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North Melbourne Books: It’s 1945. Germany is losing the war. Three Prussian children – Liesl, Otto and baby Mia – flee the advancing Russian army. The Wolf children (that is their surname) have lost their mother and beloved grandparents in the mad exodus, and their physically disabled father has been drafted to fight. The children muster all their survival skills to find food and warm places to sleep, while also trying to avoid danger.
How did you find out about this story and what made you want to turn it into a novel.
Katrina Nannestad: I was searching online for something quite different when I came across an article about the Wolfskinder. I read on and followed the links at the bottom of each page. I was fascinated by these stories of children, surviving on their own, in the harsh end-of-war environment that existed in East Prussia. I was also surprised that I’d never heard these stories before. I realised that if I hadn’t heard them, perhaps they’d be new to others as well. It’s always exciting, as a writer, to think you might be sharing something that is completely new to your readers.
The other significant factor in my decision to write this book is that these stories of the Wolfskinder have a timelessness about them. They deal with big themes – war and the scars it leaves on everyone involved; the plight of refugees; personal and cultural identity; and the power of kindness and love to change lives.
NMB: We Are Wolves has a realistic feel. How did you go about researching the novel to get all the details right? Did you have to read a lot?
KN: I did a lot of research – before and during the writing of my book. I started by looking at the stories of the Wolfskinder and the German people fleeing East Prussia at the end of the war, reading whatever I could find online and in books, watching documentaries and interviews. I read two great autobiographies – one long, detailed account by a Wolfskind, and another short humble account by a child refugee. Both were gold, providing wonderful personal details from a child’s point of view. When I ran out of information specific to the Wolfskinder and the child refugees, I expanded my search to read about the history of East Prussia and the tumultuous events surrounding the end of World War II.
There were many times when I stopped mid-writing and searched some more to fill the gaps in my knowledge. How did people ever write historical novels before the internet existed? It must have taken sooooo long!
NMB: There are some quirky, unusual scenes in the novel. In one part of the story Russian soldiers throw their socks in a toilet bowl, thinking it’s a washtub. Did things like this really happen?
KN: I read a lot of stories about the Red Army and their behaviour on entering East Prussia and other German regions. There were many terrible things done to the German population, but there were also funny stories and those that were a mix of tragedy and comedy.
The wealth found in Germany was bamboozling to many Red Army soldiers – the paved roads, the fine buildings, industry, farms, the individual wealth of families, household objects like washing machines and fridges. They couldn’t understand why such a rich country would bother to invade the Soviet Union, which had so little in comparison.
Interestingly, I seemed to come across a lot of poop stories! Indoor bathrooms were foreign to many Red Army soldiers, particularly those from a peasant background. The true purpose of flushing toilets was not always understood, and they were occasionally used to keep things cold. I imagine a small bottle of vodka or a wrapped cheese would sit comfortably in the porcelain bowl, surrounded by water, keeping cool and fresh! But one flush could make a light object vanish and so the toilet was named by some as the ‘stealing machine’.'
Drunkenness, too, was a huge problem once the Red Army entered Germany. At one place, a few soldiers found a basement filled with kegs of wine. They thought the fastest way to get to the drink was to shoot holes in the barrels and fill their canteens as the fluid poured out. They drank so much that they passed out, but by this stage, the floor was flooded with a foot of wine and they drowned.
Of course, many of these stories were not appropriate for a children’s novel but made for some interesting (and confronting) reading.
NMB: Liesl goes through a transformation in the novel. She starts out loving Hitler as a good man, but reality eventually crashes through this false image. Did you find this a complicated transformation to write?
KA: I didn’t find this really complicated, but I did have to plan the process of revealing Liesl’s growing awareness. At the start of the book, we see that Liesl has been completely indoctrinated by society and the education system, and she has not been exposed to anything that would conflict with these ideas of a great Germany, a benevolent Hitler and a bright, prosperous future.
In writing my story, it felt quite natural that, as Liesl was exposed to the horrors of war, she would begin to question the disparity between what she was promised and what was actually happening. The war ends with Germany’s defeat and Hitler’s death, and then there is no doubt in Liesl’s mind that she has been deceived.
Another aspect of Liesl’s growing awareness comes from her interaction with the Red Army. She learns of German cruelty and greed in the Soviet Union, and experiences the kindness and generosity of individual enemy soldiers firsthand. She begins to understand that nationality and race have nothing to do with good and evil, that war is damaging to everyone, and that love is what matters most.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
KN: I’ve just started reading Northanger Abbey, for the millionth time. I adore Jane Austen’s rant, early in the book, against society’s disgust for the novel as a literary form. She declares that the novel is ‘only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language’. I find it very affirming.
I’ve had a full year of writing and I’m tired, so I’ve been comfort reading. For me this means snuggling up with old favourites (like Northanger Abbey) and choosing new books that are filled with humour. I’ve just read Two Caravans and We Are All Made of Glue, both by Marina Lewycka. They are wonderful – colourful stories with rich characters, a great plot and lots of laugh-out-loud moments.
