A conversation with Justine Ettler

Interview by Samuel Elliott

Justine Ettler burst onto the literary scene with her novel, The River Ophelia, in 1995. A debut that divided critics, it nevertheless went on to sell an almost unheard of 50,000 copies, propelling Ettler to the forefront of the Australian literary scene virtually overnight.

Since then, her second novel, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, was released to near universal acclaim. After which Ettler continued to net prestigious titles and awards, including being selected as one of the six Australian authors for the New Images Winter Tour, embarking on an extended journey of the United Kingdom that concluded with her living in the country until 2007.

Beyond her own prolific long-form work, she has lectured in Creative Writing, along with working as a reader for Cornerstones, a London-based literary agency, in addition to that of The Literary Consultancy. She has also spent years as a book reviewer for an assortment of both the U.K.’s and Australia’s finest print publications.

Bohemia Beach is her hugely anticipated new novel, now available with Transit Lounge.

What were the origins of Bohemia Beach? Was it a single image, or concept, that you wanted to explore? Did your own Czech roots play any part?

Look, that was a big part of it. I was constantly reminded of being different when I grew up by having a funny name but no one was interested in my actually being Czech. Then when I went to London to live in 1997, suddenly, hanging around with the literary types there, they were like – ‘Oh, you’re half-Czech!’ They were a lot more interested in that than my being half-Australian. Which I found funny, but my interest was aroused.

I hadn’t been there since I was a child because of the Iron Curtain. Even though my dad had escaped communism as an illegal enemy of the state and came to Australia as a refugee we didn’t sit around talking about it at home. Next thing in 1997 I went off to Prague and it was mind-blowing, I had no idea of the wealth of culture and the depth of it and the history. So I just decided then and there that I was going to write a book set in Prague.

I knew that the main character was going to have a traumatic childhood but I didn’t know how it was going to manifest. It was pretty late in the piece when I decided that I was going to make her a drinker, as a way of dramatizing both the history of the Czechs as well as her personal trauma history.

Once I started down that path, I discovered that there is a double-standard in the way that women write about women who drink compared to men. Women writers who are alcoholics are treated really differently. I thought about the quote by Marguerite Duras –‘When a woman drinks it’s as if an animal were drinking, or a child. Alcoholism is scandalous in a woman, and a female alcoholic is rare, a serious matter. It’s a slur on the divine in our nature’– In my research, I discovered all these things about Hemingway and all the horrible things he had said and done to Dorothy Porter. He was really personal and nasty about her drinking and mentioned her abortion in a poem, that sort of thing.

So by the final draft I knew I wanted to challenge the myths about women who drink and the way we write about them.

When first undertaking Bohemia Beach after a twenty or so year gap from The River Ophelia, did you have any misgivings, or any feelings, about expectations to uphold? Whether they were your own or someone else’s? If so, how did you overcome them?

Look, The River Ophelia was a hard act to follow. I remember a couple of people in the industry saying that I must’ve felt under quite a bit of pressure. But the fact is, I did write another novel and it was going to be published, it was announced in the Herald and everything in 2000But it didn’t end up getting released due to some legal problems with the content, so I had to sit on it for a while to work out what I was going to do.

In the interim, I had moved to London and fallen in love with Prague. It wasn’t that I wasn’t writing during that whole time. So there is another novel, it’s nearly finished rewriting it, I just need to go back to the lawyer again and check with them.

Then I did a PhD as well, which took about four years.

But Bohemia Beach also contains a commentary on what it was like to very suddenly be in the spotlight in the Australian literary arena and not in the way that I would’ve liked. I didn’t see the book as part of that whole blokey grunge thing and I certainly didn’t see it as female erotica either. I was a bit stunned really, first of all by how successful it had been, but then also by the way that people saw it.

I got one review for The River Ophelia that I’ll never forget. It was a complete hatchet-job and it described that novel, I think the headline was – “Shallow River of Bilious Prose” – and it compared the novel to sitting next to a pile of vomit on a bus. That’s how the reviewer felt when she read it. So I thought back to that when Bohemia Beach came out. I was a bit jumpy.

When writing a character that has an addiction, such as the central character of Bohemia Beach, Cathy, and her alcoholism – how did you balance writing an addiction earnestly without it ever becoming gratuitous?

