Charlotte Wood Posts

Visiting International Publisher’s delegation, Sydney ( 29 April – 5 May 2019)

From 29 April – 5 May 2019 I was invited by the Australian government and the Australia Council for the Arts as a member of the Visiting International Publishers (VIPs) delegation. It is an annual event organized by the Australian government to coincide with the Sydney Writers Festival. The delegation consists of prominent publishing professionals from across the world, most of whom are associated with well-established publishing firms and agencies. Those interested have to apply for the programme.

It is approximately a week-long event with the intention of giving the visiting delegates a bird’s eye-view of Australian publishing. During the trip, the visitors are taken to various publishing houses, bookstores and interactions are set up with prominent authors and publishing professionals. Two days of the trip are set aside for most of the visiting publishers in the delegation for B2B meetings with Australian publishers. The idea being that for most of the local publishers it is not easy to go abroad for meetings but it is preferable to go to Sydney. It is such a well-managed event by the Australia Council for the Arts where every delegate has a customized programme while certain events such as visits to publishing houses and literary receptions are open to all.

B2B meetings

It is the extraordinary understanding of the Australian publishing landscape that makes this trip so precious. Australia is not an easy continent to reach as it requires many hours of travel from any part of the world. Australia is a very rich and diverse nation with the First Nations people, the descendants of the colonisers and of migrant communities. This makes for a fascinatingly diverse mix of languages, faiths and cultures to be represented through its literature. A statistic that I heard while in Sydney was that now more than 30% of the population does not have English as its first language. These are some of the factors that contribute to making the robust Australian publishing industry. Unfortunately much of the local literature is not easily available across the world as the rights are inevitably linked with Commonwealth Rights. This effectively means that the global sale of the bulk of Australian literature is usually decided by the UK publishers who either represent or license the Australian titles. Of course this does not include well-known writers like Markus Zusak, Richard Flanagan, (now) Coetzee, Alex Miller, Kate Grenville, Charlotte Wood, Aaron Blabey, Andy Griffiths etc. And there are plenty more to add.

We were taken to visit a Gleebooks bookstore where award-winning writers Charlotte Wood and Morris Gleitzman addressed our delegation. They shared their experiences about publishing locally and then taking their works overseas. Gleebooks has a wonderful display of books but they also have a second-hand section where I was fortunate to pick up a 1970s yellow Penguin paperback history of Jonathan Cape.  

Gleebooks Bookstore
Charlotte Wood
Morris Gleitzman

Books in Australia have GST, making them quite expensive to procure. Yet, it was amazing to watch how the tables stacked high with books at the Sydney Writers Festival bookstore disappearing rapidly. An incredible sight was to witness a table piled with multiple columns of first-time author Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universeon the opening night of the literary festival. A day later when he had won a record four Australian Book Industry Awards and the overall Book of the Year crown with his smash hit coming-of-age novel, there were hardly any copies of the novel left on the table! Astounding! Price was no bar. The magic wrought by a literary prize had done its trick. Notched up magnificent sales for the author.

It is fascinating to witness how diverse Australian publishing is in terms of the lists that were showcased in each publishing meeting. There are distinct lists with emphasis on creating titles before the holidays and looking specifically at Christmas sales. While the big multi-national publishers like HarperCollins Australia and Hachette Australia exist with an impressive stable of authors and illustrators, it is equally important to note the presence of many indie and university publishers. Some of the university presses have been in existence for decades. Unlike rest of the world where such presses would be associated with only academic publishing, the Australian university presses have distinct trade lists catering to a general reading public. These lists consist of very distinct local voices that are representative of their society. For instance, there is some literature now being publishing looking specifically at the Stolen Generation. This refers to the time when aboriginal children were removed by governments, churches and welfare bodies to be brought up in institutions, fostered out or adopted by white families. But it is the indie presses and literary magazines that are representing the diversity which exists in Australia today. Perhaps, as happens with such initiatives worldwide, there is the enthusiasm to make available a wider range of stories as well as nurture local literary talent. So there are magazines for literary prose and others for poetry. There is literature representing the immigrants who are now Australians and see Australia as home while being acutely aware of their or their parent’s country of origin. In fact, at the Sydney Writers Festival, the Western Sydney Literacy Movement launched Sweatshop Women, their first-ever collection of short stories, essays and poems developed exclusively by women of colour from Western Sydney. It was a privilege to witness this launch as was evident by the exuberance of the contributors on stage. The range of writings in the issue are worth looking at too!

