Writers Victoria intern Ellen O’Brien talks to Jenny Ackland about her new novel ‘Little Gods’.
‘Little Gods’ is your second novel. It follows 12-year-old Olive Lovelock after she discovers that she had a baby sister whose death and existence had been hidden from her. As she investigates further, Olive has to navigate an adult world from which she is mostly excluded and try to manage the transition from childhood into maturity. What is it about the coming-of-age genre that appeals to you so much?
The coming-of-age genre doesn’t interest me as such. While the narrative of ‘Little Gods’ is mostly preoccupied with Olive and her obsession to find out what happened to her sister, complex adult storylines exist too, particularly the one of Olive’s aunt, Thistle Nash. I think what propelled me with the writing of this book was the idea of exploring the way childhood edges up against adolescence and, beyond that, adulthood. Who are we as children, and do we lose that essence, or does it just get buried deep within our adult selves? What are the experiences that shape us? I have vivid memories of being a kid, and knowing that adults were completely unaware of what we were getting up to. Knowing that they were busy in their own worlds. It was never anything much that we got up to as kids, but still, it was a stark awareness I had that the two worlds were very separate even though they existed within earshot of each other. The rules of kidworld and adultworld are different too, and you can only understand the culture if you belong. I think these are the questions this novel is concerned with, but of course readers will always interpret for themselves.
Olive is just one of many rich and complex characters in your novel. She is inquisitive, determined and intelligent. Louise Swinn from ‘The Australian’ suggested that she might be Australia’s answer to Scout Finch. How do you go about creating an authentic and compelling character?
For me, as well as authentic, characters have to be interesting. As a reader, I want to know more of them, to understand their motivations; to get where they’re coming from. But I don’t want it all laid out on the page for me. I want to do some of the work. I want to interpret character from action and response. To make characters authentic I think they need to operate as real people do, act in ways that are surprising to the reader (and sometimes the author). My characters’ physicality aren’t described in detail and for some readers that can make them seem a bit undeveloped. But I think if I overly describe a character it takes away that precious reader space, where they get to do some of the imagination.
Authentic characters have to speak and act in believable ways, within their fictional world. There has to be a logic and what they do has to make sense, according to their framework. If I am trying to create a compelling storyline, then it’s about thinking what the risk is, what the stakes are for the characters.
‘Little Gods’ explores how we are shaped by our family, friends and communities. It also examines how history – or the fictional stories that we construct about history – can affect us. Where did your interest in this tension between truth, history and identity come from?
History is really just about perspectives, so rather than thinking of it as ‘history’, I prefer to think of it as how we write our narratives. The stories we tell ourselves, how we can delude ourselves and skew things to suit us. On some level, these are the things that concern and drive all of us, I think. We humans can go to such lengths to create a fabric to clothe ourselves in, and we work really hard for it to be something ‘nice’. It’s when there’s a tear or a crooked seam that we can become ‘wobbly’. We are forced to confront something about ourselves. Identity is a part of that too. Who we are, what we tell ourselves, and what we present to the world. How we are reflected back by other people. All of that is fascinating to me. The psychology of behaviour, relationships and the self.
Your novel is set in a small town in the Mallee in north-western Victoria. What made you want to write a novel set in a rural location? Do you have any advice for people trying to write novels set in Australia (or other less ‘conventional’ locations) who are worried about relating to a larger audience?
I don’t have any profound reason for this. It was just a family that needed to be in the country. My father’s family comes from Hopetoun and other areas in the Mallee. I am drawn to the region in western Victoria. I love it. I had an image in my head of a farm-house and I wanted things in the novel that you don’t find in an urban landscape, like towering silos, baby birds being hand-raised and a swarm of grasshoppers to block the sun. I wanted the heat and the dust, a landscape and time where kids would ride their bikes and swim in dams. Rural settings are common in Australian literature, it’s as if writers are drawn to write the country, and I think there’s something psychological in that. I was also interested in trying to inject something gothic into this novel and the Mallee landscape is quite perfect for that.
Jenny Ackland is a writer and teacher from Melbourne. She has worked in offices, sold textbooks in a university bookshop, taught English overseas and worked as a proof-reader and freelance editor. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and listed in prizes and awards. Her debut novel ‘The Secret Son’ – a “Ned Kelly-Gallipoli mash-up” about truth and history – was published in 2015. ‘Little Gods’ is her second novel.