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July 25, 2014 / Southerly

Questions of art in the novels of Siri Hustvedt

by Gretchen Shirm

I do not have a particularly visual imagination. I rarely ‘see’ the things that I write. More often than not, I hear the words. I’m never satisfied with anything I’ve written until it ‘sounds right’. This applies as equally to my critical writing as it does to my creative work. It’s almost like a process of tapping on a wall: for me any falseness will always be heard as I repeat the words to myself, rather than seen on the page. Perhaps this is why I find written descriptions of visual art moving. Sometimes more so than any visual encounter I might have had.


The first time I thought about written representations of art was when I read Siri Hustvedt’s novel What I Loved[i]. In that book, one of the characters, Bill Wechsler, is an artist and his characterisation is provided in large part through his relationship to his art. The novel opens with this arresting description of Wechsler’s Self Portrait:

It was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand – a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moved up and down the streets of New York.

This painting is described from the perspective of Leo Hertzberg, an art historian, who acquires the painting and begins a life long friendship with the artist.

When I read What I Loved, I became fascinated with the idea of what happens when we ‘read’ art. Whether it is a reduced experience because we do not see the artwork itself, or whether it is paradoxically a more intimate encounter, because our focus is drawn in to aspects of the work we might have otherwise overlooked.

This painting (and others described in What I Loved) does not exist outside the novel. The ‘art’ itself resides in the writing, rather than in the painting. We are not ‘shown’ the painting, but we are given the description that Hertzberg gives of it. We see only what Hertzberg sees and our view of the painting is locked into his perspective. The description therefore says more about the character (and perhaps some of the novel’s thematic preoccupations) than it does about the artwork itself.


Hustvedt’s subsequent novels also deal with questions of art and this is the overwhelming attraction of her novels for me. The way they contemplate art and attempt to capture the effect it has on us. How it shapes the way we live; her characters are disclosed through the way they interact with art. Her novels remind us that looking at art is a dynamic process. And somehow, the role art plays in her novels makes them richer, more experiential.

In some ways, because of the presence of art in Hustvedt’s novels, I find them truer to life. The moments when her characters contemplate art capture key moments of reflection that occur regularly in every day life but are difficult to record in novels, because of the need for narrative momentum.


GS 4Siri Hustvedt’s books. Photograph Julien Klettenberg ©


Hustvedt is also an accomplished art critic and essayist. She has written two books of essays on visual art, the first a book of essays on paintings The Mysteries of the Rectangle[ii]. In it, Hustvedt offers us this explanation of why she loves painting:

Hours may pass, but a painting will not gain or lose any part of itself. It has no beginning, no middle and no end. I love painting because in its immutable stillness it seems to exist outside time in a way no other art can… A painting creates an illusion of an eternal present, a place where my eyes can rest as if the clock has magically stopped ticking.

The second is a collection titled Living, Thinking, Looking[iii] and many of these essays document her intimate relationship with visual art, her own interpretations of particular artworks and artists (she has an ongoing fascination with Francisco Goya, for example) and the way art works on us.

Hustvedt writes that art is what happens in the relationship between the viewer and the thing viewed. She writes, ‘Art partakes of the intersubjective because we do not treat it as just a thing, but as an object imbued with the traces of another living consciousness.’


Photography has also played an important part in Hustvedt’s novels. In The Sorrows of an American[iv], for example, the main character Erik Davidson is pursued by a man who takes surreptitious photos of him and a woman with whom he is involved. The act of photographing a person without their knowledge is, Davidson observes, ‘an overtly aggressive act’. In fact, Davidson is terrorised by the man who takes these photographs and it is not difficult to see why: our image, particularly our face, is bound up with our identity and portrait photography is one of the few times we hand the control of our image over to another person.

A similar event occurs in Hustvedt’s first novel The Blindfold[v], in which the protagonist, Iris, is disturbed by a photograph that’s taken of her (by a man) in which her ‘face lacked clarity, in part because the light was obscured, but also because the expression I had was nonsensical, an inward leer or grimace that signified no definite emotion or even sensation.’ Iris feels violated by the image, because she does not think it accurately represents her.

