Alumni Feature April 2017


Alumni Interview: Katherine Johnson

Interview and Introduction by Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Katherine Johnson This month it gives me great pleasure to welcome novelist Katherine Johnson to the Alumni Interview Suite. Katherine will be a guest of the Varuna Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, wending her way back to the mountains after first staying at Varuna a decade ago as an aspiring author. There’s something especially gratifying about Katherine’s trajectory; she personifies ‘the Varuna writer.’ Her development and ongoing success represent a prime example of the work Mick Dark hoped the National Writers’ House would do when he first gifted his parents’ house to the writers of Australia. Here is a gifted writer, based in Tasmania, whose debut manuscript won a place on a Varuna program, an award that led directly to publication. Six years later, her second novel travelled the same path: it too won a Varuna award before being published to acclaim. The very concreteness of Varuna’s role in nurturing Katherine’s talent not only rewards the work of so many unsung heroes who work so tirelessly behind the scenes, it also stokes the flicker of hope for those of us still dropping crumbs in a dark wood, writers for whom the path to publication is far less straightforward.

One of the things I’m increasingly interested in – both in my capacity here as your Features Editor and as a Varuna award recipient myself – is why some beneficiaries of the Varuna experience will join the Alumni Association and others won’t. What is it that makes some writers do everything in their power to maintain their link to Varuna, while others effectively turn away, even after enjoying success as a direct result of one of its programs?

I return time and again now to the notion of reciprocity, because requests for these interviews are mostly met with such joy and gratitude. Writers need Varuna, but it’s equally true that Varuna needs us. The house needs its writers to care about its well-being and ongoing success just as surely as it devotes such attentions to us. Thus an interview here not only allows Varuna to promote and celebrate the latest success of an alumni writer, it is also a vehicle through which the subject always wants to say one thing: Thank you.

You will no doubt detect the gentle, whispered ‘Thank you’ right throughout Katherine’s lively and thoughtful responses. At its most potent, Varuna somehow becomes part of a writer’s creative DNA.

Pescador's Wake cover DJ: Katherine, let’s start with the National Writers’ House and your wonderful history of success with Varuna and its programs. Your debut Pescador’s Wake won a Varuna HarperCollins Manuscript Development Award in 2007, and your recently published second novel, The Better Son, did the same in 2013. Tell us about your experiences at Varuna and the significance of winning those awards.

KJ: I am very grateful to Varuna for the opportunities it has given me. Those awards provided the chance to work with an editor for an intensive period on my manuscripts. They also gave me time, a beautiful setting and the camaraderie of other writers, a network that still continues to this day. I think, above all, Varuna made me feel that my writing was being taken seriously and gave me confidence that the time I was devoting to it was valid.

DJ: How else has Varuna influenced your development?

KJ: The other thing I would say about Varuna is that, beyond the experience of working onsite with other writers and, in the case of the manuscript development awards, editors, it also offers a connection to a wider community of writers nationally. It provides a heads-up about valuable opportunities, as well as Varuna Alumni’s stories of success, struggle and, above all, encouragement. Writing is a wonderful but, at times, intensely solitary pursuit, and Varuna is like a great big pair of arms that gives all of us a hug when we need it and lets each of know that we are in good company. Sorry, a bit cheesy, but true.

DJ: Not cheesy to me – I completely agree. My fiction’s still unpublished and I may well have given up long ago, were it not for Varuna and other writers I’ve met there. Happily both of your own manuscripts found publishers; tell us about your path to publication after the two development awards with HarperCollins.

KJ: The awards did both lead to publication, but in different ways. Pescador’s Wake was published by Fourth Estate (HarperCollins) following the awards program. A lucky first break!

The Better Son cover That particular award program folded in 2013 (the year that The Better Son, formerly called ‘Kubla’ won), and my then editor left the company. I don’t think any of the five award winners were published that year. But I also don’t think my novel had quite found its ‘beating heart’ at that point. The structure still had some issues, as did the main character. I’ve learned that some books just take a while to be born. After more feedback, most of which was quite consistent, I reworked ‘Kubla’. The result: the renamed novel, The Better Son, found a happy home with an independent publisher, Ventura Press, in Sydney, which has been a terrific experience.

