Interview: Writing in Virginia’s Shadow with Mary Pomfret

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A review of Mary’s ‘Writing in Virginia’s Shadow’ can be found here.

1.      Writing in Virginia’s Shadow is a collection of interconnected stories that ponder the writing life for working class women. The title suggests influence from Virginia Woolf’s work. Can you talk a little about how her work influenced the inception of your book?

Well, I guess it all starts with Virginia Woolf’s wonderful essay “A Room of One’s Own” which addresses the many issues that might influence a woman’s practical capacity to engage in a writing career should she have the talent and desire.

Woolf makes it clear in her analogy of “Shakespeare’s sister” that talent and drive are not enough for any person, male or female, to devote themselves to a writing life. However, she makes the very strong point that in a patriarchal society the demands and expectations of women are different from those imposed on men.  I know that Woolf wrote the essay in 1928, and of course things have changed a lot since then for women.

And although women’s lives have improved greatly in the last century, material matters, social expectations, and familial responsibilities still impinge on the artistic freedom of women. Clearly, most women in the contemporary western world do not spend Monday mornings hand washing and wringing the family laundry and generally they do not scrub the floors on their knees. Most have computers, electricity and hot water on tap. Yet still, women who write encounter difficulties, particularly if they are not from the privileged classes.  Although much progress has been made, women writers whatever their social class, still experience psychological struggles as a result of the dominant patriarchal order, which still might seem to favour the writing of men and the subjects that promote the perspective and interests of men.

Virginia Woolf noted, “This is an important book, the critic says, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room”. The description of a child eating an orange sitting on her mother’s lap by the fire in a suburban lounge room, can be just as vivid as the description of Napoleon riding a horse in the battlefield. Woolf was well aware that it is not the ordinariness of the subject but the quality of the writing which matters but that this is not always recognized in a patriarchal world.

2.      The collection utilises different forms of writing: short story, email, letters, and vignettes. I’m intrigued about how this lovely group of writings came together. Did you write with a theme in mind? or did you select from work that had previously been written?

Much of the writing in this collection formed my creative honours thesis. Because I possibly am more of a creative writer than an academic one, I used the ficto-critical approach which allows a certain creative freedom to address theoretical concerns. Hence the letters and emails from and to Virginia Woolf. And here I must give credit to my honours supervisor, Dr Sue Gillett, who introduced me to the ficto-critical form.

The short stories came together in the organic way that most stories do. I began by writing three separate stories, as a trilogy, and then I saw how easy it would be to link the characters because the themes connected them.

3.      Most of the protagonists are women, excepting a story about Sam and his book launch. How do you see this particular story fitting into the work as a whole?

Oh dear, poor Sam and his book a launch. Sam is perhaps more of a caricature than a character. And the same could be said about the egotistical Nigel, who launched Sam’s book. Sam appealed to Nigel’s vanity and attempted to emulate his cool confident style but without much success. I guess what I was getting at with these two, is that Nigel had a wife at home, Leah, with considerable writing talent, yet he failed to recognise her talent or support her work. He preferred to promote the work of the talentless Sam who stroked his ego by his hero worshipping attitude. Leah clearly did not give Nigel the adoration his ego required. As Virginia put it in 1928:

‘How could he go on giving judgment, civilizing natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and dinner at least twice the size he really is?”

4.      The character Sam shares the same name as Samuel Clemens. Can you share with us any meaning or connections we can take from your use of Samuel Clemens as a character?

Most astute of you, Julie, to ask me this question. Samuel Langhorne Clemens was Mark Twain’s pseudonym. I think perhaps “our Sam” wasn’t legally his name at all, but maybe he was a “John Smith” who felt Sam Clemens was a more suitable name for a writer of his perceived, but in fact dubious talent. My attempt at irony I guess: Mark Twain was a wonderful talent, “our Sam” clearly was not.

5.      For me as a reader, a theme that came through strongly is the idea that attitudes and responses to particular fiction vary widely depending on age, socio-economic status and gender. Is this an idea that you considered when putting this project together?

Once again, my fictional stories just tend to evolve. I rarely set out to write about a particular subject or issue. The theme of women, captivity and the material matters which influence their ability to fulfil their creative potential just seemed to develop and then fictional letters and emails sprang from there. I think I have read somewhere that the way in which you perceive the world, depends on your position in it. Your perspective in other words.  So, I figure that your age, gender, socio-economic status and perhaps race and family of origin are the basic footing for your view of the world. In the case of the writer’s perspective, my own included, these factors undeniably have an influence on the stories we write and the point of view we take.

