It was a dark and stormy night. . . It might seem a cliché, but the soft rain and occasional distant thunderclap seemed an apt setting as a haunting solo rendition of The Cranberry’s Zombie by local musician Sophie Maurice set the atmosphere. Newly-awarded Doctor and beloved Australian children’s author Isobelle Carmody is chatting away to attendees while the rest of us get a tea of coffee and wait for the formalities to begin, though ‘formal’ is not the intent or expectations. More a personal night, as Dr Carmody leads the discussion on the connection between the fantastic, and the most mysterious fact of life – the end of it. How the surety of its eventuality makes it the epitome of ‘real’, and yet we cannot know for sure what happened on the other side of it.
Following another musical number, Snake in the Wall – written and lead by another local talent, Monica Engel, joined by Adelaide Stolba, and Sophie – about twenty of us settle in our seats,and Dr Carmody begins.
Famous for the Obernewtyn Chronicles, Little Fur, and a myriad of other stories, Isobelle opens with a personal tale of her own experience with death as a teen. But like many of the other stories that came out from attendees, the personal nature of the story means I won’t be going into details here. It isn’t just Isobelle who shares, and the stories that come out are powerful and cathartic – but they aren’t mine to tell.
The story of that first experience though is what lead Dr Carmody to start writing Obernewtyn while a teenager, she tells us. Not only was it a window in which she could process her grief, but Obernewtyn was the title that would launch her prolific career as a writer and eventually to the PhD she recently completed.
But why Obernewtyn? Why did such a significant and traumatic event lead to a book about fantasy?
‘I didn’t set out to write fantasy,’ Dr Carmody explains and she discusses the idea of genre. ‘I just wanted to write, and that was how it came out’. Fantasy, it seemed, was the natural direction of the story as she explored the grief, the anger, and injustice associated with her loss. It was a tool to tell a story, as are many other genres, and it was the right tool to express what she needed to at the time. In no way did it restrict the realism of the experience, rather using that experience to strengthen the story.
In that instance, fantasy was the only way to express the ultimate truth – death – because it is the one mystery that we cannot comprehend from this side of the grave.
‘If you nearly died you didn’t die. If you died and were resuscitated, you aren’t dead.’ If we can’t objectively study it and get a detailed understanding, then our understanding of death and what happens after, she argues, is speculative, and intrinsically tied to the Fantastic. So whether a novel is deemed fantasy or not, any dealings with death that portray an experience from the perspective of the deceased, or give an idea of what happens post final moment, is using the Fantastic as a tool. Even when the story is rooted in realism.
At this point, I’m left wondering if the opposite is true as well. As a fantasy writer, whether the elements of my own reality that I channel for my own stories mean that I, and other fantasy writers, are using the tool of realism to strengthen my/our work. I’m not sure if the answer is a simple yes/no, but perhaps that what the inspiration to write Obernewtyn connected to – using the abstract and the fantastic to process and understand the real.
I get the wanting to write at a time of loss as well. I’ve spoken about it a little before, but my writing journey started amid multiple suicides within my department. Amid other personal issues, the deaths of two colleagues I considered friends as well, even after a relatively short time knowing them, lead to writing as my way of coping. It wasn’t good writing, and at times is was entirely nonsensical, but now, almost a decade later, my writing is still heavily influenced by those events.
The idea of writing about death comes up among the group as well. Not everyone wants to write about their experiences. Some attendees share their stories of why they can’t write about it, and others speak of how they use personal tragedies to fuel emotionally similar, if not narratively, stories. As the stories continue, we hear about lost parents, lost children, and lost friends, and another question comes up – how do we know when it’s okay to write about death, and when it’s not?
This time an answer comes from the crowd, from a practising psychologist whose name I unfortunately missed.
‘Write from your scars, not your wounds,’ she says. Wait until you are in control, wait until you are a little healed at least, is the gist of it. I’m sure there are some examples of writing while still hurting that have worked, but as a general rule, it seems sage advice.
Dr Carmody talks a bit about her recent academic achievement as well. Her PhD was awarded only weeks ago, but it was a seven year journey to get there, motivated by the desire to communicate more precisely and accurately. The ability to learn the language of academia, starting with looking up words that then resulted in looking up words to understand the definition of the first word, to receiving an incredibly flattering report.
‘I assumed they must say nice things to everyone when they finish’, she told me in a break, ‘but my supervisor insisted that this isn’t the case. So I guess I’m in the right place.’ There’s no sarcasm or boasting in the statement, but a mix of excitement, a little bit of disbelief, and even embarrassment. Natural humility and well-earned pride both presenting at the same time, awkwardly trying not to get in each other’s way.
The nature of the thesis though is the reason we are all here. The ‘slipstream’ between realism and fantasy that subjects like death bring together. Dr Carmody talks about what that means, the momentum of a story pulling in a fluttering of realism and the Fantastic along with it. Not in the sense of magical realism, in which the crossing of genres is the base world from which the story grows, and has very specific origins, but the light touch that strengthens the story rather than drives it.
As time seems to fly by, we are soon told that we need to clear the room. There are many more questions, and in a crowd where many have known each other for years, there are many utterings of, ‘I never knew about your story.’ Which in a sense, follows another element of Dr Carmody’s thesis – death as taboo.
We all experience death at least once, and we hold social rituals that follow specific traditions in each case. Yet often we don’t talk about it. We have our traditions, our rituals, and then people are expected to move on with life. In reality, that isn’t so easy, and in her research Isobelle talks about the relief she saw when people were able to talk to her about the death of a loved one. The overwhelming gratefulness for permission to discuss what was not permissible elsewhere. Certainly there is a lightness in the room after people shared their experiences, even the quite horrific ones.
As we leave, it’s a bit of an odd feeling. On one hand, it was a couple of hours with friends, listening to an author I admire and respect both personally and professionally. It was an enjoyable evening that gave some great insight into how to approach death in fiction, and how writing can be a healing experience. On the other hand, it was hearing some of the most traumatic experiences of people’s lives. Not without reason, and not without the catharsis mentioned earlier, but it’s still a lot to take in.
I thank Isobelle and try not to fan-out too much, say goodbye to the people I knew and ruthlessly use the opportunity to recruit (hopefully) a new member to our local writing group. Before driving off though, I go through my phone and set up the music for the way home. There is one song that has been stuck in my head all night, a song that has been one of my favourites for years and simultaneously haunts with its references to the ongoing trauma of war. One that every time I hear it, reminds me of the friends I’ve lost over the years to the ongoing effects of various types of service, especially when it was covered and the lyrics tweaked a little for modernity. I’m always glad to remember them, but it doesn’t make it any less painful that they are gone.
For me, it was the perfect song to begin the night with, so I figured it might as well be the one to close it out.