DJ: Katherine, I’m interested in your thoughts on the relationship in The Better Son between the theme of secrecy and the deep cave networks that form the key site of the drama. The claustrophobia of caves seems the ideal metaphor for the claustrophobia of long-held secrets, because in both cases there’s always that sense of wanting to get OUT. How did the idea for the story first come about and how conscious were you of harnessing the space of the cave specifically as a den of secrets and lies?

KJ: Thanks for that question, Di. The cave setting of the book is central to the story and was from the very beginning. The idea came after visiting Marakoopa Cave in northern Tasmania’s Mole Creek area, and hearing the story of two young brothers who discovered it back in 1906 and kept their discovery a secret. From that moment, driving away from the cave site, I was interested to write a novel about secrets and lies, and young brothers, in a cave setting.

Marakoopa Cave In the end, I set the story in Kubla Cave – the largest cave in the region, and one with rich references to the Coleridge poem Kubla Khan. There was a series of questions that I needed to answer: Why would two brothers be drawn into a cave and keep their discovery a secret? Were they afraid of something or someone? What if something happened in the cave? What if one boy went missing? What if the other child lied about what really happened? What would be the impact of that lie on the remaining boy and the community? What other deep-rooted secrets did the community hold? What did those long-held secrets explain? If the truth, or the many truths, were finally known, what impact would that have on the key characters? Those questions kept me writing and re-writing for the six years it took to complete the novel.

As you say, caves are the ideal metaphor for exploring secrets and lies. Caves are often labyrinths of tunnels and, like secrets and lies, one dark tunnel leads to another and another, until a dead end is reached or an escape is found. You’re right: in caves, as with secrets and lies, people need to find a way out of the darkness and, until they find it, the cave keeps pulling them back and down.

There is also a sense, when underground, of a vast weight of earth above you. It’s oppressive and, yes, claustrophobic. Descending into deep caves also proved to be a useful metaphor for going within, in an individual sense. Peeling back the layers of a life and trying to make peace with one’s past, and to discover what it is we truly live for. What is most important. The cave setting did, however, present challenges in the writing – I had to give the reader a break from the setting so it didn’t get too claustrophobic for them.

Tasmania DJ: Well, external to the caves you’re really spoilt for choice setting-wise. I love Tasmania’s Jurassic terrain: all that jaw-dropping, prehistoric majesty. How much did Tasmania’s ancient landscape inform your decisions about the narrative’s treatment of time and trauma? I keep thinking of things fossilising and I think secrets go through a metaphorical process that’s very similar. We leave evidence of our secrets, don’t we? Secrets may decompose and compress and be lost for a lifetime under layers of family history keeping, but they always leave an imprint somewhere.

KJ: I love that question. Yes to all of that, absolutely. Tasmania’s terrain is so evocative, in a very prehistoric, dark and, dare I say, ‘gothic’ way. I don’t think you can go inside a cave, where there are structures that are hundreds of thousands of years old, and not be struck by a re-calibrating sense of deep, deep time. And above ground, off in the distance, are cathedral-like mountain ranges, and windswept, stunted trees of staggeringly old age. I think that sense of ancient landscapes and old stories and deep, as you say, fossilised secrets, marry together very well. I don’t think it’s possible for old secrets not to have ongoing effects, far into the future, because people change their behaviour when they hide secrets and the impact of that plays out in mysterious ways. I think the damage of keeping something secret mostly outweighs the damage of knowing the truth, because, otherwise, children and grandchildren are left wondering why a person, or a relationship, is the way it is and, sometimes, they take it personally and mistakenly feel that they are to blame.

This is the case for the main character in The Better Son, Kip. He never understands why his father treats him badly and favours his brother, Tommy. He never understands his father, full stop, or his parents’ strained relationship. The consequences are far reaching, and, in the end, everyone pays in the most devastating way for the many lies that were told.

