It is a pleasure to welcome Karen Manton to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews for A Tea Break with Mrs B, a author interview series. To help celebrate the release of The Curlew’s Eye we sat down for a chat. Thanks Karen!
What is your drink of choice as we sit down for a chat about your new book?
Coffee – strong, no milk.
Can you give us a little insight into your achievements as a writer to date?
I’ve won five short story awards with the NT Literary Awards; and have short stories published in a number of anthologies – for example Best Australian Stories, Review of Australian Fiction, Award Winning Australian Writers, Landmarks.
I’ve been fortunate to go to Varuna Writers House – with a Longlines Masterclass, the Eleanor Dark Flagship Residency, and the Arts NT Varuna residency. The support of Arts NT and Varuna have been really important in my being able to write and develop stories.
Can you tell us what inspired the creation of your new book, The Curlew’s Eye?
I was very struck by the curlew’s cry from the moment I came to the Top End. It’s a sound that always moves me and calls me to ruminate. I think the landscape here is very powerful too, awe-inspiring and intriguing. Rocks, cycads, water, the sky and its storms, the presence of birds – I love them and I think they are always at work in me. I also never forgot a friend telling me about a dam on the property where she lived, with water that was totally clear but toxic. That image stayed with me, brooding.
So I think the environment inspired the book in many ways, and wanting to explore how it engages with people in their everyday lives, especially with someone who is a stranger to a place. You’re both vulnerable and open to the environment in a different way when you don’t know a place yet, when you’ve come in as a recent visitor.
There’s many settler stories about ‘conquering’ the NT – being tough, surviving, managing vast properties, heat, animals, isolation, submitting a place to human will. I wanted to bring to light people who aren’t necessarily fitting that image, to follow a character who is there almost by accident, discovering by osmosis the world around her, conversing with it, at times fearing and yet being fascinated by it, appreciating it, realising that it’s calling her to sit with her inner landscape and revisit places she thinks she’s left behind.
What is the significance of the title to the book?
I’ve had several encounters with curlews that made an impression on me. The way they stop and stare at you is very strong, even though it’s such a vulnerable looking creature. It reminds me of the sayings ‘the eye is the window to the soul’ and ‘the eye of a friend is the best mirror’. In the book the curlew has a connection with Greta, it’s looking into her and calling her to see into the hearts of those around her and herself.
What are the main themes in The Curlew’s Eye?
Family, returning, a second coming of age in adulthood – on an emotional and psychological level, listening to the unspoken, learning to carry what you can’t bear to hold.
It’s also about the circle of life and death; and how the living and the dead engage with each other.
Where did the inspiration for the characters of Greta and Joel come from?
Life, with all its twists and turns, mixed in with images, dreams, imagination.
Characters come to me slowly, they present themselves but then it can take years to bring them in, to knit them into their story, what they tell, what they don’t; they follow a line of their own I have to discover.
I’m interested in the vulnerable elements in people, their courage to face those, and how they engage with life and the places they’re living in.
Can you give us an insight into the setting of The Curlew’s Eye?
I love the Top End environment – the rocks in all their ancient formations, cycads and pandanus, the way water is so visible in the wet and hidden in the dry, the vast sky with its clouds and storms, the paperbarks and other trees, the birds.
The setting is a collage of various environments and landscapes, rather than a real point on a map. The town has the feeling of many different small towns – although there’s a few features triggered by places where I’ve spent time – my ode to them! Same with the property where Joel and Greta live — its environment is a conglomeration, not one place, though it’s distinctly Top End NT.
I wanted to keep the setting in an imaginary context, with that uncanny sense a dream has, where things might be familiar but not quite right according to the real world somehow – you recognise a building or a feature, but it’s in the wrong place, and has changed shape or colour. Or elements of nature are side by side when in the real world they never would be.
Is there anything surprising you discovered from the process of writing The Curlew’s Eye?
How many different ways you can write a story; and how even after it’s ‘finished’ it keeps going in your mind
What is one thing that you really hope readers will take away from the experience of reading The Curlew’s Eye?
