A spotlight on Where We Begin by Christie Nieman
Where We Begin is one of the six books shortlisted for this year’s Readings Young Adult Book Prize. It follows seventeen-year-old Anna on a quest to uncover her dark family secrets. Our judges described it as a ‘richly descriptive and perfectly-paced novel.’
We asked author Christie Nieman about writing inspiration, advice and Gothic literature.
What was the initial inspiration for this story?
Next to the gently-undulating open woodland landscape where I live is a wide, high, treeless plain that sits close to the clouds that slide above it. It’s a striking landscape: a high plateau with remnant vegetation hanging on at the edges of bare paddocks, a low slung sky, cheap-and-quick fibro houses scattered among the widely-spaced ruins of colonial-era buildings. There is a particularly impressive ruin on this plain, a two-storey bluestone colonial-era mansion, abandoned and empty. I’ve often wondered at how complicated Australian ruins are, and how their history differs to the European buildings in some of my favourite European Gothic novels – Jane Eyre, My Cousin Rachel, Wuthering Heights, even Dracula. As happens so often, it is place that hands me my stories. I think I like to build my stories, quite literally, from the ground up. So this was the place that gave me Where We Begin.
How did you go about getting published?
The route to publishing my first novel, As Stars Fall, was wiggly. Wiggly, with stretches of poverty, fun, persistence, and luck. I’m a late-bloomer, even though I’ve been writing since I was fifteen. I actually started writing As Stars Fall when I was nineteen but then in my twenties I studied music, joined a theatre company as a performer, wrote a play and another play and did lots of other bits of theatre, and wrote and performed lots of songs with my band and spent most of my time working in very crappy jobs just to feed and house myself. In between all of that I was studying literature at university and writing stories and more novel-beginnings and prose poems and essays.
At a certain point I decided if I was going to live this way with no money or security or disposable income for anything good, then I might as well be making more streamlined progress creatively. I knuckled down, finished a draft of As Stars Fall, sent it to slush piles where it was fished out and bandied about at a few editorial meetings and then ultimately rejected. But one of those rejections was a line-call and it came back with lots of really thoughtful feedback. So I started the process of rewriting the thing again based on that feedback and spent some of my meagre bucks on a Writers Victoria mentorship with an experienced editor.
Then my awesome writing group came up with an idea for an anthology and without a publisher on board we arrogantly started approaching our favourite high-profile Australian authors to be part of it. One of those authors was a bit put off by the lack of publisher but liked our idea so much that they approached their publisher friend at Pan Macmillan. Out of the blue we got a call from them with the offer of a contract for the anthology. Our jaws hit the floor. We signed. We worked with an amazing team there to produce Just Between Us. I wanted to work with them as much as possible so I finished working up another draft of As Stars Fall and submitted it to them. The day they agreed to publish it, seventeen years after I first began writing the book – well, that was a happy, happy day.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope that readers will come away from reading Where We Begin with a better sense of the thing that it took me too long to fully understand – that we are history, we don’t just appear in a vacuum. I see the book as tracing my own dawning understanding of that, that even though we may feel like unique and essential individuals, part of maturing is learning that our time and place and everything that has led to it has an enormous impact on who we are, and that that is the same for everybody. Becoming conscious of that has helped me personally to be kinder and more empathetic to others and to myself, and it has certainly encouraged me to work to get past my own bullshit. (Oops, can I say bullshit here? Oops, did it again.) I guess what I’m saying is, I hope Where We Begin functions as a bit of a map I’ve left behind me of my own thrashing through this particular tangle in the human condition. Perhaps that is all fiction can really offer: rough maps of particular paths walked through universal tangles.
What has been the best writing advice you have received?
Once when I had finished uni I had a catch up drink with my honours supervisor and writing mentor and I bemoaned to her about how I just felt so alone in it now, this project of writing. And she looked at me and shrugged. It was an awful moment and an awful feeling. Ah, I thought. I am alone in it. But it was a turning point, and so necessary. Get used to it, I understood later. No one is going to do this for you. If you want it, you have to do it yourself.
Another piece of very useful advice I have heard is that writers don’t have to start off making sense. They have to end up making sense of course, but as a writer making sense shouldn’t be your main concern at the start. The start is for feeling around and trusting your gut and your instinct and letting go of the guide rope and seeing where you end up.
The other best writing advice I’ve had is not advice per se, but rather watching my role models at work, trying to step back from the experience of simply reading the books I love, to seeing how the writer has written them: characters and plot and even metaphors etc are often front of mind when we read, but actually, when you write you become very aware of point-of-view and tense; these are the baseline mechanics of your story. You can understand so much about story and how it works by tuning in to the choices a writer is making around these aspects and examining what those choices have meant for the book.
In Where We Begin, you use buildings, houses, and the land itself to masterfully create an underlying sense of foreboding. Did you always intend for this to be the effect, or did it happen a few drafts in?
That sense of foreboding built into the edifices of the novel is very intentional. The book is modelled on those classical texts of the European Gothic literary tradition, with their crumbling buildings of secrets and shadows, and deep dives into landscape and history. Jane Eyre made quite the impression on me when I was a teenager, and then later, as an adult, Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is one of my all-time favourite books. I wanted to do this with an Aussie YA.
But when attempting to write in a Gothic tradition in Australia, you have to contend with the problematic ‘unsettling-landscape’ trope, a problem peculiar to Gothic writing of ‘the new world’ (read: the colonised world), and in Australia I feel it has a particularly nasty edge. In classic Gothic literature the landscapes and the wild places are often a place of refuge for the main characters (usually women) escaping the threatening ‘civilised’ world represented by the crumbling buildings and their resident villains. But in post-invasion colonial Australia, the genre’s Romantic ideals of landscape as refuge were corrupted. The coloniser perspective in Australian literature instead posited the natural landscape as a place filled with tension and threats, rather than these being found within decrepit buildings and the dark hearts of other people – as in the original genre. I was really keen to amend these harmful tropes in my own work.
I’m a bit of an annoying evangelist when it comes to this sort of thing, I have a PhD in writing environmental fiction and I also studied ecology and land management for a time there in the wiggly years, and I think the way my coloniser ancestors have misunderstood and demonised the nature of this country, ignored and dismissed the knowledge of First Nations peoples, and written our own simplistic version of the place over the top, has caused a lot of harm. So I wanted to restore that sense of foreboding to the buildings and the people and to the marks of disturbance on the landscape, rather than the landscape itself. I wanted to overcome this, because in general, writing in the Gothic tradition is such a worthy pursuit: at its best it is a subversive genre, it brilliantly uses unnamed tension to keep you hooked while bigger themes and intense emotional states are explored, it has historically given women a real voice, it re-embeds people in the environment – something sorely needed right now – and it pays homage to history, and on top of all that it’s so great for young adults as it usually traces a tricky transition from blissful ignorance to difficult knowledge; and what is this constant process of growing up that we are, all of us, engaged in, if not that?