Posts in Author interviews

Every holiday was father’s day: writing fathers + daughters at Clunes Booktown

At Clunes Booktown, I shared the stage with my dad for the first time (at my first festival) and we talked about writing fathers, writing daughters, creating unique voices (we both feature 14-year-old girls in our work), what our characters share, how we translate family stories into fiction, and whether our memories ever come at things from the same angle. It was a very moving session for both of us (perhaps more than the audience realised), a sharing of ideas, sad moments, and joys too.

Here are the edited highlights (thanks to Damon Girbon for the video and editing):

Dad (Nigel Krauth) is a writer who’s had many novels published, both for adults and YA audiences. He wrote a play Muse of Fire that was performed by the Adelaide Theatre Company and directed by Keith Gallasch (now the editor of RealTime, where I worked for many years). His first book, Matilda My Darling, won the Vogel Award, and since then his novels have gone on to win a number of awards, including the NSW Premier’s Award for JF Was Here.

Although my parents separated when I was young, I spent school hols with dad. Sleeping in his study, I saw the hard work involved in bringing fiction to life. I had no romantic ideals about being a writer. I thought it involved hard yakka, building words like bricks. My dad often seemed in a state of distraction or excitement about a breakthrough. I never really thought I would be a fiction writer, not until I was in my mid 30s and struggling with the world. A friend pointed out that I needed a creative project to survive it all. And she was right. I’m not sure dad was ever too keen on me being a writer. Perhaps one in the family is enough. Perhaps it came as a bit of a shock.

Sin Can Can: I’ve been to Bali too

SinCanCanCoverDad’s first YA book, Sin Can Can, was released when I was 14 and it was basically about me. My picture is on the front cover (have I changed that much?) riding on the back of a motorbike. Inside is a dedication to me. I was both thrilled and rolling my eyes when it was released. Dad came to boarding school (I got a scholarship, ok) and read it out to my class. I sat in the back with my head on the desk, proud and cringing at the same time. But  it was so funny and had that perfect Dolly pitch of the time. The voice is fresh, direct and dynamic, bringing to life many of my passions. I was obsessed with music, and boys of course. I loved junk food. I went to boarding school in Years 7 and 8. I found boarding school tough. A private person, I hated the open dorms where you had to sleep, the locks that didn’t work on the showers, the continual noise so I couldn’t read a book — and the rules, those bloody rules (having to wear a skirt to dinner, having to serve the older girls at dinner time). But the book reminds me of the good times and the lingo: tinned tomatoes known as ‘abortions’, the gardener who we all drooled over in his khaki shorts, the Alpines we pretended to smoke.

When research goes awry

The sequel to Sin Can Can was called I Thought You Kissed with Your Lips. It was banned in Queensland for its very erotic description of putting a condom on a cucumber. I think it was a cucumber. You don’t want teenagers learning how to put a condom on. No. Dad likes to do intense research. He’s almost like a method actor. He likes to go on location. Take on a role. Me? Not so much. I’m more into psychological studies. I begin by getting inside someone’s head. And the drama comes from there.

Nigel Krauth, serious writer shot
Nigel Krauth, serious writer shot

But one thing our books share is location; as writers (and characters) we are drawn to Surfers Paradise. It’s the contradictions that fascinate us both, and contradictions are what teenagers are all about. .

When I was researching just_a_girl, I found out more about teenage girls by listening and observing when they didn’t know it, rather than asking directly. When I was a teenager, even with liberal parents, even though I knew I wouldn’t get in trouble, I still didn’t share much. I was pretty sensible. I was the one cleaning up the vomit rather than the one paralytic. I was too hellbent on control to take drugs. I didn’t like inhaling so smoking and marijuana weren’t really my thing. I didn’t like the idea of snorting up my nose so coke was out. And injections? Not a chance in hell. Now I wonder how I can raise my kids to be like that? To be independent yet safe? But I have to admit defeat. I know I can’t really guarantee it. And it scares me. But I pretend to myself that I can find out what they’re doing on their iPads. Or whatever they’re using in ten years’ time.

