Journalism,  Literary Journalism

Profile: Amanda Curtin and world weaving

Amanda Curtin’s book Elemental will be officially launched tomorrow in Perth. It has been available for almost an entire month and I had the pleasure of interviewing her for this profile feature piece in April when I got sent a review copy in the mail. A book from Amanda Curtin in the mailbox is always a delight and a treat.   

Amanda Curtin (c) 2013 Marisa Wikramanayake
Amanda Curtin (c) 2013 Marisa Wikramanayake

There are worlds on Amanda Curtin’s walls. It’s the first thing you notice when you walk into her studio – a converted storeroom at the back of an unassuming cottage on an equally unassuming street somewhere in Bassendean. Later on, I find out that it used to be a general store selling milk, bread and newspapers. Somehow, it doesn’t surprise me.

There is a collection of pinboards with photographs, postcards, in fact anything pictorial – here, black and white copies of photographs from over a century ago of herring girls, fishing boats, sheds, tackle, clothes and there, in the middle, a bright, colourful shot, printed and cut out, of a herring. Because she needed to remind herself of what a herring looked like. Along the bottom edge are images of Monarch butterflies. The next pinboard along shows you cottages, landscapes, and in one corner a seven month old embryo preserved in formaldehyde.

These images displayed via Amanda’s version of a non-digital Pinterest are the worlds she describes in her third book, second novel, Elemental, which will made its way out into the world on 1 May.

As I scan her walls and she makes me a cup of tea, I realise that somewhere in the mass of images, is a pinboard, slowly being moved from Elemental’s many worlds to whatever is next and that if I am smart enough, maybe, just maybe I can spot something, glimpse something of the next world Amanda will create or re-create.

It makes her sound like a fantasy author but Amanda is a writer of literary fiction and there is a fascination with secrets and inherited things that runs through her first novel The Sinkings, her short story collection Inherited and now Elemental.  This is why I am not at all surprised to find that her house used to be a general store. Amanda has one foot in the past and one foot in the present and she uses this to surprise you with these little facts, constantly.

She pops up next to me and informs me that the image of the seven month baby not yet born (and now never will be) is from a museum she visited on one of her many research trips that was full of “monstrosities”. Is a baby ever a monstrosity, I ask, philosophically and she smiles.

We sit down to cups of tea and chocolate and blueberry muffins. Our interview, meant to be an hour long, is more an informal chat. I have known Amanda since 2008 when I joined the Society of Editors (WA) and ended up on the committee, on which Amanda, a freelance editor for over two and a half decades, had sat for 16 years.

Current Society of Editors (WA) President Robin Bower is both amazed and grateful for how much Amanda has contributed to the Society.

“For 16 years she spent her time and energy building up the network of editors and promoting individuals in this publishing business.” says Robin. “Her work is highly valued by the remaining committee members and the rest of the membership.”

Over the years, she has doled out bits of advice to me on not my writing but on how to cope with characters in one’s head, how to keep writing and how not to let the editing side interfere too soon.

“I shove it to the back and try to keep it away as long as possible. The editor in you is your friend but not right then.”

But why does Amanda write in the first place? When reading Elemental, I felt like I was reading a story that I could have written, a story that took on the worlds in my head and made them come alive. I felt more like a character in the story, observing rather than a reader being told a story by the main protagonist Meggie. Where does this talent come from?

I ask her, was it being an editor for so long that made her want to be a writer? But it was a desire to be a better editor that made her apply for a PhD in Creative Writing, working under Richard Rossiter to write The Sinkings.

“I wanted to know all I could about what it was like for a writer to be edited.” She tells me.

“I thought I would be a better editor if I knew what writers went through at the hands of people like me, basically.”

There was a sense of ‘Oh, so this was what I am supposed to be when I grow up’ kind of thing” she says and we both split our sides laughing. “It’s a bit late to come to that realization but I found that it was what I needed to do.” She giggles and then tells me that it was only very recently that she started introducing herself as a writer first and an editor second, rather than the other way around.