The Sydney Writers Festival is currently spread across some venues in the city while their regular venue is being renovated. There is such an exciting mix of speakers, a wide range of topics being discussed or being able to watch Richard Flanagan in conversation with Jenny Erpenbeck or even Roanna Gonsalves in conversation with Fatima Bhutto are treats. In fact, many of these conversations are available as podcasts on the festival website. A good literature festival is synonymous with sparkling, thought-provoking conversations, and this festival is definitely amongst the top-rated litfests. It began with the stupendous opening address by writers Max Porter, Meg Wolitzer and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. There were unexpected moments of joy of meeting literary stalwarts like Booker winner George Sanders, interviewer and curator Paul Holdengraber and other writers like Omid Tofighian, Alexander Chee, Max Porter etc.

L-R: George Saunders, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Paul Holdengraber
Omid Tofghian, translator of Behrouz Boochani’s “No Friend but the Mountains”

A significant moment of the trip was to attend a dinner hosted in my honour by the Australian Council for the Arts to meet an energetic, creative, bunch of writers, filmmakers, poets, playwrights, and novelists who were mostly of South Asian origin. It was one of those very thrilling moments to discover that there were like-minded individuals equally enthused with publishing as I was. There were so many stories to share and familiarise oneself with regarding Australian literature. The one strong memory I have of all those many months ago was the electrifying energy around the dinner table while all of us chatted. The interaction around the dinner table that night confirmed was that the definition of “Australian literature” is far more diverse than what is made visible globally. And it is precisely through such active engagements by the Australia Council for the Arts that these very clear distinctions in literary trends are made visible.

During the short and intense trip to Sydney I met some very interesting people and was fortunate to be able to interview some of them for my blog. For instance, literary scout Rebecca Servadio and Susan van Metre, Executive Editorial Director, Walker Books. I also met librettist Tammy Brennan who was bringing her international production Daughters Opera to Delhi from 3- 5 January 2020. We ended up collaborating on the programme.

Tammy Brennan

Later I was invited by the Australian Council for the Arts to address the visiting Australian delegation on “The Art of Interview”.  The delegation was visiting India in Jan 2020 to attend various literature festivals. The delegates included sports journalist Gideon Haigh, writer and academic, Roanna Gonsalves, performance poet Manal Younus, poet Mindy Gill and literary festival director and artist Jessica Alice. It was an exciting and slightly daunting thought to be invited to address such eminent and experienced interviewers themselves but the evening went off swimmingly well. We were able to discuss the nature of interviewing in the modern age, how to use technology, is it helpful or intrusive, how to manage the tenor of a conversation, what is the nature of a public interview — is it like a theatre performance or a genuine interest in knowing the person, how does the written interview differ from the spoken interview, how much is enough to reveal in an interview, how much research is required to conduct an interview etc. Later in the evening we were joined by poet, writer and 2020 International Booker Prize jury member, Jeet Thayil.

L-R: Roanna Gonsalves, Gideon Haigh, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Manal Younus, Mindy Gill, Jeet Thayil. Front row: Jessica Alice and Nithya Nagarajan

The visit to Australia was a transformative experience. Suddenly a lot of pieces in the puzzle regarding the business of publishing in Australia became crystal clear. For facilitating this trip and actively encouraging me to visit their country I have am ever so grateful to the Australian High Commission in India, especially to the High Commissioner, H.E. Harinder Sidhu. In recent years the High Commissioner and her team in India and the Australia Council for the Arts have been actively promoting bilateral cultural ties between the two countries. Here is hoping that in future there will be more opportunities to make Australian literature available in India and vice versa.

6 Feb 2020

A Q&A with Australian author and 2016 Stella Prize-winner Charlotte Wood ( Bookwitty.com)

I interviewed award-winning Australian writer, Charlotte Wood, for the fantastic European literary website bookwitty.com . It was published on 27 July 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/a-qa-with-australian-author-and-2016-stella-prize/57961bbeacd0d0170d1e421a . I am also c&p the text below. 