6.      In the fictional letter from Margot to Virginia, Margot writes:

…I feel that writing of stories, stories with female characters who are from the working class, will do more to advance women’s position in society…because such stories would be accessible to more women than are the writings of academic theorists.

Can you talk a little about this idea and how your own work might relate to it?

Well, I guess I have a thing about  “ivory tower” perceptions of life. Take for example the writing of the French feminists – beautiful as it undoubtedly is – I don’t feel it is as easily understood by people who have not had the opportunity to study literary theory. Perhaps I am wrong, but I feel fiction has the power to explore complex issues in simple ways which touch the imagination and heart of the reader.

7.      Thank you for taking the time to chat with us Mary. I’m hearing rumours of another book. What else can we read by Mary Pomfret and what can we expect in the future?

Yes, Julie. Most exiting! My new collection of short stories ‘Cleaning out the Closet’ will be launched at the Basement on View (next to the Bendigo Art Gallery) on April 10, at 7.00 pm.

You can read a review of ‘Writing in Virginia’s Shadow’ here

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Fuckadoodle! It’s just_a_girl ! Interview with debut author Kirsten Krauth

just-a-girl

When the opportunity arose to chat with Castlemaine author Kirsten Krauth about her unique debut book just_a_girl, I jumped at the chance. The novel is bursting with themes of loneliness, sexuality and relationships in a modern world, and we had a lot of fun exploring and unpicking those themes and it was great to get some insight into the evolution of the book. I hope you enjoy it too.

1                    Just-a-girl is an intriguing novel written in a non-traditional format, with a mix of diary, and third person. Is the final book as you had initially planned, or did these formats evolve over many drafts?

The mix is pretty much the same as when I started writing, but the draft I sent to the publishers was different in some ways to the final book. Layla is pretty much the same, with her choppy and cut-off sentences. But Margot’s sections were originally written in the form of a prayer, each one starting ‘Dear Lord’. If you look at those entries there is a rhythm to them that intones, as if she is speaking to someone. It still works, but more as a stream of consciousness. Tadashi was always in third person and past tense, because I thought you needed a character who offered a chance for pause, a bit of respite after the two very strong and direct female voices. He is also quite removed and I thought that style suited him.

2                    The characters in just_a_girl are believable and well-drawn; you’ve been able to get into each of these character’s heads to portray them in a realistic way, but all three characters are very different to each other. How, as a writer, did you prepare yourself to get inside your characters heads?

The strong voice of each character emerges first and if I like that voice, I run with it. Using certain stylistic phrases helped me get into the psychology pretty early-on and quickly. For instance, Layla’s character has virtually no commas or run-on sentences; whereas Margot’s character has a comma whenever she pauses, and her sentences can go on for pages! Simply saying one of Layla’s made-up words (‘fuckadoodle’) would make me laugh and I’d find the mood of the piece. Placing characters in a particular location, with a particular emotion, helps dramatically. I find it easy to empathise with a character, and I get to an emotional place where the language stems from where they are (whether it’s on the train or on a rollercoaster).

3                   As you mentioned earlier, the sentences in Layla’s diary are often cut up, short and stuttery and ignore normal punctuation rules in a way that might do an editor’s head in. Can you talk a bit about conversations with editors and readers you have had while working on just-a-girl about writing it in this style? 

That’s a beauty of a question! I didn’t really see it as a diary but as an insight into how Layla’s mind works. As an editor, I was aware of the difficulties of this kind of writing. It runs the risk of turning readers off very quickly. But as a writer, I wanted the style to completely reflect where Layla’s head was at. At the beginning of the book she describes her thoughts as being like a ‘grasshopper’s spring’ and it was more crucial for the writing to reflect that, than to be grammatically correct. With texts, messaging, and other forms of writing these days, the rules of grammar are being relaxed, and I don’t see this as necessarily a bad thing. My editor did query the style and encouraged me to run on some of the sentences. But I stayed pretty firm on it as I wanted the character to be distinguished by her strange use of language. I’m lucky that nearly all of my readers have had the resilience to push through and run with it. I love books like Trainspotting and A Clockwork Orange that play with language and style.

And  what lead you to the decision to have Margot’s character italicized?