We Are Wolves, by Katrina Nannestad. Published by ABC Books. $19.99
North Melbourne Books: Sixteen-year-old Ford McCullen lives with his mother and maternal grandparents, Noonie and Pop, in a block of flats in Coburg, near Pentridge Prison. It’s the early 2000s and the suburb is gentrifying, with the prison being turned into boutique apartments. Ford has a lot on his plate. He has been sent to school in posh Toorak, causing feelings of dislocation, his mother is emotionally fragile and in need of help, and to cap it all off, his relationship with his father is strained to breaking point. The novel is narrated by Ford and uses the unvarnished language of sixteen-year old boys. It’s often emotionally raw and deals with the hurt caused by unstable family life.
Was it a difficult or perhaps cathartic book for you to write?
Tobias McCorkell: The answer is, of course, both. The book was difficult for two reasons: On the technical side of things, one of the trickiest aspects of writing a book of this nature is trying to render things accurately – the “unvarnished language” and “emotional rawness” of the teenage perspective, as you rightly point out – while knowing there’s a chance you’ll alienate the prudes and the people who make demarcations between the high and the low, particularly when I aspire to bridge the high with the low. Threading together the confluence of influences – which included things as various as The Catcher in the Rye, the novels of John and Dan Fante, Anita Brookner’s characteristic introspection, as well as gold standard Melbourne texts, Loaded and Monkey Grip – was a hard job, but I like to think I pulled it off, if only in part.
Emotionally, it was a difficult book to write, too. I’d spent years trying and failing to write a memoir, and that process nearly killed me. When I was shaping the novel, though, it was quite hard digging into some of this material and from that trying to craft scenes, where I was distilling so much raw feeling into only a few pages, especially some of the smaller/quieter moments, the intimacies and ponderances that come after the more explosive scenes, which, even reading them now, leave me a bit fed up with the world. Facing up to that kind of vulnerability makes you vulnerable, and the process left me pretty exhausted at times. (For those interested, you can read about my experience writing the novel at leekofman.com.au.)
But yes, it was cathartic! It was good to vanquish some of the material, and finishing any novel is always a triumph!
NMB: There is quite a bit of humour in the book. The scene where Ford is bashed but worries about losing his “Caravaggio boy” looks provides an unexpected laugh. And the descriptions of some of the dingy houses and décor are brilliant. Do you find humour can spring naturally from otherwise bleak and grim scenarios?
TM: It has to! You can’t have the funny without the sad, the light without the dark. Meanness and cruelty are often essential to humour, not that I’m intent on being mean or cruel as an author. Personally, I’d say I have a healthy sense of humour – I like to laugh and I’ve long been obsessed with stand-up comedy – and I can’t imagine writing without getting a giggle from the reader from time to time. Life is funny, after all.
It’s a bit like sex. Writers, particularly those who want to be seen as “literary” or “serious”, too often avoid venturing into the places where you’re most likely to be humiliated, where an audience might be induced to cringe. But ultimately, it’s cowardly – nobody wants to risk not having someone laugh at their joke, or to be thought of as being a little ‘pervy’, yet avoiding certain areas does a disservice to what I believe writing is for, and that’s responding to life. How can you write about life without humour or without talking about sex? Frankly, I don’t want to read a novel written by somebody who doesn’t wank or chuckle (at least, occasionally).
NMB: Ford goes through a lot in the novel – shame, guilt, confusion – to arrive at a tentative resolution of his life and family problems. Do you think Ford triumphs in the end?
TM: I have no idea. And I like not knowing. The novel’s resolution, I think, is open to interpretation, and ultimately it will come down to whether you’re a glass half full or a glass half empty type of person to determine what you extract from the final moment of the novel – there’s a reason I’ve employed a non-literary device with which to end the book, after all. I didn’t want for there to be even so much as a last word, I just wanted the reader to be left with a feeling, whatever it is to them, and for that feeling, hopefully, to echo for a moment or two after they’ve closed the cover.
NMB: The novel is also a love letter to Coburg. How much has the suburb changed since you grew up there?
TM: A lot! I’m actually back living with my mother right now as a result of the pandemic having added more precarity to an already precarious work-life. The simplest summary of the changes is to look at the real estate: houses that were worth about $350,000 when I was a child are now going for well over a million, and in many cases they’re being knocked down to accommodate multiple units (or “dog boxes”, as Mum calls them). On our street, three doors down, a gorgeous weatherboard was knocked down and three “dog boxes” were erected in its place, each one going for $1.2 million. That’s crazy money; it’s hard to reason why people are paying so much more for so much less. It seems inevitable to me that the type of person moving into that kind of house is going to be a pain in the neck.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
I’m about to dive into the new Martin Amis, and I’ve recently gone and read all of Michel Houellebecq’s novels, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing back to back. Mostly, though, over the last two years I’ve been on a long streak of bleak, romantic novels – affairs that don’t work out, that kind of thing – as well as on a quest to read more ‘campus novels’.
