Creative Writing for Beginners tracks eight weeks in the lives of two young flat mates Joel and Nomee. They each seek ambitious careers (in writing and acting respectively) and soon learn how their fates are determined. In addition to vivid descriptions, the novel pays a healthy respect to literature, theatre and the arts, with Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull as a major theme.
In this interview, Colin Batrouney tells Killings how the book came together, why detail is important to his writing and what the arts, theatre, literature, writing and reading mean to him.
References to literature are woven throughout this book. What were the challenges and pleasures in writing something so layered?
I wanted the book to be about the act of writing and to use examples of great writing in the threads of the narrative. The biggest challenge was to make sure that the quoted works in the book, from Anton Chekov, Paul Bowles, Patrick White and others found ways to enlarge and compliment the narrative rather than appear as cut and paste moments of greatness that might not add much.
I got to acknowledge many of my literary heroes and understand their work more deeply. That part of the process was ultimately, and inevitably very humbling. The book is all about the redemptive power of fiction, and art more generally and the ways in which books can not only be a powerful consolation but a way to view the world as expansive and generous.
I wanted to show that there is a way to find richness and depth through the generosity of art – that the simple act of reading can be healing, a way of yielding up to something bigger than yourself.
Chekhov’s play, The Seagull is a major thread. Why this work of literature?
Chekov’s play is such a rich work, examining love, art, aspiration and disappointment that I wanted to use it as a framing device for my story. My novel describes two young people at 29, emerging into adulthood from a generation who has been encouraged to believe that they can achieve any goal they set. The book charts the moments that lead them to the understanding that, in fact, they can’t do anything they want, that their dreams need to give way to the pragmatic reality of who they are as adults and what they are going to be in the world.
In Chekov’s play, Nina, the young actress says, ‘I know that in our business – whether we’re acting on stage or writing – what is important is not the glitter and the fame, not the things I dreamt about, but only the ability to endure.’ A big part of The Seagull is about how we live with who we are and what we become. The book is about these themes too.
The book opens with two quotes, one from James Baldwin, ‘Art, to be sure, has its roots in the lives of human beings: the weakness, the strength, the absurdity.’ Does art have its roots in your life, and in what ways?
I really wanted to examine the power of art, its influence and its consolation. I know that sounds wanky but if you consider art to be the expression of the spiritual, moral and ethical dimensions of our lives, then its place in our development as human beings and our understanding of each other and the world is centrally important.
I’m not a religious person so I consider The Bible, for instance to be an elaborate, sometimes cruel, often amazing piece of fantasy fiction. The fact that so many people derive consolation, solace and guidance from it is more, for me, a testament to art than the benevolence or wisdom of ‘higher beings’.
Of course art has its roots in my life as well, from The Bible to Pulp Fiction. The thing is, both are derived from the same source: the imaginative capacity of human beings to make sense of their world through stories.
I found myself lingering on the moments your characters experience. For example, the moment Joel realises he is attracted to Phillip. Can you tell me more about that?
I think the sum of our lives is made up of hundreds of indelible details. Often during moments of powerful emotional catharsis we remember small, incidental things that act as triggers that can bring experiences vividly back to us. I wanted to capture as many of those as I could. The moment you refer to in your question, when Joel realizes he is attracted to Phillip, that moment is described as a series of physical details Joel notices, the scar on Phillip’s neck, his frayed sleeves, the print across his t-shirt. These are the things that live in Joel’s memory of Phillip at that moment. There are many, many more, the sparks from a fire, the appearance of dried blood, the smell of rain, I wanted to use them in the book, in the story of Joel and Nomee, to help the reader to get an understanding of their perception and the world they inhabit.
I loved your description – particularly of light, but also of place, of weather and of your characters. Does writing like this come easily for you or, like Joel, do you work in ‘a mass of crisscrossed lines, scribbles and arrows pointing to other sentences’?
I write in longhand. I find that my mind works differently if I write at a keyboard. I like the feel of the pen on paper. I like to leaf through pages of handwritten work, and yes, there is a lot of crossing out – A LOT OF CROSSING OUT! My acid test is reading aloud. For me it is the clearest way of determining if something is working or not.
You’ve been writing this for six years. Why so long?
I need to think about what I am going to write for a long time, both before I start and as I am writing. Actually, the inspiration for this book happened in 1997 – many years before I actually wrote a single word of the book. I was sitting in a rehearsal of The Seagull. Cate Blanchett was playing Nina. As I watched her rehearse Nina’s last speech in the play, I thought what a curious part Chekov had written. Here’s one of the most famous parts for a young actress to play, a part that actually required quite a high level of skill, and yet it is such a sad portrait of a failed young actress and a tragic life.
That was the germ of the idea – what if a young woman got the dream role of a lifetime, and it turned out to underline her failings, her limitations and ultimately, her compromises not only as an actress but as a human being?
The other reason it took so long to write is more banal – I have a day job and a mortgage, but then, most of the writers I know are in the same boat.
Pepi Ronalds is a Killings columnist. She has been published in Meanjin, Open Manifesto, A List Apart and more. Her blog, Future of Long Form was an Emerging Blog for the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival. She’s on Twitter and Facebook, and has a website: pepironalds.com.