Five Questions with… Ellen van Neerven

Ellen van Neerven, author of Heat and Light and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Ellen on October 31, as well as a copy of Heat and Light! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Where did the idea for Heat and Light come from?

Ellen van Neerven: Heat and Light began forming when I explored my family history. The character of Amy Kresigner, a young woman trying to find her place in her family at the wake of the revelation of a family secret, is at least semi-autobiographical. I started writing in the month of August, the time of the year we get unsettling wind, so you’ll see the wind plays a big part in Heat and Light. I was growing up quite rapidly while writing this (I was 20 when I started, I’m 24 now, and I’ve discovered these are big years of your life) so there are different tones in the book: young women navigating first love, sexual experiences and complex identities; and then more outward visions of fractured towns and terrain of marginal Australia.van Neerven, Ellen

IFOA: Why did you decide to divide your novel into three sections? What do these divisions accomplish?

Van Neerven: Dividing Heat and Light up into three sections was a decision we’d come to during the editing process. What I had ended up with was a story cycle told by different family members about a generational secret, a deconstructed family tree (Heat), a futuristic speculative novella about mysterious plant human creatures (Water) and an ensemble of 10 stories about family dynamics and youth (Light). I was unconvinced Heat and Light could provide a fictional experience that felt like a complete whole—until I met with my editor.  We created a structure to reflect the hybrid nature of the work.

IFOA: You currently work as an editor for the black&write! project at the State Library of Queensland, which supports and promotes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. Are Indigenous themes important in your own fiction?

Van Neerven: My father is from a small town in The Netherlands and my mother is Yugambeh from South-East Queensland. I am influenced by who I am and have the desire to write about Indigenous experience and include our culture and language. When I was growing up, there was a lack of texts from Indigenous perspectives. When I graduated university and became aware of the Aboriginal poetry movement, late greats Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Lisa Bellear, and visionaries Uncle Lionel Fogarty and Samuel Wagan Watson, I felt I’d found my place. Working with other Indigenous writers through black&write! inspired me to be brave about my own writing, feeling like there was space for me to tell my stories.

VanNeerven, Heat and LightIFOA: Describe the Indigenous writing community in Brisbane .

Van Neerven: black&write!’s space at the State Library of Queensland at Kurilpa (meaning place of the water rat) is a national hub for Indigenous writing. We run competitions and workshops and host reading events in cafes and bookshops. I’m seeing a lot of performance poets (such as the wonderfully funny Steven Oliver), young writers working in other genres like science fiction, fantasy and horror (Tristan Savage) and lyrical writing floating between prose and poetry (Yasmin Smith). Brisbane writer Melissa Lucashenko has recently won a stack of awards for her ground-breaking novel Mullumbimby.  It feels like we’re witnessing an explosion of new work that challenges expectations.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Van Neerven: I’ve just finished a brilliant debut by Omar Musa called Here Comes the Dogs about three young men on the fringes of Australian society looking for a way in through hip-hop, graffiti and basketball. As a treat, I am also reading Simon Armitage’s “Best of” collection Paper Aeroplane—a few poems before bed each night.

Ellen van Neerven is a writer and editor for the black&write! project. On October 31, she joins other Aboriginal writers to discuss Indigenous writing traditions and contemporary Indigenous literature.


Five Questions with… Julie Angus

Julie Angus, author of Olive Odyssey: Searching for the Secrets of the Fruit That Seduced the World and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Julie on October 30, as well as a copy of Olive Odyssey! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Olive Odyssey (like many of your journeys) represents a tremendous undertaking. What kind of preparation did your expedition take?

Julie Angus: We spent four years preparing for this journey. Much of that was researching the olive tree, the regions we would be visiting and the people we wanted to connect with. Because we were travelling by sailboat for much of the journey, I also had to familiarize myself with sailing and navigating Mediterranean waters. I studied nautical texts and trained in a sailboat lent to us by a friend in the Gulf Islands, but it was still a steep learning curve when we reached the Mediterranean. The waters are more crowded, the berthing protocol is different, the winds volatile and it was challenging sailing with an infant.Angus, Julie

IFOA: What research did you do on the olive prior to your journey?

Angus: I was curious about all aspects of the olive tree: historical, culinary, artistic, cultural and health. It’s played such a pivotal role throughout history, from being one of the earliest cultivated trees to influencing ancient civilizations, such as the Romans and Greeks. All major monotheistic religions liberally incorporate the olive in their writings as metaphors, and it was used as anointing elixirs, healing agents and more. And today, olive oil is one of the healthiest foods we can eat, assisting in preventing diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and a host of other serious diseases. Yet it’s a food industry that is plagued with fraud, with as much as 60% of the extra virgin olive oil on supermarket shelves miscategorized. By speaking with experts, reading books and studying scientific publications, I gained a broad knowledge about the olive tree that was invaluable throughout our journey, helping me ask the right questions and explore appropriate areas.

IFOA: When reaching sites after retracing the trading routes of early seafaring merchants, what archaeological and scientific work did you conduct?

Angus: By travelling along Phoenician and ancient Greek trading routes and visiting the colonies they founded, we were able to search out olive trees and artifacts they left behind.  Our theory was that these early merchants helped spread the domesticated olive tree from the Middle East, where it originated, to the rest of the Mediterranean. To test that theory we documented and sampled ancient olive trees, which can grow for thousands of years. Then, in collaboration with an Italian University, we analyzed the DNA of these trees to search for evidence to support our theory.

Angus, Olive OdysseyIFOA: You mention on your blog that this journey was inspired by your family’s own olive farm. Was your familial connection to the olive what made the olive an object of such rich study for you, or was it something else?

Angus: In 2008, my husband and I travelled 7,000 km by rowboat and bicycle from Scotland to Syria, completing the journey at my family’s olive farm in Syria. This was where the idea for Olive Odyssey germinated. I was struck by the remarkable taste of freshly pressed olive oil and the intriguing history of the olive that was first domesticated in what is now Syria and adjacent area.  It was apparent how important the olive tree is, not only as a source of food and financial security, but as a symbol of peace and longevity.

IFOA: In addition to authoring multiple books, you are also a recipient of the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award and were the first woman to row across the Atlantic from mainland to mainland. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Angus: Being a mom. I am very fortunate to have two beautiful boys. Leif, who is almost four years old and came with us on our Olive Odyssey adventure as an infant, and Oliver, who was just born this summer.

Julie Angus is a molecular biologist, adventurer, writer and photographer. She reads from and discusses her book Olive Odyssey on October 30.

Five Questions with… Russell Wangersky

Russell Wangersky, author of Walt and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Russell on October 28, as well as a copy of Walt! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: You’ve published novels, collections of short stories and non-fiction. Is there a form that you enjoy writing most?

Russell Wangersky: I like all three forms, but I think short stories are the ones I like working on the mostprimarily because you can keep the whole story in your head at once, and can work on it all in a single sitting, there in the dark under your desk light. With novels, on top of the difficulties of having to work back into changing mood and tone (finding where you were in your head when you were working on it last), there’s the sheer problem of remembering where and when things happen so that you don’t trip up. And non-fiction? It’s just plain hard workthere is so much research to do behind every sentence, and it’s also so close to my daily job as a newspaper editor that it’s too much like work.Russell Wangersky

IFOA: Where did the idea for Walt come from?

Wangersky: Walt came from two places: first, from covering court as a reporter, and watching all sorts of truly awful people in the dock who still had family and friends who clearly loved them in the courtroom. It made me wonder about how people who do awful things justify it to themselves, and how others end up loving them. The second was the notion of concerns about personal privacy and the way that we’re all supposed to be concerned about electronic privacy while we go around shedding concrete personal information every day to people who can just pick it up off the ground.

