Goldie Goldbloom chats with Lisa Guidarini about her first novel, The Paperbark Shoe, set in 1940s Australia
You chose to set the book in your native Australia. Do you believe it would have been as effective if the setting had been, say, the 1930s Dust Bowl in the United States, or was the Australian setting essential?
I'm always excited when someone asks me a question that I haven't been asked before, especially one that makes me think deeply. I am imagining right now, what my novel might have been like set in the US during the 1930s dustbowl. And what I have (ha!) is a failure of imagination. I don't know enough about rural America to write well about it. The red dirt of Australia is still underneath my fingernails. But perhaps you were really asking if someone else, someone American had written this book, could it have been set in the dustbowl? Hmmm. Good question! I once saw a version of Othello set in Manhattan, in modern language, and it was translatable. Themes of isolation and xenophobia and heartbreak and loss are universal, but in a squeaky little corner of my soul I still want to believe that The Paperbark Shoe had to be set in Western Australia, in Wyalkatchem, in 1943.
How long did it take you to write the book? How many drafts did you go through in the process of polishing it?
I read that James Herriot, who was a busy man by all standards, set himself a goal of writing a page a day and that was the way he wrote so many 365 page books whilst running a veterinary practice. When I first started writing The Paperbark Shoe, I thought, well, how hard could it be to write a single page every day? As it turns out, sometimes it can be VERY hard! But I still did it, and so, after about a year and a half, I had finished writing the novel. I write long-hand and type with two fingers, so the process of simply entering the words into the computer is a process of editing for me, and after that I wrote several more drafts (also long-hand!), but all up, I think I was finished in about two years. Maybe two and a half.
Had you made any attempts at writing a novel before Paperbark Shoe, and do you plan to write more novels?
One of the great pleasures of my life is writing books for my friends and children. I like everything about that handmade process. The planning. The writing. The drawing. The sewing and gluing and binding. The weighting and wrapping and giving. So, yes, I've written other books, mostly smaller ones than The Paperbark Shoe. Some of them took me much much longer to make. But The Paperbark Shoe was the first novel I ever wrote with the thought that it will be read by someone who doesn't love me and forgive me. I wrote it as a present for my mother who died over twenty years ago, as the first thing I was ever able to give her as an adult. With gratitude for the excellent mother she was. Not like Gin!
I am currently in the middle of writing my next novel and I am having delicious fun with it. So yes, I definitely see myself as someone who will be writing more novels.
In one interview your book was compared to the work of Flannery O'Connor. Have you read her work, and how do you feel about the comparison? (Personally, I think a comparison to Carson McCullers would be more apt, by the way.)
Flannery O'Connor! Carson McCullers! Dear God! Those women were fierce and brave and incredible! I don't think my writing even begins to touch their littlest fingers, but I am infinitely flattered by the comparison. They both have these deeply unsettling inner lives to their novels and shorter works; subtext which is hard to track but which creates the powerful spirit that lingers long after you've closed their books. Oh baby! I'd be THRILLED to bits if I could manage that. And yes. I study their work and the works of people like Eudora Welty who are successful at hiding what's real and hearty and profoundly beautiful deep within their fiction.
Toad is a fascinating character, at once likeable but with serious flaws and unusual proclivities. Was there a particular person, or literary character, who inspired his creation?
Poor Toady. I do love him so. I've got an obsession for old junk and I came across this photo from the 1920s, of a tiny, skeletal, humble, man standing next to his bride, who is at least two feet taller than him. They both look incredibly awkward, and he is twisting himself inside out with embarrassment. He's got a handkerchief mashed in his hand, and she is looking off at something in another direction. I kept on misplacing this photo while I was writing the novel, but every time I found it, I was reminded again that Toad is a real person. Just not a real person I happen to know.
The relationship between Toad and Gin is fraught, to say the least. What was the glue that held them together, despite his sexual conflicts and her disappointment with the life she chose?
There was an attitude in Australia amongst earlier generations, that you just did. You did and did and did until you died. I grew up with a hang-over of that attitude, a part of me that avoids complaining, that thinks of wearing goggles at the pool as an affectation of wusses, and sunglasses as the devil's spawn. As a child I saw some amazingly ill-matched couples who, nevertheless, worked together, raised families, rarely argued, just got on with it. I suppose you could say that the glue that held them together was simply the isness of them. They had married. It was a done deal. Toe fungus be damned.
Was there a reason you chose to create Gin as an albino, thus creating two main characters on the outskirts of society?
A very old gentleman from Wyalkatchem asked me the same question and I told him I made Gin a person with albinism so that he would know for sure and shooting that I wasn't writing about his sainted granny. That's a flip answer with a grain of truth in it. But just a grain. I write fiction so I don't want to get carried away or anything.
I was looking for a very specific set of circumstances so that Gin's alienation would echo the alienation of the Italian POWs, but would create an entirely different set of stresses on her (and the novel).
None of the relationships in the book follow convention. Why is that?
Oh heck! Don't tell me you have to follow convention! Really? Really now? Dang. How did I miss that bit of indoctrination in all my 46 years? But isn't it more fun my way? Personally, I'm all about having fun and getting on people's nerves.
Ever noticed how you love the naughty kids soooooo much more than the suck-ups? To me, the really interesting stuff in life and in fiction happens when people are behaving badly, getting into relationships they shouldn't be in, ranting, yelling, running about buck naked, spray painting politicians and stuff like that.
Is there a particular place, a physical location, you like to write? Do you keep a regular writing schedule?
It's embarrassing to admit, but I love writing in my bathtub, late at night. It's hard to write when your arm is wet though, so I've developed this back-up plan for when I am cranking out pages. I empty the tub and put a big down quilt in there and then I hop back in. The back rest is just right. And I write a lot in my bed too. My grandmother taught me that. She used to keep the whole dictionary in bed with her, under the pillows. I am looking forward to the day when I wake up and my nightspit has transferred "Oxford English Dictionary" to my forehead or my cheek. Backwards. So you can read me coming in the rear view mirror. That seems just right. I write whenever I can and that means you can catch me writing in the garden, in the car, at doctor's appointments, on the airplane, waiting at school. Pretty much any old time. I love writing. It makes me laugh. Have I already said that?
How do you balance your writing with the rest of your life?
There's always this assumption that you can balance writing with the rest of your life. You can't. Writing is an obsession. It's like being in love, in that crazy limerance phase when everything, EVERYTHING, you see and hear and think and smell and touch and taste reminds you of your lover. But yeah, my kids still eat and go to school (mostly on time!) and have clean washed clothes, so I have to be pretty flexible about when I get to write. Bathtub at 2 AM, anyone?
Any favorite contemporary books and/or writers? Have you read anything recently you'd recommend?
There's so many fabulous writers these days! But I'm a parent, so I'll tell you this...Even if I have a favourite, it wouldn't be fair to let on. But some recent reads that I loved were Nicole Krauss's Great House, Herta Muller's The Passport, Margot Livesey's The House on Fortune Street, Barbara Gowdy's We So Seldom Look on Love, Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude. Reread Katherine Dunn's Geek Love and fell in love with it all over again. I am not a book monogamist.
And I'm going to say this: Read women writers! From 103 Nobel Prize winners in literature, only 12 have been women. Women write great, heart-wrenching, entangled, profound, funny, brilliant, technically amazing, awe-inspiring work. If you haven't read Herta Muller yet, do! When she won the Nobel prize, I'd never heard of her and that's to my own shame. Her writing makes me shake deep down in my bones.
What's next for you? You mentioned a new novel?
It's set on the far north-west coast of Western Australia next to one of the last great fringing reefs in the world. Picture this: a hippy commune. Now make them Jewish. And communist. Have I mentioned that I like to make myself laugh? And that I have a very dark sense of humour?
And I just had my collection of short stories published in Australia - You Lose These and other stories. The front cover is an old photo of a person running across the top of a hill wearing a homemade chicken costume. And tuxedo shoes.
Finally, what are your thoughts on the rise of eBooks. Do you see them as a threat to traditional books and publishing, or a positive and natural progression?
Being someone who grew up sleeping on actual books, alphabetizing ancient leather-bound stuff in my grandmother's study, going around to elderly folks' homes with my auntie who had a traveling library, learning how to hand bind and repair books, and actually owning something like 40,000 physical books myself, it's hard to see the attraction of eBooks. Remember: this is someone who writes everything down by hand and who reads and writes in the bathtub. The bathtub is NOT a place for an eBook.
I've pegged books out on the washing line to dry after dropping them in the bath, but I'd have a prime view of the underside of a grave had eBooks been around when I was a wee youth. From what I hear, electric shock is a nasty way to go.
My Mum used to say ANY reading is good reading. If your student only wants to read Motorcycle Quarterly, let her. She's still reading and right now, about 40% of college graduates never read another book after college. A while back, I read something that deeply disturbed me, and that was that over 80% of US families have not bought or read a book for a year or more. I'd hate to think that eBooks are just going to be bought by the people who are currently buying physical books, and that, as a result, my beautiful, honest, lovely, weighty, stained and imperfect, smelling of memory, REAL books disappear. But if eBooks are so easy and accessible that other people, those 80% of folks who have not bought or read a book in over a year, end up reading more than they would otherwise, then that's a good outcome.
But remember the bathtub. Please.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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