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Each month we celebrate an Australian debut release of fiction or non-fiction in the Kill Your Darlings Debut Spotlight feature. For June that debut is After the Rain by Aisling Smith (Hachette), an evocative and powerful story about marriage, culture, family and the uncertainties of love in all its forms. We spoke to Aisling about her publishing journey and writing process.

Stay tuned later this month for a review of the book from Debut Spotlight critic Simon McDonald, and a video reading from the author on our Instagram.

For those who haven’t read After the Rain yet, can you give a brief summary?

It’s the story of a family of three women living in Melbourne, and their relationships with each other and a man called Benjamin, who’s a linguist. His wife, Malti, and his eldest daughter, Ellery, both experience a level of disillusionment at his unreliability, but his youngest daughter Verona loves him above anything. The story travels between 1987, 2000 and 2006, with all three women giving different accounts of Benjamin and facing their own struggles with belonging. The story is about culture and race, and what it means to be an immigrant and a person of colour in Australia. It’s heavily threaded with folklore. And it’s about relationships, marriage and family.

Can you tell us about what drove you to write this book, and the book’s journey to publication more broadly?

My mother is Fiji-Indian and moved to Australia to study in the seventies. Writing After the Rain was partly driven by my desire to connect with this part of my heritage and family story, especially through the lens of the rich folklore that is central to both Indian and Fijian cultures.

The story is about culture and race, and what it means to be an immigrant and a person of colour in Australia.

I’m also fascinated by how double-edged language can be, and its potential to both connect and alienate us from each other. Words are often the best tool we have for expressing ourselves, and yet they’re also so flawed and deficient in so many ways. After the Rain was partly inspired by the idea of language being the root of miscommunication within a family—most of the characters feel a strong affinity for words and yet they can never use them to solve their problems.

I started writing a first draft of this novel in 2013, so it’s been ten years from its inception to publication! It’s changed a lot in that time. For many years, the writing process was very solitary—it was basically me drafting and re-drafting—it was only after winning the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2020 that I started to move towards publication.

The point-of-view switches between characters throughout the book—what made you decide to do this, and can you tell us about the benefits and difficulties of this narrative technique?

Offering different points of view gave me the scope to explore the line between truth and perception, which is a strong theme in After the Rain. In many ways, Benjamin is the central figure around which the narrative revolves, and yet it was a very deliberate decision never to include his point of view directly. The novel only includes the changeable versions of himself that he shows to other people, and their perceptions of that. The novel’s three women are grappling with the question of who he really is and have different relationships with him, so jumping between their perspectives means there’s no overarching narrative ‘truth’. I wanted to give the reader enough space without authorial intrusion to make up their own mind about Benjamin and figure out which of the other characters’ accounts they find persuasive. I also feel like varying perceptions within families are very common—I love Gabor Maté’s saying that ‘no two children have the same parents’—so it seemed fitting to switch between points of view in a novel that’s so embedded with family dynamics.

Offering different points of view gave me the scope to explore the line between truth and perception.

Keeping the voices distinct was a challenge at times—to avoid writing things though my own voice, but instead staying connected to the characters I’d created and making sure the reactions they have within the text felt authentic to them. Moving between different points of view also mean that continuity loses out a bit. For example, there are peripheral characters in each section who don’t appear in any other part, which is perhaps one of the disadvantages of keeping the story focused around one single character at a time.

What does your writing process look like? Any particular strategies or philosophies that help you find inspiration or put words on the page, or self-care strategies that help you when writing gets difficult?

You can’t edit and improve on words that never make it onto the page! Oftentimes, I find it really hard to switch off the critical part of my brain and just allow the words to come, but I think it’s essential. Performing a literary analysis on every sentence as it comes out is toxic to my creativity—I find it absolutely kills the flow and mires me in self-doubt. The most important thing for me is giving myself permission for the writing to be imperfect (or even downright atrocious) and trusting myself and the process enough to know that I’ll be able to make it better when I’m in an editing phase. My fellow perfectionists will understand how hard that is, though!

Another important thing for me has been to accept that while writing can be joyous and inspired, there are plenty of times when it’s emotionally painful or even just a downright slog. But I make the commitment to myself to write creatively every day, even if it’s only fifty or a hundred words. Over the course of a year even a tiny number of words adds up to something substantial but, more than that, having a practice of writing in place helps me stay connected to the creative side of myself. Waiting for inspiration has its place, but I find that treating writing as a discipline is also very important—for me, it’s the only way that I could actually finish a novel.

After the Rain is your debut novel, but you have been making waves in the literary scene for quite some time! Having won two Verandah Awards and the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2020, can you tell us about these experiences and how these awards have shaped your writing career?

Thank you! Winning a few prizes over the years has been very validating. Winning the Richell Award was a pinch-me, life-changing experience. I never really had other people in mind while I was writing After the Rain, so the idea that the manuscript connected with the 2020 Richell Prize judges was surreal and wonderful. It felt like a lovely affirmation about the narrative and the direction it was heading. It made me genuinely believe in the story for the first time ever and gave me a lot of confidence in my capacity to tell the story. More tangibly, it was also the first step in turning my draft into a publishable book and, crucially, gave me the opportunity to be mentored by the amazing Vanessa Radnidge at Hachette.

The idea that the manuscript connected with the 2020 Richell Prize judges was surreal and wonderful.

While the Verandah Awards happened much earlier in my career, they were also very meaningful to me. The first Verandah Award I won was for the second story I’d ever had published, and it was such an encouraging moment that people had resonated with the story enough to give it a prize. The second time I won was nice reassurance that the first time hadn’t been a fluke!

What’s one thing you know now about the writing and publishing journey that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

It surprised me just how many people are involved in the publication process. I’d always read the acknowledgements in books with interest, but I hadn’t understood quite what that looked like in practice. I don’t think a reader necessarily sees the complexity of the processes that go into a published book. I think I would’ve had a bit more patience with myself as a writer if I’d realised from the outset that good books aren’t just an author being brilliant in isolation—the polished end result is the product of hard work by lots of people. There’s a big difference between the first draft you churn out by yourself at home and a manuscript, which has had so much TLC from editors and a publication team.

What other writers or books influenced your writing (either this book specifically or your writing more broadly)? Are there any great books you’ve read lately that you’d like to recommend to KYD readers?

There are so many! I draw a lot of inspiration from writers whose works are threaded with the uncanny or folkloric elements to different degrees—Helen Oyeyemi and A.S. Byatt are definite favourites. But also Maxine Beneba Clark, Bernadine Evaristo and Rowan Ricardo Phillips.

The most recent book I read and loved was Laura McPhee-Browne’s Little Plum. She’s a phenomenal writer and the story left me aching.

After the Rain is available now from your local independent bookseller.