Author Interview: Gretchen Shirm

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This month sees the release of Where The Light Falls by Gretchen Shirm, one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists. We were able to find out a little more about her in this interview.

What made you want to be a writer?

It’s very difficult to answer that because I’ve wanted to write for as long as I can remember. I wanted to write even before I knew any writers myself or even what it meant to be a writer. I do think it has something to do with a need to tell stories – whenever I sit down to write, I do feel the need to craft and shape something out of the material I’m working with. The hardest part of becoming a writer was making the decision to sit down every day and write seriously, without knowing whether I would ever be published and whether or not it was any good. It is a frequently humbling occupation!

Do you remember the first time you were published, can you tell us a little about it?

Yes, I was first published in the 2008 UTS Writer’s Anthology titled We All Need a Witness. It did feel like a vindication after many years of effort and all of my effort had finally delivered a tangible result. But there had also been many many rejections before, as there have been many many rejections since. Making peace with rejection is part of a writer’s life!

You were named on of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for Having Cried Wolf, what was your reaction?

I was thrilled – especially since I had only written short stories and not a novel. So many outstanding writers had received this award before me; it really was an honour to be included in that cohort. It made me feel as though I was on the right track with my writing and I took it as permission to continue and to devote more time to it.

Can you tell us about the collection?

Having Cried Wolf is set around a small fictional town on the NSW South Coast called Kinsale and it’s a collection of stories that documents small moments in its characters’ lives, often turning points. The stories intersect, characters’ reappear, events effect more than one character in different ways. All the characters are coming through moments of change and asking the question ‘what next’?

Your upcoming novel is Where The Light Falls, can you tell us about it?

It’s about a portrait photographer living in Berlin named Andrew Spruce, who is preoccupied with photographing people who are in some ways unusual or damaged. He returns to Australia when he learns an old girlfriend of his disappeared in mysterious circumstances. During the course of the novel, he tries to uncover what happened to her and in the process has to confront some truths about his own life. He also develops a close relationship with the subject of one of his photographs, a young girl who causes him to question his ethical responsibility towards her. He’s really attempting to reconcile his past with his impulse to take photographs.

 Credit Mimi Kelly
Credit Mimi Kelly

Where do you find your inspiration?

Funnily enough, I don’t find inspiration the hard part. I draw inspiration everyday, from paying attention to the world I live in. Often the simplest, smallest thing will give me an idea – an exchange with someone, a mannerism I observe in a stranger, a work of art, a passage in a book. Usually the difficult part is finding enough time to write and working out the right way to execute an idea. More often than not, that takes years. Where the Light Falls went through over twenty painstaking drafts before it was published. Now that I’m caring for a five month old baby, it’s even harder to find time to immerse myself in my writing and right now I’m writing in snatches while the baby sleeps – so it’s even slower than usual.

Are you working on anything new you can tell us about?

I’ve returned to an old manuscript I abandoned in 2011, so it’s not really ’new’. It was a difficult decision to leave it because I’d invested more than two years in writing it. But now that I’ve had the benefit of time away from it, I’ve been able to figure out what the problems were and have returned to it refreshed. This was a really good lesson to learn – sometimes the only thing that solves my writing problems is time. I just need to find some unbroken time to finish it!

What do you love to read?

I try to read as much and as broadly as possible and mostly I read fiction. I love books by women and I love books that make me feel something. I also review for a number of publications, so it’s really important for me to stay on top of contemporary fiction, as well as knowing where contemporary writing comes from, so I’m also often delving into classics as well. I recently re-read Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watchtower, which I found quietly astounding.

Can you tell us what has been your favourite book of 2016?

So far I’d have to say so far this year, has been Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, which is actually a work of non-fiction. It’s a beguiling and profound inquiry into attachment and desire, conformity and deviance and very hard to categorise – it’s part memoir, part work of criticism. I was also really impressed with a debut novel by a talented young Melbourne writer named Jennifer Down called Our Magic Hour, which is a closely observed look a friendship, loss and happiness. Down has a gifted eye for detail and some really interesting things to say about happiness and fulfilment.

You are a writer and lawyer, how do you manage to juggle the two?

I actually gave up my practising certificate last year, but when I was practising law I worked part time for many years to give myself time to write. Balancing the two was challenging, because law is such a demanding occupation and writing fiction requires an infinite investment of time – it’s difficult to feel your work is ever ‘done’. I briefly had more time when I stopped practising and was tutoring at universities, but now that I have a baby I have hardly any time to write, so it’s swings and roundabouts really!

Where the Light Falls is available now from Allen & Unwin, Angus & Robertson Bookworld, Booktopia and where all good books are sold.

Gretchen Shirm can be found on Twitter and GretchenShirm.com.

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