Charlotte Wood wins Stella Prize:
'There were times when I thought, why am I writing this?'
Women's Agenda: Article by Angela Priestley
19 Apr 2016
Charlotte Wood's just won the Stella Prize for her novel The Natural Way of Things, but she still finds discussing its subject matter difficult.
The dystopian novel based on a group of incarcerated women who've at some point been victims of a public sex scandal is a gripping read, but is deeply harrowing and reflects much wider themes that women experience all the time.
"I don't know how long I want to talk about it for," she says in the lead up to being announced the Stella Prize winner on Tuesday night. "I know that all women pretty much have to shut their eyes and ears to get through the day because of all the messages of negativity that we can internalise. I have experienced it my whole life, everything that's said about our gender is bad from birth."
Still, Wood is thrilled and humbled to be named the fourth winner of the $50,000 prize for women's writing.
She said it comes as a shock, particularly given the calibre of books shortlisted -- she knows, as she's read every one of them. Other women shortlisted include Tegan Bennett Daylight, Peggy Frew, Elizabeth Harrower, Mireille Juchau, and Fiona Wright.
It's the first significant literary award for Wood, the author of six books. "It's a shock to the system, but in a lovely way," she says. "The generosity is really meaningful to writers, just to get this kind of money. Especially as literary writers' incomes are plummeting."
Indeed, Wood quotes a recent Macquarie University study that found the annual royalty income for literary fiction authors is just $4100 a year.
"Writers really are pretty much living on fresh air," she says. "To have this gift, given by private citizens, is really moving for me. It's a powerful statement that people care about literature."
Wood also commends the Stella Prize for offering all the shortlisted authors a boost, including via a three week writing residency with travel expenses paid.
Wood thought about a writing career in her mid twenties, but took a few years to get seriously started.
"Part of that was that I didn't think i'd know what to say, I didn't realise you actually discover what you want to say by writing it down."
But the real catalyst came when, at the age of 29, she lost her mother. "Those times of great change or grief really separates the important things and not so important things in this world, and I knew suddenly that this was important to me and I had to stop thinking this is something I'll get around to doing one day.
"What's the point of waiting around? I had to get stuck in. I committed in my own mind to it. I had full time work, I committed to finding a way to making it happen. There's never going to be a time in your life that says you suddenly have this time and confidence and money to make it happen."
As for her latest -- and now award winning novel -- the idea was sparked from a documentary on the Hay Institution for Girls, an offshoot of the Parramatta Girls Home.
"It was a horrible, sadistic place for young women, back in the sixties. When I was about to head into my adolescence I realised there were girls being treated in this way."
Wood says that as harrowing as her book is, there's nothing in it that comes anywhere close to what these girls endured.
What really activated her anger from the documentary was that one of the key reasons girls were in such places was because they had been sexually assaulted and dared to tell somebody about it. "They were considered dangerous because they spoke the truth about what had happened."
Wood says her own "antenna was up" for what she realised was a phenomenon that still goes on today -- women being punished for speaking up about sexual assault. She specifically refers to the Skype incident that saw a young female Army cadet shamed after being secretly filmed having sex. Women are no longer getting locked up for speaking up, but they're certainly being punished.
"That's what we understand happens to women who complain about stuff that happens to them, that they have to get punished. When I heard that story I was so filled with anger, it was so clear cut who was in the wrong."
Wood spent three years writing the book, a process that she says wasn't particularly fun, given she needed to inhabit such a dark world imaginatively.
"I don't want to be dramatic, but there were times when I thought, 'why am I writing this and will anyone want to read this?'."
Wood says that when she's immersed in a writing project, she'll sit down at her desk around 8am until she's put down at least 1000 words. Sometimes that's at 10am, other times she'll still be going at 6pm that night.
During the first draft, she says the quality is irrelevant. It's purely about output and getting to know the characters. She also doesn't write from start to finish, often finding her ending well before anything else.
"I like to work on my characters, have them walk through doors and come together, until they develop life on the page. And that's when it's pleasurable.
After spending three years producing a very dark work, Wood hopes her next project will be "nice and pleasant." She's writing about women in their seventies, and plans to produce "a book about ageing that's not about the past."
Click here to read the original article in Women's Agenda
Click here to read more about The Stella Prize