Stephanie Bishop – The Other Side of the World – Podcast

A stunning emerging Australian writer, Stephanie Bishop’s speaks to the Co-op about her first novel THE SINGING, for which she was named one of the SYDNEY MORNING HERALD’s Best Young Australian Novelists.

A story of melancholy beauty that proves the only thing harder than losing home is trying to find it again. ‘A striking new voice, calm and fresh’ – Helen Garner on Stephanie Bishop’s debut novel, THE SINGING. THE SINGING was also highly commended for the Kathleen Mitchell Award. This, her second novel, was recently shortlisted for the 2014 Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award under the title DREAM ENGLAND. http://www.coop.com.au/the-other-side-of-the-world/bishop-stephanie/9780733633782


Rob:
You’re listening to The Co-op Book Podcast. I’d like to welcome Stephanie Bishop to the Co-op Chat. Hello, Stephanie.

 

Stephanie:
Hello. Thank you for having me.

 

Rob:
We’re speaking at the St. Albans Writers’ Festival on the Hawkesbury River. We’re very blessed to be here today. Stephanie, you’ve just spoken. How did your talk go?

 

Stephanie:
Yeah. It went really, really, well. It was a lovely conversation, roamed far and wide from academia to issues of motherhood, landscape. Yeah, it was a fun talk.

 

Rob:
What’s it like meeting your readers in person?

 

Stephanie:
It’s lovely. It’s one of the most pleasurable sides of publishing a book I think. I didn’t anticipate the satisfaction of that, of making really genuine connections with readers and hearing their stories. I think that’s what is so fascinating is that people come up and tell you their story in terms of trying to explain why this novel made a connection back to them in relation to their own lives. It’s been really enormously satisfying, very moving, to hear their stories.

 

Rob:
Specifically your second novel, The Other Side of the World, why do you think that resonates with people? What are some of the themes?

 

Stephanie:
There are two very significant themes that dominate the book. One is migration and homesickness and displacement that are connected to the experience of migration. The second is motherhood and, in particular, the experience of maternal ambivalence. I think, as a country of migrants, that theme of dislocation and hopelessness speaks to many people for many different reasons. Motherhood is an interesting theme. The book explores, I suppose, the darker aspects of motherhood and the more challenging sides of maternal experience. I that’s something that, as a culture, we tend to shy away from. We don’t talk about it in any great detail. There is a sense when I have conversations with readers that the book is opening up a conversation, or opening up a realm of emotional experience that they felt they haven’t had the opportunity to engage with deeply.

 

Rob:
Do you think that’s just something that as a society we don’t want to deal with things that aren’t always rosy?

 

Stephanie:
I think that’s part of it. I think we do romanticize motherhood. We romanticize the maternal role. In some ways that’s for good reason. You want the maternal experience to be that beautiful rosy idealized thing. Mothers themselves want that. It’s not always the case. I think we don’t talk about it because it’s a difficult thing to acknowledge in yourself that there is this ambivalence streak of feeling that runs through an experience of parenthood and motherhood. Yeah, so I think it presses open conversations that haven’t been aired in a while, I think, for many people.

 

Rob:
In the media, especially of late, there’s been a lot of focus on immigration of all sorts.
Stephanie:
Yeah.

 

Rob:
I think one of the interesting things about this book is the subtle difficulties of immigration. One of the things is how creativity can change when you move countries. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

 

Stephanie:
Yeah. Yeah, sure. The two main characters of this book are Henry and Charlotte. They’re married. The book is set in the early ’60s. It opens in England in Cambridge. Charlotte has a new baby and is struggling with motherhood. She finds out she’s pregnant for a second time. She’s very attached to England and feels very strongly that it is her home. Her husband, Henry, is Anglo-Indian. He was born in India during the time of under British rule before partition and independence. He doesn’t like England and wants to move very much to a warmer climate. They do. They migrate at his insistence. It’s not what Charlotte wants and she’s not particularly happy here. I think migration and creativity come together in the sense that she’s an artist, trained as an artist, and finds in some ways that that experience of being geographically isolated and dislocated provokes her to act and to make decisions about her creative life that she wouldn’t have possibly had to have made had she not been forced into a situation of extreme dislocation. That sense of being pulled away from home and suffering the consequences of migration forced her to make creative decisions about her art and about her life.

 

Rob:
What prompted you to write this story?

 

Stephanie:
A number of things. Three different things really that came together at a certain point. One was my migration to England in around 2005 to do a PhD at Cambridge. When I got there I expected England to feel like home because my family was from England. It didn’t. I didn’t mind the sense that it wasn’t what I was expecting, but I was interested in that. It set me back to thinking about my grandfather’s experience when he moved as a boy from India to England. He would have been led to believe that England was his home and would feel like his home. It couldn’t possibly have felt like that coming from India at that point. I set to thinking about his history and wondering about that. The longer I was in England the more attached I became to that place. That made me cast my mind back, I suppose, to my grandmother’s experience. She migrated here with my grandfather in the ’60s at my grandfather’s insistence. That’s very much the framework of the novel. All our lives we had this idea that she was somehow something of a [inaudible 00:06:06] because she didn’t like being in Australia and didn’t feel attached to the place and missed England as her home. The longer I was in England, the more I started to realize that she was genuinely grieving a sense of a lost homeland. I ceased to think of her complaints as sort of trivial. Those two things really came together to sort of trigger the book in many ways.

