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Fierce, Tender and Brave: Q&A with Alice Nelson on writing The Children’s House

October 3, 2018

About The Author:

Alice Nelson was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for her first novel, The Last Sky. Alice’s short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Sydney Review of Books, The Asia Literary Review, Southerly Magazine and the West Australian Newspaper. The Children’s House is her second novel.

Purchase a copy of The Children’s House here 

Read our review of The Children’s House here 

The Children’s House is a book that explores both the terrible things humans are capable of, and the mysteries and complexities of the families who endure these atrocities. What inspired the idea behind the novel?

There’s a line in a novel by Anne Michaels that seems to be to be a wonderful summary of my preoccupations in The Children’s House: ‘There is nothing a man will not do to another. But there’s also nothing a man will not do for another.’ While the novel does explore some dark terrain, I also wanted to write about acts of grace and empathy; the profound echoes that compassion and generosity can have in individual lives and in communities. There are all sorts of kindnesses extended in the novel, often at great cost and sometimes with unexpected repercussions

Families, in all their configurations and complexities, are also infinitely fascinating to me; the ways that they can bind together great pain and great love all at once. There are several different kinds of families to be found in The Children’s House, and each of them offers different explorations of the mysteries of human connection and the consolations and risks of love.

On a more tangible level, the novel was very much inspired and influenced by my work over many years with refugees and asylum seekers, and some of the complex friendships I have formed with several individuals. I also worked with Holocaust survivors in Australia as part of a book project to document and publish their narratives, and this also exerted a powerful influence on the novel. I’m very interested in the ways that the individual life is shaped and sometimes disfigured by larger historical circumstances, and in the burdens of inheritance and the ways that children absorb the sadnesses and ghosts of their parents

Your novel is set in 1997, a far cry from the current social and political climate of 2018. Although this is a work of contemporary fiction, how much historical/academic research went into The Children’s House to ensure that it accurately captured the atmosphere and ideas of the time?

I’m an obsessive researcher and I spend countless hours reading huge numbers of texts related to the subjects I’m exploring in fiction. My bookshelves are full of mysterious little clusters of books that form a kind of chronicle of my concerns and preoccupations throughout the writing of the novel – ranging from books on birdwatching, to stories about the lives of nuns, to religious texts on the Hasidic Jewish community to essays on Cape Cod.

The novel is set in the years following the Rwandan genocide and while it is not a book about the genocide, it is an important context for the characters. In The Children’s House, the central character Marina absorbs all of her knowledge of the genocide from extensive reading. She sits in the library day after day and reads everything she can find about those terrible events. I did the same thing. Unlike Marina, however, I did know several Rwandan men and women through my work with refugees and asylum-seekers in both New York and Australia, and while I would never presume to tell their stories, those relationships were very important in allowing me to understand a little about the nature of traumatic memory and the long shadow these kinds of horrors cast.

The Children’s House is set in a time just before mobile phones and email were such ubiquitous forms of communication and I had to keep reminding myself of this. People in the novel write letters, and call each other on landlines; acts that seem sadly antiquated in 2018!

You are an accomplished writer, but also a teacher of creative writing. What have your teaching experiences taught you about the art of writing, and what truly makes a great novel?

I love teaching both creative writing and literature. I love the exposure it gives me to other writers and their work, the joy of discovering an exciting new voice, and the lessons I always learn about the craft of writing. I had the privilege of some incredible teachers and mentors in the early stages of my writing career, and it’s lovely to be able to be part of the journey for fledgling writers. Teaching writing has also exposed me to a much wider range of literary forms and genres than I might otherwise read, which is always a good thing. It’s so difficult to define what truly makes a great novel; I wish there was a magic formula that I could impart to my students! For me, I think it’s about identifying certain questions that are profoundly important and dwelling with those questions for the amount of time it takes to write a novel. One of the most important things I have learnt, and something that I try to pass on to students, is that a novel’s greatest function is not to assert anything but to provoke the reader to reflect upon certain questions. The answers to those particular questions will be different for every reader and a really good novel allows the reader that space.

Who do you think will enjoy reading The Children’s House?

I hope that The Children’s House will appeal to a wide range of readers. I really love Stendhal’s conception of a novel as a mirror walking down the road, and I do think that each reader forms their own unique relationship to a text, and takes away the things that are important for them. There is a kind of powerful and beautiful alchemy that exists between a writer and reader, a shared making of meaning.

I believe that there’s a kind of radical empathy in storytelling, an enlargening of our imaginative capacities, and I hope in particular that the novel’s rendering of the Rwandan refugee woman Constance, might help readers to consider the kind of experiences and terrors that might have marked the life of a refugee, and how these might influence their way of being in the world. Sadly we live in an age where refugees and asylum-seekers are frequently demonised and I think that this comes from a dangerous failure of empathy and a lack of understanding. A novel should never be written as polemic, but I do think that literature can create a special sort of space for examination and re-examination, for allowing the reader to consider different perspectives and perhaps come to new understandings about the world.

What are you currently reading and/or writing?

I’m usually immersed in several books at once. I’ve just finished Michael Ondaatje’s new novel Warlight. He is a great hero of mine, and I thought this new work was entrancing. It’s about secrets and shadows and the ways that we learn to live with loss and absence; all abiding preoccupations of mine. I’m now reading an excellent book called Dear Friend about the complicated relationship between the poet Rilke and the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, which has driven me back to Rilke’s poetry. In terms of writing, I have a new project that is in the very fledgling stages of creation, but I think it will be set on an Indian coffee plantation that is a very special place for me, so I’m hoping this will justify a ‘research trip’ back there soon.


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