chock-full, eyes-peeled, independent
achuka

PART FIVE

Sonya Hartnett
London, 2002 ~ final part (5)

ACHUKA interviewed Sonya Hartnett while she was in the UK to receive the Guardian Children's Book award, for Thursday's Child. At the time, that was the only book of hers to have been published in the UK. It has now been followed by What The Birds See (Australian title Of A Boy).
JAN 2003

one
two
three
four

Have you had the same editor for some time?  

Yes, we’ve done eight or nine books together. I’ll only sign a contract on the proviso that Alex will be my editor. He’s an out-of-house freelance editor.

You like to keep him presumably because he’s a good editor, but good in what sense? Because he lets you do what you want to do, or…  
Oh no, I want an editor that will… if he thinks I’m doing something wrong, I don’t want an editor who’ll go Fine, if you want to do it wrong, then that’s fine. If there’s something Alex thinks really must be changed, I won’t keep it. I’ll dance up and down and jump around. But I can always feel if I have a grain of doubt and we’ve worked so long that Alex can always tell the grain of doubt. His approach is not to argue but to just let me dance around with rage and throw cutlery and stuff and the grain of doubt will grow and grow and eventually I’ll go, And what is it that you want? Why do you want it? All right, you can have that, but you can’t have anything for ten pages!

'I don’t want an editor who’ll go Fine, if you want to do it wrong, then that’s fine...'

Are there any examples in What The Birds See?  
I’m sure if I looked at it I’d see places. I’d need it in front of me though. He’s a poet actually and that last bit, Where we are this that and the other, Alex and I worked for a long time on that. It was originally much longer. It was interesting to work with Alex as a poet to see how he approached a kind of poem. Oddly enough, we both went away and rewrote it and when we came back we had written very similar, there were only like two places where… Sometimes also with Alex I know he’s going to jump up and down about this and he’ll say nothing about it and I’ll go, What about this, don’t you think this is like an odd wording or something and he’ll go It’s idiosyncratic or something but I quite like it. Uh. OK! Rightio! He’s an extremely intelligent man. An intelligent editor. And that’s what I like about him. I don’t like editors who you get the feeling they’re making you change because they feel like they have to do something. They’re being paid to do something, so they have to do something. Usually the something is something that didn’t really need doing. Alex never ever does that. That’s why I like him. I don’t want anyone else touching the books.

'He’s an extremely intelligent man. An intelligent editor. And that’s what I like about him... '

As a reviewer you get tuned to quite subtle changes in the pitch and tone of a book. I’m wondering if at any stage Alex spoke to you about the authorial comment, the omniscient narrator comment on pp130/1, which, if I’d been an editor, I’d at least have wanted to talk about. It’s this bit here. ‘A child often lacks experience…’ and over here…  
Oh, repetition.

 

Not repetition. It’s just two very significant instances of author comment about childhood in quick succession.  
Do you think these are the only times in the book there’s an authorial comment?
No. But if I’d been an editor, I might have been just a bit worried that this double intrusion of a different voice could throw a reader a bit.  
It’s possible that because authorial comment is spread throughout the book, then it’s OK to use it in two close instances like that. But most people don’t read a book closely like that. I don’t think.

That’s the trouble with being a reviewer. Every book you read, you read ultra-critically.  
As a writer I do it as well. I read other people’s books and go, You should have done this that and the other. I look at my own books and think, I should have written it like this. I see what you’re saying but had Alex pointed that out I would have said, I’m happy with the way it… I would argue that the whole theme is authorial comment. That ‘school is a terrible place for a rejected child’. It’s sustained authorial comment rather than two separate instances. That was also one of my favourite… I like that bit “Today is Saturday: Monday waits like an axe.” I can show you the bit in it where they’re at the school… I like that bit. “She slobbered her tongue halfway over her gums horribly and the child at once blushes and grows pale.” So it’s often the most simple and overlookable bits that I’m most happy with. I’ve got a feeling of shrinking in horror and also blazing with embarrassment. To be able to sum that emotion up in a couple of words… I’m pleased with the way I wrote that.

'It’s often the most simple and overlookable bits that I’m most happy with...'

There’s not all that much background about you on the internet.  
No, there’s not. A lot of it’s the same thing over and over again. Do you have that long CBC speech that seems to be floating around everywhere about Southern Gothic? About how I see myself as an Australian Gothic writer. I don’t think it’s on the net yet.