DJ: Caves belong to the gothic novel tradition and the idea of entombment is such a rich narrative device. In a very literal (and scientific?) sense the earth does hold all the secrets of the past, so how much interplay is there between the natural world’s ageing and decay and your characters’?

KJ: There’s that word: gothic! I completely agree, and joke only because it seems to be the case that many Tasmanian books (not just books about caves) are placed, by some critics, into the gothic novel tradition, which then brings with it certain expectations that the books are rated against. I think the Tasmanian landscape, and the stories it evokes, does have a gothic element, but just hope that that doesn’t lock us in to writing only certain types of novels that have an accompanying rule book that we must obey. Can you tell I received some feedback from one reviewer along these lines, and have been longing for the chance to respond?

Having said all of that, entombment and caves do lend themselves to certain types of stories and tap into a very rich mythology that goes back to ancient times. I think your observation about the natural world holding all the secrets of the past is very true. It, in a sense, witnesses all that goes on around it, but can’t talk, not in the conventional sense. Yet experiencing those landscapes does, I think, reveal very deep truths if we take the time to stop and listen.

DJ: How much research went into recreating Tasmania in the 1950s? Pescador’s Wake must have required substantial research too – how important is that part of your practice?

Mole Creek KJ: Yes, I think that, because I come from a science-writing background, research is important to me as a writer. I want the fiction to play out in a believable world. And I often incorporate some biology into my work, so this needs to be factually accurate. For The Better Son, I had cavers read the novel to check it was accurate in terms of the real-life Kubla Cave, where the novel is set, as well as the technical side of caving. I also went caving myself.

Tasmanian cow I checked details of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with a psychiatrist and visited Mole Creek on a number of occasions to get a sense of the landscape, weather and mood. I went through a dairy shed that was of the right era and spoke to people about farming practices in the 1950s. I researched biocontrol and cave fauna, and many other small details that start out as blank spaces in the text, which get filled in throughout the writing process.

DJ: You work as a science journalist. How much inspiration for your fiction writing do you find in the scientific field?

biology KJ: I think that science, and particularly biology, is absolutely fascinating, and for me, it also offers a way of connecting stories to place. I often work interesting biological facts into my books in some way or another, without making them the central focus.

DJ: This is your second invitation to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and you’re chairing the ’‘Sins of the Past’ session in the Varuna SWF program (TUESDAY 30 MAY, Carrington Hotel, Katoomba, 10.00am-11.00am). What unexpected benefits and pleasures have you found on the festival circuit?

Name Those Lostcover KJ: I think connecting writers and readers is what writing is all about, so being able to do it in person is a great privilege. I really enjoyed my last panel at Varuna SWF, and this time I am chairing a session, which I did for the first time at the Tamar Valley Writers’ Festival last year and loved. I had sessions there with Favel Parrett, Emily Bitto and Rohan Wilson and thoroughly enjoyed meeting and talking with them both on- and off-stage.

The informal chats are, perhaps, one of my favourite parts. I think it’s for that reason that I like to leave enough time for questions from the audience at the end of a festival session, because those spontaneous interactions often lead to the best discussions. Probably the greatest benefit of festivals is being inspired by them and returning to the writing desk re-energised.

Amber Fury cover DJ: You’ll be speaking in that Katoomba session with award-winning British writer Natalie Haynes about her book The Amber Fury, and Australian writer Maggie Joel about her 1940s wartime drama, The Safest Place in London. What commonalities do these three novels share and what are some of the most compelling aspects you hope to raise during the session?

KJ: I am very excited about chairing this session and meeting these accomplished writers. As you say, the session is called ‘Sins of the Past’, and I will be tapping into that, but there are other surprising resonances between what, on the surface, appear to be very different novels.

Natalie’s novel Amber Fury, while set in modern times, explores grief, and troubled teenagers, by drawing on Greek tragedy. Maggie’s latest novel, The Safest Place in London, deals with family and survival and how a single decision can change lives forever. This, coincidentally, could be a description of The Better Son, although the setting is very different. In all three novels, people are faced with extreme circumstances and make decisions in those situations that have lasting ramifications.

