Sofie Laguna is the author of over twenty books for children and young adults – and two acclaimed novels for adult readers. She won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award for her novel The Eye of the Sheep (2014). We meet the narrator of this book, Jimmy Flick, when he is a young child and stay with him as he grows up in an unstable and violent family environment. Her first novel, One Foot Wrong (2008), was longlisted for the Miles Franklin and shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. It is a disturbing narrative of abuse and adolescence at the centre of which sits a traumatised girl named Hester. In Laguna’s words, these books ‘express very primal emotions and they explore primal urges’. This is the first in what will be a regular series on the Sydney Review of Books of interviews with Australian writers. I spoke to Laguna about how the characters in her novels emerge and about her formation as a writer. Our conversation started in the theatre – and ended on the practicalities of the writer’s life.
Catriona Menzies-Pike: Let’s start in the theatre. Your books for adults are really driven by the voices of wholly imagined central characters. You first trained as an actor. How did that formation in the theatre shape you as a writer?
Sofie Laguna: I trained as an actor at the Victorian College of the Arts and I was a very determined, ambitious actor, dealing with the realities and restrictions of that world. My dreams as an actor were thwarted. To deal with unemployment, I became very resourceful. I had all sorts of ways of earning an income. I was a fairy at fairy parties. I worked in restaurants. I cleaned houses. I did what I had to do to survive – but it was tough.
Now, though I have discovered that I belong as a writer. I am meant to be a writer– but it is the actor in me who writes. What I mean by that is that I joyfully inhabit the voice of a character as if I’m playing that character. I’m not, I’m writing and the character is on the page – but it’s as if I’m improvising as the character, which comes naturally to me. Writing was once described to me as a kind of inner performance. That is the most brilliantly succinct way to describe what writing is for me. I’m still acting you see – but it’s all on the inside. It’s all on the inside.
Writing is more than an inner performance, that only describes part of what it is. It is also the craft of language, of words on the page, of how words work on the page. It’s the music of language on a page.
I was an actor first and now I’m a writer. I can’t play an instrument but I sometimes wonder if my DNA had been arranged just slightly differently perhaps I would have played music because it feels to me as if writing is like composition. That’s what it is. It’s storytelling but it’s also composition.
And the physical qualities of language are very important to your characters.
They are, absolutely. I speak all my work out loud and I can feel the sound, it’s almost as if I can hear the sound of the music or I can somehow feel it in my body when I write. I don’t write for long periods of time. I write in quite short intense bursts. It is quite cathartic. It’s quite exhausting.
I love working into the writing once my first draft is down and the urgency is not so intense. But there’s nothing quite like being transported into another character’s world. You know it’s tremendous fun playing a character when the character comes naturally to you. It’s an actor’s greatest joy. It’s so playful, it’s so full of unexpected moments. You surprise yourself. You don’t know quite where the work is coming from. It’s magic and it’s mysterious and that’s what Jimmy’s voice was like to work in The Eye of the Sheep in and so was Hester’s in One Foot Wrong.
And on top of that comes the very close up satisfying work of getting all the words right and in the right place. It’s as if the book were a song. A novel is not a song – it’s an awful lot longer but the same rules apply. Perfect rhythm. Perfect rhythm, that’s where I’m heading. Every word in its most satisfying place to tell the story in the most effective, powerful way that I can. When I’m doing the work there is no reader in the room, it’s only me and the work. I never think of the reader.
What struck me reading your books for adult readers alongside your work for children is how consistent the themes are between them. Can you tell me about the point that you find the characters taking you towards a book for adults, rather than a book for kids? When does the reader come into this process?
When I’m doing work I’m not terribly interested in differentiating between my audiences. My task is to be true to the character and to the narrative the character demands. And so that remains the same, that task, either when I’m writing for children or adults. I’m still driven by some of the same themes.
I investigate the life and the world of a particular character and it’s for the publisher to decide the readership. Naturally it is obvious to me from early on when the readership can’t be comprised of children. If the character is going to traverse confronting territory then the readership becomes an adult one.
I’ll mostly know a lot about the character’s world instinctively before the pen hits the page. I always knew about Jimmy in The Eye of The Sheep, because the idea for an early version of him, Jimmy Flute, came many years ago when I wrote a radio play for Radio National. That was clearly a grown up play. I wanted to investigate the childhood of this very charming, quirky, idiosyncratic, medicated adult and so I wanted to investigate his childhood. I always knew that didn’t mean a book for children, I knew before I started that that would be an adult book.
But I’m working on something that at the moment I’m still not sure about. The readership, the audience or readership will be decided as soon as I know the nature of the dilemma or the nature of the struggle that the characters are going to have. With Hester in One Foot Wrong, my first novel for adults, I knew as soon as the seed of the novel arrived that it was going to be a story about extreme abuse. And so it unfolded.
I noticed there are a lot of teachers in your books. Sometimes they frustrate the kids they teach and sometimes they’re not really able to recognise the gifts of particular characters. The character Amanda in The Eye of The Sheep advises Jimmy that he’s just got to find the right teacher. Who are the teachers who have guided you?
What’s interesting to me is that you point out something I haven’t been conscious of before, which I’m almost embarrassed about, is that teachers are making appearances throughout aren’t they? My God, it’s embarrassing when you get busted with all your unconscious material right there laid out for the world to see.
My teachers were good and bad. Mostly good. I had a teacher in my fifth class who would give my stories a bold tick. Mrs Kellett would write ‘delightful’ across the bottom of the page and I absolutely lapped it up and loved it.
So you were writing then at a young age?
Yeah. Just the way kids did, particularly back in the seventies. There was much more space for creative writing in the curriculum, much more than there is now. Much more space for drama and more school productions from what I can gather.
I kept a diary from a very young age. I was always interested in writing plays for my friends and myself. I had some fantastic learning experiences in high school with various teachers. It wasn’t the teachers, really, it was the whole experience of learning with the group and with the teacher guiding the experience.
And so later in life, you studied writing.
Yes I did, writing and editing at RMIT.
And how did this new stage of formal training contribute to your development as a writer?
When I was an actor I was always interested in books and writing as a secondary sort of passion – so I thought, I will study writing and it will help with this acting career that I’m finding so difficult. And that was a terrific decision. Not because it taught me to write at all, it just provided me with a terrific environment, structure, a writing community, a place to be. I was always happy and contained when I was there. I was sickeningly keen. I did everything that was suggested. I badgered teachers for every bit of extra feedback going. When things began to actually happen for me and my first manuscript was accepted the whole acting dream just disappeared and went up in smoke. I just wrote and wrote and wrote and I haven’t stopped.
And do you have particular mentors that you turn to now?
Let me think. I’ve got various people in my life who guide me, who I need to have read my work before I feel safe enough to send it out into the world. They change as I go along. I need my manuscripts read before I submit them for publication so I’ve got some trusted friends. For me, mentors are appearing, coming and going all the time in a way. Sometimes a book is a mentor. Sometimes a poem is a mentor and sometimes a person is a mentor. I went to school with Ella Walsh, Richard Walsh’s daughter. Richard Walsh has been a mentor for me for many years, ever since my writing career began. He continues to be a mentor and has acted as an agent in regard to the film rights of my books. I had mentors as an actress too.
Let’s turn to the books. Both The Eye of the Sheep and One Foot Wrong deal with violence. They’re presenting us with really traumatised kids in terrible circumstances and what really struck me is that both books end on a note of optimism. How important is this optimism to you personally and when you’re writing the books.
Very, very. I’d completely fall apart in despair if that optimism wasn’t there. I couldn’t write them any other way. I couldn’t bear to lose Jimmy. It could have gone either way in the narrative. I absolutely took him to the brink – but gosh, if I thought he was going to have to die, I wouldn’t have wanted to write the book. What would be the point?
He’s a lovely character.
He symbolises something really important to me about being human. He’s really precious. He’s alone in the world and yet he’s representative of us too. He’s the best of the human experiences in a way. He’s whacky, he can’t be pinned down, he’s loving, he sees straight into the heart of the matter, he’s quite a heavenly person and I couldn’t bear to lose him. If I lost him what would be the point, what would be the point? I’d cry myself to sleep.
Animals play a big role in your fiction –
You busted me again.
They help your characters form their identities, don’t they? They do a lot of work. What’s their significance to you?
It’s unconscious, it’s completely unconscious. But animals do function that way in kids lives, don’t they?
I loved the relationship between Jimmy and Ned [the dog] in The Eye of the Sheep because when Ned came into the picture, it was a relief, wasn’t it? It was a release of pressure. There is a moment where Jimmy is brought back, pretty disassociated, to his Uncle Rodney’s house and greeted by Ned. It was the one time Jimmy could look really deep into the eyes again of a living creature and feel some sort of connection. It always brought me to tears when I re-read or worked that bit over because it had all been so horrible before leading up to that.
I had my own dog for a very long time. We can deconstruct where our work comes from and we may or may not be right. It comes from all sorts of different places and some of them are imagined and some of them are lived.
Do you see yourself as a writer who is influenced by other writers or in kind of dialogue with other writers?
Look, I think the whole life a writer is living, including the books a writer is reading, including the people a writer is meeting, all of it must go in there somewhere. It’s not conscious but anything I respond to with passion and enthusiasm must be shaping my knowledge, my understanding of or my appreciation for language.
As I read One Foot Wrong playwrights like Martin McDonough came to mind, playwrights who take audiences into the intense experiences of characters in extreme circumstances.
What about Bad Boy Bubby? That reminded me of One Foot Wrong too.
I’m interested in how deliberately you draw on these sorts of influences.
