The Engagement is a tense character study of a man and a woman trapped by lies and deceit, but there is a strong third character in the story: Victoria’s Western District. How familiar are you with this landscape which you evoke so beautifully and so terrifyingly?
I didn’t know the Western District at all before I went house-hunting for the place of my Gothic dreams. Victoria’s nineteenth century wool kings built grand homesteads in the region out of the local volcanic rock, which they then accessorised with formal gardens, and glasshouses, and white swans for their newly dug lakes. Nowadays mainly just the houses have survived, but in their midst I felt I’d found rich ground for a novel.
Many reviewers have described The Engagement as a work of Australian Gothic. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that Rebecca and Jane Eyre strongly influenced this story but are there any similar Australian novels (or perhaps films?) which inspired your choice of genre?
Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Proposition are terrific Gothic films but there isn’t a novel that immediately springs to mind as an influence. Perhaps The Engagement owes more to fairytales: I’ve tried to recast the perennial Gothic storyline of the forced betrothal, and in doing so have some fun satirising the modern business of marriage.
The Engagement is similar to your nonfiction work The Tall Man in that it showcases your ability to write sensitively and absorbingly about Australia’s past. Your depiction of the crumbling farming districts, and their modern day dynasties, are particularly haunting. When writing fiction of a historical nature, what comes first – the research or the story?
I suppose the research and the story work in tandem – although the house was the first character in this book, my male and female protagonists arrived later. On each trip to the district I’d be on a raid for details, with my focus slowly widening. At first I was obsessed with the architecture, then the animals on these farms, and when the book was largely written I started properly paying attention to the landscape.
The relationship between Liese and Alexander is very sexually charged, sometimes dangerously so, and in an interview with The Age newspaper, you joked about the paranoia of unconsciously writing another Fifty Shades of Grey. How have readers responded to the sadomasochistic elements of The Engagement and what do you make of the overall reception?
Well, one reader has described it to me as a ‘headfuck of a novel’, which I took as high praise. The book’s sadomasochism is really above the neck; it’s concerned with the sexual games people play, and the power of fantasy. I’ve now read 50 Shades of Grey though, and I probably didn’t need to worry. The Engagement seems to me to be an anti-erotic novel – it’s about the ways sex can ruin your life.
Alexander revels in Liese’s made up stories about being a sex worker. Prostitution, in general, continues to be viewed as a subject of fascination and taboo in today’s society. Did you carry out any research into the sex industry – such as visiting the brothel described in the book? Or did the writing come more from your own dark curiosity?
I didn’t do any ‘on the ground’ research, but I did a lot of reading. And yes, you’re obviously right: people in the first world continue to be fascinated by prostitution, and don’t quite know whether to view sex workers as slaves or entrepreneurs. It might make us uncomfortable, but there will always be an erotic relationship between sex and money. Sex is connected to power, and power is connected to having cash. And I guess this is ripe territory for storytellers.
A large reason why Liese becomes so emotionally indebted to Alexander is because of her financial constraints and addiction to consumer culture. In writing The Engagement, what did you want to explore about contemporary marriage and the economic positioning of women?
I wanted to write about the wedding as a fantasy ritual, an often vastly expensive, consumerist fantasy ritual, to which women are prey. (And an engagement is the sacred time before this spookily termed ‘best day of one’s life’.) The wedding industry in Australia is big business, generating two billion a year, and yet a third of these marriages will end in divorce: a pretty staggering figure when you consider the pain involved. There are very real reasons for women – and men – to feel the hair on the back of their necks stand on end as they contemplate walking down the aisle.
Having now written two novels, a nonfiction book, and essays for The Monthly, do you have a preference for a particular genre? Do you have any writing projects underway at the moment?
I enjoy the freedom of moving between genres and I’m not sure what form will come next. One of the nice things about finishing a long project is having clear headspace in case that rare, shimmering story happens to float by. I’ve taken the net out of the cupboard and I’m waiting…
Emily Laidlaw is the KYD Online Marketing Assistant.