Charlotte Wood, THE WEEKEND

Charlotte Wood, THE WEEKEND

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Charlotte. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Charlotte Wood: Thanks for having me, Zibby, so much.

Zibby: I’m so excited to discuss The Weekend with you. This book was so lovely and moving and really well-written. Oh, my gosh, I was just really looking forward to this conversation. I still think about your character sitting on the side of the road whenever I’m getting in my car now trapped under an underpass too narrow to even get out. I’m like, ah!

Charlotte: I’m glad they stayed with you.

Zibby: Yes. Can you please tell listeners what The Weekend is about?

Charlotte: The Weekend is about friendship and getting older. The book opens when three friends — some people have described them as frenemies, but I think they love each other more than that. They’re aged in their seventies. Their names are Jude, Wendy, and Adele. They come together on a very hot weekend in Australia just before Christmas, which I know is kind of weird for American readers to think about Christmas being in the middle of the boiling summer. In Australia, that’s what it’s like often. They come together at the beach house of their fourth friend, Sylvie, who has died just around a year before the book opens. They are there to clean out Sylvie’s house. They’ve been friends for a really long time, for around forty years. Their friendship is worn by this stage and worn by grief as well. They’re discovering over this weekend particularly that Sylvie was the one who really held this group together. Without her, they’ve kind of lost the sense of how to be with each other. They just feel lost to one another. It’s a very difficult time for them while they grapple with their grief and Sylvie and their grief for their friendship that seems to be dissolving in front of them.

Zibby: What inspired you to write this book? Why these characters? Why this weekend? How did you come up with the structure of it and the whole thing? Why not the month or the long weekend?

Charlotte: The reason I wanted to write about these women is that I’ve always been interested in female friendships and how sustaining they are for so many of us. I’ve always had quite intense friendship from when I was very young. I have a really nice husband and my own siblings, but friendships are the thing that kind of propel my days. My last book, The Natural Way of Things, was about really young women. It was very dark and nearly brutal book about misogyny. I wanted to release myself and my readers from the darkness of that book. The way to get away from a previous book is almost just to flip it and go to something opposite. That was young women. This is older women. That book was set in the middle of the desert in Australia. This book is at the beach on the coast. It’s a much lighter book even though the story is about these women having to face the fact that they’re in the last years of their lives. Even if that’s another ten or twenty years, it’s obviously the last phase of their life that they’re heading into. They haven’t really thought about that properly. That’s one of the things that each of them is grappling with.

One of the things I was interested in is, how do long friendship sustain themselves or not? I have friends that are twenty-five years standing. I love them, but we have changed a lot over that twenty-five years. Sometimes I feel that old friendships, we can just . We can sort of set them in cement in some way. I feel like we need to be able to have our old friendships move and change and live and be as rich as — sometimes when you meet a new person, you kind of fall in love with a friend, with this person, because they’re facing up with the contemporary you. Whereas sometimes our olds friends, and we all do it to each other, can think, no, I know who you are. You’re the person that I met twenty years ago, thirty years ago. I was really interested in casting forward for myself about, what kind of woman might I be if I’m lucky enough to reach my seventies? How will that woman live within the friendships of old? What might be the forces at work upon all of us at that point?

Zibby: Wow. You had a great quote in the book. You wrote, “The thirties were the age you fell most dangerously in love, Adele had discovered after the fact, not with a man or a woman, but with your friends.” You write, “Lovers back then came and went like the weather,” but you said, “No, it wasn’t lovers, but friends, these courageous, shining people you pursued, romanced with dinners and gifts and weekends away. It was so long ago, forty years.” It’s so true because usually your life is somewhat set, friends. Obviously, you can get divorced and remarried and whatever, but that’s one or two major changes in your life. The friends, they come in and out I feel like so often at just the right times for what you need.

