Welcome to Writers in the Attic for 2022! I have some wonderful authors lined up already, and I’m looking forward to bringing you their stories from behind-the-scenes. I don’t know about you, but over this past two years, books have become a touchstone for me – whatever is happening in the bigger, wider world, at least I know I will always have the comfort of reading a good story.
First up in the attic this year is Maria Papas, whose novel, Skimming Stones, won the 2020 City of Fremantle–Hungerford Award. Read on to learn about Maria’s childhood writing and how her characters influenced the storyline of her book.
Maria holds a PhD from the University of Western Australia where she researched the ways people share narratives of illness and trauma. She has written for TEXT, Griffith Review, Axon, The Letters Page and other journals.
You can stay in contact with Maria via her website, Instagram or Twitter, and purchase a copy of Skimming Stones from Fremantle Press. You can also enter the book giveaway to win a copy of Skimming Stones – details at the end of the post ↓↓
Lessons from ten year old me: how to tell a difficult story
For as long as I can remember, I was engaged in various acts of storytelling. As a child, I kept a journal, daydreamed, and spent many evenings puppeteering one sister’s toys while drawing the other sister into the improvisation of all my games.
Recently, I published my début novel. It’s called Skimming Stones, and if I am to describe it, I would say it’s a novel that explores the long-term impact of childhood illness on families. At its heart, Skimming Stones concerns a paediatric oncology nurse named Grace who has a largely unexamined past as a child who once bore witness to her sister’s leukaemia. Following a fraught love affair and a hospital emergency that together prompt her to question her life choices, Grace journeys back to her hometown where she revisits memories of her parents’ fragile marriage, her sister’s illness, the separation she endured when her sister and mother relocated to hospital, and her love for a substitute maternal figure named Harriet.
People ask me now all sorts of questions about the book. ‘What inspired it?’ ‘How long did it take to write?’ And what I really want to say is, ‘It took me my whole life.’ When I was little, I read all the time, book after book, studying it, wanting to know what Johanna Spyri or Judy Blume did with their words to make me love their characters so much. And I wrote: stories, a picture book, a crime novel that occupied me all winter but which I put away, unfinished, when summer came. Completed or not, for years, one thing remained constant: I was always reading, examining, learning and writing. The more I learned, the more confident I became. The more confident I was, the more courage I had to explore subject matters such as the ones I explore in Skimming Stones.
Was I a plotter or did I just let it fall however it was meant to fall? Neither, I think… and both. I was aware of plot in so much as I understood that there are common structures for narratives of illness or trauma, and that such structures often begin in equilibrium, conceive illness as trouble that disrupts the norm, and then (if tragedy does not ensue) require the main character to overcome the disruption while finding renewed sense of purpose or meaning from the events at hand. Either way, there is closure. Equilibrium is restored.
But the thing is … I had experienced watching a loved one endure life threatening and traumatic illness, and I knew the simplicity of such a structure was not one I could relate to. When someone you love is sick, or when something wholly traumatic happens, sometimes there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight, let alone a purpose or meaning you can find comfort in. Other times, the illness or the events occur over such a long time you can’t adequately call them a disruption to a norm. They become—and these are words we hear even now with COVID—a new-norm. People do become irreversibly changed.
When I was writing my novel, I really wanted to avoid the more traditional plotlines. I wanted to find another way to tell such a story, and to do so I had to turn away from whatever preconceptions I had about how plot shapes a narrative and look instead towards my characters. How would this experience shape them? Would it haunt them? Come back at the oddest moments? Teach them a different way of being in the world? A new language? And if they did learn such a language, would they recognise it in others? To write Skimming Stones, I had to be highly aware of plot, but I only knew the right plot once I knew my characters… and to know these characters, I truly had to do a lot of writing and experimenting.
Which brings me all the way back to being little again.
When I think of all the books I have ever loved and learned from, or the stories I conjured up, or the games I played with my sisters, I see a common thread. It’s the characters I remember. Taking my cue from this, it’s also the characters who now guide the structures and plots of the narratives I need to write.
Maria has kindly donated a copy of Skimming Stones to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on this blog or any of the social media posts about Maria’s book.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Friday, 23 January, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.
Skimming Stones sounds like such a rich and original book. And placing character above all else makes perfect sense.
Thank you for the insight into your book and your writing process Maria, and congratulations!
Thank you too Louise 🙂
Thank you for reading, Fi! Yes, I agree that character comes first – I can’t write a story until I know my characters, too. 🙂
The direction to know and flow storyline from character, rather than devising a plot first, really works for me. I tend to get tangled up in thinking about plot lines, then lose confidence.
It works for me, too – I’ve tried it the other way, but I feel like I’m shoehorning my characters into situations they wouldn’t have got themselves into, but I need them there for the plot to work!