DJ: How do you prepare for chairing a session such as this? What’s involved behind the scenes that the audience doesn’t see?

KJ: I do a lot of reading. Obviously, I read the novels, but also the publishers’ and authors’ webpages, book reviews, and interviews with the writers. I make lots of notes, drawing out themes that overlap and that would make good starting points for discussion. I write questions around these themes, but also leave room to be spontaneous, and for one question to lead to another. If we strike a fascinating chord, it seems a shame not to explore that a bit more before moving on. And, as I mentioned, I leave time for audience questions, keeping a couple of questions up my sleeve in case we have a few minutes to spare.

DJ: Pescador’s Wake was also a novel about the secrets of men – what keeps pulling you into this territory?

KJ: Good question. I don’t know. I think that the settings and subject material pull me in to start with, but that I am ultimately interested in human stories – what drives us, what challenges we face, how we overcome them, resilience, ordinary people in exceptional circumstances, and yes, secrets and lies...I am clearly intrigued by secrets and lies. I am an absolutely terrible liar, I literally can’t lie, and honesty is something that I consider very important, so perhaps that is why I am intrigued by the flip side of this and the ripple effects.

DJ: Festivals and other author events have become increasingly important to the commercial reality of trying to shift the merch’. Some authors find speaking in public excruciating – what have you learnt along the way and what do you think of the expectation that authors get out there and flog their wares?

KJ: Festivals and public speaking are so very different from spending hours and hours at a desk day after day, totally alone. Nothing could be more different. It can be a bit jarring going from one world to the next, but engaging with writers and readers at festivals is very rewarding and I’ve learned that the anticipation of public speaking is the difficult part, and it gets better over time. Someone once said to me, ‘The five minutes before you go on stage you would rather be anywhere else, but five minutes after you start, there is no place you’d rather be.’ Or something like that.

It is interesting that writers now have to perform in ways other than ‘just’ writing, but I suppose it is all, ultimately, about connection. And being human. I think readers want to see authors as real people, so all writers have to do onstage is just be themselves. But I still think a few nerves are totally normal and just mean that you care about what you’re doing. Not a bad thing.

DJ: How important is it that readers and especially other writers – including your fellow alumni – attend events like the Varuna SWF program? When you were a bright-eyed aspiring author, for example, did you go to writers’ festivals? If you didn’t and had your time over, would you now, and if yes, why?

KJ: Writing festivals are terrific in many ways, but can be difficult, and expensive, to access, especially if you live regionally. Having said that, engaging with and being inspired by other writers is incredibly valuable. I didn’t start participating widely until I published my first novel, although did make it to part of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival one year, but I think choosing which festival you would like to attend and finding a way of participating is a great thing to do.

Although, it is easy to feel dispirited when you see published writers at festivals speaking on stage, because it seems that their journey to that point has all been plain sailing. In the majority of cases, I am sure there have been challenges to getting there. They are at the end of a long road, often after many years, and are celebrating. I think that’s good to remember.

Listening to interviews with writers (sometimes recorded at writers festivals) on ABC Radio National’s Books and Arts and BooksPlus programs has also been something I have been doing for years now. Those programs are absolutely gold for writers.

DJ: I really love that idea that participating authors are celebrating. Whatever their path to publication, they’ve finished a significant project that has taken years to produce, so they’ve earned their fun. Outside festival junkets, you live in Tasmania with your family and juggle work, writing and motherhood. How isolating is that combination, or are you actively engaged in a community of writers where you live?

KJ: To be honest, it can be isolating, although having children forces you out into the wide world – they need to be taken to and from school, or dropped at the bus, and to soccer, music classes etc etc. But that’s life and I think our work would be very dull if we didn’t live full lives as well. And we’d all end up with RSI and terrible posture.

posture I’m writing my next book as a PhD [candidate], which is a terrific way of engaging with other people. As is gmail ‘chat’ and email, which is how I stay in touch with interstate Varuna Alumni. And, in Tasmania, we have a wonderful, supportive group of writers. We attend each other’s launches and are there for the times in between as well. The Tasmanian Writers’ Centre helps with that [and] ABC Radio National is a total lifeline.

