Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Susan Allott

Susan Allott is from the UK but spent part of her twenties in Australia, desperately homesick but trying to make Sydney her home. She completed the Faber Academy course in 2017, during which she started writing The Silence. She now lives in south London with her two children and her very Australian husband.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The Silence is a mysterious title, deliberately so, hinting at its genre. It’s the kind of title that asks the reader to figure out what it means, but at the same time it’s not so obscure that it can’t be guessed at. I think it hints at the kinds of secrets that are hidden in plain sight, that remain secret because they are too shameful to speak of, that require an unspoken complicity. Which is precisely what The Silence is about: a woman goes missing and it takes 30 years for anyone to report it, or to talk about what happened.

When I was writing, I had in mind The Great Silence as a potential title, which comes from a phrase used by the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner to describe the way Aboriginal history was obscured by white Australian historians. My agent wasn’t keen on it at the time, and when the novel was submitted to publishers we used the working title Blind Spot. Nobody liked it much, and throughout the editing process we kicked around dozens of ideas for a new title, but we couldn’t reach a consensus. We really wanted a title that everyone loved, so it could have the same title in the UK, Australia and the U.S.

It was getting a bit desperate as we reached the final editing stage without a title, and I thought I was going to have to accept a mediocre title that nobody loved. I looked back through my list of working titles and found The Great Silence. I was sitting at a bus stop emailing my editors and agent, and the idea came to me as I was typing to simplify if to The Silence. I hit send on the email and got an email back within minutes – they loved The Silence. So did the Australian team and the Americans, the marketing and sales people. It was so obvious once we’d decided – why hadn’t we thought of it sooner? The simplest ideas are often the best.

What's in a name?

I named my protagonist Isla because of the suggestion of the word island. She is Australian-born and has British parents: an island-child. Isla’s grandmother is Irish, and as a child Isla thinks that her grandma is from a place called ‘Island’, as I did at that age. (My mother is from Kilkenny). It pleased me to give her a name that linked her to the geography of her roots, in a book about the enormous pull of home. I also think it’s a beautiful name.

For the rest of my characters, I wanted them to have names that were distinct from one another, without too many syllables, or that could be shortened. Mandy is sometimes shortened to Mand, but only by her husband; he also calls her Amanda at times, a useful shortcut as to his mood, whether he is displeased with her or showing affection. Likewise Louisa’s name is frequently shortened to Lou. I chose the name Louisa because to me it has a simple elegance, more British-sounding than Mandy to my ears, and more middle-class. Louisa struggles to adapt to life in Australia, and her English-sounding name helped me to develop her as someone who clings to her British identity in an Australian setting.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I think getting the ending right is the most challenging thing in writing a novel, and possibly the most important. The reader has come a long way with these characters by the time they get to the closing chapters, and they deserve a rewarding finale. An ending needs to answer the questions that the book sets up at the outset, to hold some surprises but also to have a sense of inevitability to it, so the reader thinks, ‘of course!’

In The Silence I wanted the ‘what happened to Mandy?’ question to be resolved at the same time as the questions Isla needs to answer about her family and herself, and I needed Isla to figure it all out in a way that held the tension between what she knows and what the reader knows. I was still re-writing those chapters in the very final round of edits with my publisher.

In contrast, my opening chapters didn’t need much work once I’d decided where to start. Start in the middle of things is my (borrowed) advice – throw the reader into the middle of your story, so she feels she has entered a world which existed before she joined it.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

The character I started with in my early drafts of The Silence was Louisa, Isla’s mother, who is a British woman living in Australia, suffering terrible homesickness and unable to convince her husband that they should return home. I identified with that, having gone through something similar myself, and for a long time Louisa’s story was more central to the book. I came to the conclusion in the end that Louisa wasn’t working as a Point of View character, perhaps because she had too much of me in her. My most convincing characters are the ones who are less like me; I imagine them more fully.

Having said that, I think they all have a bit of me in them. I loved writing the chapters where Isla returns to Sydney after ten years in London, because I was able to describe the culture shock I’d experienced myself as a Londoner in Sydney, feeling that my clothes and my temperament weren’t suited to this bright, upbeat city that was so incredibly far from home.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The Silence was inspired by my failure to immigrate to Australia in the nineties. I left and went back to London, and promptly fell in love with an Australian man who I went on to marry! So the Australian setting came out of those experiences. It felt sometimes like Australia was forcing me to make my peace with it, like it wouldn’t let me go.

I was also very inspired by the Australian films Rabbit Proof Fence and Lantana. I think if you wanted to describe my book in movie references, I’d say it’s a mash-up of those two. I watched them whenever I felt I was running out of steam and needed to remember where I was going with my book. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Visit Susan Allott's website.

--Marshal Zeringue