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Tracy Ryan

'In primary school a nun told us that on judgement day, God would play back in front of the whole world a film of every moment of our lives. Most kids probably ignored her, but others must have been as shaken as I was. Who would dream up such a thing to tell kids?'

Award-winning poet and acclaimed novelist Tracy Ryan currently resides in Toodyay, WA, with her husband, fellow poet John Kinsella, and their son. Her latest novel, We Are Not Most People, follows Kurt Stocker, who was raised in Switzerland by god-fearing parents and makes a failed attempt at becoming a priest, and Terry Riley, who in small town Australia feels drawn to convent life. The two first meet when Kurt becomes her highschool French teacher, and years later the pair become romantically involved. Their dysfunctional childhoods and various entanglements with the Church make their relationship a strange and difficult one. Here Tracy tells us about her experiences with religion and the influence of Charlotte Brontë on her book.

Your novel explores characters who have deeply conflicted relationships with religion; does this narrative resonate with your own life?

With my long-ago life, yes. I stopped entirely being a practising Catholic in the late 1980s. I never had the traumatic experiences that so many others had, but learning about those things further confirmed leaving the church for me. I respect other people’s right to choose religion, but I find the institutional forms of it too oppressive.

In primary school a nun told us that on judgement day, God would play back in front of the whole world a film of every moment of our lives. Most kids probably ignored her, but others must have been as shaken as I was. Who would dream up such a thing to tell kids?

Mind you, given the way governments and corporations love to grab our personal data these days, it’s not God we need to fear on privacy...

We Are Not Most People is preluded by a Latin quote from Heroides; how does this quote related to the following story?

The character Kurt was educated in Latin and Greek at boarding school – in the story he emotionally identifies with Dido both in Ovid and in Virgil. Just as in reading Jane Eyre he relates to Jane as a boarding-school child, rather than to Rochester as a male hero, so too he sees love as painful like Dido’s, abandoned by the hero Aeneas.

One of your books of poetry, The Argument, was inspired by the letters of Heloise and Abelard, 12th century lovers who were tragically separated. Did We Are Not Most People have a similar point of inspiration?

Charlotte Brontë’s work was a partial starting point. I hadn’t spotted the similar theme to Heloise and Abelard here, but I can see it now. Heloise’s letters in particular amaze me. It’s that same conflict between “love of God” and human love. Obstacles are more interesting to write fiction about – and I think to read fiction about – than smooth trajectories. I think most people, even if they’ve had happy lives and relationships, can relate to those obstacles.

Terry has a childhood many Australian readers might relate to: a small town, public schooling, American TV. Kurt, on the other hand, begins his life in Switzerland – what prompted you to begin this character’s story here?

Switzerland and Swiss people seem always to have been in my life – from reading Heidi when I was a small girl (in a lovely translation that retained the German names for the goats!), through to people I met in Australia as I grew up, and even my teenage son learning German from Swiss teachers.

I have travelled there as well and have a strong personal connection to it. It’s a place of intriguing contradictions – multiple languages and cultural differences. There are open-minded Swiss and socially conservative (traditionally religious) too. These elements all feed into my character and what happens to him.

Kurt Stocker is Terry’s French teacher when she is in high school. Under what circumstances do Terry and Kurt meet as adults?

Like most teachers in that era, he’s been moved around a lot in his job. He comes back into her world unexpectedly, when she’s studying languages at university. He’s still a school-teacher, and she answers an ad to help out in his language classes.

How do Terry and Kurt’s dysfunctional experiences of youth contribute to their connection?

They’re both ill-equipped to deal with their wider worlds in their respective eras of growing up. Many people have something that makes them anomalous, even if they hide it well. The “norm” is in some ways a myth. Kurt and Terry have both grown up in ways that others might see as eccentric or weird, and so they accept this in each other; of course the religious background contributes to that, ironically.

Are there any books or authors that had a particular influence over the writing of We Are Not Most People?

Yes, I was very conscious of two Charlotte Brontë novels, Jane Eyre and Villette. They appear in my story in different ways. Jane of course falls in love with the much-older Mr Rochester; Lucy falls in love with her (French-speaking) colleague and teacher. Both are novels about education and upbringing too, and I wanted to play with the Bildungsroman. Early in the writing process I thought about making the Kurt character a Belgian, because of Brontë’s real-life love for her Belgian teacher, and because I was steeped in Jacques Brel at that stage. But I went with Swiss as something I knew much better.

We Are Not Most People by Tracy Ryan is published by Transit Lounge, rrp $29.99.