Shedding light on the darkness that informs Charlotte Wood’s latest work. By Sarah Price.
Novelist Charlotte Wood’s natural ways
Through her beloved kitchen, through the leafy garden filled with chillies and herbs and lofty broad beans, into the back shed and up the steep internal stairs, she leads the way to her studio. Space is tight and she apologises for the mess. There are half-filled boxes from publishers, a kettle and tea bags, a queen-size bed. Shelves are packed loosely with books. On the far wall is a pen-and-ink drawing of a naked woman, her breasts hanging freely, her eyes averted, as if through sadness, or shame, perhaps. Charlotte Wood’s desk is below the window. From here she can see the lush green of her garden, the slanted roof of her terrace house, and the open sky, stretched like a bright canvas over Sydney’s Marrickville. Yet the room itself, her small studio, feels inviolable and somehow removed from life outside.
A kangaroo skin adorns the bed. Sitting beside it, Charlotte smiles and sweeps her palm along its silky pile. Her fingernails are painted black, and her pale face is clean of any make-up.
I ask her about the experience of writing her latest novel, The Natural Way of Things, and Charlotte takes pause, looks beyond me and lifts a hand to her head, twirls a section of short hair in her fingers. “It’s the hardest book I’ve ever written,” she says, “I resisted it for a long time. I got frightened by how dark it was and I didn’t like what it said about me.” Her voice is gentle and measured, but she suddenly appears apprehensive, laden. “I finally understood the loneliness in writing a book. When you imaginatively inhabit something, you inhabit those feelings. I felt like I was in prison with this dark, really weird stuff coming out. And I didn’t know where it was coming from.”
She frowns, fiddles with her drop earring, tells me she found support in her writing group, in four female friends. “At one point I cried and told them I couldn’t do it. They said I needed to keep going, that it was an important book to be written.”
Once she let go of the fear and shame, she says, the book could come alive, become its own creature. “Wherever that dark place was, that’s where the art was, and I couldn’t find it unless I went there. Extracting the dark material was primal. When I was writing this book it was through utter gut instinct. I was angry in my gut.”
The anger was about women, about how they are treated. She’d heard the stories, read the reports. They stuck in her head: the Hay Institution, where girls were locked up in the ’60s and ’70s, drugged, raped and forced to march while undertaking hard labour; Dianne Brimble, dying of a drug overdose after being preyed upon by eight men; the scapegoating of a David Jones employee after she complained of being sexually harassed by the chief executive; the woman sexually assaulted while asleep, and the ensuing degrading remarks from her professor about the case.
Charlotte leans forward at the memories, her gaze steady and direct. “It was fucking awful. Because my antenna was up for this subject matter, suddenly it was everywhere. Then the misogynistic stuff with Julia Gillard was getting more and more horrible. The day the news came out about the Liberal Party fundraiser menu – ridiculing her body, carving it up – I actually cried and cried.”
It’s not just the stories that stayed with her but the language, too: fucking-fat-slag and travel-tramp, black-ugly-dog, moll-number-twelve and big-red-box, pig-on-a-spit and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut.
This language, these stories, became her fuel. The young women in Charlotte’s novel – “her girls” – are all linked to separate sex scandals involving powerful men. They all have their femaleness at the centre of their trouble. Removed from society and held captive in a remote, barren land, the women are subjected to brutal treatment and to the dark, lingering threat of rape and violence.
We are still dealing with mediaeval attitudes in society, Charlotte says, blaming young women for things that are done to them and punishing them for speaking out. She insists she is not a spokesperson or activist, though; just an artist. “And all I know is how to express a kind of grief.”
Leaving the studio, we wander through her local streets to the community garden. Charlotte pulls a cloth hat on her head, and rests a punnet of seedlings on one of the wooden sleepers surrounding her plot. Inspecting the vegetables, she admonishes herself: the plot has been neglected lately; she’s been busy. She talks again about the girls in her book, but now she looks lighter, assured. Refusing to write a story where the women were all utterly destroyed, she allowed one of her girls to become more and more powerful, embracing the wildness of herself in a way that completely liberates her. “Yolanda is a person of the body – all her life her body has led to her being imprisoned in various psychological ways – but she turns that tool of her body into something powerful.”
Towards the back of the community garden, five women gather in the soft, late daylight, as the sun slowly retreats behind the nearby buildings of the local primary school. Seated at a table under a gum tree, they greet Charlotte with calm familiarity and easy laughter. A group of children play around a densely filled plot nearby, until a young girl cries out in pain, or in sadness, and she is brought to the table to be consoled, to be held with tenderness by one of the women.
We move on. Relaxed now, the tension gone, her fury abated, Charlotte is laughing, cracking jokes, introducing me to the chooks and checking for eggs.
“Did you find relief in finishing the book?” I ask.
Charlotte tips her head up and looks at me from under the floppy brim of her hat. “I like things that are subtle and elegant, but I’ve written a sledgehammer. I’m proud that I allowed it to come out, but in the end I needed to separate from it. I was walking home from a yoga class the day I realised I was finished, and it was a dazzling relief, the best feeling in the world. It was like I’d got this darkness out of me.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2015 as "Natural ways".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial