Writing Mothers: Wendy James
One of the great things about writing a blog is the comments you get from readers, introducing you to new writers working in similar areas. Wendy James is a writer who, somehow, had flown under the radar for me. Short stories. Novels. She’s produced an impressive amount of work including Out of the Silence, which won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel. But I’d never heard of her. When I started immersing myself in her books, I realised it may have been a cover issue. I judge books by their covers. If a book looks too saccharine or girlie, I tend to shy away. If it looks like a family saga, I get nervous.
Wendy (as she explains later) has been punished by the publishers when it comes to covers. Her covers and titles are misleading. Rich, energetic and punchy, her text is intricate and soars off the page; the covers don’t reflect this. Reading her books has taught me about my own prejudices when it comes to reading and genre.
All of Wendy’s books deal with domestic dramas, with a particular focus on the tension between mother and child (a bond Wendy often breaks, to devastating effect). I spoke to her about mothers, her writing practice, and switching between genres to settle on Suburban Noir.
When did you decide to be a writer? How did you start out?
I spent most of my childhood with my nose in a book, and I think the idea of writing was always lurking: one day, when I was clever enough and experienced enough and knew all the answers to everything (as I assumed writers must), I too would write a novel. I was distracted for a long while by the idea of acting, but was always writing bits and pieces, and kept diaries for years. After a few false starts I eventually ended up studying English/Auslit at uni, and then I was too shocked and awed to attempt anything myself for a while. In third year (by this time I was 25 or so, and had had the first two of my four children) I enrolled in a creative writing unit and so was forced to actually sit down and write some fiction. I was very lucky in that I received encouragement early on — my very first pieces were published in various literary journals, and I won a few prizes. I think this all gave me the confidence to keep going, to take writing seriously. I still don’t know the answers to everything (or anything much!) — but have found this is actually a good place to write from…
Many of your stories are about mothers abandoning their children. This seems to be a thread that links much of your work. Is that a conscious thing, do you plan it, or do you realise later it’s there again!
A bit of both, I think. It’s very hard to know just why you’re drawn to particular stories, why they touch you. Perhaps these stories of abandoned children and abandoning mothers are a way of facing my own fears — not of abandoning my children, but of being forced for some reason to leave my babies. I can remember wondering how I would survive a separation, even if it was, ultimately, for the good of the child. My experience of mothering — in this particular historical and cultural moment — was one of security and relative ease. I had a supportive partner, a roof over my head, enough money to live on, my position in society hadn’t been fatally compromised by having a baby. I guess all the what-ifs haunted me — what if having a baby jeopardised a woman’s own existence, put her at risk? What would this mean to the woman — and then to the child?
The stories just seemed to appear — there were abundant tales from within my own family history, some of which were the inspiration for a number of the short stories. I came across Maggie Heffernan’s tragic tale (which formed the basis of my first novel, Out of the Silence) reading Australian women’s history. The stories of various artists’ and writers’ lives — in particular Joy Hester, Sunday Reed, Sylvia Plath, Vanessa Bell, Angelica Garnett — and their differing experiences of motherhood and childhood, provided inspiration for The Steele Diaries. With The Mistake — which was initially inspired by the Keli Lane case — the choice was perhaps more conscious. There were so many echoes of the Maggie Heffernan story, and it gave me the opportunity to examine similar themes, but in a contemporary setting.
Some of your books have covers that don’t really reflect the content within the pages. How frustrating is it to have your work misrepresented in this way (I think it is!)?
Oh, too frustrating for words, really. And depressing! But I’m not alone. So many novels by women — especially those writing about domestic life — are given covers that don’t quite match the content. My first two novels — one about an infanticide, the other about art and motherhood — were marketed as romances. This misrepresentation certainly doesn’t help establish a readership.
I’ve come to the conclusion that my writing is difficult to pigeonhole — although I’ve won the Ned Kelly Award for crime writing, none of the novels fit neatly into the crime genre, and some have been historical, others contemporary. The Mistake has been reviewed as a crime novel (though again this isn’t evident from the cover) and the next two planned novels are crime, so I’m trying to tie myself down a bit. Someone suggested that what I’m writing is Suburban Noir, and I think that’s as good a description as any — currently. But I have plans for another novel set in the late 19th/early 20th century — based on historical figures and dealing with 19th century Australia, marriage, motherhood, art and politics …
Your short stories (in the collection ‘Why She Loves Him’) are set in a number of time frames (past and present) but are often linked by being ‘domestic dramas’. Do the characters come first, or the setting? How do you link the two?