I do remember Ursula Dubosarsky telling me you were a very Gothic writer, and my first thought was What? The two books I’ve read, I wouldn’t have automatically used that term…  
Certainly my work reflects the traditions of southern Gothic writing. I used the speech at the CBC conference this year (2002) and I thought I’m not going to write another conference speech that is just like, “I like writing… This is what I write… I like blue… The sky is blue…”, I’m going to actually write a serious piece that uses the brains of these people. You know, I’m sitting in front of a whole lot of teachers and librarians, they should be able to think! And so I did. I wrote a really serious essay, not so much a speech. A critical examination of my own style. I thought it was a good speech. I was glad that I’d written it. I thought, if I’m going to face another thirty years of writing then damn me if people are going to bloody well spend it pouring scorn on what I do. From now on, it’s a serious business for me.

'I’m sitting in front of a whole lot of teachers and librarians, they should be able to think!...'

When you say southern Gothic, you mean southern American Gothic presumably?  
Mmm. Because my work certainly does reflect some of those southern Gothic traits. There’s a kind of grim humour in it. The characters are often in isolated settings and the characters operate outside what is generally seen to be acceptable human boundaries. A lot of these things particularly apply to Sleeping Dogs, which is an extremely southern Gothic book.

'my work certainly does reflect some of those southern Gothic traits...'

Have you read Erskine Caldwell?  
No. But just in the time I went home I read The Grapes Of Wrath for the first time. And I just thought it was hilarious! I was rolling around on the seat. It’s a cracker! It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever read! It was so terrible! I mean it was funny in that awful southern Gothic way that As I Lay Dying is funny. Dragging this poor dead woman around the country!

'I just thought it was hilarious! I was rolling around on the seat. It’s a cracker!'

I think it’s a fabulous book.  
Ah, it’s my favourite book. I love that book! My absolute favourite book in the whole world. But don’t you think it’s hilariously, grimly funny… It’s only baroquely funny… southern Gothic funny. It’s either laugh or fall back and cry because it’s all so awful. Oh I love that book with a passion. My mother reads very little. I gave a speech last year where I listed about 50 of my favourite books and just had a sentence to say why and she got sort of interested in it and because I had it as my favourite she read it. The idea of my mum reading As I Lay Dying was hilarious. When I wrote the list I was surprised at the books that jumped out at me. If my house was burning down which are the ones I’d chuck out the window. I would never have thought that Peyton Place would make it on the list! Or A Dog Of Your Own which is actually a book about dog breeders. I love dogs. I’ve had dogs all my life. Of all the dog books I own that is my long-time favourite. You objected to Catcher In The Rye being on the blacklist?

'I love dogs. I’ve had dogs all my life...'

Yes.  
I hate that book! God, I hate that book. It was great success that list. Every time I read out a new name there were either cheers or hisses in the audience.  
When did you read Catcher In The Rye?  
When I was a teenager, about 17. I always think I must go back and read it again. But I just think life is short. I read it at a time when it was already an extremely famous book and a book that everyone said you must read, you must read. Whether it suffered from being not the book I expected it to be, I don’t know, but I do know I hated it with a passion. But not as much as I hated Tristram Shandy. But at least Tristram Shandy comes from a completely different era. And there were even things about that I did like. I did like his black page when one of the characters dies. But there was nothing about Catcher In The Rye that I liked.

'there was nothing about Catcher In The Rye that I liked...'

From one piece I did find on the net I discovered you feel that children and writing don’t go together.  
I think that to really write requires the investment of a great deal of yourself and I think if you have children, particularly if you’re the mother… There are very few great women writers who had children. Or they didn’t start writing until after the children were grown up and left home. Writing requires an investment of yourself, yet if you have a child you have to give it to the child. I don’t think you can do both. I can’t possibly imagine that you could do both with any… it would be the writing that would suffer. I certainly know in my case it would be the writing that would suffer. I look for excuses not to do it. Because I grew up with five brothers and sisters, four much older than the other two, I have very clear memories of waking up at night, woken by the baby crying and stuff. There is a part of me that thinks I have already dealt with children in my life. But mostly I think a writer has to be, or any kind of an artist who is committed to their work, or maybe just naturally is, deeply egocentric. Having children doesn’t sit well with that.

'Writing requires an investment of yourself, yet if you have a child you have to give it to the child. I don’t think you can do both.'

   

Editor: Michael Thorn
Contact: 07803605045 or email
©ACHUKA 1997-2012