Charlotte: For these women, they all met, as Adele says, in their thirties. All of them were quite powerful in their professional lives. A lot of this book is about work, actually, and how women don’t just identify with their family identity. They identify with their work. I feel like the ways that we think about older age in popular culture, in television and in books, often older women are just identified by their family roles, by their roles as mothers or grandmothers or whatever, or spouses. The women who I know in their seventies are working or wish they were working. They had very fulfilling professional lives. These women in my book, Jude was a restauranter. She ran the city’s finest restaurants. She was one of those very powerful women in the hospitality world. Everyone wanted a table at her restaurant in the city in this book. Adele was a very well-known stage actress. Wendy was a public intellectual and globally known as a feminist academic and intellectual. Her books are still on university lists around the world. In their thirties was the really blossoming time of their cultural power that had this blazing allure for all of them. They came together through various means. They were this shining little crowd in their world.

Now they’re looking at each other going, oh, man, I remember when you were so powerful. Now I feel that you might be hiding something. Your health isn’t great. You are in a bit of denial about what’s going on for you professionally. They all think that about each other while not really facing their own doubts and little crises of confidence. They feel like they can’t afford to look at some things that are creeping in at the edges of their vision. This weekend together forces them to look at those things. Actually, just going back to your earlier question about why a weekend, it’s really helpful, I’ve found, in fiction to bring in the boundaries of time and space to create pressure on people. For a book like this that is about — it’s the internal lives of women where not a lot of dramatic things happen. It does build to a big crisis for them, but there are not world events crashing in on these women. Bringing those edges of the setting in time and space in more tightly allows a sort of concentrated focus. It’s kind of The Crucible effect, I hope. The pressure builds. Part of that is the fact that they are just there trapped together in this house for three days.

Zibby: Tell me about the writing of it. You started out and you found the structure that would work for you and what would create the most pressure to exhibit all these wonderful things and goals that you had for the book. How was the writing process for you? How did it differ from your first book? Do you write right there? How do you do it?

Charlotte: I write here in my studio in Sydney. I also write at a house at the coast where the town in the book is kind of modeled on. It’s a couple of hours north of Sydney. It’s a middle-class people’s holiday town. That’s where Sylvie’s beach house is. I wrote it over a few years. My previous book was the first one I had published in the States. This is actually my sixth novel. I had a lot of books published in Australia before that. I start usually with a place. This time, as I said, I knew I wanted to be near the ocean for the — I felt like I wanted light and air and weather at my disposal fictionally. I knew it was going to be about friendship. Then I just put them in this house together. For ages, Sylvie didn’t exist. I just had these three friends. I had them in this house. I don’t really plan my books at all apart from this setting. They were having these fractious moments. I needed to figure out, why are they there? If they are having such struggles with their friendship, why don’t they just not go? Then I finally hit on the idea of Sylvie. Actually, fairly early on in the process of writing the book a really lovely friend of mine became sick and died. She was a writer. Her name was Georgia Blain. She was very, very loved in this country as a writer.

I was really astonished by my grief for Georgia, the ferocity of my grief. She was my first friend who had died. I’ve been through grief before in my family, but this was really different. I felt really overwhelmed by the primitive feelings of my grief and the way that I felt like a child and felt angry and so jealous. It was such a weird series of feelings that I needed to work them out. I knew that Georgia would approve of this way of doing it because she wrote very close to life herself. I could pour all my feelings about this unmanageable grief into these women and their feelings for their friend Sylvie. When I said jealousy, it’s that thing of feeling that — early on in the book, Jude confesses in her own head that she was just impatient in hearing about anybody else’s death. It was sort of irrelevant. Sylvie was the one who had died. She just couldn’t tolerate anybody else whining about people dying. She says, “People die all the time. Of course they do. But Sylvie, this is different.”

I think we all, on some level, can feel that sense of ownership and protectiveness of this person. They had a rich and beautiful individuality that shouldn’t be just lumped in with anybody else’s. I actually think this is one of the saddest things about the pandemic. You’ve been through it more than anybody. We’re sort of lumping all these people in together, and they are not like other people. I channeled all that stuff into the story as well. Then I just observed as much as I could, people around me, people I see in the street, thinking about my own friendships and how they may or may not change over the next twenty years, and about how we — I used to think that as we grow older we necessarily begin to know ourselves better and better. I’m not sure that’s true. I don’t think that anymore. I feel like we can carry on illusions about ourselves forever. Sometimes it’s our friends who present us with a really shocking assessment of who we are. I was interested in exploring that as well.

