Amanda Curtin is a writer and book editor, who lives in Perth, Western Australia with her husband and cat in a house that used to be a general store selling milk and bread, newspapers and petrol, and phone calls for ‘tuppence’. Her first novel, The Sinkings, was published in 2008 to critical acclaim and her award-winning short stories have been widely published in literary journals and anthologies, before being collected in Inherited to further acclaim in 2011. Amanda will be my guest, with Ian Reid, at my first Stories on Stage event for 2014 on Feb 5. If you live in Perth, come along!
Monique: Tell me a bit about how you became a writer.
Amanda: I’ve worked in publishing for almost thirty years, as a freelance book editor. When I decided to take some units in writing as part of an undergraduate degree, it was with the intention of experiencing and learning from the creative process, putting myself on the ‘other side’ of the editing relationship—becoming a better editor. But in the process, I discovered (or perhaps rediscovered) what it was I was meant to be doing.
Monique: Your second novel Elemental was released to critical acclaim earlier this year, with one reviewer describing it as “exquisite”. It’s on my to-read shelf – can you tell me what I have to look forward to with it?
Amanda: Readers tell me they’ve had to rug up with a blanket and a hot chocolate for the first two parts, which are set in the far north of Scotland, scoured by winds sweeping across the North Sea. If you’re reading it in summer, maybe it will help to keep you cool! You’ll meet my Meggie—as a tiny redheaded quinie on the boatie shore; as a gutting girl, travelling with the herring teams; as a young girl falling in love with her ‘wee cooper boy’; as a cake-icer in the Mills & Ware biscuit factory at Fremantle; as wife, mother, widow; as an old woman writing to her precious granddaughter, her ‘lambsie’. You will find a story about ‘the shifts in the world when everything changes’, and I hope you will also find a story about love.
Monique: What are some of the main issues explored in Elemental? Do you feel like you’re giving a voice to specific communities by addressing them?
Amanda: Memory, inheritance, family. Heroism and sacrifice. Immigration, belonging. Women’s work, women’s friendships. Superstition. Change. I’m not sure I’d ever want to claim to be ‘speaking for’ anyone, but I am conscious of always being drawn to the lives of people who don’t usually have a voice in the historical record—working-class women, men and children, poor people, marginal lives. The ‘ordinary’ (whatever that is).
Monique: What do you like most about Elemental?
Amanda: The final scene (which is actually one of the first I wrote).
Monique: What kind of research did you do for Elemental? What did you enjoy most about the research? Do you do all your research?
Amanda: I love research, and yes, I do it myself. Even if I could afford to hire someone (which I can’t!), I’d be crazy to do that. I often don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it, and the joy lies in how research feeds the creative process, contributing to character and story and substance. As well as using sources here—the internet, libraries—I travelled to the north-east of Scotland, the Shetland Islands and Great Yarmouth—places where Elemental is set. Being there gave me such a richness of sensory experience to draw on: voices, the freeze of the North Sea, the colours of those worlds, the textures of the sky. And I was also able to visit museums, read old newspapers on microfilm, access government reports held in archives. My favourite moment is when a former gutting quine held her beautifully soft hands to my face and told me that the most expensive
hand cream in the world couldn’t come close to herring roe!
Monique: What draws you to writing historical fiction? You’ve also had a book of short stories released, but do you ever consider dabbling in other genres? If so, which one?
Amanda: I love the richness of historical fiction and its scope for exploring questions of where we, as individuals, as societies, have come from, what has brought us to this time and place. The past is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously said, but it is also, sometimes disturbingly, our antecedent home, the strange-familiar; we look to it to learn who we are. As for other genres: the project I’m currently working on is a pair of novellas, which are solely contemporary pieces—a change for me. I’m also keen to try to develop some of the stories in Inherited as short-film scripts, and I’ve written preliminary drafts for two of them.
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”?
Amanda: I work in a studio in the back garden. My house was originally built as a shop, and the studio was its storage shed. I love being in the garden, surrounded by foliage and birds, and that’s about the right level of noise for me, too: a bit of bird-twitter and wing-flap! My process is fairly haphazard, in that I don’t plan and create outlines. It usually begins with a few ideas, associations, that I’ve been pondering over for a long time, which then lead to research, some key images and a gut feeling of where they might take me. I often think in patterns in this early stage, so I might have a shape in my head to begin with.
Monique: You’ve been fortunate enough to take part in a number of writer’s residences. Which was your favourite … or is that like asking which is your favourite book?
Amanda: They’ve each been profoundly inspiring, in different ways. Rather than choose a favourite, which is impossible, I’ll single out one for its point of difference. The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, in Annaghmakerrig, Ireland, is a multi-disciplinary residency for artists. While I was there, I met visual artists, sculptors, dancers, musicians, filmmakers, as well as writers in many genres—many of whom have become cherished friends. The experience of talking to artists in other disciplines and being exposed, in a small way, to their creative processes was so stimulating, and the work of one of the sculptors even gave me an idea that I used in Elemental.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Amanda: Having worked for so long as an editor, I find it difficult to shove my own inner editor off my shoulder while I’m working on first-draft material—that voice who wants to throw in helpful comments like So what? and That’s really not working, is it. Thank you but your input is premature—come back later!
Monique: Do your characters create themselves? Or do you plan them out? Do they ever surprise you?
Amanda: I’ve tried developing characters in advance—and there are aspects of that kind of pre-development work that I do unconsciously—but I’ve found what works best for me is to explore who they are on the page, in the writing. Occasionally they do surprise me, never more so than when a character in Elemental, Avril, began craving cigarettes and spoke lovingly about smoking!
Monique: What do you look for when you read fiction?
Amanda: Language that moves me, surprises me, makes me gasp and reach for a pen to note down the page so I can come back to it. A story that feels like it’s coming from the writer’s heart, their beliefs, their longings, their fears. A voice. Place. Ideas. Depth.
Monique: Which writers do you admire the most?
Amanda: I could write pages on this. I will ruthlessly confine myself to a very brief list: Gail Jones, Anne Michaels, Simone Lazaroo, Michael Cunningham, Annie Proulx, Robyn Mundy, Susan Midalia, Cate Kennedy… After reading Yvette Walker’s debut novel Letters to the End of Love (2013), I have to include her in that list.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Amanda: Just about to start The Memory Trap by Andrea Goldsmith.
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
Monique: You’re based in Perth. Which places would you take a friend/relative to show off the area?
Amanda: The WA Museum Shipwreck Galleries in Fremantle (the timbers of the Batavia, the relics from the Zuytdorp—mesmerising). Kings Park. Fremantle Arts Centre. The Swan Valley. The old East Perth Cemetery (too ghoulish? but it’s so atmospheric!).
Monique: If you owned a bookshop, what would you call it?
Amanda: Narrative Ark