I attended two interesting panels at the Melbourne Writers' Festival on Saturday. The first at 11:30 was called 'Oranges are the only fruit', and featured a conversation with authors Kate Grenville and Anne Michaels. Both have recently launched historical novels, and the session was billed as the authors 'peeling back the layers' on these.
What followed was a fascinating discussion about all sorts of things, from the challenge of writing about history and appropriate ways of using historical facts and documentation, to the writing process, to 'perilousness' in terms of both character and author experiences.
Kate Grenville in particular said several interesting things that serve to illustrate just how individual the art of being a writer and author truly is -- and also how fabulous it is to listen to other writers talk about their craft.
One of the first things she said was that in historical research she considers there is no such thing as a 'fact'. What you have are objects/documentation/incidents that have their own energy that resonates with and asks questions of the present.
Her latest novel is The Lieutenant, which was inspired by journal entries from a first fleet officer who became friends with a young aboriginal girl, despite language barriers. I understand (not having read it yet) that Grenville has used these journal entries to seed the story, which seeks to fill in the gaps. It is purely fiction, threaded with pearls of 'fact'.
Her writing process is also fascinating. She made it clear up front that she doesn't plan her novels in terms of plot. She said it was better to plunge in and keep the story at the edge of curiosity. ("When you finish a book, you forget that at the beginning you had no idea what is going to be about.") Then, when asked a little later about reader considerations during writing, she revealed that she never writes for anyone but herself for the first X (~20!) drafts, that she follows tributaries of story, tight-rope walking into nowhere, trusting that something will open up in a satisfying way. It's a private journey of discovery and self-indulgence until she is ready to start thinking about the reader for several more drafts. The Lieutenant took her about 30 drafts.
I do of course wonder what constitutes a 'draft'. Does she mean an editing pass, or a full blank screen/new words type draft? And how long does each of these drafts take? Are they the same length? Although she admitted it is inefficient, this is her process. I love the sound of it, the freedom.
Anne Michaels' second novel, The Winter Vault, is centered around the team who dismantled and relocated the great Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel to prevent it from being flooded. I haven't read this yet either, but from the reading she gave it is a very lyrical and poetic novel (her being a poet).
She seemed a rather 'emotional' writer, and talked of her characters giving her the courage to explore the core questions of the novel, which sound as though they might be somewhat devastating. She said she was never sure whether she was going to come out the other side. It makes me keen to read a novel that could induce such a state in its author!
I bought both novels, as I am wont to do when I hear an author discuss it in even a little detail. So they now get added to my collection of books I'm intending to read.