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Working with Words: Caroline Brothers

Read Sunday, 27 Nov 2016

Caroline Brothers was born in Australia, but now divides her time between Paris and London. She’s a journalist, who has reported from Central America, Europe and the United Kingdom, and the author of two novels, Hinterland and The Memory Stones. We caught up with Caroline to talk metaphysical poets, career-defining moments and the life of the mind.

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What was the first piece of writing you had published?

Photograph of Caroline Brothers

I think it was a rather melodramatic short story that won a literary competition when I was about 14 and got published in the school magazine.

What’s the best part of your job?

The freedom to follow my imagination down whatever rabbit hole it wants to take me.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Trying to haul it back.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

That would have to be the day the chief fiction editor of Bloomsbury phoned to say that they wanted to publish my first novel. It was a completely surreal moment, when nothing had changed and yet everything had changed. Though at the time it was hard to take it in, in retrospect I see it as a kind of tipping point.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Best advice: Don’t get a new computer in the middle of a writing project.

Worst advice: That old chestnut – write what you know. I would say, write about what you don’t know and want to find out.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

Sometimes bookshops place a short assessment of a novel in a tag on the shelf beside it to help readers decide what to buy. In a bookstore in the UK I saw a very sweet comment beneath The Memory Stones that began: ‘I inhaled this book,’ which left me feeling slightly alarmed on a number of levels.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Something normal, instead of talking to myself and worrying about fictional people.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Be aware of the incredible inroads technology is making into the life of the mind and insist on preserving your space.

Whether or not creative writing can be taught, I think it has to be learnt, one way or another, through trial and error, and above all through reading other writers. In my view, reading is the best way to enhance what is probably our innate sense of story.

I suppose it all depends on how you want to carry out your apprenticeship. The school of life is not a bad place to be, at least for a while, so that you have some experience to draw on. But I think writing courses, whether short or long, can be invaluable in building a sense of confidence and exposing an aspiring author, in a concentrated way, to other writers in a more technical and critical fashion.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Find a way to balance the solitude you need for your writing with the interaction you need as a social animal. Be aware of the incredible inroads technology is making into the life of the mind and insist on preserving your space.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

There is so much pleasure, and so many discoveries, to be made in buying books in a bookshop. It’s only if there are really no other options that I buy online.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? 

I think it would have to be Elena Ferrante’s Lila. Once Ferrante fever has died down a bit, I’d ask if she’s read the Neapolitan quartet and what she thinks about Lenú.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

If we’re speaking of early influences, I’d have to say it was a poetry anthology called The World’s Contracted Thus which we had at school. I discovered the metaphysical poets Donne and Marvell, and writers like Yeats, Browning and Keats, and learnt what poetic form was. I think it was that book which concretised a love of the sound and rhythm of language, and made me sensitive to the poetic in the prose of some of my favourite writers, like Michael Ondaatje and James Salter.


Caroline is now working on her third novel.

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