Bec Stafford Interviews Alison Croggon (Pt 1):
Saturday, 4th September, 2010, Midday.
Hilton Hotel, South Wharf, Melbourne.
Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer. She has published several collections of poetry, for which she won the Anne Elder and Dame Mary Gilmore Prizes, and was shortlisted for the Victorian (twice) and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her most recent collection is Theatre (Salt Publishing, 2008). She is the author of the Books of Pellinor quartet, a fantasy series that has been published worldwide to critical and popular acclaim, to date selling half a million copies in the UK and the US alone. She runs the influential review blog Theatre Notes and is Melbourne theatre critic for The Australian, for which last year she won the Geraldine Pascall Prize for criticism. She has written several works for theatre, including the operas The Burrow and Gauguin with the composer Michael Smetanin. They are currently working on their fourth opera together, Mayakovsky, which will be produced by Victoria Opera in 2013. This year she co-wrote Night Songs, a music theatre work for young people commissioned by Bell Shakespeare, with playwright Daniel Keene, and finished her sixth novel, Black Spring. She has three children and is married to the playwright Daniel Keene.
The line-up at AussieCon4 was nothing short of spectacular. Writers from a vast array of disciplines converged on the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre in the first week of September to talk science fiction and fantasy. I had the great privilege of speaking with Alison Croggon: poet, author, playwright, opera creator, and esteemed critic. A couple of hours with Alison will leave you feeling greatly inspired (and incredibly lazy!). Despite her many achievements and awards, she’s not one to rest on her laurels: for Alison, every week brings with it new opportunities for absorbing, engaging with, and creating art. Pretty remarkable, don’t you think?
B: So Alison, you came to Spec Fiction around 2000? Is that right?
A: Yeah–about then.
B: How did that come about?
A: Well actually, my first ambition as a kid was to write an epic fantasy novel.
B: How old were you?
A: About 10. I’d read The Lord of the Rings. I loved it. *Loved* it. I was obviously a precocious reader. And I did, in fact, write about 100 pages of a fantasy that was almost exactly the same as The Lord of the Rings, which I later threw away. At the lofty height of 14, all my juvenilia was thrown away, which I’ve regretted ever since. I’d actually done maps, poems, stories, and things to do with this world I’d invented. Then I sort of grew up and was writing poetry and doing other things. It was when my son started reading fantasy–and these books that I’d loved as a kid–that I read them again and remembered how much I loved that stuff. And I remembered that thing I’d always wanted to write.
B: Do you feel that, for writers, the creative instinct is always there?
A: Yes. I think it is. I mean, apparently, the first thing with me was poetry. Always. I was a well-known poet before I did anything else. I’ve written poetry for as long as I’ve been able to write. Apparently, but I don’t remember this, I wrote a poem on my first day of school. Some little rhyme. Oh, I loved school at that point. Yeah, so, it’s just there. For a long time, it felt like a kind of deformity. You have this itch, or this desire, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Quite often, there are times that I don’t write for a while. Well, actually, I’m writing all the time because I do all of these different kinds of critical writing…but when I don’t do the creative writing, which is the kind that demands the most of you emotionally, often it feels like this huge relief.
So, I wrote the four Pellinor books. I finished the last one in about 2008 and I’d started them in 1999. That’s a long time. They’re long books!
A: Well, being a fantasy, it was going to be a trilogy (laughs). But it’s just got a long middle act, so it turned into four books. No. I mean, I was kind of learning as I went, which, to a certain extent, you do with everything. But because I’d never written a plot-driven book, and had never written an epic series, I would never have imagined writing books that long. Ever. I mean, I was a poet. Five pages was long to me.
B: And those two things are so different.
A: Oh, I was never interested in plots at all. I’d actually written a novella earlier. It had stories in it, but it certainly didn’t have, you know, a plot. And I never, ever thought about these things and so, suddenly I’m finding myself writing a book that was narrative and character driven. It was really quite surprising. And I was amazed that I did it. I was really amazed, actually.
B: But you like switching between different kinds of writing?
A: Yeah. I like switching. I think I’ve fallen in love with the whole structure of novels. It’s like trying to build a cathedral. I mean, the only thing I really think about before I write is structure. And I think about that a *lot*.
B: I’m really interested in the way authors compose – how you approach the whole process. Are you really organised as you start a project?
A: (Laughs loudly). Well, it depends what you mean. My husband’s a writer. He’s a playwright and he’s one of these people who keeps notebooks. In them, he writes plans, plays… notes things down. I think all writers have a fetish for notebooks. I have lots, but they’re half empty and are full of shopping lists and random notes. They’re not remotely interesting. But I do a lot of thinking beforehand, without writing anything down, and what obsesses me about novels is the structure, what shape it will be. Uh, and I suppose the other thing I think about is voices. That works out in the writing. Particularly the last book I wrote, Black Spring, a revisioning of Wuthering Heights, which is all first person, in 3 different voices. I couldn’t write it until I had the voices.
B: Is that a challenge? Writing in first person?
A: It’s fantastic fun. Imagining yourself to be someone else…
B: And is part of your attraction to theatre to do with this ability to imagine the voices so vividly?
