Author, Stephanie Bishop, has the most beautiful, poetic writing style and the book, as a whole, has much to say about nostalgia and the way in which people long for a place and time in their lives they can no longer be. You can read my thoughts on the book in more detail here.
The novel poses questions and refuses to judge its protagonists. It has left me thinking and wondering for weeks now – so, you can imagine my delight when Stephanie agreed to answer some of questions. It’s a fascinating read. Enjoy…
In The Other Side of the World, the two main characters are almost tormented by their feelings of nostalgia, and longing for previous places and times in their history. Is this something of which you have personal experience?
Yes, the book emerged out of two colliding elements: my grandparent’s migrations and my own sense of dual homesickness as I moved back and forward between England and Australia.
My grandparents migrated to Australia in the 1960s as Ten Pound Poms. My grandmother was very reluctant, and agreed to the move only at my grandfather’s insistence. Although she has lived more than half her life in Australia she still thinks of England as home and misses it intensely. I grew up hearing a version of this story over and over again, and as a child and young adult thought of my grandmother as something of a Whingeing Pom: this was the family joke in a way.
It wasn’t until I moved to England to study for my Ph.D. at Cambridge that I understood something of the cost of migration, and the real grief that my grandmother felt at the loss of her homeland. During this time I became very attached to the fen landscape and started to feel that this was my home too.
My grandmother came to visit me when I was living in England and we had a long conversation about why she agreed to move to Australia and how much she wished she had stayed in England. She said at the time that she often wondered why she didn’t leave her husband, and that she really agreed to the move for the sake of the children.
Not long after this conversation I discovered that I was pregnant and it was as if my present and my grandparents history were overlapping – I found myself asking the same questions that they asked themselves 50 years earlier. Where was the best place for a child? Where did we want to raise our family? What place is important to us?
I had been thinking about the novel for some time but it was at this point that the character of Charlotte really came alive. She started off as some kind of fusion between my grandparent’s fraught migrational history and my own predicament at the time. When our daughter was about one and a half we decided to move back to Australia. But once “home” I found I missed England intensely, even though when I was in England, I often missed Australia in a similar way. My grandmother’s story and my dual sense of longing, of nostalgia, informed the novel from the earliest stages.
Is there a place and time for which you feel nostalgic, or has writing this book cured of that tendency?
I do tend to get nostalgic for places and landscapes. I’m very restless, and quite happy to move around a lot. But then whenever I get to a new place I do tend to think that perhaps the previous place was not so bad after all.
There’s a definite fluidity, almost ambiguity, to the ending. Without giving it away, can you explain how and why you decided to approach it in this way? You also use an interesting device of repeating and splicing the final scene – and I’m interested to know how/why you came to that structure?
I’m really interested in the experience of ambivalence, and maternal ambivalence in particular. For me, the ambiguity that exists at the end of the novel is really an aftereffect of wanting of capture the force of ambivalence.
The ambiguity was very deliberate though. I didn’t want the end to seem dogmatic, that is, I didn’t want it to seem as though I were casting a judgment upon Charlotte. Nor did I want it to seem as though the decision was clearly made in Charlotte’s own mind.
Most importantly, for me, was the need to capture Charlotte’s own ambivalence, her dividedness, about what she thought she should do, or wanted to do, at this point. So yes, as a writer, the ambiguity really emerged from thinking deeply about Charlotte’s own maternal ambivalence.
She is riven by two completely opposing desires (which I won’t go into detail about here, so as not to be a plot spoiler), and I wanted the end to be able to encapsulate both these possibilities as they exist inside her.
You’re right, there is repetition and splicing within this scene. This happens in the sense that Charlotte finds herself remembering elements of this final encounter in the lead up to her ultimate act.
I wanted the logic of her decision-making to be embedded within these memories, and to be an emotional process – rather than her thought processes forming a clear and coherent argument in support of what she ends up doing.
At that point, there is no clear line of reasoning that she could articulate and that would justify her final act. She’s just not coherent in that way at this point. Instead, she is overwhelmed by a series of emotional conflicts that emerge in relation to her remembering the recent encounter with her children.
It was a very hard scene to write, and I procrastinated for a long time before finally writing it very quickly one morning and then falling asleep. Once that scene was drafted it actually changed very little.
What are your personal feelings towards Charlotte and the way she behaves as a mother?
I really feel for Charlotte. But that’s kind of my job, too. I don’t think I could have written her as a character or represented her in the way that I do if I didn’t feel some real empathy for her situation. I think mothers and acts of mothering are judged particularly harshly in our culture, and this alarms me. I did want to press back against the frequent assumption that (to put it simply) motherhood makes one happy, that children are a necessary good, and that maternal life is some kind of blissful, natural state. Of course motherhood can be and often is all of these good things. But we tend to deny the force of maternal ambivalence and the intensity of feeling that comes with parenting young children.
With the rise of what has been termed the New Domesticity, this tendency to suppress the darker side of motherhood, is I think, increasingly common. As a mother and as a writer, I’m really interested in the expectations and assumptions that motherhood seems to carry in contemporary culture. I can see that Charlotte is someone that people might judge on the basis of her mothering. I’m interested too, in the ease with which people have tended to explain or justify her behavior by pathologising it – i.e. she must have postnatal depression to do what she does. For me, I feel as though she has been placed in an impossible situation, and her reactions are human reactions of a woman who finds herself trapped and often powerless. I’m also really interested in the fact that Henry does some fairly irresponsible things himself in terms of absenting himself as a father, and this tends to go unnoticed or at least he’s not charged for being negligent in his own parenting. We judge acts of mothering and fathering by very different standards, and I find this fascinating.
I understand you teach Creative Writing at UNSW. What’s the advice you find yourself continually repeating to emerging writers?
There are three pieces of advice that I find myself continually repeating. Firstly, read as much as you can and think deeply about this.
Secondly, try to write something every day so that you can see what is emerging of its own accord.
Finally, be prepared to spend more time revising and editing your work than you do putting together a first draft.
Who are the writers who have influenced your work?
They have been so many. And my influences change over time. There are some writers however, whose influence has persisted or that I find myself returning to over and over again. Those would have to be Virginia Woolf, A. S. Byatt, and more recently Deborah Levy and Elena Ferrante.
When I was working on The Other Side of the World I had a particular soft spot for the novels of Thomas Hardy, and although I didn’t realize it at the time I think that sense of landscape did seep into my work. I also find I’m often re-reading Freud and my PhD was in cotemporary American poetry, so that too comes in somewhere: Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, Louise Brock-Broido.
It’s just something I’ve always done – I can’t help it, I have to do it. It’s how I make sense of the world.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel, and a collection of essays
*Review copy supplied by the publisher on request