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Kate Grenville
Who are your literary influences?
Like most Australians of my generation, I grew up on a steady diet of British books: Swallows and Amazons, the William Books, Biggles. At University it was all British literature: Keats and TS Eliot, Dickens and Virginia Woolfe, SH Lawrence and Jane Austen. When I finally discovered the well-kept secret of Australian writing it was a revelation. Thea Astley, Patrick White, Christina Stead among the novelists; Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright and Les Murray among the poets. I realised that literature didn't have to be something that happened elsewhere, on the other side of the world - Australian society and the Australian landscape had inspired great writing. I took heart from that.
You won the Orange Prize for THE IDEA OF PERFECTION. What are your thoughts about a literary prize that's exclusively for women writers?
The great thing about literary prizes is that they put books on the front page of papers - it's the only way they ever get there. That means more people go and read them. In that sense, the more prizes the better - and if some of the prizes have limited candidates, that's good too. If all prizes are open to everyone, then there's a tendency for the same couple of books to get all the coverage. A lot of men don't read fiction by women because they have a preconception about it being too domestic, or too emotional, or too personal. The Orange prize encourages them to read books by women and find - sometimes to their surprise - that their preconceptions are wrong and that they really enjoy them. There's an idea around that everything in life can be put on a ladder - the worst at the bottom, the best at the top. with books, as with most things, there really isn't a "best" and a "worst" - there's just a variety that reflects the incredibly rich variety of ways of being a human being. Literary prizes are great in that they widen the readership of books but they have the disadvantage that they encourage the illusion that books can be ranked like runners in a race.
We loved THE IDEA OF PERFECTION and found the theme of the destructive search for the ideal in life and relationships very relevant. What made you want to write about this?
Good question! Some people - and I've been one of them - are very hard on themselves, expecting perfection. We all make mistakes, do the wrong thing, cause unintended consequences that aren't good. It's taken me quite a long time to realise that making mistakes is just part of what it is to be a normal human being. Only a machine - or a machine - like person - is perfect. Most of us , I think would know a Felicity - someone whose fear of failure is so great that it distorts their lives, so that they either need to control every aspect of their lives with a grip of steel, or just not every attempt anything in case they fail. what a sad waste of life. Imagine it on a tombstone: "She never made a mistake" - what a tragic thing that would be!
The sense of place is very strong in your writing, as with other Australian novelists. Do you feel the landscape is a defining force in Australian literature?
We're never very far away from nature in Australia, even in the middle of the biggest city. A few years ago, for example, Sydney was surrounded by bushfires on three sides and charred leaves fell out of the hot sky into my inner-city backyard. The presence of "the bush" all around us is part of our lives in a way I don't think is quite the same in Europe. Most of us would go to the country often for picnics, holidays, etc once there the bush takes over. The Australian bush has a peculiar and particular presence: sombre, watchful, completely indifferent to human actions. It can feel quite threatening, as well as being breathtakingly beautiful. It's hard not to think of it as some kind of living creature co-existing with us - a creature that has to be treated with respect. Writers can't ignore it even if they wanted to - something like 98% of Australia is non-urban. The tiny fringe where people cluster along the edges is so insignificant in the face of that immensity.
Please can you tell us about your new novel, THE SECRET RIVER, due to be published in the UK early next year.
The Secret River is the story of an illiterate Thames waterman at the beginning of the 19th century who steals some timber and is transported to Australia. Once there he settles on some land beside another tidal river, the Hawkesbury, not far from Sydney. Once there, he realises that the landscape that looks so empty isn't - he has to confront the fact that the Aboriginal people regard "his" hundred acres as their own and are willing to fight for it. It's the story of what happens when two groups of people both want the same thing: land. The story is based on my own family history - my great-great-great grandfather was a waterman on the Thames and was transported in 1806. I'd never thought much about what he did when he came face to face with the Aboriginal people, but once it had occurred to me to wonder it became an urgent need to find out more. The book has touched a nerve in Australia - it seems that many more people beside myself want to know that rather hidden and secret side of Australian history.
For more about THE SECRET RIVER, go to the Canongate website.
Kate Grenville