WA author Alice Nelson has taken her literary skills to new levels with her acclaimed new novel, The Children’s House.
Seven years in the making, it explores the traumas that divide families and the love and hope that creates them.
Alice draws on her experiences in New York and elsewhere to weave a rich and deeply perceptive and engaging tale.
After attending university in Australia, Alice moved to Harlem, living in the brownstone on 120th Street in which her story takes place.
She worked at a non-profit agency, run by an order of nuns, as a case worker dealing with refugee and undocumented migrant families.
The Starfish caught up with Alice at an extremely well attended launch of The Children’s House at the Cottesloe Civic Centre. The lively gathering was staged by the Lane Bookshop Claremont and Penguin Random House Australia.
Congrats on the book. You have been very busy. Are you very disciplined with your writing ?
I’m disciplined in the sense that I become a little bit possessed by the book I’m writing; it occupies an enormous part of my psychic landscape. Much of the work of the novel is actually done through intensive thinking and reflection, as well as the act of actually getting the words onto the page. Like most writers, I’d love to have more time at my desk, but I think that even when we are not actually writing, the book is still moving and shifting. I do try to write something every day.
How did your own experience in New York influence the plot of The Children’s House?
I lived in New York for several years. The city occupies a very special place in my heart. I started writing The Children’s House just after I moved back to Australia – a time in which I missed the city terribly. Sometimes an almost visceral ache for it would overwhelm me as I sat at my desk in Perth, or walked beside the Indian Ocean. The novel is a kind of love song to my adopted city; writing it was a way of transporting me back to the streets of Manhattan. New York is also a city of stories. Nearly everyone is from somewhere else, and some of those stories fed into the novel. On a practical level, the brownstone in Harlem where I lived became the home for the characters in the novel.
It sounds like some of the characters are based on people you knew in the States?
I have certainly drawn on several people I encountered during my time in New York. The Children’s House was very much inspired and influenced by my work over many years with refugees and asylum seekers, and some of the complex friendships I have formed with several individuals. I also worked with Holocaust survivors as part of a book project to document and publish their narratives, and this also exerted a powerful influence on the novel. I’m very interested in the ways that the individual life is shaped and sometimes disfigured by larger historical circumstances, and in the burdens of inheritance and the ways children absorb the sadnesses and ghosts of their parents. I worked for an order of Catholic nuns in New York and they have found their way into the novel too.
The book took seven years to complete. Is there a reason why you spent so long fine-tuning this particular story?
It’s a complex novel, with many different narrative strands. My challenge in writing it was to find a way in which echoes, patterns and symmetries could be brought together to form a coherent whole. This took a lot of thought, a lot of redrafting. So it was technically difficult, and there was a great amount of wrestling with some of the ethical issues explored in the book.
Would you say the tale is primarily about family life, and particularly its impact and effects on children?
Yes, the book is deeply preoccupied with the notion of family in all its different configurations, and the ways in which sometimes the family we find for this world is not the one we were born into. Families are full of complex, often conflicting emotions and they make for fascinating literary material.
There is a profound sense of the maternal in the narrative. Was this an intentional expression of the universality of this powerful instinct?
Motherhood, in all its permutations, is one of the most profound and complex subjects in the world. We have all had some experience of this relationship, whether we have had a mother, been a mother, longed for a mother, grieved the loss of a mother, yearned to be a mother. It’s a relationship that has always fascinated me because I believe that even when the maternal bond is positive, it’s always an infinitely complicated dynamic
Your own strong commitment to refugee and asylum seeker issues shines through in the book. Is there a message for readers in regards to the plight of dispossessed peoples, wherever they are in the world?
Sadly, we live in an age where refugees and asylum-seekers are frequently demonised;I think this comes from a dangerous failure of empathy and a lack of understanding. A novel should never be written as polemic, but I do think that literature can create a special sort of space for examination and re-examination, for allowing the reader to consider different perspectives and perhaps come to new understandings about the world. I hope in particular that the novel’s rendering of the Rwandan refugee woman Constance, might help readers to consider the kind of experiences and terrors that might have marked the life of a refugee, and how these might influence their way of being in the world.
Do you have a favourite character in the book?
The central character Marina is very important to me – possibly because her experiences echo my own in many ways. But I also adore the little Rwandan boy Gabriel; in many ways he is the beating heart of the novel and everything that happens in the narrative coalesces around him.
You have a grasp of both the best and worst in the human condition. Does this come from your own experiences, keen observation, imagination, or all of the above?
Sadly, through my work with refugees, asylum seekers and Holocaust survivors, I have developed a keen awareness of the terrible things humans are capable of – acts of horror I’m not even sure it would be possible to dream up. But I’ve also observed acts of enormous generosity, empathy and sacrifice, so I think that we do need to remain hopeful about human nature.
What would you say is the primary message in The Children’s House?
For me, The Children’s Houseis very much about the importance of acts of kindness and goodwill, both in individual relationships and within communities. Without sounding patronising or sentimental, I’d like the reader to be alert to our responsibility to do good in the world. Our failure to be empathetic, to step as far as we can into someone else’s life and experience, is what has led to some of human history’s most profound catastrophes.
What’s in the pipeline now? Are you working on your next writing project?
I am at work on a new novel, but it’s difficult for me to know exactly what a book is about until I have written my way into it. I do know that part of it will be set on a coffee plantation in the mountains of southern India where I have spent a lot of time, so I’m happily planning a research trip back there.