Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: interview with Catherine Noske

It may be true that over 2 billion people around the world are currently in lockdown as a result of measures imposed by governments to try and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. But it’s also true that there are countless creative folk continuing to write, paint, and create new work amid this current global crisis. And so, we’re incredibly pleased to still be bringing you interviews with some of these brilliant creative people.

Australian writer and academic Catherine Noske has been awarded the A.D. Hope Prize, twice received the Elyne Mitchell Prize for Rural Women Writers, and was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award in 2015. The editor of Westerly Magazine, Noske’s debut novel The Salt Madonna was described by The Guardian as a “must read” book for the coronavirus lockdown.

In Noske’s novel, crimes and miracles collide in a page-turning, thought-provoking portrayal of a remote community caught up in a collective moment of madness, of good intentions turned terribly awry. Published by Picador, The Salt Madonna has been described by Australian novelist Gail Jones as “tense, original and lyrically told; […] a gripping story of a
community spellbound by collective mania and the search for what
cannot be found.”

It’s an honour to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

NOSKE

I am an academic, teaching and researching in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia. My work includes editing Westerly Magazine, which is a huge privilege, and something I love doing. I live in Scarborough, a suburb of Perth (Australia, not Scotland), with my husband, my cat (Oliver) and my dog (Max). We’re close to the beach – I grew up in the country, I don’t love cities, so being near the beach is a saving grace.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

NOSKE

Writing was an early love, but I think horses were my first passion! I began riding as a six-year-old, and it is my sanity now. My horse Izzy lives a little way north on an agistment property outside the city. Most of my spare time is spent out with her, and horses still tend to appear in my stories. They are a symbol to me of the subconscious – you can’t lie to a horse. They show you your inner self, reflect back emotions you didn’t realise you were holding.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

NOSKE

It might sound clichéd, but my mother inspires me more than anyone else. She has always loved her work, and taught us kids to follow our careers seeking the same passion. She also invested us with a healthy respect for the natural world, and a delight in it.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently published your first book, The Salt Madonna, which has been described by Cassandra Atherton as “Australian Gothic at its most sublime and uncanny”. What does the term ‘Australian Gothic’ mean to you – and what aspects of Australian culture and history do you think are most uncanny?

NOSKE

The term ‘Australian Gothic’ has a loaded history. The Gothic is ultimately a European genre, transplanted with colonialism. In the early years of settlement, it was taken up as a mode of measuring the country by European standards – seeing (and claiming) by imposing a set structure of values. England was the model of civilisation, and Australia was topsy-turvy, the ‘dungeon of the world’ (as Gerry Turcotte wonderfully describes it). Everything here was inverted: the seasons were reversed, swans were black, trees drop their bark, not their leaves… None of these are anything but natural to the Australian environment, but in colonial eyes, they became perverse and thus Gothic. The legal fiction of terra nullius worked in the same way – seeing the land as empty allowed colonials to see Aboriginal peoples as less-than-human, and thus legitimised the violence and dispossession that those peoples suffered.

I started writing TSM as part of my PhD thesis, which was interested in tracing that history through contemporary literature – looking to understand how colonialism continues to shape the way white Australians specifically describe the land. As a white Australian writer of European heritage, I need to understand the forces which shape my privilege and define my relationship with the country, and might be inflecting my assumptions and ideas about the landscape. So I was deeply interested in the Australian Gothic when I stared writing, and understanding what baggage it carries with it as a form. In the contemporary setting, the uncanny lens can be used in the same way, but turned in the opposite direction – can be applied to challenge the structures of power which still operate in society. Robbie Arnott’s Flames, released by Text Publishing last year, is a great example of this. I’m not sure if I have achieved the same sleight of hand, or if I have fallen back into the same old traps of uncanny landscapes… but this is what I set out to try and do! Cassandra’s response is very flattering in those terms.

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to choose the setting for your book – the small island town of Chesil?

NOSKE

Chesil is a based loosely on my home in rural south-west Victoria. I should be clear – Chesil is very much a heightened and imagined space. I’m not sure it would be recognisable as my home to anyone but me and maybe my immediate family. It is influenced as well by other small towns I know, and some I have only visited. Setting my story on an island was a way of detaching it not only from society in terms of plot, but also from reality, and from my own history. Small rural towns can be wonderful places, but they also have a strange logic of their own, and I wanted a space in fiction where I could explore that without being beholden to the way I remembered the actual place.

