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Chris Womersley
Was there a particular event that inspired BEREFT?
There was no particular event that inspired my story. All I had with Bereft to begin with was the premise of a man meeting a girl he comes to believe is the ghost of his dead sister. Novels, for me, come together in more or less haphazard ways – an image here, a character there and hopefully from that I am able to knit together something that is interesting and gripping. My weird interest in millennium movements (when people think the end of the world is nigh) prompted me to set it at a time (WWI, Spanish flu pandemic etc) in which it might be reasonable to think the end of the world was imminent. That helped me furnish the background of the story with an evocative atmosphere. I was also intrigued that -- as one of the characters points out -- there is no word in English for a parent who has lost a child, unlike, say, a ‘widow’ or ‘widower’ or even ‘orphan’. This absence pervades the novel.
BEREFT is part ghost story, part thriller. What was it like to write?
Bereft was great fun to write. Once I had the voice of the novel, its period setting and the characters, I came across the fact of the rise in Spiritualism during World War One, which fed beautifully into the story. I loved writing the rather gothic tone of the book, with its séance, its villain, its superstitious rites and its damaged hero. The character of Sadie Fox was also particularly fun to write because she is so contradictory – wise and innocent, ethereal and earthy, superstitious and sceptical. I sensed rather early on that I was onto a good idea with the novel and hopefully I managed to live up to my own expectations!
Do you think the vastness and unknowability of parts of the Australian landscape help to arouse the writer’s imagination? Can magic happen there?
The vastness of the Australian landscape certainly helped when it came to writing Bereft, particularly as the novel is set at a time (1919) when communications and travel was still quite restricted and primitive. Even now there are portions of the Australian country that are dangerous and impenetrable and this as a setting certainly helped with the mysterious and somewhat magical elements of the story. Although much of our national mythology centres on the outback, we are a nation of coastal, city dwellers and thus the outback retains its potency as an imaginative site.
BEREFT is a very compelling story – I couldn’t wait to find out how it would be resolved. How, as a writer, do you achieve that sense of suspense?
Hmmm, that is a bit of a trade secret, naturally, but I guess it comes down to the apportioning of information and clues. I like to bring the reader into the conversation, as it were, by rationing out information that he or she is then able to assemble as he or she reads on. It probably helps that I am unsure of where the novel is headed, so I surprise myself as I think up plot elements. Although Bereft is not a traditional mystery or crime novel (in the sense of a character just solving a crime), it is immensely gratifying to know that it has been a compelling story for many readers. After all, that is really what a writer wants – for a reader to need to know how the story finishes. You want to keep people reading way past their bedtime!
Your writing style has been compared to Cormac McCarthy. Has he been an influence? Which writers inspire you?
I admire Cormac McCarthy, but influence is a very difficult thing to measure. I guess I like the way he works in genre but manages to infuse that with a toughness and literary quality that makes the category redundant. Michael Ondaatje has been a big influence in the past, as have Marguerite Duras, Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, Donna Tartt, Edgar Allen Poe and Don DeLillo. I also have a major soft spot for Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and Bereft is, in part, something of a homage to that great novel.
Who would you invite to join your fantasy bookgroup?
Hmmm. That is a tough question. TS Eliot might be fun, as would William Burroughs (sans weapon). I think also that Dorothy Parker would be a good addition and let’s throw in Will Self and Tom Waits as well.
Chris Womersley

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