But I’d like to recommend, if I can, Relatively Famous by Roger Averill, a fairly recent and underrated Melbourne novel. Get on it!
Everything in its Right Place, by Tobias McCorkell. Published by Transit Lounge. $29.99
Photo credit: Phil Timberlake
North Melbourne Books: Skunk and Badger is a classic odd couple story, with a couple of twists. Badger is a rock scientist, and when Skunk suddenly turns up to move in, he brings a flock of chicken friends that create a lot of chaos. Badger gets exasperated with Skunk and his eccentric way of living, and decides he can no longer stand it, but then soon realises his feelings for Skunk are more complicated.
How did you come up with the idea for this story?
Amy Timberlake: By daydreaming when I was supposed to be working on another book project! For research for this other project, I re-read A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories and thus, a daydream began. I started to wonder what kind of story I would write if I wrote a story in the style of those Winnie-the-Pooh stories. I didn’t want to make another “Winnie-the-Pooh” but what would happen if I wrote something episodic with animals who say, wore sweaters and lived in a gentler world? What kind of story would I tell? I also thought it would be great to write something that appealed to a wide range of readers so the story could be read aloud and everyone in the room (age six to ninety-six) could enjoy it. Eventually, I wanted to try it. So I set that other project aside and wrote Skunk and Badger.
NMB: In the book we learn how complicated our emotions can be, and that when we get irritated with people, we can also be growing fond of them at the same time. Did you have a particular theme in mind for the book when you wrote it?
AT: When I’m working on a story, I don’t have themes in mind at all. I let the story go where it needs to go. I will say that I wanted the emotional life to be as true as I could make it. I like emotional complexities in my books.
NMB: There is a scene when Skunk lets loose with his spray. You describe in vivid detail what a skunk’s spray smells like. Have you smelt it yourself, or did you write from imagination?
AT: Oh yes! Skunk spray is a smell we know well here in the United States. Open your window on a summer evening and it may waft through your window stirring you from sleep. Skunks are forever trying to teach dogs to back off. Dogs seem to be slow learners.
NMB: Jon Klassen’s illustrations are as wonderful as you would expect. How close did you work with him in deciding what needed to be depicted visually and were there a lot of conversations about chickens?
AT: Ha! Chickens! Yes, I can see how it would seem that we’d need to have a lot of discussion about chickens given what’s in the text! Hmmm... I may have passed along the title of a chicken breed book, but that’s it. The truth is, Jon and I didn’t speak until the project was near completion.
I did see illustrations through my editor, Elise Howard. And the illustrations were gorgeous — every single time. Jon always got the emotion, the style, the feel of these scenes exactly right. Sometimes the art was so good it felt eerie — for instance, I thought I’d seen his illustrations before I’d actually seen them. I don’t know how he did that. All I can say is that Jon Klassen is really good. Wow.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
AT: I’m doing this thing where I read all the novels written by a writer I love. It’s been great! So for instance, I’ve read all of Kate Atkinson’s novels (and just read Big Sky, the most recent Jackson Brodie to keep up-to-date). I’m finishing up Margaret Atwood now with Life Before Man. (I don’t read in order published. This one is from the late 1970s.) Next up to finish? Paulette Jiles, my favorite writer of North American historical fiction. If you haven’t dipped into her work yet, I recommend News of the World, The Color of Lightning and Enemy Women. And after Paulette Jiles, I’m going to work on a writer from your continent, Tim Winton. I cannot wait to read more of Tim Winton’s writing!
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake. Illustrated by Jon Klassen. Published by Allen & Unwin. $22.99
North Melbourne Books: Your book gives ten essential rules to win an election. What inspired you to write such a brutally frank guide to winning elections?
Chris Wallace: I am sick of waking up the morning after the election night before knowing the wrong government is in office again for another three years unnecessarily - that had Labor been better in its basic political craft across a range of really obvious areas, it could have and should have won. Don't forget, the Morrison Government's majority is just two seats. Two seats!
Federal elections are so often so close in Australia that I have this experience way too often. Labor has been in office federally for only 6 of the last 24 years. The result is bad government by political parties wholly-owned by mining interests and increasingly dominated by religious fundamentalists. To break this cycle of political dystopia and bring back decent government and good policy federally, Labor has to learn again how to win an election. My book is designed to flick on a light bulb in the heads of Labor politicians, staffers and party officials about the ten essential things they have to systematically do during and between elections to avoid unnecessary losses like the one suffered in 2019.
NMB: The ten rules lean heavily towards realpolitik. Should we be depressed that politics is often more calculation than inspiration?
CW: No. We should draw inspiration from the fact that systematic attention to the ten things outlined in How To Win An Election can make the election of decent governments way more likely, more often. I use sporting analogies a lot in the book, especially AFL ones. I argue that if political parties were managed as well as professional sporting teams are in Australia, and if political journalists covered politics as well as sports journalists cover sport, our politics would be way better - and certainly Labor would win more often.
