Award-winning author Charlotte Wood
It’s a rarity for novelists to be paid much at all for their work. But since her latest book, The
Natural Way of Things, won the Stella Prize for women writers and catapulted her to international prominence, Charlotte Wood is breathing a sigh of relief.
“Last year my book just went crazy, which was a great shock because I had accepted I was always going to struggle economically. So suddenly my book was much more successful than anyone expected, and it won prizes and was published overseas. I am really glad that happened at my age. I know what it is and what it isn’t. I am not expecting that will happen again, ever probably.”
Wood is completing a residency at Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre, a medical research institute and an unlikely patron of literature. The grand, swirling structure of the centre’s interior helped it to be nominated for the world’s best building in 2016. It is an unlikely place to find a novelist, working among those who research treatments for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and other diseases. Normally, Wood would be seeking inspiration in a tiny studio in the garden of her home in inner urban Marrickville. But the residency grant is breathing life into her next work.
“With this residency,” she explains, “I have now got a couple of years of full-time writing, financially, which has never happened before. I was always doing freelance writing or teaching, or journalism. I was on a PhD scholarship for three years writing The Natural Way of
Things and I worked as a sub-editor. I had lots of different part-time work, and I will go back to that eventually. But to have the luxury of full-time writing is amazing.” Wood is putting some income from her book sales, prizes and the residency into paying off the mortgage on her home. “My husband runs an art transport business, and now I can take some pressure off him. It’s a burden that a lot of artists feel on their partner's behalf. You feel that you aren’t contributing to the household. At some point we will pay off our house and have somewhere to live when we are old. A lot of writers don’t have that. I have very little superannuation. My husband used to be a musician so he has no superannuation.”
She has strong views on copyright because the law is under government review, threatening the protection
given to artists’ works and incomes. Her view is simple. “What is in my brain gives other people jobs. It gives the bookseller, the publicist, a printer, a truckdriver, a receptionist, literary journalists and others work. Yet the government doesn’t think that supporting cultural primary producers is of any worth. The book industry is a flourishing, self-sustaining industry that is continually being attacked.”
But Wood and other fellow Australian novelists are not easily bowed. Her next work is forming in her mind, seemingly as our interview unfolds.
What is a typical work day? “I will generally start at the desk at around 8.30. My marker is to write 1000 words a day, although with this book I am going more slowly. It might be 500 words. At some point I will have a break or do some exercise to get some oxygen to the failing brain. I am in the first-draft phase, so at this point it is just quantity. It is writing until I have enough material to find out what the story is. I don’t plan it in advance. I don’t really know what is going to happen. But I have my characters.
I have a place.”
Spoiler alert. The book is about ageing. It centres on the friendship between three women in their 70s – a public intellectual academic, an actress and a restaurateur. It focuses on how society views ageing, how individuals deal with changes in their minds and bodies, and how they approach death. Wood says that is her current obsession.
One of her problems is coming to grips with the characters’ lives. “My other books have involved past experiences of my own. Now I feel like I am imagining something I have no experience of. I am reading some great books about ageing at the moment. One of them is a diary of an American poet called May Sarton, and in this volume she is 74 and just had a stroke. It’s difficult to imagine my body not working. I do have some chronic back issues, and that has been quite useful, but it’s just that sense of it never going to get better. In fact, it does for May.” Having written The Natural Way of
Things, about a group of young women who are kidnapped and imprisoned in a harsh outback setting and dominated by two brutish men, she decided that older women should come next.
“There is so much fear and prejudice about age that we tend to universally think about old age as a time of decline, misery, penury. And for a lot of people it is. But it is also a lot of other things. I am interested in that. And I am interested in these characters being women who have had a lot of power in their lives. They are sort of feminist firebrands, leaders of their generation in a lot of ways, politically and culturally. But now they are losing, or have lost, that power. Not necessarily because they can’t do those things any more but because they are not allowed to do them.”
They aren’t people she knows. Rather, Wood says that she is projecting forward what ageing will be like for her. The women she works with in the creative arts don’t have superannuation. They find it difficult to pay a mortgage. Finances are terrifying for them, unless they have a partner. But because they are creative, they have freedom that others don’t have. That can translate into an enriching and spiritual life.
The residency at the Charles Perkins Centre has been of considerable help. Wood applied because she knew the research conducted there could inform her project. But the application she submitted made one very honest point – she would not be obedient. She did not want to be constrained.
“You think, ‘This is an institution, and this place is about delivering certain health messages.’ I used to work in health promotion in medical publishing, and one thing I always noticed was an assumption that if people knew the facts about something they would change their behaviour. So, smoking is bad for you. So, they will give up smoking. I used to work next to people on the Quit campaign. Most of us smoked. We knew everything about smoking, but there were other things that smoking gave us that none of the communication ever touched on.”
Wood wasn’t going to be a publicist for health messages the centre might want to promote. “Of course, I later realised that this whole place is about breaking up old ideas about health and challenging [them]. My point about being obedient was that my work is being an artist, not a conduit. I am interested in creating characters who are whole people rather than health states or disease states, which is what a lot of health communication is about. People working on diabetes think that a person with diabetes is a diabetic when the person thinks they are a woman, a mother, a writer who lives in a certain situation and lives a certain life. When we think about ageing, as well, we tend to think about how someone is 92, and that’s all. I’m pretty sure that if I ever get to 92, that’s not what I will think about myself first.”
It is difficult for those who aren’t novelists to understand the creative process that confronts Wood when she sits at her desk. One analogy is being dumped in an unknown place in the middle of the night and told to find your way home with no guidance. She wrote her first novel, Pieces of a Girl,
“very easily”. But she slogged for five years on her second, The Submerged
Cathedral, only to have it rejected by her first publisher.
“That was a shock to the system, because I assumed the hard part was getting the first one published. It was a reality check. You have all this ambition because you think you are on a path that goes up. What you learn is that it goes up and around and down and then up. It’s really good for me to understand that the trajectory is not a smooth, upwardly moving one.”
Award-winning writer Charlotte Wood is the author of five novels and two works of non-fiction.