West Australian author Yvette Walker lives in Perth with her wife, Melanie Rodriga and works as a bookseller. Letters to the End of Love, her first novel, evolved out of a short story called ‘Dear Reader’, which won the 2003 HQ Magazine National Short Story Competition. In 2009 Yvette won the Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship for Fiction, and spent time at Varuna, the Writer’s Centre. Follow her on Twitter here.
Monique: Your book, Letters to the End of Love, is on my review shelf. Can you tell readers a bit about it?
Yvette: Letters to the End of Love is an epistolary novel told in three parts. It is an exploration of the twentieth century through love letters. In 1969 a Russian émigré writes love letters to his Irish wife of forty years. In 1948 an English doctor writes unsent letters to his German lover who perished in a Nazi concentration camp. In 2011 an Australian bookseller writes to her estranged girlfriend who is on tour with Australia’s latest international rock star. Connecting these three stories is a love of the painting Ad Marginem (1936) by Paul Klee. The idea for the novel came out of a desire to write a book that examined different sexualities through the lens of modern history.
Monique: Letters to the End of Love has been nominated for the WA Premier’s Book Awards 2014 in the Emerging Writers category. How does it feel to be nominated alongside Dawn Barker, Sally-Ann Jones and Sarah Drummond?
Yvette: I’m very proud to be nominated alongside such talented writers, and I feel proud of all of us, it is so difficult to get a first book out there, so it’s wonderful when that achievement can be recognised. I am Dawn’s local bookseller so she is always popping in for a chat, and our books came out around the same time so we’ve been great support for one another. Sarah I met in Albany. I was there doing a panel with Evie Wyld for the Perth Writer’s Festival. I loved hearing about the genesis of Sarah’s book. I have not met Sally-Ann but I have sold her book many times!
Monique: Aside from award nominations, what sort of feedback have you had about the book so far?
Yvette: I’ve been very lucky. The book received positive reviews in many places including The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Book Review, and The West Australian. Readings Bookstore in Melbourne included Letters in its 50 Great Reads by Australian Women for 2013. I’ve also been very pleased that quite a few Australian writers who I admire have enjoyed the book. It’s been quite wonderful to hear from readers who have taken the book to their hearts, they have tracked me down at the bookshop or have talked to me at a book club. It’s lovely to know you have made a connection with readers. Obviously there have been (as there are with every book) both positive and negative reactions. One lady told me how the opening scene of the novel has made her a much more engaged and attentive morning walker; while another lady could not forgive me for my persistent use of simile, it drove her nuts!
Monique: Tell me about your road to publication. What are some of the highlights and lowlights?
Yvette: Well. Let’s talk about rejection shall we? You can have skin as thick as prairie bison but each email or letter which begins “Dear Madam thank you for your manuscript, unfortunately we … “ is like a little stone in the pocket – they do begin to weigh you down after a while. Of course, encouragement might actually be worse – “Dear Madam, we loved your manuscript – unfortunately we have no room in our list for literary fiction until 2018 …”. And so on. That being said I had wonderful advice from people who could not or would not publish me. And the road to publication was not as long or as winding as it could have been. I thought it would take 2-5 years, if it happened at all, and I got an offer after 6 months.
Monique: Your author bio says you work as a bookseller. How does working with books all day affect your writing?
Yvette: As a bookseller I knew what impact (if any) my book was likely to have in an over-saturated, genre-fractured, hyper-competitive book market. Even though my expectations were tempered by this knowledge, it didn’t stop me thinking I could become one of the four per cent of authors who crack the big time. I wasn’t. Instead something quite wonderful happened. Sometime after publication I realised that I now had a place in that highly respected majority, ninety-six per cent of Australian authors who “sell a bit” and are well regarded by their writing peers.
Monique: What’s the strangest request you’ve had as a bookseller?
Yvette: So many strange requests. And so many categories of strange requests. But this one is probably my favourite. A lady rang the bookshop and said, “Do you have a Gutenberg Bible? “ I was quite startled and asked her if she meant a facsimile of some kind and she said, “No, an original edition please.” I wanted to say, “Of course, Madam, I’ll just go down to the basement where we keep the Illuminated Manuscripts…”
Monique: You’ve spent time Varuna in the Blue Mountains (NSW) on a residential fellowship. How did this benefit you as a writer?
Yvette: Staying at Varuna is magical, in two kinds of ways. Firstly, the magic is very tangible – you are given a room and a writing desk, a fully stocked kitchen, and a cook who makes the main meal in the evening (thank you Shelia). Secondly, there seems to be magic in the house. The theory is that so many Australian novels have been worked in in those rooms that it’s like tapping into the collective unconscious of Australian writers. I did more quality work there in a month than I had in the six months previous to that. Also, there is such an egalitarian attitude at Varuna, it doesn’t matter if you’re staying with award winning writers or unpublished writers, there is always a good meal and excellent conversation at the end of the working day. And red wine. And scrabble. And hundreds of books. And chocolate.
Monique: How much time do you spend writing or working on writing-related projects?
Yvette: Not nearly enough. I suspect I am lazy (though I do have a full time job). I write in bursts, sometimes for six to eight hours. When this is not possible, or not happening, I wander around the writing, wringing my hands and whining.
Monique: What other writing-related projects are you working on at the moment? Is there another book in the pipeline?
Yvette: I have begun work on a contemporary family drama-comedy.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing?
Yvette: My helpful doubts exist to navigate the writing process – I try to listen to them so I don’t end up driving the narrative over a cliff. My unhelpful doubts only feed the Romantic image of the tortured writer. Are there any tortured accountants? No. So if you meet your unhelpful doubts on the road kill them. Then turn up to your desk and write.
Monique: You wake in the middle of the night with a brilliant book-ish idea. What do you do?
Yvette: That has never happened. I am rarely struck by inspiration.
Monique: Do you become emotionally attached to your characters? What happens when the book is finished? Do you close the door or wonder what they’re getting up to?
Yvette: I find myself thinking of them often, with fondness, like unexpected summer friends when you were young.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Yvette: If you meet your perfectionism on the road, kill it.
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Yvette: Money. Four per cent of writers earn a living. Ninety-six per cent of writers do not. Seriously contemplate that before you embark on a 5 year project which, when published, has 3-6 months to make its mark on the world. Publication means you get an invitation into the casino of publishing. It does not mean you are going to beat the house. If the money comes, then my blessings upon you. If the money does not come and you have to write anyway, then write anyway. Most writers do.
Monique: Which books have impacted on you in your life?
Yvette: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Collected Poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Howard’s End by EM Forster. The Children by Charlotte Wood. Merry Go Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow. For Esme with Love and Squalor by JD Salinger. The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva.
Monique: Which authors do you admire the most?
Yvette: Virginia Woolf. EM Forster. Elizabeth Bishop. Randolph Stow. Anne Michaels. WG Sebald. Gail Jones. Michelle de Kretser. Charlotte Wood.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Yvette: Two books. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists by Jane Rawson and The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly.
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
Yvette: Good God, no.
Monique: Which book in your collection would you most like to have autographed by the author?
Yvette: My first edition copy of Maurice by EM Forster. Impossible on two counts: Forster is dead of course, but also the novel was first published after his death (as he had stipulated).
Monique: Where in Perth or Western Australia would you take an overseas visitor?
Yvette: Bunkers Beach Café, Bunker Bay.
Thanks for answering my questions, Yvette.
Great interview, Monique and Yvette. Yvette, you’re a lot more self-disciplined than me—sometimes I have to skip ahead in a novel. Only sometimes … And yes, there is something magical about Varuna—you feel all the writers who’ve ever written there around you.
Great interview – thanks for sharing your experiences and insights, Yvette.