Professionalism, Prose, and the Perfect Pitch:
Neil Boyack speaks with Kirsten Krauth
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I’m not sure I have ever really grown up, but I was born in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. Where I have lived is a bit hard to pin down. I moved from PNG to Bathurst to Sydney to Erica in Gippsland to Melbourne to Geelong (boarding school) and then to Melbourne again. From Years 9 to 12 I lived in Pascoe Vale and went to the same school (McRob) so I felt happy to at last be in one place. Since then, I have moved to Mt Tamborine, Sydney, Blue Mountains, Sydney, then Castlemaine. I think I am settled here now!
When did you begin writing, and at what point did you say to yourself…I want to be a writer?
I have always loved to write. My first story at four was about a stegosaurus called Kirstenbong (I also liked Spike Milligan). I was always writing and loved any projects at school that featured texts. I was also the kid on school holidays who wanted to stay indoors the whole time and consume books. My father was a novelist/playwright and my mother loved books, so I grew up believing it was something I might do one day. I had wonderful teachers who recognised this along the way too and always encouraged me to do extra writing work, and they would read it in their spare time! But it wasn’t until my mid thirties that I attempted fiction and my first book just_a_girl was the result.
What do you enjoy most about the artistic process and writing?
I enjoy the solitary nature of it, how all I really need is a piece of paper and a pen, or my laptop. It doesn’t have to be a complicated process, and when the writing is working well, I feel quite meditative. I’m lucky in that I never have writers’ block (fingers crossed). My reasoning is that with other work and family commitments, I don’t have time. I just knuckle down to the work when the precious hours are offered. I love the early stages of a project where ideas are budding, and the later stages where they can come together in unexpected ways. I never plan my novels, so the characters can take me on quite a dark journey sometimes. I’m also enjoying the research process for my second novel, and talking to people about a range of topics, some I know little about. I find people endlessly fascinating and I’m endlessly curious. A lot of writing is sitting on a couch mulling things over (yes, I really am writing) and I enjoy those moments of contemplation.
Do you enjoy reading your work?
At first, I found it quite confronting to read to an audience and I would stumble and mumble along. But a few tips from other writers, and lots of practise, led me to the point where it’s my favourite thing now! My character Layla has a strong and energetic voice and I find no trouble getting into her state of mind when I’m reading. It’s important to choose a section that has great narrative momentum so the audience wants, demands even, to know what happens when you finish. A fellow writer friend commented that they enjoy my reading because they can tell I’ve had a lot of experience reading to my kids. It had never occurred to me but I have probably read five books a day or more to my kids for the past five years, so that’s all about learning the art of keeping an audience entertained!
What festivals and writer “events” have you appeared at?
Since just_a_girl came out in 2013, I’ve appeared at the Sydney Writers Festival (at the State LIbrary; and the Carrington in Katoomba), Clunes Booktown, Bendigo Writers Festival, and I have an upcoming gig at the Castlemaine Library in May. I’ve done a reading or two in bookstores, and a couple of appearances on radio including Radio National’s Life Matters talking about the novel (live in Bendigo).
Who are your main influences in terms of art and writing?
My favourite writer is Haruki Murakami, and his influence is felt (quite literally) in just_a_girl. I like his blend of the gritty and the magical. I also greatly admire Lorrie Moore, Richard Flanagan, Michelle de Kretser, Christos Tsiolkas, Anna Funder, Barbara Kingsolver, Lionel Shriver, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Bret Easton Ellis. The books I read in my early teens continue to have a large impact on my work — Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, SE Hinton. In terms of art, my current novel (and Phd thesis) is based around the representation of children and teenagers in photography, branching out from Bill Henson. Henson’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is the only one I remember not wanting to leave. I could have stayed in the dark looking at those images forever. We share an interest in the contradictory forces at work (what he calls the ‘floating world) in the lives of teenagers.
I know you also write a blog and edit journals; please tell me more about this.
When I first moved to Castlemaine, I started up a blog called Wild Colonial Girl <www.wildcolonialgirl>, focusing on local writers, which blossomed into a weekly discussion of books and writers and what it was like have a first novel published. I also set up a Writing Mothers series (where I interviewed authors like Anna Funder and Debra Adelaide), and Friday Night Fictions, with the aim of promoting debut authors. Now I’m writing my second novel, I’ve taken a little break from it, but I hope to return one day. My other work takes the form of being commissioning editor for Australian Author (Australian Society of Authors) and Newswrite (NSW Writers’ Centre) literary magazines. It’s wonderful to be able to approach a range of writers on a range of topics and I always joke that I couldn’t have picked an easier freelancing job: pretty much all the articles arrive word-perfect!
Have you got a favourite book, or did you have one?
My favourite book was Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. I loved it so much I made it the connecting point between my characters in just_a_girl. But this has recently been pipped at the post by Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I find meticulous, passionate and beautifully shaped. I’m reading it for the third time now and it still knocks my socks off.
Do you work out if a studio space or an office? What are the benefits of working in the same space?
I have a little cave at Lot 19 artists’ collective, just out of Castlemaine. I find it easier to focus when I have to leave the house (although I can work from home if I have to). On the first day in my new office, I was greeted by an echidna who waddled with me down the bushy driveway and let me pat its spikes. I felt I’d made the right decision.
What are the unexpected results and experiences that have come from the release of Just_A_Girl?
I learnt that I love to read my book to audiences. I discovered that the best part of festival panels is often the Q+A at the end. I found out about the Australian Women Writers community online, who review your work with intelligence and respect. Bloggers are underrated. There are book critics who blog, who are just as good as those featured in the weekend papers. I’ve often been impressed and moved by what reviewers have said about just_a_girl, with insights I never considered. I’ve met other writers who I never imagined I’d sit next to. Most of all, I gained the confidence to keep writing.
Your first novel approaches a subject that is very important not only to parents and young people, but to our community and its battle with social media “control”…what inspired this book?
I used to have a long commute from the Blue Mountains to Kings Cross in Sydney and had four hours return trip each day to listen to girls talking and flirting. I began to think about how they were similar to me (as a teen) in many ways but how the differences stemmed from their access to internet chat, mobiles, FB and Twitter. I wanted to explore how things have changed (and stayed the same) for a 14-year-old girl. I also wanted to give Layla a sense of autonomy. The book was always written for adults because I didn’t want to censor her in any way. She thinks she’s in control, but she isn’t. Her parents have relinquished control (because they are out of their depth). It’s been called a coming-of-age book for adults, not just teenagers, and I think this is right. Teenagers these days know that parents are also in the process of sorting out their own lives, so contradictions and complications arise. Where does a teenager turn for help?
Have you ended up as a sort of spokesperson (even at times) for this topic?
Sometimes it feels that way when I’m signing books. I’ve had a number of grandmothers approach me to sign books for their granddaughters, who said they wanted to bridge the gap, to communicate better, to understand their granddaughters’ lives. They asked me to write a special message to their girls. But what’s often missing from the discussion is the voices of the girls themselves. I’d love to know what 14 year olds think of Layla, of how they approach their own sexual identity and desires, of what they think of social media and the moral panic surrounding its use. Brave teachers and parents might like to read the book first, then share it, to find out! I have a young daughter and son but I hope to read the book to them one day and see how much things have changed in the intervening decade.
I know you’re writing a new book– is it a follow up to the first, or something completely different?
It is completely different but it may feature a special character cameo. You’ll have to wait and see on that one. It’s set in Castlemaine, about childhood innocence and adult desire, and what happens when the wind changes…