Ian Reid is a widely published author of literary and historical non-fiction whose writings have been translated into several languages. His poetry has earned him the Antipodes prize in the USA. His acclaimed first novel, The End of Longing, was published by UWAP in 2011. Originally from New Zealand he now lives in Perth, where he is a Winthrop Professor at The University of Western Australia and Emeritus Professor at Curtin University. Ian will be my guest at a Stories on Stage event on February 5 with Amanda Curtin.
Monique: Tell me a bit about how you became a writer.
Ian: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I still have copies of stories I wrote in primary school, including some that a friend and I produced in book form – handprinted, illustrated and bound! Our teacher read these to the class, so the plaudits accompanying what seemed like real “publication” began at that stage and gave me a satisfying sense of vocation. The first of my prizes for creative writing came when I was in secondary school, and then I edited a national youth magazine in my teens. So the addictive smell of printers’ ink was in my nostrils from an early age.
Monique: Your second novel That Untravelled World was released to critical acclaim last year. It’s on my to-read shelf – can you tell me what I have to look forward to with it?
Ian: You’ll find it begins with a mysterious disappearance, which remains unsolved until the narrative is well advanced – so I hope this means you’ll want to keep turning the pages. Then beyond the narrative suspense, and the character development, and the evocation of particular aspects of Perth and regional WA, I think most readers will see that the ups and downs experienced by my main character Harry reflect a larger national story about traumatic changes that our country went through during the period 1912 – 1939 as it moved from heady optimism into hard times.
Monique: What are some of the main themes explored in That Untravelled World?
Ian: In large part this is a tale of dreams, disappointments and consolations. I’ve tried not only to convey an impression of that troubled formative period of Australia’s development – covering the Great War, the Great Depression and the build up to WW2 – but also to get the reader thinking about what can pull people apart during times of adversity or bring them together, especially in family relationships of different kinds.
Monique: What do you like most about That Untravelled World?
Ian: Most novels aim to provide insights into the basic existential question “What does it mean to be human?” Early in That Untravelled World there’s a chapter set in the Perth Zoo, which juxtaposes people with animals, suggesting similarities and differences. I’m pleased with the way those comparisons get metaphorically extended and complicated as the story unfolds.
Monique: What kind of research did you do for That Untravelled World? What did you enjoy most about the research? Do you do all your research?
Ian: In most of my working life as an academic I’ve carried out a lot of research, and I enjoy immensely the process of enquiry and discovery, so for creative purposes as well I’m very happy to be my own researcher. The kind of fiction I write is mainly set in earlier times and various places, so meticulous investigation is vital for developing the initial ideas into a well-grounded narrative that conveys an impression of authenticity. All sorts of sources can be useful – newspapers, letters, diaries, photos, material objects and so on. And the necessary research is much more than a matter of checking facts. It also means immersing yourself in the idiomatic language and assumptions of your chosen time and place.
Monique: Some reviewers have said this book is best appreciated by those living in Western Australia or even Perth. Do you agree? What can readers from other locations appreciate about the book?
Ian: I hope receptive readers anywhere can appreciate those things I’ve already mentioned, such as the suspense built into the narrative structure, and the way Harry’s vicissitudes represent a transformation of Australian society during that early 20th-century period, and some of the themes relating to the human condition generally. For anyone who has personal knowledge of at least one of the places where the story’s action occurs – like Perth or the Wheatbelt or Geraldton or Darwin – there may be a bonus in the pleasures of recognition, though the places will also seem partly unfamiliar because of the passage of time.
Monique: What draws you to writing historical fiction?
Ian: The benefits of imaginary time travel. Too much contemporary fiction seems cramped within the here-and-now, which tends simply to reinforce our habitual attitudes and assumptions. I like to think that by inventing characters and episodes set within the factual framework of times past I can help readers to see aspects of their own everyday world from a new perspective. For example, most people today are infatuated with technology and its globalising potential. That Untravelled World links the growth of early radio technology to the hopes and setbacks of Australia as a young nation, and perhaps this can illuminate our own precarious dependence today on the power of wi-fi and other wireless innovations that had their tentative beginnings a century ago.
Monique: What’s your writing process like? Where do you write? Do you need complete silence or can you cope with noise? How do you get into the “zone”?
Ian: If I lived alone I’d probably arrange my writing times in a more structured way. And have a less interrupted sleep each night too. But my cat won’t allow these things, insisting that she is head of the household, and dictator of timetables and priorities. She is sure that the computer keyboard is hers to play on when the whim takes her. So I have to make good use of periods when she is resting.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Ian: I keep stopping to check that my cat’s needs are being fully met.
Monique: Do your characters create themselves? Or do you plan them out? Do they ever surprise you?
Ian: Whatever I might try to plan in advance, the characters slowly take shape (and sometimes change shape) during the writing process.
Monique: What do you look for when you read fiction?
Ian: Insight into the complexities of human feelings, particularly the symbiotic relationship between love and loss. And I’m always looking for the pleasure of beautifully crafted prose – the right words in the right order.
Monique: Which writers do you admire the most?
Ian: Oh, there are so many and I can only mention a few. The list would include (in random order) Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, Scott Fitzgerald, Patrick White, Kate Grenville …
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Ian: Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel.
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
Ian: Never. Experiencing every sentence in its proper sequence is enormously important.
Monique: If I came over for dinner now, what would we have to eat?
Ian: Being a well-mannered host, I’d consult you beforehand about your preferences and aversions, of course. But I hope the meal would include things that are thriving right now in the garden here, like dwarf eggplant and giant beans.
Monique: Which book in your collection would you most like to have autographed by the author?
Ian: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.
Monique: You’re based in Perth. Which places would you take a friend/relative to show off the area?
Ian: Places that figure in That Untravelled World, like Wireless Hill Park and the Zoo – and locations of my next novel too, like Fremantle Prison.
Monique: If you owned a bookshop, what would you call it?
Ian: The Imaginary Travel Agency.
Thanks Ian! Looking forward to meeting you at Stories on Stage.