Your debut novel, ‘Antidote to a Curse’, questions the relationship between storyteller and story, the writer and the subject. Has this intersection of narrative always been of interest to you?
This interest has developed over time and is partly the result of coming from a migrant background. While growing up and even in my early adulthood I had an incomplete understanding of my background. I found myself questioning what I was told quite early on but, at times, felt bereft of answers. Then members of the extended family began to visit from overseas and I was bequeathed a series of stories: indeed some details felt like revelations. The stories, as I understood them, had altered significantly. The relationship between story and story teller was not a constant. The relationship between writer and subject is equally dynamic.
In 2013, you won the prestigious Lord Major’s Creative Writing Award for an early version of this novel. What has winning the prize meant for you?
A new beginning, a way forward and ultimately, a publisher.
In your novel, you render people and places with exquisite detail. How do you go about creating such vivid and immersive descriptions?
On one level this is word play, though on another I can’t help but think of this as the result of a lot of trained observation gained through an interest in travel and having had the opportunity of having immersed myself in other cultures. As an itinerant teacher I have lived in various parts of the world. This has given me experiences that would be difficult to gain as a tourist. (It takes time to experience a place.) I also believe that the drafting process invites the writer to ‘revisit’ places, to essentially re-see them, providing the writer with a re-run. Both the teaching and writing/drafting process have proved invaluable training when it comes to providing descriptive writing.
Your novel incorporates many geographic landscapes— including Melbourne and Bosnia— and explores the way they interact with memory and identity. How much have you drawn from your own extensive travels while writing this book? Why did you choose to use these locations?
Regarding the first question, I certainly drew on my travels and experiences regarding the places identified in the novel. (Indeed, I don’t think I would have been able to write the novel without the travel.) I also drew on my imagination and research. The places chosen are linked primarily to the two protagonists, Silvio and Zlatko. The places are linked to their immediate occupations and their past. The intersection between memory and place is one of many reasons why Silvio finds Zlatko fascinating. I grew up in Melbourne, so incorporating Melbourne into my novel felt like a solid stepping stone even though it required that I looked at my own city out of my characters’ ‘eyes’. Of course the challenge was how Melbourne appeared to two characters who are relatively new to the city, two characters that are between places and unsettled. The way a character may perceive him or herself will more likely vary according to location and of course personal circumstances, so certainly place impacts on one’s sense of identity.
Could you describe what your writing process looks like? What does your editing process look like?
The writing process is an opportunity to develop ideas into scenes that link with set characters. It starts with the idea, usually a character and an image (a setting) that come together serendipitously. This is usually followed by a series of ideas: words, phrases, dialogue etc. These ideas must be recorded immediately, or almost immediately, or like dreams they are quickly forgotten. Characters are usually developed along with the scenes. The drafting process is also a multi-staged process, often involving a more established writer or, more recently, an editor or publisher as a sounding board. The editing process is largely about making the work stand in its own right—turning the piece from an inspired piece of creative writing into something that may be acceptable for publication and something that is acceptable to me as a critic of my own writing.
What is the most beneficial piece of advice you’ve been given about writing? What is the worst?
The most beneficial advice I’ve been given was from Australian writer Janette Turner Hospital: how far you go (regarding the editing process) is up to you and your internal critic. I don’t think I have been given bad advice—perhaps I’ve been lucky, or wise enough to steer away from people who would otherwise give it.
Reviewers have said that your work channels Kafka and Gorky. Were these conscious (or unconscious) influences? Were there any writers or artists that influenced or inspired you while you were writing this book?
I can see certain parallels, but with both Kafka and Gorky I think that these were more unconscious influences. Any similarities are possibly linked more generally, if not closely, with the experience of migration, travel and resulting hybridity. Working with Transit Lounge proved influential. At Transit I found a home for my ideas as well as creative direction and a way forward. ‘Antidote To A Curse’ required extensive research. Preparing for the novel included a lot of reading, travel and face to face interviews. I was influenced by the research and the people I met and spoke to, particularly in Sarajevo and Bihac.
Are you working on any new projects?
Yes. I’m excited about developing this, but I prefer to say little about this for the moment.
James Cristina was born in Malta. His parents migrated to Australia in the late sixties and he grew up in Melbourne. He has taught English in Australia, Malta, England, the U.S., Jordan, Bahrain, Switzerland, Belgium, South Korea and Oman. He holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia.