The Story of my Book: Kristel Thornell on Night Street
Joint winner of the 2009 Australian/Vogel Literary Award Kristel Thornell grew up in Sydney, currently lives in the US and guest blogs for Readings to tell us the story behind her novel Night Street.
The seed of Night Street was planted in 2007. Before then I’d never heard of the artist, Clarice Beckett. I was living in the US. During a trip back to Australia, I’d gone to Adelaide for a few days. It was a torrid summer. In the cool refuge of the Art Gallery of South Australia, I found myself transfixed by a small painting of a misty city street. It was subtle and gentle—but at the same time, so involving, mysteriously deep. Powerfully atmospheric. I had a strange sense of deja-vu. The idea of the woman who, early in the twentieth century, had looked at the world in such a way began to haunt me.
I learned about Beckett and her art from Rosalind Holllinrake’s wonderful work. It was fascinating to me that the artist’s life could be read as a tragic or a triumphant story. Never marrying, Beckett had lived with and taken care of her parents; her art won her little recognition during her lifetime; she died at just forty-eight from double pneumonia after being caught out in a storm…. And yet, if you approached this life from a different angle, despite the elements of tragedy, it was magnificent: resilient, passionate. Day after day, usually around dawn and dusk, she was on the streets and beaches, painting. She explored her own sensuality–in her connection with her city and with nature, in relationships with men. She lived unconventionally, bravely, dedicated to her artistic vision and to the landscapes of Melbourne.
Night Street’s central character is a fictional Clarice haunted by Beckett. I chose not to write a biographical portrait, but to invent a kind of alternate history triggered by aspects of Beckett’s life and art–a psychological landscape. Beckett’s paintings privilege shading and feeling over the definition of edges and details, and I aimed for the novel to echo this. I wanted to pay tribute to Beckett by ‘seeing’ her as she might have seen a landscape–squinting to soften edges and reach beyond detail, hunting for patterns of light and shade.
Night Street is out now. Read the Readings review here.