Again, these photographs do not exist, except as they are written by Hustvedt and the offer key moments of stillness within the text, when we see her characters from the outside.


In her most recent novel, The Blazing World[vi], the act of artistic creation is brought into focus. Specifically, the book is about female artists and the fact that people feel generally more comfortable labelling a work as ‘great’ if they can locate ‘a cock and a pair of balls’ behind it.

The novel is about the fictional artist Harriet Burden, a sculptor and new-media artist, whose art went largely overlooked early in her career, but who stages an art hoax, in having three men give their names to her work and of observing the (dismaying) reaction to it.

Hustvedt’s novel is riddled with references to philosophical explanations for art, but at its heart, the novel addresses the idea that female creativity is often very different to its male counterpart. When Burden creates art, it is not a mere intellectual exercise; her art is deep and personal, she pours herself into it. In a way, her art cannot be separated from her. Or as Hustvedt puts it, ‘…she pushed her art out of her like wet, bloody newborns.’ What Hustvedt is suggesting in this novel is that a rethinking of how we assess art is required: how we value art must be extended beyond male conceptions of meaning to include female ones.


Hustvedt’s writing acknowledges the way art affects us. That the moments we interact with art often coincide with key moments of understanding about ourselves and about how we fit into the world. We are rarely as ‘present’ and self-aware at any other moment as when we are observing art.


Her novels capture the profound moments of stillness and contemplation that occur when we look at art; how the process of looking outwards, inevitably leads us back inwards.

[i] Hustvedt S (2007). What I Loved, Hodder and Stoughton

[ii] Hustvedt S (2005). Mysteries of the Rectangle, Princeton Architectural Press

[iii] Hustvedt S (2012). Living, Thinking, Looking, Picador New York

[iv] Hustvedt S (2008). The Sorrows of an America, Sceptre

[v] Hustvedt S (1992). The Blindfold, Sceptre

[vi] Hustvedt S (2014). The Blazing World, Sceptre

July 17, 2014 / Southerly

On the long novel and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

by Gretchen Shirm

The type of novels I like best are roughly around three hundred pages. There is something about the shape of narrative of that length of book that I find deeply satisfying. I think it is about the limitation that length imposes upon a writer – the narrative of the book has to be confined to that space, the novelist has to give more thought to what is left out and to silences. Silences, to me, are perhaps the most important thing about a novel.


Silences ask me as a reader to think, to insert myself into the book and to speak back. There are usually fewer silences in a longer book.


Many of my favourite novels are about this length – Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (288 pp), Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin (320 pp), Delia Falconer’s The Service of Clouds (322 pp), James Salter’s Light Years (308pp) and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (291 pp), for example. Many others are shorter.


In a longer novel, the focus is necessarily more diffuse; the canvas is larger.

Recently reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch made me think about the structure of the long novel and how it differs from the shorter one.

I’m always conscious when I pick up a longer novel of what else I could be reading in the same length of time. And perhaps, because of this, I demand more from the longer novel; I’m always conscious of the investment I am making in it.

I’m also very aware of the discipline of good writing – of the amount of material it requires a writer to throw away.


Part of me also resents the assumption that a longer novel is, because of its length, somehow more substantial than a shorter one.


From the moment I picked The Goldfinch up, I had to admit the book was riveting. Beginning with a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in which the 13 year old protagonist Theo Decker survives the incident, but loses his mother. It covers the span of over a decade until Theo reaches his mid twenties. While leaving the museum in the confusion of the aftermath of the explosion Theo removes Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. The narrative is spun artfully around this missing masterpiece (in perhaps an ironic gesture, the painting itself is small). Theo’s guilt at having stolen the piece is meshed with his grief at having lost his mother in the same incident.


In order for a long novel to work, it must take on an architecture that is fundamentally different to the short novel. It requires an overarching plot to give the novel its continuity, but it also requires various subplots to sustain its length. At 771 pages, what is remarkable about The Goldfinch is its single perspective, first person narrative.


