Interview with Alison Croggon – Monsters

Alison Croggon is an award-winning novelist, poet, theatre writer, critic and editor who lives in Melbourne, Australia. She works in many genres and her books and poems have been published to acclaim nationally and internationally. She is arts editor for The Saturday Paper, and her most recent book is her memoir Monsters,  published by Scribe Publications in Australia, Britain and the US. She is also the author of the wonderful epic fantasy series The Books of Pellinor

Alison was kind enough to take some time out of her hectic schedule to answer a few questions for me:

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes! Or at least, all of my conscious life. I can’t remember learning how to read and write – I could do both when I started school in England, and according to my mother wrote a poem on my first day. My first teacher wrote to me for years after we moved to Australia, saying that one day she would buy my books. So I guess the written word was embedded in my most basic conceptions of my self.

All writers have different journeys to publication – please tell me yours.

My first published book was a collection of poetry, published by Penguin Australia when they used to do that sort of thing. It happened after I had my first baby, after I had been through a bit of a crisis about me and my writing and something that maybe in retrospect I can recognise as PPD. In any case, a lot of people who had supported my work wrote me off after I became a mother, and one said to my face “there’s the end of a promising young poet”. Words that are obviously branded on my brain! Ironically enough, that is also the time I began to take myself really seriously as a writer. I remember deciding very clearly that even if I was never published, I still would write. And so I did. 

It was kind of liberating, before then I had stressed about being published, like it would mean I was finally a proper writer. Anyway, not long after I had decided that it didn’t matter, Judith Rodriguez saw me reading at La Mama and she called me up and asked for a manuscript. At first I thought she was asking me to do another reading so I sounded a lot more casual than I would have otherwise. I’m still really grateful to her. She was a great woman.

Your new book Monsters has been described as a hybrid between memoir and essay – the very word ‘hybrid’ conjures the idea of a monster! What drew you to such an unusual structure for your story? Which came first? The essays on race, culture and history, or the memoir about your difficult relationship with your sister?

Weaving between different forms in prose kind of came naturally, I think, a kind of shifting of lenses to try to see things from different angles...  It’s not the first time I’ve played with this form, I wrote a memoir/essay/fiction thing called Navigatio in the mid-90s – actually when my youngest son Ben was a new baby, so I wrote when he was asleep – with chapters alternating between memoir/essay and fantasy/fiction. It was my first long prose work (still quite short, it was about 100 pages). Monsters kind of reworks many of the same obsessions as Navigatio, with (I hope) a bit more insight. Neither theme – my relationship with my sister or the essays around culture – really came first, I think I needed to think through both of them at once. But I always wanted to look at entwining of the macro and the micro, it was never conceived of as a purely personal book. 

My first thought was that it was going to be a book that looked at what happens to relationships between women under patriarchy, but I did a lot of genealogical research and in my family there’s just no escaping that I come from a long line of British colonists. That heritage is something I’ve attempted to deal with for a long time – I don’t feel guilty about it, it’s not that simple, but owning and acknowledging what that means seems very important to me. And I do believe that heritage as colonists shapes our intimate relationships in ways that we are not conscious of and that are often very damaging. I wanted the book in a way to enact that exploration, both emotionally and intellectually.

The book is very raw and painful in parts. Tell me about your journey toward writing this book. What made you decide to write about your sister? Do you think it has helped you understand your relationship better? Has it helped your sister understand you?

It was certainly the most painful book I have ever written. It was even harder than I expected. I wrote it because it felt necessary – I don’t think there was a single decision, it was more a series of decisions. It’s the only book I’ve ever pitched (mostly I write books in full before offering them to publishers). I felt I needed a good editor as I was working on it, an outside eye to ensure that I wasn’t being merely self indulgent or any of the other perils that come with this sort of work. I am so grateful to Scribe for publishing it and to David Golding for being such a superb and sensitive editor. 

As for better understanding? The answer is yes and no. Some people have written me absolutely amazing emails about how the book has helped them, illuminating things for them in a way that they found useful, starting them on their own paths to rethinking their personal and wider histories and how they stand in the present, and that is gratifying – that is actually what I wanted the book to do. 

Personally, it’s been a mixed bag. My mother read Monsters and had the worst nightmares of her life for two weeks, and I felt so guilty – but then she wrote to me saying that she had been carrying around this awful sadness for decades, and that she realised that the book had lifted it away and it didn’t come back. That alone justified it for me. 

My sister reacted very badly. Of course she has every right to think whatever she likes about the book, and I knew she wouldn’t take it well, although I was a bit shocked by the extremity of her response. I do feel sad that this book, which was so much about wanting to get beyond assigning fault, in her case absolutely reinforced it. I didn’t write Monsters to be a J’accuse. But she absolutely took it that way and things got very messy indeed. Two years after it came out, I think that Monsters has been a bit of a clarifying moment within the family. Some of the things that have been made clear are very saddening. But they were things that were always there, anyway. 

In what way is your relationship with your sister linked to your thoughts about race, culture and history?

