The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of Flock
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Usk, in South Wales, in 1952. Aspiring to a better life, my working-class parents emigrated to Australia when I was four, then to South Africa when I was twelve. We settled in Bellville, a notoriously conservative, pro-apartheid suburb of Cape Town, close to my father’s work. I grew to loathe that place—the racist neighbours, the bigoted, revisionist teachers at my high school, the small cruelties I witnessed almost every day in the street—as only an adolescent can. I eventually left school at 16 for a job as a junior clerk in a factory. I moved back to Wales for a time, then returned to Cape Town and by 21 was married and had had my first child. I moved to Sydney with my Australian husband in 1982, the year I turned thirty.
When I was twelve, I wanted to be braver. I remember, on my way home from school one day, seeing a Coloured boy thrown off a bus reserved for whites. My bus. I was horrified… but didn’t protest, didn’t say a word. It was thirty years before I eventually wrote about it, in my third novel, The Bright House.
When I was eighteen, I wanted to be free, not just of racism but of all isms. I suppose I aspired to be like the characters that eventually appeared in my books, fearless, uncompromising. Like Deirdrie, a character in my first novel, The Factory, who far from sinking into a sea of poverty, violence, intolerance, stays afloat with wit and bravado.
At thirty, I desperately wanted to write. I finally plucked up the courage to join a writing class at the Willoughby Arts Workshop, where the late poet, Dorothy Porter, happened to be teaching part-time. She freed up all sorts of things for me—not just my marriage, but my mind. She introduced me to poetry, to William Carlos Williams, Cavafy, Plath, Dickinson, Auden. She taught me how to read.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That anger can change things. When I’m more aware now that anger’s a closed circuit. And that it takes a lot of courage to break it. To let people in, to allow yourself to say: I’m unhappy, I’m frightened. We’re all on the same shaky piece of ground. Writing’s particularly terrifying, because you’re so exposed.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
First, the 1960s film of the Royal Ballet with Fonteyn dancing Swan Lake which my mother took me to see in a Newport cinema when I was eight—I was transfixed. Then Dickens—fearless, furious, sad, silly, sentimental—he still makes me laugh—such a terrific storyteller. And Francis Bacon. Two years ago, I saw an exhibition of his paintings at the Tate Modern— room after room of mucky, glorious self-revelation. Exquisitely beautiful and ugly, both. I suppose all three exemplify what I most value and admire in any art-form, including writing—courage, clarity, sincerity, passion.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I didn’t. I was far too intimidated, awed, to even think the word ‘novel’. I wrote The Factory, in small manageable bites. One story after another. Until the characters came sufficiently alive to tell their own stories. It began to dawn on me that writing is merely putting down what you can—what you can at the time. What’s inside you at that particular moment, on that particular day. And that sometimes it’s really good. And sometimes it’s pedestrian. And sometimes it’s just plain crap. It’s like life. It is life. Breathing, beating, messy life. Writing’s no more or less elevated or noble than cooking, gardening or doing the dishes. Besides, I found the long haul of novel-writing really suited my pedantic, pernickety nature.
It’s called Flock and takes as its background the world of wallpaper. It tells the story of four young conservators, curators and historians who come together to restore an historic house in the Blue Mountains and gradually find themselves restored. It’s also a love story—well, two love stories, actually, separated by a generation. The novel ranges freely between the French Revolution, Victorian England and the Blue Mountains in the 1960s and 80s, as it explores the joys and difficulties of living a creative life. It’s my first novel set in Australia and, in essence, a story of wallpaper and family and the sticky, far from ephemeral nature of both.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
Hope. Joy. Laughter. Curiosity. Good stuff. Because I do deal with some tough stuff, I don’t resile from it. In fact, when I’m writing, it sometimes feels like I’m taking an elevator down into the very basement of myself, a place full of shadows and dark corners. And that all I have are words, to cut through the murk. Then again, I really don’t see much point in writing, unless you’re going to try and illuminate something. So I hope my readers feel the way I do when I read a writer that hasn’t stinted—that I’ve done my honest best.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
The poets. Because it’s impossible to write poetry. And yet they try. And so often become unhinged, in the process. Like they’ve stared into the face of God. Blinded, poor pitiful things: Sexton. Plath. Neruda. Rimbaud. Ginsberg. Syzmborska. And the writers, usually, but not always, a fair bit saner—Murakami. Coetzee. Austen. Woolf. White. The fearless A M Homes—a recent, happy, discovery.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
Ambitious? Try ludicrous. Try ridiculously unattainable. To make people laugh, cry, think, feel, wonder. And want more. That’s all. Probably enough for a couple of lifetimes.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Keep your bum on the seat. Bum on seat. Three little words. And the only way to learn to write is to write. And write. And write. And never be satisfied. Satisfaction’s death. In just about everything, when you really come to think about it.
Lyn, thank you for playing.
Follow Lyn (@lynflock) on Twitter (she’s new to Twitter, make her welcome.)
Learn more about Lyn and Flock @ http://www.lynhughes.com.au/
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.