 

Rob:
Okay. Your first book, The Singing, was very well received and you were acclaimed as one of Australia’s best young novelists. Did you feel pressure to write your second book?

 

Stephanie:
No. I didn’t. I think I felt a certain internal pressure. I wanted to do that. I actually had a terrible case of writer’s block after that book was published that went on for a very long time for a number of reasons. My father died shortly before that book was published. I really just couldn’t conceive of writing anything after that for many years. I went and did a PhD partly in response to the feeling that I didn’t know if I would ever write another novel and thought I would go into conventional academia, which I didn’t in the end. I wanted to write another novel fairly swiftly. There was just no way that was going to happen for many reasons. Then this book, The Other Side of the World, started to evolve once I moved away and stopped thinking about trying to write another novel. It kind of presented itself.

 

Rob:
It’s interesting you talk about you can’t force the timing of things.

 

Stephanie:
No. No.

 

Rob:
When you are writing, what’s your method, or what’s your system?

 

Stephanie:
I tend not to have too much of a system. I supposed I have a bit of a method in that I try to have some idea of what I want to write when I sit down. When I say what I want to write, it’s not particularly clear most of the time. What I mean is that I have an image in mind that I’m going to begin transcribing. Then I wait for another image to present itself and I transcribe that in a sense, or translate that. I suppose narrative for me occurs as a chain of connected images. Often, I know very little about the story or where the story is going to go. It’s a matter of acting on those images when they present themselves and making use of them and following them where they lead. They tend to connect up with one another or associate with other images. That’s how the narrative grows. That’s probably about the sum of my method.

 

Rob:
Who do you read? Who are your-

 

Stephanie:
Who do I read? Various things. It depends on what I’m teaching in any given semester. A lot of my reading is circumscribed by courses that I’m running at the university. There are a few favourites that I tend to go back to. That would be Virginia Wolfe and Marguerite Duras in particular in terms of modernist authors. Then, in a contemporary sense, I really admire Deborah Leavy’s fiction and her short stories. Rachel Cusk. I’m completely in love with Elena Ferrante’s series at the moment. That’s something that I’m really enjoying. I tend to sort of shift between modernist novels and contemporary literary fiction in some form.

 

Rob:
Okay. As you know, the Co-op book store is on every campus in the country. A lot of our listeners are university students. You’re in the envious position of both working on university and being a student. What was it like for you as a student?

 

Stephanie:

Yeah. I was terribly diligent to the point of being very dull. I did a BA at UCS and had the great fortune of studying with Martin Harrison who is a brilliant, brilliant, teacher. I wrote my first book when I was doing my Bachelor of Arts. I really just wrote a great deal. I didn’t have an exciting time. I was very diligent and wrote a book really. It was lovely. I would go back there in a flash to have that kind of solitude and peace and quiet and follow that path.

Rob:
You’re teaching creative writing at the moment. Is it something that can be taught?

 

Stephanie:
Yeah. I think you can teach about … Let me rephrase that. It’s not that you teach people how to write, but that you educate them in terms of form and experiment and the history of literature. What they’re learning, I suppose, is how to be excellent readers. In order to finish a book, you have to be able to critique that book and be your own best critic. You can’t be your own best critic if you don’t know how to read. In some ways I’m teaching them the discipline of writing but, more than anything, to be able to understand where their work might fit within the tradition of literature and within traditions of experiment. Then to be able to reflect on their practice. In some ways what they have to do is what any English literature student would do plus more, which is to be able to understand those forms and that history. Then to be able to put that into practice in their own terms, and to take that further. That’s, I suppose, where my teaching practice comes into things, my practice as a novelist com es into things.

 

Rob:
Are you writing now?

 

Stephanie:
I am. I’m working on another novel, a little too slowly for my own liking, but I am working on another novel. Yeah. I’m supposed to technically have that finished the beginning of 2017, so we’ll see how it goes. It’s loosely based on my father’s death. I’m only just realizing that I have to actually part ways with that history at some point and begin to reinvent that story in some ways. I began with the idea that it would be a novel based on a series of events, only to realize that it has to be something more than that. We’ll see how it goes.

 

Rob:
How does it feel to be putting essence of yourself into books and having people read it? Is it a difficult process?

 

Stephanie:
It is a difficult process. I suppose really what happens is that everyday when I sit down to write, I have to remind myself that I have to forget that. If I th ink too much about that then it’s slightly paralyzing. By the time a book comes to exist in the world, anything that is sort of secretive or deeply personal has become so mixed up in a fictional version of itself that it’s not really mine or my story anymore. In most early stages of a draft, yes, the material can feel quite revealing and quite raw. I think while it feels like that then you know the work isn’t ready. It’s not finished. By the time it’s finished, it doesn’t feel like your story. It’s a new story. In this case it’s the story of Henry and Charlotte. They’re not me. They feel like old friends really that I haven’t seen in a long time, even though much of my own life has gone into that in some way.

 

Rob:
I think it’s interesting how you said earlier that readers then take that on as their own.

 

Stephanie:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. When you reflect on your own reading process and the books that have moved you, they move you because they touch upon a story that is relevant to your own life in some ways and trigger experiences in your own life that you haven’t thought about or that seem to be re-articulated or validated by that book in some sense. I do that myself as a reader with my favorite novels. It shouldn’t surprise me, but it does that that happens in the reverse scenario of people reading this book and thinking about their own lives.

Rob:
Thank you, Stephanie.

 

Stephanie:
Thank you so much.
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