Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Interview: Favel Parrett

Favel Parrett's debut novel, Past the Shallows, has just been published by Hachette to much acclaim. It's the story of a family living on the remote south coast of Tasmania and focuses on the relationship between two young brothers, Harry and Miles.

Let's start with an easy one, what are you reading at the moment?
I just finished Bereft by Chris Womersley and haven't picked up anything new yet. I bought The Ottoman Motel by Chris Currie when I was in Hobart, he's a friend of mine. We went through the Hachette Manuscript Development Program together and it's really weird that we're being published in the same month.

Can you tell me a little about your journey from aspiring writer to published author?
I was working as a postman and not really writing much, just the odd short story here and there. I decided to do something about it and went to TAFE to study professional writing and editing, and I decided to write a novel. This was towards the end of 2006. I never finished the course, but I did finish the novel. It was a long road and when people read the book they may assume it was quick to write because it's short, but it took me years.

How do you work as a writer?
I live half my time in Melbourne and the other half in Torquay. When I'm in Torquay that's for surfing, reading, writing notes and editing. I write in the Nicholas Building in Melbourne. It's a nine story building of artists and studios. There are no phones or interruptions, the intention is set to write. I've been there around three or four years now and I'd be scared to lose it. I work in the same room that Gregory David Roberts wrote Shantaram in. It was a junk room and still had his stuff in it when I arrived like sheets on the windows and an old couch. We had to renovate it but there were some Hindu gods he had left that I kept for luck.

I found the description to be particularly well written, I walked away from this book feeling cold and damp. Did a lot of work go into the prose, or did it come about more organically?
It was organic, but hard work at the same time. It's just my memories of Tasmania. I draft heavily, so simple writing is hard work. I usually write eight or nine drafts of each scene before my editor sees it. The weight of the words and the rhythm is important and it gets worked out gradually. The first raw draft is the most important, if it's not there in the first draft then there's nothing to work with. When I went to Hobart I wondered how people there would read it. I think they don't pick it up as they're used to being cold and damp!

Do you have a personal connection to the remote Tasmanian setting of Past the Shallows?
We moved to Hobart when I was seven or eight with my mum. We lived in Hobart for some time. Then when I was fourteen my Mum moved to an old federation farmhouse in the south, not quite as far as in the book. It was the most isolated place I've ever been. No-one even goes to Hobart from there. It made a really big impression on me.

We once took a road trip in the South Island of New Zealand and I found that it was incredibly isolated in some spots there. It's impossible not to be touched by it somehow. 
It's so similar to Tassie. The area we lived in was very beautiful but also terrifying. The forest is so ancient and the sea is so ferocious. Tasmania is the first place that this water hits and the south of Tassie gets it the most, there are nineteen metre swells down there. There are some really nice people there, but there are also some people who are down there for a reason. They want to be left alone, there are some frightening people there - they were frightening to me as a kid. Another strange thing is that you're in this isolation but there are logging trucks every 20 minutes going out of the forest.

Are Harry and Miles based on real people? How were you able to get into the head space of these characters?
I wish I knew where they came from. I don't think I'll ever have characters that special again. But no, they're not based on anyone real. The way I feel about Harry is the way I feel about my younger brother. He's easy to protect and there are similar traits to my brother. Harry and Miles are very real to me, I think about them everyday and I'm very grateful for them. Siblings looking after each other is something I understand. In single parent families siblings have to get along well and while my experience was nothing like the characters', I was close with my brother because we were in a single parent family.

The reaction to the book has been extremely positive, when you were writing it did you know you were onto something special?
No, not really. I had thought that I wouldn't get published. Most writers feel like that - it's so hard to get your work read. It was really hard to find an agent to read it because they're so busy. It's almost impossible. I had a good writing teacher who kept taking me aside and saying 'I think this is good' which helped. Then I got into the Hachette Manuscript Development Program which was a confidence boost. I also got an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship which was another confidence boost. I worked with an editor who was convinced that it would be published, but I wasn't convinced. I thought it was too sad, short and grim. You just have to write it for yourself. It is possible to get published, you just have to keep sending it out and go for every prize you can.

Would I be correct in assuming you have a certain affinity for the sea and for animals?
Absolutely. I surf and I couldn't have written it without that. I'm very grateful that I get to go in the water. The way I feel about the water is definitely in the book. I love dogs and I volunteer at an animal shelter here in Victoria. Animals are important in lonely places, any animals. We had goats, cows, and horses when I was growing up, so animals were a big part of my childhood.

Just on that subject of writing about surfing and the water, I found parallels between your writing and Tim Winton's Breath.
I've only just read it. You can't fake it. You can't fake that love that comes across for the water, it's organic. One editor I worked with wanted to change the language and I had to quite strongly say no to putting in words like 'surf' instead of 'line'. Surfer's don't speak like that, they have a particular language. People who read the book can go along with it, I didn't want to dumb it down. It's about creating an organic feeling.

Can you tell me a little about the creative process that went into creating Past the Shallows? Especially at the conception stage? Note well: Spoilers ahead!
I don't have any plot or story and I don't write in order. The pay-off of that is that it's a problem solving project for my brain. I learn things as the reader does. I wrote a lot more than what's in the book, I had George's point of view in there. But I decided to keep it just between the brothers. I had the place and Harry and Miles and I knew that Harry would drown. I wrote the drowning scene before anything else. Another example I use is that of the car in the book. I kept writing about it but I didn't know why. It became quite frustrating but it was really key to having the mum in the book. Putting it together was very difficult but it seems to have worked out. You can't control things like that and if you do you lose it. When writing like that happens it's good but when it doesn't it's terrible. Those moments are what we do it for, and my new book is coming out the same way. 

Who are your influences?
Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's simple, powerful writing. You read the first line and you know that you're in it. The love between the father and the son - you know that Cormac felt that. I feel the same way about my characters. An Ernest Hemingway short story called 'In Another Country' also has simple writing but so much heart, I've read it so many times, it's my favourite short story. I love Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses. It was just a random purchase in a book store but it's the best book I've ever read. It's a translation, I think he's Norwegian, so the original text must really be something.

And finally, what are you working on next?
Again, I'm writing a book with no plot. It's set in Hobart and it also has siblings only this time they're  a brother and sister. It's about a family moving to Hobart and finding their way in a cold city full of ghosts. There's another story about a Danish icebreaker that was moored in Hobart and went down off the coast. The two stories are intertwined I think. When I was in Hobart I went on an icebreaker for research, which was awesome!

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us!

Favel Parrett's Past the Shallows is available from Shearer's Bookshop

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