Fiction Addiction
Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Q&A with Charlotte Wood

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Book cover of Animal People. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Animal People. Photo / Supplied

Some of my favourite books have involved a fictional character who seemed so real I couldn't help wondering what happened to them after the final page of the book.

For Charlotte Wood, author of my December feature read Animal People, it was a character of her own invention who wouldn't leave her alone.

Stephen first made his appearance in Wood's previous novel, The Children, which centred on his war correspondent sister Mandy. But by the end of that novel, Wood hadn't quite figured him out.

"I still worried about him," says Wood.

"I wanted to see him through the next stage of his life, and I wanted him not to be so lonely ... I think of him as a kind of wayward cousin I've always loved, but who inexplicably finds life a bit of a struggle."

When we first encounter Stephen in Animal People he is unhappy, unfulfilled, about to break up with his girlfriend and beginning a day of drama and catastrophe.

Here, Wood talks about the challenge of writing a one day-novel and pricking the balloon of "pomposity and absurdity" around urban life.

Q: Why did you decide to confine the novel to a 24 hour period?

A: I've come to realise that because I know so little about the story when I begin a novel, I often need a kind of technical challenge to kick-start the writing for me - and in this book the time frame was that challenge and I just sort of plucked it out of the air for no particular reason. It's almost as if my conscious writing mind needs something to focus on while the unconscious does its invisible work, the development of character and story that sort of rises up, like water in marshy ground. So the challenge was to write my way through a thoroughly ordinary day while hopefully making it an extraordinary, life-changing one for Stephen. We have all had days from hell - those days where one catastrophe leads to another and another, and I thought there was lots of dramatic potential in that.

Q: How did this time frame affect Stephen's story? Were there any aspects of his story that had to be omitted - or conversely, could only be included - because of the short time frame?

A: One of the challenges was keeping up a lively, naturalistic narrative that revealed things about Stephen without becoming bogged down in flashbacks. But I also liked what the time frame offered, in terms of the pressure one could bring to bear - one journalist has described it as a kind of race against the clock. I did leave out a lot of flashback stuff about his past - partly because I wanted The Children and Animal People to be completely standalone books, and I like the idea that if readers wanted to understand more about Stephen, there is always the previous novel in which to go looking for clues.

Q: While The Children was set in a small country town, Animal People is very much a city story, full of the absurdities of urban life. How did this urban setting influence the development of Stephen's character?

A: I wanted to write a portrait of city living. In some ways I feel it's a love song to a city, but a sort of break-up love song. Living in the city drives me to distraction a lot of the time because of the noise and the ugliness and the casual inhumanity you witness every day - but I also love it because it jams us right up beside our fellow citizens, like it or not. You have no choice but to engage with the human race, even if those interactions are not always exactly full of joy. I am also very interested in the way a city is divided by class. These things come into play very overtly for Stephen; he's convinced he doesn't belong in Fiona's rather affluent life, for example, and he feels the pressure of the city around him as a kind of internal pressure as well. But he's unaware of how much these things simply reflect, rather than cause, his state of mind. I really liked playing with the craft of the novel in this way - that the external environment is very much a mirror of Stephen's psychic state.

Q: What inspired you to write about the relationship between humans and animals?

A: Strangely the idea of exploring our weird behaviour towards animals didn't occur to me until I had been writing the book for well over a year. I just plucked the zoo setting out of the air, I thought - an old flame of mine once worked at the zoo as a sandwich hand and I thought it could have some good comic potential. But then later, after I'd had a break from the novel, the animal stuff began to emerge as a much more important strand. I saw that actually I had quite a few animals scattered through my draft, but that I hadn't explored what they meant - to Stephen, or to me. I live in an inner urban area - and this stuff about animals is pretty visible where I live. There seems to be a gross denial of the creatures' actual animality, a sort of desperation to humanise them, that I find depressing and a bit sad. As well, though, the zoo setting particularly allowed me to explore some ideas about captivity and freedom where humans are concerned. I might have exaggerated for comic value here or there, and I certainly entirely invented the goings-on at Stephen's particular zoo. But in terms of our culture's behaviour with animals I don't think the stretch from reality is very long at all.

Q: The book is full of clever, astute and witty observations about human nature and the way we interact with others. How do you collect these observations? Is it a conscious process?

A: When I'm in the middle of writing a novel everything I see in the street seems to be related to the book, and with this book that was especially the case. I keep a notebook and am always, like most writers I guess, just jotting down things I see - mannerisms, things that strike me as funny or useful, moments between people that point to a deeper idea and so on. Then it's a matter of being selective and crafting them, giving them a purpose in the narrative. As you're writing, you find moments where you think, 'Aha. There's the spot for that ...'

Urban life is so absurd much of the time. I had a lot of fun collecting for this book, occasionally giving them a tiny bit of exaggeration, but a great deal of the negotiating of an ordinary urban day is drawn directly from life. There is just so much nonsense around us, often involving the spending of money, that's so easy to get sucked into - I wanted to prick the balloon of its pomposity and absurdity.

Q: Where and how do you write? Is there anything special you need to get into the writing zone?

A: Where: In a studio separate from my house - it's a room above a shed. How: Bum on chair, internet turned off, 1000 words a day or bust. There is no way for me to get into the zone except write my way in. I never want to start a day's work - inspiration only comes if I'm already working.

Q: What's on your summer reading list?

A: The pile of to-reads I can't wait to get to includes Gillian Mears' Foal's Bread; Elizabeth McCracken's Niagara Falls All Over Again; and I've just begun re-reading Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café with great joy. Oh, and some books on veggie gardening in small spaces.


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