My copy of The Goldfinch (in the time it took to read the dog chewed it and I spilled smoothie on it)

My copy of The Goldfinch (in the time it took to read the dog chewed it and I spilled smoothie on it)


What I was attuned to in reading The Goldfinch was the way in which Tartt places a number of narrative threads in the novel that she picks up at a later point and through this structure, gives the novel its momentum and overwhelming sense of cohesion and inevitability.

This pattern is created from the very first page when we read that Theo is in Amsterdam as he narrates the book and has been involved in some type of crime. From this point, he tells us about the explosion that killed his mother, working from that point back (as a thirteen year old) to where he is today (as a twenty six year old). Already, we know the book is moving back towards Amsterdam, which already provides the book with its momentum.

It was this sort of placing and picking up on of key characters that seemed key to the movement of the novel. This occurs with Theo’s father, from whom Theo is estranged when the novel opens, but later plays a crucial role in Theo’s development. It also occurs with his school friend Boris, whom he meets in Las Vegas and years later runs into Theo in a bar in New York (this was the only ‘coincidence’ that I found slightly jarring.)


The second meeting with Boris divides the novel neatly in two. The first half of the novel has to do with Theo’s guilt about keeping The Goldfinch and his excruciating dilemma about whether to return it to the authorities. The second is in his effort to locate it after it is taken from him. With its two distinct parts, roughly covering Theo as a teenager and Theo as a young adult, The Goldfinch read to me like two novels in one.

Other elements include the three significant location changes in The Goldfinch: from New York to Los Vegas, back to New York, to Amsterdam. There is also a subplot about a man who tries to bribe Theo for the painting, another plot involving Theo’s fraudulent sale of several pieces of antique furniture and his betrothal to the sister of his childhood friend Andy Barbour, with whom he had lived after his mother died.


Whereas in the shorter novel, everything is working towards a single point, in the longer novel, there is often the sense of many of its separate threads finally coalescing. In the longer novel, there is usually more plot, more story, more characters than in a shorter novel. In a way, the focus in the longer novel is necessarily on resolving many of the unruly elements of the book that have been introduced to sustain its length.

In the shorter novel, the gratification for me is more often an emotional one – in the intimate account I have been offered of a character, in coming to understand that character as a human being, I have also come to terms with a part of myself. In the longer novel, the satisfaction often, and certainly in The Goldfinch, comes from bringing together the many different characters, plots and subplots into a resolution of events.


I do often admire the longer novel for its sheer scale and the ambition of its writer. The longer novel covers more surface area. Like The Goldfinch, it often involves a broader cast of characters, more locations and events and yet, sometimes I feel when the effort is on so many things, it is taken away from the smaller, subtler details. The smaller details, the finite observations about people, what they do and how they do what they do. The details that disclose a person; they tell us the things a character doesn’t know even about themselves.


Sometimes, with a longer novel, I am in a way offered more, but I often find myself leaving with less.

July 11, 2014 / Southerly

Writing that changed my life: Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation

by Gretchen Shirm

When I was younger, it happened all the time that writing changed me. This was because I had read so little, that everything I read seemed new and profound. When I was at high school, novels did this to me. Then it was short stories and poetry. Now, it is usually non-fiction. I read so much, it is rare that I read a piece of writing that has a world altering affect on me.

‘Against Interpretation’[i] was one of the few pieces of writing that changed everything for me. Specifically, it changed how I read and how I look at art. Never do I read a novel now without being conscious of the need to see the writing for what it is; I pay much more attention to words and sentences than to plot and content.

GS 2Susan Sontag in a bear suit. (Paris Review)

That the simple act of assigning meaning to a work might be to do it violence sounded revolutionary to me when I read this essay. I was therefore dumbstruck when I realised the essay was written before I was born. Sontag wrote the essay in 1964, at the height of modernism (shortly after Clement Greenberg’s famous essay ‘Modernist Painting’). In some sense, it was a response to the specific art movement of that time and is therefore in some senses dated. Sontag acknowledges as much in her essay ‘Thirty Years Later…’[ii]

In order to explain the effect this essay had on me, I have to convey my own version of it and in doing so, I am acutely aware of the irony of offering an interpretation of a text that derides interpretation. What I hope to do is to offer enough of a snapshot of it to explain the effect it had on me.

Essentially, what Sontag argues is that the role of the critic is not to convey what a work of art means, but what it is. Sontag begins the essay by observing that art was originally conceived by the Greek philosophisers as the interpretation of reality. Interpretation of art as an exercise, Sontag writes, is essentially reductive. It takes the elements of a piece of work and reduces it to less than the whole. In the act of interpretation, the text itself is altered, but the critic can’t admit that any violence is being done to the work and instead maintains that the act of interpretation discloses ‘its true meaning.’ (p. 6).

The tone of the essay is forceful, even polemic. Like much of Sontag’s writing, it entertains no alternate view. Her case is put so strongly, it is almost enough to ridicule any dissent into silence before it is spoken. That, I think, is part of Sontag’s particular appeal.

Interpretation, Sontag writes at her most fervent, is, the intellect’s revenge on art (presumably because the intellect is not capable of producing the work himself).

Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings”. (p. 7)

And later this gem, ‘Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.’ (p. 8).

Her essential problem with the critics of her time was their focus on content and meaning over form. In accordance with this model of criticism, Sontag writes that A Streetcar Named Desire has been read as an allegory for the decline of western civilisation and the tank in Bergman’s The Silence, a phallic symbol (p. 9).

Abstract expressionism, Sontag tells us was a deliberate attempt to defy interpretation. It attempted to have no content, so that no meaning could be attributed to it. It was a direct response to the criticism of art. Instead, the artwork became, about the form, even about the paint. What Sontag wants from critics is more attention to form and style (her essay ‘On Style’ goes into more detail about what she means when she refers to these elements). Famously, Sontag concludes her essay with these words,

In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art. (p.14).

GS 2 2Whilst I don’t agree with everything Sontag writes in this essay, it revolutionised the way I read and look at art. I no longer read ‘realism’ as an unmediated and seamless picture of the world, but as the use of language in a way that attempts to show the world as we see it. It has made me very aware of words, sentences and structure. When I look at a painting, I try to remind myself to look at the paint and brushstrokes and how the image has been formed by colour and lines.

It would be, I think, impossible to write about a work of art or a book at all without falling foul of some of Sontag’s rules. And to be unable to write about art or writing would be to significantly diminish our exposure to books and art. Good criticism, I think, pays attention to most of the tenets of Sontag’s essay and the work of criticism that gives a general appraisal of plot and pays no attention to style or form is of very limited value. I always balk at critical assessments that use metaphor in an effort to convey the work’s meaning – that is overstepping the critic’s role. Something essential, I think, to what Sontag is saying is that the artwork does and ought to be allowed to speak for itself.

When I am reviewing a book, I always repeat Sontag’s penultimate incantation to myself.

‘The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.’ (p. 14).

I try to remind myself that I must convey how, through words, language and sentences the text is what is. Having done that I cannot, however, claim to have always resisted the impulse to sometimes also say what I think it means.

[i] Sontag S (2009). Against Interpretation and other essays, Penguin Classics, Pp 4-13

[ii]Sontag S (1961). Where the Stress Falls, Penguin Classics, pp. 268-273

Second photo (C) Gretchen Shirm

July 4, 2014 / Southerly

Notes on metaphor and storytelling

by Gretchen Shirm

While I was writing my first book Having Cried Wolf, a collection of interwoven short stories, I had the acute sense of having ‘got’ something, of having understood a concept fundamental to storytelling. At the time, I thought what I had understood was the form of the short story, that after many years of practising by writing short pieces of writing that had no structure, I had learnt how to ‘turn’ a story around a small incident or event. Now, looking back on what I learnt, I think what I came to understand was something broader and more crucial to story telling in general. Without really knowing it, I think part of what I came to understand was how to use metaphor.

Later this year, I’m presenting a paper at the Stockholm Metaphor Festival (yes, a conference devoted to metaphor) and having now read some theory about how metaphors work, I can see how crucial metaphor is to storytelling. In fact, metaphors are indispensible to all forms of communication between human beings.

