Anna Krien is the author of the award-winning Night Games and Into the Woods, as well as two Quarterly Essays, Us and Them and The Long Goodbye. Anna’s writing has been published in The Monthly, The Age, Best Australian Essays, Best Australian Stories and The Big Issue. In 2014 she won the UK William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award, and 2018 she received a Sidney Myer Fellowship. Her debut novel is Act of Grace, a brilliant story of fear and sacrifice, trauma and survival, and what people will do to outrun the shadows.
Today, Anna’s on the blog to answer a few of our questions about her debut novel. Read on!
Tell us about your book, Act of Grace.
AK: Act of Grace follows the lives of four characters: Toohey, an Australian soldier returned from Afghanistan and Iraq; Gerry, his son; Nasim, an aspiring Iraqi pianist; and Robbie, Melbourne born and bred, whose father develops dementia at a young age. The title Act of Grace refers to real-life discretionary payments made to Iraqi civilians harmed by Australian military action. The Australian government calls this type of compensation an ‘Act of Grace’ payment. The term struck me largely for its Orwellian nature – is it possible to have an act of grace in an invasion that was so clearly based on lies and political swagger? In its way, my novel explores this as well as other acts of grace – brief connections and opportunities for transformation between strangers, as well as those cruel, needless acts that can irreparably affect one’s life.
What inspired you to write this novel?
AK: At first it wasn’t so much a case of being inspired as it was an opportunity. I had two babies in quick succession, and it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to have the kind of availability I’d need to do my journalism, so I thought now’s my chance. The inspiration that spurred the novel onward was a deep research dive into Australia’s role in the Iraq War. I was also struck by its absence from Australian literature, as if 2002 and all that flowed from it never happened.
Act of Grace is your fiction debut. How did it feel to be writing fiction instead of non- fiction this time around?
AK: At first it felt horrible. It was hard to believe in it, especially coming from a driven decade or so that was focused on journalism and a sense of justice. There were times when I felt I had taken a shallow and self-indulgent turn in my craft. But then, as my fiction muscle got significant exercise, there was a crystalline sharpness to my writing days that was entirely liberating. I respond to literature that reflects the times, where characters don’t reside in a parochial bubble but are affected by politics, the media and unresolved histories. About two years into work on the novel, I found that what compels me in journalism is just as compelling to me in fiction.
Your novel is multi-generational, moving back and forth between three perspectives in the 1990s, early 2000s and now. How did you go about writing the three stories and bringing them together?
AK: Don’t forget the late 1970s and 1980s in Iraq! I didn’t overthink this in my first draft, but in the final draft ensuring all the events, timing and technology aligned correctly was tricky. But luckily by then it was no longer just my problem alone, but my editors’ too! We drew many maps and timelines of events for each of the characters to make sure we had the continuity right.
What do you hope readers will discover in this book?
AK: I’m not sure. It’s not something you think about when you write a novel. I hope I have given a breadth to my characters, such that readers might recognise them in their own lives. Also perhaps, an acknowledgement that yes, trauma exists and it can be passed down through generations, but it is not a predetermined fate. For a lucky few, the burden of history may well pose a way out and provide the potential for transformation.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while writing Act of Grace?
AK: Children. That’s the funny, convenient answer – but if I gave it deeper thought, I’d say our children taught me some vital skills, particularly efficiency, but also gave me an insight into younger perspectives, how to see the world in an unformed way.
What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?
AK: Can I credit myself? I think the best advice came from within and I learned it in the early years of my craft. Don’t wait for someone to give you the green light. Because they’re not going to. Don’t pitch. Just follow the story and write it. At the beginning of your career, it is nerve-wracking advice, and measly financially, but also incredibly liberating.
What’s the last book that you read and loved?
AK: The Power by Naomi Alderman. Absolutely riveting, devastating and hilarious. What I would give for a skein.
Which books do you have on your TBR pile right now?
AK: Oh geez, way to shame me! The pile is teetering. I’ll list a few of them. Future Histories by Lizzie O’Shea, Men at Work, the latest Quarterly Essay by Annabel Crabb, Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing by David Leser, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy and Sex is a Funny Word by Silverberg & Smyth (planning to read to our kids but want to dip into it first).
And finally, what’s up next for you?
AK: That’s for me to know and you to find out.
Act of Grace
The exhilarating debut novel from the award-winning author of Night Games.
Australian soldier Toohey returns from Baghdad in 2003 with shrapnel in his neck, crippled by PTSD and white-knuckling life. In the Iraq of a decade earlier, aspiring pianist Nasim falls from favour with Saddam Hussein and his psychopathic son Uday, triggering a perilous search for safety. In Melbourne as the millennium turns, Robbie, faced with her father’s dementia and the family silences that may never find voice...