You have written an article titled ‘The Unexpected Idea’, published in Griffith Review, on trying to understand the nature of creativity. What do you think tend to be some important considerations for fiction writers in writing original creative work?
The main thing I learned from writing that essay was never to force an idea… to let it come to you, rather than you going to it. The subconscious (or the prefrontal cortex, really) is an amazing thing. My best, or at least most workable, ideas have all come out of a clear blue sky, and never when I was sitting at my desk. The first line of my first novel After the Fall showed up while I was at the park, pushing my daughter on a swing. I had already written two novels, both of which were roundly rejected. Discouraged, I had turned to non-fiction… I was never going to write another novel, yet here it was, uninvited, not just a line but the whole first chapter, the major characters, the story arc. In the years since, many plot problems have been solved in a similar way – by forgetting about the book and going for a run, or to hang out the washing. One minute you’re reaching for the pegs and thinking about what to cook for dinner, the next minute there’s your solution. Now I know that my desk is where I do the work, but the stories are born, grow and evolve elsewhere, and I need to leave them the time and space to do that.
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing your novel Last Summer?
Last Summer was prompted by the death of one of my husband’s oldest mates. Once I knew I wanted to write about such an event, about how loss ripples out through a close group of friends the first thing I did was speak with his widow, who is also a friend of mine. Last Summer is completely fiction, but the kernel of the book lay in her bereavement, and it was important to me that she understood what I wanted to do and was OK about me doing it. Thankfully she was, and has been a great support… after that I set to planning. I’m a big plan fan. Some writers can’t bear to use them and find them constricting; I find that I am freed to write by not having to worry what it is I’m writing about. Last Summer is told in nine voices and with nine distinct story arcs, so my planning side got free rein – I had 50 pages of notes, character descriptions and plot points and a spreadsheet showing who I thought I could tie it all together before I even put the first word down. That sounds a bit sad, but it works for me!
You have a PhD in neuropsychology. Do you think studying areas of science or psychology at university is good preparation for storytelling and fiction writing?
Yes! I’d never actually recommend it per se – everyone has to find their own way – but by a happy accident it certainly worked for me. As a novelist, what I’m most interested in is the relationships between people, how these are managed, compromised, endured, enjoyed, and I guess I became a psychologist for much the same reason. My profession is a great fit for my passion: Psychology gave me the tools to observe others; writing gives me the reason to do so. It also gives me a neverending source of new material, inspiration and ideas to chew over… more prosaically, it also gives me a regular pay check. Authors need both!
The Australian Literature Review is currently accepting submissions for a science-based fiction anthology. Do you have some advice for writing stories which are both scientifically informed and entertaining?
This is a timely question, as the novel I am just finishing required quite a bit of research in the medical and psychological fields, and I’m still not entirely sure I’ve managed to pull it off. On the one hand, I do think it is important to get the facts, the cold hard science behind your story down as accurately as you can, and without resorting to too much poetic licence. On the other hand though, there’s a real danger of the facts taking over, of feeling you have to explain and incorporate all the research you’ve done, to both cover your tail and as a way of saying “See? It *is* plausible”. The most important thing is to remember you’re writing fiction, not a textbook; to weave the story and the substance together as seamlessly as you can.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes them stand out for you?
Such a difficult question! Too many to choose from, so I have to go for my first favourite: Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web. A great friend and by a great writer. Can’t ask for more than that.
What tends to make a great first chapter of a novel, or what is a first chapter you particularly enjoyed reading and why did it work for you as a reader?
A first chapter – a first line, really- needs not just to entice or interest a reader, it needs to drag them into the story, by the scruff of their neck if necessary. I can’t think of one I want to single out, but sitting at my desk, staring at the “favourites” shelf on my bookcase there are so many wonderful examples:. “This is how my life started. My second life” in The Raw Shark Texts, Molly and the pool guy in Sunnyside, “Yesterday I found Violet’s letters to Bill” in What I Loved, the envelope containing the dead woman’s last wishes in The Almond Picker, Colonel Buendia in front of the firing squad in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the house full of baby’s venom in Beloved… the first paragraph or so of each vividly brings the book to life, both as a first time read and on in memory.
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading and do you have some favourites?
I love fiction in almost all forms and guises – literary, commercial, YA, chick lit… the most important thing to me is story. If that’s good, the genre is unimportant. I also enjoy variety, in jumping between classics and modern stuff in my own reading, between young adult books that I might share with my children and something heavier that I’ll nag my husband to read. Asking for some favourites is a dangerous question- I could be here for hours! The Great Gatsby and The English Patient are my two all time, perfect, favourite novels… other than that, books I’ve enjoyed in the past six months (yes, I do keep a record, which is a bit pathetic) are Bereft (Womersley), Daughters In Law (Trollope), Half a Life (Strauss), Dog Boy (Hornung), The Life (Knox) and Washington Square (James).
Do you think it is easier or more difficult for you to write a story set in the city you live in or to write a story set somewhere else, or are you equally comfortable doing either?
Definitely easier for me in my own city… my first two novels are both set squarely in Melbourne, and I loved working my favourite places into them – the Melbourne Museum, the botanical gardens, even the Austin Hospital, where I spent four years doing my PhD and had a brilliant and very social time. The novel I am working on is also mainly set around Melbourne, but there was one long chapter placed in Syria, a place I have never visited but for plot reasons needed to include. I was dreading writing this section, but to my surprise once I’d done my research really enjoyed trying to imagine and describe the area around the Grand Mosque in Damascus. I hope this means I won’t be afraid to branch out a bit more in future – my husband and I have also lived for extended periods in Edinburgh, Montreal and Broome and I’m just dying for a novel set in one of those to come to me.
What is next for your fiction writing?
In a weird (and totally unplanned) confluence of events I have my new novel, Last Summer, out at the same time as I’m finishing another one… it’s quite strange, feeling very much torn between two books, two stories, two sets of characters. On top of that, I shudder at the thought that I know my agent will ask me “What’s next?” the minute I hand her this new one- though probably what’s next is lots of editing and rewriting and watching with my breath held as another of my stories makes its way into the world.
You can find more on Kylie Ladd and her fiction at www.kylieladd.com.au.
The Australian Literature Review