Kristina Olsson as Brisbane-based writer. She worked as a journalist for many years, writing for The Australian, The Courier-Mail and The Sunday Telegraph. She has written novels and memoirs, including In One Skin (2001), Kilroy Was Here (2005) and The China Garden (2009), and Boy, Lost (2013) won the 2014 NSW Premier's Prize for nonfiction and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. In this interview she discusses the ways in which memory and history intersect with place, the subject of her essay published in Griffith Review 44: Cultural Solutions.
I know you studied journalism and worked for a long time as a journalist before publishing your first novel. Do you think there's a difference between people who start off writing fiction and then write nonfiction, versus people who start off writing nonfiction and then write fiction? Do you think the order matters and whether it affected the way you write?
I'm not sure if my own work might have been different if I had gone straight into fiction writing, but I know that journalism gave me a confidence I didn't have when I was younger. It certainly gave me a bird's eye view of the world in all its fabulous variation. Those of us who did our writing apprenticeships on newspapers also learned, I think, not to be too precious about the where, when and how of writing: you have to produce in a noisy newsroom with phones shrieking and people shouting and the distracting buzz of news being made. On most papers there is also a very healthy respect for grammar and spelling and, of course, for good research and getting the facts right, and these things stay with you, along with the colourful cast of characters you get to talk to every day, and the infinite variety of people's lives.
Jonathan Franzen speaks about the self-examination involved in writing, and how frightening that can be. He talks about having to face the 'shame and fear…of self exposure'. I wonder if you've had similar feelings about your writing, in cases where you're writing very personally both about yourself and your family.
There is no getting around it: whether it's fiction or non-fiction, good writing reveals the writer. I find writing fiction every bit as exposing as writing memoir. And Franzen is right: every day is full of the fear of what we will find, of what we need to grapple with, with who we really are. That's why we're so easily distracted…but some days are also full of elation, when we get closer to the answer that the book is posing, and shame and fear is the price of that. It's the pure, unadulterated joy of the tiny realization, of a small dark corner illuminated, of learning more - the good, bad and ugly - about ourselves. Or the happiness of just one well-formed sentence.
You talk about memory a great deal in this piece in Griffith Review, the way it feels tethered to a space and a landscape. Yet you speak of memory as 'unreliable', which of course it is, but in this case I'm interested in the way your thoughts about memory have changed, particularly in the light of having explored your mother's story and the effect it cast on your own life – 'child-shaped grief' – is how I think you phrased it in an interview with Richard Fidler on the ABC.
Landscape changes as we do, bodily; it grows extra skins, loses some, its surfaces thicken in some places and thin out in others. This link isn't accidental or new: Aboriginal people have known it and lived it for millennia. Our bodies are inextricably linked with geography: we learn about gentle hills and rises, of clefts and secret places, from our mothers' bodies. Our own bodies remember this.
I've always been interested in these links, and this new piece is part of a larger story that began with my obsession with the land I grew up on, my own and my siblings' enduring ties to it, and our love for it despite the sadness we grew up with and around. We might have been uneasy in the house but we loved the yard, the trees, the dirt. I began to wonder if the earth beneath us was itself benign. What its meanings were back through time.
The way you wrote about maps in the piece reminded me a lot of a project of Rebecca Solnit's, Infinite Cities, which is an atlas of personal, historical and sometimes imaginary maps of San Francisco. But it also proposes that any place is infinite because it can be described and experienced in infinite ways – because we each contain multitudes of maps. Maps quantify, invite and locate in a way no other medium does. I know this is a broad question but I feel like your piece is hinting at a similar idea, and I'm interested in what lead you to begin thinking of place in that way.
I haven't read 'Infinite City' - though I've loved Solnit's other works like friends - and I find her ideas about mapping the layers of place culturally and thematically compelling. The scope of my work is a little smaller than San Francisco, perhaps more intimate in a way, though the links Solnit draws through time, her quilting of lives and cultures and intentions, her mapping of emotion and place are all my areas of interest too. And I'm in love with maps! I'm a walker, and though the digital tracking technology for hikers is fabulous, I much prefer my paper maps, the stories they tell not just about topography and pathways but about mapmakers. Like writers, they are revealed in their work.
You end the essay with a bittersweet kind of longing, musing about whether you might be able to recover an 'ideal self', a 'good self, with a belief in possibility'. I'm wondering whether nostalgia for earlier versions of yourself was the motivation behind writing the essay? And if it wasn't, what were your motivations.
I always begin a piece of writing with a question, and there were several that hung around my desk after Boy, Lost was completed and published. One was, as I've said, about the place that was the backdrop to our childhoods, to the grief that wound tight about us: a big backyard behind a ramshackle house in New Farm on the north side of the Brisbane River. I wanted to know what bound us so tightly to that place, despite our mother's sadness. New Farm's geological history, the deep bed of Brisbane Tuff beneath and through it, suggests a childhood spent running around on solid ground, and when my son moved to Christchurch a few years ago, the suggestion became a question: if I grew up sure and emboldened by solidity, would my New Zealand grandchildren walk too carefully, looking for cracks in the world, dreaming precarious dreams? That became my preoccupation.