From Stella Prize website

From Stella Prize website

Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s latest novel, The Natural Way of Things, is a an allegorical tale about the power relationships between women and men. Winner of the prestigious 2016 Stella Prize for women’s contribution to literature and the Australian Indie Bookseller’s Award, the Natural Way of Things is about ten women who have been kidnapped and taken to an abandoned station in the Australian outback from which there is no escape.

These women have little in common with each other save for the public scandals associating them with prominent men – politicians, footballers, clergymen etc. “… they are the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut.” The story is set in an altered present that explores deeply entrenched patriarchal structures in society and yet, as the story proves, these gendered equations are a mirage; women and men are equal. This is apparent in the gradual transformation of the two main characters, Yolanda and Verla, who take on what would otherwise be deemed as “manly tasks” of hunting, skinning rabbits and providing food for everybody.

It may be fiction, but it is a landscape that echoes what a woman feels on many occasions. Having worked with women artisans, in a feminist publishing house, curated the visual mapping of the women’s movement in India by documenting posters made across the country since the 1970s and now reading a lot of women’s literature, I am more than familiar with many of the stories women share. What continues to amaze me is how similar the experiences are across continents and how various forms of violence, whether physical or psychological, exist in patriarchal structures  across socio-economic classes. The sensation of being trapped with no hope is ghastly, but in Wood’s novel, with no escape route possible as illustrated by the electric fence encircling the compound, it is suffocating. The rules are set by a diabolical corporation, Harding International, represented by the two men hired to guard the ten women; Boncer and Teddy. Mostly their arbitrary rules are horribly violent. Their swift, violent reprimands echo real life.

It is remarkable how the bleak and rough landscape turns into an symbol of sisterhood. In reality this exists too, although it is rarely acknowledged. Unconsciously women who may be complete strangers to each other will band together if need be. This is brought to life in the description of the chained women mastering “the rhythm of marching when chained so none of them is jerked or stumbles. This way of moving, shackled together, has become part of them, unremarked, unconscious.”

Charlotte Wood has imbibed the vocabulary of feminist activism, turning it to her advantage in storytelling, neatly encapsulating a range of feminist discourses.

The dystopian representation of a woman’s world in the novel may be too close to reality for many women. Women, universally, irrespective of their socioeconomic class, are often trapped in situations from which there is no escape.

Charlotte Wood, who is deep in the throes of writing her next novel, kindly agreed to an email interview.

Why this story? What inspired it?

Charlotte Wood: The first glimmer of the story came to me in an ABC Radio National documentary about the Hay Institution for Girls, a brutal prison in rural New South Wales, where ten teenage girls were drugged and taken from the Parramatta Girls’ Home in the 1960s. At this place, which operated in extreme cruelty until 1974, the girls were forced to march everywhere, were never allowed to look up from the floor or speak to each other, and endured all kinds of official punishments. But there were also many sadistic unofficial punishments inflicted on them. I was drawn to writing about a place like this, and how someone might survive it, but I needed to immediately to unshackle my story from the real place – for various reasons, including that many surviving women have written their own testimonies, and I didn’t want to appropriate their experience. Equally importantly, I needed the creative freedom to go anywhere with the story, without sticking to established facts or history.

From The Inconvenient Child

But a more powerful engine even than this arose in the early stages of the writing, which was that setting the book in the past, in a purely naturalistic style, was not working at all. The writing was dead and sludgy and lifeless.

Around this time, when I was having this difficulty and trying to make the work live, I began noticing something. It was already in my mind that the reason many girls were sent to the Parramatta and Hay homes in the first place was that they had been sexually assaulted – at home, or wherever, and had told someone about it. It was this – speaking about what had happened to them – that got many of them sent there. They were deemed to be promiscuous and ‘in moral danger’. This seemed to me the cruelest thing, that their crime was that they had been abused, spoke the truth about it, and were punished for doing so.

I began noticing things in the news, things happening around me in contemporary Australia, that showed these attitudes about punishing women for speaking up were not of the past. We had David Jones department store CEO Mark McInnes resigning after sexually harassing an employee, we had the Australian Army soldiers Daniel McDonald and Dylan Deblaquiere secretly filming a fellow (female) cadet having sex, and broadcasting it to their mates. In both these cases, the woman was vilified for speaking out. The David Jones employee was labelled a gold-digger, the army cadet became known as ‘the Skype slut’ by her peers. Around this time there were also football group sex scandals where the women were reviled for speaking about it and public apologies by the men were made to their wives, families and employers – the assaulted woman, by implication, deserved what she got. We had women assaulted by the likes of Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby derided as liars and money-hungry, publicity hunting ‘sluts’.

