Sue Gough talks about the origins of The Nether Regions, the differences between writing adult and teenage targeted literature, about language, its limitations and power, her characters, on the creative process, on what she is reading, on teaching creative writing, and her next book.
Magdalena: Tell me about the origins of The Nether Regions?
Sue: It started very strangely with one short story which is a little out of kilter with the others “Hallo Sailor”. There was a guy who was always there on my way to the shops, and he was something of an enigma. I used to look at him and I had this fantasy about him, I would think “you don’t know that I’m always thinking of you” and he would turn around and tell me that I had it completely wrong. He did have a Dorset accent and it was there where I had my childhood, and I did also have an experience with a flasher.
Magdalena: How does writing an adult fiction differ from teenage fiction?
Sue: I have to tread very carefully here because the one thing young adult writers keep saying is that it is the same; that it takes just as much skill as writing for adults, but it was a huge step for me beyond. Working with adult fiction is to work in an area of far greater complexity. It is more dangerous; you test your reader far more and at the same time you are not quite sure how much your reader is getting. I wanted the reader to have that feeling of discovery themselves. With the young adults I could be more entertaining and more prescriptive. Adult fiction, for me at least, is both harder and more fulfilling. You need to be far less prescriptive morally “not that I ever tried to preach when writing for young adults: Tipperary was written in response to the recession in the 80s and I kept thinking that back in 1980 things were much tougher and people coped. The next one was written in response to the children of friends of mine who were sucked into cults – friends of mine literally lost children. The 3rd one, Here comes the Night, was my response to Pauline Hanson, looking at prejudice I guess, and the moral for all of these novels was clear. With The Nether Regions I’m much more uncertain – I’m looking at someone facing the ultimate dilemma and I haven’t got any very clear Idea of how they should go or what they should do so I’m posing questions. I still feel the moral responsibility though. It is a moral responsibility to ask the big questions and get people thinking about things.
Magdalena: Language, its limitations and its power are important themes in this novel. Was it tricky to have a mute narrator?
Sue: It wasn’t tricky actually because that person could think and if you think about every novel you read, it will describe full processes. You might ask how does that novelist know but of course they are the narrator and have that access. In the same way I had access to Beverley’s thought processes. I didn’t realise until after I finished the book – it dawned on me that my ultimate phobia is to be entirely powerless. It wasn’t until I finished writing that I realised that I was confronting one of my own fears.
Magdalena: World you say that The Nether Regions has a happy ending?
Sue: Absolutely. I hope that that final unfinished sentence tells the reader that Beverley has escaped. I don’t want to give away the ending and I want the reader to come to that conclusion themselves, but yes it is happy.
Magdalena: What about the children? Beverley’s unspoken dread. Does she really confront her feelings for them? Sue: I think she does. The acknowledgment of the true horror of the situation. A psychiatrist once told me that a lot of people with a terminal illness will go into denial, and that is a good way of dealing with terminal illness – it is a natural response, but at the same time her urge to escape and the challenges she sets herself to escape are limited until she confronts her demons. It is only when she allows that love and compassion back that she can escape.
Magdalena: I have to ask you this. Have you made some of those gorgeous sounding dishes – goose relieno, Asian Almond Jelly, truffle tapanade?
Sue: Oh yes – I love food. I do occasionally write for the Courier Mail a tongue in cheek Foodie column. I’ve always been fascinated by food and exotic food and because my husband is a Forrester and we’ve lived in places like Borneo I’ve just been able to try out the most exotic things. I have made the Asian Almond Jelly – it is very easy.
Magdalena: Tell me about Merle. She is an unlikely savour.
Sue: She is an unlikely saviour, but there is a clue in the name. Merle is the name of a small black bird, and it is also half of the name Mercury – she is a messenger; an intermediary. She is also Beverley’s alter ego – the freedom Beverley would have loved. Beverley is a phobic and Merle is a wonderfully uninhibited character. In a sense Dierdre is the dark dreary earthbound side of Beverley. And the use of Liza Minnelli – well I think of Cabaret, the way it was so out there and in your face and cheeky and the whole Berlin thing. The opposite of Beverley and the life she lived.
