I’m honoured to be joined in the attic today by Amanda Curtin. Not only does she know how to turn a beautiful phrase, and not only is she one of the most beloved writers in the country, and not only have I long admired and respected her work, but she’s also one of the kindest people you could hope to meet. She’s always there, quietly supporting writers at their launches, offering encouragement in the face of disappointment, sharing her knowledge and experience, and offering a hand up to new and emerging writers. Indeed, she’s done all of the above for me.
So, it’s with the greatest of pleasure and pride that I hand over to Amanda.
Amanda Curtin is the author of novels Elemental(shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards) and The Sinkings, short story collection Inherited, and a new work of narrative non-fiction, Kathleen O’Connor of Paris.
In 2018 she was nominated for the Alice Award, a biennial award honouring Australian women who have made a long-term contribution to Australian literature. Amanda has a PhD in Writing and has worked as a book editor for many years. She lives in Perth with her husband and an opinionated Siamese cat, and works in a backyard studio among magpies, doves and old trees.
On Knowing Your Own Name
When I was a child, my family called me Mandy. But I never felt like a Mandy. When I looked in the mirror, nothing remotely Mandyish looked back at me. And so I asked to be called by my given name. To my family’s great credit, they agreed to try, and try they did, but it wasn’t easy—especially for my grandparents. Eventually we settled on a compromise: I’ve been Manda to my family ever since, and Amanda to everyone else. (Everyone else, that is, except the dentist. Who’s going to argue with a guy with a needle in one hand and a drill in the other?)
Learning who I am as a writer has not been as easy as just knowing. It’s come through a lifetime of reading and analysing, and a longish process of formal study, listening to writers talk, experimenting, workshopping, surviving crises of confidence, taking my own pulse.
After trying many of the strategies recommended by other writers, I’ve come to understand that it’s as important to know what doesn’t work for you as it is to know what does. For example:
The concept of ‘vomiting a first draft’ (a horrible expression for an approach used by many excellent writers to get a story down quickly on paper) is, for me, more likely to kill an idea than help me move forward.
I can’t write first, research later. I need to immerse myself in the subject/s first, and it’s in that (usually lengthy) preliminary stage that I start to get excited about ideas, and where I feel the first shivers of character and story.
I’m not a plotter. (Things would be so much easier if I were.)
I rarely write first thing in the morning. (I rarely talk first thing in the morning. Just ask my husband.) I do, however, walk and take photographs, and have found that these are part of my creative process.
I don’t like talking about my work in progress. For me, giving voice to inchoate ideas seems to drain the life out of them.
I don’t keep a journal. I was forced to do this at university, and I’m grateful that it made me more observant generally, but I prefer just scrawling words and phrases on scraps of paper to a formal practice of writing daily thoughts.
I don’t write every day, but I probably think about my work in progress every day.
I don’t necessarily value word count as a measure of progress—(a) because I’m a slow writer, and counting words is disheartening; and (b) because I might make more progress in a day by reading or thinking than by writing 2,000 words.
I do try to scare myself at least once a year. Sometimes that means saying yes to something I’m not confident about doing. Sometimes it means trusting my instincts, knowing my own name. And sometimes it means knowing, and challenging it anyway.
In late 2015, having published two novels and a collection of short stories, I knew myself to be a fiction writer. That was who I saw when I looked in the mirror. And then I was asked if had any interest in writing a work of narrative non-fiction. To my great surprise, I knew instantly that I did.
Context, of course, is everything. Kathleen O’Connor (her fame generally eclipsed by that of her father, C.Y. O’Connor) has been part of my life for more than three decades, ever since I became enchanted by her art—and her life—while working in a minor editorial role on the first book about her. It probably needed a connection as deep and as longstanding as that for me to have leapt into a new genre.
Kate left Perth in 1906 to study and forge a career for herself in Paris—a pretty radical thing to do at a time when young women in conservative Perth were usually destined for a domestic life. She became a well-respected artist, an ‘Australian European’ in the French impressionist/post-impressionist style, and exhibited for six decades in Europe and Australia.
Narrative non-fiction struck me as a perfect genre for telling the story of a woman who was notoriously guarded about her private life, who deflected questions, who left no diaries or revealing correspondence. It gave me the flexibility to move between fact and speculation and a kind of fictional rendering, while being absolutely transparent about what I was doing.
As a result, Kathleen O’Connor of Parisis part biography, part story of travel and research, part reflection on art, life and legacy, and in my exploration of Kate’s life, I often acknowledge the tension between fiction and non-fiction. It was a complex, and exhilarating, book to write, and I don’t regret my instinctive decision to fly against instinct.
As for whether I plan to continue writing non-fiction: I think probably not. I’ve returned to the novel I put on hold in order to write Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, and I’m doing some very preliminary research for another novel. I still see a novelist when I look in the mirror.
But then, perhaps the most valuable thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that I’m capable of seeing someone else, too.
And no, her name’s not Mandy.