So begins Australian author Chris Womersley’s second novel Bereft, a tale of love, loss and revenge set just after the end of the First World War.
Chris received plenty of critical acclaim and several awards for his 2007 debut novel The Low Road, and his second novel has travelled an even more impressive path. Bereft is currently long-listed for one of Australia’s most prestigious literary prizes, the 2011 Miles Franklin Award. Bereft was also recently named novel of the year in the 2011 Indie Awards, judged by the Australian Independent Booksellers, and is in the running for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. A feature film option for the novel has recently been sold to Emerald Productions.
Bereft is described on the back cover of the book and on Chris Womersley’s website, which you can find here, like so:
It is 1919. The Great War has ended, but the Spanish flu epidemic is raging through Australia. Schools are closed, state borders are guarded by armed men, and train travel is severely restricted. There are rumours it is the end of the world.
In the NSW town of Flint, Quinn Walker returns to the home he fled ten years earlier when he was accused of an unspeakable crime. Aware that his father and uncle would surely hang him, Quinn hides in the hills surrounding Flint. There, he meets a mysterious young girl called Sadie Fox, who encourages him to seek justice — and seems to know more about the crime than she should.
A searing gothic novel of love, longing, and revenge, Bereft is about the suffering endured by those who go to war and those who are forever left behind.
The minute I read the back cover, I knew I wasn’t leaving the store without this book. And once I started reading it, I knew I wasn’t putting it down until I was done. There’s grief, love, loss, life, death, betrayal, revenge, family tension, really bad bad guys, history, and even a little bit of magic woven throughout Bereft, and it makes for an intense and fascinating read.
Chris kindly agreed to be interrogated by All the World’s Our Page, and share the secrets of his writing and reading life. So, Chris- welcome! We’re delighted to have you here, and looking forward to learning more about you and your work.
Let the twenty questions begin…
On writing, broadly
1. Let’s start from the start. What’s your earliest memory of writing? How did it all start for you?
I was always interested in the idea of being an artist of some sort. My first career choice was as a painter, when I was 9 or 10. It is true that wrote a Star Wars sequel when I was about 12 or so that ran to about 70 A4 handwritten pages. Can’t remember what it was called now, though…
2. You originally wrote short stories, and still do those in addition to your novels. What’s one favourite thing about writing in the short form, and one about writing in the long?
One of the best things about short fiction is that you can actually finish a short story in fewer than 3 years, so there is some satisfaction while tinkering with novels. Having said that, I have written some short stories that have taken several years from conception to completion (‘Things of Relativity’ comes to mind as one in that category). I enjoy the discipline of having to be very economical when writing short fiction but there is no doubt that one can examine complex things in a novel in much greater depth. As a reader I really enjoy the immersive experience of a novel and that is what I seek to provide for the reader in my own novels.
3. I’ve seen you discuss the Creative Writing and Editing course you took at RMIT University, and you’ve mentioned how useful it was. Creative writing degrees are the topic of much debate around the traps, and I know there are many varied opinions out there. Having been a writer for years before you enrolled in formal study, how did you get the most from your course, and do you have any tips for current or prospective students on how to do the same?
It is true that a writing course will not make you a writer, but there are still basic things about craft to be learnt; I find it odd that writing courses are viewed with such suspicion when people have been attending art or music colleges for centuries. I think I was at a advantage in that I had been writing for some years (although without much of a record of publication, if that means anything) so I had a fair idea of what I was trying to do and a body of work behind me, including a draft of what became The Low Road.
A tip for those attending writing courses is probably the same for any writer: read a lot, write a lot and be selective when it comes to seeking advice on your work.
4. You have a family and a day job to juggle in the midst of all this writing and winning awards- what’s your secret to balancing these things?
A lot of Bereft was written at 4AM, because it was the most reliable time for peace and quiet while my son was very little. I work my ‘day job’ about two or three days a week but there is no real secret to finding time – I don’t have much of a social life …
5. We’re always interested in the writing process here at ATWOP, so we like to ask everyone this question. Can you describe your process for us? What gets you in that chair and starts the words flowing?
Because my time is rather limited at the moment I simply have to take the time whenever I can. Something I do regularly is find a piece of music that approximates the mood of a novel (or just a scene in the novel) that I am aiming for and that can get me going. The best thing, however, is arse-glue, available at all good hardware stores.
ATWOP: I think I need to make a trip to Bunnings. Seriously, though- I do the same thing with music. Funny how firing different creative synapses can take you where you want to go.
On craft and character in your novels
6. The Low Road was critically acclaimed, which must have been a wonderful feeling for your first novel. Did your experiences during and after publication have an effect on your writing, or did you approach Bereft in much the same way?