DJ: Could you please share a little of your writing practice: the where, when and how of writing your latest novel and your habits and superstitions in general (I am endlessly fascinated by how other writers work and I know I’m not alone).

KJ: My children are in high school now, so I am working full time on my creative writing PhD (my next novel). I still have to juggle family commitments, but it is easier time-wise than when the children were younger and I had to steal a few hours here and there, when and where I could.

In terms of rituals or habits, I find mindfulness meditation a great way of clearing my head, so try to start the day with that. That sounds a bit…something, but I find it works. I then make a cup of tea (I’ve normally had my coffee by then), and re-read the chapter I had been working on the previous day, edit that, and then move forwards. I do the same if I am re-working or editing: I normally go back a bit in my reading, to get the rhythm again in my head, before moving on.

I might force myself out for a walk at some point in the day to get the blood moving, as I have been known to literally go blue at my desk. I am very strict about not scheduling other things in my writing time, and am always blown away by how fast a writing day flies by. Not that there aren’t struggles, there are, but the time seems to go quickly nevertheless.

In terms of the physical set-up, I have moved my writing space down from a dark-ish room upstairs, to a room that abuts the kitchen and family rooms. It’s brighter and closer to the kettle and windows and doesn’t feel like I am missing out on life. Having said that, I use this space mostly when I am home alone.

DJ: How did you address any technical difficulties while writing The Better Son?

KJ: Yes, I had quite a few of these to deal with. The book is set in two time periods: the 1950s and 2002 (the year euthanasia laws came into being in Holland; there is a connection in the novel). I needed to find a way of telling the story of what happened in Kip and Tommy’s childhood, but also Kip’s memory of it as an adult and the after-effects. I tried various approaches before settling on a book written in two parts, rather than a modern-day story with flashbacks. I also changed the novel from first person to third person, quite late in the piece. Both changes were major and involved a lot of unpicking, and both were made to address issues that several readers had consistently pointed out.

It is tempting to jump at shadows and make changes swiftly, and I have been known to do that, but I think it is important to sit with ideas for a while, preferably put the novel away for some time, and to have a sense from other, trusted readers, that the change would be an improvement.

DJ: Yes, I’m sure that’s true, although I also believe that, early on especially, writers have to be very careful about the number of eyes on the work and voices in the ear.

So how did you drive the narrative forward and create a sense of urgency in The Better Son when one of the narrative’s chief preoccupations is an event or series of events in the past? How did you structure the novel to get around the potential problem of retrospective lag?

KJ: That is exactly the issue that I had to address with the structural changes I mentioned earlier. In my early drafts, the story was all told in the modern day, with flashbacks to the past (memories). This had the disadvantage of slowing both the action of what happened in the boys’ childhoods, and slowing the action of what happens when Kip, as an adult, returns to the cave to make peace with his past, and finds that, this time, it is his life that is in danger.

By restructuring the book into two parts, the pacing worked much better. The events of Kip and Tommy’s childhood, and Tommy’s disappearance, evolve in real time. Likewise, when Kip returns to the cave as an adult, his journey is in real time. There are still some flashbacks, which, in this iteration, actually serve the function of taking the reader out of the cave for a moment, allowing them to come up for air. This was the point you raised earlier about claustrophobia. The story then, in the end, became a more linear one, but in two distinct parts. After so much reworking, I was really delighted when, after the book was published, I started to receive feedback from readers along the lines of ‘I could not put it down’. Finally, it seems, I had hit upon a structure that worked in terms of pacing.

DJ: Memory is wily and unreliable, but can be used to excellent effect in fiction because of its potential for stirring conflict and sowing misinformation – how did you use and manage memory in The Better Son?

