The Eye of the Sheep is a deeply moving novel told from the point-of-view of a difficult child, Jimmy Flick, who lives with his struggling family in a poor suburb of Melbourne. Sofie Laguna talks to us about her beloved character Jimmy “who won the award “, how she didn’t set out to write about family violence, and how she changed from an acting career to become a full-time writer.
Better Reading: Congratulations on winning Australia’s highest profile literary award, The Miles Franklin. Has the win sunk in yet? If so, how has this affected you so far?
Sofie Laguna: Thank you for your congratulations; the win is sinking in slowly – I often find it difficult to let really good things in straight away; I need to take my time, and come at it sideways. I am very pleased, and proud of my central character – it was really him who won the award. I know that makes me sound crazy, but it really is as if my characters exist outside of me, with lives of their own, and I am thrilled when they do well, especially if they have had some challenges along the way.
BR: In The Eye of the Sheep, you write from the point-of-view this very young character. How difficult was that?
SL: Writing in the voice of a very young character comes naturally to me; I find it a really liberating, joyful, insightful and perceptive way to see the world. Children have less baggage; they are a mirror to the adult world, which is what I am really interested in exploring, or exposing. I loved playing a child in my work as an actor too, but as a writer it’s even better because I get to ‘play’ the other characters in my stories too, and they are all ages.
BR: What was behind the choice of subject matter of The Eye of the Sheep? What sparked the idea for Jimmy?
SL: About fifteen years ago I wrote a play for radio called ‘Difficult to Grow’ starring a character called Pete Flick. He was loveable, quirky, manic and heavily medicated. He lived in a special care home in Alma Road, East St Kilda, and I always wanted to know what brought him there; I wanted to know more about his childhood. That was the original inspiration for Jimmy Flick, the main character in The Eye of the Sheep. I quickly realised, however, that Jimmy was very much his own person. He was less stylised than Pete, he was more real, and there was more hope for him too. I wanted greater things for him; Jimmy has such depths, and insight.
BR: This is one of a few books dealing with issues of family violence. How important is it that these issues are talked about right now?
SL: I always knew that Jimmy’s father was violent at points in his life, but I was never conscious of wanting to make any clear political statement about that. The timing of my book is interesting, and again, unconscious. My task was to tell Jimmy Flick’s story – that is what I am best equipped to do. If the novel can contribute to a conversation about domestic violence, then that is a very good thing, but it wasn’t consciously why I wrote it. I don’t provide easy answers in the story; Jimmy’s dad, Gavin, is not a villain. He is wonderful, and has great potential to be a good, strong father, which ultimately I lead the reader to believe he will become. I am not politically ‘correct’ in this book – Gavin loves the woman he hits. Is that possible? I must think it is. It is also destructive and terrible.
Maybe a writer of fiction is able to show the complexities of issues like domestic violence in the way that other kinds of writing can’t. Maybe we can explore the human heart in all its impossible mystery, its stubbornness, its chaos, its contradictions and its extremes. My interest, as the creator of this story, lies in the wonder and magic of the central character – not the ‘issues’ he faces. I was so identified with him during the writing process I never gave a thought to issues. I thought about language, and the music of language – rhythm, structure, the sound of the piece. That’s what I write for. That’s where my purpose is. The combination of character and language – how one expresses the other. Of course, I gave him a story, and I wanted that story to push him to certain extremes because I wanted to test him. But not in order to say to ‘domestic violence is bad’, ‘drinking leads to violence’ – those are givens to me. And to see Jimmy suffer because of them, maybe that is the most politically charged thing I can do, maybe that is where my political power lies. I hope so.
BR: You are also an established writer of children’s books. How different is it to write for adults after writing for children?
SL: The greatest difference for me, between writing for children and adults, is that when I write for adults I don’t have to protect my reader from some difficult and ugly truths. It is open territory, and I really love that. But essentially all the writing comes from the same place. And the same principles remain important; I still have to work just as hard, apply the same discipline and care for my craft.
BR: You originally studied law and then became an actor. What made you move into writing? And how much have your previous professions impacted your writing?
SL: I always wanted to be an actor, ever since I was a very young girl. I loved writing plays and then starring in them, alongside various friends and family members. I loved to dress up in costume and inhabit imaginary worlds, with a new voice, and a new history. My dream of being an actor was a burning one, which is why it is so surprising that I am now a writer, and very happy about it. I do believe that acting and writing are close cousins; both are about telling stories, both demand that I make up characters. When I write I still take on the voice of the character, but I do it all in my own head. Writing is a kind of ‘inner-performance’ for me, and I have a lot more creative control, which I really like.
As far as the law goes, I think I began studying that degree because I got the marks at school, and I just slid in, as the next natural step – but university just led me to acting in various theatre productions. Everything was always leading me to stories, to make-believe.
BR: What Australian authors – contemporary or classic – do you most admire?
SL: Some Australian writers I admire are Helen Garner, Bob Graham, Thea Astley, Peter Carey, Margaret Wild, Richard Flanagan, Christos Tsiolkas, Martine Murray and Chloe Hooper. This is a mix of writers for children and adults. I think it’s healthy to blur the line that separates them.
BR: What’s next?
SL: I have a little baby and a four-year-old so my time is limited right now. I have just written another picture book and have started another novel for adults. Each creation is an act of faith and the doubts along the way are always uncomfortable!
As told to The Better Reading Team
Read More: See The Australian’s Review of The Eye of the Sheep here
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