I think both character and setting come simultaneously, and though I usually remember the genesis of a specific story, where they end up is sometimes surprising. Some are family stories — for instance, ‘Spirit of Progress’ is based on the story of my husband’s grandfather, who was born illegitimately, raised by his grandmother, and then put into a boys’ home when he was about ten. It was just the saddest of stories. That story’s set in the 30s, though it’s a bit vague — the only clue being the name of the new fast train, the Spirit of Progress, that features in the narrative.
Other stories are family stories from the past, but transposed to the present for reasons that I can’t explain. ‘Contractions” was inspired by a story from the late 40s — but my story was contemporary, and then in a creative mutation that was utterly unexpected, it became the initial story in the sequence Why She loves Him — a discontinuous narrative about a fugitive armed robber and his girlfriend. (The great aunt that the initial story was based on would be very surprised to find herself involved in an armed hold-up, I suspect.)
The past is always an important element in both the shorter and longer pieces. I try to give a sense of the ways it continues to reverberate in the present, always undermining the notion — perhaps largely illusory — of moving on, moving forward. And yes, domestic life, family life, is always in my sights — even when I’m writing about an armed robber.
Your novel ‘The Steele Diaries’ traces the lives of artists who in the end choose to pursue their art rather than nurture their child. It’s a difficult juggling act, between the roles of parent/artist. How do you manage it? How do you find the time to write?
I think the fact that I didn’t start writing until after I’d had children is crucial to the way I approach the juggling — there was no before; the pram was in the hall right from the beginning. And perhaps that’s why I’m not much of a romantic when it comes to my own artistic process, although my ideas about art and the creative process (and life in general) were terribly romantic when I was younger.
I’m probably a bit ruthless about having time and space to write. I’ve always had some sort of childcare for my children, and have never thought twice about using at least some of that time for writing. I suspect, if I did the sums, that my writing is still paying off the money spent on childcare in their early years. I’m extremely fortunate that my husband has always taken my work seriously, given me time, encouraged me to keep going — it would be almost impossible without this emotional support. Our youngest is ten, and our two older birdies have flown the nest, so these days there aren’t quite so many balls to keep in the air.
Someone has suggested that women ‘lose’ two novels per child (how do people come up with these measures?; and what about men?), but the experience of motherhood has been crucial to my writing, in that it’s directed my interests, and provided a great deal of subject matter. I had kids much earlier than most of my friends, and was rather isolated, and in retrospect I think that much of my early fiction was a sort of conversation, a way of explaining the parallel universe I’d entered — as much to myself as anyone else. For me, financial insecurity has been a much greater impediment to creativity than kids. Constantly worrying about money is a terrible sucker-upper of creative energy.
What I like about your writing is that while the women are the dominant force, the male characters are also strong. Even when they’re minor in terms of the plot, they’re well rounded and thought out. How do you approach writing men? Is it any different from writing women characters?
It’s funny you should say that — my father once asked me why all my men were so weak! I honestly hadn’t thought about them as being either weak or strong. I don’t approach them any differently to women, really. I have written a few men who I really like — who are kind and thoughtful and loyal — like Harry in Out of the Silence and Richard in Steele Diaries and others who are rats, like the philandering Angus in The Mistake — but I think even they have their redeeming qualities. I guess the important thing in all my novels is that the women are given some sort of agency, regardless of their circumstances — so the men can’t just be cardboard cutout villains; they have to be as real as I can make them, however culpable, however flawed.
You’ve worked with a variety of publishers. How do you find the writing and editing process differs with each book?
I’ve been published by three Australian houses — Random House, UWAP, and now Penguin — and have been fortunate enough to have some great publishers and editors to work with. Each book has required different levels of editorial input, and each publishing house has had different ways of doing things. I think having a good relationship with your editor or publisher is crucial to the editing process. It can feel very intimate, very intense — a little like the role the midwife plays in a birth, really — the right person with the right advice can help you get through it more easily, or alternatively make the process even more fraught. My second novel was sent to a freelancer when my original editor’s baby came early (so inconsiderate!) and that process seemed less than ideal. It wasn’t anything to do with the expertise or professionalism of the editor, just that there was no-one to discuss the work with, to bounce ideas off — no other person who really cared.
What are you currently working on? Does it continue the themes of women and creativity explored in your other works?
My next novel, The Aftermath, like The Mistake, is about families and secrets and dark shadows cast by the past … This time it’s actually a bit of a whodunnit, as well as a whydunnit — so it’s something of a departure for me. There’s not so much about women’s creative lives specifically, though of course with characters who are mothers and daughters, motherhood is still something that’s explored.