Interview with Martine Murray: “I’m interested in the unconscious processes that make us who we are.”

Martine Murray is an Australian author, illustrator, and dancer based in Melbourne. She has received critical acclaim for her many books, including How to Make a Bird, which won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards Young Adult award in 2004, and The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley, which won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards Children’s Book award in 2006.

In addition to her writing, Murray has studied filmmaking, art, and movement & dance, and has formed a dance theatre company called Bird on a Wire. She also teaches yoga and has been involved in community circus.

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Hi Martine, thank you for joining us today! Your book, How to Make a Bird, won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards Young Adult award in 2004. Can you share what inspired you to write this book and what the creative process was like for you?

I was thinking about loss when I wrote this book and also longing and possibly the relationship between them. And then how this might play out in a young person– a person who is not yet conscious of the forces at work in their own psyche. The process was very unplanned.

I was living in a house in the country, in which I set the book, and I used to walk my dog through the apple orchards there. The orchard owners had hung a large fake eagle on a wire across the path to frighten the cockatoos. All that was left of it were two wings which hung there quite forlornly. I started the book with this image.

Having an image that strikes you, that stands symbolically or metaphorically for something you’re unconsciously caught up in, something that might have a hold on you, is like finding a source from which you can draw out a character. A character with a problem or longing or lack can make a story, hopefully. I felt this also in relation to the landscape in many ways which I blended with memories and then also I talked to local people and asked them about growing up in the time the novel was set.

Out of all this–the train tracks and tunnels, the trees, paddocks, orchards, farmhouses, I found a sense of character and from her I began to spin out a story, knowing it had to build up to a profound loss, the redemption for which I aimed to find as I went along. 

In addition to writing, you have also studied filmmaking, art, and movement & dance. How do these diverse interests and experiences inform and influence your work as an author?

It’s likely that all experiences inform your work as a writer. That’s the best part of the job.  Everything is potentially relevant. As far as doing film making, art and dance– they are or were all driven by the same impulse, which is something to do with working back and forth between imagination and life and crafting something out of that which would hopefully be meaningful. I think a life of working creatively, in one form or another, has elucidated what a creative process is and how it works, which means I’m completely willing to fail my way forward. 

You’ve been involved in the arts community, including forming a dance theatre company and receiving Arts Victoria funding to develop and perform a full-length work. How has your involvement in these creative endeavors impacted your writing?

 Dance is a preverbal art form which is why I like it, especially since we have become, as a society, more and more disembodied. I still dance, mainly as a way to keep myself in my body and off a screen. It offers a very immediate felt reality, which is so counter to the virtual that it seems necessary. I’m not sure how this translates to writing except that I suspect in some ways I am always trying to evoke the feeling, experiencing body. To remember it. 

The Last Summer of Ada Bloom is your first novel for adults. Can you tell us what inspired you to make the transition from writing children’s books to writing for a different audience?

 Against all sensible advice, I have constantly been writing for different audiences and in different forms and still am. I feel the question ought to be, why wouldn’t we explore different sorts of audiences. I’ve been all ages now- and all seem so particular and vivid and impactful. 

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The book is set in the Australian countryside. Can you tell us about your connection to this location and why you chose to set the story there?

Again, I have to confess I am not really a researcher, which means I always set my books wherever I am. It’s the laziest and easiest but also feels the most truthful. I have a lived experience of this countryside – if I need a particular sort of setting, like say the windmill, I know it well enough to be able to describe it.

I know how to find the places where scenes might unravel. It seems important to get the place right, as a scene can be lifted up or gotten better by virtue of the place it’s set in. Place holds a story in it already. Some of the places I used in Ada Bloom came from memories, but still they were real places I knew well. 

The characters in The Last Summer of Ada Bloom go through significant growth and change throughout the story. Can you share how you approached creating these characters and their arcs?

 This novel was way more complex than I intended it to be, both in terms of narrative style, (because of the multiple voice and perspective) and character (narrative is driven not by a main character, but by the relationship between characters) and also in the movement of time, (the story opens at the fraught and worn-out end of the parent’s relationship and tracks backwards to how it began while unraveling the forward momentum of the oldest daughter Tilly’s commencement of adulthood and relationship, so that the two narratives move alongside each other, one back through time and the other forward.)

