Today's guest is novelist, essayist and editor Charlotte Wood. Charlotte is the author of four novels, and the editor of the sibling anthology Brothers & Sisters. Her most recent novel is Animal People, and her non-fiction book about cooking, Love & Hunger, will be published in April 2012.
There is nothing very unusual in my writing room - I don’t have talismans or lucky charms or special pens or particular notebooks; just a computer, printer, books, the usual mess.
But at a certain point in the process of writing a novel I do begin to take photographs, and they start to creep up the walls around me.
Places seem to be the major focus of these photographs, although sometimes there might also be a photo torn from a magazine of a person who might physically resemble someone in the book; or a certain object or creature that represents something important in the developing novel – such as the photos of the Indian mynah bird still stuck to the windowsill from way back when I was writing my third book, The Children.
As I wrote The Children, which is almost entirely set in an Australian country town, my walls began to fill with photos of various highways, town entrances, landscapes, main streets and shopping strips from towns I had visited around Australia. A while after The Children was finished, I took them down, and they were gradually replaced by photographs I took for my new novel Animal People. These I took at different zoos. Not of the animals, but of what you might call the ‘zooscape’: the buildings, the signs, the pathways, the toilet blocks, the kiosks and shops and gateways. And the people.
I happen to use a camera, but it’s really just a way of recording detail. I have realised that this for me is a really crucial tool of writing fiction – detail. In her Making Stories interview from many years ago, Helen Garner says: “I don’t invent a book out of thin air. I need … a bed of detail for the thing to be based on before I can start to make something up.”
I know what she means. For me, even with a non-realist novel such as the one I am starting now, it is these notes and observations and details which start to create the soil in which the seeds of character and scene and event can germinate, and from there begin to form a novel.
I have often gone observing without a camera, but in that case always with a notebook. Sitting in food courts with a notebook, for example, is how I began to build my imaginary shopping plaza for Animal People.
What I have found, particularly with places, is that if I simply imagine a place I only manage to notice big things. At a zoo, those would be monkeys on climbing frames, for example, or an elephant behind bars. When I actually take notes (or photographs) I am forced to look at everything in the frame. And what I might see then is the chimpanzees on climbing frames, but also some yellow rope, and a crumpled chip packet, and a battered orange bucket filled with limp celery sticks, and a small girl wearing a hot pink t-shirt that says WTF! on the front, and a forklift, and a sandwich board advertising a café, chained to a light pole.
In the shopping centre of my imagination I might see shiny windows, Sale! signs, and a line of people standing in front of McDonalds. But when I record the detail, I notice a veiled Muslim woman carrying a rake; a security guard talking into a walkie talkie with his bright white short-sleeved shirt tucked in too tight around his belly; a young shaven-headed dude with a t-shirt that says HARDEN THE FUCK UP; a middle-aged butcher shunting trays of sludgy marinated meats down into a glass counter, straightening the rows of plastic parsley between the trays; and a takeaway joint whose Special of the Day is Madras Curry Pizza.
I guess what I’m saying is that my most treasured writing tool is not so much the camera or the notebook, but the capacity for close and careful observation. So far I’ve mentioned visual details, but the same goes for the other senses. I try to notice smells and counter-smells, the feel of surfaces, the temperature of the air, the pitch of sounds, the counter-rhythms of other sounds - like the competing of birdcalls and truck reverse-parking beeps - and other sensations too, like the feel in my character’s belly when he realises he has hit a pedestrian in his car, the rising pressure you feel behind your eyes when you try to stop yourself crying. This kind of detail only comes from watching, very carefully, and making sure you look at and listen to and touch and taste everything in the frame of what you are observing.
The details can also include objects. Again, Garner has spoken convincingly about the power of objects in narrative. On RN’s 'The Book Show' in 2009 she said,
“I always like to work with the material world a lot. I've never been much good at thinking or arguing abstractly. I don't feel comfortable unless I've got a lot of objects on the page, and they seem to do an awful lot of work if you can arrange them into the right configuration. They carry a huge amount of energy and meaning, and it's just a matter of respecting them really.”I know exactly what she means by ‘respecting them’ – that careful watching will reveal the motifs that can rise up for you in a book and work as sort of shimmery symbols, sending out waves of meaning that will resonate slightly differently with every different reader.
The strange thing is that I forget these things all the time, and have to re-remember them every time I sit down to write.
Iris Murdoch said that paying attention is in itself a moral act. I think this is true – it is hard to dismiss someone if you listen very carefully and watch them, and enter into what they truly believe. I think this is what my photographs and notebooks are telling me: remember not to skate over the surface of an imagined thing or person or act, but really sit, and go quiet, and listen. Pay attention to everything there in the frame, and then also perhaps wonder about what is not there, and why. I think a commitment to paying attention is perhaps as good a way as any to try to understand the world. And trying to understand the world is why I read, and why I write.