Chris Womersley on the High Road (Interviewed by Emily Kiddell)

Verity La The Melbourne Review Interviews

Emily Kiddell: George Dunford wrote about Second Novel Syndrome in an essay called ‘Repeat Offenders’ (Meanjin) and considered a number of writers who’d fallen at that hurdle. He also wrote about your work and held you up as an example of someone who’d avoided such difficulties through momentum. In one quote, you did, however, admit that you still have trouble calling yourself a novelist. Has that changed now that your second novel Bereft has been so well received by both critics and readers across the country?
Chris Womersley: It really depends on the day, to be honest. Sometimes I feel quite confident in my abilities as a writer, but there are other occasions when I am crippled by a lack of confidence about the whole thing. I fear I will run dry of ideas or words or characters. Perhaps my abilities are finite? It does help, however – in whatever slightly pathetic way that I still crave endorsement from others – to have been the author of a few things now that have been so well received by critics and the public alike. So yeah, I guess I can call myself a novelist now.
Emily Kiddell: Bereft was recently shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. In light of great successes, it’s always interesting to consider the fears (such as you mentioned) that worm their way into the writing process, and reassuring to know that even our most prominent writers are sometimes at odds with themselves. Did you face any particular obstacles in writing Bereft, and how did the experience compare to The Low Road? Have you found any reliable methods for coming through a creative rut?
Chris Womersley: You get your first novel for free, in that no one knows who you are and you have no expectations of what happens with a published work (at least no one knew who I was and I had very low expectations about those things like success and so forth). The Low Road was not such a success (in that public sense of sales and prizes etc) that it paralysed me when coming to write Bereft, but nor was it such a ‘failure’ that it discouraged me completely from trying again.
The main obstacles in writing Bereft were those of finding time amid life in general, to be honest: of having a new child in the house and washing nappies; working to make a living; of being married and so on. Much of Bereft was written between 4AM and 6AM which, for a while, was the most reliable period of peace in the house.
Of course no novel is easy to write and nor should it be. In some ways, the hardest thing for me in writing a novel – or perhaps any fiction – is in getting the ‘voice’ just right. Zadie Smith talks about working on the opening few chapters of her novels for months, only to find the rest slots into place once she’s found the tone for the work, and I tend to find that true of my own process. Perseverance is always the key, I think. That willingness to stare at a blank page until something happens. A willingness to write junk in the knowledge that nothing is completely wasted. For me the best thing about writing my second novel is knowing that I had done it before so I can probably – maybe – do it again. The suspicion I had when writing The Low Road was that perhaps I was not really cut out to be a writer at all and didn’t really have it in me. That eases slightly next time around but I suspect it’s not a bad thing to possess always that grain of self-doubt, that fear of being found out to be fraudulent. It drives you on.
Emily Kiddell: The epigraphs at the beginning of your novels (Heraclitus, T.S. Eliot, Rilke) not only provide a kind of frame for the reader, but also give us a sense of you as a reader. I’m wondering: how systematic are your reading choices – are you someone who reads an author’s entire oeuvre before moving on, are you guided by literary movements, or are you more scattergun in your selection? As an Australian writer, working as part of a rich but perhaps over-shadowed literary culture, what do you make of the looming Western Canon?
Chris Womersley: For the most part I tend to be pretty scattergun in my reading but do like to follow an author on whom I might develop a crush. I thought Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad was great and very much like the sound of her earlier novel The Keep, for instance. I’ve also had crushes on Marguerite Duras, Jack Kerouac, Michael Ondaatje, Donna Tartt (easy because she’s only written two novels) and Paul Auster in the past, but tend not to gobble up an entire author’s work so much these days, but let the novels I have enjoyed stand on their own.
Having said that, I’m considering a sort of coming-of-age story for my next novel, so have become interested in novels that have a similar vague narrative arc, like Brideshead Revisited and The Great Gatsby. As much as I’d love to keep up with everything that’s being published, I am dogged by that feeling of needing to read those books you’re supposed to have read from the canon, like Remembrance of Things Past and War and Peace and so on – all those long books. But let’s face it – 90% of everything is shit, and those classics possess qualities that have kept them in print for so long.