With climate change toasting the planet, neoliberalism intensifying the redistribution of wealth to the rich, and Morrison Government pandemic policies making Depression-era levels of unemployment likely (and sending women back to the kitchen in the process), it's urgent for everybody that federal Labor stops failing at the only poll that counts: the one on election day.
NMB: The style and tone of How to Win an Election is at times darkly comic. Do you have any favourite political writers who inspire you?
I've taken the unusual step of putting myself in the mind of the 'failed leader' in a short passage at the beginning of each chapter, starting with the morning after an election loss, moving over the course of the book through the political equivalent of the 'seven stages of grief', and coming out the other side. I don't think we do this enough, put ourselves in the shoes of key players and explore their mindsets. The scales fall from the eyes of the 'failed leader' in the process. They learn a lot about their unnecessary loss but too late to put it into practice: someone else has become leader of the opposition. Hopefully readers will enjoy the insights provided by this intimate, imagined view!
As for favourite political writers, I'm just reading Blanche d'Alpuget's 'Plantagenet' series on Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the fifth book of which - The Cub's Roar - is about to be published. Now that's politics! I'm also a British politics swat and love Mick Herron's 'Slow Horses' series about a bunch of fallen MI6 operatives banished to the outer reaches of the organisation, overseen by 'Jackson Lamb' (think a somewhat psychopathic spy service version of Dalziel from Dalziel and Pascoe). The series features a politician called 'Peter Judd' who is uncannily like a certain UK prime minister who shall remain unnamed (B*ris J#hnson) - so alike I can't believe Herron hasn't been sued. There's a pretty good N1gel F@rage impersonation and even a certain Royal who has been in the news of late. When you read the publication dates on the books, it's like Mick Herron has a crystal ball he's seeing the future through and channelling it as a key thread in his 'Slow Horses' plots. Great stuff.
NMB: One of the paradoxes you highlight is that leaders need great self-belief, but not to the point that it hampers clear thinking. Do you see these qualities much on display at the moment?
CW: Leaders are incredibly important - not everything, but crucial. It's up to all of us to show leadership, whatever our position. The trouble with party leaders is that they tend to come to the job thinking they uniquely understand how to do it, and do it better than their predecessor. What happens too often instead is that they repeat their predecessor's errors rather than learning from them, and externalise the costs of their mistake onto all of us all by helping the other side get elected through their own underperformance. How To Win An Election is partly designed to break that cycle, not least by drawing attention to this problem and highlighting the role of 'group think' that insulates leaders from a realistic view of their performance and prospects.
Are these qualities much on display at the moment? I'll pass on that. Let's give the incumbents the chance to read the book, reflect and readjust first. It's only fair.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
CW: Just finished Kate Grenville's fabulous A Room Made of Leaves and just beginning Cass Sunstein's How Change Happens, in parallel with reading d'Alpuget's 'Plantagenet' books. Barry Maitland is about to visit Canberra and I can't wait to hit him up at lunch for another Brock and Kolla book which surely can't be far off.
How to Win an Election, by Chris Wallace. Published by New South Books. $29
North Melbourne Books: Swimming in the Dark is set in 1980, Poland. Two youths, Ludwik and Janusz, meet at an agricultural camp and begin a passionate affair which they must keep secret. Tensions arise for the two young men as Ludwik resists the hypocrisies of the Communist regime, while Janusz believes in working within the corrupt system to gain advantage. It's a deeply melancholy story. What made you decide to write about this part of Poland's history?
Tomasz Jedrowski: When I began to write the novel I was working as a solicitor in London and feeling quite lost. Ludwik’s and Janusz’s story was a way for me to reconnect with my country and its past, and to explore the historical and social context into which I was born. The whole process really confirmed the old adage that you cannot move on with your life if you haven’t faced what came before you.
NMB: The novel neatly ties in the personal with the political. Ludwik wants to live an authentic life, one which the state frowns upon, even persecutes. While Janusz is willing to suppress and hide his sexuality, even jeopardising his relationship, in order to avoid trouble. What do you see as the book's main themes?
TJ: To me it’s a book about personal integrity. I’m fascinated by the ways we construct our lives and the stories we tell ourselves to justify our choices. Everyone has a uniquely different past, and so we cannot judge or truly change others. Although of course that doesn’t stop us from trying.
NMB: There's a section in the novel where Ludwik faces blackmail because of his sexuality, with some truly horrible consequences. How bad was Poland for gay people in the 1980s under Communist rule?
TJ: Since I did not live through these times, and experience is ultimately subjective, I can only speculate. My feeling is that the most painful and humiliating aspect of life as a queer person back then was self-censorship, caused by society’s contempt for anyone not conforming to sexual norms. Homosexuality was not illegal but it was considered so abnormal and shameful that most queer people lived all their lives in the shadows, believing themselves to be somehow less worthy. Though there has been considerable progress in Poland and elsewhere, internalised homophobia continues to be a major problem, and one which we’ll be facing for generations to come.
