Q&A with Karen Viggers.
Arianne recently interviewed award winning and internationally published author Karen Viggers about her most recent book, The Orchadist’s Daughter, which is featured in our Recommended Reads for March here https://www.taswriters.org/recommended-reads-march-3/
Karen’s books have been translated into French, Italian, Norwegian, Slovenian and Spanish. Her work has enjoyed great success in France, selling more than 800,000 copies to date. The Lightkeeper’s Wife (La Memoire de embruns) was on the French National Bestseller list for more than 42 weeks, going as high as No. 3, and in 2016 this book won the Les Petits Mots des Libraires Prix Litteraire for a Discovery Novel (Roman Decouverte). It was also short-listed for the Livre de Poche Readers Prize.
How did Mikaela’s character first come to you? Was she a fully formed image, or more of a fleeting feeling you had to capture?
The idea for Mikaela germinated many years ago after visiting some friends who had home-schooled their children. My friends’ three teenaged boys had been raised on a farm near a country town and they had little contact with the outside world. I felt great compassion for them. Their frustration and obvious desire to connect were tangible, and I wanted to give voice to their feelings and I wanted to explore the tight boundaries that constrained their lives and personal development. In terms of restrictions, their world was much like Miki’s in The Orchardist’s Daughter. But uncovering the complex and beautiful character of Miki was much harder. I had to find my way into her head and discover the way she perceived the world, not only during her home-schooled, religious upbringing on her family’s Huon Valley orchard, but later, as she becomes increasingly exposed to the townspeople in the timber community where she lives with her controlling brother Kurt. It was important to create a character that seemed real. Miki’s love of literature was something I could relate to, as well as the way she used books to understand herself, other people and the world. I think the cover of this novel evokes a strong sense of Miki looking out on a world she can’t engage with, as well as hinting at her love of nature and trees.
Was this a story that had been brewing inside you for some time?
Stories always take time to compost, and for me, this may take up to ten years. Often ideas arise when I am traveling. My family and I love to spend time in nature, and there are many beautiful places in Tasmania, so it’s not surprising that I enjoy setting novels there. The idea that became The Orchardist’s Daughter began with Leon, who was an insistent and unplanned minor character from my novel The Lightkeeper’s Wife. After I finished that novel, I moved on to another project, which became The Grass Castle, but Leon kept coming back to me, and insisted I tell his story. His passion for nature, Bruny Island and history are carried across to The Orchardist’s Daughter, as he moves to a timber town to take up a job in a nearby national park. Being a parks ranger, he’s not welcome in a logging community, and the novel follows his journey as he finds a way to find acceptance and fit in. This sense of being an outsider trying to belong is something we all face at various times of life, and it’s a theme common to all three main protagonists in this novel. A desire to explore this concept came from my own feelings of being an outsider, and also from observing my teenaged children as they work their way through to independence and adulthood.
Do you have a favourite character in this novel?
That’s a difficult question. To write this novel, I had to live in the minds of all three main characters. I love Leon for his resilience and tenacity, his humour and persistence, his ability to stand for what he believes and to take care of people who need help. I love Miki for the way she remains positive in the face of oppression by her brother. I like the small ways she finds to be powerful; the way she reaches out to the world to fight for the things that matter most to her, like the forest, the wedge-tailed eagles and the Tasmanian devils. But I also love Max, for his honest ten-year old perspective on the world. Children have a different way of seeing things, without judgement. Max’s love of his dad’s dog Rosie and her pups is something I can relate to. So, the answer to the question, is that I love all three characters equally and for different reasons.
What do you hope readers will take away after reading this story?
There are many things I hope readers will take from this novel. First and foremost, I hope my readers come away with a sense of having visited another place and having participated in the lives of others in ways that shed light on the human condition, the journey of suffering and the importance of finding hope in the world. I also hope readers are reminded to reach out to those in need who are being oppressed by more subtle forms of violence, such as bullying and psychological abuse. I think we often overlook or ignore people in difficult situations and leave it to someone else to take responsibility. Another hope is that reading my novel will remind people to visit beautiful places in nature that we, in Australia, are so fortunate to have. If we connect with wild places, we may care enough to fight to save them in our changing future.
Did you grow up in Tasmania?
No, I grew up in the Dangenong Ranges and Yarra Valley near Melbourne, riding horses, reading books and writing stories. But I love Tasmania and have a great passion for the wilderness, the history and the long soft light. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Tasmania. I’ve stayed in Hobart before and after going to Antarctica as a volunteer vet in the mid 1990s, and I’ve returned many times since, to hike, travel, walk, and visit long term friends who live and work in and around Hobart. I would move to Tasmania tomorrow if I could, but I have to wait for my husband to retire. Even so, Tasmania owns a part of my heart, and I’m not yet finished with writing novels set on this wonderful island.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always wanted to write, and I’ve created stories since I was old enough to hold a pencil and form sentences. In Year 2, I won a school prize for a story. After that, I rewrote my own versions of Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series. Then it was journals and bad poetry. It wasn’t until I was 38 and had completed a PhD in wildlife health that I decided it was time to give life to my dream of writing fiction. Fortunately I have a supportive husband and I’m good at being focused. But I can’t write a novel a year. It’s 3-5 years between books for me.
What is your preferred time of day to write?
I like to write in the morning, through to about 4pm. Evening and night are no good because then I can’t sleep. Long ago, I stopped writing down ideas that came to me during the night. I found that after I’d leapt up to jot down one idea, another would arise, and the night could pass in a frenzy of composing perfect sentences. I learned that it was better to let those moments go and allow the thoughts to reform in the morning.
