Author Interview: Gretchen Shirm

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Sydney lawyer Gretchen Shirm is the author of The Crying Room, which is set to be released on July 1st.

Before you read the book, check out this interview with Gretchen.

Tell us about your book, The Crying Room…

The Crying Room is about three generations of women, and how emotions don’t sit neatly inside these three individuals, but move wordlessly between them. It’s also about story, and how story unfolds in families: to belong to a family one needs to be a part of a ‘larger’ story, but in order to become an individual one needs to work out one’s own narrative.

Having recently had my own child, I was interested in the tension between these two experiences. I think I concluded that in happy families, a person can both have their own story, and belong to a larger one.

That was why it was so important for me to include Monica as the author of The Crying Room, because the book is about the way story-telling is implicated in belonging and family. 

Why did you choose Ballina as the backdrop to the book?

I went to high school in Ballina, I lived there from the ages of 14-18, when I moved to Sydney to study at university. I suppose Ballina is a vivid psychic space for me, because I spent my formative years there, but also I maintain a connection to it, because my parents still live there, so I return to visit periodically. 

Part of the reason I chose this as a setting is because it’s accessible to me and didn’t require much research, but I also think it was important to me to have this as a location that offset and contrasted against Sydney, where much of the book is set. 

I grew up between two coastal locations — Kiama on the south coast, and Ballina on the north coast, and the sea is a really important part of my life — so I also think having the ocean to draw on as an image was probably also one of the factors that influenced me. 

Who would love this novel?

I think anyone who has belonged to a family will appreciate some of the tensions that unfold in this book. Two of my key influences as writers are Elizabeth Strout and Anne Enright — and I definitely think Strout’s two books Olive Kitteridge and Anything is Possible influenced quite profoundly the structure of The Crying Room

In fact, the structure of this novel is quite strongly connected to what I am trying to say, which is that no single person owns a story, or that the story of individuals is highly fallible. I think the structure of The Crying Room, the networked way that stories unfold helps to draw out the drama of the experience of family. 

I think Tim Winton’s The Turning also influenced me, as it was one of the books I read when I was learning to write. Lovers of all of these books will love The Crying Room, but I do like to think it has a universal appeal!

How does your background as a lawyer help you as an author?

At one level, I think that lawyering and writing seem fairly far apart, but the thing is they are both profoundly connected to language, which I think is why so many lawyers are drawn to writing. When I was a lawyer, I often spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of particular words or phrases — that was essentially the nuts and bolts of being a lawyer — in writing I also spend a similar amount of time fixating on language, but from the other direction.

As a writer, I am trying to express something through language. As a lawyer, I was often trying to locate the limits of language, so the two things were related. I also think that having been a lawyer probably gave me the confidence to write, in the sense that I came from a fairly modest background, I didn’t grow up in a city — I didn’t even meet a writer until I was in my later twenties.

But I think knowing that I could do law gave me the basic confidence to believe I could do other things. 

Where do you get your inspiration?

I definitely think that writing comes from life, and I’m constantly slotting away information, and storing it for future reference. But also reading — I think one of the attractions to being a writer is to be in conversation with other books.

When I teach other writers, one of the things I am constantly shocked by is how little people who want to write, read. I think that the process of becoming a writer is, in part, just getting literature inside you to a certain extent, and then letting it unfold in its own way. 

What are you reading right now?

I am reading Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? which is a properly awesome book. In it, Winterson revisits the territory of her earlier roman-a-clef Oranges are not the Only Fruit, and considers where her impulse to write came from.

Recommended reading for all aspiring writers! I’m also reading Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, but there’s a lot to it, so I’m taking my time with that one. 

When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your time?

I’m usually with my daughter if I’m not writing. I’m also really into horse riding — a throwback from my youth when I owned a horse. Unfortunately, at the moment I am not riding due to an injury, which makes me a bit grumpy. 

I also enjoy weird European films when I can get away from family life — the best one I saw recently was Triangle of Sadness. The rest of the time I’m reading, often with a glass of pinot noir. 

What was your favourite book as a child?

Well, one of my character’s in The Crying Room talks about her obsession with My Hiroshima, and I do think that I was similarly obsessed with that book as a girl. I suppose it just had a heft to it that resonated with me. I also vividly remember Aranea by Jenny Wagner. 

When I was a teenager in Ballina I did get a little bit obsessed with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca

Tell us one fun fact we wouldn’t know about you…

When I was in my early thirties, I donated eggs to my brother and his partner so they could have children. My beautiful ‘eggs’ are now twelve years old. 

What’s next for Gretchen Shirm?

I’ve just finished writing a book based on the experience I had working at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

The book is called Out of the Woods, and I thought for a long time about how I would write it, given the sensitivity of the subject matter. Finally, after reading Svetlana Alexievich, I had something of a penny dropping moment and decided to include snippets from the testimony in the novel itself. 

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