I guess the relationship is dysfunction. I started noticing that the things that were wrong between us – the binaries of good and bad, the projections, the denials, the exploitativeness, the refusal of complexity, and so on – were the same behaviours that I often saw in what’s called white fragility and also in misogyny, and more largely in analyses and historical accounts of colonialism. I think I was particularly interested in how whiteness clings to a primordial innocence, almost foundationally, to the point that we will brutalise and abuse others in order to preserve it. Like I say somewhere in the book, there is a kind of fractal patterning in these behaviours. And I wanted to tease it out. 

It’s a book I wrote specifically for white people, in the hope that it might directly enable thinking through the inherited habits and shapes of thought that harm us and others. I can’t deny (now) that there was a tiny hope that my sister might also find it helpful, or that she might understand me a bit better, but in the book I do talk about my pessimism about that – maybe the one thing I’ve learned over the past few decades is that speaking and listening are two different things, and that you can’t force anyone to listen if they don’t want to.

Like me, you are an author whose work defies easy categorisation. You write poems, essays, plays, fiction, and now memoir. You’ve translated one of my favourite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, from the German. You’ve written absolutely brilliant fantasy novels for both young adults and middle grade readers, and collaborated with Daniel Keene with two dystopian cyberpunk science fiction novels. And you’re also the arts editor for The Saturday Paper. So I’d love to ask you a few questions about your writing processes.

What is your preferred medium? 

I expect you’re the same – it just depends! Different ideas and feelings demand different forms of expression. All of it is writing, and each work responds to some specific impulse.

How easily can you move from one genre or mode of expression to the next?

Again, it depends. I’ve done a lot of shifting from one thing to another. I don’t know if you find this, but for me sometimes the shifting can be more exhausting than the work. I think with creative work I just follow the currents in my brain? I’m certainly a great believer in trusting the subconscious and in letting it do its thing. You learn to feel when something is ready to be written. Last year I barely wrote anything at all, and it was amazingly wonderful. Laying fallow is also so important!

Where do you write, and when?

Always in my study at home. And mostly in the morning, these days. I work part time, which is brilliant, and (in theory, anyway) I use the other days in the working week to write.

How do you keep juggling all the balls?

Panic, maybe? I do know it’s taken a toll: I don’t get burned out, I think because I love my work, but I can get truly exhausted. This year my resolution is to be patient and to work without anxiety or expectation. So far, so good...

What is your favourite part of writing?

Editing. I love editing. (I also love editing other people’s work.) First drafts of books are almost without exception kind of traumatic. I know that sounds a bit – well, indulgent – but they do feel that way? Emotionally exhausting and weirdly, also physically exhausting. I always write blind, I seem incapable of planning things out, and so I’m never quite sure what I’m doing. But once something is down, I can get to work.

What do you find most difficult?

The middles. I usually love beginnings, when everything is fresh and exciting, and endings are exhilarating, like running downhill, but middles are, without exception, reaallllly hard.

What do you do when you get blocked? 

I take some time out and do something useful.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I’m actually not sure. Mainly I try to pay attention to where I am, whatever it happens to be. Sometimes in writing a particular work, I can feel that my perceptions start narrowing, as if I begin with everything possible and then it seems I can only see two or three things, so I think I try to make sure that my mind is moving in ways that are about opening up rather than closing down.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 

Beyond habits – a cup of coffee, walking around the house in circles (widdershins, of course)  – I don’t think so?

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

This is a really hard question. There are so many writers I adore, so many who have been important to me at different times, so many who have opened doors and shown what’s possible… I’ll try to list ten writers who have been constant stars in my erratic navigations, but I could do another ten and have a totally different list.

Ursula Le Guin, Edward Said, Audre Lorde, John Berger, Alexis Wright, Muriel Rukeyser, Terry Pratchett, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Gillian Rose, Helen Macdonald...

What do you consider to be good writing?  

This is also a hard question! Good writing for me is the kind of writing that feels like you’re inhabiting someone else’s mind, that you have this intimate and clear connection with another consciousness, which opens doors to realities and possibilities that are not yours or that you have always suspected were possible but never quite saw so clearly or in that way. (I hope that makes sense!) Sometimes that means breaking rules, but like Granny Weatherwax says, if you’re going to break rules, you have to break them good and hard.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

You need patience and resilience. And to be absolutely pragmatic. I’d tell a young writer to get a steady job to pay the bills – it’s harder and harder now to make an income from writing and being poor is more stressful than having a job. Assign your time carefully, and preserve time that is only for you. And learn everything you can about syntax, form, traditions and so on – the best way to do that is by reading as widely as possible. Read everything – all kinds of fiction, philosophy, history, criticism, poetry, graphic novels. The better you know your tools, which include your own mind, the more you can break the rules. Breaking the rules without knowing what they are usually means bad writing, and you want to be able to break the rules.

What are you working on now? 

A middle grade fantasy novel (presently called The Other Place) set in the 1930s about a girl called Sarah who is a child magician. She accidentally vanishes her best friend and discovers that magic is real. And then things happen...

You can read my review of Black Spring, Alison’s wonderful retelling of Wuthering Heights HERE

Kate Forsyth
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