#LoveOzYA Q&A with Christie Nieman
Christie Nieman is an award-nominated author, essayist and playwright. Her debut novel As Stars Fall, about ecosystems and grief, was a Notable Book of the 2015 CBCA awards. Her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals and magazines including Meanjin, Canary, Overland and The Guardian. She has been a contributing editor on a couple of prominent commercial feminist anthologies: Just Between Us; Mothers and Others; and now, most recently, #MeToo: Stories from the Australian Movement, which featured her short fiction. Her critically acclaimed play, Call Me Komachi, received a Green-Room Award nomination, multiple productions, and publication by the Australian Script Centre. She lives and works on Dja Dja Wurrung country.
Christie’s latest book, Where We Begin (Pan MacMillan Australia), is out now!
You can read our chat with Christie below, or check out clips from the interview on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel.
What’s your elevator pitch for Where We Begin?
This is a story about a young woman who lives in inner-city Sydney. She’s very much a city girl, she’s also quite studious. She lives in her parent’s house, and she’s got the boyfriend. And then all of a sudden one day, in a state of distress, she ups and leaves, and jumps on a train and then a bus, and travels through day and night to end up in central Victoria, where I am, in Dja Dja Wurrung Country, to visit/stay with the grandparents she’s never met.
So she’s left everything that she’s ever known, and she travels to this place, to these unknown people, and she becomes pretty seriously enmeshed and entangled in this history of her family, and of the history of the landscape. She becomes entangled through her lack of knowledge.
It seems like you like to write from place, and explore how place informs identity. Would you say that’s true, and true to this story?
Definitely. Writing from place is a bit of a big thing with me — it just seems to be the thing that makes me get words on the page. All the intricacies of a particular place, and all the stories that suggest themselves through the layers of history seems to be the thing that gets me writing.
Placing this character in a new place (in Where We Begin) — it’s a pretty age-old writerly technique, but it’s an age-old technique because it’s great. It means you suddenly have to explore every aspect of this character because they don’t have any shortcuts anymore, so the way they do everything in this new place, it’s kind of a direct line to who they really are.
If this story was a question that you were exploring, what would it be?
That’s a really interesting way to come at it. How do we be okay when we wake up to history? That’s the question, I think. That’s my question. And that can be a really big question of the history of Australia, but it can also be quite a small question, about the history of your family, or just even when you become more aware of the real people who are your parents or your siblings or your friends.
Your work has been described as Australian contemporary gothic. Do you think Where We Begin fits into that, and for someone who maybe doesn’t know what that term means, can you explain it?
I was being quite intentional with the Australian gothic nature of this novel. Someone described my last novel as Australian gothic and I hadn’t conceived of it that way, but it really did fit. So (this time) I went, ‘Right, okay, gothic — let’s go!’
For me the gothic is those Victorian European novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel. I love them, problematic as they are, mostly on race. They’re pretty bad on race. But they do tend to tackle issues of gender, and race, and sexuality, which was quite unusual at the time.
So the gothic tradition comes out of a reaction against the Enlightenment in Europe, which is really (a matter of) ‘everything is very science-based now, we’re rational creatures now, and we’re civilised, and humanity is the pinnacle of evolution.’
Then the Romantic period came in (and) it’s no, no, let’s go back to nature. Let’s re-invite mystery. And then these novels started coming out, which are all very much about setting and landscape and mood, and the supernatural, and crumbing old buildings — human civilisation starting to decay.
That was getting big at the same as Australia was being invaded and colonised, pretty much. So we, (White people), transplanted that here and brought with us all the stuff about the mystery and the threat, and things being unsettling. But instead of it being on the human civilization, we made the landscape the thing that we were all terrified of.
So Australian gothic tends to rely heavily on the landscape, as gothic does, but, because it’s a white tradition that’s been superimposed here, it does a strange little colonial thing there, which I’m actually actively trying to work against in (Where We Begin).
Setting, mood, and unexplained events — that’s pretty much it.
Why did you want to take on that literary tradition, and subvert it, specifically for a YA audience?
Gothic literature at its best is always subverting a norm, or bringing up something unexpected, unexplained, or unseen. And it often follows the path of someone going from innocence/ignorance to knowledge and wisdom, but it acknowledges along the way that that transition to knowledge can actually be devastating in some ways. There’s a bit of a knife edge there, in terms of which way you’re going to fall once you’re coming out of that innocence.
Young adults are right at the cusp of really tackling that. I don’t think it stops, I think we’re all adults in training — but that’s when it really starts.
*Interview edited in parts for clarity and brevity.
To find out more about Christie and her writing, visit her website and follow her Instagram or Twitter.
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