By Nuala Kane
The first excerpt read by Kirstin Krauth from her debut novel just_a_girl is stark and exposing. The 14 year-old protagonist Layla is on her first meeting with internet acquaintance youami33, for whom she strips naked and attempts a seduction, until he makes a premature departure from their hotel room, presumably unimpressed by her trying-to-be-suave sex talk and her lack of hymen. Exposure in a digital age is a thread that runs through tonight’s discussion, and Layla is the bold teenage voice of the present.
Watching a debut novelist read from her first book is exposure in a different context. Kirsten addresses the issue when she tells the story of her first exposure in front of a crowd – a day at school when her favourite teacher put her in the centre of a cruel experiment and then asked the class to analyse and discuss aloud the emotions that she showed throughout. It took some time to recover from that trauma, and I imagine reading from your first major work must feel a little similar, but on your own terms.
The crowd however is a friendly one, and crime novelist and tonight’s interviewer Angela Savage has an ease with people that means the interview flows more like a conversation. There is a warm communal feel. We are seated in Colour Box Studio’s front shop, opposite the large window to Nicholson Street. Scented candles peer over the proceedings, people are perched on chairs and milk crates and cushions, the little heater blasts air to warm bare floors and cold ankles. At one point an audience member makes motions to interrupt the interview and visibly catches herself in time, but is immediately ushered by both Kirsten and Angela to contribute to the discussion. This opens the floor to the sharing of various memories of teenage gossip from the pre-Facebook era, and there is a general reflection that however cruel the rumours of the eighties and nineties, the internet renders an ease of distribution and a permanence that was heretofore unmatched.
The session is punctuated with little stories which Kirsten came across during her research. There is the modern tragedy of a teenage girl afraid to walk down the street of her small town because her misguided sexting photos are displayed on a webpage titled SLUT, made by a boy who won’t take it down despite pleas from her and from her parents. Then there is the weirdly triumphant tale of a 15 year-old selling naked pictures of himself on the internet, and only getting found out when his mother discovers the $5000 in his bank account. Kirsten is clearly fascinated by this phenomenon, and her interest and enthusiasm are infectious.
One of the most unexpected facets of the evening is the depth of examination of the actual process of writing and publishing a novel. Angela extracts the various stages of Kirsten’s journey – from the initial inspiration in eavesdropped conversation on long train commutes to Sydney, to the great leap of faith in quitting a regular and well paid job, and the stroke of genius in applying for a research masters in creative writing, because research masters are free. Kirsten speaks about her careful choice of a gentle mentor, the great benefits of having enforced three thousand word monthly deadlines, and her joy at reaching the stage of a 30,000 word novella, though no-one, she adds, would ever publish a novella from a first-time author.
The novella became a novel and finally the courting process began: agents at soirees handing out business cards with their praise, publishers with year-long waiting times for the grace of a reply. When picked up by UWA Publishing, Kirsten found it particularly difficult to go through the structural edit, the part where you kill (or save!) your babies, by deciding major stylistic and plotting issues, inserting or removing flashbacks, establishing chronology of events. The on the line edit was easier for her: here words are pruned right down, but Kirsten had done much of the pruning herself already, in order to establish the book’s three distinct narrative strains.
The discussion of publicizing is interesting because the event at Colour Box Studio is a living example. Angela speaks about the importance of promotion online, and indeed tweets about the event as Kirsten speaks. This provokes the onset of a twitload of shared experiences on engaging with hashtag explosions on Twitter, from the comic to the recent pro-abortion filibuster. Taking criticism is a recurrent theme, it being the disgruntled spouse of publicity and exposure. Kirsten is charming when she talks about quietly giving critics her own ratings out of five, with two stars (generous) for ‘ probably didn’t even read the book’, and five stars (reciprocal) for the reviews that celebrate her work.
The night ends with questions, and this part is even less formal. The talk turns to Tadashi, the Japanese male character who orders a love doll online and carries her around in a suitcase. The female audience is furiously curious about the love doll concept and about the men who prefer them to real women (are all women similarly fascinated by their own rejection?). Tadashi openly projects his fantasies onto this inanimate object, just as Layla’s mother Margot projects hers onto the local preacher and her newfound religion, and I have to wonder how much of dreams and goals and self an author projects onto her characters.
When she speaks about just_a_girl, you can see Kirsten’s care for each of her characters, and her particular pride in their distinct voices: Layla’s choppy speech, punctuated by tangents and expletives (fuckadoodle!), Margot’s long flowing prose, and Tadashi’s more simple and poetic style. With the completion of a novel, the letting go of these characters and what they represent is enforced. Kirsten tells us that by the end she was ready to let go, even though she worries sometimes for them, the characters, and hopes she left them with enough strength at the end to make it where they want to go.
The evening, while small and quiet, manages to do what Colour Box Studio usually does, to be just a little bit inspiring. I leave with designs to read the book (now half way through), watch Lars and the Real Doll (happily downloading), and maybe even after that to put pen to paper myself.