The Book of Ordinary People is fast delighting readers since its release two weeks ago. It gives me great pleasure to welcome Claire Varley to Behind the Pen, giving us some insight into the inspiration and creative process that went into bringing this meaningful novel out into the world.
How would you describe The Book of Ordinary People if you could only use 5 words?
A celebration of ordinary people.
The Book of Ordinary People has a unique premise. What provided the inspiration point for it?
I wanted to explore how we each have our own unique stories to tell, but how the telling of these stories can shift depending on who is doing the telling. I’ve long been fascinated by how we all exist in shared spaces, but the way we interact with them – and what they mean to us – can look completely different for each person. I lived and worked in Melbourne’s northern suburbs for a decade and the book is a quiet ode to that little cluster of suburbs that is home to so many diverse and different stories.
With five main characters at the helm of this novel, did you find yourself invested in any particular one over another?
There are elements of each character’s story arc that draws from fragments of my own experience, so I was invested in the story telling of each of them. However, Aida was the starting point for the manuscript and her journey was certainly the most intensive research-wise. An Iranian woman awaiting the outcome of her protection visa application, she was drawn from my experience working with communities seeking asylum in Melbourne’s outer suburbs and I felt an incredible responsibility to tell her story in a way that didn’t sensationalise, trivialise or diminish her. It was a hard story to tell because we currently have a backlog of nearly 30,000 people in our community who have been waiting years to have their protection visas processed, meaning they are in limbo with no real security or stability. This was the case when I started writing the book in 2014 and four years on approximately half of that group are still waiting to be processed, so it is a story without much resolve for many many people across Australia.
Were each of the characters already a firm picture in your mind before you started writing or did they develop a personality of their own as the story progressed?
This was the first book I wrote where I didn’t know where anyone would end up. This was a completely different process from my first novel (The Bit In Between) because the ending of that book was the very first thing I wrote, then I had to go back Memento-style and work out how my characters ended up in that position. But with this book, I knew who the characters were, more or less, but didn’t know who they would become. Working this out was very much informed by what was happening in the world around me because so many of the characters’ lives were shaped by external factors, such as government policy, international events and the judicial system.
How much planning was involved with this novel? Did you plan/plot each of the five character’s stories from beginning to end, or did you just let it evolve naturally as the writing progressed?
The first draft of the novel centred around only two of the characters but my wonderful editor at Pan Macmillan Mathilda Imlah was quick to identify that there were other characters in the manuscript who were crying out for attention. Then it became a case of deciding which characters to draw out and working out how they could be woven into the existing story. In that regard there was a fair bit of planning but not to the point of knowing exactly what they would end up doing. It was very much a process of keeping all the plates spinning while writing – I would be in the middle of writing one character’s story while jotting down notes to add to another’s that would weave or intersect them together – riding on the same tram, seeing the same busker, experiencing the same weather event in different ways – all these events that brought the disparate characters together. Or something would happen in one story that needed to be cross-referenced or consistent with another, so I lived amidst a sea of post-its for some time! And once all those ends were tied together it became a nightmare to edit or unravel, and I spent a lot of time muttering to myself about myself…
Do you have any particular qualifications that relate to the subject matter covered in this novel?
I’ve worked in the community sector for the last decade or so, with a focus on family violence and the prevention of violence against women. I’ve worked in Australia and overseas on community development and capacity-building projects and the novel draws on this, particularly in its exploration of the experiences of people seeking asylum and women experiencing family violence.
Are you balancing a different career with your writing? How do you go about making time for your writing within limited hours?
I have a day job which makes balancing writing a bit of an art. During the time I was writing this book I worked four days and used the fifth plus the weekend to write, but this isn’t a particularly sustainable long term plan! It is a bit of a luxury to have no other responsibilities on the weekend or after work, plus it is fairly exhausting staring at a computer screen seven days a week. I now work as a freelancer in the community sector which gives me more flexibility to fit writing into each day, but it is still a challenge because the imperative to pay the mortgage usually edges to the front. One of the things I’ve learnt to do is to keep writing time sacred and not to let myself fritter it away which I’m very good at doing. But by the same token, I’ve also stopped giving myself a hard time if I’m not productive or if I need a day off or if I just don’t have the motivation to write something. I used to subscribe to the idea of making yourself write every day but I’ve moved away from that now because I’ve come to peace with the fact that often my daily ‘writing’ actually needs to be me wandering up and down the streets mulling on whatever I’m working on, or reading something written by someone because both these things are a bit like jump starting the engine for me.
Where do you normally write? Is it in the same place every day or are you an all over the place writer?
I usually write at my desk but sometimes – and particularly since I started freelancing from home – I walk in to the home office and can’t stand the thought of ground hog day-ing it, so I go write on the couch or in a café or in the park. I’m lucky in that I can tune out any noise around me so can work pretty much anywhere.
What attributes do you think you need to remain sane as a writer? Are there any particular things you routinely do for yourself to maintain your own headspace?
Am I the right person to ask this question of? My stress pimples suggest not… One of the things I was never really aware of is the reality of what ‘success’ looks like for authors in Australia. There is this idea that there are certain points that will suddenly calm all your anxieties or reduce your self-doubt or release the work-life-write balance burden somewhat, and for most writers this isn’t the case. Publication doesn’t stop you doubting yourself and for most of us it doesn’t equate to being able to throw in the towel and write full time. Not that publication isn’t wonderful – of course it is! – but it isn’t the panacea many writers, including Past Me, think it is. And because we don’t talk about these things, it means that there is this conveyer belt of writers who finally achieve these milestones after working so hard to reach them, and because the self-doubt or the financial pressure or time demands don’t dissipate they are left feeling like they’ve failed. And writing can be an incredibly lonely pursuit with limited opportunities to speak with other writers so we don’t often have opportunities to share these common experiences. An important practice for me has been to seek out opportunities to hear from other authors, whether online, via email or at public events, and be reassured by the commonality of my anxieties. The author Annabel Smith has a great blog where she considers these questions, and I recently read the book Motherhood and Creativity which is a collection of pieces by Australian creatives on the challenges of balancing motherhood and creative practice. I’m not a mother – so lordy help Future Me because I’m already terrible at balancing things – but it was an incredibly honest, insightful and motivating book for all creatives.
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
I am scared of birds. Unreasonably and undeniably so. My eyes fill involuntarily with tears if they come near me and I have yet to unearth the Rosetta stone memory of what horrible avian trauma in my childhood caused this. It is a terrible inconvenience because I would quite like backyard chickens but would be too scared to touch/feed/chase them and would end up having to forfeit control of the backyard forever. My Room 101 is just a garden variety pigeon making eye contact with me from afar.
The Book of Ordinary People
A grieving daughter navigates the morning commute, her mind bursting with memories pleading to be shared.
A man made entirely of well-cut suits and strictly enforced rules swims his regular morning laps and fantasises about his self-assured promotion.
A young lawyer sits in a fluorescent-lit office, typing indecipherable jargon and dreaming of everything she didn’t become.
A failed news hack hides under the covers from another looming deadline, and from a past that will not relent its pursuit.
And a young woman seeking asylum sits tensely on an unmoving train, praying that good news waits at the other end of the line…
In this charming, moving and affectionate novel, Claire Varley paints a magical portrait of five ordinary people, and the sometimes heartbreaking power of the stories we make of ourselves.
Published by Pan Macmillan Australia
Released on 31st July 2018