What a line-up! This session started with Annabel-tech-guru-Smith encouraging the audience to live tweet, and gives us the panel members twitter handles. (@HannahFKent and @eviewyld if you’re interested. Annabel’s is @AnnabelSmithAUS.)
Hannah spoke first about Agnes, the protagonist in her dark, evocative Burial Rites. Hannah said she wrestled with the idea of whether Agnes was simply wicked or not, and she found an angle, and way in, but said she felt she had to write the character in a way that also honoured how the people of the time would have viewed Agnes. I thought this was really interesting; a writer of fiction presumably is able to appropriate historical figures, as long as enough time has passed, and use them in any way they want, particularly someone like Agnes who was the last woman publicly executed in Iceland.Hannah could have just ‘gone to town’ and created a very dramatic over-the-top storyline, and I think that it’s very much to her credit that she didn’t. Her touch is light, she is restrained and resists any and all temptation to overwrite and overplay the scenes.
I think this is the first time I’ve heard an author explicitly say they wanted to try to incorporate the perspective of the people of the time (this doesn’t mean it’s never been said before. I haven’t read a lot of historical fiction and I haven’t listened to historical fiction writers talking about their work but to me, it’s quite revelatory, yet makes solid sense). As Hannah said elsewhere (Sydney Review of Books):
What I really need to do is make sure what I am seeing is the real deal and not a complete figment of my imagination.
Evie said her book was partly inspired by the famous New Zealand murder case where two young girls killed the mother of one of them, a story which was made into a movie with Kate Winslet, Heavenly Creatures. Evie said the girls were too young to be charged and were told not to see each other again (a quick google tells me they were charged, convicted and imprisoned. When released, the condition was that they have no contact. One of the girls, of English background, went to England to reunite with her mother.) Evie said one of the girls became a farmer on a small island; the other became a writer and on her wiki page has ‘I’m also a convicted murderer.’
Wyld said that she’s interested in a first person narrator who holds things back, even from herself. Her protagonist Jake, in All the Birds, Singing is a slightly naive character who’s a ‘bit behind the other girls’ and who becomes ‘gently imprisoned’ as a young adult by a man who is presented as menacing — and is — but who also has other qualities. (I’ve read All the Birds, Singing, and loved it. Will do a response later on the blog. In the meantime I recommend, heartily.)
Neither Evie nor Hannah wanted to be a ‘man-bashing’ author. Hannah said she didn’t want Agnes’s ill-treatment to have occurred because of her gender; she wanted it to have occurred more because of her status and class (I liked this snippet of info.) Wyld said she was interested in problematising good/bad characters. Having one view of someone and then ‘flipping it’, so that even with a horrible character like Otto, there were times when the reader might hold some sympathy for him or see him in a slightly different light. She wanted a character where the reader would think one thing, then find out more and change their view,and I think Wyld was entirely successful with this goal.
My last note is about a book by Gordon Burn that Wyld mentioned, which is about the Frederick and Rosemary West serial murder case in the UK. Wyld said it’s a book where the author ‘gets into the heads’ of the the people who murdered at least ten girls, including some of their own daughters. Finally, on the question of whether a character should be likeable, Wyld said for her it’s more about being interested in the character (exactly what Andrea Goldsmith had said.)
Next up: Martin Amis talks to Tony Jones.