Suzanne McCourt’s first novel The Lost Child (Text, 2014) was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2015. Her novella ‘The Last Taboo: A Love Story’, published in Griffith Review 54: Earthly Delights, is a confronting story about the fraught relationship that develops between a mother and son reunited in later life after she gave him up for adoption as a teenager. In this interview, she discusses her lengthy struggle to win the confidence to become a writer, and the importance of enchantment in her creative work.
‘The Last Taboo: A Love Story’ opens with a mother finding and reconnecting with her son, but as Claire begins to lose control over the life she’s built for herself since giving up her son for adoption decades earlier, my interpretation of the novella centres primarily on loss and isolation. Loss appears to be a major recurring theme in your work. What is it that draws you the concept of loss as a subject in your writing?
Loss is integral to life – from birth, we lose the safety of the womb, the comfort of the breast. Often we lose our position in a family to another sibling. Change is all encompassing. Some of us lose parents at a young age; parents lose children. We lose the three-legged races of childhood and later career-driven and consumerist ‘races’ imposed by a success-driven world. As parents, we lose our children to adulthood. We age. We lose our looks and our health. Ultimately, we die. Always, we are at the mercy of progress, risk and accidents; often we are victims of war.
And yet every ‘loss’ can be viewed as a gain. I am intrigued by the dual nature of our conscious and unconscious minds, and how much is hidden from ourselves. I suspect my work is a long search to uncover my own ‘truth’, the secrets and true motivations of myself and others. Why are some people more resilient than others? Why do some survive torture and wars, and others don’t? Why do some grow from depression, loss and sorrow while others are destroyed?
If this search metamorphoses into the concept of loss, perhaps it is the complexity of life that I am continually striving to understand. Increasingly, I feel like a stranger in a world that has become endlessly superficial, that rewards the banal and operates on subterfuge and ‘post-truths’. In writing about loss, I suspect I am searching for hope.
The natural world also appears in a lot of your work, from Claire’s observations of the pomegranate tree over the neighbour’s fence and passion for nature drawing in ‘The Last Taboo: A Love Story’, to the water, from both the earth and the sea, that seeps threateningly through The Lost Child (Text, 2014). What place does nature have in your life, creative and otherwise?
I was fortunate to grow up in a wild and beautiful part of Australia, fortunate also to roam free from an early age without the constraints that many children have today. Wild, rocky beaches and endless swathes of dunes and bush were my playground and, while this fed my soul and offered an escape from a frequently fraught family life, it was also not without dangers.
As white Australians, we have a very complex and paradoxical relationship with nature and landscape. On the one hand, where we are born, the place of our roots, always has a powerful call. Yet we are also settlers in a strange land – invaders many would say – who have lived here for a very short time, little more than two hundred years. And although we mostly cling to the coast, a vast and empty wilderness is never far away.
I am most truly myself in nature, whether in my suburban garden or walking in a more challenging wilderness, paddling my kayak, or sailing the Pacific with my husband. I’ve always been attracted to islands and have sailed to many; I suspect they offer containment from the ‘wilderness’, be it land or sea, and in creating the mini-worlds of my fiction, I might well be trying to control these contradictory landscapes that are both internal and external, threatening and sustaining.
While the same could be said of most of your fiction, I found the language and depictions in The Lost Child and ‘The Last Taboo: A Love Story’ vividly lyrical. Though I know you haven’t published poetry for some years now, do you still write poetry? How has your experience of writing poetry influenced your fiction?
I find it difficult to write poetry while I’m working on a novel. In writing prose, I certainly don’t focus on writing poetically, in fact I strive for the opposite. At most, I ‘listen’ for the rhythm of words, a sentence, a chapter that carries me forward, and which I hope will transport the reader too.
Your biography details a long career, and notes that you ‘came late to creative writing’. Was writing an enduring ambition throughout your life? And what have you taken from your working life into your fiction?
As a student I wanted to be a journalist, but without role models or financial means I obtained a university education through one of the teaching scholarships of the ’60s. A lack of confidence has always been my bête noire. Only as I’ve grown older have I been able to write more boldly. Work and writing now sit side by side in my life. One feeds the other. Aristotle theorised that we tell ourselves stories until we arrive at a version of life, or ourselves, that gives us power over our world. This resonates strongly with me.
In your novel The Lost Child, you write from Sylvie’s perspective – a child aged just five when we first meet her – and her voice and way of seeing the world changes as she grows up. What are the challenges of writing from the perspective of a child?
Surprisingly, there is a lot of freedom. Nabokov suggests that a writer is part storyteller, teacher and enchanter, and that by far the most important of these is enchanter. One of the great joys of writing from Sylvie’s perspective was being able to access the enchantment of a child’s world with its potential for fantasy, exaggeration, innocence, vulnerability and humour. The challenge was finding ways to create a complex adult world. Ultimately, I had to enlist the aid of the reader to interpret Sylvie’s observations and understandings, and I had to trust the reader to construct the complexity that lay beneath. I love the cover of The Lost Child and the way it suggests a deeper, darker world beneath the surface of the child’s perceptions.
Sylvie and her family appeared in one of your earlier pieces of short fiction ‘Cleaning Out the Shed’ (Island, 2008), six years before The Lost Child was published. How did the characters and story that we see in your novel develop from this first appearance?
It took me more than ten years to write The Lost Child, in part because I tried to control the process; I thought that writing came from my head and it took some time to discover that it needed to come from my heart. Losing my mother and having four family deaths within eight months taught me a lot about loss and letting go of control. When I won a Writers Victoria mentorship with Andrea Goldsmith, she suggested my first draft was three novels in one. I resisted this for a time, but she was right. It was only when I let myself trust the voice of the child who had tried to take over an earlier novel – only when I allowed Sylvie to tell her own story – that The Lost Child began to unfold without interference from me. ‘Cleaning Out the Shed’ was the first section I wrote and where I found Sylvie’s voice.
Unlike your earlier works, which are mostly based in Australia, your second novel is set in early twentieth century Russia and Poland. What is the inspiration for and research process involved in this coming work?
My husband escaped from Poland as a student in the early 1950s. His parents were born into a partitioned Poland, lived through two world wars and the Russian Revolution, and had barely regained their nation only to have it taken from them again. Squashed between three great powers – Russia, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – there can be few countries that have experienced so much invasion, occupation and loss. My late father-in-law’s life has been the inspiration for my second novel. And again, I seem to be exploring a theme of loss and resilience, albeit on a much larger scale.
Because my settings range from Moscow to Georgia and Tashkent, Siberia to Warsaw, and regional Poland and Ravensbruck, I have had to read widely. Babel, Kapuscinski, Roth, Brett, Grossman, Davies, Sholokhov, Szymborska, Mickiewicz and many, many more. I’ve also been blessed with a family diary which has been translated for me. It has provided information and insights that would otherwise be very difficult to access. Sometimes stories seem to be ‘given’ to you; this novel feels a lot like that.