It is true The Low Road garnered some positive reviews, which was great, but it didn’t really change my approach when it came to tackling Bereft. It’s always rather haphazard for me, sadly. The Low Road wasn’t such a success that I felt daunted, but nor was it such a disaster that I lost all confidence.
7. I’ve read that you added a central character to The Low Road when you were already tens of thousands of words into the story, and that you changed Sadie Fox from a boy to a girl a little way into writing Bereft. How much of the story comes together for you in the initial first draft stage, and how much of it really shapes up during edits?
The question of drafts is always a rather tricky one for me. It’s not like I write out an entire draft and then go back and do another one; a lot of my writing is rewriting – going back over what I did yesterday and adding a few more words, then going over that the following day and adding a few more etc. It’s more like a process of accretion, more than anything. For me a lot of the hard work is in bedding down the first 20,000 words or so in trying to establish characters, motivation and setting etc. I’m not much of a planner although I do have a basic ‘shape’ I am aiming for.
8. Returned soldier and murder-accused Quinn Walker, with his heavy past, his war injuries and his deep love for his murdered sister, is a memorable character, but I think it’s ferocious, strange and brave Sadie Fox who will stick with me the longest of all from Bereft. Your story also contains a whole host of vivid secondary characters, from Quinn’s literature-loving mother to the tragic war widow Mrs. Higgins. Do you have a favourite character in Bereft, or do you love them all equally?
I do love Sadie Fox and am very pleased people have taken her to heart so much. She was a great deal of fun to write. I’m glad also that the secondary characters are vivid. I love the way that in Dickens, for example, everyone is really larger than life and memorable.
9. On the topic of characters, do yours tend to arrive in your imagination fully formed, or do you need to work to alternately build and unravel them?
For me the process of building a character is akin to meeting someone in real life. I initially have an idea of the basic characteristics (age, gender, marital status, race etc) I need them to possess to fit my ideas of what the narrative will be, but gradually I need to fill them out with more idiosyncratic habits, patterns of speech and so on. Flesh them out, as it were.
10. An all-important question when it comes to writing: In the great debate of method, do you write in linear order, or jump through the story writing chunks here and there? And do you fly by the seat of your pants, or outline the story before you begin?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not much of a planner. I have started a new novel this year and thought I would try and plan it out to avoid some editing trauma later on, but found myself bogged down and unable to decide on anything much, so have abandoned that idea. Usually I have an idea of several scenes that ‘need’ to happen and work on them (regardless of where I think they will fall in the overall narrative) and in so doing, hopefully tease out a few of the themes and characters of the book. In the case of Bereft I knew, obviously, that there would be a meeting between Quinn and Sadie, so I worked on that quite early on. I knew also that Quinn had attended a séance (a scene initially set in Melbourne) so that was a very early scene I wrote (and my favourite scene of the book, perhaps for that very reason).
I’ve found that I can jump around a fair bit in scenes that occur in the first half or two-thirds of the narrative, but that when it comes to working up to the climax I need to work in a more linear fashion. At least by then I actually know how things will end.
On research and inspiration
11. When researching Bereft, you’ve mentioned that Les Carlyon’s The Great War was a major source of inspiration (it’s one for me, too). You’ve also mentioned that you like to gain an impression of a time and place and let your imagination do the rest of the work, rather than researching too exhaustively. So, what other avenues or sources did you use to get a feel for that Australian post-war era?
I read old newspapers of the era (helpfully digitally archived now) as well as WWI war poetry, which is pretty much a sub-genre of its own. I also read some of the books that it seemed people might have read themselves – mainly those weird Edwardian kids books that seem to feature dead kids: Peter Pan, The Water Babies.
ATWOP: I am officially obsessed with those newspaper archives, too. They are the most amazing thing ever. And you can't beat the WWI poets for bringing the emotions to the surface.
12. You’ve said that you had the core story of Quinn and Sadie in mind before you chose the 1919 setting primarily for the Spanish flu epidemic. Do you have any family history of involvement in the First World War? Or was it a time you hadn’t considered too closely before?
I had never considered writing a work set in the past at all but it just suggested itself as a great period for some of the themes I was interested in (apocalypse, grief etc). My grandfather George Kenward fought in WWI (and makes a tiny appearance in Bereft) but I didn’t know a lot about the period and was actually a bit wary of it because of the jingoistic connotations around Gallipoli and so on.
ATWOP: Definitely a potential minefield, but one I think you manoeuvred well. Fascinating to know that George was a cameo appearance!
