Q&A with Leigh Swinbourne

Where did the idea for the Lost Child story come from?

The lost child is, of course, a famous trope in Australian art and literature. My take on it is portraying a child/man, a lost soul, not a little unlike myself at his age, and surrounding him with a kind of contemporary gothic mystery that teases out traits in his personality, not all good. The challenge was for the outside shell of the story to lead the reader to what is within.

The descriptions of Willow Court in The Lost Child are very vivid. Did you spend a lot of time

wandering around that old place before writing? And do you think it’s necessary to have

been to places in order to write them well?

I did spend time at Willow Court taking notes and impressions. For practical purposes, I think it best to experience places to write them well, but there are plenty of exceptions to this. Saul Bellow wrote an entire novel set in Africa, ‘Henderson the Rain King’, without having travelled there, and of course we have the whole genre of historical fiction set in times and places the authors have to largely invent. For me, actual places as settings for my writing, their specific detail and mood, provide a spur and also a sense of confidence. Going to Willow Court, absorbing what I needed there, I felt I could then go and write about it ably.

How did you decide what order to put the stories in?

I spent a lot of time shuffling the cards around, and I also left out some good stories that didn’t ‘fit in’. When a reader finishes a collection of stories there should be some underlying sense of a whole experience. There needs to be variety in tone and length to keep the interest up, but the stories should also reflect and refer to one another in different ways to bind them together. One thread in these tales is that in each of them an individual confronts an unexpected experience that forces them to revise, and perhaps change, their view of themselves and their lives.

What strategies do you use to develop your characters? Do they ever surprise you or do you

keep them in check?

It is the norm for writers to create characters and let them see where they will take them. I’ve just finished reading Kate Grenville’s book, ‘Writing from Start to Finish’, highly praised and very popular, which prescribes just this method. I find I can’t do this, although I’ve tried. Best for me is to begin conceptually and create the whole from the top down, so that the characters are formed from and become functions of the overall design. The danger here is, of course, they appear ciphers and stereotypes. So what I do, after a few drafts, is then try to write from the bottom up, Grenville style, from the characters’ perspectives. With any accomplished work everything is contrived, but all must appear to flow naturally without any sense of determinism or outside control. Characters are necessarily sketches, but as in an accomplished pencil drawing, the strokes must be sufficiently true so that the reader can create the discrete individuals, completing the work for the artist.

How do you strike the right tone when ending a short story? How do you know when it’s

time to finish?

Endings are difficult and all important, and I think in contemporary literature, undervalued. Time and again I read good stories and novels where the writer is unable to bring things to a satisfactory close, cops out even. A tale, like a tune, has a natural shape. The difficulty lies in working that out. Most of this I do in my head, sitting for hours running through different possible permutations. When I think I’ve got it, or am close, I write it out and then leave it alone. Then I come back to it and see whether it works. If it doesn’t, I repeat the process. I get others to read it etcetera. You just have to hope that time and judgement will help you get things more-or-less ‘right’. The shape of the story, as much as the contents, should express your aim in writing it. When the reader comes to the end, they need to have a sense of completion, feel that story has now been told.

Your dialogue flows very naturally, especially in ‘Alana.’ What tips would you give writers

around dialogue?

Trial and error. Dialogue is very tricky because it has to perform multiple tasks: sound authentic, reveal character and also progress the story. It must seem spontaneous and natural, while being, of course, completely contrived. Write it out, then speak it out, over and over, until you begin to get the effect you’re striving for. You have to become the characters as they speak, act them, make sure as much as possible there is no false note, either word or phrase. The reader will pick this up very readily.

What do you do to fill your creative cup?

I’m a bit slack here and tend to let my cup fill itself. Generally I find I can’t force the process. Even if I have a strong concept in mind, I still have to let it mature in its own time. This is a bit of a mysterious business but hardly unusual for artists of any discipline. If I sit down and make myself write without being clear what I want to say, I quickly lose confidence. And I think if you want to keep the prospect of filling the cup always in view, then you must read, read, read. Particularly read around what you’re thinking you might like to write. When I have an idea with possibilities, I go to those authors who have done something of the like, but consummately, and try and see how they have done what they have done. Challenge and inspire myself.

 

Where do you write?

I have a ‘dreaming room’ upstairs in my house where I muse, read, write and listen to music. It’s a beautiful space with views of the river and mountain.

What are you currently working on?

Spasmodically, on a novel set in Hobart in 2002 concerning the discovery of an important lost painting. It’s been going on and on for quite a while now with the occasional prompt of grants and mentorships and I am determined to bring it all up to publishable presentation by the end of this year. I’ve said that before.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

I think every artist should work out their own way. Their own subjects, their own methods. Some seem to know what they want to do and how to do it from the very start, but for most, such as myself, it is a slow and frustrating process, with many dead ends. But (cliché alert), if you are a true artist, if this is your genuine calling, then surely in time you will find that way. Time and patience, and faith. Luck helps too.