Cherise Saywell, author of Desert Fish, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |February 28, 2011

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Cherise Saywell

author of Desert Fish

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 Northern NSW, in Lismore, the oldest of four girls. I grew up nearby in Casino. I hung about after I left school, failed miserably as a trainee accountant, and then worked as a receptionist in an aged care home before moving to Brisbane and going to university. In my late twenties I travelled to Scotland on a working holiday. I met my partner there, and we have two sons.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

I can’t remember what I wanted to be when I was twelve. I didn’t think so far ahead at that age. I thought girls grew into women and automatically got married and had children. At eighteen I was always struggling to work out what I should be doing instead of what I wanted to do. But at thirty I knew I wanted to write. Having children really focused me. I had to learn how to organise my time differently. I enrolled in a correspondence course. I’d go to my room every night when my little boy was asleep and I’d spent at least an hour writing. I began to really look forward to that hour and then I’d be a right grumpy cow if I didn’t get to.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

At eighteen I went to church every Sunday. The girl I was then wouldn’t have spoken to the woman I was at thirty. But by thirty I was so much happier. My world had opened right up.

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?

It has to be books – there are three that I remember from when I first started writing.

The first is A Spell of Winter, by Helen Dunmore. I remember reading it and thinking, I’d like to be able to do this. She writes so sensuously, but with such economy.

Another book was Rain, by Kirsty Gunn. A writer friend sent it to me and it blew me away. It’s a really slender novel, but rich in detail. I remember how the first line flowed off the page. It was like reading poetry.

Another I remember is Snake, by Kate Jennings. It’s so pared back, so wicked and black and sad.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

Well, I’m pretty useless at everything else. I’d love to be one of those people who can do lots of things – paint, play music, embroider, dance, etc. But I’m not. And anyway, it’s kind of easier if you can only do one thing (especially if you’re no good at making decisions). I love to read and I love to write, so it’s just a matter of working at it.

6. Please tell us about your latest novel…

Desert Fish is my first novel. I began it several times, but I didn’t get going with it until I found Gilly’s voice. I knew she had done this terrible thing and I had to keep asking myself why? It gave me something to write towards and I had to think a little like a reader to work it all out.

Gilly is seventeen at the start of the novel, and I wanted her to be quite naïve, having never lived anywhere else but her small country town, but also oddly mature because of her early experiences. I had just had my second baby when I was writing the story, and this really helped me think through her relationship with her baby. Giving birth can be so intense, so physical and even brutal. I wondered what it would be like for someone like Gilly, who is quite desperate and really rather lonely.

I was living a long way away from Australia when I wrote Desert Fish but I knew exactly where I wanted it to be set. I think if you spend a long time in a place in childhood it stays with you in a really intrinsic way. In that sense, writing from memory worked for me: it felt like the most important things stayed in focus.

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

I want people to be moved. When I read a book I really like, I think about it for days after. The characters stay with me, and sometimes I can’t start something new straight away. I love that feeling. Even though the characters in Desert Fish aren’t necessarily likeable, I want people to feel for them, especially Gilly.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

There are so many writers I admire.

Jhumpa Lahiri – her first collection,  Interpreter of Maladies, is one I always go back to.

Helen Dunmore (see above). Carson McCullers. Flannery O’Conner. Kazuo Ishiguro.

MJ Hyland – when I finished Carry Me Down I felt absolutely breathless.

Hilary Mantel (though I have yet to tackle Wolf Hall). Sarah Waters. Anne Enright (I loved What Are You Like?) Daphne du Maurier. Etc. etc.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

It’d be nice to write the next book and keep up with the laundry at the same time. Maybe that’s a bit too ambitious …

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

I still feel pretty ‘aspiring’ myself. When I first started out, a writer friend advised me never to take myself too seriously, but to take my writing very seriously indeed. I think it was the best advice anyone’s given me. He taught me that it’s important to think about every sentence and every word. I also think it’s crucial to read as much and as widely as you can. Always have something on the go. (Sometimes it’s helpful to read something you really hate. Work out exactly why you hate it – this can be very inspiring.)

Cherise, thank you for playing.

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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, 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.

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