Gosh, I have some amazing writers visit the attic! I get such joy out of reading the sometimes heartfelt, sometimes practical, but always different and always special pieces that authors pen for this series.
Today, I’m thrilled to share another beautiful piece, this time by one of WA’s finest writers, Alice Nelson. Alice’s writing is gentle and reflective, as she is in person. I recently read her exquisitely poignant novel, The Children’s House, which is a beautiful book about mothers and children and love and trauma and damaged people.
Here’s Alice talking about the difficulty writers face letting go of their novels once they’re published:
Alice Nelson was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for her first novel, The Last Sky. Alice’s short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Sydney Review of Books, The Asia Literary Review, Southerly Magazine, the West Australian Newspaper and Australian Book Review.
Her new novel, The Children’s House (Penguin Random House, October 2018, and in other territories in 2019) has been longlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards Literary Book of the Year, the Independent Booksellers Awards for Literary Fiction, and the ALS Gold Medal for Literature.
Visit Alice’s website more information
LOSING THE KEY: LETTING GO OF OUR NOVELS
The months after a novel is released into the world are a strange time for a writer. There is the surreal thrill of having the story that you have laboured on for so long in secrecy and solitude out in the world, and the considerable joys of connection that this unveiling brings. There is the whirl of publicity, the events, the readings, the festivals, the book club visits, the conversations with readers, the endless discussions about various aspects of the novel, the thought-provoking questions and the lovely affirmations.
But what has felt to me to be the strangest aspect of these months since my recent novel The Children’s Housewas published, is the way that the universe of the novel, in which I dwelled for so long, is no longer completely accessible to me. Of course I still know the novel intimately, but it feels that the more I talk about it in public forums, the more times I read excerpts from it, the less it belongs to me.
This is not because the novel now also belongs to others; I love the powerful and beautiful alchemy that exists between a writer and reader, a shared making of meaning. The distance is more because I am slowly beginning to forget how the novel was created.
This may sound a little strange, given how long I spent writing it, but as I talk about the book again and again with the certainty and authority required for public addresses, I am beginning to lose sight of some of the doubt and strife, the dilemmas and failures, the revelations and epiphanies that shaped it.
The characters I lived with on such intimate terms for many years feel a little like people I once loved but have slipped out of my life. In my discussions with readers, I feel a kind of rueful nostalgia creeping in; I envy them sometimes the freshness and intensity of engagement with these characters I created but am no longer on intimate terms with.
Sometimes when I stand at a podium reading from the novel I feel that I am reading words written by someone else, that the book I hold in my hands is something very far from me.
I recently read a beautiful essay by the American novelist Nicole Krauss, written in the aftermath of finishing her extraordinary novel Great House, in which she speaks about this strange distance and the way that, once finished, the novel begins to close itself to the writer. Krauss says: ‘The more the novel becomes a solid thing in the world, the less access the writer has to the accidents, reversals, inventions, rejected ideas, passing weather, sudden triangulations, and unshakable intuitions that led to those words, and only those, standing there on the page with an authoritative air about them, as if they were always bound to be’. The writer who locked the door not long ago, says Krauss, loses the key.
Perhaps this is a necessary kind of forgetfulness, an essential distance. If we remained intensely in the world of one novel, how could we ever begin to write another? The Children’s House is about loss and leave-takings, about the necessary shedding of skins that is sometimes required to go on in the world, the ways that we need to leave elements of the past behind in order to create a future.
I do believe that the long, slow work of writing a novel is also in a way a process of educating the heart. Writing The Children’s House was a way for me to spend a sustained period of time dwelling with some of the questions and preoccupations that haunt me; questions about memory, loss, inheritance and the possibilities of restoration and solace. The fledgling novel I’m working on now asks different questions and has different demands and I will need to become equal to them as I write it. I will need to give myself over to it completely, and to do that I need to leave The Children’s House behind.
As I sit here at my desk in France, looking out my window at the cherry trees in full blossom in the ancient orchard and feeling my way into a new novel that is still a mystery to me, there is that quickening that comes with the beginning of spring, with new love, with the blank page and the dream of the story unfurling in front of me, leading me on.