Claire Varley is that rare bird whose manuscript made it off the slush pile and into publication.
And what a manuscript it is!
‘The Bit in Between‘ is laugh-out-loud funny (seriously, there were chuckles of audible volume) but also slightly whimsical and romantic as we watch our two gen y-ers, Alison and Oliver, fall in love. (Read more of my thoughts, here)
But don’t pigeonhole this book as rom-com, for Claire Varley is a writer with something profound to say – and it’s a joy to welcome her to Book Birdy.
Where did the idea for Alison and Oliver’s story come from? Are you Alison or Oliver – a bit of both, or neither?
At the time of writing the book I was fairly obsessed with people. Not any one person in particular, but all people: What we do, why we do it, and how we come to be where we are in life. I wanted to explore all these things, placing my characters out of their comfort zone in another country, and Alison and Oliver seemed like an interesting way of doing this. They are both in their mid-twenties trying to work out what they are doing with their lives, though of course this feeling isn’t reserved for twenty-somethings alone. It’s just I was early/mid twenties when I wrote it and it basically meant one less area to research. I’m clever/lazy like that. I’m a little bit of all my characters, but they are all also equal parts people I know and people I have invented. Little Frankenstein monsters of everything in my head.
The novel is set mostly in the Solomon Islands, which you seem to know so well. Talk me through your relationship with this place?
I lived in the Solomons for just under two years supporting community development projects in a remote province. I was lucky enough to be there long enough that it became my new normal and I was incredibly privileged to learn so much from my colleagues and friends about Solomon history and culture. I wanted to write something that explored this country, which is so close to Australia, yet so few of us really know about. And I wanted it to celebrate the beauty, humour and resilience of the place, where traditionally the tales we get from the Pacific are either fairly colonial, patronising or reduce it to a two-dimensional ‘troubled developing country’.
You use an interesting device in the novel where you give the reader a few pars of description about some of the minor characters we meet. What made you want to write them in that way?
The book is about Alice and Oliver and their relationship, but it is also about their interactions with all the people around them, whether meaningful or fleeting. In some ways the book is asking questions about how much we do or don’t have a say in the way our lives turn out, and the little vignettes were my way of examining this theme. It’s a bit like how I see the world through my eyes, so obviously the sun must revolve around me, but in reality each of us thinks this and we often forget that every other person we see has an entire story behind them.
I had lots of fun reading Oliver’s silliness in writing his book. Was it weird for you, to write a book where the main character is writing a book?
It was such great fun. They were the best bits to write because I didn’t have to do too much research other than look at myself in the mirror, trawling through my own actions and thoughts. Writers are wonderfully silly creatures – we can be so dramatic about the most trivial things. And in writing Oliver’s experience of creating his book, I got to simply transpose my own anxieties into his thoughts and not have to feel them as much myself. The irony now is that I’m writing book two and every so often I have moments where I swear Oliver’s words are coming out of my mouth. It’s like a glitch in the matrix – so much déjà vu.
How did this book ever find itself on a slush pile? And how did it get the hell of it again?
When I returned from the Solomons I started submitting it to every publisher that accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Pan Macmillan was the ninth and I was thinking about putting it in the proverbial bottom drawer if they said no. It was incredibly fortuitous that the manuscript happened to be put in the ‘maybe’ pile and then the commissioning editor decided to dip into that pile and stumbled across mine. Regardless of how good your writing may be there is just so much luck that comes into it. It really is about right place, right time, right publisher. I wish I could offer people more advice, but mine essentially whittles down to: be really stubborn and keep submitting, because the worst you’ll get is a no, and this is nothing that a good wheel of cheese and a glass of plonk can’t fix.
Because when I don’t do it I feel like I have forgotten to breathe. (So melodramatic, but what do you expect, I’m a writer.)
What are you working on now?
Book two, an entirely new novel, set in Melbourne and exploring identity, place and self amidst the backdrop of the various levels of political engagement of members from one family. It is so much less boring than that sentence, though. Hopefully. We’ll see. Fingers crossed.
For more information on The Bit in Between, or to purchase a copy, visit Pan Macmillan