During the 2015 Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival*, I attended a Master Class run by Australian author Cate Kennedy, whose fiction I love, admire and have learned so much from in my own writing journey. I soaked up every minute of the class discussion on writing, along with Cate’s insights in response to questions from fellow writers.
It should come as no surprise that Cate’s short stories have touched thousands of readers. She has won awards for her two collections, Dark Roots and Like a House on Fire. Equally, she was celebrated for her debut novel The World Beneath, with the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’ People’s Choice. Her poetry collection, The Taste of River Water: New and Selected Poems, was awarded the CJ Dennis Prize in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. When I consider that breadth of writing, it’s quite a roll call.
Recently, the gracious Cate eked out time to consider these questions for Top Shelf. Whether you are a reader of fine fiction, an emerging or an established writer, or would simply like to know more about a remarkable story teller, read on.
When did you first realise that writing was something you could excel at?
CK: At school I recall realising I could excel at ‘composition’ and essay-writing, because I was always such a huge reader, but that excelling is a very different thing to stepping out onto the tightrope of creativity. That feels more like renouncing learned expertise, and admitting yourself a beginner every time you sit down at the desk. I was thinking the other day what a long spell of ‘not-writing’ I had when I finished school and university, and realised it was almost exactly the same number of years I’d spent in the education system – fifteen years altogether. So maybe the more important realisation was the unlearning, and then finding compelling enough reasons to return to it after such a long time of avoiding it.
When you look back on your earlier stories, do you see a shift or development in how and what you write now?
CK: I do see a shift when I look back at earlier stories. I see I was more tentative about just trusting my reader to make connections themselves, based on what I was attempting to show them. This is everyone’s early problem, I think: lack of confidence makes us tentative and hesitant, and we don’t take risks, so our writing seems to lack that boldness and verve we strive for. Developing a voice takes a long time and doesn’t seem, to me, to be something you can do abstractly or by theory alone – you have to learn it through the writing. Now I try to worry less, and not overthink it – just imagine a kind of telepathic conversation happening between me and the reader.
I am frequently touched by your capacity to inhabit a character, and to imbue even the most unlikely character with empathy. Farmer Frank Slovak in Flexion comes to mind. Can you speak about these qualities?
CK: Thank you for that response. There’s a temptation to want everything to be simpler and more coherent in a story than it feels in real life, but I keep finding (both in fiction and in real life, actually) that while dilemmas and predicaments can be clear and cogent, humans (and characters) demand a bit more time and effort. We’re complex. We self-sabotage. We’re fallible. For a sense of realism and empathy, and to create character dimension, I keep returning to this question of human fallibility. If a character seems two-dimensional, recognising their complexity and trying to step into their skin to do it feels like a way to humanise them. Then they feel realer to me, and something occurs to me that I can plausibly make happen to them to make what they’re trying to keep hidden break the surface. This is true of ‘antagonists’ as well. Our first instinct is to make a black-and-white world where people get what they deserve and learn a moral lesson, etc etc, because we’re brought up on fables and myths which work to gratify that yearning in us. But to humanise an antagonist, to make a reader practise empathy; when I add those dimensions to a character, another layer opens up. I like that quote “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle.”
Setting modesty aside, what do you feel is the greatest personal quality you bring to your writing?
CK: If I can render effectively the way an ordinary person deals with the crazy shit life throws at them in a way which shows a core of integrity fighting to the surface, I’m happy with that.
The World Beneath is an award-winning debut novel that plays out in the Tasmanian wilderness. Were there particular challenges in shifting from short fiction to writing a novel-length work?
CK: There sure was. Try spinning a plate on a stick so it doesn’t fall off and smash, and when you feel you’ve almost got that under control, try setting up nine more plates to spin perfectly and simultaneously. Oh, and don’t forget you’re doing it in front of an audience. Anyone who’s ever written a novel will know how daunting it is, and how much of your focus and mental energy it demands. I’m deep in the throes of attempting another one, though, so in a way it’s back into the wilderness, trying to find my way out.
As an established writer, do you still draw on feedback from trusted readers as part of your writing process?
CK: I do have a few trusted readers, the people who know my strengths and weaknesses and can point out ‘tics’ which are invisible to me, which can be very enlightening. In the end, though, you’re by yourself in a room, relying on your own instincts, pursuing a vision it’s very difficult to articulate before you’ve got it on paper and can look at it yourself with fresh eyes, to see what you’ve accidentally revealed to yourself. After that tricky generative phase, I’ve found the ‘crafting’ decisions are easier, which is a relief. Getting into a ‘generative’ state of mind, though, is harder – it’s a brainwave state, pretty much, rather than a learned expertise – like daydreaming. The less analysis and second-guessing involved in this state, the better. So I like to have something pretty well-drafted before I show it to anyone else for feedback. Otherwise it can feel like a story written by a committee, and I always feel then like I’ve failed to do my original idea justice. Editorial feedback from a trusted reader whose opinion you respect, though, who’s paying your work close attention: that’s gold.
Can you offer reader-writers a single piece of advice based on your approach to these aspects of craft:
CK: I’ll give it a try!
Character: make up someone who wants something but can’t get it, and doesn’t really get why. Just let them pull you around.
Conflict: The engine of fiction. Try seeing it as duress or pressure. Or heat.
Dialogue: We’re not listening to what’s said, we’re listening for what’s not said.
Language: Sensory, specific, and visceral. Read every day and take note of what moves you.
Openings: Show me someone in revealing action, and trust that I’m paying attention. Set up something you’re going to pay off later, to indicate that you’ve got your hands on the wheel in terms of structure and shape, and I’ll follow you anywhere.
Pace: Here’s a test of the author’s authority – can they control the pace at which their reader is absorbing and comprehending what’s on the page, while making sure they’re completely oriented about why it matters? Can they render ‘blow-by-blow narrative action’ so it feels real and compelling? Can the writing create a physiological response in a reader, like increased heart-rate, tears, or shortness of breath? Is it immersive? Here’s a very simple tip: practise writing good sentences. Vary their length. Let their tone and pace mimic the emotional experience they’re describing. Write so that someone can lose themselves in your subject matter and not be aware of the ‘writing’ itself.
Resolution: The writer, hopefully, has come out of the story a slightly different person than they were when they went in. So, hopefully, has the character. So, if you’ve managed to pull it off in a sort of miraculous alchemical transfer, has the reader.
Closings: Don’t be tempted to tell the reader what you’ve just eloquently shown them. Trust imagery. Pay attention to what happens in life.
Critiquing your own drafts: Read them aloud, in front of strangers. Feels terrible, right? So don’t do that again. Learn to hear your own faults through your own ‘ear’, so you know if you’re in tune, in pitch, or flat, then when they feel as finished as you can make them, share them with someone whose opinion you value, who doesn’t feel the need to shore up your self-esteem.
A favourite recent read?
CK: George Saunders’ Tenth of December is an amazing collection I often dip back into to be inspired by its sheer bravura. Waiting for me on the bedside table is Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.
Finally, and importantly, what is something you treasure about your life?
CK: I treasure having a private life, and all the friends I have made through struggling on with the writing – other writers who’ve turned me in new more coherent directions, enlightening conversations about ideas, the joys of finding your ‘tribe’. And of course, stories. That’s what it’s all about now for me – the relationships and the stories. That’s become the connective tissue. It’s so strange, isn’t it, how creating fictional stories gets you to something that feels so unmistakeably true?
*The next Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival takes place in Hobart in September 2017