I was immediately drawn in by the wonderful voice of “The Memorial Page,” transported to the Fighting Temeraire to sit at the table and join in the storytelling. How much thought do you give to the voice and point-of-view when you write? Do you make a conscious decision to present a story in a certain manner, or do you play with the narrative to find which voice fits best?
So far I’ve found that if a story’s going to work, it’ll work with the voice and POV that first come to my mind. If it’s not working, I might try changing things, but I don’t think I’ve ever rescued a story that way. When I’ve done first-person stories like this one, it’s been because the voice turned up in my head. The character is just there and wants to talk.
Tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind “The Memorial Page.” Why did you decide to tell this particular story?
I can’t remember exactly—it’s a while ago! There was probably some inspiration from travel, seeing ruins overseas and the eroded landscapes of central Australia. And my dad is a steam train enthusiast, so I grew up in an atmosphere of love for a bygone age and its technology. But I think mainly it was Turner’s painting of the Fighting Temeraire, the old warship from the Battle of Trafalgar being tugged off to be broken up. I was thinking about nostalgia and the pain of losing familiar things. But I was also thinking about the way the past survives in artifacts and ideas. The ship survives in the painting and in photographs of the painting. I had a job on a digital archiving project—maybe that was an inspiration, too.
The wonder of Arnaude’s tale contains elements of our own history: the Forbidden City of China’s Middle Kingdom; the later dynastic periods of Egypt; the invading horsemen of the East; the meager efforts to save the treasures of the library of Alexandria; piecing together the wonders of ages and civilizations past through the fragments of their language. What is it about the past, exploring the intricate possibilities, that appeals to you as a writer?
I’m not drawn so much towards the real past as a writer—I don’t think I’d try writing historical fiction. But I like reading about history. And my family would always yarn about the past. My grandparents were born between 1907 and 1911, so they’d seen a hell of a lot of change. It was just interesting to listen to them—and my parents, who were born just before World War II. The world they could remember from their childhoods was very different from the world I knew. Society had changed. And they felt it—a big gap between them and the baby boomers. Where all this feeds into writing I’m not sure, but I’ve no doubt it does feed in. As a writer, I’m drawn to create fantasy worlds in a kind of fake past, but not a medieval past; my romantic attachment is for the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries.
Not only are you a writer, you are an accomplished artist and sculptor with an eye for the whimsical and fantastic. Your novel The Etched City won the Ditmar Award in 2004 (the same year you won Best New Talent), “The Heart of a Mouse” won the Ditmar Award for Best Short Story, and your sculptures have garnered you numerous awards and recognition. Do you find that your creative efforts feed off of one another, that the act of creation in either form sharpens your creative ability overall?
I see the same interests and obsessions surfacing in the writing and art. Some stuff comes out more easily in one than the other. It’s definitely good to have both, since I can focus on one if I’m stuck with the other. Sculpture is particularly helpful that way, because the work can be quite methodical and technical—at least the way I do it. With figurative art, you have references, anatomy. Nature does some of the work for you. I’m less likely to get stuck with art than writing. But hopefully I won’t jinx myself if I say the art has been good for the writing. It’s given my mind a break and given me time to rediscover the pleasure of writing.
What’s next for KJ Bishop? What can eager readers and art enthusiasts look forward to in 2017?
To readers I can say “Never say never.” I’m working on or playing with a novella. On the art front, there’s the Castlemaine State Festival next year (March 17-26, castlemainefestival.com.au). I’d love to show my work in the States. That’s an aim of mine for next year—to have some pieces in an American gallery. But for now I’ve got work on Etsy (etsy.com/shop/KJBishopArt), including a couple of limited edition bronzes.
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