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INTERVIEW: Karen Foxlee, author of The Midnight Dress

Friday, January 17, 2014

I was utterly enchanted by Karen Foxlee's novel The Midnight Dress, and so I am delighted to welcoem her to the blog today.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes, I’m a daydreamer.  I actually schedule daydream breaks into my writing day.  I say to myself, “if you can get through this scene you can have a fifteen minute daydream”.  I daydream about my characters, about my stories, about me.  Daydreaming is about letting go, isn’t it?  I love those little “letting go” parts of my day. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I can recall being in grade two and everyone being asked to write down what they wanted to be when they grew up.  I wrote, “I want to be an Arthur.”  I meant author of course but the teacher was very confused.  I told everyone that was what I was going to be.  I’d written my first story about a girl and horse and flooding river.  I’d used the word FLED.  They fled from the river.  I was so impressed with myself.  I never gave up that dream.  

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born in Mount Isa, the big mining town in far North West Queensland.  My dad was a miner.  I had an amazing childhood there with a brother and two sisters. We climbed the red spinifex covered hills and explored the dry Leichhardt River.  It was a wild frontier town in many ways, very different to growing up in a city.  And very isolated.  We were a day’s drive from the coast.  I left home at seventeen and went to university but dropped out and did my nursing training instead.  I’ve nursed ever since.  I live in Gympie, Queensland, with my five year old daughter, two cats, five chooks and some fish. I love it.  It’s a little town but still close enough to a major city and the coast so I can enjoy that world as well.  

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for The Midnight Dress?
I really had nothing but the idea for the character Rose which is the way most of my stories start.  I just kept thinking of a girl with wild red hair, terribly hurt, very lonely, arriving in a place that somehow changes her. I started to write about her; why did she come to the place, who did she meet there? Suddenly a hand-stitched dress kept appearing.  The story changed many times before it took its final form.  

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I don’t plan them at all.  I am in awe of writers who can plot everything out.  As soon as I start to plot everything seems to disappear.  I only seem able to find answers through writing.  I used to waste a lot of energy worrying about this – thinking it was a defect – but I think I write really beautiful stories this way, kind of growing them up out of nothing.  

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Not really. Occasionally I will get ideas all of the sudden in the middle of the night.  My eyes open and everything seems very clear.  I think I use memories a lot more than dreams as a source of inspiration.  I’m constantly plundering my own memories.  For the town of Leonora and the landscape around it, the tropical rainforest, I went back again and again to my memories.  To the places we visited as children in North Queensland on our annual pilgrimage to the coast. I can remember climbing rocks at the beach, daydreaming about running away into the rainforest.   

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I discovered all the same things that I discovered with the first, again! Why had I forgotten them?  I discovered that if it felt right, I shouldn’t give up.  That I should follow my heart.  That I should write the book that I wanted to write.  Not sure they are serendipitous discoveries.  They feel monumental each time though.   

Where do you write, and when?
I write in bed in the early morning or on the sofa.  Sometimes I get serious and write in the kitchen.  I have a little study in the sleep-out of my old house but the desk is constantly covered in books and filing and scrap books and various other projects.  I write best in the early hours of the morning.  430 am or 5ish until about 730 am.  The house is very quiet and my mind is very calm.  I write again after school drop off if I don’t have to go to my nursing job.  My mind starts to wander by midday.  I’m useless after that!  I write like that for blocks of a few months.  I love seeing a story coming together over that time, or the shape of a story anyway.  I’m exhausted at the end and need a couple of weeks off.  
What is your favourite part of writing?
My favourite part of writing is the smoothing down, polishing and making perfect part.  All the getting to there I find stressful and uncomfortable and I worry constantly.  Not knowing what the story is does my head in.  Having said that, I do love seeing characters grow and change and become so real over several drafts.  

What do you do when you get blocked? 
I think there are two types of blocked.  There is blocked with a specific story problem and also good old fashioned writer’s block.  With the former, I had a chair that I called the “thinking chair” for years.  If I couldn’t get anywhere because of a story problem, I’d go and sit in it and write longhand, freely, trying to work the problem out. I sold the chair in a garage sale recently so I don’t know what I’ll do now!  A new chair is needed.  

If it’s plain old fashioned writers block, I just sit down and write anything.  It is the only thing I know how to do.  I just write what seems like really bad writing, and then I keep doing that until after a while (hours, days, weeks) good stuff starts to happen again.  I try to stay calm.  If you panic it’s all over.   

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I’m not sure.  It just seems constantly full.  I think as a writer I am distilling my life, my surroundings, my dreams, my memories, the whole world around me, constantly through my words.  There are always new story ideas.  They are lined up in a queue.  They call to me, sometimes urgently, other times just gentle nudging reminders.  “Write me!”

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
After I finish a story (although they never really feel finished) to a stage that I know I can show it to someone… I clean the house.  Really clean it! For a month.  Nothing has been done while I’ve been writing!  It’s a ceremonial cleaning, getting ready for the next project. That’s about the only big ritual I can think of.  I can’t start a new story without a clean house.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, Arundhati Roy, Ian McEwan, Ruth Rendell, Truman Capote, Douglas Adams, Murray Bail, Kate Grenville, Phillip Pullman.  

Kate Grenville - I love her books too!
What do you consider to be good writing?  
Clear clean writing.  Well-constructed stories. Words that make you think and feel and your heart beat faster.  

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Love your stories.  Spend so much time with them.  Tend to them, worry over them, and make them as beautiful as you can.  Don’t give up on them.  

What are you working on now? 
I remain lost in a big story set in Victorian England about a girl who sees the future in rain puddles and who is entrusted to save the world from a terrible darkness.  My children’s novel “Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy” is to be published on January 28th in the US (Knopf) and soon after in the UK (Hot Key Books).  I am really very excited about that.  


Sharon commented on 27-Jan-2014 04:47 PM
ahh - a surprise to find you whilst hopping with Book'd for AU Day..
I have a copy of Ophelia for review and looking forward to getting into the story..

Lovely to meet you -

Sharon from Canada
Brona commented on 27-Feb-2014 08:23 PM
What do you consider to be good writing?
Clear clean writing. Well-constructed stories. Words that make you think and feel and your heart beat faster.

This describes what Karen achieves in Ophelia exactly :-)
I look forward to getting into the Midnight Dress soon.
helen browne commented on 28-Jul-2015 08:41 AM
Wonderful book.

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