Toast for Tea interview with Ursula
"I always want to spend more time with Ursula Dubosarsky's people. They're wise, awkward and funny, and they give off sparks of insight that I want to read aloud to whoever's near."
Margo Lanagan (back cover of The Red Shoe)
When multi-award-winning author and literary alchemist, Ursula Dubosarsky, breathes magic into her stories, it's easy to find yourself tumbling helplessly into a world of fiction that feels so real, you forget who you are and become one with the characters. How does she do it? Ursula shares some of her writing secrets and tells about the challenges of writing her latest book, The Word Spy.
One of the great strengths of your writing is your authentic portrayal of characters. You say that to get inside the mind of a child involves half memory and half very serious observation - a lot of sensitive listening and sensitive remembering. You also say that you can only write for about two hours a day when you are working on fiction - that it is exhausting work. This suggests the expenditure of a lot of emotional energy.
Do you think there is a cathartic element to your writing? Can a story's character/s alert the writer to, or draw aspects of the writer's subconscious to the surface, in the same way, for example, a dream may? What are your thoughts on this?
Oh I think that's absolutely the case - I think writing is terribly like dreaming and can be very confronting and disconcerting as dreams can be, precisely because you are pulling things up from under the surface. When I finish a couple of hours writing and look at myself in the mirror (I try to avoid it, actually!) my face is drained of blood, my eyes sunk and I look like I've been in some sort of horrible accident. As you note, this was not the case with writing non-fiction (ie The Word Spy) which was exhausting but not in that almost psychic way. I suppose what I've just said is a rather old fashioned Freudian understanding of the creative process and many people would not identify with it, but it rings true to me. I think it certainly accounts for why it can be almost unbearable to read what you have written or published (not always, but with certain books) because you are not at all sure what you have revealed about yourself to those who are reading your books.
On the other hand, I often think that writing a story is like a child sitting in the bath playing with bath toys - that lovely absorption in the creation of a different and private world - and that pleasure is definitely there too. Many such games though (as anyone watching children knows) are fraught with anxiety.
Your stories have many levels to them and are rich in theme and symbolism. At what stage, when writing a novel, do you plan for these elements, or do they evolve with the story?
Following on from the above the answer is they evolve and are not planned, just as you can't decide what you're going to dream. Things emerge in the process and you notice them afterwards - there are so many symbolic resonances that in fact I don't notice at all until another sensitive reader points them out - and that's quite an odd feeling! I suppose though, one reason I might be attracted to a story is that I sense unconsciously that it is rich in those sorts of possibilities, and that may be what's drawing me to write. It seems to me that really for symbols to have any true power in a story they surely have to be unconsciously happened upon by the writer, not deliberately selected.
Do you have a goal in mind for the reader? What do you hope children will come away with at the end of one of your books?
Ah, what a difficult question. I suppose at some level I want them to feel loved, but there are so many paths to that particular goal! It doesn't necessarily mean I want the books to be comforting - to feel loved is more complex than that. To feel attended to, perhaps? acknowledged - but that is such a cold word. I'll have to think about that one�
How do you keep consistency with your characters throughout a novel? I can imagine that a character may have �grown� by the end of the book (I don�t mean in a coming of age sense within the context of the story); the character may have become more solid, defined � become himself/herself � evolved, ending up different, if only subtly, to the one you started out with. Have you experienced this, or do you wait until you have a �rock-solid� character in your head before you begin to write? How do you address this issue?
I don't really find this a problem. After all, a character is revealed slowly to a reader, and that is one of the great dramas of a novel and the pleasures or shocks of reading, that slow incremental discovery of someone, and how they can take you by surprise. I think I learn about my characters at much the same pace as my readers do - as the pages turn. Just as you get to know a person (and never really know them) outside the pages of a book. I find that they reveal themselves as the plot or activity unfolds, not before.
Your latest book, The Word Spy, being non-fiction, is quite different from your previous works. What were some of the challenges for you in writing it?
Well, it was a research-based book, so I had to be very accurate, so that's one thing, as I've had the freedom of writing whatever I liked more or less in my fiction. And what was particularly challenging and ENORMOUSLY satisfying about "The Word Spy" was to make something full of complexities, like the history of the English language, at the same time both accurate and simply told. And I mean simple, which is very different to superficial � simplicity (as Dr de Bono has observed!) can be remarkably difficult to achieve, if it is to be both simple and true and meaningful. It's just so terribly easy to make errors when simplifying something - these may not be individual factual errors, but errors of general impression, which is worse really. I wanted to keep the interest of children alive in the subject - so I had to think hard about not only what you might call the cognitive levels of the readers, but also just their knowledge of the world. I mean very intelligent nine year old children may have no idea where England is, for example - but that doesn't mean they're stupid, just that they have not been alive very long! So it was a constant balancing act, to make it both accessible, accurate, informative, funny, interesting and give a sense of curiosity and wonder about the truly extraordinary world of words. Lots of research, lots and lots of rewriting. Lots of talking and consulting with my editor, and my wonderful illustrator, Tohby Riddle, whose pictures I think absolutely capture that lovely mix of gravity and lightness.
I'm with Sonya Hartnett:
"As with all of Dubosarsky's work, this is a magical jewel-box of a book, filled with quirky treasure."
The Word Spy is published by Penguin.
Published in toast for tea blog on September 5, 2008.