Felicity Volk, author of Lightning
On the surface, my debut novel, Lightning, is the tale of two people (Persia, a grieving mother, and Ahmed, a refugee fleeing his past in Pakistan) who have suffered extraordinary losses and who discover in each other the healing of shared tenderness. But more broadly, the book is an odyssey – across continents and centuries – that explores grief, identity and connection. It’s a road trip novel, a love story, and a meditation on finding hope in the rubble of our lives. As the cover blurb says, Lightning celebrates the way our stories and their telling keep us alive when all else is pulling us under.
Where are you from / where do you call home?
I was born in Geelong, then lived in Melbourne till I was ten, after which my family moved to Brisbane. That’s where I completed my secondary and tertiary studies (an Arts/Law degree with an English Literature major). When I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra after graduating from the University of Queensland, life became even more peripatetic. I lived as a diplomat for three years in Bangladesh and for five years in Laos. These days, my geographic home is Canberra, but, as Ahmed, my protagonist in Lightning and a refugee from Pakistan says, “…home is a person, not bricks and mortar; not tribe, nor custom, nor bloodline, but a person.” My heart home will always be where my daughters are – currently Canberra.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer but I’ve also always wanted to have a range of other occupations simultaneously. As a kid, in addition to envisioning a life as a writer , I saw myself as an archaeologist. Being a novelist is rather like archaeology: tenderly unearthing hidden worlds and cajoling their stories from them.
What do you consider to be your best work? Why?
Lightning, my debut novel, is my most ambitious work to date and I hope my best. But among my shorter fiction there is one piece of which I am particularly fond, “No place like home”, a story about a homeless woman in Tasmania. After many years of adversity and rejection, she finds a sense of purpose and healing in contributing to wildlife rescue efforts following a coastal oil spill. I love the main character, Carol. She’s resilient and funny and tender. I consider her story to be one of the best pieces I’ve written and it was a prizewinner in The Australian Women’s Weekly/Penguin Short Story Competition. External endorsement always boosts confidence that you’re on the right track in your writing.
Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?
If I’m feeling calm within myself, and on the happier end of the melancholy spectrum, I contentedly write at home, surrounded by books and bottomless pots of green tea. I write at a dining table beside two large walls of window. I need light and I need a vista to write most contentedly. Looking out into a wide open space provides somewhere for my thinking to unravel, for imagination to take flight. I don’t like to feel hemmed in when I write, either physically or emotionally. That said, some significant chunks of my novel were written in bed during daylight hours. It was cosy and intimate and very convenient for power naps!
If I’m blue, I need to have people around, so I migrate my writing desk to the Main Reading Room of the National Library of Australia, a place where minds are busy and the air is thick with other people’s intellectual energy. The simple presence of others engaged in creative, contemplative endeavour is soothing and nourishing for me. And these days, so much of the research materials writers rely upon are waiting at the end of a wifi connection, so the mobile writing desk is a convenient approach. But the options for napping comfortably in the National Library are somewhat limited.
My favourite place to write is Varuna, The Writers’ House in Katoomba, the Blue Mountains. Any of the writing anterooms on the upper storey of the former residence of Eleanor Dark and her family, provide warmth, light and sanctuary. The muffled sounds of writers in neighbouring rooms is a welcome constant reminder that the community is close at hand. And the view out over rambling cottage gardens never fails to reassure that every seed planted with care will yield a harvest.
When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?
I primarily read literary fiction – novels and short stories. I’m very fond of magic realism which is possibly why there are elements of this genre in my novel, Lightning. I spend a lot of time taxiing my kids to and from sports
fixtures and other activities, so these days much of my ‘reading’ is listening to audio books.
No matter how long the list of favourite authors I might devise, there’ll be significant oversights. So with that as the caveat, I’ll offer up Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, William Styron, Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julian Barnes and A.S. Byatt as a starting point.
What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?
If there’s a literary equivalent of a geologist, I’m sure she or he would be able to identify distinct layers in the sedimentary rock of generational reading. I was in the Enid Blyton and C S Lewis stratum(the Faraway Tree series, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Narnia Chronicles).
Probably the most defining books of my childhood were the ones Dad used to read to my brother and me each night. Books like “The Wind in the Willows”, “The Lord of the Rings” and the Bible. At a very young age, these gave me a sense of the rhythm and beauty of language.
If you were a literary character, who would you be?
I’d be Stingo in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice” or Nick Carraway in “The Great Gatsby” because both get to tell the story – every writer’s obsession! Stingo and Nick are observers and narrators, each with enormous acuity and eloquence, and a great capacity for compassion for the people whose lives they are recording.
I’d also like to be the rose in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince”, because for all her flaws, she was loved with unwavering constancy by a kind, wise and charming character.
Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?
There is no spare time between working as Adviser to Australia’s Global Ambassador for Women and Girls (at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), ‘gardening’ my two lovely daughters, reading, writing, movie-going,
and keeping two dogs, a bunny and a guinea pig alive. But…my favourite sporadic forms of entertainment are hot air balloon rides and chasing firework and light installation shows (like Enlighten Canberra and Vivid Sydney).
What is your favourite food and favourite drink?
My favourite food is food cooked for me by people I love (for starters, my daughter Bella’s risotto, and my youngest daughter Poppy’s pancakes). Two delightful friends, Sally and John, had me over for dinner to celebrate every milestone in the path to publication for Lightning, and their signature dish is a haloumi, cucumber and tomato salad with a rice wine vinegar dressing. It’s simple, fresh and evocative of celebrating important moments with loving friends.
My favourite drink is the Brooklyn Bee cocktail served at a famous French seafood restaurant in New York called Le Bernadin. The Brooklyn Bee contains absinthe and lavender oil, among other ingredients, and it’s best drunk in the company of my dear Wisconsin-based friend, George. As I get to drink cocktails with George very rarely, I should offer up freshly squeezed orange juice as my favourite standard beverage.
Who is your hero? Why?
I admire anyone who transcends adversity and emerges from it with compassion and wisdom. In that regard, top billing goes to my sister Sam. Also because she can solve nine letter word puzzles in 15 seconds flat.
Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?
The biggest challenge is the shifting of neural function, the changing wiring of the brain as a result of exposure to new technology and new media. But I’m optimistic there will always be a critical mass of readers to keep the industry alive, and hopefully even enough who love books as artifacts to keep the printed book industry kicking too.
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