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Charlotte Wood Thinks Restraint Is UnderratedRead Transcript
Charlotte Wood became a mainstay in Australia’s literary firmament in 2015 following the release of her award-winning novel, The Natural Way of Things. Her latest book, Stone Yard Devotional, is her most personal yet. It’s a meditation on grief, solitude, what it means to live a good life, and what we owe one another. This week, Michael sits down with Charlotte to discuss her new book, and she shares the psychic catastrophe that informed its final form.
The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood, 2015
The Weekend, Charlotte Wood, 2019
The Luminous Solution, Charlotte Wood, 2021
Stone Yard Devotional, Charlotte Wood, 2023
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, 2004
Gilgamesh, Joan London, 2001
The Golden Age, Joan London, 2014
The Wren, The Wren, Anne Enright, 2023
Women and Children, Tony Birch, 2023
You can find these books and all the others we mentioned at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books.
Guest: Charlotte Wood
Years back, I read this review in The Guardian about Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead. It’s a book that I love and the review has stuck in my mind ever since. The reviewer, Alex Clark declared that, “Gilead is a novel that forces you to read at its pace - slowly and increasingly appreciatively.” It’s a lovely idea, the book that teaches you how to read it, and it most recently came to mind when I started Charlotte Wood's latest novel, Stone Yard Devotional. I took it on a lunch break from work. You know, one of those “steal 5 minutes of reading time” in the middle of a busy day kind of things. I thought I could sneakily dip in and have a quick taste. And I couldn’t. I realised it just wasn't going to let me. This wasn't a book to rush through. Instead, it took my hand and gently guided me to the Monaro plain in southern New South Wales, into the old convent where the book is set to sit on a rock and look out and take my time.
I’m Michael Williams, and this is Read This, a show about the books we love, and the stories behind them.
Stoneyard Devotional is a beautiful book, about grief, about solitude, about what it means to live a good life and what we owe one another. Longstanding fans of Charlotte Wood will be thrilled. It’s her ninth book but it was her 2016 novel, The Natural Way of Things, which broke her out in a massive way. She won the Prime Minister's award that year and the Stella Prize and was an international bestseller. A stage adaptation of her follow up The Weekend has just finished an acclaimed run at Sydney's Belvoir Theatre, and her last book, before Stone Yard Devotional, was a work of non-fiction called The Luminous Solution. It was all about creativity and the inner life, but it was also about the idea of resilience, of how we might marshal our strength to get through difficult times. It was a concept that was to have unfortunate, far reaching resonances in Wood's own life in the months following its publication.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah we had a big bomb go off in our family last year, which was that my older sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was the same age my mother was when she died of cancer. Then she – as big sisters do – said, “Alright. Everyone go off and have scans”, which we did, just to kind of please her, really. And then, I mean, just, you know, routine sort scans. So six weeks after she was diagnosed and I was found to have breast cancer, and then a week later, my younger sister was also found to have it. Everyone's fine, I need to say that quite immediately.
So I'd written a draft of the book, a very sparse first draft. And I literally got to the sort of penultimate scenes, the scenes that really in terms of the story ends the book. And then I got up to go and do some grocery shopping. And while I was in the shops, the phone rang and it was the breast screen people saying, “You've got to come back and have more tests.” So that was like, “What?” And, you know, I think about that timing. I think if that hadn't, I don't know what would have happened to the book if I hadn't just done that that morning. But anyway, the relevance of this to the novel is…it was a psychic catastrophe more than… it was not a physical catastrophe because we had the best kind of cancer you can have and all of that. But the shock of it was so deep and so powerful for me anyway. And so then when I went back to revise the book, I'd already wanted to try and write a book that wasn't going to explain things and wasn't going to sort of hold the reader's hand very tightly. And also, you know, it was about grief and about my mother, and so then when I went back to it with this new experience, a shedding had taken place of trivial things, of unimportant things. And so I went back almost like a kind of skeleton going back into writing, but in a good way. It was with more of a commitment to a book where nothing extraneous was to remain in the book.
CHARLOTTE: And I think it really helped give the book a depth that it might have started to have, but when I went back to it, it was with an understanding that we are mortal. Now, that sounds so silly, because we all know that. But we also all walk around pretending we don't know that. And I understood from my experience that that was a rehearsal for me and that it's going to come, you know, hopefully when I'm 107. But how do you live a good life, a full life, while not turning away from the knowledge that we're going to die. That's what I wanted the book to sort of grapple with.
MICHAEL: You mentioned that the main character's mother is in no small part, your own mother on the page. And, you know, I'm always reluctant when chatting to an author to ascribe autobiographical things to it, but…
CHARLOTTE: No but I've been quite open about that, I mean, it is the most personal book that I've written. And I found myself wanting to write about my mother, who was quite an unusual person. She was very very self-contained is the word I always sort of use to describe her. She had a deep kind of reserve and a need for privacy. And when I say privacy, it's a sort of emotional privacy, I guess. And the narrator respects that. You know, there's no sense that she thinks, “Oh I wish she'd opened up to me”, or anything like that. But she's preoccupied with her mother and not her father, because she says, “I knew my father from the moment I was born, I knew my father, and I would never if he'd lived a long time, I would never have known him better than I knew him, you know, by the time he died.” Whereas she said, “I just could never know my mother in the same way.” Although there was no question that they loved each other, they trusted each other. But you know, when you're relatively young, when the parent dies. All of your grief initially is for yourself, of course. I'm now the age my mother was when she died. I'm 58. She died at 58. And now my grief is for her, for what she lost. You know what she never got to do or the grandchildren she never got to meet.
MICHAEL: How old were you when she died?
CHARLOTTE: I was 29. So not not a child by any means, but, but sort of…still just undone by it, you know. You know, your grief. Well, speaking only for myself, it subsides. It lessens over time. But it doesn't go away and it changes texture and it kind of surges at certain times. You know, there are things that you think “Oh I wish she were here for this”, but also sometimes you’re just overcome by it for no reason at all. And I think one of the things the narrator talks about is just the shame of still carrying this grief that she thinks. She should be over. You know, it's embarrassing to be, you know, stumbling around as a middle aged woman still wanting your mummy.
MICHAEL: Do you think you're like her?
CHARLOTTE: No, I don't think I am. I think I'm a lot like my dad. I guess one of the propellers for the work is that sort of that difference is I don't know, it's like just a preoccupation. Because I'm not as private as she was, and I'm not as…she was a very kind woman who did do good acts in the world like genuinely, practically. I think especially when you're young people don't believe in genuinely kind people. You know, and the narrator says, “It always confuses me that people seem to think that habitual kindness is some kind of mask or disguise or a lie.” And she says, “But it was true. She was.” And my mother was. And in some ways, maybe she could only do those kind things for people because she had a sort of separateness from people at the same time.
MICHAEL: One of the wonderfully evocative things in this is your writing about country that is where you came from and the place of your childhood. And I’m so interested in what that process was of a kind of creative and imaginative pilgrimage back home.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, it's funny because it didn't involve a physical pilgrimage back home for quite some time, but I knew I wanted to write about that landscape of the Monero in southern New South Wales where I grew up, and it is a very austere landscape. I can’t remember which poet called it the lunar landscape, but it is, you know, a treeless plain with these patches of enormous stony boulders, and the light on those very shallow sort of plains at certain times of the day is just unbelievably beautiful. And it's something very physical for me about that landscape. Whenever I talk about it, I start gesturing at my gut or my solar plexus. It does feel like an umbilical connection to that place. And, you know, of course, a lot of the book is about the narrator's mother, which is about my mother. So when the narrator goes back to this place, it's almost like she goes there out of an animal instinct, not out of any kind of rational decision making process. And I guess my feelings about that landscape are quite sort of primitive and animal, well instinctive rather than intellectual.
MICHAEL: That instinctive thing comes through with your narrator, but there is also the magic of the place it holds for her imaginatively. There's a sequence where she's driving and she's rattling off the names of towns like a half remembered mantra. And I think we've all done that on a road trip that we've done many times, is that place names and the names of things take us immediately back to that space.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, they're beautifully rhythmic names. And she says they come back into her body, you know, not just into her mind. And they're kind of like, I think she says like, like beads on a rosary or like, naming the parts of my own body. And certainly I had that experience going back. I think it's about the place where you were a small child just has a hold over you at a kind of cellular level in some way that other places don't, I think.
MICHAEL: One of the tensions of the book is that your character goes back there, as you say, instinctively to escape and for solitude, for isolation as escape. But she does so to a place where she's crowded in on all sides by association. It seems to me, someone who genuinely wants to escape and go somewhere solitary goes away from the places where they have history.
CHARLOTTE: Yes. And she says somewhere that maybe in another language, there's a word for the particular kind of despair that I had at that time. It was a need to go somewhere that I had never been, but that was nevertheless my home in some way. So she goes to this religious community of nuns where she's never been and it's not, you know, her home as in we're not even in the town where she grew up, but sort of nearby. So it was some sort of homing instinct, I think. And I've only thought about this since the book was finished, but there's a sense that that kind of bare bedrock landscape understands her. And that's what takes her back there. It's like her kind of psychic state is in a similarly stripped back… it sort of aligns tonally with, with the actual physical world.
MICHAEL: It’s so important to Stone Yard Devotional, your main character, like you, is not a person of faith, but like you draws some solace from being around some of those rituals and finds a respite from the modern life that she's trying to escape.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, she sort of comes to this place after some deep sort of crisis, psychic crisis, that is to do partly with her work as an environmental activist and other kind of unexplained things, really. But she’s sort of comforted a little, but also always ambivalent about being there. She doesn't get to a point where she thinks, “Oh, this is where I belong.” Mainly she's thinking, “God, I can't believe I'm still here. You know, because of all these reasons why I should not be here, I don't believe in God. I don't even know what prayer is. I will never understand what that means. And also, what am I doing being a part of this organisation, which is so appalling in so many ways.”
And yet there are moments of deep peace that she has only had there, really. And there is something about the rhythm of the day, and, you know, for someone in a deep sort of crisis, just going somewhere where you don't have to make any decisions. But at the same time, she's always grappling with this tension between two sort of mantras that she keeps coming back to: the first one is action is the antidote to despair. And the other one is, first, do no harm. And she's always believed, as I have always believed, that action is the antidote to despair. And then, after a certain time you look at all that action that you've tried to take and think, “What has it done?” I think that sense of futility is really overwhelming. And then she comes across these women who are, you know they may be seen to not be doing any good in the world, but they're not doing any harm. They're not proselytising. They're not trying to convert anyone. They're not harassing anyone. They're not going anywhere. They're not using any resources, really. And it's sort of a, you know, a bit of a hubris comeuppance for her to think, “You know, I've always kind of despised people like this. And yet now here I am. Because the other alternatives have failed.”
We’ll be back in a minute.
MICHAEL: The idea of action being the antidote to despair, you know, for you, for your career, that action has taken the form of creation. You know, it's taken the form of making and leaving the world palpably discernibly better for the thing that you've made. That creative practice seems to me to be at the heart for you. You don't give that same comfort to your character in this book.
CHARLOTTE: No. I mean, I feel like my creative practice has a palpable benefit for me. I would never presume to think it had any benefit for anyone else beyond that. I mean, of course, I love it when people are affected by my work or whatever, but I'm not, I don't see that as helping make the world a better place, to be honest. I do feel that art is a place to turn, when everything is in such dire states, then sometimes the stillness of art actually is what can sort of calm me and I guess I'm talking about visual art as well as literature. There is something enduring about art, I mean, I would turn to art over a church any day. But as for, you know, contributing to the greater good, I would never suggest that my art is contributed.
MICHAEL: That's what the podcast interviewer's role is, is to…well, you don't have to claim that for yourself.
CHARLOTTE: Well presume away then!
MICHAEL: Oh I'll presume. But I'm glad you make that distinction that you can receive that benefit from yourself.
CHARLOTTE: I really believe this in an almost religious way that making something delivers a serious benefit to the maker. And it might be making a cake, it might be making a garden, but the act of making…it does good, you know. And I don't know about in some sort of metaphysical way of whether putting something good into the world has any benefit beyond the actual thing itself.
MICHAEL: The question that Stone Yard Devotional asks, I think in really interesting ways is what we owe to one another. And I think if we're not having that conversation, then we're the poorer for it. You know, again, not trying to make great claims for the outcome of it, but we have to have these things we make that allow us to to ask those questions, I think.
CHARLOTTE: Well, writing is asking questions. I mean, when I write fiction, it's usually to do with some question that I have about how to be, you know. And clearly an obsession of mine that I never kind of realise until it's done. It's like, “Oh, there it is again”, this idea of how to live with other people that you haven't chosen to live with, you know, The Natural Way of Things, girls were all incarcerated together. The women in The Weekend did choose to be together, but they sort of almost were there by duty more than anything else. And this one, you know, she's there having to live a life that is quite restrictive, but the thing that really drives the nuts is the other people.
MICHAEL: It's very relatable. I mean, that's the main crisis ever.
CHARLOTTE: Hell these other people.
MICHAEL: It is well and truly.
CHARLOTTE: But we have to figure out ways to live with each other with some kind of… I mean, I don't want to sound like I have any answers to this, because I absolutely don't and the book doesn't, but it's an exploration of forgiveness and what it means and who gets to forgive, and when is it too late to forgive or be forgiven? I'm really interested in thinking about those things myself, you know, and I don't usually come to any conclusions, but that that propels the making of the book I guess.
MICHAEL: One of the questions in the book is, you know, on the one hand, choosing not to engage. Choosing solitude and choosing to escape is an utterly valid set of choices. But against a backdrop of climate catastrophe, of society going to hell in a handbasket at a disturbingly rapid rate, opting out suddenly seems counter to the idea of being good. Back to that question of what we owe one another. Yeah, do we owe one another engagement?
CHARLOTTE: Yes, I think we do, but, I suppose the struggle is always engagement of what kind? You know, like someone asked me yesterday, do I, how much I engage with the news, you know, with current affairs. And, I said not very much by choice because it sends me crazy and you know, you go into that kind of paralysis. If I watched four news bulletins a day about what's happening in the world right now, would that lead me to take any more action to do something? No, it would not. But so, I mean, I think a certain level of engagement awareness is essential for a kind of moral life. But then what do you do with that? How do you engage? That's the thorny question. And, you know, getting online and screaming at other people on social media is not.... But sometimes that feels like action. Sometimes the greatest act of support you can offer is to shut up. And you know, restraint is not something we think about very much as a way of being an ethical person, you know, behaving ethically. But I think it's kind of underrated.
MICHAEL: You say it’s in many ways your most personal book, which is hardly surprising given the year you’ve had. Is this the new way of things for you? For the foreseeable future is your relationship with your own creativity and your own storytelling irreparably changed?
CHARLOTTE: Um, I hope so. I, I think, look, every book changes you. I feel like I have matured as a writer with this book, particularly. The Natural Way of Things did teach me a lot and the big thing it taught me is that a book will show you how to write it if you pay attention and if you don't fight it, you know. And I fought it for a long time and then with that book, I had to surrender to the fact that it was this dark and, you know, harrowing story. And I think I've gradually since then become more interested in writing much more instinctively. One of the people I thought about as I was writing Stone Yard Devotional was Joan London, a writer I absolutely adore and admire. And I interviewed her years ago and she talked about allowing a book to come rather than forcing it, which is what I'd always done. And I was so kind of inspired by this. And she would write notes to herself as writers do all the time, and then she would purposely lose them in her writing room or wherever it may be, even in the house. And then later she would sort of come across them as these little gifts, you know, and she said, “And I would just catch them as lightly as possible.” And she said, “I've got lighter and lighter.” And I found that so beautiful and inspiring. And the other thing she said she had spoken to one of her kids. I think he'd told her this quote from. Andre Jade, who said, “Art is a collaboration between God and the artist. And the more God has to do with it, the better.” By which I took to mean the spirit God is the spirit of art as the unconscious, as the unknown force of art. And that's what I'm interested in, in doing that, just giving that a lot more reign and more and not questioning it. And my brother said a beautiful thing to me about the book, he said, “I felt like I was in a river. I felt it was a river carrying me.” I don't know why I'm suddenly – it makes me very emotional. But I loved that, that he was carried by the book. If anybody else feels that way, it's because of trusting that your art instinct is doing the work for you and you have that instinct to put two quite strange things next to each other – put a mouse plague in the middle of a nunnery or you know put these strange things together – and that makes sense without you having to make sense of it, if that makes sense?
MICHAEL: It does. I think you’ve once again shown us there's every reason to trust your instincts on that stuff, it is a privilege to read and a privilege to chat to you today.
CHARLOTTE: Thank you so much, Michael. Thanks for having me.
Charlotte Wood’s latest book, Stone Yard Devotional is available at your local independent bookstore.
Before we go – I wanted to tell you what I’ve been reading this week…
The Wren, the Wren is Irish writer Anne Enright at her savage best. It’s the story of an unhappy family, but more than that it’s a portrait of a particular type of smug, satisfied literary great and the wreckage they leave behind. So good.
And if you’re a Read This aficionado, you don’t need me to tell you this but run, don’t walk to your nearest independent bookshop for the new Tony Birch novel It’s called Women and Children. Way back in episode three Tony generously shared his memories of his grandmother Alma with us. The generations of women in Tony’s life are indelibly a factor in his gorgeous new book. Read it. Then go back and listen to his episode all over again.
You can find these books and all the others we mentioned at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books at apple.co/readthis. There’s a link in our show notes.
That’s it for this week’s show. If you enjoyed it, please share it widely and rate and review us wherever you listen. It helps a lot.
Next week on Read This we head down to Hobart to chat with Richard Flanagan about his latest book, Question 7.
There's so much I don't know about my parents, but there's much I don't need to know. What people give to you is what you have, and that's finding meaning in that and seeking to understand that that matters. You know, I think everyone has a public life, a private life, and a secret life. And the secret life deserves enormous respect.
Read This is produced and edited by Clara Ames.
Mixing & original compositions by Zoltan Fecso.
Thanks for listening. See you next week.