The canon, however, tends to have that contradictory effect of being both inspirational (‘Oh, look what can be done!’) and defeating (‘Why bother at all when someone else did it so well?’) but it’s just such a great source for a writer. Nothing comes out of thin air and I tend to think that good books are in conversation with all the other books the author and the reader have read; in this way a good book can be a library unto itself.
Emily Kiddell: I had a similar infatuation with the work of Marguerite Duras not too long ago, and recently with the novella 03 by Jean-Christophe Valtat (one of the best, most angsty, and strangest ‘coming of age’ works I’ve read). And there are many works that seem to have entwined themselves in my life so completely that I have to revisit certain passages on a regular basis. Virginia Woolf is someone whose work interests me in this way. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an early entry on my list, as is Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, a work I still consider close to perfection. I usually know I’m onto something when it feels strange, when I can’t immediately say whether I like it or not because I’m a bit in awe of the shifting boundaries – that incredible sensation of gaining some particularly rare, alarming or subtle insight – or an entirely new perspective – and you stretch to it and find you suddenly own it, as though that dimension had been there all along. Beyond those literary crushes you talked about, who are some of your long-standing mentors – are there books you return to regularly over time?
Chris Womersley: Yes, I think the thing of shifting boundaries is probably true – those books that you spend the first 50 pages kind of thinking What the hell is this? before getting into it or not. I used to read Duras’ The Lover every year or so, until I recently discovered the copy I’d had for 20 years or so had vanished somewhere moving house or on loan or just lost. I guess I could just buy another, but that copy was talismanic for me somehow (bought in the UK, pages warped from spilt beer etc). Just such a great, slim and poetic novel. Twenty years after first reading it, I can still quote (more or less) the opening lines – a rare feat for someone like me with such a shitty memory. Gatsby is another I like to read regularly because, again, it’s so slim but dense with great stuff, and those closing lines are worth getting to all over again. I’ve never made it through The Gormenghast Trilogy from start to finish (has anyone?), but I pick it up now and then to to get a taste of its particular brand of byzantine madness.
I actually re-read poetry quite a bit – Eliot is always great, Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson. I think part of the urge to revisit things is that query of how someone really brilliant did something – an attempt to lift an element of their style or rhythm or cadence.
Emily Kiddell: What inspired you to embark on a coming-of-age story for your next novel? How far into the process are you?
Chris Womersley: God knows what inspired this latest idea. I’m never really sure where ideas come from (and if I knew I would certainly go there more often). I wanted to set something in (relatively) contemporary Melbourne and thought perhaps it was time for me to do my thinly veiled autobiographical novel – you know the one you’re meant to do first time around? Except mine will have goblins. There’s a lot of scope within that basic framework to do something pretty interesting. I also like the idea of writing a novel with a larger cast of characters than I’ve previously attempted (The Low Road only really had three main characters, same with Bereft).
I haven’t made it very far into the new one, yet. This year has been rather distracting because the reception of Bereft has meant a bit of travelling to festivals and so on – not that I begrudge the fact that Bereft seems to be popular! I’m still at the stage of making notes on characters and setting and although I’ve written a few thousand words, I’m yet to really get into it properly. I’m still at the fun part – when it all seems easy and possible.
Emily Kidell: Finally, how do you feel about the public aspect of being an established author? Do you enjoy participating in writers festivals and interviews?
Chris Womersley: To be honest, I used to be absolutely terrified of doing things in public; my first few festivals with The Low Road in 2007 were agony – for me and the audience, I expect. And although being on stage is not exactly my preferred habitat, I don’t mind it so much these days. I still struggle with feeling slightly fraudulent (see question two) and wondering What the hell are these people doing here listening to me and what can I possibly say that might be interesting and/or informative?
By and large I enjoy festivals and interviews and accept it as being part and parcel of being an author these days. It’s fun to sit about shooting the breeze about books and so on, isn’t it?