At their most basic level, metaphors make comparisons: they are used to elucidate and enlighten that which cannot or cannot easily be described in literal language. They point out a likeness between two or more things. In storytelling, they are often used to explain that which would otherwise be cumbersome and disrupt the poetics or continuity of the story. They allow storytellers to dodge what all creative writing students are taught to avoid: ‘exposition’. Rather than being beautiful but superfluous flourishes of language, when used well they are devices – they perform a function and all well placed metaphors have work to do.

In fact, metaphor is everywhere. You don’t need to have any particular talent with words to deploy them. Metaphor is not exclusive to the domain of the poet or novelist. Most people don’t go through a day without calling on one metaphor or another to explain simply daily concepts. We trade in metaphor constantly, usually without knowing that we are doing it. Here are some examples: emotional ‘baggage’, to ‘grasp’ a concept, to ‘fall’ out of favour. All of these expressions rely on the figurative use of words in order to work. In fact, many ideas that exist in our language are things that we now only understand through metaphor; without metaphor we would have no way to explain the process of ‘falling’ asleep.

 GS 1The rosebud is a metaphor. Photograph: Julien Klettenberg

Metaphor is particularly crucial to good storytelling. It is a way of conveying meaning, and allowing the reader to make the comparison between the two things. Some examples of how metaphor functions in story:

  • Anne Enright’s ‘Natalie’, which I first read in The New Yorker and later in Enright’s story collection Taking Pictures, is about a young woman who is very much caught up in the typical teenage dramas of popularity, dating and an upcoming debutante dance; she’s in her final year of school, and becoming more serious with her boyfriend. It seems fairly clear she will follow the path that is expected of her. But by the end of the short story, the young protagonist comes to understand the superficiality of her own preoccupations and you get the sense the young woman has the sensibility of a writer. At the conclusion of the story, she falls asleep on the bed of her friends’ parents and wakes up suddenly. She tells us ‘It was the smell of those sheets’ that woke her up ‘cool, unwashed; like something I really wanted, going stale.’ The stale sheets from the marital bed resolve the story at a metaphoric level, by making the comparison between her friend’s parents’ relationship and the young woman’s own life. The ‘something’ she really wanted, we infer, was a conventional married life, but somehow to her that idea had grown stale. And all this information is conveyed in one sentence about unwashed linen.
  • Tim Winton’s Shallows. It’s been a while since I read this (my favourite Winton) novel, but I very much remember the beaching whales operating as metaphor. The novel is about the sacrifices we make for those we love and that idea is connected to the way a pod of whales follow one injured whale into the shallows. The pod are all prepared to die for the sake of the weaker whale and in that way, the beaching whales become a beautiful metaphor for love.
  • In Citizen Cane, the rosebud is a metaphor – it relies on our basic understanding of how flowers unfurl. That is, that a flower blooms only in one direction, just as a life happens and once it has happened it cannot be wound back or undone. The rosebud on the sled arrives at the point that the young Kane is taken from his family, the point in other words, at which his life was set on its inevitable course. Orson Welles is able to use that one word to connect all of the events in the film; it explains the life of Charles Foster Kane and at the same time, it explains the way every life moves in one direction.

Of course, metaphors can fail, but when a metaphor misfires it simply doesn’t work as a comparative device. The writer might be asking for an association to be made between two things but to the reader the association simply isn’t there. The metaphor ‘as white as snow’ is not useful, because ‘snow’ doesn’t assist us to understand or elaborate on the colour white. There’s no real comparison to be made.

Good metaphors in storytelling resonate, they sing, they feel complete and natural. They allow the reader or audience to feel they have done the ‘work’ in understanding the story, that they themselves have decoded the meaning the story is offering. They relieve the writer of explaining or ‘spelling out’ the message of their story.

To those who say metaphor in storytelling is formulaic, I say that it is not metaphor that is formulaic. The art is in finding the right metaphor. Of course, a writer who wrapped every short story up with a metaphor, for example, would produce a set of tiresome stories, but that is not the fault of the metaphor. Rather it is a problem with the overuse of a repetitive narrative device.