I guess according to my understanding of addiction, the person who is the addict is the last person to know. That’s the difficulty with writing about it in the first person. So, at some points, Cathy does seem to know that she is an alcoholic and has a problem drinking, but then we see inside the machinations of that alcoholic addictive brain and within the next second, she’s like “Ah, I’ll have a shot of vodka”. So what I tried to do was to propel the drama around the other elements of the story of her life, such as – is she ever going to get to New York?

I was trying to write somebody who has this terrible problem and who has a lot to lose and it was through raising these dramatic stakes that the addiction was then added. I wanted the reader to be able to appreciate what was going to be lost and to have more insight and understanding into Cathy and her drinking.

Most would accept that depicting music and the sense of hearing is one of the greatest challenges for any writer to accurately and earnestly depict. How’d you go about penning the scenes of Cathy performing, particularly in the flashbacks?

I think the best thing for all writing is to have that authenticity. That doesn’t mean it’s a literal transcription of the writer’s or anyone else’s life. For example, I am a flautist and classically trained. As a teenager I performed in a little quartet at the Opera House and played with a band, I also used to teach flute too. So all of that served as great experience that later, as it turned out, I put into a story, in this case Bohemia Beach.

I grew up in a family that couldn’t afford a piano. So I guess for me, the piano has always been this sort of romantic instrument of great desire that I wanted to explore at some point in my writing. Because I think, if we had a piano, I would’ve ended up a composer. I always wanted to write classical symphonies. I can play the piano, it’s not like I’ve never sat down with one, but I’m only a beginner. It’s a bit uncanny though, when you really know one instrument it’s not that hard to become OK at another.

I’m old friends with Amanda Brown, she’s famous for playing with the Go-Betweens. What really makes her interesting as a musician, is that she started out as a violinist and then she just picked up the oboe and started playing it and then she got into the guitar too. If you’re a good musician, you can sort of pick up other instruments and there’s always something a bit romantic for me about the piano. Another thing that helped shape the direction of Bohemia Beach is the way a couple of hundred years ago, women were taught to play the piano and speak French and all that sort of stuff. All that’s very Gothic and Romantic and certainly in my story, in the second half, playing the piano went with all that.

Depicting music is definitely hard – I hope that I’ve carried it off. I’ve had a couple of people who have read it praised that element, so that’s reassuring. There was also a lot of research that went into it too, lots on the classical composers and their lives. I had done a PhD and research is no stranger to me. I was quite happy with the way I was able to insert those bits of information, to let it flow into your mind all the time.

You’ve obviously exhaustively researched the Czech Republic’s rich and vast history. How’d you manage to include your findings into the scope of this narrative without including too much information that might be fascinating, but not necessarily essential to the plot?

I wrote it very slowly. I think it took 12 years to write. And of course, the research starts with reading up on and visiting the Czech Republic and listening to lots of wonderful music and writing lots of notes about that. And then, in early drafts, huge chunks of research are just plonked in the middle of the page, though that it changes during the drafting and redrafting. Working out with bits don’t fit takes time, slowly paring back and deciding which sections get chucked out, sometimes whole areas of research.

I guess a lot of people probably don’t know or don’t realise the amount of drafts a writer does. I remember when I was at uni, a writing teacher explained to me that probably the writing part, writing down the first draft and grappling with the ideas, that’s probably about 30-40% of the work you’re going to do. The rest is rewriting and editing, so I think a lot of refining has ensured there is no unnecessary research still included in the final version. Plus, I’ve had a lot of great editorial support that has sorted out a few glitches.

Do you feel that your writing process has changed since penning The River Ophelia, if so, how?

Yes I do. The first three of my books, which includes the unpublished third novel, I would group together. Certainly they have had a fanbase. Bohemia Beachis a little different. One reviewer, who was a huge fan of my early stuff, read Bohemia Beach and said: “What a disappointment! She’s gone to Mills and Boon”. At least he noticed the change and I guess I define the change as, while there’s still bits of experimental, post-modern stuff, such as characters having names taken from other famous characters, the text itself is now a lot more realist and a lot less experimental and that was deliberate.

