Between the Lines interviews a diverse selection of Australian writers to uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book. With a focus on debut writers from independent presses, Jay Anderson and Amy Lin ask questions of short story writers, novelists and poets to learn more about what informs recent works of literature. In responding to Between the Lines, our authors open up new questions, and ignite further conversations.
Angela Meyer’s writing has been widely published, including in Best Australian Stories, Island, The Big Issue, The Australian, The Lifted Brow and Killings. She has previously published a book of flash fiction, Captives (Inkerman & Blunt). She has worked in bookstores, as a book reviewer, in a whisky bar, and for the past few years has published a range of Australian authors for Echo Publishing, including award-winners and an international number one bestseller. She grew up in Northern NSW and lives in Melbourne. A Superior Spectre is her debut novel.
A Superior Spectre – Synopsis
Jeff is dying. Haunted by memories and grappling with the shame of his desires, he runs away to remote Scotland with a piece of experimental tech that allows him to enter the mind of someone in the past. Instructed to only use it three times, Jeff—self-indulgent, isolated and deteriorating—ignores this advice.
In the late 1860s, Leonora lives a contented life in the Scottish Highlands, surrounded by nature, her hands and mind kept busy. Contemplating her future and the social conventions that bind her, a secret romantic friendship with the local laird is interrupted when her father sends her to stay with her aunt in Edinburgh—an intimidating, sooty city; the place where her mother perished.
But Leonora’s ability to embrace her new life is shadowed by a dark presence that begins to lurk behind her eyes, and strange visions that bear no resemblance to anything she has ever seen or known.
A Superior Spectre is a highly accomplished debut novel about our capacity for curiosity, and our dangerous entitlement to it, and reminds us the scariest ghosts aren’t those that go bump in the night, but those that are born and create a place for themselves in the human soul.
As a publisher you have launched a number of titles, supporting many authors’ first novels. But as the debut novelist, you’re on the other side of this process. Were there revelatory moments during the publication of A Superior Spectre that influenced you as a publisher or a writer, or both?
Even as a reviewer and interviewer, before my role in publishing, I was drawn to fiction. I have always wanted to understand fiction, and I have always enjoyed reading fiction deeply (making notes, dog-earing, thinking about what I am reading). I think this all comes from being a writer. I have been a writer since I was a child, even if I took a long time to be any good at it. Getting to work on other people’s novels is incredibly rewarding. I have learnt so much from the authors I have worked with, about structure, characterisation, pacing, and more. I have also seen them go through the publishing process and learnt all about what that can be like for an author (many of them for the first time). I also know how hard it is to get a novel published in the first place, and how hard you have to work both before and afterwards. Though I knew through all this what to expect, having my own novel published was a unique experience—I was much more anxious than I expected to be, but I do think it also depends on the timing. If you have a lot going on in your life, a lot of weight at the time, or perhaps if it comes after a difficult period, you might feel there is even more riding on the publication. The main feeling I had when reviews started coming in was closer to relief than elation, like I’d been squinting in a dark room for a while and then someone drew a blind.
It’s wonderful that working with other authors has impacted your work, and I’m glad you drew the blind! During that period of relief, critics draw parallels between your work and Diana Gabaldon and Margaret Atwood. What else influenced this remarkable novel?
Actually, I don’t think either of those authors were a direct influence, although perhaps reading the first Gabaldon when I was about 19 did awaken the desire to go to Scotland! I’m ashamed to say I only read The Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago. Because Spectre took years and is such a culmination of interests, there are many direct and indirect influences, but among them are Lolita, The Well by Elizabeth Jolley, Kafka’s diaries, John Cheever’s diaries, pretty much everything by Janet Frame, Specimen Days by Michale Cunningham, Brazil (movie), Slaughterhouse Five, Welt am Draht (German ‘70s miniseries), and the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2013. And probably watching a lot of Star Trek Next Generation as a kid.
I can see how Janet Frame and Kurt Vonnegut influenced Spectre, but it has its own orientation and draws on your experiences as well. Your travels to Scotland, for the Edinburgh International Book Festival and besides, for example. But this entailed a financial burden—you were there for five months or so? How did this impact the novel, and what advice can you offer to writers considering travel as research?
