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Five questions with Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham AM is a non-fiction writer and novelist with a passion for trees, walking and broader environmental issues. She was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her contributions to literature, was the chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council and is a co-founder of The Stella Prize, among so many other incredible achievements. Sophie is also a part of the thriving tenant community here at the Convent.

Sophie was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss her remarkable career and her latest novel This Devastating Fever, about a writer from Melbourne and her 16-year journey writing a book about Leonard Woolf. 

1.  What first inspired you to write a story about Leonard Woolf?  

There are a lot of reasons why I began this book, most notably an interest in the history of colonialism and its relationship to environmentalism as well —like most artists I suppose!— as an interest in sexuality, intimacy and creativity.  

I first read Leonard Woolf when I visited Sri Lanka in 2005. He can be a terrific writer: very honest, vivid and surprisingly modern. So I kept reading and the more I read about Leonard and his wife Virginias time, the more I saw history repeating. The parallels between our time and theirs was inescapable. For example, the way Leonard Woolf wrote about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in the build up to WW1 reminded me of what it felt like to watch the Twin Towers come down on September 11. Woolf understood that everything was going to change, and not for the better. The flu pandemic of 1918 (which rolled on for years) was as devastating and global a phenomenon as the COVID-19 pandemic. The more I read the more I felt a connection with the man. 

2.  The Devastating Fever also tells the story of Alice, a Melbourne-based novelist living in modern-day times writing a book about Leonard Woolf. Why was it important for you to include Alice’s part in the story?  

I had been researching and thinking about the novel for many years and then found myself distraught about the firestorms, and  —like most humans on the planet— locked down by plague. I picked up my unfinished project and sat down to write once more. The times are a reminder that we (humans, the planet) are running out of time. We need to live as if there is no tomorrow. For me, during lockdown, that meant seeing a project that was important to me through to completion. This is all by way of saying that I think art, love, nature, history and writing, are what sustain me: they are what sustain many of us. 

 Alice herself only joined the party in the final drafts. But the more I pondered the parallels between the times Leonard Woolf lived through and the times we’ve been living through, the more I thought that having a contemporary character would allow me to highlight the connections I was seeing.  

I also wanted to capture what it was like to live with the traumas that life throws at us while also attempting to go about our day-to-day tasks, and, crucially, trying to pursue a creative life. Art, however you define it, really does sustain us in difficult times. It gives us the tools to understand what is unfolding around us.  

3.  What do you hope readers will take away from The Devastating Fever? 

I think it’s impossible to predict how readers will react to a novel and it’s not useful to try and control that. So, to be honest the only thing I’ve really wanted is for people to enjoy the book, or at least some sections of it. I don’t want them to be bored. I want them to feel engaged with and moved by the lives of the people they are reading about.  It also makes me happy that people find the book funny. 

4.  Is the Convent a good place to write a book? Why?  

Two years, on and off, of working from my bedroom, as I had to do during lockdown was a reminder of what I already knew. It’s a real privilege to have a room of one’s own, a private space, in which you can create. And to have that room in a building with such character, surrounded by excellent people and beautiful trees — well, it’s just wonderful. 

5.  What is next for you?  

I’m doing a lot of research on trees and forests. Whether that turns into a sequel, of sorts, to my essay collection  City of Trees, or whether it turns into a novel is not yet clear to me. 

 Purchase Sophie Cunningham’s The Devastating Fever here.