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Charlotte Wood's first novel, Pieces of a Girl, was published in 1999, and won the 1998 Jim Hamilton Award for an unpublished manuscript. Both this and her second novel, The Submerged Cathedral (2004), were highly praised by reviewers and award judges, and the latter was shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers' Prize, SE Asia/Sth Pacific. Her third novel, The Children, received rave reviews and was a bestseller, selling over 10,000 copies in trade paperback. Here she chats to gr about her new novel Animal People.
What did you want to be at 5, 13 and 20 years of age?
At five I wanted to be a grownup; at 13 a grownup window-dresser for David Jones; and at 20 I had no idea, although writing was slowly starting to bubble up inside me.
What prompted you to write your first novel?
My mother had just died and as it does, grief made things clear, separating life into important and unimportant things- it was time to stop daydreaming about writing and start doing it. I just began with a shred of a scene, and my novel grew slowly from that.
What should a reader expect from Animal People?
A 24-hour urban love story. It follows the drifting, disconnected Stephen Connolly through one very bad day in a big city, from home to his job at the zoo and an excruciating workplace teambuilding event, to a child’s birthday party at his girlfriend’s house that goes terribly wrong. I think the novel is about urban anxiety, the weird ways we behave towards animals, and about the difficulty some of us have in accepting love.
Did having three well received books in your literary past, make writing the fourth book a daunting task?
Every book is daunting because one is trying to do something new, and something more creatively challenging than the previous one. But that said, Animal People was a lot of fun in some ways because it’s the first time I have tried to give free rein to humour in a novel, as well as a more tender look at life. City living is so absurd, but also so poignant.
Which writer or writers have astounded you and why?
Too many to mention – but right now I am reading Shirley Hazzard for the first time and am amazed by how much she packs into a few sentences, by her sly humour, her compassion, and her breathtaking confidence – she writes in great sweeping leaps and I’m thoroughly inspired.
Why did you decide to return to a character from your earlier book, The Children, in your new novel Animal People?
Not until quite some time after I’d finished The Children did Stephen occur to me as a character – I knew the next book would be set in a city, and I wanted it to be a one-day book. But I kept being drawn back to thinking of him, I think, because he was the only character in The Children I didn’t completely understand by the time I finished writing that novel. He remained unresolved when the others – Mandy especially – I felt I knew inside out. And in a way – this will sound odd, for a person one has invented – I still worried about him. I wanted to see him through the next stage of his life, and I wanted him not to be so lonely. It is very strange how fictional characters can sort of embed themselves in one’s consciousness almost as if they are real. I think of him as a kind of wayward cousin I’ve always loved, but who inexplicably finds life a bit of a struggle.
When writing, what quirky habit/s do you have?
Nothing really quirky I’m afraid… although I do sometimes have a sleep in the middle of the day if I’ve hit an insurmountable problem or blank spot. Quite often just on falling asleep or waking a solution will come to me.
What literary character have you enjoyed reading about the most?
Too many to mention. I love books that explore the doubts and anxieties and small triumphs of ordinary people.
How do you react to reviews of your books?
It depends on the review! I have largely been lucky but occasionally have had a shocker. It’s hard to shake off the shame that a bad review provokes, even if you think its criticisms unjustified. But you just get over it, and move on. Some critical reviews, if intelligent and respectful, can be very instructive. If this is the case I try to learn from it; I’ve had two or three like this in my career and am grateful for them.
Do you have plans or any idea of your next novel?
Yes, I have a very well formed idea of a setting and some characters, and perhaps a voice, although I’ve barely begun. It all looks so perfect in my head at the moment – and soon that notion will come tumbling down as I get in there and wrestle with it. But I’m excited about starting again. At this stage it’s all beautiful possibility …
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