Shady Cosgrove, author of What the Ground Can’t Hold
Tell us about your latest creation…
What the Ground Can’t Hold is about a group of people stranded in the Andes because of an avalanche. They are from all over the world (Australia, the United States, Germany and Argentina) and each one is grappling with a secret that links them to Argentina’s Dirty War. It’s about the ghosts that won’t stay buried. The novel has involved extensive research and travel, and has taken seven years to write. It’s a tricky thing, writing a novel like this, because I want to do justice to the complexities and atrocities and humanity of the stories I’m telling.
Where are you from / where do you call home?
I was born on a small island off of Seattle in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. It was an alternative community, accessible only by boat, and I grew up with people who had names like Unity, Kwab, Sunshine and Rosebud. I was privileged to have had that kind of wild and artistic upbringing. My mother is a tile artist, and so I grew up around kilns and glazes and mosaics. I went to the local public school until University, where I studied English, Creative Writing and Women’s Studies at Vassar College in New York. I loved the inspiration and intensity of studying there. I remember writing short stories until three in the morning and comparing sentences and paragraphs with my housemate, a fellow writer and night owl. I came to Australia as a Study Abroad student and was initially skeptical of Wollongong; but I felt this inexplicable loyalty to the place anyway – to the ocean and the escarpment, especially – and I’m not surprised that I still live in the Illawarra. Choosing a home so far from my family, I find I’m most grateful for my friendships and the sense of community here. I spent some time in
Canberra, studying for my PhD at the ANU but was drawn back to Wollongong. It’s home now.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a storyteller. I thought this was a valid form of employment in and of itself. At university, I wanted to be novelist but it’s taken many years. The best thing for my writing was to teach writing. I fell into some teaching work at the University of Wollongong and it radically changed the focus of my life. Because I had to articulate writing strategies and conventions, it forced me to really reckon with the material. The amazing thing about teaching is that the sum of us in the classroom – teacher and students – is greater than the parts. As a group, students and I can brainstorm and pick apart writing strategies and workshop pieces and get so much further than we could on our own. I find this collaboration inspiring. I’m lucky because my writing feeds my teaching and my teaching feeds my writing.
What do you consider to be your best work? Why?
What the Ground Can’t Hold – it’s the most ambitious thing I’ve written and has taken the longest to write. It operates on a number of levels and bears up to re-reading (the test of a good book). And all of the narrative levels are well integrated: it’s driven by both character and plot; the point-of-view is inseparable from the sense of voice and the characters; the structure is dictated by the point-of-view; the setting is intimately connected to the plot. This is a story that couldn’t be told in any other way.
Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?
I’m a lucky writer because I work in a boxed-in veranda/sun room with a view straight to my neighbours’ front door, and I love those neighbours like family. So when I’m alone in front of the computer, facing into the tough slog of re-drafting, I can have a chat through the window when they’re arriving home with groceries or checking the mail, and it’s not enough to break me away from the task at hand but it alleviates feelings of isolation.
When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?
Ann Patchett. Colum McCann. Michael Cunngingham. Richard Ford. Haruki Murakami. Chuck Palahniuk. Jeanette Winterson. Ian McEwan. Jean Rhys. Charlotte Bronte. Langston Hughes. Eduardo Galeano. Alessandro Baricco. Jhumpa Lahiri. Anthony Macris. John Scott. Tim Winton. Julia Leigh. Keri Hulme. Virginia Woolf. Christine Howe. Bernhard Schlink. Yusef Komunyakaa.
What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Speckled Band’. Roald Dahl’s ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’. CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
If you were a literary character, who would you be?
I’d love to be a heroine from one of Haruki Murakami novels but I don’t know that I’m that cool.
Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?
I love to quilt. I love to escape to the bush. I’m not much of a horticulturalist but I’ve just planted 36 blueberry bushes and I take care of them.
What is your favourite food and favourite drink?
Fresh fruit (peaches, blueberries, pineapple, mangos, raspberries, strawberries); Warm bread from the oven; Quality tequila
Who is your hero? Why?
I look up to my mother and older sister. They are both courageous and resilient.
Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?
As a culture, we seem to be battling time-poverty – without time, we won’t have readers.