After reading just_a_girl (reviewed here), I just had to ask author Kirsten Krauth some questions. Kirsten Krauth is a freelance writer and editor, who currently edits the NSW Writer’s Centre magazine, Newswrite. She writes reviews, articles and fiction for various magazines and newspapers, including The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald. Since taking the leap in her early 30s to pursue her dream of writing fiction, Kirsten has acquired a Masters in Creative Writing (University of Sydney), set up a freelance communications business, and continues to write and publish fiction. She lives in Castlemaine, in Victoria, with her husband and two young children and blogs at Wild Colonial Girl.
Monique: You’re a freelance writer/editor responsible for Newswrite magazine, which features articles about writing. What prompted the move to write your own novel?
Kirsten: I was well on the way to finishing just_a_girl before I took on the Newswrite editing position. I’d been writing on the arts for many years (mainly film) but there was always something niggling at me, as if I was avoiding something important in my life. I knew fiction was something I had put off since my late teens. I didn’t know whether I could succeed at creative writing so I enrolled in a research masters at Sydney University to find out whether I could write a novella. I had a wonderful mentor there in Sue Woolfe and she gave me the confidence and deadlines; both very important!
Monique: How did the story of just_a_girl come about? Can you give readers a short synopsis?
Kirsten: I was trying out a writing project for the internet, based on hypertext, where I linked a word, and then jumped from that word to another one, writing as I went, hopping along like a grasshopper (that’s the way my character Layla describes her thoughts). This young voice came through very strong and clear. I let the project sit for a while but when I did my Masters, I realised that I wanted to explore this young girl’s world, and bring that voice to life. The other characters, Margot and Tadashi, emerged around her. Here is the synopsis of the book:
Layla is only 14. She cruises online. She catches trains to meet strangers. Her mother, Margot, never suspects. Even when Layla brings a man into their home. Margot’s caught in her own web: an evangelical church and a charismatic pastor. Meanwhile, downtown, a man opens a suitcase and tenderly places his young lover inside. just_a_girl tears into the fabric of contemporary culture. A Puberty Blues for the digital age, a Lolita with a webcam, it’s what happens when young girls are forced to grow up too fast. Or never get the chance to grow up at all.
Monique: On your blog you write that “releasing your novel into the world is like letting your baby crawl across an 8-lane freeway”. It’s been six months since just_a_girl was released – has that feeling eased yet?
Kirsten: In some ways, yes, those feelings have eased. I was anxiously anticipating reviews (especially negative ones) but pretty much all of the reviews of just_a_girl so far in the mainstream press and on blogs have been positive and insightful. I’ve been very excited about the coverage the book has received and the ways in which readers have connected with it (especially as the novel is about the ways in which we are connected!). After a while, I’ve started to see the book as something separate from me (rather than my baby), off on its own trajectory. In terms of work, releasing the book is just an extension of the writing time. I didn’t realise how much would go into promoting the book. It’s something all debut authors need to consider — if they want readers to find it.
Monique: Like me, your teenage years are a way in the past and the internet was not an issue back then … what sort of research did you have to do to make Layla’s voice so authentic?
Kirsten: I spent a lot of time listening to girls on the train (on a daily commute from the Blue Mountains to Kings Cross), to see how they positioned themselves. I also spent a lot of time on MySpace and Facebook, seeing what girls spoke about, what they revealed to strangers, and how easy they were to approach; the results were quite startling to me. In terms of Layla’s voice, it just came naturally once I got the style and her particular phrases and regular tics right. I didn’t find it hard to get into the head of a teenage girl; it was quite liberating to bring that period of my life back into focus, to remember the heightened feelings I experienced back then. And I wonder, do we really change that much? Despite technology, at the heart of things are similar contradictions and passions revolving around the usual big issues.
Monique: Your children are still quite young – how did you get into the head of Margot, Layla’s mum?
Kirsten: Although Layla’s voice came naturally, Margot’s was much more difficult to create. She is actually around the same age as me now, so our cultural references are the same (Robert Smith, Primal Scream) but our experiences are very different. She had Layla quite young, and she has coped with depression by investing herself fully in an evangelical church. I have had family members and close friends who have been involved in these kinds of churches, so I have observed from afar, but was never interested in participating in organised religion. I also know a number of people who went from rave parties to being born again Christians, so I was interested in investigating this idea of addiction and the ecstatic. I also brought many details of my own experience of motherhood into the mix. It can be extremely challenging and overwhelming being a new mum…and Margot is so tough on herself. I needed her to be passive to facilitate the other plotlines that weave around her, but it was a tricky thing to balance at times.
Monique: How are teenagers today different to say, 20 or 30, years ago? How are they the same? Do/did you have similarities with Layla?
Kirsten: I really don’t think they are that different. Teens are still concerned with the big picture: sex, drugs, fitting in, existential angst. When I was researching the book, I was a bit disappointed in how girls and boys related to one another, in terms of power plays and sexuality. The casual misogyny I experienced when I was 13 or 14 still seemed very prevalent and there was a lot of competition in terms of body issues, pressure on girls to conform and be a certain way (enhanced by the access to porn, that was not the same when I was a teen). It was still seen as the girl’s responsibility to control herself — the slut/angel divide is clearly in place — rather than boys choosing to treat girls with respect. Of course this is a massive generalisation, but the internet has heightened these angles. The difference between my teens and now, of course, is that I was able to experiment, learn, and make mistakes in private. The idea that your sexual exploits can be not only filmed, but distributed widely, is something all teens and parents need to talk about and consider. Teenagers still have a certain naivety when it comes to trusting people online (as do adults). In terms of Layla, I think I shared her curiosity about the world, her sense of irony and cynicism, her many contradictions, and her need for TLC (often in the wrong places). I was more nerdy than her and can’t imagine heading off on the train to meet a stranger but, the thing is, I’m just not certain about that given the online possibilities. Which is why I wanted to explore it further. I also grew to be more assertive about what I wanted from relationships with boys (as I reached 15 and 16) but this seemed unusual amongst my peers at the time.
Monique: What do you like most about just_a_girl? Which character do you like the most?
Kirsten: What a question! I like them all! I love Layla, her sass and wit, the way she keeps on trying to find out the answers, in a world that blocks her at every turn. Many people worry for her but I think she is resilient and will learn to hold her own. Margot needs help and I hope finds the strength to reach out for it. But the more I read the book, the more I fall for Tadashi. His quiet calm and loneliness. He is mysterious to me, too, and I’m curious about where he goes after the book finishes …
Monique: What message does just_a_girl send to readers?
Kirsten: I hope it doesn’t really send a message, as such. As a writer, you’re always dreaming that the book will open up debate and discussion rather than closing it down. There’s a sense that parents and teenagers are on separate planets when it comes to what goes on online; hopefully this book helps to raise some issues and get them talking to each other – but when has this ever been easy? What did you tell your parents when you were a teen? I had VERY liberal parents and I still kept most things hidden. That’s the gap you have to negotiate as a parent (and a teen).
Monique: I understand you’re writing another book. What can you tell me about this?
Kirsten: It’s just in early ideas stages at the moment. I’m looking forward to doing some research and early drafts this year. I’m interested in exploring characters (both historical and contemporary) woven around the country town where I live: Castlemaine. I’m looking forward to talking to some locals about the history of the place; it’s rich in material …
Monique: What’s your writing process like? Where do you write? Do you need complete silence or can you cope with noise? How do you get into the “zone”?
Kirsten: I like to be locked away somewhere, in a room full of light, and generally prefer silence. I like looking out the window and mulling and peering onto greenery (not so much now due to lack of rain). I do listen to certain music, over and over again, if it helps me get into the mood and pace of a particular character. Music and rhythm have a big impact on the style I create. I do beats in my head as I go, usually reading aloud. When writing Layla, I listened to a lot of Pink, Peaches, Gwen Stefani, and grrrls with attitude.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Kirsten: I am always learning about the overall arch of the narrative. My writing is fragmentary, so piecing it together is a slow process. I admire writers like Richard Flanagan, Lorrie Moore and Christos Tsiolkas who are so effective in the way they structure their novels. This is something I had to learn when writing my first book. It helps to have an editor help you shape it, but I imagine every novel works differently, and this is a continuing challenge.
Monique: Do your characters create themselves? Or do you plan them out? Do they ever surprise you?
Kirsten: My characters emerge as I write them. I have no idea where they come from or where they are going. But I enjoy finding out. It takes a while to warm to them and then I am a loyal servant. If their voice is compelling, I carry on with it. They always surprise me. And still do when I read them aloud to audiences. The best reviews tease out ideas about the characters that you didn’t even consider …
Monique: Which writers do you admire the most?
Kirsten: Haruki Murakami. Lorrie Moore. Brenda Walker. Christos Tsiolkas. Irvine Welsh. Richard Flanagan. Jon Bauer. Emily Maguire. Luke Davies. Janet Frame. Arundhati Roy. Dorothy Porter. Bret Easton Ellis. David Mitchell. Barbara Kingsolver. Shaun Tan. Ask me tomorrow and I’ll have another list. There are so many. I like writers who engage with style in an interesting way, have strong and unique voices, open themselves up to vulnerability, and are genre-bending.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Kirsten: I just finished Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and agree with many others that it’s extraordinary. I’ve learnt a lot from it in terms of craft, characterisation and how to convey history and horror. I love its integration of haiku and many varying perspectives. It’s a book I will never forget.
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
Kirsten: No. Never. I am a purist. And very loyal. It’s very rare that I don’t finish a book. But most books I read are pretty good to start with, as I’m picky. I’m also often reading to do a review (on the blog or for a newspaper) so I read thoroughly and take notes as I go (Kindle is great for this). I always get completely consumed when I’m reading; I lose the physical world for a while.
Monique: Which book in your collection would you most like to have autographed by the author?
Kirsten: I just had The Female Eunuch autographed when I met Germaine Greer, so that was pretty exciting! But I’d love to meet Sylvia Plath or Dorothy Parker. Any chance of bringing them back?
Monique: Thanks for answering my questions, Kirsten.