An Interview with Kate Grenville

The author of The Idea of Perfection, talks about the genesis of her new novel, about e-books, teaching, being an Australian writer, her latest project and more.
Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: Tell me about the genesis of The Idea of Perfection.
Kate: I started with two characters – a gawky engineer and a surly middle-aged woman – and plonked them into a little Australian country town. Then I more or less stood back to find out what would happen. The thing that draws them together is the same thing that threatens to keep them apart – a rickety old wooden bridge. He’s in Karakarook to pull it down: she’s in Karakarook as a protector of Heritage. I knew I wanted them to find each other in the end, but I didn’t know how they’d get there.

Magdalena: Is Karakarook a real town?
Kate: Karakarook is many real towns, about a dozen of them, all chopped up and mixed together: the shops from one place, the pub from another, the hills behind the town from somewhere else. I love writing fiction – you can take just what you want from a place, and leave the rest.

Magdalena: Tell me about the kind of research you had to do for this book.
Kate: I’d been taking notes about country towns long before I realised I was going to write a book set in one – I just fell in love with little details that I felt had to be recorded. That was what you might call unintentional research. I did a lot of intentional research as well , about bridges, reading dense and immensely heavy Engineering textbooks. For a while I actually understood about trusses and shear fractures. I also researched quilting, which was a great pleasure because I’ve always loved patchwork, while not having the patience to do any myself. Writing about quilts was my version of making one.

Magdalena: What does the title refer to?
Kate: Douglas and Harley are both haunted by the idea of perfection – an impossible ideal of themselves they feel they can never match. Their journey of self-discovery is to realise that they don’t have to be perfect. What Leonardo da Vinci said about arches is also true of two people “Two weaknesses together make a strength”.

Magdalena: As I got to know Douglas and Harley, I started to also think about the idea of beauty, and wonder if Douglas and Harley’s own perception of their physical attributes was a skewed as Felicity’s. Is this also part of the theme?

Kate: I think we all waste a lot of time measuring ourselves up against impossible standards in lots of ways. Douglas thinks his ears stick out too much (he’s right) and Harley thinks she’s bad, mad, and dangerous to know (she’s right, too). Plus, they’re both middle-aged. The fact that they don’t match the stereotype of physical beauty is just one more thing they can criticise themselves for. Luckily, they both learn a few things in the course of the book, one of those things being that physical beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, including a lot that the women’s magazines have never even thought of.

Magdalena: Very little is actually said in the book, and much of the external dialogue is accompanied by the tortured interior voices of the characters. Is this part of the theme of the book – that dichotomy between appearance and reality/interior-exterior?

Kate: I’ve always been fascinated by slippages in life – there’s sometimes a lot of air between what we think we think and what we really, truly think. There’s also often a gap between what somebody else says and what we hear them say. People aren’t transparent, even to themselves. Digging down through the layers of understanding, mis-hearing and self-deception is a fascinating process. If life was just its surface it would be pretty boring.

Magdalena: Felicity is quite a character. Tell me about her – what does she represent?

Kate: Felicity acts as a counter-poise to Harley and Douglas. They learn that the idea of perfection can be a tyrant you should overthrow, to gain your freedom. Felicity, on the other hand, remains totally under the thumb of the idea of perfection. She thinks that if you work hard enough at it, you can control every aspect of life so that you’re perfect. Her neurotic thing about wrinkles is just one aspect of this feeling. If you ration your smiles, and dab on a bit of moisturiser after each one, Felicity is convinced that your face need never show the marks of life – it can remain unlined and “perfect”. The fact that this kind of perfection is a kind of death hasn’t yet occurred to her.

Magdalena: It is interesting how you make the city experts the awkward ones. You could imagine that they would appear (or would have been expected to appear) exactly the opposite to the people they had temporarily come to live with – sophisticated, aloof, confident. Is the country/city; personal/impersonal another important theme of the book.

Kate: There’s room in the world for many different kinds of intelligence, many different kinds of knowledge. City people may have one kind, but country people certainly have another. The country bumpkin in the big smoke is a stock figure of fun, but the city person bumbling around the countryside is just as foolish. I wanted to turn a lot of conventions on their head in this book – let middle-aged frumps fall in love, make a romantic hero out of a man whose ears stick out – and making country people the smart ones was another reversal of stereotype.

