Kate Grenville was born in Sydney and worked in the film industry after graduating from university. She lived and travelled in Europe and the United States for several years and has a Masters degree in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado. Since 1982 she has again been living in Australia where she is regarded with affection and respect as one of our most talented writers. Lilian'S Story won the Australian/Vogel Award in 1984.
Kate Grenville is also the author of Bearded Ladies,Dreamhouse and Joan Makes History, as well as of the non-fiction works, The Writing Book and Making Stories with Sue Woolfe. Kate Grenville has two young children and continues to write fiction.
What are you reading now?
An obscure volume called The Life of Thomas Mann, Honest Waterman of St-Katherine-by-the-Tower. This is background research into my not-very-honest waterman ancestor Solomon Wiseman who's the basis of my next book.
What's your favourite book of all time?
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen—one of the most perfectly formed & perfectly funny books of all time.
When did you first start writing?
When I was 8 my story Trapped by the Tide was read out to 3A at North Sydney Demonstration School. When I was 16 I sent a short story to the Womens Weekly, and got my first "we read with interest, but..." slip. In my mid-twenties I wrote two very bad autobiographical novels which, fortunately and not surprisingly, didn't find a publisher. My first published story was in Southerly (the University of Sydney literary magazine) when I was 30. Four years later, University of Queensland Press took a punt and published Bearded Ladies, my first book, a collection of stories.
What writers have influenced your work?
Jane Austen, of course, for her ability to see the world in a microcosm, and her irony. Virginia Woolf, for making prose into music. Patrick White, for showing us that you didn't have to write about the Northern Hemisphere—our own Australian landscape and society was just as rich a source of all human experience, both good and bad.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Three places: life, life, and life. I keep a notebook to grab those fleeting wonders that life produces every day. My books always come from something about life that I don't understand, something I wonder about and keep on wondering. The books are my way of thinking my way into the problem to try to work it out. They're big vague problems—with The Idea of Perfection, I couldn't understand about perfection—it seemed something we all hankered after, but it also seems impossible—so should we go on trying for it, or try for something else instead? So I don't start with anything as coherent as "ideas", really—just a whole lot of questions.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I read every Biggles book I could get (about 60, in the end). I wore out my copies of the Swallows and Amazons books. And I loved the Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown stories.
What was your first job?
In the milk bar on the concourse at Central Railway. It was a Uni holiday job. I had no idea that feet could ache that much after 8 hours of standing behind a counter. And I've never been able to look at a milkshake from that day to this.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to write, but I didn't know any writers, so I didn't know you could be a writer when you grew up. I knew I'd rather be dead than be a schoolteacher, but beyond that the future was a scary blank.
What are the best things about being a writer?
Being able to set my own work hours, so I can accommodate my work to family life. Sitting down at the desk and turning a problem around and around, coming at it this way, then that way, then ripping the whole thing up and starting again—that's the most satisfying thing I've ever done. Finally writing a paragraph—even a sentence—that has life in it, is a great feeling when it happens.
What are the worst thing about being a writer?
Self-doubt is the great enemy—most of the time, every sentence I write looks like a dead loss (that's why I do so many drafts). No one can help you much with your writing, because even you yourself don't know what you're trying to do until you've done it. If you could explain the problem well enough to ask advice about it, you wouldn't really need advice.
Because you don't have set work hours (or a set salary), it's hard to 'switch off' completely. There's always that slight uneasy feeling that you should be back at the desk hammering away at page 73 again.
When you're not writing what do you do?
Mostly I 'm with the kids—going to the beach, going for picnics, gardening, just hanging around at home. I'm learning to play the cello and once in a while I get together with friends and make music (actually, they make music, I make interesting discords)—Mozart, Beethoven, Glinka—we'll give anything a go.
If you could invite five people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be?
I think a bit of networking among women writers would be fun:
Sappho, Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, Eleanor Dark and E.Annie Proulx.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
My mother, for being such a terrific role model as a woman—a wonderful mother, a seeker after knowledge, a problem-solver—at all times, a woman with a project. Both my parents, for bringing me up to believe anything was possible, even becoming a writer.
What's your work in progress about?
My convict ancestor, Solomon Wiseman of Wiseman's Ferry in Sydney. He was a colourful and enigmatic character, a fascinating mixture of snob and primitive, of loving father and man of rage, of victim and tyrant. His story is a way into some of that early Australian history that in many ways feels like "unfinished business". I want to go around behind some of our easy cliches about the "pioneers" and have a good look at what was really going on.