Goose Lane Q&A with Kristel Thornell about Night StreetBy Colleen Kitts • Jun 17th, 2012 • Category: Feature Post, Goose Lane Authors, Interviews
GL: Who was Clarice Beckett?
KT: Clarice Beckett was an Australian landscape painter who lived from 1887 to 1935. She used to pull a homemade painting trolley around Melbourne, working on city streets and beaches. She lived with her parents until her death and chose to have relationships with men without marrying. She was passionately devoted to her art, despite cold treatment from critics and scarce earnings. She died shortly after getting caught out in a storm while painting, and was largely forgotten by art history. By the time she was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1970s, hundreds of her paintings - which had been stored in an open-sided shed in the country - had been destroyed by the elements and possums. Others had been lost to a bush fire. Beckett was perhaps the most outstanding of the controversial Australian tonalist painters, who aimed to portray nature with scientific accuracy. But her subtle, timeless style seems to move beyond realism. Her paintings have a mysterious magnetism.
GL: How did you find out about her?
KT: I saw my first Beckett paintings at the Art Gallery of South Australia, in Adelaide, during a trip home to Australia from the States. The very first was of two trams passing one another on a misty street. It was so simple and so involving. There was something there that I couldn’t put my finger on. I was amazed that I’d never heard of her before.
GL: Why did you want to write about her?
KT: Her art got under my skin. That combination of lightness and strange depth. Beckett’s landscapes have a space in them that lures you in. I found myself making up stories to fill it, a psychology. I was enthralled by the woman who had seen the world in such a way, and the more I learned about her unusual, brave life, the more moved I was. She tended to be viewed as a tragic figure, but to me, more than anything, she was wonderfully spirited, daring, and intense. I was curious to see if I’d be able to find language to express what her art made me feel.
GL: And were you successful in this, do you think?
KT: I think so, yes. I certainly reached a point where my experience of the art and the fiction I was making became so much a part of one another that I sometimes had to remind myself of what was ‘real’ and what ‘invented.’
GL: How does one go about creating a fictional life for a real, historical figure?
KT: I knew early on that I wasn’t interested in writing biographical fiction as such, because I wanted my prose to reflect Beckett’s style of impression. By this I mean that, while I was guided by biographical facts, I hoped to work with history as Beckett worked with landscape, by concentrating on light and shade, atmosphere, moods, instead of on detail or hard lines. As is always the case with creative work, of course, some parts of the process were more conscious than others. There was research - studying the few publications and archival resources that are available, several trips to Melbourne to learn her geography, meetings with Rosalind Hollinrake (the scholar and collector who rediscovered Beckett), discussions with a landscape painter, and so on. And then there was a more personal kind of research. Dreaming into and around the paintings. Approaching the character almost as a Method actor might. I identified with her deeply. I walked and looked obsessively. I sketched and played with paint. I wore vintage clothes. I felt haunted. And a voice came out of a misty space between fact and fantasy.
GL: That sounds mystical, and even a little spooky.
KT: I don’t mean to suggest that writing the character was like taking part in a séance, or that the process wasn’t also rational and pragmatic. But the novel’s voice is very internal, very close to Clarice, and I was working at inhabiting or being inhabited by it. So the ‘haunting’ was a creative strategy, a kind of identity confusion I was cultivating. I find writing this way interestingly compulsive and yes, I have to say, a bit mystical.
GL: What kind of challenges did you face?
KT: The most important were probably: giving myself the freedom to invent a character inspired by a real person, and finding a voice that rang true for me, that somehow fit with the art and the time.
GL: Did you have any contact with the family of the real Clarice Beckett?
KT: I decided not to try to contact any of Beckett’s family members. Especially as my project was very much fictional, I didn’t want to intrude on their privacy. It was also possible that, had I met them, this might have inhibited me when it came to interpreting and shaping facts creatively. Hollinrake, however, had known Beckett’s sister, and she shared her impressions of the family with me.
GL: Has Clarice Beckett stayed with you, in any lingering sort of way?
KT: Yes! Her art stays with me. It’s a lingering sort of art that, gently but persistently, seems to go on asking questions. And Beckett herself still haunts me. The way she brought together sensitivity and discipline. Her absolute commitment to living with verve, to being open to the world. Her life is a striking example of endurance and transcendence. She made struggles and challenges into poetry.
Colleen Kitts is working at spotting golden opportunities for Goose Lane's non-fiction line. When she was a little girl, she used to sing for money. For a nickel, she would warble her best rendition of Que Sera Sera for tourists at the fishing lodge where her dad worked as a guide. Even at the tender age of three, Colleen knew how to reel in a crowd. These days her rates have gone up!!
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