Krissy Kneen is shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize for her novel An Uncertain Grace. In this special Stella interview, Krissy shares what inspired her writing, the future possibilities of technology for driving empathy and understanding, and the Australian women writers who spur her on.
What are the origins of An Uncertain Grace? Did it begin with one section or one character?
I didn’t realise I was writing this book until I sat down to type out the short fragments I had been writing all year and realised they were all fragments of the same book. I had been touring two books in one year and I was doing a lot of flying from place to place and to relax I would buy New Scientist magazine at the airport. The stories in it would always inspire me to start scribbling in my notebook. When I typed it all out at the end of the book tour I could see that it was all a part of the same world. I could also see that there was a consistent character, this woman, who was a driving force in all the fragments, although she wasn’t at the centre of every piece. This is how the discontinuous structure came about. And my final task was to tell the final story through her eyes.
What themes did you want to investigate in your book?
I am fascinated by our relationship with technology and how it can be used in ethical ways but also in damaging ways. I really wanted to see how we could use technologies that we are beginning to discover, or discussing today, to make our world a better place. If literature can be used to make us a more empathetic bunch of people, then how can technology be used to enhance our empathy and understanding of one another.
I had been reading about virtual reality and noticed a few essays about sexism and sexual assault in communal VR environments and I wondered what could be done if women were in control of the tech. How would women or non-gender-binary folk use VR to challenge sexual assault? I have a great belief in people. I think we really want to understand each other and connect with each other and given a chance I think we would rather do things that help each other than hurt each other, but I think the systems that are in place are so toxic. It is all about financial gain over social gain. I wanted to challenge that in my book because with the advancement of technologies we have a perfect opportunity to fix these issues now before we charge forward into the future.
Did you do a lot of reading and research into cutting-edge artificial intelligence and virtual-reality developments?
My research is really my reading for pleasure. I read a lot of science magazines regularly and I also read science books for fun and so I was working a bit like a bowerbird, gathering things that were happening in the world and weaving them into the narrative. Of course, when I had the bones of the book I went looking for the research to support it. But I’m a firm believer in narrative-driven research so, often, the idea sparked the story and then I went back and filled in the gaps with research after the first draft. Sometimes if you research a subject thoroughly first you feel the imperative to put all that research on the page, and I hate exposition in a book. I would rather the story drives what is on the page, and come in afterwards with a light touch on the details.
Who are your favourite Australian female writers – and why?
I am surrounded by a veritable coven of fabulous female writers and their support, guidance and their incredible writing has always spurred me on and made me be my best self. In particular Kristina Olsson, Ashley Hay, Ellen van Neerven, Anita Heiss, Melissa Lucashenko, Susan Johnson and Favel Parrett. These women are role models for life as well as a writing practice. I also discovered the work of Kate Cole-Adams in her wonderful nonfiction masterpiece, Anaesthesia, last year, and now I have a goal to chase: I want to write a nonfiction book as wonderfully rich and fresh as her book.
Where do you go to write?
My favourite place to write is a little cafe down an alley in Brisbane city called Strauss. It is my most productive place! The second-best place is the garden cafe of the Queensland Art Gallery, but I have also just done up the tiniest little nook in our incredibly small flat and that is a good editing place when I need to spread out on a desk. I prefer writing in a public place; I like the noise and clutter of the real world. It sometimes sneaks into my work in small fun ways. It also keeps me honest. I can’t procrastinate when I’m at my cafe. Also – coffee!
Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
I’m just finishing an edit of a novel that is coming out in September. Wintering is a book about an isolated woman in the deep south of Tasmania whose partner doesn’t come home one day and how her whole understanding of herself and her relationship completely changes as a result. It is a psychological thriller and an excavation of the insidious nature of domestic violence.
I am also in the enviable position where I am about to go away to research the book after this – for three months! It is a memoir that takes us into the body to find out what makes us who we are in a very visceral way, and I will be spending three glorious months in Slovenia to do the work.