Christine Howe – Local Author Focus

This interview was originally published in the print version of UOW’s student magazine ‘Tertangala’ in 2013.

Christine Howe grew up on the Far South Coast of NSW, and currently lives in Wollongong. She was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing in 2009, and has been lecturing at the University of Wollongong since 2005. Song in the Dark, written while she was completing her PhD, is her first novel.

When I met up with Chrissy for a chat about this profile, I mentioned my review of her novel (you can read it here) being based around binaries. Chrissy cringed. As we walked through the Botanic Gardens, I slowly began to understand why. For Chrissy, life, teaching, writing, reading—all of these things—are not about the black and white answers using terms such as ‘binary’ suggests. These things are about the lack of absolutes, about things such a hope and despair, good and bad, not being opposite, but rather, being a continuum where each cannot be separated from the other. I caught up for a chat with Chrissy to set the record straight, and here’s what she had to say:

Why this story (Song in the Dark)?

I wanted to write a novel dealing with the theme of hope. The story of a young man breaking into his grandmother’s house to steal money from her, and the ramifications of this for both of them, was something that I felt would allow me to explore this theme in quite a powerful way.

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Yours is a book of binaries. Was this intentional and why/why not? How did you negotiate this in the writing process?

It’s interesting that you should say that it’s a book of binaries: this wasn’t intentional! So in a sense, any negotiating I did was on a subconscious level. I suppose I did want to explore the relationship between light and dark, life and death, hope and despair. I didn’t necessarily see these things as binary opposites though: more as things that bleed into each other. I don’t think there are clear-cut boundaries here, I think they’re messy and confusing. When you light a lamp, where does the darkness end and the light begin? In the dawn, before the tip of the sun burns above the horizon, are you standing in the light, or the dark? In the moment of death, when does life stop? Does it actually stop, or is death a new beginning, a bleeding of one life into another? If anything, I suppose I’d like to think that I was exploring those spaces, where nothing is clear-cut or simple. Perhaps I wasn’t, though, if you felt that the book was full of binaries!

Is anything ever not intentional in a story? How does this relate to your own work?

I think readers often pick up on aspects of a story that may not have been intentional on the part of the author. I love it when readers find things in my work that I didn’t necessarily intend.

In many ways, the story could have stood on its own, without ever mentioning the name of the place. Why did you set the story in Wollongong?

I set the story in Wollongong for a few reasons. The topography of the Illawarra is interesting, I think, because depending on your state of mind, you could either interpret Wollongong as being a lovely little community nestled between the escarpment and the ocean, or you could experience it as a city trapped between the mountains and the sea. I actually think that Paul’s sense of despair and entrapment are inescapably woven into his experience of Wollongong.

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A look out onto the towns of the South Coast: Thirroul, Bulli, Wonnona and on to Wollongong, where 'Song in the Dark' is set.
Image Credit: Rowen Atkinson via Flickr Creative Commons.

In this way, setting is integral to his character development: it’s only when he leaves Wollongong that he is able to begin to see new possibilities, and develop the capacity to make different decisions. Also, on a purely practical level, I know Wollongong quite well, and it just felt ‘right’ to set it here. Because I could confidently describe the setting, I felt I had an anchor for the book that would give it a sense of authenticity. This was particularly important in this case, because there were other elements of the story that I had no personal experience of (heroin addiction, for example).

Do you think the idea that readers must be able to empathise with a story’s protagonist is flawed? Why/why not? How did you negotiate this in your own work?

Yes, it was difficult! It was worth it though, because one of the things I wanted to achieve in this book was to create a character that readers could empathise with, even if they were uncomfortable with the way he behaved. I wanted readers to understand why Paul made the decisions he did, even if they disagreed with his actions. Speaking more broadly now, I don’t think that readers need to empathise with a story’s protagonist in every case. It’s possible to be intrigued, horrified and completely engaged by a central character without feeling empathetic towards them at all. For me, in this particular novel though, it was important to me that readers did feel compassion for Paul, because that was one of the reasons I set out to write the book.

It is notoriously difficult to write the voice of a character that is not your own gender. Why did you choose to do this, do you think you pulled it off, and how did you do it?

Ah. Yes. That’s part of the reason why I chose not to write the book in first person. I cheated a bit, by writing in third person – there’s more scope for a voice that’s less gender-specific. In the very early drafts of Song in the Dark, the story is actually all told from Hetty’s point of view (Paul’s grandmother). My original idea was that Paul meets Hetty at the end of the book (without giving too much away here!), and tells her his side of the story. The narration was intended to be Hetty’s interpretation of Paul’s story – not the actual words Paul uses to describe his story, but her imagined version based on what he tells her. These early drafts evolved from that idea into a more conventional third person voice, which has taken on more of Paul’s character. I have no idea if I’ve successfully created a ‘male’ voice though! You’d have to ask an expert about that…

Your PhD thesis centred on hope and poetry. How do these two things come into play in your book?

In my research, I was most interested in a form of hope that is able to sustain someone in the present, rather than offer promises of a rosier future. Paul experiences various forms of hope throughout the book. At the beginning of the book, there’s the hope that he’ll be okay once he gets his next hit of heroin (which proves to be a false hope – even if he’s okay for a while, he still needs to find the money for the next, and the next); and the hope that he’ll feel better if he runs away (again, this proves to be false). Towards the end of the book though, Paul goes swimming at night in an ocean full of phosphorescence. In that moment, surrounded by hundreds of tiny glowing creatures, he finally experiences a sense of hope that is not about trying to escape his life, but is about recognising the intense beauty and power of something beyond himself. This is the thing that really gives Paul the courage he needs to keep persevering, the thing that makes him realise that his life really is worth living.

You can read our review of 'Song in the Dark' here.