 Initially I planned to tell the whole story from the youngest child Ada’s point of view, because the unreliable nature of a young narrator appeals to me. Also Ada has the gift of seeing and prefigures from the beginning, a sense that the heat of summer is building tensions towards an inevitable climax.

As I went along it became apparent that as I was as interested in Tilly and the mother, I could not get inside their stories or minds through Ada. So I opened it up to the whole family, which was challenging structurally, as each person was living out their own story within the larger one– that being the story of a family for whom the initial apparent rupture occurs when Ada witnesses her father having an affair. As the story unravels it becomes clear that the internal dynamics of the family are already complex and corrupted 

The novel explores the complexities of relationships, including the relationships between family members, friends, and romantic partners. Can you tell us about your approach to writing these relationships and what you hope readers will understand about them?

 I wrote this book because I’m interested in the unconscious processes that make us who we are. I wanted to examine, within the confines of a family, the compounding and refracted relationships whose emotional bargains are unwittingly struck and perpetrated by parents to children, by spouse to spouse, sibling to sibling, and by community to outsider.

So I constructed a family and then delved into the complex web of concealed emotion that underpins their lives and the attendant maladjustments required of them to forge a place within a fraught social/ familial network. Within all this I looked for what could transcend. The female characters in this family, on whom the narrative concentrates, are each poised at the brink of a life change they are ill equipped for.

I was interested in a novel’s capacity to show the changing quality of our inner lives as we age and to follow the plight of the individual who struggles to both belong and to overcome the need to belong. Essentially I wanted to explore the precarious business of becoming a “good” person when there are no “good” people paving the way, and when what prevails instead is an unspoken social pressure to become an “appropriate” or “successful” person.  I’m not sure what I hope readers will understand. Perhaps just how hard it is to understand another. 

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

I wish there was a routine. I always try to get one established, but it just doesn’t work. Perhaps there used to be. It used to be that once I had attended to chores, walking the dog, cleaning the kitchen etc, I would sit down with a pot of tea and open the document and start reading it anywhere, just to get my ear/ eye in, so to speak. After a while of fiddling with sentences, I would find myself at the place where I had to write something, to advance the narrative. I find this much harder than fine-tuning a sentence. 

Now the chores seem to have taken over and I am lucky to just squeeze in an hour here or there. What has happened? I live in a large run down house which I didn’t realise should be upkept, and wasn’t, so perhaps this is it. Also my back and shoulders just don’t like sitting for long, so I distract myself easily, by going to the fridge and looking for a little something, or calling a friend. Also I started a small press ( Parachute Press ) and did not realise how much of my time would be taken up with administration, which isn’t something I enjoy and promotion is even worse and I avoid it and then lament the lack of sales.

This is why it may have been foolish and courageously optimistic. However it has also been in some ways strangely successful. Apart from that my routine amounts to the practice of getting ideas and wanting to write them down and sometimes managing this amidst everything else. I’m in the midst of a novel, which is specifically accommodating this sort of haphazard scattergun attack. Fortunately. 

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

Virginia Woolf. I’m not sure why she first comes to mind. Perhaps it’s that I love her mind, the way she penetrates the moment, the sense I have of time slowing so that the fullness of the moment can be dwelt in. But also I would like to be in her world at that time– the Bloomsbury group, Vanessa Bell, etc. I imagine I would like her very much too. But also I would be happy to meet Samuel Beckett, and perhaps he and I could have a drink with James Joyce. Also, I’m sorry to cheat, but can I add Tove Janson? 

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

At the moment I’m reading and loving Nick Cave’s interview with Sean O Hagan, Faith, Hope and Carnage. Also What Is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot.  I have been reading a lot of nonfiction, as the world appears to be falling apart. All of it has been enlightening. One thing I really dwelt on was The Abundance, which is a collection of Annie Dillard’s essays and stories. She is someone else I would love to meet. 

What does your current writing workspace look like?

 It looks very much like a kitchen, since it is a kitchen. It’s a lovely kitchen, very old, with high ceilings and lots of windows out of which can be seen a large disorderly garden. It’s terribly distracting but it’s also the lightest room and the warmest in winter, so I have got in the habit of sitting at the kitchen table. I fear this is not a good habit. It means I eat a lot of toast and drink a lot of tea. 

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