Lucy Treloar on writing about the hard things well

Lucy Treloar on writing about the hard things well

Lucy Treloar is a novelist. Her debut, Salt Creek, won the Dobbie Literary Award among others and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the UK's Walter Scott Prize. Wolfe Island, her second novel, won the Barbara Jefferis Award and was shortlisted for the Prime Minister's and NSW literary awards.

Lucy's essays and short fiction have appeared in publications including MeanjinThe AgeOverland and Best Australian Stories.

Lucy Treloar on writing about the hard things well


ASTRID: Lucy, welcome to The Garret. Now, first up, congratulations on your third novel, Days of Innocence and Wonder. We will be talking about that today, but before we go there I'd like to briefly revisit your first two novels, Salt Creek from 2015, which was historical fiction, and Wolf Island from 2019, which was near future speculative fiction. Both were highly awarded. From the vantage point of when we are talking now in 2023, how do you look back on those first novels?

LUCY: Oh, gosh, that's such an interesting question. When I think about Salt Creek, it feels a little bit like a starter novel to me. It was the second novel I’d written. I think I was looking for a subject that I felt some connection to, I suppose. That's why I started writing that, I had a very strong family history with the region I was writing about, and a few little fragments of stories, and wanted to explore some of the things that rose from that, including the absences, the erasures that they were in my family stories. It was just something that I started, and I'd had an offer from a publisher on the basis of a short sample, a nd I thought, you don't turn that kind of thing down! That's the thing I'm going with. I had a contract and they said could you please get that done by the end of the year, and I blanched but said, sure – even though my first book had taken about five years – and settled to it.

I really enjoyed it, it was a fantastic experience writing that novel, the whole process of editing it. But I very much didn't want to replicate that experience, not the kind of pleasures of it, but going into that material again. There would have been plenty of room for writing a sequel, I think the publisher would have been happy with that. But I said, I don't really want to get locked into writing historical fiction. I feel as if I maybe need to break out now. And they said good idea, because after two it gets quite problematic. And I just leaped out of it.

It was a really great pleasure to start writing in a contemporary world, as that world was, Wolf Island, when I started writing it. But I started writing just before Trump was elected, and I went on a research trip to the States about three days after he was elected and landed with all these completely freaked out American saying what are we going to do? And it completely changed everything about that book and my approach, because I had this political aspect to it that I was thinking about, I desperately wanted to include a little bit of that, but the only way I could think of having transgressive young people would be if they were trying to kill President Trump. And I just thought that is not going to go over very well if I have these murderous teenagers, so I moved into this speculative future. It was this problem of how to overcome the black hole that was Trump, just sucking everything into the black hole of Trump.

ASTRID: He never seems to go away, Lucy. About the novel Wolf Island, it has always stayed with me. And I mean this as a compliment, but the feel of the house, the place, the horrible future that you give us that honestly feels like we could be living it at any point, I can feel so close I can see myself living it, just left such a mark on my psyche.

LUCY: Sorry.

ASTRID: I know there's nothing for you to say to that. But I mean, if anyone listening, I do think Wolf Island is a book that you absolutely should pick up. But of course, also, let's talk about your latest work, Days of Innocence and Wonder. It is published at the end of 2023 and it is contemporary fiction. It is set very much in the present. It is set in Australia, and we do have flashbacks to about 18 years ago, but in the way some of your previous work has done this, it is very much touching on the large debates and topics of our time. You know, in some of the scenes the Ukraine War is playing out on the television sets, some of it is set during the Melbourne lockdowns, which at once feels an eternity ago and just yesterday. I'd like to talk about why the decision to set it so fully in the now in Australia.

LUCY: I've always been struck by the documentary possibilities of novels, and I've read quite a few people saying what was going on during the Spanish flu, there's no fiction that comes out of that. What a shame that is. And although… I mean lockdowns were dreadful, and I'm terribly introverted, and I still found them claustrophobic. I just thought that the possibilities of exploring some of that experience, giving it some kind of shape, of making use of that psychological atmosphere that was such a big part of the lockdowns, and it could be interesting and revelatory of this time, and on a particular character and her trauma that I was exploring. I think I was I was looking for those things, but partly it was just the fascination of documenting what I was around all the time. I find that really fascinating.

