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Kalinda Ashton

Position: Writer and academic

Diploma of Professional Writing & Editing, 2004, RMIT University
PhD Creative Media, 2008, RMIT University

Dr Kalinda Ashton has studied writing at RMIT as both a TAFE and postgraduate student. She talks about her new book The Danger Game.

Kalinda, tell us about your new book, The Danger Game.

The Danger Game is about how toxic family environments can shatter and splinter selves.

In 1991, a ten-year-old boy dies in a house fire and his mother abandons the family. In the present, his two sisters decide to look for their mother who vanished and to discover why and how their brother Jeremy died.

The book is split between two time frames and is narrated by all three siblings - Jeremy, the young boy, Louise, his twin sister who is recovering from heroin addiction and prone to compulsive lying, and Alice, the older sister.

Alice is trying to save the school she teaches in from closing and to end the desultory affair she’s conducting with a married man.

You wrote the novel as part of your doctorate at RMIT. Tell us about that process. How long did it take? Did you have the idea for the book before you started your studies, or did it evolve from your academic work?

My PhD itself took three-and-a-half years, although I spent a good deal of that time on my exegesis, which was examining author Amanda Lohrey’s first two published novels.

My own creative project was very stop-start. I’d have huge bursts of energy and pour out 10,000 words in a few days, and at other times I’d find myself listlessly drinking instant coffee and watching Dr Phil, terrified to approach the novel because I dreaded it would be awful.

The Danger Game did not begin with an idea but a sketch of a scene between two sisters. I came up with the children’s game where they are constantly placing themselves in forms of jeopardy.

Reasonably late in the planning process, I decided that I wanted Louise to have burn scars. I then realised I could kill Jeremy off in a house fire.

When I write plays, I have a structure all mapped out. This novel, on the other hand, was very chaotic.

Many of the most significant choices in terms of plot and story happened almost by accident. I don’t think my academic work really influenced the novel on a conscious level, but it did help me articulate the questions, or problems at the point where the critical and creative intersected.

How did your degree from RMIT influence your work? Tell us about the difference between the TAFE Professional Writing & Editing course and the PhD in Creative Media by research.

I was 24 when I began the TAFE program and while I’d studied creative writing at Melbourne University, I was a little bit lost.

I’d initially begun an Arts/Law program, then I had thought about doing an MA in history, and I’d even toyed with the idea of doing a Dip Ed (actually, I’m still toying).

The RMIT TAFE program was just wonderful for me. It helped me get serious about writing.

I was very lucky that I had a few stories placed in literary journals while I was studying there and a couple of development awards and processes for my plays. The teaching was just extraordinary - I learned about the industry, met some terrific writers and friends, and felt as if I’d been given an enormous opportunity.

The decision to do the PhD was partly pragmatic - I was offered a scholarship and the chance to have a living wage and write was too tempting to refuse. But because my background was also in historical theory and literature, I was genuinely excited about the scholarly exegetical component.

The workshop group was a lifesaver many times over - I had terribly intelligent, fierce, determined, kind people critiquing the novel. My supervisor, Fiona Capp, was astonishingly demanding and supportive.

Was it hard to find a publisher for The Danger Game? How did you come to work with Sleepers Publishing and what was that experience like?

Oddly enough, it wasn’t hard to find a publisher. I met another independent publisher through the RMIT course, who liked an early version of the novel but thought the overall story wasn’t compelling enough.

After that encouraging false start, Sleepers actually asked to see my novel.

There was a huge structural editing process between their initial interest and publication. I think Sleepers are one of the few companies that still undertake such rigorous editorial processes and I feel privileged for it. The rewrites can be difficult when you yourself are ready to move onto the next book and find yourself chained to the old one!

Where do you get your inspiration from? Do you carry around a journal? Do you blog? Are you in touch with other writers?

I’m not sure where my inspiration comes from, except that I see myself as on the Left, a feminist, and interested in engaging with contradiction, hierarchies of power, and struggles.

I feel guilty saying this but I don’t keep a journal or notebook. I write down ideas and bits of conversation, or images that I see, on scraps of old envelope or tissues – whatever’s around, on a white board, or in chalk on my blackboard at home.

I’ll often find bills covered in jumbled letters that seem utterly random or find myself squinting to decipher some essential phrase that I’ve scrawled on the blackboard at 2am.

