Today I’m pleased to introduce Claire Varley, whose debut novel hit Australian shelves earlier this month. Check out my review of The Bit in Between, if you missed it earlier in the week.
As Claire has done a few other interviews about the publishing process (particularly around the fact her manuscript was discovered in a slush pile!), I focused on questions about her experience in the Solomon Islands – the setting of her book and a place which (presumably) inspired much of it.
What took you to the Solomon Islands?
I lived in Buala, the main village of remote Isabel province, for just under two years working through the Australian government’s supported volunteer program. My original project was developing the network of community radio stations that is the island’s main form of communication.
However, as is often the way with community development projects, due to lack of ongoing funding this all fell into a literal and proverbial heap. Instead, my colleagues suggested we look at doing something about the high rate of family violence in the province, and I ended up supporting development of the country’s first province-based integrated family violence prevention and intervention project. And I also wrote the book. And ate a lot of kumara.
Your affinity for the Solomons: the place, its people, its customs and lifestyle shines through. What did you particularly love about the place?
I was in the Solomons long enough that village life became my new normal and this is an incredible privilege to experience. It is an exceptional thing for anyone – writer or no – to view your own culture through new eyes and it really does extend you as a person. There is so much I respect about the country: its resilience, its determination and the tenacity of the people to develop in a way that respects and celebrates their culture and customs.
I adore the humour; it is loud and playful and accompanied by hysterical laughter, and is a constant in every setting. There is always room in people’s day to stori – to talk about life, current affairs, and everything else in the universe. This is one of the things I miss the most: the value ascribed to stopping to chew the fat and its importance as a way of building our connections to other people. It’s about information sharing but it’s also about relationship building and capturing oral history.
You’ve mentioned (in another interview*) you’d originally planned a very different novel set in the Pacific. What led you to share Oliver and Alison’s story?
The premise of the original manuscript was that the locals on a Pacific island were having their crops ruined and weather disrupted by the… ahem… tortured souls of long dead historic figures who were trapped in limbo in the middle of the island. The ghost of Elvis was their leader. Just to put this in context, I was still taking anti-malarials at that point and they were giving me crazy dreams so that in part explains the plotting. (Ed: Thank god!!!)
As soon as I finished it I knew that it was not the love letter I wanted to write to the Solomons, and this brought me to Alison and Oliver’s story. It is both their love story and a love story to the country, full of all the pain, awkwardness, flaws and mistakes that love always seems to inhabit.
Are some of the characters based on people you met while there?
Not in a ‘Power-Without-Glory-I’ll-just-change-the-name-to-something-vaguely-similar’ kind of way. More so, each character is a mix of people, stories and my own fancies that I have crafted together for the book. Graeme Simsion quoted good ol’ anon. at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival the other day when he said that characters are a third you, a third people you know and a third things you make up. Previously I was trying to describe the process as creating little Frankenstein monsters, but his way is much less confusing. Having said that, travel in any form is an exceptional way to meet people, share their stories and add to your character bank.
I really liked the excerpts you feature which share the lives of those we meet but briefly. What led you to include these snippets?
(Ed. I forgot to mention these in my review!!!! #bugger)
I spent a lot of time stori-ing in the Solomons with locals and foreigners, and it made me think a lot about how we are all the product of everything that has come before us. This was something I wanted to capture in the story – how a backstory of choices we do or don’t get to make lead us to where we end up in life. The vignettes were a way of exploring the diverse web of people we interact with in both miniscule and meaningful ways, and the complex backstory that has chartered each person to this exact point in time.
Have any of your (former) colleagues or friends from the Solomons read the book? What do they think?
I’ve been worried for the last month that the parcel of books I sent were lost somewhere in the black hole that is the Australia-Solomon postal route, but I had word earlier this week that they’ve finally arrived.
They’re all with my Solo aunty in the capital Honiara, and hopefully she’ll send them on the weekly ship to Buala, if it’s running. Then at some stage they will arrive in the village. From there, a couple need to make their way to a smaller village in the province’s south-east, which means finding someone who is heading that way and getting them to courier it… So I will get back to you on that question in 2-4 weeks, weather permitting.
Check out Claire’s site for a list of all of the interviews she’s done… particularly if you want more on the writing, pitching and publishing process. Thanks very much to Claire for your time and generosity and Pan Macmillan for organising this author interview!
What do you wish I’d asked Claire about the book or her experiences?
* Who says I don’t do my research? 😉