13. In a similar vein, I know you went out and spent a bit of time in areas similar to the fictional Flint, New South Wales, and it’s clear that the stark and beautiful Australian landscape itself is a strong character within your novels. In Meanjin last year you talked about the influence of growing up in Melbourne on your perspectives and your writing style. Since writing Bereft, which has such a different setting from that of The Low Road and much of your short fiction, has your inner compass shifted at all to be drawn to other places? Or will you always be influenced first and foremost by the gritty, occasionally dark Melbourne of your childhood?
Hah! Who knows? My next book seems to be set in Melbourne in the 1980s, but I think it’s important to take each story as it comes. It seems a mistake to have too many preconceived ideas about a story before getting into it. After all – that’s the fun of it.
14. The revival of spiritualism was a fascinating aspect of the Great War experience, and the maybe-real, maybe-not art of conversing with the dead features poignantly in Bereft. You wrote an excellent essay for The Age last year discussing the history of spiritualism and the way Australia embraced it (readers, go read! It’s fascinating stuff). To throw you an entirely curly question, what are your own thoughts on life after death?
Nah. Don’t believe in it. I think we come around just once and that’s it.
On publication, promotion and the not-actually-writing parts of writing
15. Tell us a bit about your experience of getting The Low Road published. Did you follow the traditional query agent/ submit to publisher route? Has life changed much since then? And how different was your experience with Bereft?
I shopped The Low Road around a little to agents and some larger publishers but initially had no takers (‘Make a good second novel’ was a familiar response, along with ‘Hmm, bit dark’). Then The Low Road was short-listed for the Victorian Premiers’ Award for an unpublished manuscript (that year won by Rohypnol by Andrew Hutchinson), which brought me to the attention of Aviva Tuffield at Scribe, who loved the book and signed me up. Scribe are far more adventurous as a publisher than most – a true independent, not in thrall to marketing types.
Bereft was a little different. Because I am such a terrible negotiator when it comes to, ahem, money, I got myself an agent – Lyn Tranter – to do that on my behalf and she negotiated the fine details for the publication of Bereft with Scribe again. I have no contract for my next novel.
ATWOP: I saw presenters from both Scribe and Text Publishing, as well as Lyn Tranter, speak at the recent Perth Writers Festival, at which Chris also spoke. I was struck by the ongoing rise of these adventurous smaller publishers, and what a great thing it is for Australian literature. I'm really excited to see it, personally.
16. You have a website and a Facebook presence, plus a whole host of other interviews, reviews, articles and short stories out there in cyberspace, but rather deliberately no blog. You’ve joked that people can send you an email if they really want to know what you had for breakfast. So, what are your thoughts on the much-vaunted need for writers to build an Internet platform these days? Is it all necessary, or can it get a bit overblown?
I think it’s necessary to have a web presence, just so people can get an idea of your work and basic facts (my Wikipedia page is slightly wrong) but it doesn’t hurt to remain slightly mysterious, surely. Good writing lasts (‘Literature is news that stays news’ as Ezra Pound would have it). My own perspective is that it’s hard enough to get real work done so I prefer not to waste my time on what I see as pretty disposable forms of writing.
A bit less serious
17. Tarot cards or tea-leaves, clairvoyants or palm-readers- what method would you choose to divine your own future?
My personal favourite is Omphalomancy.
ATWOP: Heh. We're fond of that one around here, too.
18. I think I’ve read every interview you’ve ever done over the last couple of days, and I keep coming back to one thing. Trained typing monkeys. I want some. Can I borrow yours?
Christ, you don’t want to read too much of that stuff – it’ll rot your brain. But the answer is: Back off, girl, the monkeys stay with me.
19. Who’s going to finish higher on the Australian Rules Football league ladder this year- your Hawks, or my Dockers?
Dockers? Phhht. Although I did tip them against Geelong tonight (score currently 61-62 in Cats’ favour, at 10.40PM…)
ATWOP: And on behalf of all Dockers supporters who probably, like me, also tipped the same way, I do apologise for that dent in your weekend's tipping results, the Dockers having eventually lost 78-89. I picked the Crows instead this week.
20. What *did* you have for breakfast? ;)
Thanks again for being a great sport and agreeing to our interview, Chris! We had a blast.
Bereft (2010) and The Low Road (2007) are published by Scribe Publishing, and you can buy them through Readings Books at those respective title links, or Chris points you in the right direction to buy them in various formats here.
One lucky reader will win a copy of Bereft courtesy of All the World’s Our Page. Just leave a comment on this post, and we’ll draw the random winner this day next week. You don’t have to be Australian to enter.
Chris is busy attending the Bellingen Writers Festival this week, so we make no guarantees he'll be able to respond to comments, but you never know.