And I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, it’s not old, this stuff. These attitudes are not historical, they’re absolutely flourishing right now.’ And then, partly out of this sudden bucket of cold water and partly because the book was not working – set in the past, written in naturalistic prose – I decided to do what I sometimes do when things aren’t working: try the opposite. So instead of setting it in the past, I thought, what if I set it in the future, or some kind of altered present? Instead of writing ordinary realism, what if it became a bit surreal in its narrative style? And I started writing about ten contemporary, urban Australian girls who find themselves abducted and dumped in this remote prison because they’ve been involved in some kind of sexual scandal with a powerful man or men, and they either spoke about it or were found out.

And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker.

And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker. I just came to understand that I could only keep writing the book if I let it get weird, as weird as it wanted to. More than any other book I’ve written, I feel almost like someone else wrote this, sort of through me. I don’t believe that of course, but this tapping into the darkest and strangest things in my unconscious, or subconscious mind, was the only thing that would let this book come out.

At the same time, I was actively keeping a lookout for contemporary representations of incarceration – which in our country, mainly come from images and discussion of our immigration detention centers. The grotesque cognitive dissonance between the bland, PR-spin language of corporations that run these prisons and the horror stories emerging from them (all kinds of violence, sexual assault of women and children, self-harm, suicide, illness and death) attracted me as an artist. You go to stuff that is complicated, contradictory. A quick scan of the real company Serco’s website, for example, yielded a slogan for my fictional corporation Hardings International: ‘Dignity & Respect in a Safe & Secure Environment’. That seemed simply bizarre and obscene to me, that a company running a prison could use such schmaltzy language.

How long did it take you to write the novel? How much research was involved? Some of the descriptions such as skinning the rabbits & cleaning the leather with rabbit brain to create fine chamois must have required research.

CW: Around three years. Strangely, not much research beyond the first radio documentary (I deliberately did not seek out more information about the Hay or Parramatta homes), and visiting an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia of images and objects from children’s homes in our country (where many, many children were abused and ill-treated). For the rabbit skinning, I did watch a few YouTube videos (!) and I had heard about using the brains to cure skins on a television program somewhere. I grew up in the country and had friends who lived on grazing properties where rabbit traps of the kind in the book (now illegal) were used. I kept a file of images from the internet of all kinds of things to do with my book, in a Pinterest board – you can see it here. Other than that, I used my imagination rather than research.

Why is the character Verla given so much space in the story especially when it comes to her feverish dreams?

CW: She’s one of the two main characters. Dreams were a way of creating another consciousness, a world where she could drift into her memories and experiences of beauty and culture, a way of escaping the horror of her present experience. Her fever dream where she finds a river and feels the kangaroos rushing past her is a way of looking at the beauty of nature rather than the horror of their prison.

How did you feel while writing this book and later editing it?

CW: For a time in writing this book I really struggled with the darkness of the material, and felt that something must be wrong with me for letting myself be drawn there. But once the first draft was written, and the mess of it was in front of me, then the job of the novelist kicked in: to shape it into a compelling story. The artistic job was to make the material into something shapely and even beautiful in its darkness – but most of all I wanted to create a gripping story. The book’s main question grew more and more urgent: Will my girls escape or won’t they? Who will rescue them? How can they rescue themselves?

Tell me more about the title The Natural Way of Things?

CW: The title comes from a section in the middle of the book where the authorial voice steps away from the characters and muses on whether the girls will be missed in their own lives; whether anyone cares that they have vanished; and ultimately, whether harm that comes to women is their own fault – it’s the ‘natural way of things’. But the title also plays with the question of what a ‘natural’ female body is, plays on the notion of a return to nature and whether there is such a thing as a ‘natural state’ for humans – and whether that natural state is to revert to primitivism in gender relations. It also reflects the book’s interest in the natural world as a redemptive force, if the girls choose to see it that way.

If your book was ever optioned for a film or television do you think it could ever capture the feral anger so dramatically etched in your story?

CW: The book has been optioned for a film to be made by a team of young women filmmakers in Australia – I have handed all creative control to them as I would like the film to be a completely new creation of its own, and for them to have total ownership of it.

You can read an extract from Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things here.