lip lit: interview with deborah forster (the book of emmet, the meaning of grace)
Deborah Forster’s debut novel ‘The Book of Emmet’ was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, and her second book ’The Meaning of Grace’ has recently been released. ‘The Meaning of Grace’ explores momentous issues surrounding family: parents who leave for various reasons, the complex bonds between siblings, the pull-push we feel towards our parents as we grow. Forster is appearing at the Sydney Writer’s Festival to speak about writing the ‘notoriously difficult’ second novel at The Second Time panel, and she also speaks about her latest book at The State of Grace. She speaks to us about writing and family below.
You had such tremendous success with your first novel, did this give you more faith in writing ‘The Meaning of Grace’, or did it put more pressure on you?
When The Book of Emmett was accepted by Random I was so excited, I was practically levitating. This was something I had wanted for so long and just getting it published was the hallelujah moment. Then, slowly it sinks in that oh oh… people are reading it and they will have an opinion. And that gives you a pause.
I’m inclined to be over sensitive, I admit. I wouldn’t read anything about ‘Emmett’ at all until my husband said, you might want to have a look at these reviews, they’re not too bad. Well, I admit, I sneaked a look. But then you start scrutinising and that’s an impossible situation. I decided to concentrate on what I could control and that was the process of writing. The rest is not my concern.
And then comes the long lonely time between books. I started writing ‘Grace’ as soon as I finished ‘Emmett’ but I didn’t know how far it would go. Secretly, I thought I probably only had one book in me.
At one of the Miles Franklin events, one of the judges asked what I was working on and I told her it would be a book about mothers. This was my secret and I’d just blurted it out. When the judge thought this was a good idea, I went a bit cold and thought, maybe I can do it. That gave me a lot of courage. I learned so much writing ‘Emmett’ and it’s made me a better writer now than I was before ‘Grace’, more sure. ‘Grace’ emerged slowly. There were pauses, there were rushes when the words were just right, then there were doubts. Writing a novel is going to work with only yourself to talk to every single day. Progress is measured in changes of seasons. It takes time to write and it takes hope.
Your first book was published at 53 –do you think that while you’ve always had the desire to write you needed the extra life experience in order to get the right words?
Life experience is a pretty helpful thing when you’re writing and so is timing. I also had money to earn and kids to raise and I need a fair bit of quiet to be able to write but maybe that’s an excuse. When I was younger, I wrote little things that gave me a lot of pleasure. I wrote a lot of newspaper / magazine features and I wrote poems and there was always a glimmer in them, if I could get the editors to run them.
I’m not much of a talker, bit of a bumbler really. Always forget the punch line of any joke, so writing is survival for me. Also, as you get older you realise you are smarter than you used to be and less constrained. You harness yourself and make yourself work. I’m more able to concentrate and calmer. Not everyday, but most days.
The complex bonds within family –particularly between sisters – are continuously explored in literature. Why do you think this is?
Writers write about what they know and women writers really know their sisters. To make people read your work, you must get the details right and to do that, you have to understand. Jane Austen, had at least a couple of sets of sisters, Elizabeth and Jane Bennet in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Marianne and Elinor Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’. In ‘Little Women’, Louisa M. Alcott had Jo and Amy March and in George Sands’ ‘Middlemarch’ Celia and Dorothea are strong fabulous women. But there are lots of brothers in literature too. Brothers galore. Writers will write about the true things in their lives and what is truer than a brother or a sister?
Siblings are people we expect to behave in certain ways and when they don’t, you have plenty to write about. We all think we’re experts on our own family but we forget that everyone has a view. In my novels, people don’t conform but then, I love a non-conformist.
In ‘Emmett’ the siblings trusted each other with bonds that grew from dealing with their abusive father. In ‘Grace’, the battleground is the mother and each child is confined to their corner. These two books are different ways of looking at how children relate to parents. And how we often fail to see what is being given and what is being taken.
A large part of the book is about people leaving. And one of the scenarios is a taboo one – a mother leaving. Why do you think society judges women who leave their children more harshly than men?
In ‘Grace’, first a mother leaves with her children. Then a mother leaves without her child. She places her with someone who will love her. These scenes were set the sixties and the seventies when disapproval of women was rife, though even today, such decisions would cost you. Women are still expected to behave in certain ways, to be the moral guardians.
Leaving a child must be the hardest thing any parent can do. Sometimes though I suppose the best thing a parent can understand is that they can do no good and one of the women in ‘The Meaning of Grace’ knows this.
As for society’s judgement of women. It is true that women are judged constantly for anything connected with just two functions of our lives, looks and mothering. Imagine if men were only judged for fathering and looks!
We have long been cast as Damned whores or God’s police. All around the world, the way women behave seems to be the thing that most bothers others, men and women alike. Maybe women are more important than we thought. I’ve always believed that we women need to be kinder to each other. Cut the judgment and increase the kindness.
If there was one character in literature you wish you could share a bottle of wine ( or a few rounds of coffee) with, who would it be and why?
Well, I was split here. I love to meet the mole from ‘Wind in the Willows’. Sitting around before a roaring fire in Mole End with sardines on toast for tea, entertained by a choir of field mice, well this would be perfection. Mole’s humility and the way he loves his home is very moving. Ratty and Moley remind me of my husband and I. One extrovert, one introvert and if I say which is which, I’ll be the one who’s toast.
But then to share a glass of wine with Olive Kitteridge from the book of the same name by Elizabeth Strout, would be just as memorable. Olive is a former year seven maths teacher married to a small town chemist. She’s heavy, prone to moods, can be snappy, even mean and doesn’t express love well even as she feels it powerfully. Yet she has that rarest quality – unsentimental empathy. She’s one pure tough angel and like all the best characters in literature, she lives with me now. Reading gives you the best people.