Alexandra Watkins interviews Michelle de Kretser on ‘Springtime’
Michelle de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka, where she lived until she was fourteen. She went to university in Melbourne and Paris, and now lives in Sydney. As well as Springtime, she has published four novels. Her new novel, The Life to Come, will be published in 2017.
Sydney in spring is a palette of luminous intensity. Fresh green spaces meet vivid blue skies. Lilac jacarandas burst into life throughout the city and its suburbs. It is time of renewal when locals and tourists take full advantage of this most favoured of seasons. It is a curious setting for a gothic tale, albeit the location for Michelle de Kretser’s latest work, Springtime: A Ghost Story. Bringing light to darkness this ‘black-spring’ interview with Michelle de Kretser questions Australian literary and cultural customs and environmental stereotypes. It also probes literary fashions, short form fiction, the Melbourne / Sydney cultural divide, gothic tropes, and the psychology of space. Through her discussion with interviewer Alix Watkins, de Kretser reflects on her interest in haunting, the influence of her Sri Lankan background, and the attraction of brevity following her previous epic Questions of Travel (Miles Franklin Award 2012).
AW: What inspired the writing of Springtime: a ghost story? It’s your first novella. Why did you choose this short fiction form as opposed to writing a novel, the fictional form which you’re most known for?
M de K: It was partly just sheer exhaustion! My last novel, Questions of Travel (2012), was so long, and the worlds of its characters, Ravi and Laura, were so different that it was almost like writing two novels. Whereas a novella, it’s shorter, it takes less time. But I should qualify this, as I do like long short stories. I’m not a fan of micro-fictions or flash fictions—and some of my favourite writers write long short stories—so I guess I just wanted to do something different—to write in this different form and I really enjoyed it. It’s shorter. It’s more compressed. So you don’t deal with things in a leisurely way. You get to the point quickly. Also, I like fiction that doesn’t spell everything out, stories that leave blanks for the reader to fill in. I tried to do that in Questions of Travel too, but by virtue of its being a very long novel there was a lot that had to be described in great detail. Like the set up of the guidebook publishing company, for instance. So one of the advantages of the short fiction form is that it forces you to leave a lot out, which then forces the reader to supply more from their own imagination. So it’s good to leave things out. Someone, I think it was Jean Rhys, said that “there’s no writing problem that can’t be solved by cutting”. I’m not sure that cutting solves all narrative problems, but it can solve a lot of them.
AW: It’s been said that we write what we read? Do you read a lot of short fiction yourself?
M de K: I read a reasonable amount. Often people write both novels and short stories, so if I like a writer, I’ll probably read whatever they have written whether it’s long or short form. I follow writers rather than forms. I have read most of Alice Munro, for instance. I think Patrick White’s short stories are genius, so are his novels. There’s Penelope Fitzgerald and Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose short fiction is very good. And Jane Gardam and Elizabeth Taylor, the real one! Another very good collection—an unusual collection of stories—that came out last year, was Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals.
I’m actually going to be teaching a creative writing masterclass in New Zealand next month, and in this class we will be examining some short form fiction. I’m taking a Canadian story along. It’s a really wonderful story called ‘The Deep’, by a writer called Mary Swan, and it’s pretty long. I’m interested to hear the students’ response to the length of it, among other things.
AW: How would you describe the culture of short fiction in Australia? Is it an established and respected medium?
M de K: I think it’s well established. It’s been around for a very long time, think back to Lawson, for instance. It’s been around in Australia since the 19th Century! But these things are cyclical, there are fashions in literature, like fashions in everything else. Short fiction, I think, was out of fashion for while, through the 1990s and into the 21st Century. But it’s making a come back; it’s being published a little more now. And by mainstream publishers, although it’s still not as popular as long form fiction. And I’m told that the sales of short story collections generally don’t compare with the sales of novels. But then, it’s prizes that boost sales—and prizes tend to go to novels rather than to collections of short stories. Still, I think those Best Australian Stories collections, the ones by Black Inc., they’re pushing the form forward. And Black Inc. must be doing okay, sales-wise, to keep bringing them out.
AW: Can you tell me about the significance of place in your work? How is Sydney different to Melbourne for Frances, the protagonist in Springtime?
M de K: Frances is someone who experiences Sydney as being asthetically and visually different from Melbourne. It seems to lack a certain sophistication and intellectual stimulation that Melbourne offered her. Also, she finds the heat and the light in Sydney somewhat oppressive. But at the same time there is the pull of new love in Sydney, her new man, and the new life they have started there, and then there are the sensual pleasures that Sydney itself provides. In Melbourne, Frances found it too cold to swim in the sea, for instance, but in Sydney she goes swimming. So Sydney is a place of sensual pleasure for Frances.
AW: Is cityspace a character in this novel?
M de K: I hope so but I think not more so than in Questions of Travel, which also describes Sydney and a range of places. I always like writing about place, and I always like reading about place. I like novels that vividly evoke the particularities of a city. I hope that this is the case for Sydney when it’s featured in my work, as well as for other places, like Naples, for instance, which is described in Questions of Travel.
AW: Your work suggests that cultural identity is affected by the character of a city. Do you believe this to be so? Are Melbournians serious and erudite and Sydneysiders sunny?
M de K: I think Sydneysiders are much more serious than Melbournians give them credit for. But place, obviously—Sydney and Melbourne aside, as maybe they’re not so different—but the place where you grow up, it affects everything about your life. Where you are born, the country where you are born: it will effect how long you live, it will effect whether your children are likely to survive infancy, it will effect what they and you will die of. It will effect what your income will be, where you will live, and how you will live. Geography, it’s a really important factor for determining human history.
AW: How does fashion define your protagonist?
M de K: That was just me having fun because I often despair if I’m trying to buy clothes in Sydney. All the clothes here seem to be for an eighteen year old who is going to a party. I still don’t know where to shop in Sydney. I still haven’t found anywhere really good. There is definitely, and you see it if you spend any amount of time here, there’s a certain fashion aethetic that is different from Melbourne. It has to do with climate, really. Melbourne is a place where you wear black to the beach, and Sydney is all golden tans and very skimpy bathers. And Frances, my protagonist, she’s an art historian. She’s a very visual person so she registers these kinds of things. Also, I would say that Frances, although she doesn’t acknowledge it, is obviously deeply uncertain about her new relationship. And some of those anxieties and dissatisfactions are projected onto Sydney—and the intensity of its sun—rather than acknowedged as coming from that relationship.
AW: Interior space provides intrigue in your fiction. What are your thoughts on the respective functions of interior space and exterior space in fiction, and particularly in your own work? Lightness vs. darkness and shadows, etc.
M de K: I’m very interested in domestic space and interior space, because it seems like a extension of psychology. People like to create interior spaces that are a reflection of themselves, and this intrigues me. I like reading descriptions of houses in fiction, and I love walking down the street when people have their windows lit up and their curtains not drawn, as in these moments you get glimpses of other lives… I’m basically a voyeur, as all novelists are. I’m always hoping to get a glimpse into other people’s worlds.
When we were looking for our house in Sydney it was a surreal experience. We’d lived in our last place, in Melbourne, for nineteen years, so the previous time we were house-hunting it was before the internet…and dinosaurs roamed the earth, you know. So it was my first experience of house-hunting with the internet and it was just amazing and fascinating to me that you could look into real people’s houses without ever having to leave your desk, well I was riveted by these real estate sites, and how people self-present through them: through the colours they choose, the furnishing they choose, and the way they decorate their homes. Also, one of the strange things that I noticed, at that time, in those real estate site photos, was that there was never a book in sight. Never! Books are clearly considered clutter, and undesirable.
AW: What is the significance of interior and exterior space for the characters in your fiction and character psychologies?
M de K: I suppose traditionally Bachelard, for instance, would say that a house is a refuge, a sanctury, but one that can also become a trap. If you think of Questions of Travel, Theo’s house in that novel is both a refuge and a trap for him, and he eventually dies in the trap. As for exterior space, it’s unpredictable. You can’t control it in the same way as an interior, which is, I suppose, why people are attracted to gardening. It’s about ordering that exterior space and containing it and keeping it safe. But also, I’m a walker myself, so I always send my characters out walking, which is a way of discovering cities, of getting to know places, and it’s exciting to discover things that way. At the same time, exterior space is always a potential source of danger in the way that an interior space usually isn’t. In the case of Springtime, there are things about the inside of the house which become very uncomfortable for Frances at times, especially when Charlie’s son comes to stay and she needs to get out and to escape from the house. Also, Frances is a rather anxious person and this is projected onto everthing around her, including her domestic space, which is not one that she would necessarily have chosen for herself. She has to make do with what they can afford in Sydney, which is far more expensive than Melbourne. It all comes down to economics in the end.
AW: I’m interested in your writing process. Where did Springtime begin? Was it with an image, an idea, or a character?
M de K: It began with the ending. My books always begin with the ending; this time it was the idea of someone seeing a ghost, which turns out to be something else. I walk along the river in Sydney with my dog, and there’s a house along where I walk which has a manequin that’s dressed up in the garden. It’s now been moved closer to the fence, and you can see quite clearly that it’s a manequin. But when I first moved to Sydney it was set much further back in the garden, which was spooky. In fact, I once saw someone fall off her bike in fright, when she saw it in the early morning light. So that figure was a starting point as well.
AW: Is Springtime aligned with the Australian gothic genre?
M de K: When I think about the term ‘Australian Gothic’, I think about writers like Marcus Clarke, and The Term of His Natural Life, which is about convicts and violence. I also think of newer writing that’s set in the past in Australia. Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant is an example of the latter, as is Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party or Courtney Collins’s The Burial. Australia, the modern nation I mean, was born of violence, so it’s natural for writers to look to history when they want to explore the local version of the gothic. Springtime, however, is set in the present. I also tend to associate the “the gothic” with certain traditional locations, and with winter and darkness; for me Melbourne is a kind of gothic place because it’s wintry and cold. But Sydney is quite different. It’s relentlessly sunny and springlike here for much of the year, which is why I chose it as my setting. I deliberately wanted to write a ghost story that subverted gothic conventions, by situating it in this very unhaunted Australian city. Now that’s a very simplistic view of Sydney, obviously, but, nevertheless, I wanted to write this story that takes place in broad daylight on a sunny morning, in the last place where a ghost story would normally be set.
AW: Yet your story, it’s set in a garden, and gardens are traditionally mysterious and spooky, no? This garden, it definitely invokes a gothic tradition.
M de K: I do write about the garden in the book as being dark and full of leaves and mysterious, and I suppose the figure that the protagonist sees there, of a very pale female figure in an old-fashioned dress does correspond to gothic conventions. But at the same time, these sightings don’t take place in a spooky churchyard. It’s not a dark and stormy night, and there are no ruins in sight. On the contrary, Frances sees her ghostly figure on sunny Sydney mornings. And although the garden is dark and mysterious, her surroundings are not. There are people around. There is sunlight. And then there’s way the story ends; it’s very open ended. In a traditional ghost shory, something is resolved: the ghost is either exorcised or the ghost kills the protagonist. Whereas in Springtime you think the ghost has been exorcised when the protagonist discovers that she was just a manequin – I mean when Frances goes into the house where she’s seen the mysterious woman and realises that what she thought was a ghost is completely explicable and of this world. Sybil, the manequin, it has no spooky life. But then, just when you think you’re safe, there’s the last surprise, about the dog, which leaves the narrative open-ended. How could it be that Frances saw a dog that the woman from this house tells her is dead? Is the woman lying? Why would she bother? Did Frances see a different dog, which was alive, but which looked like the dog in the picture in that house? You don’t know. And I don’t, either!
So I’d say that I’m playing with this genre—the gothic tradition—in the same way that I played with the whodunit in The Hamilton Case. As a writer, I like to draw on aspects of genre but subvert them at the same time. And subverting the ghost story was sheer pleasure.
AW: What role do ghosts and haunting play in your work past and present?
M de K: In a metaphoric sense, a book is always haunted. It’s haunted by other books. But I’m sure there have been ‘real’ ghosts in my work, too, as I’m very interested in haunting. I’m interested in the idea that people or places are haunted, not necessarily in the literal sense, but in the sense that they are never free of their past. People carry traces of their past with them, they carry traces of what has happened to them there. Also, I’m interested in history, and haunting is a kind of metaphor for that. And then there was my growing up in Sri Lanka where ghost stories were, and probably still are, everyday narrative acts, really. People used to tell ghost stories often, and there were also always beliefs such as a cemetery after dark being a haunted place. Also, we—my family—holidayed in houses that were supposed to be haunted and which had stories attached to them. These were old historic houses. So haunting, I think, was a part of Sri Lankan culture then in a way that it’s not part of Western culture. And I suppose that the same can be said of other non-Western cultures. At a book talk I did recently, a friend of mine was involved in the audience discussion. She was talking about living in Indonesia and how ghosts are just an accepted part of Indonesian culture—even amongst its Western-educated intellectuals. So, I suppose, there’s space for that in non-Western cultures in a way that there isn’t in the West. The West focuses on reason and on the Enlightenment and modernity. And modernity has no place for ghosts, so a ghost in modernity, if it appears, it usually represents the return of the repressed, which is the past. You can see this in Springtime, for instance, through Frances’s fear of Charlie’s past. She would like to break with that past—his child and ex-wife—but she can’t, she can’t free herself of that history. So what she sees in the garden is perhaps an external expression of that.
AW: What is your favourite ghost story? And are there allusions to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw in this novella, to his representation of children and dogs as uncanny characters?
I do think that The Turn of the Screw is an utterly amazing and wonderful story, I would say that is my favourite example of the ghost story genre. You just don’t know whether the governess is mad, whether she’s making everything up, or whether she is actually seeing the ghosts of the servants who have died and who have now taken possession of the children. So, I guess that’s my favourite ghost story, because of its ambiguity and because of its narrative richness, and because it really changed the way people thought about ghost stories. But I intentionally didn’t reread it when writing this novella. So as for allusions to children and dogs as uncanny characters… those elements may well be in there, if you’ve seen them, but, if so, they’ve been taken over unconsciously.
As mentioned before, I’m going to be teaching a story soon called ‘The Deep’, so I reread it recently in preparation. I thought I remembered what the story was about. I remembered that it’s about twins, twin sisters. But what I find when I reread this story is that yes, it’s about twin sisters, but that these twin sisters have two older brothers who try to kill the twin sisters, or at least, so we think, as when the girls are little they are found almost drowned in a fountain.
AW: Goodness, that’s taking me back to the start of the Questions of Travel…
M de K: Of course, and Laura has older brothers who are twins who try to kill her by drowning her, but I just had no idea, no idea, of the similarity at the time I was writing my book. Obviously there’s a link there, but I hadn’t reread ‘The Deep’ while writing Questions of Travel and if I had I would have been completely inhibited about using those elements. But this is the thing about fiction, it makes an impression on you, it leaves a kind of sedimentation in your brain, that later, much later, rises to the surface in disguised forms, and that’s clearly what happened with ‘The Deep’ and Questions of Travel, and it may have also happened with The Turn of the Screw and Springtime, as you’ve suggested.
ALEXANDRA WATKINS lives in Melbourne, Australia. She has a PhD from Deakin University, where she has taught and researched in literary studies and creative writing since 2004. She specializes in postcolonial and diasporic literatures, as well as literature for children and young adults. Her book Problematic Identities in Women’s Fiction of the Sri Lankan Diaspora (2015) is published by Brill. She has featured on the Radio National Subcontinental Bookclub show, in which she discussed Michelle de Krester’s Questions of Travel.