INTERVIEWER

How do you think the stories of a landscape and people can shape our understanding of a specific location, and – in turn – what role can a place or town have upon the people who hail from there? 

NOSKE

Story is everything! I’m a strong believer in the idea that place is made, not inherent. It is constructed actively in language and our memories and our imagination. And in turn, the way we narrate our lives is derived from the traditions of language and power we inherit. This is not a simple relationship, it is symbiotic and multifaceted. Where I am from and where I live now has shaped a lot about the way I write, as well as the way I know and engage with other places. Conversely, my writing has changed the way I think of my home now, and the things I notice most strongly when I return there.

INTERVIEWER

It’s been said so often that ‘all writing is autobiography’. How many of your own experiences have found their way into The Salt Madonna?

NOSKE

Quite a few! Mostly the happy ones. Thankfully, the darker elements of the plot are entirely fictional. But one of the early comments I got in drafting was that some relief was needed, that some light and love needed to come into it, for it to be bearable. (People accuse me of writing depressing stories all the time.) I try not to steal from life, but it definitely happens, and when it does I try to ensure that it is with some ethical awareness of what is at stake…  My family are used to me doing this, I think. It is a running joke that my memories can’t be trusted, as the line between recollection and fiction is a little too poorly defined. And a close friend once gave me a t-shirt which says ‘Careful, or you’ll end up in my next novel.’ She knows me too well.

INTERVIEWER

What does it mean to be an Australian writer working in a country engulfed by some of the most catastrophic effects of the climate crisis?

NOSKE

It is terrifying. The recent fires have been horrible on so many levels – not only the lives lost, but also the cost to the environment, the prospects for species loss and ecosystem collapse that have come out of these events. Combined with this is the fact that we’re only now (January) at what would normally be the beginning of our fire season… And at the same time, Queensland is now experiencing floods. Aside from being a writer, being human right now is depressing. The extreme weather effects of the climate crisis are more and more obvious with each year, and our government still seems to be doing very little to redress the situation.

So being a writer in this context comes for me with a huge sense of responsibility, to make your writing ‘count’ – not only to represent the reality of the climate crisis with an ethical awareness and sensitivity, but to support the voices of those who are most disadvantaged by it, and otherwise (politically) under-acknowledged. I think I feel this onus most powerfully in my editorial work with Westerly – I have been trying to make a space for diverse voices, and for those most affected by the recent bushfires to speak out. But even in my own writing, I’ve been feeling a desperation to make the people in power listen, notice, pay attention, to make changes!! The fires have made it very clear to me that it is the system which needs to change, if we are going to prevent further damage and loss. Individuals can alter their carbon footprint only minimally compared to the change government can effect. But even then, I think we are also now faced with a future wherein being a writer will also mean recording our natural world for posterity, mourning and memorialising that which we stand to lose.

INTERVIEWER

Thinking about the Australian literary scene at the moment – what are some of the trends that we should be taking notice of, and who are the authors we should be paying attention to?

NOSKE

In the same vein, most lately I’ve been really excited by the developments both in lyric essay/creative nonfiction and in climate fiction (cli-fi). Both genres to me have huge scope to do important real-world work. More generally, I’m excited about quite a few of the releases coming this year – people like Donna Mazza, Sean O’Beirn, Alison Whittaker, Elizabeth Tan, James Bradley, Mandy Beaumont, Jamie Marina Lau, Evie Wyld, Danielle Clode, John Kinsella, Ella Jeffrey… I could keep going! Working with Westerly means I get a lot of updates on coming releases – it is always very tempting.

INTERVIEWER

When writing fiction, can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank page to fully formed story?

NOSKE

Very slowly. TSM took me ten years to write. For me, a setting usually comes first – an image or a place that feels important. After that, I try to develop the voice that sits within it, with all that voice implies in terms of characters and tone and emotions. It’s never terribly directed, and usually quite organic at this point. But once I know the feel I want, then I start planning a little more, trying to imagine how the work as a whole might come together, or what sort of shape it could take. I am not a plot-driven writer, so I find the plotting part hard. It generally gets built slowly and in pieces, different plots for different characters, most of which never see the light of day. I like playing with structure, though, so drafting usually involves a few different ‘experimental’ versions, each one changing the approach or the perspective somehow.

