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In Conversation with Author Chris Womersley

Following the launch of his latest novel, ‘City of Crows’, a tale of desperation as a mother and her only surviving child flee an outbreak of the plague, we chat to author Chris Womersley about finding inspiration in early Modern Europe, the importance of real world limitations, and carving out time to write every day.

Your latest book, ‘City of Crows’ is set in 17th century France and is based on the factual account of a mother and her sole-surviving child seeking sanctuary from an outbreak of plague. Does the use of real-world events help you as a writer create a sense of authenticity or weight?

The use of real-world events – particularly when writing about such potentially outlandish subjects such as witchcraft and magic – certainly helped me base ‘City of Crows’ in a degree of realism. There are events in the novel that are attributed to magic, but my main concern was that the reader believes that the characters believe in magic, rather than asking the modern reader to believe in it.

When using factual accounts as a launching pad for your novels, do you sometimes surprise yourself with were your writing takes you?

Yes. It is true that truth is often stranger than fiction and certainly when I was researching ‘City of Crows’, I encountered some pretty bizarre rituals involving child sacrifice and so on. The benefit of using history is that it can often nudge the imagination in unexpected directions. It also doesn’t hurt to have a few real-world limitations on what the book might be.

What was it about this time and place that inspired you?

Witchcraft, sorcery, magic spells. What’s not to love? I guess I was intrigued by the notion that magic is a means by which people who are denied power will seek ways in which to claim control over their lives. I also liked the rather lawless quality of early modern Europe and the fact that it was a time of great social change.

‘City of Crows’ is your first novel to feature a female protagonist. What is it about the character Charlotte Picot that resonated with you so strongly during the writing process?

Charlotte is the only character in ‘City of Crows’ who is not based on a historical person. I wanted a woman who was tough, but not necessarily worldly. She is a product of her time in regard to her belief system and in the manner in which she lacks a degree of agency over her life. Extreme circumstances compel her to act in ways that are contrary to her moral and religious code.

When writing a novel, do you force yourself to carve out a certain amount of time each day or week, or do you just write when inspiration strikes?

Writing a novel is hard work and inspiration will only get you so far. I have to make the best use of my time because I have to pay the rent, so it’s a matter of carving out time every day and week in order to write.

You have a studio space at the Convent, which you share with your wife, theatre maker Roslyn Oades. What is it about the space that suits both your crafts?

We both love the community here at Abbotsford Convent and the room itself is peaceful and, frankly, the office is much warmer and sunnier than our flat! It’s just great to be free of distractions.

Was hiring a studio for writing a way for you to cut out distractions, to focus and approach writing as a full-time job?

Yes, absolutely. It is also a way of taking oneself seriously as a writer – that I have a dedicated space in which to work, as opposed to the kitchen table.

Once you’ve finalised a novel and handed it over to your publishers for the last time, do you take a break from writing, or is there always something you’re tapping away at?

There’s always something to tinker with but, having said that, I do find it hard to concentrate in the period immediately before and after the release of a book. Way too anxious, way too neurotic…

Your first novel ‘The Low Road’ won the Ned Kelly Award, Australia’s leading award for crime writing. Published just a year after some of your first short stories were on the shelves, did you ever suspect you’d have such an auspicious start as a novelist?

Ha. No. The great thing about one’s first novel is that the level of expectation is pretty low, so any sign of life for the novel is a bonus!

Did that create a level of expectation for your future works, and were you happy to be writing under those expectations?

It’s true there is a degree of expectation that has increased with each novel, but I always try to put that out of my mind when working. Really, what I love is shutting myself away and making things up, working out problems and fiddling with sentences and ideas.

What advice do you have for budding novelists or writers?

I tend to shy away from giving advice because part of becoming a writer is learning what works best for you. Some people work better at night, for example, while others work better in the morning. Some people like to hit a target of words each day, others are more fluid. The main thing is, of course, to read.

What are you reading at the moment?

I just finished reading a great local crime noir called ‘The Student’ by Iain Ryan and I’m almost finished with ‘The Seventh Function of Language’ by Laurent Binet which is a wonderfully entertaining novel about – believe it or not – structuralism.

What else do you have planned for 2017? I’ll be doing a few events in Melbourne and around the country for ‘City of Crows’ and after that I’ll try to get down to work on something new – whatever that might be. I really need to finish off some short stories that have been lurking in my to-do pile for a few years.

You can hear more from Chris about his latest novel ‘City of Crows’ in conversation with Sarina Gale at the Sun Bookshop, Yarraville on Wednesday 6 September 2017, from 7.30pm.