That metaphor is one of the basic units of human understanding was highlighted again to me recently, while watching the final episode of the HBO series True Detective. Although, the final episode attracted criticism (from Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker, for example), to me the way the show concluded was profoundly moving.

In the final scene, Marty tells Rust to look at the night sky and asks him to tell a story. Rust says that he is starting to believe that there is actually only one story, the oldest story, that of good versus evil. Marty looks up and comments that, looking at the stars there is more dark than light. A very simple observation and yet, what it was getting at was something about the personalities of these two men, and perhaps of all men. They were two very flawed men who were struggling with the immensity being good. And this is what the simple metaphor of the night sky told us.



Enright A (2008). Taking Pictures, Jonathan Cape, London

Kovesces Z (2002). Metaphor: a practical introduction, Oxford University Press

Ortony A (1975). ‘Why metaphors are necessary and not just nice.’ Educational Theory, Volume 25(1), 45-53

Ortony A (Ed) (1993). Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge University Press

Sacks S (ed) (1978). On Metaphor, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London

Winton T (1984). Shallows, Allen & Unwin, Melbourne

July 3, 2014 / Southerly

July monthly blogger – Gretchen Shirm!

A huge thanks to Claire Scobie for her excellent posts on the process of The Pagoda Tree.

This month, our blogger is Gretchen Shirm. Her bio is below.

G2Gretchen Shirm’s collection of interwoven short stories Having Cried Wolf was published in September 2010 and was shortlisted for the UTS/Glenda Adams Award for New Writing. In 2011, she was named as a Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelist. Her writing has been published in Best Australian Stories 2011, Review of Australian Fiction, Southerly, Sydney Review of Books and The Saturday Paper. She is a candidate for her Doctor of Creative Arts at the Writing & Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney.

June 30, 2014 / Southerly

Embracing the chaos

by Claire Scobie

Alapadma hasta of indian dance Bharata Natyam

Trust the process. If I learned anything writing The Pagoda Tree, it is that. Except, like with any lessons, it’s easy to forget.

Over the past three weeks I’ve written about the fun stuff: planning, dreaming and researching a novel. The actual writing is much thornier. From the start I knew I needed to get the scenes down, however rough. Louis de Bernieres confirmed that approach after telling me how bogged down he became researching his epic Birds without Wings. If you research first and write later there’s a danger of getting lost in the morass of reading and sinking into your sources without trace.

For sure, you need to know enough about your world to get your characters moving. But it’s easy to get caught up in the details. Early on I couldn’t find out what transport they used in 1770s Madras. Was it a hackney carriage or a palanquin? After spending several hours trawling through my notes and online I realised it didn’t matter at that point in the writing process. What mattered was advancing the story.

Although I found generating the material hard, really hard sometimes, my focus remained on completing a first draft. I think of a first draft as a lump of raw clay. You go down to the river and scoop up this messy, formless mixture. It spills over the bucket and has a mind of its own. But if you don’t have the clay you can’t mould your pot. You can’t imagine what shape it will look like or what glaze will make it shine in the final design.

I’m no stranger to what former editor at the Good Weekend magazine, Fenella Souter, describes as the ‘slough of despond’. That midpoint when you can’t figure a way through, when it seems the story will never become coherent. For a feature article it may last a few days or a few weeks, rarely longer.

A book requires something else. I found the writing software Scrivener invaluable at compiling everything in one project. It also gave me my total word count. A year into writing and my research, character sketches and scenes totalled 100,000 words. Panic set in. I wondered if I’d ever find a way through.

When I was writing Last Seen in Lhasa I wrote out one of Ben Okri’s quotes and stuck it on my wall. ‘A true story-teller suffers the chaos and the madness, the nightmare – resolves it all, sees clearly, and guides you surely through the fragmentation and shifting world.’ As that was non-fiction and based around my seven journeys to Tibet, the story had limits.

