Tracy Crisp is a stand-up comedian, librarian, blogger – and now, a first-time novelist. Jo Case spoke to her for Readings about her debut novel, Black Dust Dancing.
The story at the heart of the book is the discovery that the industry that this small-town community rely on could be making its children sick, and the reaction of various town inhabitants to the idea. What interested you about that story? What kind of research did you have to do to write it?
I grew up in an industrial town which, like most industrial towns, had to come to terms with the double-edged sword of industry. I was at the end of primary school when it first became an issue that people talked about and I guess it was the first political issue that I had direct contact with. I’m interested in all sorts of elements of that time but particularly the complexities of ambivalence (or perceived ambivalence). The black and white is easy to see, but most of us have to live in the shades of grey. Sometimes we accept the shades of grey for pragmatic reasons, sometimes it’s a cop-out, sometimes we’ve got not choice - that’s what I wanted to explore.
I actually did a whole stack of research - mountains of it - mostly as part of journalism research project I was doing through a university course. I’m in two minds about how helpful the research was, because although it meant I was immersed in the story, I also had a great deal of trouble with the plotting and the narrative drive, and a lot of that problem came from trying to tell the story ‘as it really happened’. After several highly troublesome drafts I stripped out everything that had ‘really happened’, went back to the characters and just the general idea (played out in communities all around the world) of a town grounded in industry and it came together quite quickly after that.
The two women at the book’s centre, young mother Heidi and small-town doctor Caro, are likable but considerably flawed. Was that something you deliberately worked for, or was it how they naturally evolved?
That was at the heart of what I wanted to explore when I started writing the manuscript.
The day after my mother died, there was a constant stream of people coming through my parents' house and at one point, I was sitting in the loungeroom, surrounded by people, all of them talking about Mum and their memories of her. As I was listening to them, I had this striking realisation that all of a sudden Mum’s flaws didn’t matter to me anymore. Not that I wanted to valorise her or pretend she was a saint, but suddenly all of her flaws were just a part of this fascinating, complex woman who was making all these people come to our house to laugh and cry with us. This was quite a revelation for me, perhaps because I was reasonably young when she died, so had only just stopped being embarrassed by my parents and only just started to see them as people in their own right (I wasn’t just young, I was also pretty immature I guess).
It’s something I’ve thought about constantly since she died. I think it’s really important that we reflect on how we live, our actions and our thoughts (and my mother did too), but how do we judge what about us is ‘good’ and what about us is ‘bad’, and how do we make those judgments of others?
‘Just because people don’t lie, doesn’t mean they tell the truth.’ How does this statement, one that Heidi remembers from her mother, relate to the novel as a whole?
It’s funny that you’ve asked that, because I remember when I wrote that sentence and it helped me pull a few things together. I’m always fascinated by our day to day ‘manipulations’ and the layers of meaning that can be behind even the simplest of our actions, like making a cup of tea or lighting a cigarette. I loved giving everyone in the novel their own reasons for wanting Heidi to make a particular choice, because it gave me a chance to play with those manipulations and layers. And of course all political debates are as much about what people say as what they don’t (that makes me sound much more cynical than I really am).
Heidi is torn between her loyalty to her father and fiancée, who work at the smelter, and to her son, whose high lead levels are a result of it. Does she take a stand and jeopardise their jobs, or stay quiet, betraying her son and others who may also be endangered? How did you enter into that kind of dilemma, from her point of view? Was it difficult to figure out what she would do?
For me, Heidi’s dilemma is framed by her desperation to love and be loved. At the same time, she has to be decisive in a way she never has before - until now, she has drifted along, letting things happen, letting other people decide her fate. She can continue letting other people decide her fate if she wants to, but she has reached a level of self-awareness where even that is a decision of sorts.
There were a few points in the story where I had to remind myself what her resources and options really were, but I always had a clear idea about the decisions she would ultimately make. My greatest difficulty came about because I am a wimp and I could never make her follow through - I’ll do anything I can to avoid conflict, and for a while, that personal character trait was a real impediment to writing a novel. Everyone who looked at earlier drafts of the novel (assessors, editors and so on) said the same thing: you’re letting the story just peter out. In the end, it was fun to pull all the strands together and make her follow through.
Although a big issue provides the over-arching narrative for the book, you are equally interested in the characters themselves. The book is packed with wry character detail (eg. ‘Caro was not a gardener in the same way that she was not a cook, not a runner and not good with her hands.’) Do you see the book as character-driven? Did it feel that way when you were writing it?
The characters were with me first - long before the plot - but I had no idea how hard it would be to use characters to drive a novel. I spoke before about the trouble I had with plotting and also with creating conflict for my characters, and I think if I’d had a better understanding of plotting and conflict it might not have taken me so long to finish the novel. Still, whenever I had problems with the manuscript and wasn’t sure what to do next, I went back to the characters and the way they made me feel and think about the world, so yes, I do see the book as character-driven.
This is a novel that keeps you guessing at what’s happening between the characters and the complexities of their relationships. How difficult was it to keep the reader guessing? Is that something you like when reading a book yourself – to have to actively think about what’s happening?
How difficult was it? This was the single hardest thing, but also the thing that I enjoyed the most. It gets back to the shades of grey and layers of meaning and what’s left unsaid. This is absolutely something I like when I’m reading. I like writing that gives you full and rounded characters but still lets you imagine chunks of their lives.
In writing it, the real decisions came not so much in what to leave out, but what to put in. Just enough to open up possibilities for the reader, not so much that they would know straight away. For a while there, I did take the whole ‘show don’t tell’ a bit too far and didn’t tell anyone very much at all, but once I started feeling more confident with my writing, I just loved writing the layers in.
What are some of your own favourite books and writers? Any that inspire your own writing?
This should be simple, because we’re spending some time overseas - we got ten boxes of things shipped over and six of them were books, so you would think I would have all my favourites close to hand, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I cried when I realised I’d brought nearly all my Kate Grenville books, but I’d left The Idea of Perfection at home - so that must be a favourite. My partner couldn’t understand why I was so upset - he said, ‘But haven’t you already read it?’ and all I could do was cry a bit more and say, ‘Yes, but what if I have to read it again?’ Somehow or other, my Dorothy Porter books got left behind too, and my Barbara Hanrahan. I think I’m going to have to get new copies shipped over. Either that, or I’ll have the heaviest carry-on luggage after our next trip home.
I read a lot of children’s books, not just because my children are young, I always have. I like the poetry and the depth of a beautiful picture book or children’s story. If I need inspiration I often go to picture books either from my own childhood - Where the Wild Things Are, The Lion in the Meadow, The Giving Tree, The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek that kind of thing - or the books that I’ve given my children. I also really like books in that 8-12 year old range - that time when you would just immerse yourself in another world and walk around in it for weeks after you’d finished reading it. The Bridge to Terabithia - I don’t know how many times I’ve read that. I use songwriters as inspiration too (a Paul Kelly or Archie Roach CD always puts me in the mood for writing), and I’m reading more and more poetry.