There’s a fraction too much friction

Having a writer around, family members and friends need to be careful. When I was growing up, everything was ‘grist for the mill’. I knew that, but I still didn’t always welcome it. All writers collect material from everywhere, waiting for the right moment to add it to the mix – or the moment waits for us, which is how it seems to work for me. Dad is more cavalier about using other people’s stories in his own work, seeking to camouflage it in some way. When I use a story relayed by someone else, I tend to ask permission and show them the text; I feel more comfortable.

You can’t handle the truth!

just_a_girl by Kirsten KrauthOften people ask you which parts of the book are based on the truth. While this is a complex question that would take a PhD to answer, there are parts of just_a_girl where I have translated almost word for word something a family member or friend has told me. Often these are conversations I didn’t want to hear at the time, for example, my dad telling me about having a trip on hash, and wanting to strangle me when I was a baby (watch the clip).

When I was in my 20s, Dad contributed to a collection called Daughters and Fathers (edited by Carmel Bird), an essay, nonfiction. I had been happy to hide behind the disguise of fiction, but seeing myself represented in nonfiction was completely different. This felt like an expose. I was glad, this time, that dad sent me the final essay for approval before publication. Because there were things in the original that I didn’t want the world to know. As it is, it’s still pretty brutal. But through all his work I now see Dad’s drive for connection with me, his daughter. It was made clear to me at Clunes, but it’s something that I couldn’t see before.

But still, there are things I have always kept hidden from Dad, knowing he might use it one day. Perhaps Layla emerged out of that secretive side, exposing the darkness of teen life.

Fathers and daughters: shared meanings

My favourite part of the Clunes session was where Dad and I selected parts of each other’s work to read, that had transported us, represented us, made us laugh or cry.

Dad was brave for selecting the most emotional scene for him in just_a_girl, the case of the missing kittens. While I took a safer route in Sin Can Can, enjoying the comic yearnings of a teen desperate to escape her hippie parents.

And, finally, we agreed on many things throughout the conversation that surfaced at random: how writing comes from and through the body; how our work teases at power, politics and sexuality; and how choosing the right name for our characters is fundamental to getting our work going.

 

Looking beyond the labels: Tara Moss

Tara Moss' new memoir The Fictional Woman
Tara Moss’ new memoir The Fictional Woman

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, crime fiction writer Tara Moss appeared on a panel with Irvine Welsh and Damon Young, talking about writing the body. As she held her new memoir ‘The Fictional Woman’ up to the audience, I was drawn immediately to the cover, a close up of her face, with labels written on in black: Dumb Blonde mingling with Feminist, Model with Bleeding Heart.

It started me thinking about the names I’ve been called, especially when I was a teenager, and how they’ve defined or ignored the essential parts of me – and how often they were contradictory, exposing the labels as fabrications.

Here are some that people have aimed and fired at me (friends, bosses, family, boys yelling out of cars as they drove past): Stupid Girl; Aloof; Too Nice; Passive; Aggressive; Party Animal; Desperate; Brainy; Up Yourself; Leso; Ugly Dog.

It’s a good list, isn’t it? It feels quite liberating to throw them out there. And these are just the ones that have stuck with me. What are yours?

In her memoir, Tara Moss looks beyond the surface to examine the fictions that surround her (and other women), tracing her life as a teen model then writer, and the way she sees herself versus how others perceive her. I spoke to Tara about personal fictions, public perceptions of women’s bodies and feminism’s place in contemporary culture.

This article and interview originally appeared on the Australian Women Writers blog.

*Although you have written lots of fiction, your first nonfiction book is called ‘The Fictional Woman’. Why did you decide to call it that?

‘The Fictional Woman’ centres on the stereotypes, limiting labels or ‘fictions’ that hold people back. It is an issue that has impacted a number of groups along the lines of race, class and other categorisations, but the book specifically focusses on how this reductive labelling has impacted women and men along the lines of gender. I highlight the issues using some of my own personal experiences in the book, along with other people’s stories, wide-ranging data and a look at the historical context of these experiences. As mainstream films are arguably our most dominant form of storytelling today, I also explore the way in which women in particular are fictionalised in line with archaic archetypes, and how, incredibly, of the top grossing films 91% of directors are men, 85% of writers are men, 98% of cinematographers are men and so on, shaping what stories are told and from what perspective.

