Brooke Davis will be my first Stories on Stage guest at Koorliny Arts Centre in 2015. She grew up in Bellbrae, Victoria, and attempted to write her first novel when she was ten years old. Rather than re-hash her bio, I’ll let her tell her story – it’s a long interview … but worth the read. She’s as delightful as her book (review here). You can follow Brooke via @thisisbrooked
Monique: Let’s start with a bit about your first book, Lost and Found. I loved it! What can readers expect from this book?
Brooke: The book is very much a work of fiction but it comes from a really personal place. While writing it I was trying to work out how people can live knowing that anyone they love can die at any moment. About seven years ago, I was on a trip around the world and rang home to find out my mum had died in a freak accident. It took me ages to want to write fiction again, but when I did, the character that came first was a little girl obsessed with death. She’d become seven year-old Millie Bird in Lost & Found. Agatha Pantha came next, an elderly and grumpy woman who didn’t want to know about death. About two years into the writing of the novel, Karl the Touch Typist—an elderly man wanting to relive his youth—became a part of the story, too.
In Lost & Found, these three characters live in a small town on the South West Coast of WA. At the beginning, Millie has just been abandoned at a department store by her mum, Agatha hasn’t left her house in seven years since her husband died, and Karl has just escaped from his nursing home. They meet and, together, go on a pretty unusual road trip across Australia.
Monique: You’re getting a lot of fantastic publicity and there’s a lot of hype about your book. What’s this time in your life like?
Brooke: It’s a bit busier than I’m accustomed to! It’s overwhelming and surprising and just the best time I’ve ever had. I’m learning so much about an industry I love. I’m meeting people who I might never have met and going to places I might not ever have gotten to had I not written a book. But, man, it’s so strange to suddenly have an audience; to suddenly have your writing subjected to expectations from strangers. My whole life I’ve written because I wanted to, and I’ve written for myself and my family. But now there are complete strangers saying, ‘Looking forward to your next book!’ And I remember I won’t just be printing my next book out and getting it bound at Officeworks as a cheap Christmas gift for my dad. It’s a whole new landscape for me to be writing in.
Monique: In the lead-up to the book’s launch, you were interviewed for Australian Story. What was that experience like? How did you feel when you watched the show?
Brooke: I was unsure about agreeing to it in the beginning. I was so aware that I was not the only one affected by my mum’s death, that it was not only my story to tell. But when I talked it over with my brothers and my dad, they agreed that it was a beautiful way to honour Mum. I’m so glad I did—it’s given me the chance to talk and listen to many different people about their own experiences, and I’m so grateful for that.
During the filming I felt like the biggest and most boring dork of all time—they just filmed me riding my bike, playing tennis, walking around, having stilted conversations with friends and family. I couldn’t imagine how they might turn that into a show. All I had to do was just turn up and not do anything stupid, like accidentally swear, or forget to do up my fly, or trip over things. But the producers and camera people and sound techs were fun and relaxed types who had seen a bit on their travels, so I really enjoyed getting to know them.
The most challenging part of it was the formal interview which went for about seven hours, all up. It was about such sensitive issues and I hadn’t said the words outside of my head for a few years. I cried a bit throughout that interview, and the producer said to me, ‘Don’t worry, we won’t exploit that.’ They were always so respectful and generous towards me and my family.
The day it was going to air, it occurred to me that I had given my whole life to a bunch of strangers to arrange however they wanted, and put it on the telly. What had I done? I wanted to throw up. But I have a beautiful bunch of friends here in Perth and they put on a party for me so we could all watch it together. I watched the show with one eye closed. The only thing I could say about it when it finished was, ‘That wasn’t too bad, was it?’ My friends then sang happy birthday to my book—which was to be released the next day—and gave me a piece of cake, and all was right in the world.
Monique: What do you like most about Lost and Found?
Brooke: That it’s finished! I never thought that would happen.
Monique: Which characters do you like the most in Lost and Found? Which one did you like least?
Brooke: I’ve spent so much time getting to know them, I feel like they’re all valuable to me in some way. Though I guess Agatha Pantha might be the character I struggled with the most. She originally developed out of the need to counteract Millie’s inquisitiveness and hopefulness. Agatha and I struggled to get along from the beginning because it felt like she was so opposite to me. I felt like we didn’t have anything in common, and I was struggling to have empathy for her. She was so judgemental and mean. But I knew that people often behave in these barbed ways out of an ultra-sensitivity—they find the pain and suffering of the world so unbearable that the only way to survive is to pass it on.
I was pretty desperate to work her out, and as I got to know Agatha, I realised there’s probably a bit of Agatha in most people. She’s just not hiding her oddness—she doesn’t have the self-awareness to do that. It’s easy to write Agatha off as mean and judgemental, but she’s just very, very afraid. She’s probably the most sensitive out of all the characters in the book. The only way she’s been able to deal with her sensitivity is to fill up any space in her life that allows for self-reflection, so she can’t let any of the pain or suffering in. I realised that the Agathas of the world need the most compassion we can give. As soon as I reached that thought, we clicked.
Monique: You work in a book shop –Beaufort St Books in Perth. What’s your role there and how has it changed with your book’s publication?
Brooke: I work at Beaufort Street Books in Perth, and, when I’m home in Victoria, at Torquay Books in Torquay. I’ve worked in the independent book industry for about ten years. The book industry (particularly the independent book industry) is so important to me—I know its existence is one of the main reasons behind me being a writer. Writing a book is such an isolated experience—it has to be—so working at a bookshop keeps me sane. It’s far enough removed from my own work so that I can take a break from it, but close enough to it so that I can still participate in what I enjoy. I’m a very social person so I love the opportunity to talk and listen to people all day, and particularly to talk and listen to people about books.
Monique: What prompted your move into writing fiction?
Brooke: I’ve kept journals since I was quite young, and there’s a line in one when I was eight years-old that says, pretty precociously, ‘I’m determined to become a writer.’ When I was nine or ten, I wrote this nonsense poem in the style of Roald Dahl in primary school about my little brother called The Pest. My teacher asked me to read it out loud in front of the class—my classmates laughed in all the right spots, and I was urged to do a sequel. The sequel was terrible and didn’t have the same impact, but I remembered the feeling of my writing giving people pleasure. I wanted more of that feeling.
I did get a bit distracted along the way—I spent a large chunk of my early teenage years playing tennis and cricket, and wanting to be Steffi Graf/Monica Seles/Belinda Clark—but I eventually found my way back to writing in my twenties.
Monique: Do you become emotionally attached to your characters? What happened when Lost and Found was finished? Did you close the door or wonder what the characters were getting up to?
Brooke: When I was finished Lost & Found I had a really long nap! And I tried not to think about anything at all for a month or two. I really felt like my work with my characters was done.
Monique: Have you ever cried while writing an emotive scene?
Brooke: I did cry in a café while I was writing the scene where Karl’s wife dies. It was so close to experiences I’ve had, and experiences people I love have had, so it was a difficult scene to write.
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”?
Brooke: I’m a pretty disciplined, hard-working type, but I’ve also learned that I need to be kind to myself to get the best out of myself, so I focus on living in a balanced way. I love to write and it’s important to me, but I also love my life outside of that. I love being social, I love thinking about things that don’t relate to writing, I love healthy food and exercise. Time away from writing is really important to my life as a writer.
I try to keep my life calm and quiet when I’m writing. I make sure I bookend my writing days with some sort of exercise and time for self-reflection. I treat the day like a job and usually work solidly for eight hours, with a few breaks. I sometimes work from home, and other times, when I’m a little stuck and need a change of scenery, I write in cafes. The disadvantage of working in public is that you can’t work in your pyjamas and you can’t nap when you want to.
But people are really important to my writing. I love being in cafes to absorb the behaviours of people around me. It’s often called ‘people-watching’, but that implies a certain kind of voyeurism, or staring. But I don’t do that. I don’t sit there with the intention of staring at people and stealing their lives. In fact, I barely even look at people: it’s more of a process of incidental absorption. A person nearby brushes their hair away from their face, or looks at someone, or walks in a certain way and for some reason the image sticks in my mind and I feel a sense of urgency to nail the moment in language, because it feels like it might represent something.
Monique: Which books have impacted on you in your life?
Brooke: Roald Dahl was my all-time favourite, and still is. His stories were so funny, and imaginative, and rude, and pretty violent, in a cartoonish way, and it seemed like my parents shouldn’t be encouraging me to read them. I didn’t feel like I was being patronised when I read Roald Dahl’s stories. I also loved Judy Blume, Robin Klein, John Marsden, Emily Rodda, Katherine Paterson and L.M. Montgomery. Their writing felt honest and real—even when it was wildly imaginative. I also remember being really taken with Tim Winton’s ‘Lochie Leonard’ books—he captured the sound of the Australian accent so beautifully and I hadn’t realised you could do that in writing, that you could give a character the sound of your own voice.
Now that I’m a grown-up (kind of!), I still find myself attracted to funny, imaginative writing. I love writing that has a strong sense of empathy. I love being impressed by an author’s skill at getting inside a character’s head. I love surprising uses of language, and the kind of writing that you want to read slowly. I love writing that is everything at once: funny and sad and hopeful and peaceful and strange and terrifying. I believe life is like that, so I feel so close to writing that shows me that. Some of the writers that I think do all of this are: Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Chris Cleave, Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, Evelyn Waugh, George Saunders, Justin Torres, Janet Frame and Peter Carey (though I’m a bigger fan of his earlier work).
I am so obsessed with Alice Munro at the moment. She has this extraordinary ability to extract ordinary moments from everyday life—moments that you haven’t thought to put language to, but moments that you recognise, so you feel as if they’re your own thoughts. And she’s so patient with and understanding of even her most flawed characters.
Monique: Which authors do you admire the most?
Brooke: See above! Also, my older brother, Rhett Davis, who has just written the first draft of his first novel.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Brooke: I have just finished Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, and I’m now jumping between The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and All the Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toewes. I’m devouring contemporary North American writers at the moment. They’re so funny and truthful.
Monique: Where in Perth would you take an overseas visitor?
Brooke: I’ve lived in Perth for more than six years and I still can’t get enough of the sunset over the Indian Ocean, so that would be the first experience I would give them. Though, I do live across the road from the beach, so that could be because I’m a lazy tour guide!
Thanks for answering my questions, Brooke.
Thanks for asking such thoughtful questions!