I guess when you’re a younger writer, you want to experiment and try different things and I thought I was going to reinvent the novel in Australia.

As you get older, you sort of embrace doing something maybe more straight forward, and I was drawn to the structure of realism, as well as the greater depth and shading to the plot and characters. Some people who hated The River Ophelia and said that all the characters were card-board cut-outs, yadda yadda yadda, have praised Bohemia Beach for the rounded characters. With Bohemia Beach, I wanted to explore characters with a lot more depth. Even the secondary characters have a lot more nuance than I think they have had in previous books of mine.

Dreams factor heavily into the plot throughout the novel, were you wary of writing dreams and interweaving them into critical plot points? Do you think there is ever such a thing as writing too many dream sequences?

It seems natural that a book with such a psychological aspect to it would have a lot of dreams. It’s an examination of a woman and her trauma after all; Bohemia Beach is supposed to symbolise a place of healing. Bohemia Beach doesn’t exist in the geographic sense, because Bohemia, which is part of the Czech Republic, has no coastline today. But it did. And this is where the title comes from. Shakespeare wrote in A Winter’s Tale about a sea coast of Bohemia. When I researched that I discovered that Czech kings did once rule all the way down to the Adriatic. So that’s what Shakespeare was referring to.

So I loved the intertextual reference to Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale and the idea of this beach that used to exist. That captured my imagination and was quite inspirational: to me the intertextual beach is where the healing happens and that’s where hopefully the political and national healing can happen away as well. So that’s where the dream sequences started in the writing and then these carried over into other dreams as well.

Did you have many influences that helped shape your novel? You mention The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and Wuthering Heights several times – were they similar, tonally, to what you wanted to craft? Do you think writers reflect their influences, whether intentionally or not, in their writing?

I think writers do definitely reflect their influences. Sometimes it’s more subtle, sometimes it’s more overt and deliberate. In my novel, it’s probably more the latter than some people are used to. I probably bring my influences to the fore a lot more than other writers do, but I do think they’re always there whether writers own them or not.

Aside from outside influences though, I’ve always found one question has shaped my writing and that is to take an iconic woman character or figure and ask her who she’d be if she lived now where I live – “If Marilyn Monroe was born in Sydney, like I was, at the time I was born, who would she be?”  I find that a fun and exciting way to start and I asked the same sort of question of Cathy from Wuthering Heights for Bohemia Beach.

Another thing that ensures my engagement with canonical texts like that is feminist frustration with the boys club of the canon and the way women authors and characters are treated differently. That really works for me and it certainly worked for writing Bohemia Beach.

What’s your writing process? Do you write a certain amount of words per day? Or do you exhaustively map out the novel before even writing a single word of the story?

The difference between my first three books and this one is that they were written in a sort of driven, disciplined way. With those three, the ritual was – every day for 3-4 hours – I would chain myself to the computer. After extending that practice under pressure chaining myself to the computer culminated in me giving myself a terrible case of RSI [Repetitive Strain Injury] – I couldn’t even use my arm. So I had to rethink the way I work.

These days, I try not to be too disciplinarian about it. I try to encompass a bit of creative fun and play. I do drawing now, I dance around my flat sometimes to music, I don’t chain myself to the computer anymore. That being said, I do confine myself to my flat for a period every day, banning myself from social media and such, because writing does need that sort of isolation.

What advice would you give to any fledgling authors?

One of my favourite questions. Doing a university degree, if you’ve got the money and the time, even if you do it part-time, that can’t be over emphasised. It’s the perfect place to meet other writers. I made friends with great writers that I’m still friends with now. That’s important. Try collecting like-minded buddies that you trust, people that you can talk to about your writing. If you can’t afford the time or money to do a uni degree, get involved in some writers group. Do whatever it takes, just keep writing.

But don’t quit your day job.

Are you working on anything new at the moment?

I am! I’m working on my fifth novel, which is set in Australia out in the countryside and I also want to have a go at writing an adaption of The River Ophelia, there’s been a bit of an interest in a film or T.V. series of that. So, stay tuned.

Bohemia Beach is available from Transit Lounge now (RRP $29.99). You can pick up your copy here: http://transitlounge.com.au/shop/bohemia-beach/


About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at: www.facebook.com/samuelelliottauthor