*How was the writing process different from your crime fiction?

I have always been very motivated by research, statistics and data, though obviously in my crime novels I approached issues of violence and social justice through fiction. The process of writing non-fiction is very different, but as I had been writing OpEds, blogs and advocacy work for a few years, and was also working on my doctorate in social sciences, a full length non-fiction book on the issues I am passionate about seemed like a natural progression. The addition of endnotes was a necessary part of ‘The Fictional Woman’ but I needed to spend a lot of time on collating that data.

*Did you feel like an investigator looking into your own past, searching for clues, for what was concealed?

I knew my own story very well – some experiences really stay with you – so there was little research needed for the memoir components. What I did do was to send any draft chapters dealing with family to all of the people who were mentioned in those chapters. My mother’s death, for instance, was not simply my story to tell. It was my father’s story too, and my sister’s story, so I consulted with them for that section and any section dealing with my childhood. The memoir component of the book was necessary to the story I wanted to tell and the way I needed to tell it, but it only makes up about 10% of the overall book.

*The striking cover features labels written on your face like ‘Dumb Blonde’ and ‘Brainy’. How liberating was it to acknowledge and bring these labels to light?

I chose those labels or ‘fictions’ and the idea for the cover because it seemed like the most raw, honest and authentic way to represent the book between the pages. My face, my fictions. Everyone has labels that have been hung on them, and those ones on the cover are mine. Some of the terms are positive or dictionary-accurate (feminist, mother, wife) while some are blatantly false and pejorative, but all of the words are labels applied to me and all of the words bring their own baggage and assumptions. Everyone has their version of these labels – men, women and school children.

*Why have you encouraged other women (and men) to write labels on their faces too?

The idea of visually expressing labels (and then washing them off, which can feel quite liberating) came naturally. The first person to do it once ‘The Fictional Woman’ came out was book reviewer and author John Purcell. We talked for a while about what fictions had haunted him, and he had me write them on his face. (There is a video here.)

At the book launch for ‘The Fictional Woman’, makeup artists helped people to apply labels relevant to them. A Facebook page was even started and a wide range of people have taken part.

*The book moves between memoir and broader feminist issues, framed by a series of themes. Why did you decide to structure it in this way?

‘The Fictional Woman’ found its structure organically, albeit with a lot of hard work and research. I wanted to create a book that was accessible, enjoyable to read, but also had something to say. Because there are so many issues to discuss, and because I was using some memoir as a jumping off point, it made sense to structure the book in an essentially chronological way, touching on each issue in its own chapter.

*You mention a number of very personal stories in the book, including a scene where you were raped, and your experience of miscarriage. You wrote that you were initially uncertain about whether to include these stories. What made you change your mind?

It became clear to me that if I was to continue to move into the area of advocacy for women and children, as I have been doing in recent years, I could not avoid the discussion of violence against women, as it is such a prevalent and serious issue. And I could not in good faith address that issue without also sharing my own stories, because one of the arguments I make is that the stigma and silence around sexual assault and harassment is damaging to individuals and the general community. I wanted to show solidarity with others who had these experiences – sexual assault, miscarriage, and other difficult but common experiences. There are many of us. 1 in 3 women will be physically or sexually assaulted in their lifetime and about a fifth to a quarter of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, so these are issues that must be discussed and issues that we need to get better at dealing with. I am not arguing that everyone needs to tell their story, and certainly not in such a public way. You need to do what you need to do to cope. But in my case, because of my advocacy work, it was a natural progression to share my own experience in the context of the much broader issues.

*The book forced me to question my own judgements, what I tend to sum-up about people after taking a cursory glance. How do you step away from such quick judgements?

