Sophie Cunningham
Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham has been a writer and publisher in Australia for thirty years.

A former publisher and editor, she is the author of two novels, Geography (2004) and Bird (2008). For the City Series, she wrote Melbourne (2011). Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy, her most recent book, was published by Text Publishing in 2014 and was long-listed for both a Walkley Award and the Kibble Prize. She is a former editor of Meanjin, and until recently was Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. She is a founding and current board member of The Stella Prize, a prize for Australian women’s writing. She lived in Brooklyn, New York, in 2014 and is now based in San Francisco, California.

Given the diversity of settings in your novels, did you immerse yourself in the places you’ve depicted and if so, is this essential to authentic recreation on the page?

I have tended to immerse myself in the places I’ve written about – indeed it was my fascination with particular places that I had spent time in which led to the writing of my books. But is it essential to work this way? Not at all.To be honest, I sometimes wonder if (my) imagination would run freer if I wasn’t weighed down by a sense of what a place is ‘really’ like.

What were some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in the creation of place?

In general, the challenge is that places change over time and that the rate of change is increasing. So visiting India in 2007, for example, in no way guarantees you can capture what it was like in the 1960s – through occasionally it can give you a glimpse.  You also have to make sure that you don’t get so overwhelmed by the notion of capturing the atmosphere of a place that you end up simply writing travel writing. You have to keep the place . . . in its place.

When you’re writing about an actual place in a fictional work, how important do you think it is to remain truthful to its reality? 

It’s an interesting question, and not one I have a clear answer to. I certainly don’t think you have to remain truthful to the reality of a place, but you do have to be careful about which details you shift away from the real. If you pick the wrong ones, the place no longer feels like that place at all and you can lose your reader.

The course outline talks about the idea of the internal sense of place being “intrinsically linked to voice, story and characters”. Is there a character from your novels with which this concept resonates particularly strongly?  

Well, that pretty much describes the plight/plot of my first novel, Geography, and heroine Catherine. And, more obviously, perhaps, the Lamas in Bird, who were Tibetan refugees and were totally defined by their experience of growing up as Buddhist practitioners in Tibet.

 Your second novel Bird was inspired by the lives of Zina Rachevsky, Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe and your latest book, This Devastating Fever, is based on Leonard Woolf’s years in Sri Lanka. What are the unique considerations that come with using individual lives as inspiration, even if your characters are fictional? 

It’s such an instinctive process I find it hard to articulate. In the case of Zina, I was interested in the idea of a woman’s spiritual journey so that is what took me to her.  I heard a lot about her because I briefly studied in a monastery in Nepal that she’d helped establish. But my interest in Leonard Woolf is more mercurial and harder to pinpoint, (though I touch on it in the next question). It’s worth talking about my non-fiction book on Cyclone Tracy here, because Darwin is, in effect, the main character in that book. In that case, I just found I continued to be haunted by the images of the cyclone that I’d seen some 40 years ago.

Speaking of your third novel, why did you choose Leonard Woolf and that particular period in his life?

My choosing of Leonard grew out of my fascination with Sri Lanka, a country I visited when researching Bird. I read Leonard Woolf’s writing from and about Ceylon (as it was called when he lived there) and was struck by how extraordinarily evocative his diaries and the novel A Village in the Jungle were. I was also interested to write about his life before his marriage to Virginia Woolf. As well, his marriage to her coincided with the outbreak of WW1 which is, to state the obvious, a very significant historical moment.

Did you ever hesitate about the possible critical reception of a female author taking on a male historical subject?

Not for a minute.

When can we look forward to reading This Devastating Fever?

I have to finish my book on Cyclone Tracy first, and that is due next year. So, realistically, I think we’re talking about the end of 2015.

You’ve been a great advocate for the recognition of female writers in Australia, especially with the Stella Prize. Have the opportunities for female writers in Australia improved since your career in publishing began?

I actually founded (with a group of several other women) Stella because I believe that the opportunities for women writers have got worse over the last 15 years, after a real resurgence in the late 70s and the 80s. I do think there has been a shift in the last couple of years, though. I hope that Stella is one of the reasons for that.

On the website for the prize, it says, “We want the Stella Prize to give Australian women writers a chance to build brilliant careers, and have their work recognised, celebrated and read for many years to come.” Do you hope, though, that we’re moving towards a time when gender won’t come into the critique of literature?

I’m not sure that I think that time will come though it would be delightful if it did. I’d also say that I think it’s fine to be aware of gender when reading – that is inevitable, really. The issue is whether you refuse to then engage with work properly, or dismiss it as less complex or interesting, because of the gender of the author