The lovely Brooke Davies is my guest for today’s Q & A. Brooke works at my favourite local bookshop, Beaufort Street Books, but it looks like her bookselling days are numbered because her debut novel Lost and Found is going gangbusters! Brooke dished the dirt on her early love of books, how she started writing, and how Lost and Found came to be written and published.
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Did you grow up in a bookish house? What was your early relationship with books?
My mum was always a great reader, and my dad became one when he had kids, I think. I have lovely flashes of book-related memories that I sometimes catch as they float by: being read to by my parents, reading on long car trips and trying not to give into car sickness, being told off by Mum for reading in the dark, the treat of visiting a bookshop, reading well-loved books over and over. I was so proud to own books and would always nick my mum’s and put them on my bookshelf. She’d take them back without telling me, and I’d do the same. It became this silent, funny, table-tennis kind of game that we had with each other and didn’t acknowledge.
I look at all my childhood books now and I can feel the magic of that time, the feeling they gave me. I can’t remember not feeling like books were important. I don’t think this is something I could have explained as a kid—now I can attach language to the feeling, and suggest that perhaps it was something to do with the way reading tapped into my imagination and my love of learning and the need I might have felt to develop an understanding for the way people are. But as a kid, it felt natural and I loved it and I didn’t know why. It was just something I thought everyone did, like the way we all did colouring-in, and played the recorder, and dressed up in Mum’s old bridesmaid dress and glittery shoes. It was all play to me.
When did you begin writing in a serious way, and what motivated that?
I’ve kept journals since I was quite young, and there’s a line in one when I was eight years-old that says, pretty precociously, ‘I’m determined to become a writer.’ When I was nine or ten, I wrote this nonsense poem in the style of Roald Dahl in primary school about my little brother called The Pest (it obviously wasn’t overly complimentary!). My teacher asked me to read it out loud in front of the class—my classmates laughed in all the right spots, and I was urged to do a sequel. The sequel was terrible and didn’t have the same impact, but I remembered the feeling of my writing giving people pleasure. I wanted more of that feeling.
I did get a bit distracted along the way—I spent a large chunk of my early teenage years playing tennis and cricket, and wanting to be Steffi Graf/Monica Seles/Belinda Clark, and when I was fifteen, my careers counsellor at high school informed me that writing wasn’t something you did, as a job; writing was something you did as a hobby. And because I didn’t know anyone who had a job as a writer, I guess I figured she was right. So, for a little while, I wanted to be a sports scientist: I liked sport, didn’t mind science, and my dad was an academic in the field, so I knew it was something you could actually do.
But moments after I finished my last exam in my final year of high school, a strange thing happened. I’d been studying so hard and was exhausted, but I was finished. I never had to go to high school ever again, or even study again, if I didn’t want to. The normal way an eighteen year-old might have reacted to that would be to go and party, and I’m sure all my friends had that appropriate reaction, but I went straight home. I sat back down at my desk. I spent the next four hours writing a story I’d had bubbling about my head for weeks. The next day, I decided to be a writer again.
I’ve always written and was always going to, regardless of whether or not I got myself published. I assumed I wouldn’t get my novel published for years, if at all—it really is difficult to get published in the current climate, and working as a bookseller, I’m so aware of that. There are so many good books in the world, and they often take such a long time to find the right person. I wanted to set up a life that I was happy with if I didn’t ever get anything published, so I work at a beautiful bookshop in Perth called Beaufort Street Books, and sometimes teach at Curtin Uni, also in Perth. I’ve traditionally been pretty hard on myself, particularly in the academic context, so to be okay with myself and my life if I didn’t achieve the one thing I’ve always wanted to achieve—it was very important for me to get to that point.
How did your novel Lost and Found come to be written and published?
I spent five years writing Lost & Found as part of a PhD at Curtin University in Perth. It was a reaction to the sudden death of my mum: I wanted to spend time thinking deeply about what it meant to grieve, and what it meant to live with the knowledge that the people you love will die. I was particularly interested in the concept of grief not as a process that begins and ends and is only about sadness, but as a part of life. As something that we have to work out how to live with, in among everything else there is—the good, the bad, the indifferent.
