Making stories – Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe

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I’ve been itching to get back into my own novel and make a start on the second draft and this book has given me the inspiration to jump back in. So I’m half way through reading the first draft of my 114,000 word novel. Just reading, not making notes, but trying to take it in as a reader.

Making stories, subtitled ‘How Ten Australian Novels Were Made’, was published 20 years ago, and the 10 books that the authors focus on were all published in the 1980s, but the ‘stories about stories’ is still of course completely relevant.

The idea is that Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe interviewed 10 authors about the process of writing these well-regarded, in some cases classic, Australian novels. As they say in the introduction, ‘revision, we believe, is at the centre of a work of art,’ and its the revision process that they interviewed the selected authors about. I found the interviews the most interesting part of the book. The extracts from manuscripts in progress compared with published work was less interesting to me, probably because it represents a stage that I haven’t reached yet.

The aspect of novel-writing that most struck me was the huge variation in how writers get their ideas for a work and how they develop it into a full story. In the case of Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant, it was the true story of a Captain Logan who was murdered by Aborigines at the Morton Bay penal settlement in Queensland in the 1830s. This was Anderson’s starting point and from there she created fictional characters and a story around that event. It was interesting to read how she searched for the right tone and point of view for the story, which is something I am grappling with myself at the moment. She talks about using a point of view character that she can identify with herself, which seems to me great advice. As for the tone, it was playing around with the starting point of the book that helped her find the right one.

But the author interview I enjoyed the most was with Peter Carey, talking about Oscar and Lucinda. Its one of my favourite books – it won the Miles Franklin Award and the Booker prize. It was so interesting to see the handwritten page of notes that was the genesis of the book, with things like ‘a folly’, and’ father says christmas pudding is idolatrous’. But the most wonderful concept for me was that he developed the idea of a glass church gliding down the river on a barge when he saw a local church being taken away when he was living in Belligen. The rest of the book was constructed around that image, using the book Father and Son by Edmund Gosse as inspiration for Oscar and his father. He also talks about the difficulty of writing about Oxford, and how he took his own experience of Geelong Grammar and used that to drive his imagination of Oscar’s experience.

All of the writers used different techniques, from Finola Moorhead’s bizzare diagrams that started Remember The Tarantella, to Helen Garner’s mining of her notebooks for The Children’s Bach, a feature of many of the writers interviewed. Kate Grenville used Jane Austen’s letters as inspiration, and incorporated lines from The Tempest throughout for Lillian’s Story.

Kate Grenville’s thoughts on plot were interesting. She says ‘When I have a plot from the beginning it can be a disadvantage, because it takes some of the element of surprise out of it for me.’ She says plot ideas have her a lot of false starts. This made me think and I wonder if I’ve been overly obsessing about plot, when in fact its structure that I need to focus on. I think perhaps I have enough linear plot points but I need to work on the structure, where to bring in certain events and flashbacks and how to control the point of view.

Finally Sue Woolfe talks about being told by a friend of a judgement where a man murders his wife and from this one conversation springs the story of The Painted Woman. She talks about the anxious uncertainty, something almost all of the authors mention. Its these musings that give me so much encouragement to keep writing, because even published, successful writers feel this, almost as if its essential to the writing process.

I highly recommend this book for aspiring writers. I suspect I’ll be dipping in and out of it for years to come.

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