Belinda Castles is a writer, editor and teacher. She is the author of three novels: the second, The River Baptists, won the 2006 Australian/Vogel Literary Award, and the most recent, Hannah and Emil, won the 2013 Asher Literary Award.
Hannah and Emil
“The following three paragraphs are taken from Hannah’s first section in my novel Hannah and Emil. One of my main sources for the book was my Grandmother Fay’s unpublished memoir, in which she recalls the following incident. It was a strange experience writing sections like these. It is not my Grandmother writing, but she felt very present, and the writing was not difficult. I felt in touch with her, in this writing of something that actually happened:”
My earliest clear memory, and it is so very clear. Childhood is around me,
before my eyes, happening now. I live in that room again. My brothers are
with me, and Mother and Father. We shall all live forever.
It was a year into the war. I was eight. In my father’s desk drawer, in the
box room where he kept his bolts of fabric, my brother Geoffrey found a
revolver. I took it from him, felt its cold weight in my hand. Geoffrey
grabbed it back and pointed it at me. ‘Die, marauding Hun,’ he whispered
‘You are the Hun,’ I replied. ‘Give it to me.’ And he did. I was the elder
and could be frightening, if I wished. I pointed it at his head and moved it
around a little, as though he were a German I had spied over the lip of a
trench, and I must find my mark. It was a thrilling, heavy thing to hold, as
though potential and power had heft. ‘Bang.’
– from Hannah and Emil (Allen & Unwin)
Bringing Words to Life
“Our intelligence brings words to life. A lively, interesting word can be made awful in the wrong hands (look out when your boss gets hold of something good, although thankfully she’ll usually choose ones that were no good to begin with, like synergy). The spark between reader and writer gives words endlessly variable meanings, just as in real life, when we speak to each other. Misunderstandings, deeper understanding, bewilderment, wonder – all are possible in the conveying of words from one person to another.”
“It seems as though most of my words come from childhood. The expressions and responses we learn then seem to stay with us. Listening to old people sharing their early history through talking and telling their stories can be wonderful, they have their own language.
“When I’m writing I have to examine the words I use because I grew up in a different culture to the one in which I now live and write. Britain and Australia are cultures with the same language but different ways of using it, and because they are not so different from one another culturally, as say, Britain and America, it can be difficult to know or remember where expressions come from, or in terms of fiction, which characters might say certain things.
“Writing is a blend of the thoughtful and instinctive. When I read through my work, I recognise that the way I put things falls into certain patterns, which are unintentional. But I do stop frequently and think about the individual words I’m using. And then during editing I have to look out for repetitions. The word ‘little’… I will do a search for that word on my current manuscript when it’s done – save an editor the job later!”
What Writing is For
“I always read books but the way I read in adolescence changed, or perhaps the books I picked up changed. I read a lot of American books as a young teenager: The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye and many others. These two are wistful and sad and atmospheric in ways that I think got under my skin early, or perhaps just spoke to a part of my personality that I hadn’t been able to articulate for myself. They seemed to say what writing is for, without saying that this was what they were doing.”
Bodies as Well
“Limitations fuel creativity. I am often tongue-tied, but writing gives you the chance to dig deeper for the most effective way to put something. Every now and then you find you’ve said something that perhaps says even more than you intended, and that feels terrific.
“In another way, lack of articulation can be so telling. We are not just language, we are bodies as well. The ways we tell each other what we mean are complicated and interesting.”
Articulate to Keep
“I really don’t have favourite single words. It is usually combinations of words or hybrids I like, because they do more – it’s the relationship that’s interesting: ‘work-shy’, ‘potty-mouthed’. Or themed words – anything around the sea, rivers, water: upwelling, undertow, rip, surge, surf, rush, king tide (two, sorry). I also like a bit of staccato: crotchety, bucketing.
“I like learning words too. If a writer uses a word that cannot simply be replaced it is worth the risk of obscurity. It is a gift to find there is a word for something we have observed but not been able to articulate and keep. There is a pleasure in being given its name.”
staccato – from Italian, literally ‘detached’ or ‘disconnected’, shortened form of distaccare, ‘separate’, ‘detach’, from Old French destachier ‘to detach’.