A: Yeah, probably. They’re all very different forms. And I like them for all their differences, and I value their differences; but, what I have discovered since doing the Pellinor books was this love of stories. Like I said, I never imagined I’d be a story teller. But I’ve suddenly discovered that yes, I want to tell stories. Different stories. Compelling stories. It’s a strong desire. And the way you tell the story is just as important as what the story is, maybe more important, how you approach it, how you shape it. Often that shape is very inarticulate. My husband’s fantastic because he will sit and listen while I sort of yak on vaguely about all of it and say ‘well, I want to do this’ – and he’ll nod wisely, as if he knows what I mean.
B: Do you run your work by each other? Do you read your stuff to one another?
A: Oh yeah, we both are each other’s first readers.
B: So, you’ve been writing poetry from grade one, at least! Who are your favourite poets?
A: (Laughs). Ah, questions like that are so tough. They change regularly. I have a number of favourites. I suppose William Blake is one of my favourite ever poets, from when I was a child.
B: That doesn’t surprise me. I’ve read a number of your poems and they have a very romantic feel.
A: Absolutely. I’ve always loved the romantics. And Rilke is a big favourite. Rainer Maria Rilke, a German lyric poet from the early 20th Century, is a huge favourite. I’ve translated some of his stuff.
A: It took me years but it was a great thing to do.
B: Where do you find the time for all of this? And with kids, too!
A: I don’t know! I’m a bit of a workaholic. I’ve trained myself not to work in the evenings.
B: Does this mean you’re up bright and early? I often hear of authors who are very disciplined and who adhere to strict writing regimens. Do you?
A: Yeah. I try to. It doesn’t work that way. It’s like everything I work on has its own rhythm. Sometimes it’s really annoying. I can spend all day not doing anything, and it only starts moving in the evening. And then, because I’m a theatre critic, I work at night, you know. I have to go out. Suddenly it’s 6 o’clock! And it’s time for me to go, just when I’m getting into my writing! Aaagh!
B. So, what are the worst and the best things about being a writer?
A: The worst thing? It’s quite an interesting question. I suppose the worst thing is having to learn to make your own work structures. If you write full time it’s all up to you. If you’re not working for anybody, you don’t have a work structure already there. You have to be disciplined. And I suppose it’s the other thing of it being your own fault. If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, you can’t blame anyone else. You chose to do that. That’s also the best thing.
B: When you’re writing poetry, do you mostly write in free verse?
A: No, all sorts. When I was a kid, I used to love inventing incredibly complicated verse forms.
B: Oh, you were always going to be a writer!
A: Oh, I loved it when I discovered sonnets! I wrote all these sonnets!
B: What, at the ripe old age of 5, I suppose?
A: (Laughs). I wasn’t much older, actually. But, I was a very precocious kid.
B: God, that’s mad.
A: Yeah. That’s the thing about an isolated country upbringing (laughs).
B: Mm. I’m sure plenty of isolated kids in the country weren’t devising complicated sonnets.
A: Ah, it was fun. But, I also think it’s that thing of pattern making. Poetry’s all about rhythms and sounds. Yes, pattern making. So, for me certainly, the desire to write comes from wanting to externalise a feeling, I suppose. It’s not quite the same as self-expression, but wanting to make an object of something inarticulate and palpable inside you.
A: Well, yeah. I mean, I remember when I had my first child and all these men – who shall remain nameless – said ‘well, that’s the end of a promising young poet’.
B: Ugh. I’ve heard that so many times. What an idiotic concept.
A: Yeah. Funny, that. I was shocked. It didn’t happen when I was pregnant. It happened when I had the baby.
B: Why is there that bizarre assumption?
A: Oh–straight out misogyny, I reckon. And it was terrible. I had a terrible time. I nearly killed myself proving them wrong. It was actually when I became a really serious writer.
B: About when was this?
A: ’88. I had Josh then. I was so angry. It was the first time I’d hit gender roles and it certainly turned me into a feminist. You know? I suddenly became, like, ‘fuck this.’ Alice Walker saved my life at that point.
B: How so?
A: I read her book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden‘, when I was really in quite a lot of despair. And I just found it so inspiring. Just that recognition of that experience. That’s when I really started doing a lot of learning. I’ve also spoken to so many women who’ve had the same experience as me, which is that you get this enormous surge of energy: the reverse of what people say happens after you have a child.
B: Can you expand on that a bit?
A: Yeah. I can go on for hours about this. I think that when a woman has a child, obviously all the hormones happen in your body, saying that you have to be more open, you have to be more generous, you have to be more intelligent, you have to be more emotional to look after this baby. You have to be more creative, in other words. And I think that one of the things that happens to a lot of women in our society is that everything in your body is saying the world’s opening up. And you have a baby and you’re suddenly shut up and the whole world closes in, and you’re isolated and alone. And it can be very difficult to deal with that contradiction.
B: Very complex.
A: Yes. And I think that’s why people have post-natal depression.
B: Did you write about that?
A: Yeah. I mean, I suppose I wrote about it in my poems at the time, and I’ve written about it a fair bit here and there. But not so much in the fantasy books.
END INTERVIEW PART ONE. READ PART TWO HERE.
Keep up with Alison Croggon on the www: