As a child, I was entranced by the Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are. I can actually remember learning to read and what a difficult and pointless process it seemed, spelling out all those bloody letters and trying to sound out words. The relief when I could finally make enough sense of it all to actually enjoy picking up a book. When my nephew was about six, he began quietly reading in the car, and saying ‘Shh, Kalinda, now I’m just reading’ so he could shut me up and focus on his novels. The books got fatter and his words longer. I see myself in him at that age.
After the age of about six or seven, I then graduated to To Kill a Mockingbird, Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier, Playing Beattie Bow, those odd series books that involved astral projection and quirky pseudo-supernatural setups, then Margaret Atwood, Peter Hoeg, Gary Crew and others. A bleak, gothic realism. Not much has changed … ‘cept I no longer want to be Claudia from the Babysitters Club.
I am interested in the idea or quality of being an ‘exile at home’ rather than in writing travel and tourism narratives of remoteness and un-belonging in some exotic other world. I am always drawn to people who want to belong but can’t, or who place themselves beyond the bounds or normal or nice society, even when it is their local culture, the one they grew up in … those characters who are irredeemably at odds with every vogue and structure and expectation they live in. In terms of story writers, I love Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Salinger, Janette Turner Hospital, Jayne Anne Phillips … (bleak gothic realism – see above).
There is very much a fragmented, modernist framework to The Danger Game, even though the language itself and the scenes are notionally realist. The aesthetic of that book is about rupture and collision, not cohesion and resolution. I think splintering point of view and dividing memory and history up into conflicting slices and encounters is quite a non-realist thing to do. That said, in terms of working class writing in Australia, Amanda Lohrey’s The Morality of Gentlemen is simply one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years. I don’t know if it is a realist novel, however.
Patricia Cornelius’s My Sister Jill, David Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, and the writing of the so-called socialist realist authors: Dorothy Hewett, Kylie Tennant and Christina Stead, not to mention later Eva Sallis (now Hornung) or the earlier novels of Janette Turner Hospital and Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip have all influenced me. Grunge was also an important precursor to this novel: I’ll never forget Andrew McGahan’s deliciously awful sex scenes in Praise or Tsiolkas’s anaesthetised, almost unreliable narrator in Loaded.
I am always struck when I think about novels that have changed my life by just how many of them are written by women.
Recently, I was absolutely astonished, impressed and enraged (in a terrific way and not as a criticism) by Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal. I also wept in David Carlin’s Our Father Who Wasn’t There and found Patti Smith’s latest memoir wryly compelling. The Road is the last novel I sobbed to sleep with. [Simon Lelic’s] Rupture was a terrific exploration of the perils of the schoolyard and a dark, confronting rendering of bullying and childhood torture. I re-read The Tall Man and found it just as revealing and as defiant the second time around. Some of my students’ novels, which I am reading sections of at the moment, are somewhat surprisingly bloody brilliant.
Kalinda Ashton is the author of The Danger Game (Sleepers Publishing), Associate Editor at Overland and lectures at RMIT.