KJ: That is beautifully described, Di. This question relates to the earlier one to an extent, in that too much memory slows the pace, but an effective use of it can, as you say, stir conflict and sow misinformation. It can also provide different insights into the same situation when various characters frame the past differently. In The Better Son, Squid, the farmhand, has different insights to Kip. By alternating points of view, and using memory, the reader gets a more complex and nuanced account of the event that changed all of their lives. I also played with the idea that part of Kip’s distress as an adult was his need to believe in his memory of the day Tommy went missing. What if that memory was false?

DJ: Yes, it’s very tantalising. Now, you’ve mentioned your third novel is being written as part of a Creative Writing PhD – what motivated you to take up postgraduate study now and what can you tell us of your doctoral project and your university’s culture?

KJ: The novel I am working on currently, as a PhD [candidate] at the University of Tasmania, is historical fiction, so involves a lot of research, [for] which a university is of course the ideal place. A PhD [program] also provides a way of receiving valuable feedback from supervisors and provides access to a community of writers and ideas, as well as seminars and conferences. The PhD also enabled me to apply for travel funding, which was invaluable for my current story, which is set in both Australia and Europe in the nineteenth century. The thesis component of my project is an examination of the issues that the novel raises as well as the research undertaken, and demands that I am rigorous in my record keeping and research methods, which is great practice for a writer.

Carrington Hotel DJ: It certainly is. And funds for travel research – I like the sound of that! I imagine it’s next to impossible for most writers otherwise. As an aside, I’ve discussed the Australian Postgraduate Award (APA) here before – it’s a very rare thing for an author of fiction to be financially supported for several years while they write a novel; an APA is about the only scenario I know in which it happens, which can only be a good thing for the ongoing health of Australia’s literary landscape. All the very best with your doctoral project, Katherine, and here’s to a memorable session at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba.

KJ: Thanks so much, Di. I’m very much looking forward to seeing you, and the rest of the Varuna community, and readers and writers of the Varuna SWF in May.

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  • Thoughtful questions and insightful responses. It’s always informative reading about the writing process of Australian authors.

    Bruce Fell Monday, 10 April 2017 21:07 Comment Link
  • Welcome, Bruce, and thank you. I'm so pleased you enjoyed the interview with Katherine. Yes, I love hearing how an author's mind sparks, and how they progress from that initial idea to a fully realised work of art.

    Diana Jenkins Wednesday, 12 April 2017 11:35 Comment Link
  • Hi Diana - A jog to my memory about Varuna Alumni. I let mine slide when I moved 7 hours away, to the far south coast NSW And on a very specific income. This was accidentally at first but then I thought it not worth renewing as it was difficult to take part in activities - too far away to run workshops on a weekly basis, or to be social in any way.
    I wonder if the new-ish Varuna management would be interested in something that works at other writer's centres: in 2013 I had a residency at the Katherine Susannah Prichard in WA - application, interview by phone. The condition was that I had two participatory events - one in the regions and one at the centre. I ran a ½ workshop in Northam because I had gone to school there) and an informal participation at one the the groups there. Apart from that I had two weeks of writing, exploring, writing.
    For those of us who CAN contribute, but are not able because of distance or of finances, this would be a way of letting alumni still be part of the Varuna community, and also allow time outside the usual constraints.
    Has this sort of participation been raised before? How would I approach the management with this idea - I know no-one there now.
    Cheers -
    Glenda Guest

    Glenda Guest Wednesday, 19 April 2017 16:01 Comment Link
  • Hi Glenda,
    Lovely hearing from you. I hope you're well. I will forward your comment to Varuna's management, because there's quite a lot of discussion about alumni engagement at the moment and I know from personal experience that all contributions are welcome (even if some ideas prove impossible to implement!).

    I think looking at ways to further embed Varuna's place as the *National* Writers' House is imperative to its contribution, both to the future creative life of so many far-flung, regional Australian writers yet to emerge, and to alumni members past, present and future.

    Diana Jenkins Friday, 21 April 2017 22:53 Comment Link

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