Ever since I left drama school and made this transition to writing I see no theatre. I’ve got very young children so that’s tricky – but it was always a fraught experience for me, theatre. I might know the cast or I might have auditioned and not got a part. For an escape I’d always go to movies over theatre.
I’m certain that my training and the experiences I’ve described to you have probably shaped or influenced my writing more than plays I’ve seen. It’s everything I’m living, it’s everything I’m suffering or enjoying. I think probably the most powerful influences on my writing happened in childhood. There’s a certain skill I might have with language that gives shape to the story that I’m telling – but I think it comes much earlier at a much more unconscious, primitive time in my own psyche.
I think that’s why the books work actually. Because they express very primal emotions and they explore primal urges as well. They come from a place in me that is unconscious, in the shadows, and from very early formative experiences. The adult experiences of reading and going to plays and training as an actor, that’s all helped no doubt. It’s helped me to give a shape to these early experiences and find ways to communicate them.
This leads me into a question that I had about Jimmy and Hester who are both presented to us as kind of damaged narrators. We know that they see doctors, that they have parents who resist medical intervention. We know that they kind of see the world in a way that is quite unlike other children. But you really shy away from kind of telling us more about the nature of that damage.
Because I’m not sure. I’m not sure about it and I don’t reckon, even the most expert paediatrician can be sure about these things. I think Hester in a different environment might have been a very different girl. The same goes for Jimmy. Jimmy in a different home with different stresses and different kinds of supports might have expressed himself quite differently.
So there’s something in their identities that is shaped by where and how they grow up.
Yes, and in their behaviour. And also there’s still a lot of mystery about the kind of diagnosis that might be given to a kid like Jimmy. Even today with much more knowledge and experience there is still a lot that is not known or understood about learning difficulties or whatever.
I don’t want to label Jimmy as anything. He’s really empathetic, he’s imaginative. What can I say? He’s brilliant. The other thing to remember is he is a construct. He’s not real. Much as it pains me to say that, I am doing something with language. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I’m making certain points about the world. He’s articulating the profound mystery of existence in original ways. One of the moments that I really like in the book is when the two brothers are digging the wheels out of the mud in the wetlands and Jimmy says ‘what would happen if we didn’t stop digging? We would dig past the tyres into the earth and if we still kept going we’d dig where the worms live and if we still kept going then we’d dig right through to the other side of the earth and then if we still kept going, we still kept digging what is there?’ And he’s asking, what is this existence? What is it? He is asking about God. He is asking about the meaning of the universe, that’s what I think.
There’s a real dignity that’s granted his efforts to work out the boundaries of his own world. That’s one of the really appealing things about these books: the efforts of kids, of young people to assert themselves and to assert their vision of the world is dignified. Ultimately it’s also rewarded. Perhaps the greatest reward of that difficult process of trying to like figure out the world and assert yourself, I suppose is sort of identity. Is this the work that literature, particularly involving children, can do?
Gosh I hadn’t thought of it in those ways. Maybe you’ve exactly articulated it because you’re going to be better at articulating it than me because. Because I need to do it in other ways. So, if I could say what it is I am doing, maybe I wouldn’t feel the desire to do it. Does that make sense? You probably have said it very well, exactly what I am trying to do without knowing, in a conscious way. I’m really pissed off I think. I think the writing is coming sometimes from a pretty angry place as well. I’m angry on these kids’ behalf and I want justice for them. That’s what it is. It’s not only identity it’s fairness. Justice.
As we’re talking, you’re looking after a baby. To organise this interview I know you had to think through childcare and kids. How do you manage the two roles of being a mother and a writer – especially one who participates in festivals and gives interviews.
Mother and writer is working well for me. Festivals and interviews are getting very challenging. Writing you just do quietly in any old place, any old time, but I’m having to appear everywhere and even be involved in this conversation now.
But of course I want to make sure I make the absolute most of this incredibly wonderful opportunity. I’m not in the habit of saying no to an opportunity but I don’t know how much, I suppose, soon, make time for writing again. I’m writing but since the amazing wonderful award I’m having to put energy into managing the consequences of that award.
Following on from that, what does career sustainability look like for you and for writers who are mothers. For you to keep writing, what do you need?
Look that sort of, it doesn’t even feel relevant when you say that to me. I don’t even relate to that. It’s just like life goes on, there’s kids now in the picture and you just keep making this work or that work. I’ve worked as a children’s author for a very long time. I worked at schools presenting workshops to thousands of students. I’ve just been devoted to this business forever. It’s natural to me. I’m determined, it’s as natural as the evening dinner has got to be cooked and someone has got to cook it. It’s as natural as taking a brisk walk in the morning and if I have to take a pram I will. Career sustainability, I don’t know. It seems to be going OK for the moment. Stay tuned.
Thanks to the Melbourne Writers’ Festival for their assistance in organising this interview.