“It takes a while to grow into the identity you want to have.”

It meant that writing Elemental was very different to writing The Sinkings. For The Sinkings, she had deadlines, input from her supervisor and a writing group and she was expected to submit her work to a competition or for publication. “If it hadn’t been for that I would not have had the confidence to submit it anywhere,” she says, quite honestly. “I would have just written for myself.”

To me, Amanda is a bit of a bower bird. When you look around you notice the disparate things she collects and connects together in her stories and then the way they feed back into her life. Her partner is a sound designer and there is one who makes an appearance in one of her short stories in Inherited to record the sound of an empty room. There are a few ducks on top of her bookshelf that remind me of another short story in the same book about what remains important to a ballerina who cannot dance anymore. Next to them is a wine bottle someone gave her from the winery where one of her characters was murdered in The Sinkings. And then she tells me about the butterflies that meander in and out of Elemental and play their main role in ending the book.

Amanda Curtin in her writing studio (c) 2013 Marisa Wikramanayake
Amanda Curtin in her writing studio (c) 2013 Marisa Wikramanayake

“My dentist’s nurse is a breeder of butterflies.” She tells me and I am struck by the weird, unexpectedness of it – a dentist’s nurse that breeds butterflies. “She told me this many years ago and I was absolutely fascinated by that.” And I can see why – how does one go about breeding such fragile, tiny, one touch too many and there’s a broken wing, kind of creatures?

And then I am struck about the nature of our conversation as well, for Amanda and I are telling each other stories about stories – trading one for another. For every question I ask she has a story to tell and I wonder if she has always been like this.

There’s a story about how she researched the herring girls and got to talk to a woman who, though now in her eighties, had beautiful skin on her hands due to her work gutting herring as a teenager as Meggie does in the book and immersing her hands in the roe and salt and guts. “It’s amazing how fast they went,” she says. “I am so clumsy. I don’t think I could hold a wet fish, let alone take its guts out in a second.”

“My father called it the ‘sardine book’” she tells me when I ask her how long writing Elemental took. “I started researching it in 2007; I think I started writing in late 2009 or around then and I finished the first draft in Ireland in 2011 but once I finished the first draft – I had been working and reworking it so it actually came to a celebratory point for me at that point in about May or June 2011. And then I submitted it around June or July last year.”

Amanda has many fans, mostly people who share a fascination for teasing out puzzles and who love being surprised by a fact suddenly unearthed.

“The world of Meggie Tulloch is utterly captivating, densely imagined and beautifully realized” says author Gail Jones.

Robin Bower echoes this love of how Amanda manages to pull you into the world she places her stories in.

“I love Amanda’s writing and think she is quietly forging her way to the top of the pile, both in Australia and internationally” she says. “Her sense of humanity and evocation of the most sensitive, subtle feelings in her characters is so well crafted, it’s like being slowly massaged on your way down a fast-flowing river and you are not even aware that you’re going to hit the wide open sea, and freedom, very soon.”

Elemental’s Meggie Tulloch writes out her life in exercise books in the ‘70s before she dies for her granddaughter – a life that takes us through Scotland at the start of the 20th century, the Shetland isles soon after and Fremantle during the first World War and the Great Depression. And there are puzzles tossed in throughout: what happened to Meggie’s childhood friend? Who tore out the last pages of her life before her granddaughter finally read them? And did her daughter really never remember her brother? Amanda laughs and refuses to tell me if my guesses to these are right.

With Amanda’s own interests being so playful with time and place, is it any wonder that this is what she gives us in each book and story she writes? She writes about places where time does stop and the past and present all meld into each other and when you read her work, you are right there with her protagonists trying to figure out what is going on.

And then you realise that when Amanda writes, perhaps that is exactly what she is trying to do as well.

Elemental came out on 1 May and is published by UWA Publishing.

Author: Amanda Curtin
Publisher: UWA Publishing
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publication Date: May 2013

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