I hope people can connect with it in some way, find some meaning that is relevant to them.
How will you celebrate the release of your first novel?
There’s a book launch in September at my favourite café The Lucky Bat, with fellow writers and friends Cate Kennedy and Mary Anne Butler launching it – though Cate will have to join us by Zoom on a big screen! Champagne, pizza, wine! But most of all I’m looking forward to celebrating with the company of friends who’ve been so supportive all these years. I wish my family could be here, but they’re in lockdown, so they’ll have to watch from afar. I hope we can get together in the near future to celebrate.
What writers have inspired you along the way to publication?
Many, too many to mention! Some of the works of these authors have inspired me over many years:
Angela Carter, Randolph Stowe, Jeanette Winterson, Ben Okri, Gail Jones, Alice Munro, Guillermo Arriaga, Patrick White, Marilynne Robinson, Andrea Levy, Svetlana Alexievich, Toni Morrison, Sebastian Barry, Dermot Healy, Eowyn Ivey, Judith Wright, Kobayashi Issa, Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Philip Hodgins, Henry James, Gillian Mears, Alice Sebold, Sonya Hartnett, Cate Kennedy, Tim Winton, Tara June Winch, Maria Takolander, TS Eliot, David Park, Barbara Baynton, Warwick Thornton, Paul Laverty, David Malouf, Tony Birch, Leo Tolstoy, Jean Tardieu, Nikolai Gogol, Eugene Ionesco, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry Lawson, Chaucer, Antoine Saint-Exupéry, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jean Anouilh, Sophocles, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, Herman Hesse, Paulo Coehlo, Pablo Neruda.
Fellow writers and people in the writing world I know or have met who’ve urged me on over the years, either by being with me along the journey, or in a one-off conversation that kept me going when I might have given up – among them Leah Swann, Mary Anne Butler, Cate Kennedy, Peter Bishop, Jill Morris, Terri Janke, Marie Munkara, Gillian Mears, Jennifer Mills, Bronwyn Mehan, Dani Powell, Fiona Dorrell.
What book or books do you recommend that I add to my reading pile?
At the moment I’m enjoying Night Blue by Angela O’Keefe.
When you are not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
Spending time with my children, walking with our dogs, being in the bush, reading poetry, playing violin in a laid-back string group, listening to music, train rides, forests, having a coffee and conversation with a good friend, watching storms, walking on a wild beach, sitting on a rock watching waves or a river.
What are you working on writing wise at present?
I have a couple of manuscripts in the wings, one of those is calling me. Also several notebooks full of thoughts, story kernels and threads I’m keen to revisit, as well as blank pages waiting for my pen – I’ll see where they take me!
Thank you for the lovely tea break and chat Karen. Congratulations on the release of your new book, The Curlew’s Eye.
A richly atmospheric Gothic mystery set around a ruined homestead in the NT’s Top End.
‘It struck her that in all these years, every highway and meandering track they’d taken together had been heading towards this destination. A shack perched halfway up a hill in an other-world of bizarre shadow plants and dark sentinel trees . . . Every road had been leading here, to this place.’
Greta’s partner Joel grew up with five brothers and a sister in a feisty household on an isolated NT property. But he doesn’t talk about those days – not the deaths of his sister and mother, nor the origin of the scars that snake around his body.
Now, many years later, he returns with Greta and their three young boys to prepare the place for sale. The boys are quick to settle in, and Joel seems preoccupied with work, but Greta has a growing sense of unease, struggling in the build-up’s oppressive heat and living in the shadow of the old, burned-out family home. She knows she’s a stranger in this uncanny place, with its eerie and alluring landscape, hostile neighbour, and a toxic dam whose clear waters belie its poison. And then there’s the mysterious girl living rough whom Greta tries to befriend.
Determined to make sense of it all, Greta is drawn into Joel’s unspoken past and confronted by her own. Before long the curlew’s haunting cry will call her to face the secrets she and Joel can no longer outrun.
The Curlew’s Eye by Karen Manton was published on 14th September 2021 by Allen and Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.