A novel is a much bigger beast. I thought if I gave myself a brief and wrote to that, the structure would become clear. I wanted to be able to tick things off my to-do list. Yet my goal posts kept shifting. I think structure is the hardest aspect to get right and as a writing tutor, the hardest to teach. Chronology and compressing time can help, so can devices like using the seasons. In historical fiction, facts can be useful in anchoring your characters. They can also become shackles if you rely on them. During this time I deconstructed many novels, analysing them scene by scene. I read some books on craft and found James Wood’s How fiction works illuminating.

On some days it seemed to help. Other days, when I sat down at my desk it was like being blindfolded in a house with many corridors and rooms, stairs up, down and sideways. I felt overwhelmed, unable to do anything. Initially I didn’t want to plan too much and adopted the ‘writing into the void’ technique. This scattergun approach frees up the writing and encourages imaginative play. I thought if I made plans or wrote a synopsis I’d lose the magic.

What magic you ask? When your characters appear to move themselves across the page. Early on I had a mini-epiphany that they can’t do this in isolation of each other. It’s obvious to me now but it wasn’t back then. Conflict is a driver in plot because it puts characters in relation to each other – not necessarily against each other, although that works too – and that creates a forward momentum in the narrative.

Of course there is no right way to write and many authors talk about embracing the chaos. And yet, the more immersed you become in a story, the harder it is to see a path through. Salman Rushdie gave me heart. ‘When I’m writing a book, sentence by sentence, I’m not thinking theoretically,’ he says. ‘I’m just trying to work out the story from inside the characters I’ve got.’

Choosing my point of view wasn’t the issue, it was juggling my cast of characters. I knew who they were and stayed with each of them long enough to get into their stride. While there were gaps I didn’t fuss about them. I thought that a time would come when I could pull my different strands together.

As a way to chart my progress I kept a daily writing journal. Really this was mental flossing – a way to get out of my head and into the project. This is a typical entry. ‘It feels so enormous. This is such a rough draft and requires so much a) revision b) research c) work on it! Yeeks…’

I found rhythmic exercise helped – walking, yoga, the gym – as a way to loosen my rational mind and allow the subconscious to give me answers. I went to a weekend writing workshop with Buddhist author Joyce Kornblatt who reassured us that a novel takes many drafts. ‘It isn’t that writers are obsessive-compulsive, although they might be if they never stopped, it is because each time you do a draft you learn something new about the book,’ she said.

Each time I went back over what I’d written I used my inner ‘divining rod’ to see where there was a relaxation in the narrative or a more nuanced point of view. To see where the spark, tension and energy were. I kept working with my characters and sensed there was too much competition between them. One day it dawned on me. Just as European men dominated the archival research, they were taking over my narrative.

Looking back I see that I didn’t trust myself to write from the perspective of an eighteenth-century Indian woman. I felt I didn’t have permission. Then after re-reading a scene of Maya dancing, it became clear. The way forward was with my character, Maya, the young temple dancer. She was driving the scenes, not reacting. She had agency and courage. She was a force on the page. After 18 months of wrangling, I emerged from the forest blinking into the light.

There was still a long way to go but I’d found path. Or a trace of one. Footsteps in the sand. A way ahead.

beach, wave and footsteps at sunset time

The Pagoda Tree Twitter @clairescobie

Photos were taken from Fotolia. Dancer’s hand (C) f9photos. Foorprints (C) Alexander Ozerov.

June 21, 2014 / Southerly

Archive Fever

by Claire Scobie

biblioteca del museo británico de londresI’ve often found libraries sexy places to work; none more so than the British Library in London. As you walk up the marble steps, you feel the tension. Everyone is focused, everyone is busy. You can’t dawdle or daydream here. Inside the reading rooms the atmosphere is hushed. It’s this intensity, a combination of intellectual stimulation, furious study and a reverence – for books, for the written word – that fuels the headiness of the creative process.

During the four years working on The Pagoda Tree I spent many weeks there. My favourite place to write and read was in the cavernous rare books room. The library is home to some of the world’s most famous tomes including the original Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible. It also houses the India Office Records, the repository of all documentation of the East India Company.

