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‘Nothing connects humans like fiction

Jane Caro tells us about the process of writing her latest book The Mother, her biography addiction and why her next novel will have politics as its backdrop…

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You’ve written 12 books, but The Mother is your first work of fiction for adults. What was your writing process like? How did it differ from your approach to writing non-fiction?  

All the novels I have published have, like my non-fiction, required considerable research. This means that, initially at least, the process is quite similar. What is different is the parts of my brain that are most important during writing one form or the other. When I am writing non-fiction, I am generally arguing a case. I am using my research to persuade the reader towards a particular point of view. It is more of a cerebral and intellectual exercise, although of course I also hope to engage and move my reader with real-life examples. I generally know what my thesis is before I begin and have planned my argument and how I want to carry my reader along towards my purpose in writing the book, which I am generally very clear about. Of course, the act of writing means I clarify my ideas and learn many new things as I go, but I usually feel I am in charge of the process. 

I feel the opposite when I write fiction. I often have no idea what I am writing about – in terms of basic theme – until long after I have finished telling my tale. The process is a much more spontaneous and visceral one. An idea takes hold of me, characters form in my head and, often, on the page. They insist that I give them voice and often surprise me with what they say and what they do. I experience that feeling of a muse working through me, rather than me controlling what goes onto the page.  

I always start a new work of fiction (I am starting a new novel right now) sure I cannot make it work, but I persevere anyway. I don’t plan much. I know what the central idea is, but I have no idea how I am going to turn that into a believable story and an engaging and readable novel. I just write the first sentence and then I think, ‘oh, well, the next sentence must be this…’ and so on until I have finished the first draft. I try not to be too critical of myself as I blurt things onto the page. ‘I will fix it in post,’ I think to myself as I move forward (memories of creating TV ads). And I then rework the first draft until I feel I can do no more. Then it is over to the editor, whose input I always celebrate. They help with both fiction and non-fiction, of course, but a fresh pair of eyes on a work of imagination is so vital. It helps move me from my unconscious to my conscious and turn a good idea into a good book. 

What inspired you to write about the relationship between a mother and her adult daughters? Did you draw on your relationships with your own daughters or was it purely fictional? 

It is both purely fictional and not. Of course, I drew on my own experiences as a mother and grandmother, and – novelists being terrible thieves – I certainly pinched and re-worked real life incidents to my purposes. But Allison and Fiona are no more my daughters than Miriam is me. I approach writing fiction as I imagine an actor approaches playing a character. I try to imagine what it would feel like to be that person, with their background, in that situation. 

When I began my Elizabeth Tudor trilogy for young adults (which is written in the first person) my motivation was to make her a living, breathing person, rather than the stiff pale-faced gorgon we usually see portrayed. I wanted to imagine what it felt like to be her. That does not mean the characters become me, it means I try to make their responses and motivations as real and as human as I know how, and the only resource I have for that is my own emotions and – hopefully – emotional intelligence. As I explore my characters and discover more about them, I hope I am also exploring what it means to be human and so, of course, also what it means to be me. 

The realities of domestic violence sit at the core of the novel. Why did you choose fiction as the medium to shine a light on this issue? 

The idea came to me as a fictional idea. It almost felt like it chose me, rather than the other way around. As I embarked on the story I did not know if I would be able to pull it off. The research I did really helped me to begin and gave me a framework to work from and I do find a scaffold very helpful, even if it has been thoroughly dismantled by the end. However, when I post-rationalise why I chose fiction, I can see that a story, particularly an imaginary one, takes the reader (and, it seems, the writer) out of their head, out of being critical and judgmental and into their gut.  

Only fiction – or a memoir – can take you on the emotional journey of the characters. I often think good novels are like ‘people-travel’. They take us out of our own skin and our own lives and into the skin and lives of other people. They do this more effectively than even the best film or TV series, because the reader does not merely watch the world created by the director and actors, they actively create and populate their own unique interpretation. Good novels are always a dialogue between the writer and the reader. The writer leaves room for the reader to imagine and fill in the gaps between the words. That’s what ‘vivid’ writing means, and what ‘engaging’ the reader means. They see and feel and (safely) experience what we describe.  

Many people approach domestic violence intellectually, being critical and judgmental. I hope, after reading my novel, it helps move more of us out of judgment and into compassion. I think that is what fiction does better than anything else. It connects us by reminding us that human beings are more alike than we are different. While our experiences are unique to ourselves, we all know what it is to feel pain, terror, joy, guilt, uncertainty et cetera, and a good writer aims to get readers to experience the emotions their characters are experiencing. That’s empathy and there is no greater connection that that. 

You ran for a Reason Party Senate seat in the 2022 Australian federal election. Tell us about your experience. What did you learn about Australian politics? Would you ever write a book about it? 

It would take a book to tell you about the experience and it is all a bit too raw and close for that at the moment. Writing requires a certain distance to get right, I think. Suffice to say, it was exhausting, exhilarating, challenging and unbelievably hard work. I will think very carefully before I ever do it again. I learnt that you need a lot of money to break through to voters, especially if you stand for the Senate. It has confirmed my belief that we need publicly funded elections if we are going to encourage more diverse voices into our parliament, particularly in the Upper House.

I had an idea for a novel set in a political sphere during the campaign. It is not about my experiences at all, although, of course, it will draw on them. That is the novel I have just begun to write now. 

What’s in your book stack at the moment? 

I am currently reading Michael Robotham’s When She Is Mine and just finished Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers, both of which I have thoroughly, almost guiltily, enjoyed. In the pile by my bed I have Anna by Amy Odell and Eleanor by David Michealis about Anna Wintour and Eleanor Roosevelt respectively. I am addicted to biographies about powerful and interesting women. The next novel in my stack is The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry, which I just picked up in the bookshop because of its evocative cover and blurb. Who knows what it will be like, but I like adventures in reading. 



See Jane Caro in conversation with Louise Swinn on Friday 17 June as part of our Books and Ideas at Montalto series. Tickets are available to book now.

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