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for The Salt Madonna?

NOSKE

That people will read it, first. Secondly, that they will enjoy it, or find it intriguing in some way. Thirdly, that anyone who does read it will forgive its weaknesses! And finally, that it has some meaning that people find relevant (and perceptible).

INTERVIEWER

So many writers think of little else than holding their finished novel in their hands for the first time. How does it feel to have achieved what so many will only ever dream of?

NOSKE

It feels a little surreal. I have been working on this novel longer than I have been married – it has been a big part of my life for a long time. And I’m not sure I’ll miss the writing, but I have had to remind myself a couple of times now that it is done, and that I shouldn’t keep working on chapters and voices and plots. But it is also very confirming. It’s lovely that Picador think it worthwhile putting out into the world.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a writer?

NOSKE

In all kinds of ways – to the people and places who have influenced and informed my writing, but also to the world, as I said above, in the era of climate change, to record what we stand to lose, and try and push for change. In TSM, I was responding to social pressures that I felt as a woman, and to ideas about power and truth, and how stories can be used by those in power to maintain a status-quo which suits them, ultimately taking over peoples lives.

INTERVIEWER

In an age of ‘abject’ incomes for writers, how can aspiring creatives pursue their passions while also making ends meet?

NOSKE

I find this question a really difficult one, especially when talking to my students. There is no easy way to balance pursuing a career as a writer with supporting yourself financially. I am incredibly lucky that my job aligns with my passion, and provides me with the opportunity to write and research as part of my day-to-day. I couldn’t be more grateful for that. But it is depressing that this is not the reality for most writers, particularly in an era wherein writing is such an essential cultural activity – it gives us a space to respond to and consider climate change, it can offer a point of connection and identity for people and communities suffering trauma, it can advocate for change. Ideally, we would see arts funding expanded in times of crisis… but this is unlikely. So all I can usually say to students is to take your passion seriously, and don’t minimise the importance of having that in your life. If you’re passionate about it, writing has a value beyond money. And if that means working a job you’re not 100% passionate about, to finance your time writing, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing to do – as long as you insist on having time to write.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your work? Are there any exciting projects we should be looking out for?

NOSKE

I’m currently working on a new MS, which might never see the light of day – a work combining lyric essay and poetry, trying to find a way to map in language the experience of a weekend’s walking on the Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia. I’ve no idea what it will come to – its in the very early stages now. But a couple of the poems have been published in journals online, and I’m really enjoying the writing process.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book?

NOSKE

Impossible. There’s never one.

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies?

NOSKE

A book.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

NOSKE

Critically acclaimed.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated writer?

NOSKE

Randolph Stow, Shirley Hazzard – there are a lot of wonderful Australian writers who deserve more attention.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated writer?

NOSKE

That seems harsh. Also dangerous. Could be I overrate myself…  

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

NOSKE

William Barak

INTERVIEWER

Russel Crowe, or just a normal crow?

NOSKE

Ha! An Australian raven, ideally. They make the best noises.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

NOSKE

None worth exposing.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

NOSKE

I got my tongue stuck to a fridge once. That was a low.

INTERVIEWER

Something you’re particularly proud of?

NOSKE

My family and my husband.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

NOSKE

Hours ago, a message: ‘Home soon.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for aspiring authors?

NOSKE

In no particular order: Write instinctively, impulsively, unthinkingly. Experiment with form, shape, structure, and learn from the ones that don’t sing for you. Trust the feel of a good line in your head, even if others doubt it. Edit incessantly, and experiment with that too. Write from experience, sure, but don’t tie yourself down to it. Find new ways to see the world as often as you can. Make sure you constantly question the limitations of your vision. Write the unexpected, in the world rather than your plot-lines – write the things you see that others don’t. Trust in the simplicity of animals, they don’t know how to lie. And trust your writing when it feels the same.

Catherine Noske’s debut novel ‘The Salt Madonna’ is published by Picador and available to order online.

The Salt Madonna can be ordered through Pan Macmillan Australia https://www.panmacmillan.com.au/9781760980191/

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