IFOA: Walt is described as a psychological thriller. Was it difficult to maintain suspense throughout the writing of the book?

Wangersky: It’s described as a thriller, but it didn’t start out that way. It was a story I was interested init ended up a thriller almost by default. The suspense has everything to do with Walt himselfwhat he’s willing to do, what he’s willing to explain. So suspense wasn’t that hard to maintain, especially because most of the book is in first person. It was just a matter of staying in his head, which was not always a nice place to be. It was hard to go back later and maintain pace and tone in the editing, though, because edits feel like good muffin batterlumpy.

Wangersky, WaltIFOA: The grocery notes that begin each chapter, which Walt collects, are real. Were you ever unsettled by this primary research for your novel?

Wangersky: I have hundreds of grocery notes now, and I’m still collecting themevery time I pick one up, it’s like the bones of a much bigger story, and now that I’m in the habit of picking them up, I can’t seem to help myself. Calling it “primary research” gives it much more dignity than it felt like at the time. Unsettled? I was asked by the publisher at one point after the book was done to put together a collage of the notes and photograph them. Looking at the photos, all the different handwriting and papers, some of them clearly stepped on or driven over, was suddenly quite unsettling. A clear intrusion of privacy, but I used them anyway.

IFOA: If you could meet any author, living or dead, who would it be?

Wangersky: Cormac McCarthy. Just to ask howhow you get the nerve to write like that, to use language as if you own it, without ever seeming to have any doubt. Suttree? Pure linguistic magic.

Russell Wangersky is a writer, editor and columnist. On October 28 he presents Walt, a dark, psychological thriller about a grocery store cleaner who is pursued by police detectives unsatisfied with the answers he’s given about his wife’s disappearance.

Five Questions with… Lois Leveen

Lois Leveen, author of Juliet’s Nurse and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Lois on October 26, as well as a copy of Juliet’s Nurse! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Your bio says that you “dwell in the spaces where literature and history meet.” What kind of historical research went into Juliet’s Nurse?

Lois Leveen: Lots! I read medieval cookbooks to plan meals, and medieval medical manuals to figure out how pregnancies, infertility and breastfeeding would be handled. I did research on the impact of the plague, to understand how it continued to affect Italian society even after the initial outbreak ended. I read about fashion, which was key in this period, not just in terms of what people wore, but because fabric and clothing served as a kind of exchange commodity, the way we might think of currency or precious metals you would pawn or trade. I read a lot about vendettas and violence, and about marriage contracts. But the book is set in the era before the printing press was invented, which means the written records are quite limited. So I found that visual art and material culture were also incredibly helpful. For example, if a woman was pregnant or had just given birth, one gift she might receive was a parto tray, on which special meals would be served to her. Those trays often had scenes painted on them, and those scenes would be of women, usually saints, who had just given birth. So you can look at a tray and see what that parto room would look like: where is the mother? where is the child? where is the wet-nurse? Even religious objects would be decorated in ways that would reveal what people wore and how they acted in particular situations. I traveled to Verona while I was working on the manuscript, and during my time there I took over 1,000 photographs just in one day. Understanding how a private house would be laid out, how frescoes would appear on the walls, what it would have felt like to move through a crowded medieval city—all of that relied on being there in person. But, of course, you have to be careful not to get so caught up in the research you forget about the story. The historical details work their way in, but ultimately the novel is about the characters and what happens to them.

© John Melville Bishop

© John Melville Bishop

IFOA: What made Juliet’s nurse an intriguing enough figure for you to build a story around?

