Fresh off her 2016 Stella Prize for her novel, The Natural Way of Things, Australian author Charlotte Wood talked to us about Berlin, feminism, and the immersive power of fiction writing.
In our Author Spotlight, you said that you wished we had asked you to stay in Berlin for another year, and that you associate the word “vitality” with Berlin. Why do you think Berlin feels vital?
Everything I’d heard about Berlin was how exciting it is, and how great it is for art and artists. It’s a city that respects creativity, which is not the case in many places. Also, it’s just a beautiful city. Yesterday, I went to the monument to the Berlin Wall, and I thought it was so incredibly moving and powerful and restrained. It seems to be a central concern of the city, to make beauty, but with a really original take on things.
Your latest book, The Natural Way of Things, has a powerful feminist message about female sexuality and its treatment by society. Have you always considered yourself a feminist?
I think I was always a feminist. I think I was raised a feminist, even though that word wasn’t used in our household. I look back, and I see that the idea that being a girl would hold you back was never a part of our family. I have one brother and three sisters, and my brother had to do all the same things that my sisters and I had to do. My mother probably would have never called herself a feminist, but she definitely shared many of the same ideals. My conscious awareness of feminism, though, came when I was at university. Just from studying a little bit of sociology and politics, I became aware of the structural barriers against women.
You’ve written about a whole range of topics – everything from cooking to siblings and family. This book seems much darker. Was it more difficult to write this book?
It was much more difficult. It’s much darker. The response to this book, though, has also been much more powerful than the responses to my other books. I think there’s power in the material I was dealing with that I was quite scared of for a long time. I was afraid of the darkness of it, and I think, looking back, I was unaware of how much power the story had. The idea for the book first came to me when I heard about a real prison for women in Australia. What had happened to these young girls in the 1960s and 1970s just filled me with rage. But I didn’t know how much emotion I had inside myself about all of it, until I started writing – until it started writing itself out of me, in a way. When you write fiction, you really need to imaginatively inhabit the world you’re creating. So to stay, mentally, in a very brutal prison, was very difficult. But once I realized that I just had to allow the material to be as dark as it was, without trying to control it all the time, then it became easier to write.
Was it therapeutic at all, to write out all of these feelings?
Well, once I got the first draft down, it was like – and this is going to sound kind of dramatic – it was like I had gotten something out of myself that was bad. Then I thought, okay, now I need to shape and make it into something beautiful. I had to make sure there was light and dark, as well as humor and beauty, so that I could use those effectively to allow space for the reader to come with me in the story. Because it’s a pretty big task, to take the reader to some of the places that this book goes.
Was the book a reaction to our current political climate?
Initially, I started writing it as a book set in the past, in the time period that this real prison was in operation. A lot of the young women in this real place were sent there because they had been assaulted or molested, and they had told someone about it. And the madness of our culture was to lock them up, while the men who did these things walked free. But then I realized that, actually, this isn’t over. As I started becoming more attuned to the things going on around me, I realized that that attitude isn’t finished. Women get attacked for speaking up and speaking out; they get blamed for what they were wearing when they got assaulted, in a way that feels almost cliché now. So it seemed important to recognize that this is a contemporary story.
You won the Stella Prize, a $50,000 Australian literary prize for female authors. Why did you choose to keep the prize money, instead of donating it, as many past recipients did?
The prize is quite new – it was only four years old when I won it – and the women who had won it before had all given some of the prize money away to good causes. I didn’t want that to become a tradition. I didn’t want all the women who won the Stella prize to feel like they couldn’t keep the money. It was a really difficult decision, because I really respected the women who gave their money away. But I wanted to mark a line in the sand, to say that the arts are an important social cause, and that the money from the prize is, for practical reasons, important to allow writers to keep writing. I was really glad to see that the winner of this year’s prize didn’t even mention the money. You know, it almost felt like: “Okay, this is a women’s prize, we have to be good girls and share it. We’re not allowed to take the space and the light that the money gives us.” I think it’s important that women are allowed to claim the space that this prize offers them.
The Natural Way of Things has a pretty bleak outlook on women’s issues and society. Who, in our modern world, do you derive positive inspiration or hope from?
Tons of women. Women in politics who stand up to the garbage that gets slung their way. We had a female prime minister in Australia, Julia Gillard, who stood up for herself, despite the pressure from the opposition and her own party. And, especially, since the book came out, the way that young women have responded to it has really blown me away. So many emails, and letters, and women who are a full generation younger than me coming up to me at readings, telling me what the book meant to them. I feel so inspired and hopeful for the future because of these young women.