NMB: The story's historical setting is highly believable, yet is not written from your memory of the time. How did you go about researching and constructing the novel?
TJ: I knew I had to move to Poland in order to do the story justice, so that’s what I did. I trawled through libraries and archives to find what I could on the topic (mostly scraps), and spoke to as many people as I could find (not many) in order to reconstruct the era. But in the end I found that being in Poland and allowing my intuition to roam free was just as important as actual research. In a strange way it felt like the story was already inside me and didn’t need too many facts.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
TJ: Since I’m in the process of writing, I’m having trouble concentrating on novels. So I’m dipping in and out of poetry (Walt Whitman, Czesław Miłosz) and non-fiction books such as Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels or Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own. And I just finished Amy Schumer’s autobiography The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo!
Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski. Published by Bloomsbury. $29.99
Photo credit: Virginia Murdoch
North Melbourne Books: Tippy and Jellybean live in the forest. One day they wake up and smell smoke. Tippy and Jellybean start climbing their tree, hoping to find safety. After the fire passes, they are rescued by a fireman and flown to safety. Tippy and Jellybean is based on a true story. How did you learn about these lucky koalas?
Sophie Cunningham: I was talking to the publisher of Albert Street Books, Susannah Chambers, about how sad I was given the number of animals that died during this summer’s bushfires and Susannah alerted me to an article in The Age, about Tippy and Jellybean. After that we spoke to people at the Melbourne zoo, and others who knew what was happening for Tippy and Jellybean so we could keep track of their story.
NMB: The plight of Australian animals during the recent bushfires upset many people who felt helpless at what was happening. Was your decision to write a book for children to help them understand what occurred?
SC: Yes, exactly. Historically speaking public concern has been focused on the affect of fires on humans but during the period of these recent fires my greatest concern was for the loss of wildlife. I was particularly worried about Koalas because I knew their numbers in the wild had been rapidly diminishing for years because of habitat loss. This has been a result of development, of drought, and now, of bushfire. I think it’s really important that we know how tough events like a fire are on our animals and our landscapes. (I’ve touched on these topics in my writing for adults as well.) You can’t shield children from these events. They pick up what is going on whether you want them to or not, so it’s important to give them the information that allows them to understand what is going on rather than just feel bad or strange about something they can’t articulate.
NMB: Anil Tortup's illustrations do an incredible job at depicting not only the beauty of Australia's creatures and bushland but also the horrific devastation caused by the fires. How important was it to strike a balance between showing how frightening it must have been as well as the effects of recovery and rejuvenation?
SC: The illustrations are amazing, aren’t they? So full of feeling and complex emotion, but so hopeful. Anil and I didn’t talk about these things with each other but I know we both thought alot about them, and each spoke to Susannah about these issues. I worked really hard to try and convey the severity of the situation for Tippy and Jellybean, without being scary, or sentimental. Animals are practical, they are survivors and they are brave. This is to be celebrated. Working on the book, and on Tippy and Jellybean’s story, gave me hope. I hope it does the same for its readers.
NMB: The urgent care given to the koalas and other animals during the bushfires was provided by the generous contributions of vets and nurses. Knowing that more fires in the future are inevitable what do you think we should be doing to ensure these people have adequate resources?
SC: I think we need to take the work of our vets and nurses as seriously as we take the work of our firefighters. We often focus on human lives and built infrastructure during fires but we have to start taking the life of our landscapes and its animals as seriously. If we don’t we will lose them. So I suppose the answer is about funding, but it’s also about mindset and the way we develop policies, and work with the land in a sustainable way. I don’t want to live in a world without koala or spotted quoll or lyrebirds or black cockatoo or frogs. I don’t want to live in a world without trees. Children don’t want that either.
NMB: Care and kindness are themes that run throughout the book. Whether it be Tippy's determination to protect Jellybean or Kami the Vet's crucial medical help. By purchasing a copy of Tippy and Jellybean, $1 from every copy sold will be donated to the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund. In what other ways do you think readers both young and old can continue to help?
SC: There are lots of things we can do. A good start is to contact organisations such as Wildlife Victoria, Wires, the Animal Rescue Collective and more local or animal specific organisation and ask them how to prepare for the next bushfire season. You can volunteer. You can do training. You can donate money. Consciousness raise. Practical things are important —like leaving water out for animals during hot weather, thinking about what native wildlife need and want when you are planning your garden, and educating ourselves about how to handle distressed animals should we find them. And in terms of the big picture, maybe people can consider the kind of training and education they want. Be a vet! Be a botanist! Be an environmentalist! Perhaps the most important thing is to remember this: we’re all — humans, animals and the land — in this together. We are all, ultimately part of the same ecosystem and community.
Tippy and Jellybean, by Sophie Cunningham. Illustrated by Anil Tortop. Published by Albert Street Books. $19.99
(Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan)
North Melbourne Books: Susan Sontag was a towering intellectual figure of the twentieth century, her writings on the arts, literature and politics both controversial and compelling. Despite her confidence behind the pen, Sontag was also a difficult, divided character, at war with others, but mostly herself.