Do you have a particular kind of writing routine?
I like to leap into writing straight after breakfast. After a whirlwind tidying whisk around the house, I settle at my computer. A writing warm up often helps to loosen the words. Often I go back over the previous ten pages I’ve written and do a little bit of editing. Then I move on and forward. Naturally, this varies depending on where I am in the process of writing the novel. The editing phase is very different to the creative phase, but warming up still helps to find those more interesting words and ways of putting sentences together.
Where do you write?
I write in my office at the quiet end of the house. Unfortunately this is not a beautiful space, but I write no matter what condition it is in. My daughter likes to toss her discards into my office, so it’s not neat and pristine. However, I do have walls of books all around me, and I hope that I absorb some of the wisdom of my favourite authors. I also disconnect the internet in my office so that I have to walk to the other end of the house for distraction. My little dog Toffee curls up on a cushion at my feet and keeps me company. When I get stuck, we go for walks in the bushland close to my house, and the knots of my blockages and frustrations seem to unravel.
Have you ever been on any writing retreats?
I like to go once or twice a year on a writing retreat by myself. I go to the coast, hire a cabin for a week, take my own chair and spend 10-14 hours a day writing. Sometimes I prefer to immerse myself where my novel is set, so I can check my descriptions and absorb the atmosphere of place. When I was writing The Orchardist’s Daughter, I had a week long retreat at Cairns Bay near Geeveston, so I could write, drive around in the forest nearby townships, and visit the Tahune Airwalk. Last year I was awarded a one week residency at Bundanon, the Boyd property down near Nowra. This was a fantastic opportunity to focus on my work, close to nature, and I managed to achieve a great deal of work in communion with the natural world. Perfect!
What do you think are some of the challenges facing the Australian publishing industry currently?
This is an exciting time for Australian literature as there are more books than ever being published by Australian authors. However, there are so many books out there, it can be difficult for authors to get attention and be noticed. Writers must do the hard work of taking their work out into the world in order to meet readers. Multiple social media platforms can be very distracting, but they are essential. The advice I’ve been given is to choose 1-2 platforms that suit you and do them properly rather than spreading yourself too thinly.
The closure of bookshops seems to have plateaued, which is fortunate. We need our bookshops. They are important cultural centres in our society, where we can browse through books, meet authors, join book clubs and receive advice on new books to read. Buying books offshore or through massive global providers might be cheaper, but money from those purchases leaves Australia and is not invested back into Australian literature. This means we lose important voices reflecting on our own culture and society.
Would you ever encourage aspiring writers to try their luck overseas?
That’s an interesting question. I have been very fortunate to have amazing success overseas, especially in France. But I don’t think that success could have been predicted. My novel, The Lightkeeper’s Wife was sold to a French publisher at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and then elements of luck came into play. I could never have created this scenario by myself. What it took was the support of a great publisher and many French booksellers. The French people love nature, wild places, controversial issues and they don’t require a happy tied-up ending. It was lucky this matched with my work.
What is some of the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Get it down, then get it right.
Separate your inner-creator from your inner-editor when you are writing. Each one has a role at the right time.
Write what you love, because this will bring your writing to life.
Learn to accept criticism and work with it. Your editors are usually your friends and their input almost always helps improve your work.
How do you deal with the doubting voices, if indeed they visit you, or when your story feels stuck?
I am visited by doubting inner voices all the time. Success doesn’t preclude you from that. Sometimes, I think it’s necessary to experience some degree of doubt, so you keep questioning your own work and whether you can do better. However, it’s no good if those voices become destructive. Then it’s important to remember why you write. For me, it’s a love of words and the joy that comes when I get it right. If you write for fame and glory, you will always be disappointed.
What do I do when I’m stuck? That’s hard, and I experienced it for the first time in the writing of The Orchardist’s Daughter. During a tough meeting with my publisher at Allen&Unwin, I grasped a few tips on how to refocus the novel and where to begin rewriting. And rewrite I did. The whole book. Only one scene was lifted directly into the new manuscript. But the novel came to life in the rewriting. And, although it was difficult, I thank my publisher for that.
What do you think is the most important ingredient in any story? What keeps the reader engaged?
I think it is essential for the reader to be able to relate to the characters. A sense of hope is also important. And a plot that moves. This doesn’t mean the plot needs to have constant action, but there needs to be a sense of moving forward, or development and momentum. Pace can change of course, but the novel needs a shape that will draw the reader through.
Do you have any plans for a sequel? What are you currently working on?
I never thought I would be an author who wrote sequels. The Orchardist’s Daughter is more of a follow-on from The Lightkeeper’s Wife than a sequel. It follows the character of Leon as he leaves Bruny Island and moves to a small timber town to create his own life, away from his family. However, The Orchardist’s Daughter is much more than Leon’s story. It is also Miki and Max’s journey of striving for freedom and belonging, and it is a portrait of a town and the people who live within it.
At the moment, I’m contemplating what I will do next. I have numerous ideas lined up on my shelves, but I am yet to decide which direction I will take. I will live with that decision for the next 3-5 years, so it’s worth taking the time to think about it a little.
Who are some writers who inspire you?
Tim Winton. Heather Rose. Sofie Laguna. Per Pettersen. Favel Parrett. Andrew McGahan. Michael Ondaatje. Richard Flanagan. Rohan Wilson. Ashley Hay. Barbara Kingsolver. Marion Halligan.
And for classics: The Bronte sisters. Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway.
The Tasmanian Writers Centre thanks Karen for taking the time to answer our questions!