In conversation with Laura Bloom on the centre, the periphery, empire and the ‘ick’ factor….
Lisa Brockwell: I want to ask you about the four elements that I think make The Cleanskin such a brilliant book:
And, controversially, the sense of humour. Some people might think such a serious and intelligent book couldn’t possibly be funny….but it is.
Laura Bloom: I love that you can see the sense of humour in my writing because when books are just ‘weighty’ you have to be in a certain mood …
It’s amazing to read a book about the scars of colonialism and sectarianism that’s written from an Australian point of view, and that talks about the impact of that sectarianism in Britain and Ireland on Australia.
England tried to export its problems away in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it’s very interesting how some problems, like the stark divisions between Irish Catholics and English Protestants that were in effect until around about the 1970s in Australia, lingered longer, here on the ‘edge’ of the Empire, than they did in the centre.
Any place on the edge of the British Empire would have been an interesting place to start this story, and because I’m Australian I wanted it to be here, with that very particular flavor of resentment and repression I think we carry over from the Catholic/Protestant divide – even though to all intents and purposes it’s no longer an overt divide.
One of the things I really loved about the politics of the book is the way that the trauma of the Troubles is passed from generation to generation. And I really loved the parallels that you drew between Ireland and India. I can’t think of another novel that talks about that Commonwealth experience of Empire and draws parallels between them. This could be a trivia question: does anyone know another novel that talks about that Commonwealth experience and draws those parallels (the Troubles and the Sikh/Hindu problems in the 80s)? I found it so original and inventive and beautifully done and it really felt to me that it could only have been written by a Commonwealth writer, it couldn’t have actually been written by someone from the centre, it is definitely that peripheral perspective. It’s a perspective I can feel in other writers that I really like, just thinking of Kei Miller from Jamaica – it’s a totally different perspective being Jamaican but I can see in some ways there are parallels in that experience of Empire, to be being Indian or Australian.
One of the things I’ve loved about spending time in India is that I felt such a connection through our Commonwealth education and history.
A clever reviewer described The Cleanskin as a tale of the Troubles as you’ve never heard it told before, which I think is true. But it’s also a story of Empire, and in particular the story of the British Empire.
And I think it has interesting parallels with what’s happening now with the Islamic world. I’ve read articles about the terrorists who for example were involved in the 9.11 bombings. They were first radicalized when they went to the US earlier in their lives and felt they were discriminated against and ignored. That really confirmed and radicalized their Muslim identity. That’s also the case in my novel – where Megan feels her family is the victim of discrimination and she clings much more tightly to her minority identity as a result.
Discrimination and oppression doesn’t begin neatly and it doesn’t end neatly, and so often an action is met by an even greater reaction that builds into violence.
It was so refreshing to read a novel where a woman is radicalised, rather than a man. How did it feel to write a woman character like that? She’s so original.
I found it easy to write because the alienated, passionate middle class young woman joining a radical movement is a living archetype in the recent history of liberation movements in the US, UK, Israel and South Africa, to name just a few. This is by no means an unheard of story. But it’s a story that’s not as often been told, and I think I know one of the reasons why: when I sold the story, some people said they found Megan particularly unsympathetic. And not unsympathetic in a way that all people who resort to violence are unsympathetic – I don’t like them either. In some quarters I felt there was a sort of disapproval in writing about this, and a disappointment. I found it really hard not to take that on personally. That’s because I feel such a personal connection to my work but also it’s an icky topic – women fighting is a very icky topic and people subconsciously are turned off by it, yet it’s happened. Emma Goldman, the 19th century anarchist activist accused of throwing a bomb, was the kind of woman I describe (although far more effective and admirable than my character, Megan). Also I think it’s icky because it’s threatening – when those educated middle class women decide to organize in a more effective way, and in a less self-destructive way than this, they become a significant force for change – as they have been, for example, in many non-violent movements including women’s rights.
I’ve read the book more than once, and have always felt enormously attracted to the Megan / Halley character. It’s such a relief to read a woman who is complex and has a range of feelings and emotions and responses. I think a lot of women will respond to her with relief. She’s allowed to have this full range of emotions and responses. So many women in literature are so warm and witty and wise.
After writing this book I really understand why women so often end up being written about in such narrow ways. It seems much more acceptable to write a likable woman character who in some ways can act as an avatar for the female reader to identify with as well as relate to.
Well I think it’s hugely inspiring and I think a work of genius always feel a bit like that…..
I have read that women who are angry and hard to love are becoming a thing, so won’t that be great?
It’s so revolutionary – as a character she reminds me (she doesn’t’ do anything like this in the book just so people aren’t put off) – but she reminds of me of the Jennifer Garner character in the film The Kingdom. Her character is incredible. She saves Jason Bateman from being murdered by a terrorist group. They’re setting up one of those videos where they’re about to behead him on YouTube and she swoops in and kills everyone with her bare hands.
Well I want to see it and interesting I’ve never heard of it. Maybe there was that ick factor.
I think a lot of women would find it very inspiring. I do.
And of course In The Cleanskin that’s also what gives her her power – that’s why she’s such an effective Cleanskin, and maybe that’s why middle class women make pretty good terrorists: that they are so not meant to be doing that. They’re a perfect vehicle because they’re above suspicion.