What made you want to write a biography of Susan Sontag?
Benjamin Moser: I like complicated figures. I like divas. They're so much more fun to write about. And it's fascinating to see how a woman as accomplished and brilliant as Sontag was as conflicted as anyone else -- in fact, in many ways, more so. There's a larger-than-life quality to her that makes her an absolutely intriguing person to read about. Because in some ways she's so recognizable. You learn so much from her. She was so utterly brilliant. She did everything, went everywhere, knew everyone -- yet at the same time she was plagued by many of the same problems that anyone else is. The tension between the public person and the private person is in some ways the theme of my book -- as it was a major theme of her own work.
NMB: Your book contains a daunting amount of research. Was the Susan Sontag you had in mind when you began the book the same as the one you finished with? What were some of the surprising discoveries about her character?
BM: This is such a great question, and what pops into my mind is the difference between the person you know at the beginning of a long marriage and the person you come to know after years of sharing the same house. Is it the same person? Yes. But do you have a deepened, more nuanced understanding of the person you married? Also yes. With Sontag, I think it's fascinating to see how she could be such a different figure for different people. When you do the amount of research I did -- I interviewed 573 people, all over the world -- you see how complex and fascinating she was, how hard she was to pin down. I'm not trying to pin her down, though: I'm just trying to explain how and why she resonated for people.
NMB: A major source of personal conflict for Sontag was her sexuality. She kept it hidden, even from those close to her, such as her sister. The book does a brilliant job of explaining the sexual liberation movements of the 60s and 70s, and the later impact of AIDS on the gay community. Sontag was at the forefront of so many revolutions, why do you think she struggled with this one?
BM: She grew up in a completely homophobic world. Actually, scratch that. I don't really like the word homophobic -- it suggests an irrational fear, whereas what a lot of anti-gay sentiment is just pure hate. She grew up in a world where gay people were completely invisible. They were not seen, they were not spoken of. And their relationships were against the law -- so I think that Sontag internalized a lot of the fear that that invisibility and persecution brought. She had lots of relationships with women, of course, but I think that she never could quite embrace that part of herself. Yet I think that by reading about her life in this context, we can all be amazed and grateful for the progress that the gay rights movement has made in so many parts of the world.
NMB: Despite Sontag's huge influence, her oeuvre is quite sparse. Her reputation rests mostly on her essay collections and some later fiction. How do you think she will best be remembered?
BM: It's not that sparse! She wrote quite a lot, when you put it all together. And that's a point I never tire of making: this book is a door into that work. It's a window. It's an invitation to get to know the work of one of the most challenging and interesting of modern thinkers. It helps that she's also about the most interesting person you'll ever encounter.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
BM: I know this sounds obnoxious, but I am reading Volume 5 of Proust, which is the ideal companion in quarantine. I'm reading Porochista Khakpour's brand new Brown Album, about Iranians in exile. I'm reading William Dalrymple's The Anarchy, about the British conquest of India. And I'm reading the newspaper with horror and alarm and hoping this will all be over soon.
Sontag: Her Life, by Benjamin Moser. Published by Allen Lane $59.99. (Paperback available from 17th November. $22.99).
North Melbourne Books: Fourteen chronicles in harrowing detail a year of intense homophobic bullying you experienced at the age of fourteen. Beatings, betrayals and a feeling of constant humiliation filled your school days. Teachers and guardians were of no help, allowing the abuse to go unchecked. What made you want to tell your story?
Shannon Molloy: Four years ago, at the height of the Safe Schools controversy, I was on the train on the way home from work when I read a news story about an MP giving a speech in Parliament. He described the program as a way for gay men to ‘groom’ children.
I was horrified. I felt an intense mix of rage and deep sadness. And I thought, if this bothers me, as a privileged and settled 30-year-old man… imagine what 14-year-old me would feel?
Imagine what a confused and scared kid in the regions, seeing an elected official stand in the hallowed Parliament House, to describe people like me as paedophiles, would feel in that moment.
I got home and bashed out this first-person opinion piece about why we need a program like Safe Schools and began it with a story about trying to kill myself when I was 14.
The response was phenomenal. Among all of the lovely messages from friends, family and strangers, were far too many notes from men like me who’d experienced something similar, from boys like I was who still do live through that same hell, and from mothers whose boys weren’t lucky enough to survive like I had.
So, I realised there was a story here that could maybe give people hope and remind people of where we’ve come from and how far we still have to go.
NMB: The book is intensely personal, going into so many painful experiences. Was it a difficult book to write?
SM: I joke that it was like free therapy that I got paid for.
There was tough parts to relive, especially the ill-fated romance with Tom, but it was also a hugely cathartic story.
Much of this book was totally unknown to the people who love me and know me the best. My mother didn’t know a lot of it, and she’s basically my best friend. I’d barely told my husband little bits and pieces.
