About the author:
Dr Marcella Polain was born in Singapore and immigrated to Perth when she was two years old, with her Armenian mother and Irish father. She has a background in theatre and screen writing, and has lectured in the Writing program at Edith Cowan University. She was founding WA editor for the national poetry journal Blue Dog, has been poetry editor for Westerly and was inaugural editor for the WA journal Indigo. She has published essays on writing and completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia in 2006.
You quote Eimear McBride at the beginning of your novel and the style of the narrative borrows from her work. Why were her stories such an inspiration to you?
I need to make it clear that Driving into the Sun has taken 10 years to make. The final draft was pretty much complete when A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was recommended to me by an agent. I was having trouble with the ending and I believe the agent thought it would help. It did, in that it made me feel there were others out there trying to write in a clear-sighted and less conventional way about what it is to be a girl.
By clear-sighted I don’t mean straightforward narratively or linguistically. I mean unflinchingly. But I’m talking about subject here as well as style, as much as these can be separated.
So, in short, my novel manuscript already existed before I read McBride, but when I did her writing provided both solace and courage to push the ending to a place I had been resisting.
She is writing into a much longer tradition of pushing against conventions of language. There are a lot of writers – not only women – who push language to unsettle it, to find a way to tell their stories, and I’d been reading them for decades – Whitman, Eliot, Joyce, Stein, Deborah Levy, Ania Walwicz, Gig Ryan, Anne Carson, Ali Smith and many more.
I love a full, ordered, elegant sentence and a seamless narrative, but order and elegance are rarely the experiences of being in the world, in my view, and certainly not for this story.
Death is a subject that isn’t often publicly explored, yet it’s a very strong theme in your novel. Why did you choose to explore it in such depth?
I’m always surprised by this question. I’ve been aware of mortality since I was a young child. Isn’t everyone? I am still perplexed when I counter individual resistance to discussing it, which is quite frequently in this culture.
Also, I don’t agree that, in this context, it is a subject not often publicly explored because this is a novel and death is historically a common theme for literature. I like Saul Bellow’s metaphor that death is the dark backing the mirror needs for us to see anything.
My own father died when my brothers and I were small. I can only speak for myself here but I don’t recall anyone ever taking an interest in my grief, talking about it with me or giving permission for it to exist, let alone be expressed. I hope things are different now but I am not sure they are. Children are too often treated as if they are somehow different to adults, as if they don’t have a complex inner life, as if they are not yet quite human, as if they will remain unaffected by trauma. How many times do we hear how ‘resilient’ children are; in my view, this is very often code for adults overlooking their shoddy treatment.
As a grown woman, how did you find writing from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl?
It wasn’t hard to place myself back there. That’s what memory and imagination are for. It was challenging to return to the bewilderment and disenfranchisement of childhood. Reinhabiting a childhood body also had its joys, however. The world is new then, and thrilling.
What’s the main difference, for you, between writing poetry and writing fiction?
They feel like opposite impulses to me in that poetry is about distillation, and narrative about expansion. Poetry is also easier to carry around. It’s a creature that can sit in the palm of my hand; I can turn it around and look at it from various angles, open its origami folds to see inside. Novels, especially when the manuscript becomes lengthy, feel like they are balanced precariously on top of my head and I have to be careful; any wrong move could dislodge them, send them tumbling.
Why did you decide on Fremantle Press as the publisher of this book?
I write literary fiction, and, despite what is often said, in Australia most literary fiction is not attractive to transnational publishers. Perhaps this is because there is a small market here and so most of it doesn’t make a lot of money. The exchanges I had with publishers and agents about this manuscript over the years would make a pretty funny story in itself. Everyone liked the writing – it seemed the subject, the style, the tone, or the narrative events disturbed various people: could it be made less sad or less interior or less challenging, please?
I had an existing relationship with Fremantle Press because 10 years ago they published my first novel, The Edge of the World. As I suggest above, I did look around for a larger publishing house, and some individuals in this process were supportive. However, I think I always knew it was never going to be a happy partnership. Of course I value readers but I’m not interested in the big machinery of transnational publishing, nor in tailoring my writing to a publisher’s marketing strategy, or working under the pressure of someone else’s expectations.
I’m a poet; I write narrative but I write it poetically. I write at all not because I have ambition for it but because I have to write. I write messily, and I like challenging literary conventions, experimenting.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have Fremantle Press publishing this book. Georgia and her team immediately understood it, were excited by it and supported it from the outset. If I needed clarity about where my work fits in the Australian literary landscape – and it seems I did – I have it now. It’s been such a great experience.
What’s your view on the writing scene in WA?
WA is a beautiful place to live – light, space, air that is quite different to anywhere else. The writing scene is as vibrant and complex as it is in Victoria or New South Wales; it’s just smaller. We still lose a lot of artists to the eastern states, a steady stream relocate, but that’s also an opportunity, continually opening spaces for those who are emerging. As is true anywhere in Australia at the moment, we are underfunded and that needs to change. But there are wonderful people doing a lot of work, often unpaid, to develop exciting events, centres and other possibilities.
What advice would you give to emerging writers who might be looking to get a book published?
Firstly, the work on the page is the thing. Everything else in the process is distraction. Secondly, there are many kinds of publishers. Publishing is an industry, with all that suggests. Don’t let it make you into a commodity or be seduced by promises. Thirdly, find a job you like and which can pay your bills so that your writing can take as long as it needs. Fourth, don’t give up. Writing is a lifetime pursuit at which you should get better the longer you practice it. And finally, your writing self needs nurturing and protection, and it is your responsibility to look after it.
Where do you write?
I work long hours in a very demanding paying job that I am fortunate enough to enjoy so I write anywhere I can. I use my laptop in the bits and pieces of time that become available – curled up on the sofa, sitting at the kitchen table, propped up in bed, occasionally in my office between meetings and emails, in classes when my students are writing, but mostly on weekends and in my annual leave. And when I’m not writing, I am thinking about it – washing dishes, driving, grocery shopping, pulling weeds, walking across campus, all the time turning over sentences and solving problems in my head, so I know what I want to write in the next fragment of available time.
Where do you live? Is there a strong creative culture there?
I live in Perth’s inner suburbs in a very old house which I love, with quite a small but packed, flourishing garden. There were no artists in my family of origin – we were working class migrants and art was seen as wonderful but suitable only as a hobby; however, both my parents were very talented and intelligent people. My husband is a writer, my children are also writers and musicians. We have thousands of books. I have a handful of dear friends who are writers, musicians, visual artists. They sustain and inspire. I’m very fortunate.
What’s your favourite place in Perth?
My home, my garden, and the beach – especially in winter, the stormier, the better.
What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Yes, I have the next novel planned and will begin the research next year. It will take a while. Before I start that, I’d like to work further on the poetry I’ve been drafting for the last 10 years – but who knows? I used to feel impatient about writing, anxious about how slowly I work, but I don’t feel that any more, which is a relief. I just feel grateful to be able to do this thing I love. And if someone wants to publish it, and others want to read it – well, I’m immensely privileged.