You can't understand the present without thinking about the past, says tutor Sophie Cunnningham. We talked to Sophie about finding points of connection with the present, to inform writing about history.
Using the past to speak to the present – what shape has this taken in your own work?
I don’t think you can understand the present without thinking about the past. I wrote ‘Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy’, because I was concerned about issues of climate change, and wanted to show readers what just one bad cyclone could do, given we can expect an increasing number of such events. I also wanted to consider the ways we learnt from that particular disaster (or not) to handle the ones we can expect in the future. As well, I’m currently finishing a novel about Leonard Woolf and his time in Ceylon early last century. Colonialism is crucial to understanding so much about western culture today. When I first started working on this novel (some ten years ago) I was really struck by the ways in which Woolf’s descriptions of how it felt when WW1 was breaking out echoed how Westerners felt after September 11. Woolf was also an early critic of facism in the 1930s, at a time when England was prevaricating on the issue. I certainly think his clarity of vision remains relevant to the current political climate. It was these echoes that drew me to the material.
You say that writing a book set in the past is not that different to writing a contemporary work or one set in the future – are there any books that you feel demonstrate the techniques of world building particularly well?
There are dozens of examples, but just to mention a few recent ones, I think Chris Womersley has done a fine job of using history and research in his latest novel, ‘City of Crows’, which is set in 17th century France. I think that James Bradley’s novel ‘Clade’ has done a wonderful job of writing about the near future. All Michelle de Kretser’s novels, be they set in the past or the present, are vivid in the way they evoke a time and a place without feeling forced. Her latest, ‘The Life to Come’, is no exception. Sally Abbot’s novel ‘Closing Down’ is also excellent.
Earlier this year you won the Nature Writing Prize for your essay Biyala Stories – what do you see as the role of nature writing in a time of critical issues such as climate change and population increase?
Australia has the highest extinction rate in the world, is being severely affected by climate change and is currently losing significant world heritage ecosystems such as the Barrier Reef. Nature writing is a powerful way of reminding people of what we are losing. But we also need to make those evocations provocations. The political context the natural environment is trying to survive in (through) is important to acknowledge.
You are a founding member of the Stella Prize – is this in response to your own experience as a woman writer, or to address a need you perceived in the writing community?
It was a response to issues I saw in the wider writing community. To be clear, it wasn’t just my perception - the numbers (of female reviewers, of books by women reviewed, of books by women receiving prizes) tell the story clearly enough.
What advice would you give emerging writers hoping to address some of the darker periods of Australian history?
Be clear and strong. Don’t use sentimentality as a crutch. Do your research, but don’t drown in it. Find points of connection between what’s happening now, and those darker periods.
About Sophie Cunningham
Sophie Cunningham is a former publisher and editor. She is the author of two novels, 'Geography' (2004) and 'Bird' (2008) and two books of non-fiction: 'Melbourne' (2011) and 'Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy' (2014) which was shortlisted for several major literary prizes. Her third novel, 'This Devastating Fever’ is based on Leonard Woolf’s time in Ceylon and later marriage to Virginia Woolf. She is also working on a book of linked essays called 'Diary from the End of Days'. She is an Adjunct Professor of RMIT University (non/fiction Lab), in the School Media and Communication in the College of Design and Social Context.
About Amy Adeney
Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.