But my next book is going to be so warm witty and wise, with lots of baking. And as I love baking, I can say it’s based on personal experience. Seriously!
One of the things I really loved about this book – and this is something that as a writer you do incredibly well – is that you balance the masculine and feminine both in the book and also within each character. Halley seems to me a revolutionary and interesting woman who does things that are not seen as feminine but she is also emotional and vulnerable and feminine. And then Aidan is able to be a very feminine and feeling man as well as a very strong man. I wondered if there’s anything you’d like to say about writing Aidan.
Writing Aidan was a relief, because he’s in a way the moral centre of the story and the heart centre of the story, so I found him always the person I most sympathised with and probably the person the reader most sympathises with. He is the victim of other people’s choices and circumstances and I just loved writing him. And particularly when he goes to India and makes his own connections. I loved the nature of his relationships with people, which is much more what I identify with than say Halley.
In what way?
That he would make friends with an older woman in India and connect so intimately with her and talk about such personal things really seems … like something that I might do, that I did, actually. And the actions he takes are in a much smaller range but I think they’re just as important and just as powerful, but more ‘normal’, human sized.
It’s so revolutionary that it’s the man who has that role because usually it would be the woman. Usually the man who would be out doing all the big things and getting into trouble and then there’d be someone like Halley letting us know about the morality of that.
I wanted to write about that too because I know a lot of Aidans and they just don’t get enough of a showing in stories and I think that’s probably because he’s not a male or a female wish fulfillment vehicle. Tom Cruise is not going to want to play him in the movie. But he’s a man I know, holding such sensitivity and love, and confusion and loyalty.
Who should play Aidan in the movie?
I wish Mark Ruffalo could.
I was thinking of him. He’d be my choice for some reason….
He’d be perfect. He’d be the wrong nationality.
He could dye his hair….
I don’t know about his Australian or Irish accent but he’s wounded. Yep. He can do wounded.
It is so wonderful to read a book by a writer who is so in command from beginning to end, a writer at the peak of her powers. And the settings are so beautifully written: Mullumbimby (see photo above), Sydney, India and London and some parts in Northern Ireland as well. Could you talk about the setting and how it was writing such a vast panorama?
It was a pleasure writing those scenes because they are all places that I love, except Belfast, where I have never been. The scene set there is the one I researched the most. I have a friend who is from Belfast who helped me a lot and that scene went in right at the end because it was odd for me to write in a place I’ve never been. All those other settings – it’s such a pleasure writing in places I love and that I have a connection with.
The different characterization of each place was also a dramatic device to give readers relief: e.g. the London scenes are so necessarily claustrophobic and hard, it was a relief for me, and I hope for the readers, to come back to Mullumbimby, which is so easy and tropical and loose, or Sydney – which in this book is a rich place and a luxurious and beautiful place.
I wanted them to interact with each other in the reader’s experience in the book. … but that also became a nightmare because one of the big challenges of the book is the moving around in time and that was really difficult structurally. But I shouldn’t get negative… I just admitted in a blog interview I did the other day that it became a nightmare hell-scape …
I think people will quite like that actually, no one wants things to only be shiny, it’s unrealistic.
My next book is just going to pour out of me! It’s going to be about a super delightful person and it’s just going to come pouring out.
Lastly I want to talk about the sense of humour in the book. For such a serious book about weighty topics, I think it’s also very funny. Liam is such a comic character and should go down as such because there are not that many funny terrorists in the world and there should be more.
I do think they need to be mocked much more than they are. There would be far fewer people joining up to be terrorists if we made more fun of them.
There’s beautiful humour – particularly the dynamics between the three brothers and the depiction of that kind of family. And also Halley’s family. Families are just funny when they’re not tragic, aren’t they?
That’s a great observation. Yes.
Liam is such a narcissist peacock and the effect he has on his brothers is hilarious, they’re appalled and they want to kill him. But his mother, of course, just loves him…. And in Halley’s family now, her son, who is such a beautiful character, and her relationship with her son, a lot of that is very humorous in a really touching way. Their relationship and how she’s trying to reach back inside herself to feel vulnerable and to reach him and it’s all beautifully observed and funny.
I’m so glad you can see that. A friend said she just wanted to shake her the whole time about how she was with Benny. But I wouldn’t have behaved the way Darcy behaved towards Elizabeth but I still enjoyed Pride and Prejudice. In fact that made it more enjoyable.
As you were writing it did you want to make it funny? Or was that a complete byproduct?
I think in anything well observed and true there are always things to observe that are funny. Just by observing any experience there must be humour there, because that’s part of what’s true.
I can’t bear things to be too heavy. In my worst, hardest moments in life there’s always been lightness. It’s always there and it has to be there. I’d really know I’d come to the end if I wasn’t able to see the funny side. Life has lightness in it and art needs to have it as a leavening agent or it would just be unbearable. And I do find with art that is just dark that I don’t want it, partly because it’s too depressing but also because I think it’s not true.
When I think of your writing philosophy I think that’s really a part of it.
(Mullumbimby photo by Maurizio Viani)