When I finally completed the PhD, a bookseller friend of mine in Perth read Lost & Found and told a mutual friend of ours—Todd—about it, who happens to be a Hachette account manager. Todd rang me and said, ‘Would you like me to take this to head office at Hachette and see what they think?’ And before he’d even finished the sentence, I said ‘Yes, please.’ I was picturing teetering slush piles and not expecting to hear back for months, if at all. But within a couple of weeks, Vanessa from Hachette had rung me and made an offer, and suddenly I had an agent, and the contract was negotiated and agreed upon. It was a bit of a whirlwind. I was actually on holiday in St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada at the time, and after everything had been finalised, I took myself off to this pub and propped myself up at the bar, and I just sat there on my own, kind of giddy with it all. I got to talking to some people, and by the end of the night, all these lovely strangers were buying me drinks to help me celebrate. It was a truly gorgeous moment in my life.
What research did you have to do for Lost and Found and how did you go about it?
I did some field-work research on the Australian landscape for the road trip my characters take. I took a few drives between Esperance and Perth and Kalgoorlie, and hopped on the Indian Pacific train between Perth and Adelaide quite a few times. I adore the landscape of this country and relished the time I got to study it. In particular, I have a soft spot for that train trip. It gives such insight into the quiet, stark beauty of our landscape.
I also read so much about grief and death. Novels, memoirs, academic papers on the psychology of it, historical books, newspaper articles, anything I could get my hands on, really. I talked and listened to anyone who also wanted to talk and listen. My research was mostly about trying to understand how we all do it, how we all survive with those deep sadnesses. It was a great challenge: I’d cry every now and then at my desk. I’d read about the personal experience of another person, or I’d write a section in my novel that came from a place of my own sense of emotional truth, and I’d just bawl. That part of the project was hard. But grieving is hard, and writing a book is hard. And having so much emotion tied up with what I was doing made it all the more important and real for me, so I accepted the challenge of it.
What are your writing habits? Where do you write? What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m a pretty disciplined, hard-working type, but I’ve also learned that I need to be kind to myself to get the best out of myself, so I focus on living in a balanced way. I love to write and it’s important to me, but I also love my life outside of that. I love being social, I love thinking about things that don’t relate to writing, I love healthy food and exercise. Time away from writing is really important to my life as a writer.
I try to keep my life calm and quiet when I’m writing. I make sure I bookend my writing days with some sort of exercise and time for self-reflection. I treat the day like a job and usually work solidly for eight hours, with a few breaks. I sometimes work from home, and other times, when I’m a little stuck and need a change of scenery, I write in cafes. The disadvantage of working in public is that you can’t work in your pyjamas and you can’t nap when you want to.
But people are really important to my writing. I love being in cafes to absorb the behaviours of people around me. It’s often called ‘people-watching’, but that implies a certain kind of voyeurism, or staring. But I don’t do that. I don’t sit there with the intention of staring at people and stealing their lives. In fact, I barely even look at people: it’s more of a process of incidental absorption. A person nearby brushes their hair away from their face, or looks at someone, or walks in a certain way and for some reason the image sticks in my mind and I feel a sense of urgency to nail the moment in language, because it feels like it might represent something.
I work my best in the mornings. I’m one of those really annoying morning people. I know it’s annoying because I’ve often lived with non-morning people, and when I greet them with a cheery ‘morning!’ at 9am, when I’ve been up for three or four hours, and tell them how beautiful it is outside, etcetera etcetera, they glare at me through half-closed eyes and I can tell they wish me an early death. My mind is so clear at that time, and there’s a stillness and potential that doesn’t exist at any other time of day. The downside to this is that I’m completely useless after about 2pm!
What do you do when you feel creatively stuck?
I usually do one or two or all of these things:
Give myself a change of scenery by moving to a café or park or library or shopping mall or wherever feels right; read a writer who always inspires me; ring one of my writer friends and ask them to solve my problem for me/give me a pep talk/talk about anything but my writing; listen to a new song; exercise; have a nap; freewrite. Sometimes I accept that I’m not having a good day and stop. Other times, I think I’m obviously not good enough and should give up and become a sports scientist.
What are you working on now?
To be honest, I’m just trying to enjoy what’s happening right now. I’ll never have a First Book out ever again, so I’m allowing myself time to revel in the feeling, and not putting pressure on myself to write too seriously. The whispers of a second novel have started up, and I suspect they’re going to become louder and louder soon, but until then, I’m happy to give myself a break.
What’s your favourite book by an Australian female author?
Oh, this is such a difficult question! There are so many! We’re so lucky in Australia to have such talented writers, both female and male. I’ll have to say Lillian’s Story by Kate Grenville. It’s dark and funny and thoughtful and strange, and I was blown away by the magic of it when I first read it, many, many years ago.
Photo credit: Ailsa Bowyer
Brooke Davis is an Australian author. Her debut novel Lost and Found was published in June 2014 and has reached international acclaim. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Curtin University.
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