Magdalena: Were you worried that the affair with the butcher might be a little cliché? (at least it wasn’t the milkman), or was that part of its draw for Felicity, who seems to be unable to discern the real from the superficial, living her life as a kind of cliche?

Kate: Felicity completely lacks self-awareness or self-irony so she has no idea that her entire life is one gigantic cliché. If Karakarook had a milkman, she’d probably have had an affair with him. Freddy Chang isn’t your average butcher, though. As I wrote more about him and discovered more of his life, I found myself getting very interested in him – Chinese, but fourth or fifth generation Australian; a butcher, but also a photographer; a ladykiller, but also a conscientious son of the family; amoral, but also a good man. Felicity is too self-absorbed to notice what he’s really like, but she should – he’s an interesting person.

Magdalena: Do you feel that there is a common “sensibility” among Australian writers which goes beyond just having the book set in an Australian place?

Kate: Australian writers are lucky – so much about Australia hasn’t been written about yet. Our history is full of fantasitc stories that haven’t been told, our landscape has only been written about in parts, and so many ways of being Australian haven’t been written about up till now. We’re a new country, but also we’re a country that’s changing so fast, there are new ways of being Australian evolving all the time. What Australian writers might have in common is that feeling that there’s still plenty to explore.

Magdalena: Do you think that The Idea of Perfection will appeal to a non-Australian audience – eg the Americans, the British?

Kate: Yes, the book has proved very popular overseas. It’s close enough to the stereotype of Australia- the bronzed Aussie outback thing, but it’s also different in that it’s a comedy, and a kind of romance, and the setting isn’t the heroic parched outback but the sub-culture of the country town. I think they appreciate its humour and like the fact that it doesn’t ram its “Australian-ness” down their throats.

Magdalena: You maintain your own web site. Do you find that technology has impacted on your work as a writer?
Kate: My web site has been very popular, especially with reading groups ( there’s a page there with discussion-starting ideas for reading groups). It’s a great way to reach readers and for readers to reach me. As far as writing itself goes, the word processor has speeded things up for me immensely – especially since I’ve always done a lot of drafts, and before word processors that meant a huge amount of re-typing. A big book is a hard thing to manage – I find the computer makes it easier to keep it in order, and to keep the old drafts (which I sometimes go back to) without drowning in paper.

Magdalena: What do you think of e-books?
Kate: I don’t think the physical object of a book has any sacred quality, so in principle I think ebooks are great – just another way for stories and story-tellers to connect. Ebooks have many advantages – publishers don’t have to make guesses about how many books to print, books need never go “out of print”, and hard-to-find books can be easily available. So far, the only limitation seems to be finding a way for the writer to be paid, and I guess that little tiny detail will be worked out in due course.

Magdalena: The Idea of Perfection has a wonderful visual quality. Is there any talk of filming it?
Kate: Yes, film-makers are interested in the book, but so far I haven’t optioned it with anyone. I virtually saw it as a film as I was writing it, so I think it will translate to screen very naturally.

Magdalena: Do you still teach? Do you find that your work as a teacher has an impact on your writing? Or are they simply separate jobs?
Kate: Only a very few novelists in Australia can make a living from their sales, and unfortunately I’m not one of them. I cobble together a living from royalties, freelance writing such as reviewing, and teaching. Luckily, I really enjoy teaching writing and find it challenging and stimulating. I’ve written a manual for fiction writers ( The Writing Book), co-authored a book about the process of writing novels ( Making Stories) and in June a how-to-write book for beginning writers of all ages will be published. All of these have evolved out of teaching writing at different levels. Now and then a student will come up with a really great image or phrase and I have a moment’s moral tussle with myself. So far I’ve resisted the temptation to steal – but I often find my own imagination is fired by things that come up in the workshops I run. The down side is that teaching writing uses up the same part of your imagination that writing does, so the danger is that you can find you don’t have enough left over for your own work. It’s a balancing act, but one I enjoy.

Magdalena: What are you working on at the moment?
Kate: My current project is a book based on my convict ancestor Solomon Wiseman, of Wiseman’s Ferry in NSW. He was a terrible old rogue, and probably murdered his wife. This may be bad news to have in your family tree but it’s music to the ears of a story-teller. The way I see the book at the moment is to use his story as a way of exploring other ideas about that period of Australian history.

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