The author of Wild Surmise talks about her love of astronomy, the writing of a verse novel and her own particular style, her characters, the state of modern writing in general, and poetry in particular, the film made of her earlier verse novel The Monkey’s Mask, her new opera, The Eternity Man and lots more.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena Ball: Where did the idea for Wild Surmise originate?
Dorothy Porter: From my own interest. It was originally triggered by my own interest in the search for life from elsewhere. I had been watching NASA’s Galileo probe for exploring the whole Jupiter system, watching the pictures it was sending back of the moons orbiting Jupiter, and was moved by the speculation and excitement around Europa. I had an honorary fellowship at Melbourne University and they’d set me up with a computer. I spent a lot of time on the web on NASA’s site looking at these pictures and I wrote my poem Europa for Other Worlds at the time. While I was writing, my interest in astronomy was ongoing and I was also fiddling with various ideas for my next novel, none of which were productive. One day I just woke up and thought that my next book will be about a woman astronomer. A that point I had no idea where it would lead, it takes a long time to write a verse novel – they are a kind of adventure in themselves, and the character of Daniel only came much later.
Originally I was planning for Alex to find something – that the book would be more like a science fiction – more whiz bang, rather than the grim internal journey it turned out to be.
MB: A lot of the astronomical ideas are prefigured in Other Worlds. I know you did a lot of research for both Other Worlds and Wild Surmise. Have you always had an interest in astronomy?
DP: I’ve always had it. I’m probably just as obsessional as Alex . I’ve said this elsewhere, but all of my verse novels in some way or another triggered by some obsession of mine. My interest in astronomy has been much more inflamed the last few years with all of these amazing new discoveries. Astronomy has been flat for a while, there have been no manned trips like the trip to the moon, but now it’s all hotting up again, and there are so many readily available extraordinary pictures. I’ve just become completely obsessed, which you can see from the Comets section in Other Worlds. I realised what an extraordinarily fertile area this is for a poet. I suddenly found myself with an embarrassment of riches. For Wild Surmise I used about 2 percent of what I wrote – many of the poems which were very science oriented had to go because the narrative became psychological and took this turn.
MB: Is there really something about those moons that is sexy? They certainly have evocative names.
DP: I think that even our own moon is sexy. Even though it is an inert body, not a live active moon like Io, and certainly not a potentially biologically alive one like Europa, there is something so beautiful about the moon. Then I’ve always been a kind of pagan, and there is the goddess cult, so the moon is also a spiritual icon. Even though I know all about it astronomically and it isn’t that exciting, it is just lovely having one moon.
MB: Is loving something so remote and inhuman part of Europa’s (and Phoebe’s) dysfunctional charm for Alex? Alex says at one point that they “are both a mystery/I wanted to conquer and crack.”
DP: That’s right – again you sometimes can’t take what a character says at face value. Alex and Daniel speak to each other compulsively in their heads rather than to each other, and that particular poem is Alex in extremis. I felt that she did have a real passion for Phoebe. I know a lot of readers find Phoebe awful and terrible, but she is honest. She behaves like those kind of men who spelled things out in the past behaved like. I did want to turn those stereotypes on their head. Phoebe is a woman obsessed with her work, and Daniel is a man whose work doesn’t mean much to him anymore – he has become much more obsessed with his relationship.
MB: Alex’s love interest has the same name as one of Saturn’s moons. Is this a deliberate parallel?
DP: No it wasn’t deliberate, and I didn’t deliberately give her the ancient names of the sun either. It was a weird accident. Of course I would have been subconsciously aware of these things, and often I find that the most serendipitous things are consciously accidental. When I do try and manipulate things like that, it often doesn’t work – it is too clunky, but sometimes there are things like that which just cilck into place. I admire Phoebe in a kind of way. She lives in a total man’s world.
MB: Why did you choose to build the novel in a series of poems? Did you consider other forms such as continuous verse or even a more traditional narrative form?
Although I may not be the only person writing in this way, I do think that this is my area – the way I’ve stumbled into this type of narrative, seems to be working for me. This is one of the wonderful thing about writing verse novels – every poet who ventures into writing verse novels will have to solve that issue of “voice” in his or her own way, and this is a way that works for me. Of course there are other forms of verse novels which are very different, such as Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate or other types of longer verse narratives. The one thing which was a departure for me in this book was to try different voices.
MB: How do you produce a novel in verse? Is the process more akin to writing poetry – do you write the poems based on individual themes and then pull them together into a story, or do you build the story and characters in prose form and then write the poems around them?
DP: For me, it absolutely has to be first a collection of poems. I write each poem completely as it comes, in the body as it were of the characters. While I’m doing it I don’t know what is going to happen, the poems and characters propel the narrative. It is very important to me that these are written as poems. I might see something or feel something myself and then work on the poems to create the story. In the last year or so of the book when I’ve got the draft up then there is more deliberate process of fleshing out a character who might be too thin, or I may have to jettison poems that I don’t like or that don’t fit the narrative, when the book takes over as a narrative, but this comes later.
MB: Are there other challenges about creating in a poetic form – are you much more restricted to sound and rhythm than you might be working in prose?
DP: Oh no on the contrary I feel I have a tremendous freedom. Each poem can have its own tone – the tone of a sex scene will be very different from the tone of a death scene. I felt when I was writing The monkey’s Mask that I wasn’t constrained by the dignity of the sentence – I could just let rip. Poetry is so much more cinematic, and very exciting. Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t easy – it is fiendishly hard – any poet who has attempted a verse novel will tell you that – I’m amazed that I’ve got 4 up my sleeve and can’t imagine ever doing one again – it takes so and is so tricky, but it is marvellous fun to do.
MB: You’ve said in an earlier interview that you think a lot of modern writing is soaked with a kind of dreadful self-pity. Tell me more about that.
DP: Maybe I’m just trying to avoid my own self-pity. What I meant was a kind of lack of passion, a lack of exciting engagement. If you just write about your own neuroses, a kind of modern ghastliness you end up with a wasteland – it is more like a tedious cantor. This is one of the reason I enjoy genre fiction – it has to move, and doesn’t have that sense of a crippled narrative. If I find myself reading something, and one of the reasons I enjoyed Dirt Music, and clearly I’m not alone, is that it has that lovely luminous lyricism and joy of life and awareness of characters. There is a sort of spark to TIm’s [Winton’s] writing which is irresistible, and that is why I think his books are so popular. I certainly hope that my books have that “alive” quality.
MB: Your poetry sells, but generally poetry is considered the ‘non-lucrative’ high art of writing – unpopular and marginalised as you once put it. Why do you think your work has broken out of that spell/mould? Or do you think an interest in poetry is on the rise?
DP: I’m glad it has, and believe me it took a long while to do it. I spent 20 years where I was in the same desperate situation as everyone else. I can only speculate that a lot of people enjoyed The Monkey’s Mask , which did surprise me. I thought people would find it strange and confronting and I was wrong. I do think that there is a hunger for poetry in the community. It is by no means properly promoted, and there are some fantastic poets who haven’t been given a fair go. I think that Les Murray sells very well and he and I couldn’t be more different, but we both have our audience. Once you have an audience they tend to stick with you. As for poetry’s future, well I hope that there is a renaissance of interest, but I don’t know. I do know that it won’t happen unless the mainstream publishers come to the party, and stop looking at poetry in terms of what will and won’t sell.
MB: You’ve said (in an interview with Ramona Koval) that only poetry can get away with exploring difficult topics like power and madness. Why is that?
DP: I just think that poetry is able to do something deeper than standard prose, and when I look the greatest examples of this – Shakespeare and Euripides, and characters like Macbeth and Medea – it is obvious – poetry is the blind divinity. It shows the volcanic inner life. These characters are impossible to ignore. You understand them from the inside, and understand their reasons for what they do. It is engaging. You can understand why Plato didn’t want poets in his ideal republic – there is something morally dangerous about poetry. You can watch a woman murdering her own children out of spite and think that it makes sense. Poetry at its best is demonic not didactic.
MB: Filming a novel like The Monkeys Mask must have been quite a challenge. Were you pleased with the results?
DP: On the whole yes – considering how virtually impossible it would have been to work with. I really respected the production company who made it and thought that they chose a good cast. I wasn’t involved formally, not as a screenwriter, but I think they made a good fist of it, and broke new ground. It will be interesting to see how it is perceived in the future.
MB: Tell me more about The Eternity Man, your new opera.
DP: It is an opera that I’ve recently finished the libretto for and composer Jonathan Mills did the music. We had previously worked together on The Ghost Wife based on the story “The Chosen Vessel” by Barbara Baynton, which opens at The Barbican in London in November, and has so far done very well for a new Australian opera. We were invited to submit an idea to an international opera competition for the inaugural Genesis Foundation for young composers (under 40) and submitted our idea, along with our previous work, and made it on the shortlist of 9 out of 200 entries. We were then invited over to London in April and given an orchestra and singers to work with and along with all the other shortlisted people we presented a workshop libretto and we were one of the 3 winners. The piece will be presented at the Almeida Theatre next July.
MB: Do you have any input into the music?
DP: I adore music but I can barely read it anymore. I write the libretto and then give it to Jonathan who does all the musical work. We do work as a team – he and I recently had a meeting and we go back and forth with ideas, but basically I do all the words and he does all the music. So far this has been one of those wonderful left field things which sometimes happens in life.
MB: Are you seriously considering turning Wild Surmise into Opera?
DP: Yes we’ve been talking about that. The two operas we’ve done have been short, small operas on a small scale, with no more than 3 or 4 singers. I’m hoping that Wild Surmise could be a big major opera – there is so much meat in it, and it would be a real challenge to turn my own book into a piece of music.
MB: Will you do more work along astronomical themes?
DP: I’ve already done some more. I was commissioned to write a poem about the future in Ars Poetica for the ABC. It is a poem in 2 voices about whether or not we receive should we respond if we pick up life signals on one of our radio telescopes. It is called “If the phone rings” and will be broadcast as a soundscape on the 23rd of November. I imagine I will do more. At this stage I have no idea what I’m doing next beyond that.
MB: Do you think we will find life in the universe? Will the phone ring?
DP: I hope so. Maybe not in my lifetime. And it isn’t that straightforward. As I showed in Wild Surmise we have to be terribly careful about contaminating Europa. I don’t know how accessible the current mission to Europa will be, but it should clarify once and for all where there is a liquid ocean on Europa. Of course we don’t even know what’s in Lake Vostock, much less Europa and there is so much to learn. But yes, there must be life, and the phone will definitely ring. This is an area for extreme debate. Have the gods arrived or should we be fearful? We have no choice in any case. Our own radio transmission will let others know that we are here.