Leveen: The idea for the novel came to me so immediately, it was stunning. I was actually struggling with another novel that just wasn’t coming together, and the title “Juliet’s Nurse” came into my head. I knew the nurse was a comic figure in the play, but the truth was I hadn’t read Romeo and Juliet since high school. So I pulled my copy off the bookshelf, and discovered how incredibly complex and compelling Shakespeare made her. In her first scene in the play, we hear this amazing backstory: she had a daughter who was born the same day as Juliet but died. What was it like to lose one child, and then immediately take comfort in caring for another in such a physically, as well as emotionally, intimate way? We also learn a bit about her husband, and how he interacted with Juliet. But what was he like? What was his relationship with Angelica, the nurse? Later in the play, Angelica describes Juliet’s cousin Tybalt as “the best friend I had,” which is odd because they’re not in a single scene together. So what was their friendship like? Even in the play, Angelica is an intensely emotional character, and I sensed that shifting the focus squarely onto her would tease out new aspects of this seemingly well-known story. And I’m very interested in what history I can learn as I work on my novels. Here was a way to think about women’s roles in late medieval and early Renaissance Italy, including women of very different class positions. So really, once the idea came to me, I couldn’t NOT write it.

IFOA: How much of Juliet’s Nurse was informed by cues from Romeo & Juliet? Was the play a rigid influence or a point of departure for you?

Leveen: I like to have some sort of boundaries to play against when I’m writing. So I tried to stay true to Romeo and Juliet as much as possible. But of course the play already exists, and my task was to create something new, which meant the play also always had to be a point of departure, even if I wanted to stay as true to it as possible.

One of the challenges of writing first-person fiction is that you can only convey what your narrator-protagonist sees, hears, knows or surmises. Which means I had to figure out what to do about things that happen in the play that Angelica doesn’t witness herself. How could those things be part of her story?

And there’s also the complicating factor that Shakespeare is pretty fast and loose with his history, so although the play is ostensibly set in Verona in the 14th century, some of what he writes is really more about England in his own era. For example, he has Tybalt, Mercutio and Romeo dueling with rapiers, which were common in Shakespeare’s day but didn’t actually exist in the period when the play was set. So I gave myself permission to get the Italian history right, even if it meant departing from the play.

Leveen, Juliet's NurseIFOA: Did you have any hesitations about writing a novel that takes one of the most famous plays of all time as its main intertext?

Leveen: Not when I started. I was so entranced with Angelica, I didn’t hesitate at all. But last April, after the novel was finished, I spoke at the Shakespeare 450 conference in Paris, probably the world’s largest gathering of Shakespeare scholars. I think participants were there from 80 different countries. And suddenly I realized the enormity of what I’d done. Shakespeare, the most famous playwright in English, and Romeo and Juliet, the most famous English-language drama. How could I have been so brazen? And yet, of course, there’s a huge literary tradition of reinterpreting Shakespeare (not to mention the stage tradition: pretty much any time you stage a Shakespeare play, you’re “interpreting” the text). Mostly I’m glad I didn’t think about it until the novel was done. Ignorance is the better part of bravery, I suppose.

IFOA: What is the best compliment a reader can give you about your work?

Leveen: I’m always so grateful to hear from readers who are moved by my work in any way. It feels like a true honor to be able to create something that can affect another person deeply. My first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is based on the true story of a former slave who became a spy for the Union during the American Civil War, and I heard from many readers for whom that tale of race and valor was personally inspirational. Is there a parallel for this novel? Perhaps. Only as I was finishing the first draft of Juliet’s Nurse did I really confront the fact that it is, in part, a book not only about surviving loss but specifically about losing a child to suicide. Well, of course, that is what Shakespeare gives us, but thinking about how the rates of teen suicide are rising in our own era, I felt like what I was writing about this period in the past needed to resonate with what is happening today. So I would say now that the most profound thing I can hope to hear from readers is about that. Maybe some of what Angelica goes through in trying to understand Juliet’s choice can spark conversations about how we can keep real people we love feeling secure enough to make different choices. It might be a lot to expect from a novel, but I’m hopeful.

Lois Leveen  is a novelist, poet, educator and historian. She presents Juliet’s Nurse alongside other authors on October 26.

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