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Writing in the ‘cracks between the facts’ 

Author Sophie Cunningham discusses This Devastating Fever, her new novel that traverses the life of Leonard Woolf, COVID lockdowns and climate change. 

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Your latest book, This Devastating Fever, is your first work of fiction in fourteen years. How did it feel returning to this genre following works such as Melbourne and City of Trees?  

I never left the genre – I just took a long time to finish this particular novel! But I was working on this project and a couple of other novel projects at the same time as writing Melbourne and City of Trees. I don’t yet know if the other projects will see the light of day.  

Does not being beholden to fact make the writing process easier or more difficult?  

I was still beholden to facts when I wrote This Devastating Fever. An enormous amount has been written about or by both Leonard and Virginia Woolf as well as their friends, and I couldn’t – or perhaps I mean I chose not to – pretend that this material wasn’t in the public domain. That meant I’d given myself a very tricky task. I ultimately tried to write fiction into the cracks between the facts. Certainly I would say that I find writing fiction far more difficult than writing non-fiction. I think that is because you are trying to imagine your way into a deeper version of the truth than the ‘facts’ always suggest and you work more with how your characters felt, rather than what they did.  

The novel follows a fictional account of an author’s 20-year process writing a historical novel about Leonard Woolf – author, publisher and spouse of Virginia Woolf against the backdrop of COVID-19.This Devastating Fever is a work of fiction, but how much of the novel is inspired by your own work and experiences during this time? 

It’s important to say that Alice Fox is a fictional character. This has come up a bit and I know people don’t necessarily believe me, but I insist on this point because ALL the characters in this novel are fictional while being based to some extent on real people – most obviously Leonard and Virginia Woolf. I drew from details of their lives and didn’t wildly embroider (except with their ghosts). I also drew from details of my life but embroidered far more wildly because I could give myself permission to do so.  

The primary consideration is always: what does the novel need? What themes am I trying to elucidate? Where is this story going to go? Sometimes my real life was useful in that endeavour, but often it was not.  

So, to answer the question directly, I personally went to all the libraries that Alice Fox visited. I walked the South Downs Way in southern England and I spent time in Sri Lanka. I lived through the pandemic, in Melbourne, alongside my neighbours and friends. But many of the personal details of my life differ to the personal details of Alice Fox’s life and as soon as I wrote about Alice’s experiences in those same libraries, and in Melbourne during the pandemic, the process of turning life into fiction began.  

I think I have a question about this question, to be honest (as I’m asked it so often). Why does it matter? Is it important? What is important to me is that people read my novel and are engaged with what I’ve attempted to bring to life on the page. 

The book’s blurb begins ‘Sometimes you need to delve into the past, to make sense of the present.’ Did writing this book help you better understand your present?  

Understanding what led to the present moment does help me understand it a bit more. But more importantly what writing the novel did teach me is that things that are happening in the present and we think of as somehow particular to us, or to our generation(s), have often happened before.  Political turmoil, war, pandemics. And while climate change is certainly escalating, the environmental destruction caused by colonialism and capitalism has been devastating peoples and landscapes for several hundred years. 

You told The First Time podcast earlier this month that you love archives because they spotlight other people’s voices. How important was archival material to This Devastating Fever?  

Absolutely crucial. I couldn’t have written the novel without them. I also couldn’t have written my book Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy (2014) without them. That book is non-fiction but it shares This Devastating Fever’s preoccupation with climate change and with the vibrancy of the voices you find in diaries and letters and transcribed interviews.  

Lastly, of all the portrayals on screen and stage over the years, who do you think has played the best Virginia Woolf?  

Virginia Woolf wasn’t meant to be a main character of This Devastating Fever. This meant I didn’t actively research her as much as I did Leonard. That said, I’d read many of her books and by the end of working on the novel had read all her letters and diaries. I never sought out films or plays.  

I have seen The Hours. My main problem with that was that Nicole Kidman was far too young for the role – 34 years old – and that exercise in casting was one of the reasons that I was surprised to learn that Virginia Woolf was close to 60 when she died. It’s an important detail. Imagine the older actresses that could have played her and what they would have brought to the role!

Sophie Cunningham will appear in conversation with Emily Bitto at the Wheeler Centre on Tuesday 27 September as part of Melbourne City Reads, a series generously supported by George and Rosa Morstyn. Tickets are available now

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