I realised that 20 years later, I was still living with the shame, trauma, anger and sadness of that horrible year. I had squashed it all into a little box and buried it deep in my soul. By coming face to face with it and putting it all down on a page, I could finally acknowledge what happened to me and let it hurt. It felt OK that it hurt.
And I could finally grieve for the childhood that I lost.
NMB: How did you remember the chronology of events for that single year? Did you use a diary? Did friends help with their memories?
SM: That was one of the most challenging parts of it – figuring out when things happened!
I did keep a diary during those years, but in some sort of hyper dramatic moment in my mid-teens, I set fire to them all. I can’t remember why. I suspect it had something to do with a boy.
I was lucky (in a strange way) that a lot of terrible things happened at school, and so I could link it to some element of time that I recalled. The start of winter break. Being near a school dance. That kind of thing.
Also, a lot of my memories are tied to music. I can still hear a song from that era now and I’m instantly taken back to a particular point.
We used to watch Video Hits and Rage every weekend and listen to the Weekly Top 40 on radio. I did a lot of research to figure out when songs linked to memories were in the charts, so that helped me place important moments in the year.
But, I’ve probably got something wrong, I’m sure. A few were tough. There was one event that happened when it was not too hot, not too cold… so either autumn or spring. I flipped a coin for that one.
NMB: The most astonishing thing about Fourteen is how teachers let so much bullying go unremarked. In one shocking example, a school counsellor says you are to blame for the bullying because of the way you walked! The book is set in the late 90s. Do you think things have improved much today, 20 years on?
SM: I really hope so. I really want to give some deeply hopeful and optimistic message about how wonderful things must be now for kids.
But one of my main subjects that I cover as a reporter is mental health, and so I know that things aren’t fine. I know that gay, lesbian and bisexual kids are six times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. I know that for trans kids, it’s double that number.
I know that LGBT kids are still excluded and taunted by their peers and so tend to withdraw socially in their key adolescent development years, which can have life-long ramifications.
I know that LGBT kids are twice as likely to experience homelessness – and younger.
I think teachers are better and more open-minded. I think schools are more accountable (because they have to be). And I think kids know more now than ever, even if just a little more, that they can be whoever they want.
But there’s still much room for improvement.
NMB: What would be your advice to young gay people in school today?
SM: It’s so cliché but it’s true. It gets better. Oh my, how it gets better. You find your people. Your find your place in the world. You can do whatever you want with your life. Life can be wonderful!
It’s not all perfect, of course. It’s hard. But you get to choose how you deal with all that stuff, surrounded by a group of people who love you exactly the way you are.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
SM: I’m not very good at doing two things at once and so I actually haven’t read a book since I started writing mine. That’s actually shocking to admit.
So, now that this is done and out in the world, I’m returning to the pile of bought but ignored books, starting with my dear friend Rick Morton’s best-seller One Hundred Years Of Dirt. It came out 18 months ago. I’m a terrible friend.
Fourteen: My Year of Darkness, and the Light that Followed, by Shannon Molloy. Published by Simon & Schuster. $29.99
North Melbourne Books: When Melbourne journalist Chrissie O'Brian is asked to write a puff piece about a female crane operator working at the Port of Melbourne, she gets more than she bargained for. Where the Truth Lies is your debut novel. What made you write about the wharves?
Karina Kilmore: I come from a big political and social justice family and on both sides of my family there is a very strong connection to the wharves and sea trade. Right back to the early 1800s, I’m descended from a New Zealand whaling captain but in more recent generations my grandfather and great uncles, even a great aunt, worked on the wharves or trucked goods to the docks. However, I have also studied and worked in business, as a finance journalist, so I understand the profit drive of companies on behalf of their investors and shareholders and I wanted to highlight that tribal difference between the two worlds.
NMB: Your main character, Chrissie, has a compelling backstory. She's vulnerable yet tenacious, determined to prove herself but haunted by her past. How did this character evolve?
KK: Chrissie’s role as a journalist has definitely come from my career working in newspapers. Newsrooms have been such a big and important part of my life and they’re such a great melting pot of people — with lots of great characters! For the purpose of the book, I wanted to show that journalism is such an all-absorbing and demanding job that it’s very easy to completely bury yourself in your work, no matter what is going on with your personal life. I wanted to demonstrate how Chrissie could be at the top of her game during working hours but also be a bit of a wreck after hours. I also liked the idea of having her pushing to expose the truth about others but at the same time, she’s desperate to keep her own secrets hidden. I also wanted to create a constant tension in her private life as well as her work life.
NMB: The story has a gritty, realistic feel, with loads of local colour. Melbourne readers especially will enjoy the descriptions of the city's gardens, backstreets and markets. Did you make a conscious decision to stick to writing what you know?
