Walking into Varuna (a residence for writers in Katoomba) from the road is like entering some kind of wonderland. It seems to be a place where you leave your baggage at the gate. I sleep in the Sewing Room, in a small wooden single bed with a patchwork quilt, and read and write here in the Green Room, with wall to wall library shelves, a huge desk, window views and a comfy chair to sit.
Whenever I’m struggling for a metaphor to grab when describing writing and editing, I tend to go with the handicrafts. I do find my own method of putting a manuscript together works much like a hand-made patchwork quilt, writing the fragments and then piecing them together according to colour, texture, style. Editing too has often been described as a kind of tearing apart and stitching back together, hopefully with the stitches seamless and invisible to the reader.
I wake at Varuna to gothic bare trees after a night of red wine and grand talk around a fire with Djon Mundine and Felicity Castagna. I’m here at Varuna not to write this time, but for my first session as part of the Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival, and they’ve also asked me to guest blog.
In Emma Donoghue’s gut-churningly tense novel, Room, there are no windows, no view. Jack is a five-year-old who has been locked up with his mother since birth; Ma was kidnapped. His voice is precise and strikes at your heart, clear as a bell. When I was reading books featuring young characters as research for just_a_girl it was Jack’s voice, and Christopher’s in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, that remained with me.
Emma Donoghue’s session at the Carrington unfolds in her warm and hearty Irish accent. She talks of the ideas behind her latest book, Frog Music, set in the late 1800s about a cross-dresser, a frog-catcher and an erotic dancer. I’m already in love with the sound of it. The women in her novel are rebelling against the rules, refusing to be ‘good girls’. She talks about the joys of delving into the archives, uncovering things odd and excessive. She spends a day researching men’s jewellery, ‘trousers so tight it left nothing to the imagination’.
She also talks of the centrality of the theme of motherhood to her novels, sometimes capturing her by surprise: the pressures of family/work reflecting all our lives and that moment when as a parent you have to consider: ‘Will I keep them safe or will I let them live?’ She then goes onto describe her own creative processes, and how she achieves balance: ‘I weaned my daughter to go on a book tour … I feel so shallow saying that’, she says, laughing.
Donoghue’s passion for writers and writing shines through in every word. The youngest of eight, she loved the indulgence of being able to read books while her older siblings worked around her. She’s only just starting to feel like a grown up (now she has kids). I know how she feels …
Heading off to another day in the mountains…