I blog a little for Overland but it’s not my preferred form. Quite a number of my friends are writers, now. It’s unavoidable, probably. It’s lovely, because they share the frustration and isolation but I’d hate to become so enmeshed in that world that all my experiences are inward-looking and self-reinforcing.

How and when did you know you were a writer? Was it a long journey? Any false starts?

I still don’t know I am a writer – I think it’s a choice I make, every month, every book, and with each new short story, each beginning.

I have come to accept this ambivalence even though it runs against our romantic notions of the single-minded, ‘write or die’ passionate authorial persona.

Since I am also a lecturer, and an editor, and a teacher, the writing identity is only part of how I see myself. I wanted to write when I was a small child – but then, I also wanted to own a horse farm and have a husband who managed it for me while I jetsetted the world as a famous actress.

For some time, I thought I’d be a legal aid lawyer, or work in criminal defence. I flirted with the idea of being an actor – but I wasn’t actually very good at it. I spent many years in activist circles campaigning for refugees, against fees and against the Iraq war. That was a huge part of my identity and my energy for years.

I also wrote, and I was always very lazy about my writing. It was the RMIT TAFE course that really began to turn that around.

Do you have a writing ritual? Do you have another job besides writing? If so, how do you combine the two?

Every writing ritual I’ve ever had becomes integral and then exhausts itself and gets utterly subverted.

I used to only write at night and weekends, now I work nine to five whenever I can. I try to work for at least three or four hours minimum and I often don’t leave the computer at all in that time. I need total silence; it’s quite bizarre.

I was once terribly distracted by the sound of bubbles rising to the surface in a bottle of mineral water in the room next door.

Writing rituals are precious, in both meanings of the word. They’re forms of superstition that if we had to do without, we would.

Until recently, I had to write in a studio, not at home. Of late I’ve had a huge amount energy for writing and am happy to do it at home in my flat. If it’s the weekend, and I don’t have obligations, I’ll work until four in the morning.

I have lots of other jobs aside from writing, too many. I teach literature and creative writing. I’m teaching at RMIT at the moment, but I’ve taught for about five or six years across many universities and TAFEs.

I’ve lectured and tutored in everything from the short story, to romanticism and the nineteenth-century novel, to editing skills. I do a bit of freelance editing as well and I’m the associate editor at Overland magazine – I take charge of reading and selecting the short fiction there. I’ve worked in print and web editing, research, teaching, and I’ve done plenty of minimum wage jobs too – retail, hospitality, market research!

What do you want your writing to achieve?

That’s the question of all questions! I suppose to reveal, to provoke, to critique, to question and, every now and then, to make people a little uncomfortable with aspects of the world they’ve become complacent about.

It’s odd for me to quote CS Lewis but he claimed “we read to know we’re not alone” and I think there’s some truth in that: speaking the unspeakable, writing the dark corners, can provide solace too, recognition as well as reinvention

How do you know when your writing is working? Do you still workshop with other writers?

I have a couple of trusted friends who I show my work to, but I’m quite reluctant about sharing unfinished or embryonic material.

I find it hard to judge my own writing. I can be quite pessimistic about it. And sadly, the stories you labour over for days can be less successful than the ones you scribble out in a few hours.

I can judge the work technically, in terms of narrative strands, or characterisation, but that isn’t necessarily a sufficient or useful measure of the depth of feeling or connection in the writing, or its originality.

I see that in my students’ work all the time: beginning writers often have an admirable rawness - an innocence, you might say - that can’t always be recovered when you develop your writing

Are you writing another book? What is the hardest thing about writing and being a writer?

I am working on an essay at the moment, and a long short story. I am also planning an adult novel about an unreliable narrator who is a compulsive liar and is pathologically in debt (and turns to identity theft) in America.

I’ve got a young adult novel that I’ve just begun – which is meant to be a ‘fun’ activity for me – about a school refuser who strikes up a friendship with a troubled man in a small town.

The hardest thing for me about writing is the isolation. I’m quite a social person and a political one, so the solitude can be a gift and it can be a curse. Also, I am not a hugely self-motivated person, so I’ve had to train myself to work steadily.

The Danger Game will be released on 13 August 2009, by Sleepers Publishing. It will be available at bookstores.

By Evelyn Tsitas
May 2009