Our first Spotlight On feature for 2017 is Alex Chalwell, winner of the 2016 NSW Writers’ Centre Varuna Fellowship in the Under 30 category. His magic realist novel, Sky, gained Alex a one-week writing residency at the Varuna Writers’ House this year.
A Sydney-based actor and writer, Alex has studied at places such as the Actors Centre Australia and the École Philippe Gaulier in France. His acting credits include Charlie in Intersection (ATYP, 2017), Raleigh in Journey’s End (Cross Pollinate Productions 2016, also as Associate Producer), Baker in Cookies (Arts Unit, 2016), Love and Honour (NIDA 2015), Little Bitch (NIDA, 2014), and Blue in Harvest (New Theatre, 2014).
Alex began writing at a young age, finishing his first manuscript, Grindstone, in the summer holidays of Year 10. The first draft of his second manuscript, Sky, was completed in 2014, as he was preparing to graduate from the Actors Centre.
Since then, Alex has balanced his acting and writing commitments, editing Sky along the way. He has been mentored by Australian writer Gabrielle Lord, and has attended a series of masterclasses in Canberra with Nadine Davidoff and Mary Cunnane, via the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY Program.
We spoke to Alex about his novel, sources of inspiration, and how he juggles a career in both acting and writing.
Tell us a little more about your novel Sky? What inspired the story?
Sky is about a boy who finds himself trapped while travelling through Japan. Instead of finding a way home, he runs away with a girl who teaches him how to fly.
During high school I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time in Japan, first on a scholarship from the Japanese government and then on a homestay in Nagasaki. The language, the people, the scenery – it all left a huge impact on me. I grew into my family over there, the lifestyle over there. I started dreaming in Japanese. When I came home it felt like a pocket of my personality had been left behind. Whenever I’ve travelled since it feels the same – incredible highs, amazing sights, and then a sense that I have to move on. Sky plays with those memories, pockets of yourself you leave as you move from place to place.
How has your background in theatre and performance informed your writing process? Have you found that it adds depth to the development of your world and your characters?
Absolutely. Theatre training is the closest I’ve come to tertiary writing training – it underpins all my writing. On the more obvious level, it’s the base from which I approach writing. The mediums are different but both art forms are concerned with storytelling. Every character needs to want something out of what is happening. If there are any problems in the prose, it’s often because these objectives aren’t clear enough. Or it is because the Given Circumstances – the action leading up to the present moment – need clarity.
That’s on the technical side of things, though. Like good acting, if it’s working well, you’re not thinking about writing as you do it. You’re just seeing it in your head. That feeling of flow is identical between the two forms. It also feels the same when the acting or writing is rusty.
Acting training also set me up with a sustainable creative practice. Writing is hard. Chasing this thing needs a lot of work, especially on a project as long as a novel. It can really chew you up. Moments where you feel down are never easy, but I have a few tricks to help keep me calm. I have my training (and teachers!) to thank for that.
Congratulations on your Varuna Fellowship! How do you plan to spend your time at Varuna? Do you have any specific goals you hope to achieve?
Cheers! Thanks to the NSW Writers Centre – this is important to me.
By the end of Varuna, I want to send my manuscript out into the world. Since being given the award, I’ve completed my sixth draft. It’s now in the hands of a friend of mine – a good writer whose opinion I trust. Once that’s done, I’ll polish it again, send it off for assessment (thanks to the NSW Writers Centre again!), and then hit Varuna armed with that professional perspective. I’ve also recently finished the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY program, and will be keeping in consideration the industry feedback and advice I was lucky enough to receive there.
Do you have a regular writing routine? If so, what does it involve?
This one’s tricky for me. I’m pushing my writing and acting careers at the same time. It’s brilliant and I’m so lucky to be able to do it, but it isn’t exactly lucrative. The financial realities mean that I have to stagger my efforts. I’m in rehearsal for a play at the moment (“Intersection” at the ATYP in Feb – forgive the shameless plug…), which means I need to dedicate my time there. It’s been a source of frustration in the past, but it’s pleasant at the moment. Like I said, I’m in the sixth draft of my work. A break, and the perspective that comes from it, is very worthwhile.
When I do write, it’s in intense bursts – my record is 14,000 words in a day. Sydney rent means that that kind of work isn’t sustainable, but when it comes I revel in it. Varuna is perfect.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
It was a piece of acting advice that I appropriated for writing. I was at a Q&A for a show. The director said that character isn’t decided by funny walks or speech patterns. It’s revealed in the decisions a character makes. I like that a lot.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
It feels bizarre to be giving advice when I’m in such an early stage myself. Something that really inspires me is a quote from Haemon, from Antigone. Please forgive me for pulling out the Sophocles… Haemon’s just begged Creon not to execute Antigone, and Creon’s just like “Nah, but you’re only young, hey. What do you know?” Haemon says something like “I may be young. Yet look not to age but to my actions.” In all the doubts and late nights, that quote has done a lot for me.
What are you reading at the moment?
Just finished After Dark by Haruki Murakami. I’m about to start In Cold Blood, but it’s a little water damaged. I had to use it as a pillow at a music festival when my tent flooded.
In your opinion, who/what is the most inspiring…
Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest. The imagination and beauty in each frame is astonishing. Haruki Murakami has done a lot for me over the years, too.
My favourite is Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. I’m a little obsessed. Then there’s Breakfast of Champions. There’s a passage in there where Vonnegut decides to use his art to bring chaos to order – it’s been something like a personal manifesto at times. And then there’s writing closer to home – last year I read Leap by Myfanwy Jones, and that was pretty incredible.
A thunderstorm. I’ve never been able to write during one because I spend too much time looking out the window, but aren’t they the best?
Time of day?
Nighttime. When you’re so close to sleeping that you’re nearly-but-not-quite dreaming.
…Bizarrely, this is a huge part of my process. Often when I write, I listen to the same song on repeat for hours at a time. Usually it’s indie rock or something dancey, but there’s some jazz and Dvorak I’ve hit quite a few times for inspiration. There are singular songs in my iTunes library that have hundreds of repeat plays because they help me write. Pretty sure that’s also used as a torture technique. Who knew.
On top of a mountain. The opposite of Murakami’s bottom-of-a-well. That feels appropriate to me.