Sofie Laguna is an Australian writer who won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award for her novel, The Eye of the Sheep. She has written three adult novels, eleven children's novels as well a number of picture books. She also writes plays and was once an actor, appearing in Blue Heelers and A Country Practice.
Sofie has a casual chat about her latest book, The Choke, with Anthony Langford. It evolves into a discussion on parenthood, nits, a serial killer, Tom Hardy, being a writer in Australia and many things besides.
Aileen Wuornos, tragic childhoods and creating The Choke.
Sofie: Hi Anthony.
Anthony: Good morning. How are you?
Sofie: Not too bad.
Anthony: That's good. Thanks for agreeing to talk to me today.
Sofie: How many minutes do you think we will be talking today Anthony?
Anthony: It's up to you. We can do it in ten. Is that alright?
Sofie: That sounds great.
Anthony: Excellent. I know what it's like if you’ve got young kids at home.
Anthony: I've got a daughter. She's seven now so she's in school but when she was younger I was the primary carer so ...
Sofie: You know what it's like.
Anthony: I know what it's like. It's a handful.
Sofie: It is.
Anthony: How old are yours? You've got two, haven't you?
Sofie: One is three on Sunday and one is also seven.
Anthony: Oh good. Well I'll jump into it so that I'm not taking up too much of your time.
Sofie: Why not?
Anthony: So how is the tour going?
Sofie: I'm going to Sydney this week and things will windup. There's a quiet period I'm anticipating for the next few months. Just with the odd appearance here and there. As you come to Christmas, things die down on the publicity front, which is good. Most of my publicity for this book is done now For this book.
Anthony: You've done a lot haven't you. You've been very busy.
Sofie: Yeah, I feel like I have.
Anthony: You've done all you can. It's out there in the world now.
Sofie: I've done all I can. I mean, I can't think of any more publicity that I could have done. I don't know why but that's the way it worked out for this book.
Anthony: With people who aren't actually familiar with the story, how would you describe it?
Sofie: So the story is about a girl called Justine, who is ten years old, living with her grandfather on three acres of property that borders the Murray River in a fictionalised town called Yellomundee. About 25-30 kilometres out of Echuca on the Murray. Justine lives with her grandfather because her mother disappeared when she was three. Her father is an unreliable kind of a guy, who comes and goes. He's got an intimidating presence, even to his own dad. It's a complicated relationship between Father and Son. He comes and goes from the family property. Justine has the sense that he is up to something dangerous out there in the world. He's quite a secretive guy. Justine has to live in this world where she has very little protection, because her grandfather is an inconsistent sort of a Guardian. She has to survive.
Anthony: In creating Justine's voice, when you begin writing, did it come out that way or did she start speaking to you beforehand?
Sofie: She came to me quite clearly, when I committed to the book in a more serious way and decided to set it in Australia and not in America, as was my original idea.
Anthony: Oh really?
Sofie: Yeah because I was inspired to write it because I watched Nick Broomfield’s documentary on Aileen Wuornos.
Anthony: Oh yes, I've seen it.
Sofie: So my character is nothing like Aileen Wuornos. But I was so outraged by Alieen’s childhood.
Anthony: Oh yes, it was shocking.
Sofie: How bad was that? It made Justine’s childhood look easy. It was shocking. Eileen did not get a break for one second.
Anthony: No wonder she was so angry.
Sofie: I know what could have happened? What else could have happened?
Anthony: Poor thing.
Sofie: Her dad was in prison for messing with a kid. Her grandfather was a … I can't even go there. It was so bad. You could never fictionalise that childhood.
Anthony: She was almost created wasn't she?
Sofie: Yeah. What else, I mean she was either gonna die within herself or at her own hand… or anytime there was something, she was betrayed by it. Maybe I'm cutting her too much slack. I don't know. The kid that she once was, she had a kid herself at age thirteen. Yet another tragedy. I was upset by that. I was really upset by the documentary, for reasons that I have not yet heard someone articulate, through a lot of the media around her as a serial killer. It was all mythologised. The childhood of that person was just not fair.
Anthony: Not your typical Serial Killer story.
Sofie: No. Exactly Anthony. I know there's a lot of a lot of unfair childhood experiences out there but really could it have been any worse?
Anthony: So did you begin then with her childhood?
Sofie: Yes, but I was pretty naïve. I just sort of jumped in. I'll write from the point of view of the thirteen-year-old that Eileen once was. I set it in America but realised very quickly that it wasn't going to work that way. Not really. I don't know anything about that culture really, so I decided it was much more sensible to set it in Australia. Which would mean… and I also learnt then that it wouldn't be about death row, because again, what could I really bring to that story? There was an Australian girl in a rural area because Eileen’s childhood was also rural. So I must have wanted her to be isolated enough, and that's why I chose it. I also like working with nature in my fiction. Especially if the childhood's going to be tough. It's as if I really want natural beauty to be a soothing influence or an escape in a book.
Anthony: Which it is. I actually grew up in a rural environment, on the river, so I can identify with it in a lot of ways. Are you familiar with that part of the world? Had you done much research?
Sofie: Only through going up there since I decided to write the book, to be honest. I've been on the Murray a bit because I'm from New South Wales. I've been there for little holidays and stuff and I've been affected by it as a place. But once you start writing a book, the experience’s are such a powerful… what's going on in your imagination becomes increasingly powerful. So then when you go to the location, one feeds into another. You look at those gum trees and relate them to the story. And the country feeds the story and the story feeds your experience. The two things sort of all swirl around as one, if you like.
"The country feeds the story and the story feeds your experience."
Anthony: Okay so, perhaps let’s talk about your writing process. Do you have a particular set way of writing? For example, do you have a word count?
Sofie: Yeah I'm pretty strict on word count. That's probably what really works for me. What works for me is the old word count. Consistency is important but since I've had kids there's not much…
Anthony: Oh you've got to be flexible.
Sofie: Oh I'm really flexible now.
Sofie: But I'm not flexible on word count.
Anthony: Sure. Discipline.
Sofie: It's such a cool way to work because it just means it doesn't matter what time of day. Doesn't matter where. It doesn't matter if you're in your pyjamas. You’ve got to get the words out. Takes off all the pressure of it having to be perfect. Either the environment perfect or the time and place perfect. It's all chaos, but the word count is my Saving Grace.
Anthony: Do you work from a laptop?
Sofie: Yep laptop. I can't do the old hard copy. I can't do it anymore because I don't have the time, because of the kids.
Anthony: Now I read somewhere that you use to write a diary. Do you still do that?
Sofie: I always keep a diary. But when I'm writing fiction, I don't feel the need really. To write as much. I still carry it everywhere with me, but I just don't feel the need, because I'm getting a lot out anyway.
Stayed tuned for Part Two soon when Bluetooth, nits and Tom Hardy enter the discussion.