Disappointingly I never had to wear white gloves as I leafed through eighteenth-century journals. But I did experience my first taste of ‘archive fever’. English novelist Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet, The Night Watchman) once described how her characters seem to ‘come out of the mist’ of the historical material once she’s done enough. But how much is enough? Kate Mosse (Labyrinth, Citadel) says she spends three-quarters of the time it takes her to write a novel doing the research. I knew that what I found in the British Library would only provide half my story.

On my second visit there I was figuring out my character, Thomas Pearce, who goes to India to make his fortune. I came across a reference of an anonymous diary, Mss Eur E292. Dated March to September 1773, the exact time that Thomas arrives in Madras, it was described as ‘in the form of letters addressed to Charles Maynard, 1st Viscount Maynard, of a voyage from Portsmouth to Madras on the East Indiaman Harcourt.’  An hour after ordering it, I picked up a heavy leather-bound book, velvety to touch. I carried it carefully to my desk. Inside, the thick yellowing paper was watermarked; the inked writing flowery and cursive.

Ross Gibson, professor of contemporary arts at Sydney University, describes how the moment you first approach a historical object, you need to be attentive to everything left behind, ‘to the drama, to the semantics and form.’ He encourages writers to wait for the artefact to tell you what it wants you to know. He says that some have a ‘sense of pulse and flare’ and as you work with them, there’s a moment of realisation. This is the essence of archive fever: when the past streams into the present. Something shifts, like a piercing through the fabric of time.

Unlike the majority of primary sources in the India Office Records, this text was anonymous. By knowing the recipient of the letters, though, I sensed traces of the author. I guessed him to be a well-educated clerk rather than a friend of Viscount Maynard. From his writing, the power balance was clearly favoured towards the viscount, most likely his patron.

As I read through, making notes as I went, my excitement grew. There were some apposite details and a baldness of language. ‘A crooked flagstaff; a parcel of black fellows; a repast of bacon and cabbage.’  Later on, he writes plaintively how ‘we had to wait while our Excellency put on a pair of breeches.’ I realised how time moved more slowly back then and this was important to understand my characters. God knows, it could take a year to reach India by ship.  And that’s if you arrived there at all.

Through these letters – sometimes banal, often prejudiced – I was entering into the same world as my character Thomas. I read quickly, wanting to find out what happened. And then, the story suddenly ended. Blank pages. The letters stop. What happened to the author: did he die, did he give up?

Over the months I went back to the manuscript, always looking for more traces. I tried to be alert to how it made me feel. Sometimes repulsed, other times moved. He was hemmed-in – by duty – and buttoned-up ­– by his masculinity. Yet his curiosity was endearing and some of that quality seeped into Thomas.

But that single anonymous text had a much deeper influence on my final story. I knew the author had a name, though he chose not to include it. For whatever reason, he named his patron over himself. This, I imagined, was deliberate.

In archival research, naming matters. It mattes a lot. From a colonial perspective, the deliberate un-naming of native peoples was a way to marginalise, dispossess, control and subjugate. According to the cultural theorist, Edward Said, naming and categorising was one way that the West controlled the East. This extended to keeping native women out of the official records.

I teased this idea out in my novel. It became a quiet theme and one that was important to me. Not only were Indian women rarely named in official records, they were unidentified in eighteenth-century paintings, which I often referred to in my research. And even when these women had long relationships with British men, the custom was for him to name himself and his children in the baptism register. The mother – usually a non-Christian – remained nameless. In a very small way, I wanted The Pagoda Tree to challenge this silence.

Now, two years after I’ve finished my novel and a year since its publication, I’m seeing how pivotal one artefact can be, how its influence bleeds into a story. The fact that Mss Eur E292 was anonymous meant it became a leveller. I could inject my character in there and it could respond without taking over. I only wish I could have worn white gloves as I turned its pages.

old papers and books on a wooden table

 Thanks to Rachel Morley at the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney for introducing me to the phenomenon of ‘archive fever’. Thanks, too, to the Centre for organising the Creative Ecologies Retreat in 2011 where I heard Ross Gibson talk.

Photos were taken from Fotolia. British Library (C) Jgz. Manuscript (C) ulkan.  




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