We all do it, but we can lessen our biases and assumptions by simply trying. Awareness can be powerful. When we are aware of our biases and the historical contexts for them, we are more easily able to reject lazy assumptions.

*Much of the harrowing early part of the book is about your experiences as a teen model, often isolated and sometimes in real danger. Why do you think there was no system in place at the time to support and help you? Has it changed now?

The modelling industry is an industry – a business. It is essentially about making money and as such the industry in general is not particularly concerned with the health and wellbeing of those working in the industry. Thankfully there are many individual people and individual businesses with high ethical standards, but a model does not generally work for a single business, but rather for a different client on practically every job, and often in different countries, so standards vary enormously. Notably, there is no modelling union I am aware of. There wasn’t at the time I was modelling and I am not aware of one now. Without collective bargaining there is little hope that working conditions will improve significantly across territories. Working conditions, particularly for underage models, need to be addressed more effectively.

*Your statistics outlined in the book and arguments reveal a world where the fight for equal rights still has a long way to go. What are the crucial next steps along this path, as you see them?

Activism and awareness are needed on many fronts, including but not limited to prevention of violence against women and domestic violence, creating more equal pay, preventing discrimination in the work place, addressing problems in superannuation and savings for older women, childcare, valuing unpaid care (which is extremely important for the community and is disproportionately performed by women), allowing women greater access to positions of power without stigma and allowing men to engage in flexible work and unpaid care without stigma.

*Your chapter on mothering and childbirth had particular resonance for me (I also went the CalmBirth way!). Why do you think women are increasingly afraid of childbirth?

There needs to be a better balance between quality, accessible specialist medical care where needed, quality midwifery care, and informed choice. Many experts working in maternity have expressed concern about the balance as it stands. The studies I drew on in that chapter pointed to the culture within a given health care system as being a significant factor in both health outcomes and what is known as ‘extreme’ birth fear, along with popular media portrayals that naturally focus on the worst possible scenarios for dramatic reasons. That conclusion seems to bear out in the different attitudes encountered in different countries. People’s birth experiences vary enormously, the subject can be a very sensitive one, people can find themselves judged viciously, and unfortunately the remaining taboos around birth make it difficult to get a balanced view.

*Women’s bodies can be seen as public property. This is often particularly the case for young women and pregnant women, where strangers approach and sometimes feel they have the right to touch. What can women do in these situations to assert themselves?

One of the most important moments in my life was when I realised that I cared more for my own dignity and sense of self than I did trying to please everyone all the time. That meant that I didn’t care if it upset someone to be told that they could not touch me, or that I did not accept their point of view. There has unfortunately been a history of women’s bodies literally being the property of others, and bodily autonomy remains a battle in some ways. It may not always be easy, but it is always worth it.

*I’m interested in the grey area between what girls/women would like to say and what they end up saying and doing in the moment. How do you think we can bring up girls to be more assertive, to express their sexuality confidently, and to move beyond the surface impressions?

There are still some negative stereotypes, or ‘fictions’ about assertive girls and women. We need to reject the idea that girls who simply want to participate in life are ‘bossy’ or leaders are ‘dragon ladies’ or ‘ice queens’ simply for being women and doing their jobs. There is a cultural shift still happening and cultural attitudes often lag behind actual changes in the law. For instance, women in Australia had the right to vote and stand for office 22 years before any woman actually did enter federal parliament, the longest lag of any western country, and incredibly, this right to vote was not extended to Indigenous women until 1962 (see Australian Women in Politics). We need to realise that just because something is, doesn’t mean it is right. We can challenge our own assumptions about what is possible, and challenge the assumptions of others.

That is part of what ‘The Fictional Woman’ is about, creating change by starting from within, challenging our own assumptions and refusing to participate in the limiting and damaging stereotyping of women and girls, and others.

~

Australian Women Writers founder, Elizabeth Lhuede, would like to acknowledge Tara Moss as the inspiration for the creation of the AWW challenge. Without Tara’s original blog post in 2011 wrapping up the Sisters in Crime conference — and the outrage it generated — the AWW challenge and blog wouldn’t exist.