One Place Understood Helps us Understand all Other Places Better...
Two new books for spring 2012 share a common thread: the idea of writing about the past to inform our present. Orange Prizewinning Kate Grenville, whose latest book is Sarah Thornhill, and Frank O'Connor Prize-winning Ron Rash, whose The Cove is published in March, discuss the process of writing, delving into the past and bringing to life characters and dialogue.
Ron: Kate, I admire how convincingly you render the time period in Sarah Thornhill. I hear it in the language, including the similes, and in the thousands of small details that locate the reader in the era. You obviously did a significant amount of research for this novel, yet I never had moments when I was conscious of the research being 'inserted' into the narrative. How did you go about integrating your research into your novel?
Kate: I've thrown out so many wonderful gems of research! I'm sure you have too. But I want readers to be totally swept into the reality of the novel, into the hearts and minds of the characters, as if they're living alongside them. If I can't introduce some important period detail in a natural way, I tend to just leave it out and get the job done some other way. The characters are what the book is about. For me, though, the biggest problem is dialogue - I really admire the natural, unforced way your characters speak - it tells you straight away who they are. I wonder how you found those very colourful yet convincing ways of speaking?
Ron: Yes, dialogue is always a challenge, particularly when characters have to use a dialect that may seem exotic to many readers. I have come to believe that dialect is as much an act of translation as mimicry. I was fortunate growing up to spend a lot of time with my older relatives, who spoke the dialect I use in The Cove.
Kate: You were lucky to be able to draw on family knowledge for the colourful way your characters speak. (I envy American writers because of the richness and variety of regional speech you can draw on, which we don't have nearly so strongly in Australia).
Ron: What is the relationship between the past and the present in your novel?
Kate: My interest is in writing about the puzzles of the present rather than reconstructing a sort of museum-exhibit of the past.
Ron: I completely agree, Kate. The Cove is in many ways a response to recent events in the United States. I'm very proud to have come out of a tradition that has produced Faulkner, O'Connor et al, but the reason their writing is significant is because it transcends any region
or culture. I wonder if you have similar feelings about being labelled an 'Australian writer'?
Kate: When I first started writing I tried to write 'international' fiction that would make it irrelevant where the author was born. Now I realise that universal stories get their power from being based in the local. Like you, I want to tell stories that resonate across time and place, but which have the energy of specific times and specific places.
Ron: I agree; the regional is the gateway to the universal. Or, as Eudora Welty once said, 'One place understood helps us understand all other places better'.