Monday, February 13, 2017

Q&A with Brooke Davis

Brooke Davis is the author of the novel Lost & Found. She has been a travel writer, editor, and bookseller, and she lives in Perth, Australia.

Q: Of your three main characters, one is very young and two are elderly. What role do you see age playing in the novel?

A: When I first started writing the book, I think it was about self-preservation: I found it difficult to write about things from my own point of view because it felt too close. I wanted to keep a distance so I could have time to work out how I felt.

This eventually evolved into the feeling that I wanted to represent grief as a thing that we all deal with differently. I felt like I couldn’t do that from my own singular point of view; that it required the freedom of both fiction and multiple points of view.

The very young and the very old also have these really interesting positions within Western culture—there’s an invisibility to them. They’re not really heard.

The very young are constructed as being pre-social-awareness, and the very old as the opposite but exactly the same, a kind of post-social-awareness. And the idea of tackling a subject we struggle to talk about like death via characters who aren’t listened to—it was a very compelling idea to me. It made sense.

There was such a sense of freedom in writing from their point of view—I was able to ask those real thorny questions about The Way Things Are that I was afraid to ask myself.

Q: You’ve noted that the book was inspired by your own grief after your mother’s death, and that you’ve asked, “How do you live knowing that anyone you love can die at any moment?” What reaction have you had from readers to the book, especially from readers who also might be grieving?

A: The best reactions have taught me that when you make yourself vulnerable in front of other human beings by revealing intimate and painful details about yourself, you give other human beings permission to do the same. It’s been a really vital lesson to learn.

I was signing books at an event and heard complete strangers in the signing line telling each other all about the people they’ve loved and lost. I just loved that.

Another time, I was going for a run in the bushland near my house and I ran past a young woman and her children. From behind me, I heard, “Are you Brooke Davis?” I was sweaty, panting, and wearing this terrible heavy-metal hoodie of my brother’s.

I seriously considered saying “No, no I’m not,” and running far, far away, but I turned back and we started chatting. She said her mother had died a couple of years ago, that she’s struggled to come to grips with it, that seeing a woman her age talking about grief openly was a great help to her.

At another signing event, an 80 year-old woman sobbed while telling me that her 100 year-old mum had died recently. She kept apologizing; she didn’t feel like she should be crying because her mum was old. I learned then that no matter how old you are, or she is, she’s still your mum.

The American writer George Saunders has said that fiction, for him, is about “softening the borders between himself and other people,” and in writing this book—instead of feeling like a big weirdo who spends all her time thinking about death—I have indeed felt as if those borders have been softened between myself and other people.

Q: The three characters end up traveling around Australia, by car, train, and bus. Do you think the book has an only-in-Australia quality to it, or could the story have been transplanted elsewhere?

A: It’s such a great question. I don’t think the setting of this book is really that important to a story like this because the themes of it are so universal.

No matter where we’re from, we are all born, we will all die, and, like I said before, if we’re on earth long enough to experience the death of someone close, we will all grieve. It could’ve been set anywhere with those themes.

Having said that, the Australian setting was really important to me. As I’m sure you can imagine, we have so many stories/films/books/television shows that come from overseas—from Britain and the States particularly.

So it was important for me to tell a story that was from here and about here—that had the sound of our voices, the poetry of our version of English, the nuances of our culture, the beauty and ugliness of our landscape, the beauty and ugliness of our people.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I had absolutely no idea how it was going to end. One of my weaknesses is most definitely plotting!

I began with my characters and just wrote around them for years, really. I put them in different situations, in different headspaces, with different people. I played with them in this way till I felt like I knew them, and then worked on a plot to try to get the story moving forward.

I had all kinds of ideas for the ending. Endings are really difficult because they can ruin or make an entire book for someone. So much pressure to get it right!

But it eventually became clear to me that it was important to have an ending that felt like what I believe grief to be like—that wasn’t entirely resolved. I wanted the reader to feel a little uncomfortable at the end. For them to have to sit with something that wasn’t completely tied up.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think I’ve blabbed on long enough! Thank you for the really lovely questions, and for taking an interest in Lost & Found.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

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