Yes, and then I went back while editing it. The novel would not exist without me having been on those trips, or it wouldn’t be the same novel, anyway. Much of the tissue of it formed and connected on that 2013 trip—all the settings in the novel, for example, are places I’ve been to, or near places I’ve been to. I even worked in a guesthouse, and based some of Leonora’s tasks at the inn around that. And many of Edinburgh International Book Fest sessions I went to inspired threads, from Jeff’s interest in Caravaggio to the details of the technology itself. I think every writer will have different methods and every work will demand different prep, research, absorption. I have written other stories set in places I’ve never been, or that I only went to once as a kid. I certainly wouldn’t recommend getting yourself into as much of a debt-hole as I did, but for better or worse I often follow my instincts.
Your instincts lead you to Jeff and Leonora, who are remarkably striking characters that have, for me, lingered. Where did each of them come from?
I’m so glad they have lingered, but then that makes me feel a bit like Jeff, when that pleases me so much. I think I was exploring that in some ways—the terrible power of the author, to invade someone’s mind for a while. Books are my life, and yet the novel may display some ambivalence about that? It doesn’t feel like something I chose, but an inevitability. Jeff is, too, an amalgamation of men I have known, loved, befriended, as well as characters in books and films, and he’s an interrogation of the ways I have related to, and given time to and given myself over to, men like this. Also, I thought it would be a great challenge to write someone unreliable, as I’m a very honest person. There are also parts of me in Jeff, naturally. Leonora was the harder character to write, because I liked her. She came out of the ground in Scotland. I wanted to write a woman coming of age, someone who already inhabits her body, her environment, who (and this was a narrative challenge) wants nothing (but is curious), with the tension then being that she is removed from the situation in which she is content, full, happy and open.
Unreliable Jeff and likeable Leonara’s cross-epoch union is made by possible by a fascinating device—a piece of futuristic technology that allows the user to connect to the mind of a person in the past, to be them. Where did it come from?
Versions of neuro-nano-tech have appeared in my work—an early short film, short stories, unpublished manuscripts—since I was young. I’m fascinated by neuroscience and also psychology, and in the rapid changes in neuroscience and bioscience more generally because of technology. How can we so radically alter an organ we barely understand? I’m also fascinated by perception. Someone is convinced they have seen a ghost—science says there must be an explanation, but even if there is, the emotional imprint, the response, of the individual can’t be dismissed. With mental illness, the concrete world or ‘reality’ as we may call it, can be distorted or differently perceived. The body can feel different in space. Time can feel different. These are all things I will continue to explore.
Is this what led you to their settings—to the future and the past?
I like to think about how we are already living in the ‘future’, how we accept and absorb rapid technological progress (and absurd political and social shifts), so setting something in the near future was a way to explore the consequences of flawed humans having extreme abilities through tech. The nineteenth century was also a time of rapid change, but again with contrasts of scientific progress and social conservatism. In both eras I am interested in how it feels to be there, in a body, particularly as a woman.
The various reactions to Jeff—a flawed human with an extreme tech-facilitated ability—have been fascinating. His dying honesty makes him seem ugly in many ways; he reveals how damaged he is, and how much damage he has caused. But there is something entirely normal about him. What drove the complexity of this character?
You’re right. He’s a normal, self-absorbed man, with fears, desires, obsessions. I’m interested in his context: someone growing up now, the normalisation of selfishness, of the self as deserving, and the war this creates within the mind. And still, despite much progress, Jeff’s inability to see women as whole people—there’s a block there, which is again from his context (and that doesn’t excuse it—men who don’t engage with the ways they are shaped and privileged by the structures they live in … well, the commentary is within the novel itself!).
A Superior Spectre is ambitious, it defies neat categorisation and poses questions with complex answers. But this made it a risk—one that many publishers weren’t willing to take. I’m certainly glad, as are many others, that Ventura did. What drove you to publication, despite the risk?
Because it was the best thing I have written, and I (and my agent) pushed on, hoping the right publisher would come along. I think if writers ever thought about the risk they were taking (in writing something that perhaps defies neat categorisation, in a marketing or product sense) then nothing good would be written. I had to write the story I felt compelled to write, and hope there was a place for it. And it took time, but it happened. Peter Bishop Books/Ventura has been the perfect fit—they loved it and they haven’t forced it to be anything but what it is.
You can purchase A Superior Spectre from Ventura Press.
Jay Anderson is a professional writer and editor, with a background in Literary and Cultural Studies. He’s currently completing an Honours of creative writing at Curtin University—where he is the Chief Editor of the campus’ student publication, Grok Magazine.