Writing to new depths

Friday, June 22, 2018
Lia HIlls interviewed by Elisa McTaggart

Have you ever felt like there was a deeper dimension to your writing but you are not sure how to access it? Writing can serve many functions, one of which is the sharing of philosophical, ethical or political messages, either overtly or subtly. We chatted to Lia Hills ahead of her Winter School workshop, The Novel of Ideas, about how she approaches her writing processes and some ways she effectively brings depth to her writing.

Do you recall a time or a project when you found yourself starting to explore your writing on a deeper level? Did this happen naturally or was there something or someone who sparked this transition?

From a very young age I've been interested in what lies at the heart of a person's worldview. I began writing about this as a teenager – trying to imagine myself in the shoes of someone faced with some kind of personal or historical crisis that threw into question their belief system – but it wasn't until much later that it became clear just how core this is to my writing. This happened around the time that I finished drafting ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Living’. I realised that I had a project that I was working on and towards, and this gave my work a greater sense of cohesion. Early influences were writers like Camus and Kundera, particularly the latter as he speaks about seeking a character’s existential code. This made perfect sense to me when I read it in his book ‘The Art of the Novel’. It was in the Islamabad Library of all places - I was on my way to the Karakoram Highway - and I remember thinking about this a lot as I travelled though the Himalayas and encountered people of different faiths: what gives meaning to an individual’s life.

Is there a key theme that you are exploring at the moment or one that continues to reveal itself in your work?

In my new polyphonic novel, which is close to completion, I’m exploring secular epiphany and how people in a contemporary setting experience what might be called moments of grace, though these often occur in the most banal of moments and places, or become something other than what might be expected. This feels like home ground for me. I’m giving what has been part of my work for years centre stage.

Grief seems to be a common theme in both of your books ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Living’ and ‘The Crying Place’. Is this a coincidence or is it a topic you gravitate towards?

I’m interested in those moments of rupture when everything you believe in comes into question. The two occasions when I believe that is most likely to occur in our lives is during times of grief or when you fall in love. Consequently, these events fascinate me as a writer and I sometimes combine them in my work. Also our culture is distinctly lacking in effective mourning rituals, so I find an individual’s attempts to find their own ritual, or encounter other forms, intriguing and worthy of investigation. That’s not to say that all my work is about grief or is sad. Humour provides an important balance as well as being a great healer. In ‘The Crying Place’, Saul’s grief was intended as a kind of microcosm for the mourning our nation is yet to fully undergo, Saul grappling with guilt and his incapacity to find a ‘place’ for his grief in order that it might become something else. By writing the story of a whitefella mourning side-by-side with a Pitjantjatjara woman, I was exploring two very personal stories at the same time as raising questions about this country and its possible future. The people I met while I was writing it, particularly in Central Australia, confirmed for me that story is a powerful way to explore important issues and has the capacity to heal.

Your workshop will explore ways to write ideas in a non-didactic way. How much do you rely on intuition as a writer?

I always begin with an idea I want to better understand – which may come out of my own life experience or from the works of a philosopher – but once I have a rough notion of the setting and characters and form I will use, my writing is driven mostly by a desire to find some new truth out of bringing that idea to bear in the world I’ve created. I recorded the first draft of ‘The Crying Place’ on the road using voice-recognition software in order to bring me closer to the practice of oral storytelling that responds to the listener and environment. This had interesting and unexpected consequences as the software turned the sound of wind through trees and birdsong into words on the screen, much of which I incorporated into the final draft. The word ‘intuition’ is loaded and I usually think of it more in terms of higher order thinking. As writers we learn to trust the way our minds can find connections that, if we worked only from the top down or in some purely linear fashion, would never come, or would feel contrived. I have a lot of faith in the artistic process.

Are there any books you have read that stand out particularly as having connected you with deeper ideas that you wouldn’t otherwise come across?

I’m drawn to numerous writings by continental philosophers or when a novelist engages with a philosopher’s theories, e.g. Kundera’s fascination with ‘eternal recurrence’ in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, or the same theory as it played out in Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’. The works of contemporary French philosopher Alain Badiou have been particularly influential and his writing about truth and the conditions of philosophy, but the works of Nietzsche, Descartes, Heidegger and Simone Weil have all informed my work. With each new book, certain theories and writings will work like a touchstone or companion to my thinking.

In addition to joining your upcoming workshop, of course, do you have any advice for writers wanting to delve into more conceptual approaches?

Seek out the writing of those who put ideas at the centre of their work, whether they are novelists, poets, philosophers or writers of nonfiction. Read broadly in terms of genre but also borders: not only does reading in translation open us up to new ideas and ways of seeing the world, but it brings us into contact with traditions that are less character or plot dominated. Also I think it really helps to step back from your own work and take a look at recurring themes and ideas. Once you’ve identified them, seek out others who’ve had a similar fascination, regardless of genre, and begin a conversation on the page with them through your own work. Writing is a collaborative process, even if you never meet those you work alongside.

About Lia Hills

Lia Hills is a Melbourne-based novelist, poet and translator. Publications include her novel ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Living’, shortlisted for the Victorian, Queensland and West Australian Premier’s Literary Awards, and her prize-winning poetry collection ‘The Possibility of Flight’. She has written about and translated works by Marie Darrieussecq and Alain Badiou. Lia’s latest novel, 'The Crying Place', set mostly in Arrernte and Pitjantjatjara country, is a story about grief, place and Australia’s fraught relationship with its past.

About Elisa McTaggart

Elisa McTaggart is the Program and Marketing Intern at Writers Victoria. She works freelance as a writer, photographer and project manager, while establishing a wilderness photography and nature writing art practice.