KK: Actually, I’m not a native of Melbourne so I’m glad you get a real sense of the city. Possibly this is because I see everything with slightly fresher eyes. Sometimes I think we stop seeing what’s around us because we’ve seen it too often. But Melbourne is one of the most fascinating and beautiful cities in the world and I’m amazed by it almost daily. It has such a great creative heart which comes out in almost every part of the city; the huge range of architecture, the cultural traditions in each suburb, the landscape and gardens, the amazing markets, even the sounds, the rivers and the trams — it’s all very Melbourne. I’m lucky to live in the inner city, too, so I’m constantly finding new lanes and secret pockets, sometimes whole suburbs! But like all cities, it also has a dark underside, for example, I live near the North Richmond drug injecting room and I see first-hand, on a daily basis, the violence and poverty of addiction and I don’t shy away from that in the book.
NMB: The novel raises lots of important issues, especially about the role of the media and government trying to stop information getting out under the guise of anti-terror laws. How did your experience as a journalist inform how you tackled this subject?
KK: Media freedom is a huge topic and we are currently in the midst of a massive democracy battle that I fear has already been temporarily lost. I say temporarily because I still have hope that we can correct the damage and have the laws changed. Most governments around the world now have the power, the legislation, to shut down a story if they decide it is against the national interest. And this so-called “national interest” is basically in the hands of a few bureaucrats and whichever politicians happen to be in power at the time. Despite the media uproar at the time, unfortunately, I think these laws didn’t make an impact on most of the population because it was at a time when many people were very skeptical about media ethics and media honesty. It was the beginning of the boom in social media when anyone and everyone was self broadcasting of blogging or setting up internet news sites without the training and ethics of traditional journalists and media companies. And of course, “terrorism” was and still is used as a smokescreen for this ultimate power grab by the politicians.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
KK: I’m sorry to say I don’t have much time to read for pleasure at the moment as I’m now working on my second novel. However, one recent book that has stayed with me, and little bits keep jumping out at me almost every day, is Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell Me Why. It’s utterly compelling and sad and generous and loving - such an important Australian story. The plot of my new book is also influenced by a different type of Australian story, my great grandfather who at age seven, yes seven, left his poverty-stricken home in Sydney to work for a traveling sheep shearing crew around Victoria. But, of course, the new book is set in present day Melbourne and has Chrissie O’Brian again navigating two worlds, this time investigating a story involving a Collins Street investment company, a wealthy landowner and a team of sheep shearers.
Where the Truth Lies, by Karina Kilmore. Simon and Schuster $29.99
North Melbourne Books: Jia Jia lives with her husband, Chen Hang, in their large Beijing apartment. One morning she finds her husband dead in the bath, his head submerged in the water. Nearby is a strange picture he has drawn of a man with a fish's body. As Jia Jia tries to piece her life back together again, she travels to Tibet and finds herself on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. What gave you the idea for the novel?
An Yu: I began with a vague story of an aftermath, of a widowed woman who didn’t love her husband but was nonetheless emotionally and psychologically dependent on him. And then I had the idea of a fish man (it came to me in a dream!). The eeriness of the image felt fitting to the story of Jia Jia and all the uncertainty she’s going through, so I began experimenting with it. The idea of this other watery world soon began seeping into the narrative; the fish man also founds its role within this world, and as that happened, the story also became more than an aftermath as it extended into Jia Jia’s past as well as to the lives of other characters around her.
NMB: As the story progresses, it becomes more evocative and contains many dream sequences where Jia Jia falls into a “world of water” – a place that could be described as a state of pure being, of almost nothingness. These parts of the story seem open to interpretation. What would you describe as the novel’s theme?
AY: This is such a difficult question for me since I don’t really write with a particular thread of theme in mind. I love the way novels can move through different ideas and spaces that all contribute to something more than the sum of its parts, so to narrow down a theme is quite the exercise. But having said so, there are things I do tend to write a lot about. Many of the characters in this novel are looking for a sense of belonging – of home. I think the idea that boundaries (between the real and the surreal, the past and the present, the physical and the psychological) are fluid and always shifting is incredibly enticing, and I love watching characters travel between these realms looking for where they belong.
NMB: There are elements of magic realism in Braised Pork. Are you inspired by any magic realist writers in particular?
AY: I’m a sucker for stories that incorporate the surreal in one way or another, whether it’s something as subtle as a strangeness in mood or something that is set entirely in another world. In this regard, I always enjoy reading the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Kazuo Ishiguro, George Saunders, and Haruki Murakami.
NMB: You were born and raised in Beijing, then left to study in the US. You write your fiction in English. What made you decide to write in English?
AY: I write in both Chinese and English, and the experience of writing in each language is so different that I never want to decide to write solely in one and not the other. I wrote Braised Pork in English because the distance it gave me allowed for more clarity in the process. I also enjoy the process of trying to find English words for something that is happening in Chinese in my mind, so that what I end up writing down on the page feels like it has something from both languages. It’s a liberating feeling, to know that one language can capture the experience of another.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf has been wonderful company.
Braised Pork, by An Yu. Published by Harvill/Secker. $29.99