thing is I erroneously assumed that because Fusion isn't me, that the whole thing would be very easy. This is not the writing of it, this is the the publicity side, the publishing and publicity side of it. I'd got through six months of talking about Madness, which I found deeply stressful, but also deeply rewarding and very grateful that it was received well publicly. But I thought you know that was okay and I survived, and so this will be fine. Wrong, wrong, wrong. So it's been quite a revelation and quite a sharp or steep learning curve for me, that I haven't actually managed to emotionally let Fusion go. And I think I actually prepared myself better for Madness in terms of that very clear break from 'this is me, this is the book, and we are not the same'. But I didn't do that with Fusion. I just thought it would automatically happen and it didn't happen. And so it's been hard. Yeah.
ASTRID: And what would you do differently or what would you recommend, you know, a first time writer who suddenly finds their work out in the world?
KATE: Gosh. I mean, I'll offer something, but it would be with the caveat that I think we all approach this differently and because we all have different personalities and ways of feeling about our work. As a reader I get deeply connected to characters and deeply connected to worlds that are fictional. And so spending four years inside that world that is in Fusion, and with those characters, although they're fictional they came very much alive for me. And so it's been really challenging, you know, if people review it and talk about them. And I kind of think, hang on a minute, and I just did not expect that because it's fiction.
So, I guess I would say that if you're kind of... I suppose someone who feels things very deeply, which I do, and probably most nearly all writers do, that it might be useful before the date of publication to sit down whether it's, you know, with a friend or a loved one or a partner or just by yourself, and just think through... You know almost visualise like sports people do the idea of letting the work go and of however it fares out in the world is how it fares out in the world and it's not you as a person, it's not even you as a writer, because it's what you were when you wrote it, but we're all always learning in my opinion. Any kind of creative art form is a constant learning process. So I think that's... I mean I kind of did that a bit with Madness and I didn't do it with Fusion, and I mean, look for some people who who have genuinely full of self-confidence that might not be necessary, and fabulous, good on you, enjoy. But I'm someone who worries about things incessantly, and mulls over stuff, and makes assumptions that aren't always correct and I guess... I suppose hadn't really divested myself of the characters in the work as being segments of my imagination and nothing more, and so I felt for them all the way through in the last few months, and haven't been able to let that go. And I'm still coming to terms with that, and I'm getting better, but it's been a really steep learning curve and I won't forget it.
ASTRID: That is wonderful. Kate, thank you so much for your time today and for coming to The Garret.
KATE: Thank you so much for having me Astrid, it's been delightful. Thank you.