I see Margot as a character who is unravelling. Her anti-depressants have been keeping her together (but numb) and now, having gone off them, she’s starting to spiral. It’s like she’s trying to convince herself (not convincingly) that everything is okay. The long sentences in italics give a hint that she is not coping, but also that she is immensely lonely. Her long rants (to herself) are a way of venting when she doesn’t have someone else to connect with. And this juxtaposition of styles points to the lack of communication between Margot and Layla, too. I’m very sensitive to the way looks on the page, how text is arranged. We experimented in final drafts with doing Margot’s chapters in roman text, but I couldn’t do it, because the italics had become an integral part of her characterisation.

4                    Margot and Layla are mother and daughter, but your third character, Tadashi, comes out of left field, and although he connects with Layla in the story, he has a very separate story line. In her review of just_a_girl, Angela Meyer draws a connection between the three characters and says of Tadashi,

…there’s a disturbing metaphor of objectification in his story, which echoes some of the actions of male characters in the story threads of Layla and Margot. He has literally replaced a flesh-and-blood woman with a doll who keeps quiet and is available whenever he needs her. She is pretty and poses the way he wants her to. There are parallels with the sex video that Layla makes for Mr C, an older man, and in her relations with her 18-year-old boyfriend, and also in the harassment she suffers—and never reports—from her boss.

What do you see as the connection between the three characters, or what drew you to connect Tadashi to Margot and Layla within the novel?

I see all characters as not-quite connecting, either with each other or the world around them. I liked the idea of Tadashi being a commuter on the same train as Layla, appearing and disappearing, almost as if Layla summons him when she needs him, but with a fragility that never quite extends to friendship. All the characters project their fantasies of what ‘real life’ and an ‘ideal relationship’ should look like onto others. In Margot and Layla, it’s their shared Mr C. Tadashi imagines love and nurturing in the only space he feels comfortable – and takes this ideal to an extreme. In general, I like leaving the threads of narrative untangled so the reader can weave them together how they like. It’s one of the reasons that I love Murakami’s novels (who is a big influence on this book) because he’s not interested in tying all those threads together. All the characters are also exploring sex and power, the way they are cast (aside) sexually, who they can trust, how others’ look at and respond to their bodies, to what extent all of this can be controlled. Angela’s interpretation is terrific as I think it’s about posing: how they present to the world versus how they really feel, and what happens when they are truly exposed.

5                    Leading on from this idea of sexual identity and objectification, in her review of just-a-girl, titled, Are Teenage Girls Just Like That? , Elizabeth Lhuede delves into the portrayal of sexually precocious young teenage girls in literature, and the written compared to actual motivations of girls’ behaviour, whether it‘s born out of early sexual abuse, suffering that shaped the parents who raise them, the invasiveness of the internet, or perhaps simply ‘teenage girls are just like that’. Is this something you explored and constructed in just-a-girl? Or did you write the book as it came to without delving into those themes?

The idea of sexually precocious (or physically precocious) teens came out of my direct experience. I was an early developer, like Layla. I found this intensely challenging, as my body was garnering unwanted attention in public (from older men rather than boys), before I had any emotional or intellectual capacity to deal with it. I wanted to explore this divide. My experience did not come out of sexual abuse, so that’s a realm I didn’t research, but was very moved by Elizabeth’s analysis.  I thought it was an area that hadn’t been explored much in fiction. As with Layla, though, by the time I was fifteen all the other girls had caught up, so it was a very particular timeframe. If you read closely, though, Layla is actually quite naive and inexperienced when it comes to her sexuality, but she masks it by talking about sex a lot, and putting herself in dangerous situations where she has to confront things head on.

6                    Lastly, I hit my elbow in the shower the other day, and instead of my usual expletive I blurted out that word of Layla’s that you mentioned earlier, Fuckadoodle! I’m thinking you’ve started a new catch, what do you think!?

LOL, we are in sync! As I mentioned earlier, I just had to say that word to myself, and I was off in Layla-land. My dad has developed a whole string of profanities that go along after it in a poetic way; quite hilarious. It does make reading in public hard though, if there are any kids around! Feel free to move it along. I love Kath n Kim and J’amie and all those characters who make up their own words. That latest one, ‘quiche’, just absolutely cracks me up.

Thanks Kirsten!

You can read my mini review of just_a_girl here. Kirsten can be found at her blog, Wild Colonial Girl , and on twitter @WldColonialGirl . There is also a great interview over on ANZ Lit Lovers  called Meet the Author, with Lisa Hill and Kirsten.

Just_a_girl is published by UWA Publishing, 2013. I read the E-book.

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