Magdalena: There are a lot of specifically Australian references, from Paul Keating through to Roger Woodward, John Bell and Barry Kosky, Dame Edna, Lindy Chamberlin, Hayman Island, the CJC, and King Island triple brie. Were you worried that this might make the novel hard to sell in an international market?
Sue: I know. I had to write it about Australia and to me the iconography was very important. I had no way of knowing if it would ever get that far – to an international audience. If it did by some wonderful chance appeal to a market in America I would probably have to do another version. Well it is my first adult novel and I can only dream. It only launched last Tuesday. It did wonderfully well at the launch which was great and I envisaged it might be a good book for reading groups, but I was writing it for an Australian market. I should tell you though that the book has had a movie option taken out on it.
Magdalena: You also make yourself the butt of jokes. What about the Canadian menopausal writer of young adult fiction.
Sue: I know and I’ve lived through that and I remember reading a feature in a magazine. The writer said that the worst thing he could think of was to be stuck at a party with a writer of young adult fiction so that attitude is real.
Magdalena: Is Giles a kind of alter ego for you?
Sue: I didn’t have that in mind – I had actually taken dreadful liberties with someone with whom I was on Fraser Island – he was charming and delightful and I only used him as a springboard.
Magdalena: Is this a writer’s dilemma – do you find yourself taking a mental picture of the people you meet with the aim of putting them into fiction?
Sue: It is very hard – I would never ever do it to my friends – I have a huge superstition about doing it to someone I knew. I don’t think it is the thing to do, but you cannot help picking up on the little aspects of a character. Of course I used my husband a bit. But my husband is the most stable of men – Foresters just sit and watch the trees grow, but as he was reading this book there were times when he got a little anxious and wondered where I got my ideas from. I’m sure there was a time when he didn’t want me to spread any honey on the toast. He was bemused by the book and I think he found it hard to relate to his wife. On his second reading he really enjoyed it though.
Magdalena: You once were a review writer yourself. Do you feel that writers need to read?
Sue: My god yes. I actually get quite a lot of creative writing courses and am appalled by the number of writers who say they don’t read. I have learnt more by reading than anything else. Not that I plagiarise, but if something moves me I pay attention to that and try to so how the writer did it.
Magdalena: Do you still find time to read?
Sue: Yes I certainly do – I’ve got a pile of books beside my bed and the person I’m reading now is Asimov, whose book The Rings of Saturn is just the most stunning book I’ve read in years. His ideas form wonderful concentric circles and overlap. There are great masters out there who are really worth looking at.
Magdalena: Tell me about your writer’s workshops through the Queensland Arts Councils – have you done many?
Sue: Whenever I’m asked to do them I do them. I’ve got a technique – a box full of extraordinary treasures. It is full of items such as a little pair of red satin Chinese shoes from the bound foot days, a human bone from Bhutan, the smallest game of Dominos in the world – strange eccentric little items and I used them with my students and get them to tell me an extraordinary lie about them, and the stories pour out of them. It is a joy to do. I really love enabling people to get their imagination going wildly.
Magdalena: Do you think that creative writing can be taught?
Sue: Only up to a point – you can trigger an imagination but you’ll learn more about writing sitting in a room working at it than a year’s worth of classes, but every now and then when some one gives you permission to think creatively you pick up on something and run with it. I have seen work transformed. Absolutely. Last week I just launched some children’s books – stories which came out of the same writing workshop. I do quite a lot of mentoring, and when you enable people you do see their work transformed. Just sitting down and asking questions about their intentions and listening can work wonders. It has helped me with my work on occasion. Sometimes I realise that something that they are not getting right, by the time I’ve thought about it and examined it I see that it was a problem which I’m also having and we jointly solve it.
Magdalena: What are you working on at the moment?
Sue: I’m actually working on the next novel which is about a widow who is in touch with the future. It is a future which she cannot trust. It is asking her to do things and she is uncertain about whether to do them or not. It is about technology and the dehumanisation of our world at the moment in which we often cannot touch or smell people. We have to take words/voices on trust. It is set in Las Vegas, Seattle and the desert and I’m completely intrigued at the moment. I’m not quite sure where it will end up.