Zibby: I’m so sorry about your friend. That’s terrible. Did it help? The pouring into the characters of all the emotion, did that actually work?

Charlotte: I think it did. I think it did in a way that it didn’t go away. I still miss her. I felt like I honored her in some way, in a way that she would understand because she was a fiction writer. Also, she was a very funny person. She had a very dark sense of humor. I like to think she would’ve liked this book. It helped to express some of those things that you feel kind of ashamed of. I don’t know if other people do, but in my grief for her, I felt like I should be more grown up about this. I’ve been through the deaths of both my parents. I’ve been through other deaths. I should know how to do this by now. I was just hammered by these very primitive, savage feelings. I think sometimes that’s what literature is for, is to allow space for these kind of things that are unspeakable, feelings we’re not allowed to have. Literature is a place where we are allowed to have them.

Zibby: It’s funny to think about the bookshelves behind you and everything, that in each one is all the feelings that people couldn’t say. We open it up and we’re like, oh, my gosh. It’s poured out. It’s almost like containers, like a wall of Tupperware, almost, for everybody’s feelings.

Charlotte: I think that’s true.

Zibby: It’s like The Container Store.

Charlotte: And it’s private. It’s a private place for us to go to. Unlike television or film or other media, a book is such a private space for the reader and the story. I feel like that’s why reading is so precious to me, because it’s only me and the book. I know you can watch television by yourself, but somehow it doesn’t have the same effect, because it’s in your own head I guess. All the pictures are pictures that you make. The people are people that you make as a reader. It sounds weird, but it’s almost a holy thing to me, that space of a book for a reader.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s the only form of mental telepathy that we have. It’s spilling out the insides of your mind that goes right into the insides of someone else’s mind. How else would you do that? TV, you’re like, I’m on my phone. I’m like, whatever. This, it also requires your complete attention or else you can’t actually read.

Charlotte: That’s right, the absorption that comes with reading. You can’t cook and read at the same time.

Zibby: I guess audiobooks.

Charlotte: That’s true, actually. That’s another whole discussion.

Zibby: Pretty skilled. Are you working on another novel now?

Charlotte: I am. I just started. It’s taken me a while to settle in. The pandemic, we’ve been really lucky in Australia, very, very lucky in terms of scale. Everyone was terrified. We had a big lockdown that has gone on for some parts of the country for a long time. The mental focus was not there for a long time, but I’m getting back into it now. The new one is going to be about, in some ways — it’s so embryonic that I don’t really know anything about it yet, but it’s going to involve Catholic nuns. I grew up a Catholic. I’ve never really written about that, the influences on me. I just thought there’s some interesting stuff there. That tension between in the world and being out of the world is really interesting to me, the big capitalist world . It’s very early days, so who knows.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Charlotte: My advice would be don’t wait to start doing it. Just start because life is short. We know that now more than ever. Just dive in wherever you are even if you don’t have time, even if you are working full time in a job. My first several books were written, and I had full-time work. I used to write on the couch at night or on the weekend. You don’t need a space to work in. All you need, really, at the most basic is a pencil and a piece of paper. There’s nothing stopping you but your own mind. It can be a home to go to. It can be the most thrilling, wonderful, liberating thing to have in your life. I would just say don’t wait. The other thing I would say is try and tell the truth. That sounds weird when you’re talking about fiction, but write stuff that feels true to you, not to please anybody else, not to impress anybody else, not for the market. Readers will respond when you are deeply connected and immersed in the work. I think a lot of new writers spend far too much time worrying about whether this kind of work will sell, or you shouldn’t write in first person because blah. There’s so many bits of really silly advice out there. I hope this isn’t another one of those. Just start. Be sincere. Put everything into it.

Zibby: Thank you, Charlotte. Thank you for sharing your grief in this way that now comes and helps the rest of us. Thanks for your lovely, wonderful book and for introducing us to these characters.

Charlotte: Thank you so much, Zibby, for having me. I send lots of love to everyone in the States right now.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thank you, and to Australia. We’ll just send love to our entire nations. Why not? Ambassadors for the evening.

Charlotte: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Buh-bye.

Charlotte: Buh-bye.

Charlotte Wood, THE WEEKEND