Q&A with Stephanie Bishop
In 2015, Stephanie Bishop was named the winner of the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction for her stunning second novel, The Other Side of the World. We’re thrilled that her new book, Man Out of Time, has arrived on our shelves.
Events manager Chris Gordon chats with Bishop about her inspiration behind the book and how her writing process works.
We are so thrilled that your third novel has arrived in-store. Congratulations! You always write with such wonderful intensity, and demonstrate a remarkable ability to evoke strong visual scenes. Do you consider yourself a visual writer – as in, do you see the story before you think about the plot?
Yes, I do find that I always work from images. Writing fiction tends to involve, for me, a process of visual association. I might see something that triggers a series of other images – images imagined or remembered – and from this a scene will start to develop. There seems to be a particular logic to this, in that a narrative will form and start to move only when there are three images working in relationship with each other. It is definitely always the case that I will see the story developing before I consider the details of the plot, and the development of plot is perhaps entirely dependent on the existence of linked images. It’s a bit like watching an internal film emerge.
Man Out of Time has photographs printed within it, that add to the essence of the plot. Where did those pictures come from? And why did you decide to include them?
I can’t imagine what the book would be like, or how I would have written it without those photographs. Almost 10 years ago I tried to write a version of this novel. It was terrible, and I put it in a drawer. Later, I tried to revisit this work and approach it from a different direction, but it was still a disaster. Again, I abandoned the manuscript. Both of these failed novels however were governed by the same desire or idea, the same impulse (although you wouldn’t recognise Man Out of Time in those manuscripts).
At some point, after I’d finished The Other Side of the World, I thought I would have one final go at the book. I got about a third of the way through, and then the narrative completely stalled. I was really stuck. So I set up a situation in which the protagonist came upon a collection of photographs that would, I thought, help to generate the plot and the detective work of that book. At the same time, though, I considered this to be a particularly clichéd move, almost unconscionable: I couldn’t really give a character some photographs and have this be the answer to the riddle of their life. It was at this point that I said to myself, Okay this is it, no more, I’ve had enough of this manuscript – go find something else to do. I thought I was done with it.
A few weeks later I received a phone call from a family member, saying they had come across some papers and they thought I should have these. These papers belonged to my father, and at the bottom of the pile I came upon a large bag of photographic negatives. It was uncanny; I felt as though I was becoming the character in that novel I had recently abandoned. This was not the first time fiction and life have overlapped, not the first time that fiction felt to have called something into existence. But it was definitely the strangest, wildest moment of coincidence. I held the negatives up to the light to see if I could make out the subject matter, and then, of course, took them to the camera shop and had them developed. There were hundreds and hundreds of photographs: mostly of landscapes, urban landscapes, buildings. There were hardly any people in these images, they were not images of any dramatic scene. They were not what I was expecting or hoping for: why would someone keep all these?
I know almost nothing about their context, exactly when, where or why they were taken. And while I generally write from images, these are normally internal mental images. When I came upon these photographs I decided to externalise this process, to use them as the framework for the narrative – to treat them as found objects, and use them as evidence. But evidence of what? The novel started to develop as an experiment based on the use of the photographs, an experiment in art-writing. I set up a series of controls around these images: first, I had to write something, if only a sentence, about every single photograph. Secondly, in responding to the photographs I had to identify a narrative action that is suggested, or actually taking place within the photographic image. It was a trick, in a sense, to try and get the story moving, but it was also an attempt to render the photographs internal to the novel itself.
I was very aware of the different era in which these photographs were taken – all the images dated from the late ‘70s to the early '80s and were outward facing, looking at the world. They represented a mode of being where the concept of the selfie would be unthinkable. On their own the photographs appeared to present no narrative, if anything they were deliberately opposed to narrative and character. The challenge was how to find a connection between them, how I might interpret these photographs as evidence of a journey. What was that journey, and why was it taken? It was from this point that the predicament of the main character, Leon, emerged and from here the overarching trajectory of the novel started to grow. While only several of the many hundreds of photographs appear in the book, I used the images at almost every stage of the novel, and their presence is the invisible bedrock of the fiction.
What books did you read for research or inspiration in writing this novel?
