Award-win­ning au­thor Char­lotte Wood

Money Magazine Australia - - CON­TENTS - STORY ALAN DEANS

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.