ASTRID: Lucy, I think it might be time to introduce the plot with of course, no spoilers, for Days of Innocence and Wonder.

LUCY: Okay, Days of Innocence and Wonder is about a young woman called Till, who has lived her life with the trauma of the memory of the loss of a childhood friend, who was kidnapped from kindergarten and presumed killed, and the long aftermath of that, the shadow that she lives inside and that she's always attempting to walk out of. She finds herself fleeing to South Australia at the end of lockdowns and makes a home for herself in a near ghost town, but this trouble chases her there as well. It is what she does in response to those things, the events of her life, how she deals with that, and how she tries to achieve a wholeness, I suppose, despite that trauma.

ASTRID: Till is a remarkable character, fully formed on the page as if she could almost walk into the local pub or, you know, walk down the main street of some small regional town. Where did you find Till's voice? And I guess in terms of the technique that we're talking about here, Till is the main character but not the narrative voice, not the voice of the narrator that the reader is most often engaging with.

LUCY: Yeah, I think this was the big stopping point for me. When I was starting to write this book I was completely stalled with it. My first two novels are written in first person, and I really wanted to write a close third person novel, I just thought push yourself, push yourself. It was just… I don't even know why, but I this is what I did. But I could not write it without thinking who are you third person narrator perving around in this book? You voyeur? Who are you? I was terribly… I mean, I understand the narrative voice, and I understand people have been using it for centuries. But I couldn't use it in this book with this character. I just thought, Till is a very private person, she doesn't want people watching her. Then I had this idea of splitting off this narrative voice and making them someone else who is intimately acquainted with Till and who is watching on. And as soon as I did that Till opened up, everything about her opened up, and it became possible to write her. I often have this feeling with writing, you're blundering around in a way trying to work out what's going on, and if you've stalled, then there is nothing to do but try something else. And if you can keep going after you've changed something, if the writing can proceed, then that's what you go with because that's what the aim is, to keep pursuing this book that you're looking at. Yeah, so it was her character just popped out as soon as I changed the way I saw this narrative voice. She’d been working away on her own, I’d say.

ASTRID: Is there an official name for what you did with that voice?

LUCY: I had in mind The Great Gatsby, that semi-invisible narrative voice just watching everything, knowing what was going on. I don't know what it's called, but I took it.

ASTRID: For those listening, many people are writers working on their own stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, and obviously, many writers get stalled or stopped or don't quite know how to proceed. I'd like to go back and interrogate a little bit more what you were just saying, how you did stall, and the traditional third person narrator wasn't really working for you in the way that you needed to for this character, and I guess in the way this character needed it to work. What else did you try? Or how do you experiment to find what might work?

LUCY: Well, I suppose looking back, I even tried going back to a first person voice, as if Till we're telling the whole story, but because the story is about trauma that became problematic for me… the problem of how to conceal information and reveal it when she's the one telling it. I could have gone down the unreliable narrator line, which I tried a little bit and it felt very dishonest somehow. I just couldn't make it work, so that that attempt didn't work. The other thing I tried was, I forced myself along for several thousand words in the idea of just a straight third person narration, and it was terribly stiff and self-conscious. I couldn't stop it somehow, even though I could identify what the problem was I just couldn't get that particular voice to work, it kept on stumbling along and I got these fragmentary bits and look at them and think that really is a disaster. Even two days later, ‘That's terrible. I can't write, I've never been able to write and no one's told me before. It's all you know, the end of the world’. And then then I came up with this idea, and it is still extremely hard work, but it was possible. I think it was those two basic things that I really pushed and failed at.

ASTRID: No one is ever going to tell you you're not a good writer, Lucy, just for the record.

LUCY: Anyway…

ASTRID: You've mentioned that this book deals with trauma, it very much does. It's also about violence against women, and violence against children. And on a slightly happier, less traumatic note, it is about small regional towns and community and yes, how sometimes they fall apart, but also how they can experience a new lease on life. When you are writing a story that is so heavily character driven, you know, through the character of Till, how conscious are you over really delving into the themes around the main character, and you know, here that is regional towns and violence against women.

LUCY: Really, very little, very little. What I'm really exploring is what's going on for that particular character that I'm following, and what emerges out of that is an organic process, I suppose. The other thing that I'm looking at is the place that their character lives in and what rises out of place. And for me, so often, character responds to place, character rises out of place, plot comes out of those things, the connection between those two things. And at the end of the book, when I look at it, and it's quite odd for me sometimes if I get the publishers notes and then they say, you seem to be exploring this, and here are the notes, can you write a little bit about this? And I think, have I been looking at patriarchy, have I? All right, let me see, what do I think about patriarchy? It is a very opposite process. It is, what's your book, and now what's your book about? And that's when I find out what the books are about.

The one thing that I was really interested in exploring, and this is very much in response to things that Evelyn Araluen has talked about, is the erasure – what she calls the erasure – in Australian literature of Aboriginal presence and possession of sovereign ancestral Countries. And I was extremely keen to have that as a presence in the book in this part of South Australia, because of the almost complete erasure that is now just being reversed a little bit. So that was the most conscious part of the writing.

ASTRID: I do have a question about that, actually.

LUCY: Oh, sorry.

ASTRID: You don't need to apologize! Around Till, as she becomes more part of the community, it's almost like an ensemble cast appears around her and becomes more and more part of the action and more and more part of her experience. And one of those characters is a woman called Tundra. She is a First Nations woman and she employees Till and becomes a welcoming figure and welcoming presence in Till's life. They have several quite meaningful conversations, and we hear the internal monologue of Till reflecting that she's a younger White woman, and she probably knows that she's missing out or not understanding a lot of what is happening around her or being told to her. And I guess you, Lucy, as a writer, how did you go about this? I mean, you just mentioned Evelyn Araluen and being determined not to participate in the erasure of First Nations people from contemporary literature. But how did you approach that, and do it respectfully?

LUCY: From very early on, I spent a long time trying to find person from a Ngadjuri Nation who I could talk to about, about how I could approach some of this. And in the beginning I didn't have that character as a First Nations person, only that she seemed to keep emerging as a First Nations person, the possibilities of that. But I'm very aware of the politics around this. So, I kept on writing off to people, ringing people, asking for connections, contracts. And finally, about two years into it a very helpful organization – there's a great language group in South Australia – said maybe you could try this person, and I did. She was great, very, very interested in the whole process. I went and met her several times in South Australia and talked. And she told me quite a lot information, stories and things, that I wouldn't use in the writing. But I would leave those meetings, write up everything she said, and send these notes to her. And then she would say, yes, or, you know, not this. And then I would fictionalize a lot of this material, and sent back all of the parts that related to this character for her. It was this incredibly rich, collaborative process creating this character. I've never had anything like it, and I loved it, and she liked it as well, and we're now planning to work on her oral history together. She's got this massive material, it's very kind of exciting to me, it's probably the most exciting part of the whole project. I'm really looking forward to that.

Yeah, no, it was great. That whole thing, I put a little note at the end about it in the final version of the book so people can see what that process was. I recommend it, but I know it is difficult to find the appropriate person, a person who sees any need for it, and I completely understand the resistance to it as well. It's a very delicate matter. But it did work out in this case. I'm so grateful.

ASTRID: I'd like to also talk to you about place. Much of the action occurs in a small regional town in Wirowie. Is that a real town? Or how did you use your experience to create such a town.

LUCY:  Wirowie is closely based on a town called to Terowie, which is two, three hours out of Adelaide I suppose to the north, due north. I only came across it by accident one day. I was just driving around, and I believe strongly in the Rebecca Solnit idea of getting lost to find the thing that you don't know that you're looking for. I do that a lot. And you know, it would be intolerable traveling with me on a research trip because of my double backing. I just drove into this town. And honestly, if a tumbleweed had rolled up the street, I wouldn't have been surprised. There was not a car on the street, not even parked on the side of the road. Over the course of four or five research trips there I saw a total of four people. There are ruins everywhere, these exquisite, late 19th century shop fronts that are all falling apart. It's a genuine ghost town. It's the most fascinating, resonant place. I did that, I walked around this town many times. I took photographs, I took footage of it. I wrote notes while I was there. What I'm trying to do, which is not wildly unlike the Covid thing, is document the thing that I'm looking at. There's that kind of documentary phase. What is it that I'm seeing? What am I feeling? What's going on in this town? And then when I went back to Melbourne writing that. I guess in a way it is this… Annie Ernaux talks about transfiguring reality. I think there is this process in writing, when you're doing research, that you are transfiguring that reality into this fictional form of that reality. Yeah, I love all of that, that landscape stuff, the town, the world building, how that happens.

ASTRID: Your world building is beautiful. I'm going to probably take the tone down a little bit, and you just referred to the Covid thing I would like to talk about the Covid thing just for a moment. To be clear to those listening, this is not a Covid novel. However, there are scenes that take place during the lockdowns and, in my reading, I am beginning to see books published in Australia, works of fiction, that reference that time. And sometimes it's very light on, you know, a reference to masks or a reference to those times we were in lockdown. This has extended scenes during that period, some wonderfully happy, some very much not. I guess you mentioned the documentary element, but I've had a lot of people say in the industry, oh, no one wants to read anything to do with Covid, leave it out. Did you get that from your editors or publishers? What was your drive to include it in parts?

LUCY: It is a really difficult thing to approach, and I had read the same things while I was writing, this disinclination for publishers to approach that, constant reports about how everyone wants to read upbeat material, we are all looking for dressing gown books. I don't really want those books myself, but I'm obviously an exception. But I must say that the publishers – and this this is very Pan Macmillan – they want to support the book that the author wants to write. And I am so grateful for that. But I also had to, for myself, interrogate what it was that I wanted to have it in there for. If it were just for documentary purposes, I don't think that's enough for it to justify its spot in a book. And so, to an extent that material was trimmed back a little bit to heighten the psychological effect that I was aiming for with it. It was principally that this feeling of Till’s claustrophobia, that was partly related to lockdown, but also about this intensely dreadful, haunting feeling that she has about the loss of her childhood friend. The way I uses lockdown, particularly the way she walked around the lanes of the inner north of Melbourne, as a metaphor for that psychological compression that she feels, and that was the more important component of Covid times. And to reveal something of her relationship with her parents as well, I suppose.

ASTRID: Lucy, I have a final question for you, and it is perhaps an odd one, and yet it is something I find myself deeply wanting to ask you. Till has a dog companion, a greyhound called Birdie. I got so scared at various points thinking you got to kill off Birdie. The dog is okay, everybody. That's not a spoiler, but the dog is okay. But it's a beautiful relationship. And in many ways, Birdie is her best friend and constant companion. I am interested in the relationships between humans and other species. I have had a beautiful discussion with Briohny Doyle about this, and how she…

LUCY: I love her book. Yeah, she has dogs as companions in her work.

ASTRID: I wanted to interrogate that with you as well.

LUCY: I mean, there are a couple of things about having a dog in a book. This is about a woman, a young woman who because of Covid and because she's traveling on her own and living on her own for quite a while until she makes connections with this new place that she lives, there is something about a dog that gives a point of interaction and breaks up that constant interior monologue, that quality of interiority, which gets a bit claustrophobic on its own. It gives her something to talk to. But I think the other thing about dogs is there is a lack of judgment from dogs that makes them particularly useful for Till, who is judging herself constantly, but she has this dog who never judges her, who just listens to her fretting about various things, and you know, is her companion. Anyway, I don't really know what to say about dogs. I have dogs, I adore my dogs. They are not children. They are a parallel species that my family has always lived with. For me if there is no dog around, and I'm sure it's the same for people with cats, I just think, but where is that register of your life? And one of my sons said to me one day, he loves going round to a friend's place, but he said it's weird, they have no animals! I've said to myself, I'm not going to have a dog in the next book, but I find it quite troubling the thought of it. How do you live a life without a dog or an animal the things that they give you in your life?

ASTRID: That is such a wonderful question for us all to ask, Lucy. Thank you. Congratulations again on your latest work, Days of Innocence and Wonder. It is a wonderful read.

LUCY: Thank you so much, and thanks for having me.