What are some of the main challenges writers face when translating their whole and complicated selves into a character on the page?
By far the most difficult one is knowing what to leave out! You simply can’t fit everything in to an average 70,000-word memoir, and the challenge of making sense of a complicated story without loading it down with minutiae is part of the crucial difference between a story made for your own satisfaction, and a work that will be readable by others who don’t know you. At the same time, a memoir can be made compelling with detail and attentiveness to a living experience, rather than a dead recounting, so finding the right recipe is essential.
What can be learned from reading the memoirs of other writers? Are there any memoir writers that have particularly influenced you?
Definitely reading other memoirists’ work is helpful, if only to observe what doesn’t work. I often bring some ‘failed’ memoirs (in my opinion) to the workshop in order to discuss this. Other memoirs can also show the range of motives for sharing one’s life story: they’re not all the same. And of course the lives and the writing styles are not all the same, so appreciating the landscape of various possibilities is, hopefully, encouraging for people who are just starting to think of what and how they’d like to write their story. I don’t know if my own works were directly influenced by anyone else’s, but I have been very moved by memoirs, letters and diaries kept by bold and courageous women like Anais Nin, Elizabeth Smart, Mirka Mora and my friends, Alice Williams and Lee Kofman, who have both just published memoirs here in Australia.
Your new book, The Winter Road, will be released later this year by Black Inc. Can you give us any hints as to what your next book will be about?
This book is very different to my previous ones, and is not a memoir. It’s about a real murder that tragically took place in NSW a few years ago, the killing of environmental officer Glen Turner by the farmer Ian Turnbull. The story is about the two men and their encounter on what seems to be opposite sides of an important and deep question: what do we non-Indigenous Australians value in the land and nature of Australia? It’s been a big journey for me, through unfamiliar historical, ecological and political landscapes and I’ve found the experience very moving and very illuminating, even if I can’t find an answer to the question.
Breathing on the Mirror: Writing Memoir with Kate Holden will take place at Writing NSW this Saturday 9 March, 10am-4pm. Book your spot here >