What a heart-wrenching, beautiful, and deep story! There are so many levels and layers to ponder and pull in “The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club.” When you write, do you discover these layers as you work, or do you have a strong sense of where and why the story will flow the way it does?
Thank you! That’s a very flattering and generous response; I’m so enormously pleased to think that the story moved you. It’s so gratifying for any writer, I think, to hear that their work has touched a reader in some way.
When I write short stories, in particular, I often begin with a sense of certainty around what the story will be about, what its key images and themes will be, but every time the process of writing changes my preconceptions and once I’m deep in the middle of the writing of a story I let go of my preconceptions about what it should be, or was supposed to be, and give myself over to what the story is becoming. I think it was Karen Joy Fowler who said, in a workshop I attended with her at the Brisbane Writers Festival, that every story arises from the ashes of the story you think you are writing. That rings very true for me.
At the same time, that discovery draft is something I see as raw material. Once I’ve travelled into the story, I have to travel back out of it into the editing process, and become more conscious of the shape of the thing. I think it’s a little like my favourite experiences of walking in the bush. There are paths you think you will walk: These have a shape and a destination you think you know, but then once I enter a forest, I’m quite inclined to follow the song of a bird or the glimpse of an unusual bloom into going off the path. That’s when you have the most rewarding and strangest experiences. And I think, metaphorically speaking, that’s possibly when my best writing happens.
The story is quite playful and teases the reader with the animal v. human question—animals that chop pumpkins for soup and buy furniture on eBay—what inspired you to keep the reader off balance this way?
I don’t know, to be honest. I’d had a conversation with a friend about the horrors and pleasures of anthropomorphised animal tales—from Tarka the Otter, or The Wind In The Willows, to Babar the Elephant—anyway, I came home and stood in front of the bookshelf wondering why those stories are so often for children, and what a similar tale would look like if it were written for adults. I also have a deep fondness for the story of Clara the Rhinoceros, a female Indian rhinoceros who toured Europe during the mid-1700s. She was one of the first rhinoceroses in Europe, and was exhibited regularly, had her portrait drawn by many famous artists, and was generally rather famous. So these and a few other ideas started to come together. I also wanted to challenge myself to be a little less serious and earnest as a writer. I’d received a review of another piece in which the reviewer said I was a humourless writer, and I wondered if I could write something a little more playful than usual. I’m not sure it is that much more playful: Even among eBay-shopping rhinoceri, it seems, I can find a way to write about queerness and the challenges of mother-child relationships.
Despite the extinction scenario, somehow the ending feels optimistic. What parallels do you see in Clara’s epiphany to our lives?
I do think Clara becomes optimistic: that she’s in a period of transition from being defined by her romantic and familial relationships to seeing herself as part of a wider and more diverse and strange world. If there’s any parallel between her epiphany and our lives, I think for me it might be something about the difficulty, and the possible necessity, of re-orienting ourselves in terms of our relationship with others, and with the world, if we’re to get past feeling doomed and trapped and become more hopeful. If we’re to find solutions to the environmental and ecological challenges we are facing, I think we need to actively and hopefully seek them. Clara and the other characters in the story are caught up in contemplating their extinction. They’re convinced of its inevitability, and therefore have given up on the future. I hope humanity doesn’t spend so much time mourning ourselves that we forget to believe in the future.
What are you working on now?
I’ve got a new novel coming out next year called Dying In The First Person (hopefully), which is a work of contemporary realism (sort of), and then another couple of projects including a novel called Tern, which is a contemporary fairy tale set in rural Australia. Oh, and a series of magical alternative history novels about the orphaned children of Henry VIII!
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