There were so many! And I think because in some ways I worked on this book on and off more than a decade I inevitably forget some major influences only to remember them later. In the more recent stages of writing I was thinking very much about the ways in which the form of the novel can incorporate and adapt other kinds of non-fictional narratives, and I was thinking, too, about writers who have been hugely influential in their theorisation and use of the photographic image – Susan Sontag, John Berger, Roland Barthes, W.G. Sebald and Hito Steyerl, to name a few.
I was also teaching courses on the novel while I was immersed in the development of this book, and so I was thinking quite closely about some of the writers whose work I most admire: Deborah Levy, Siri Hustvedt, J.M. Coetzee, Rachel Cusk, Marguerite Duras – again to name a handful. In a historical context, Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse, was a key influence: I was particularly interested in the three-part structure and the way in which Woolf uses the form of that novel to respond to the death of a parent. A book I returned to in a similar fashion was William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
It seems to me that you have used your story as a vehicle to tackle one of the greatest issues of our time, mental health, and how it fits into our collective narrative. Was this your intention, or did you simply start with a father and his daughter, and themes emerged naturally from there?
It was my intention to explore the experience of severe depression and the fallout of this within a family. My father suffered from such depression. This was largely normalised during my childhood, and it was only later that I started to look back and try and think through some of the experiences associated with that illness. The novel, however, is in no way a factual account of this, but seeks to magnify one-thousand-fold an encounter with mental illness within the space of fiction. There is a passage in Virginia Woolf’s diary, where she writes: ‘The past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.’ While I was working on this novel I had this passage written out, and in many ways regard it as the motif governing my approach to this novel – one’s sense of the past changes and develops over time, morphs and enlarges, emotions are filled out in retrospect. But in this process do these feelings become more or less real, do they move closer or further away from the event that provoked them?
Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. 1 in 5 Australians experience mental health disorders and suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged between the ages of 15 and 44. I don’t think we talk about this very well, or talk about it enough. This intersects with the fact that treatment for depression is often ineffectual, or that the positive effects are often short lived. I was conscious of the magnitude of this issue, and that these concerns had influenced my own life. I was also aware that these issues affect nearly all of us in some way: I would hazard a guess that there are very few people whose lives have not been touched by the experience of mental illness, who do not know someone who has suffered in this way. But the issue itself did not determine or govern the development of the novel. The experience of depression is what characterises and dominates Leon’s life, and therefore shapes his relationship with his family and his daughter. This experience colours his entire worldview: he himself (and certainly Stella) is rarely conscious of a diagnosable malady, he does not buy into a medical narrative about his malady – it is just his human experience, one that is connected to his own past, and which Stella herself must resist.
Stella, the aforementioned daughter, is witness to such sadness in her life. Were you planning to make all your readers cry? (Because if so, it worked…)
It was very important to me that it be a novel that would move people – for the reason that Leon and Stella are characters that feel things very deeply. I wanted the reader to be able to access those same deep places, to go there with Stella in particular. As a child, she has very little control over her environment, over the experiences that she is witness to, and I was thinking very much about the vulnerability of the child in that scenario – how they may or may not develop, over the course of their lives, the resilience to withstand these experiences and make sense of them.
You’ve been writing forever it seems. When did you know that this was the career for you?
I don’t think it was ever exactly a case of deciding I would make it my career. It was more that at some point I realised that this was just how I lived: fiction making is an instinct or an impulse, it’s just always there, something is always happening in the margin, and if I don’t write it down, if I don’t act on this impulse, then I feel incomplete, irritated, miserable. More than that though, writing gives me huge pleasure, it makes me happy to do it.
Although, I should also say that I was very fortunate in having some generous and passionate teachers throughout my life, who encouraged me, who made me aware of the fact that this was something that I could do, or that I needed to do, or that I should keep doing, and so I did that. At a certain point it helped very much to have a teacher or mentor recognise the work, and so validate what could otherwise feel like a pointless task.
And finally, because we love getting recommendations… What’s on your bedside table right now?
There are always way too many books on my bedside table. At the moment there is Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, a proof copy of the final instalment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, Andre Sean Greer’s Less, Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions, and Olivia Laing’s Crudo. I have a box there, to keep extra books in when there is no more surface space and the piles start to topple.