Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Amanda Curtin is a writer based in Perth, Western Australia. She has published two novels, Elemental (2013) and The Sinkings (2008), and a short story collection, Inherited (2011). In 2014 Elemental was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards in the Fiction and People’s Choice categories.
Amanda has a PhD in Writing and is an Accredited Editor (AE) with the Institute of Professional Editors. She is also the current fiction editor for one of Australia’s longest established literary journals, Westerly.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I have worked in publishing as a freelance book editor for many years, and I decided to take writing units to help me better understand the creative process, to make me a better editor. In the process, the ambitions to be a writer that I’d had when I was young (and had dismissed as utterly utopian) were reawakened and there was a small epiphany: So that’s what I should be doing with my life!
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
Elemental is a novel in four parts: Water, Air, Earth, Fire. The first three are a grandmother’s story, written in the 1970s by Meggie Tulloch for her granddaughter Laura’s 21st birthday. The last part brings the story into the present time, when Laura, now in her fifties and going through a major trauma, receives the notebooks she was never given for her 21st birthday.
It’s a story of memory and inheritance, superstition and change, women’s work and women’s friendship. One strand of Meggie’s story is her time as a herring girl at the turn of the twentieth century. Her tiny fishing village in the north-east of Scotland is patriarchal, insular and predictable, but young girls are suddenly offered the opportunity of escape by joining the teams of travelling herring gutters. For most it is temporary, a taste of the wide world before returning to the cloistered gaze of family and village, but for Meggie it leads to emigration to the other end of the world: Fremantle, Western Australia.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
My house was originally a shop, and I have a studio in the backyard that began its life as the shop’s store-room. I have three desks and many bookcases and far too many archive boxes, and on the walls are pin-up boards with photos, maps, articles, artefacts—all relating to what I’m writing and reminding me of the things that have inspired me along the way.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
It depends on what stage I’m at in a project and what else I might be doing. I always try to quarantine blocks of uninterrupted writing time at the beginning of a novel, and at critical stages throughout, but often I have to juggle my writing life with editing work, teaching, workshop preparation or promotional activities. I don’t think I know what a “typical day” looks like.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK PROCESS?
I don’t plot and create outlines. I usually begin with characters, places, questions, associations, contradictions—things I have been thinking about for a long time. The story develops from these, from research (I do a lot of that), from key images that take hold of my imagination, and from patterns concerning structure and shape that begin to emerge.
WHY DO YOU WRITE?
I have a longish answer to that question here: Amanda’s blog post on why she writes
But as to why I choose particular themes or subjects: they are usually the things I see or hear about and can’t forget. A strange murder that happened in 1882 (The Sinkings), the fishermen’s superstitions of north-east Scotland (Elemental), the impressionist painter Kathleen O’Connor throwing her paintings into the sea (“Paris bled into the Indian Ocean” in Inherited)—these intrigued me years before I ever put pen to paper. Often they involve paradoxes, or ethical dilemmas, and writing is my way of engaging with the unanswerable and the unknowable.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Reading the beautiful prose of others. The natural world. Travel. The past. Physical objects. Art. The expression on a stranger’s face.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF BEING A WRITER?
I mentioned “quarantining uninterrupted blocks of writing time” before—well, that’s not always easy. Nor is wrangling the editor who sits on my shoulder and tries to interfere with unhelpful questions like So what?
WHAT IS YOUR VISION AS A WORD ARTIST OR BOOK INDUSTRY PROFESSIONAL?
I try to keep my fears for the future of publishing in check by focusing on the hopeful and the inspirational: the continuing strength of book clubs; the generosity of readers who will go out of their way to tell you why they cried when they read your book; the crowds at writers festivals; initiatives like The Stella Prize and the Australian Women Writers Challenge; the growing excellence of many blogger-reviewers; the brilliant indie bookshops and the passionate people who work in them; the publishers who live and breathe the books they bring to the world; the community of writers who support each other.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LOVE TO HEAR MORE FROM?
I’m always eagerly waiting for a new novel by Gail Jones!
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Any one of the brilliant Western Australian women writers I’m proud to call friends and colleagues.
Thank you, Amanda Curtin!
— Nicole Melanson
* Author photo by Gary Peters
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