Charlotte Wood interview: The girls they punished for saying too much

The greatest shock of the Australian writer’s new novel about a misogynistic dystopia is that it is based on a real girls’ home from the 1970s

Two women wake from a drugged sleep to find themselves in a broken-down property in the middle of a desert. They quickly discover that they – along with eight other women – have been imprisoned under the supervision of two unpredictable, vicious men. The women’s heads are shaved; they’re dressed in Amish-style outfits, shackled together and put to hard labour building a concrete road. In whispered conversations they figure out that before their incarceration, each of them was involved in a sexual scandal. One was raped by a group of footballers; another was assaulted while partying on a cruise ship.

Charlotte Wood's novel The Natural Way Of Things has created a sensation in her native Australia. It won this year's Stella Prize for women's fiction and has been shortlisted for the $60,000 Miles Franklin award. Now it is being published on this side of the globe. Is the author at all anxious about how her book will fare, out in the big bad world? "This is my fifth novel, and it's the first that has been taken up outside of Australia," she says. "I'll just be fascinated to see what people make of it."

The opening chapters have a dreamy intensity which reads like sci-fi crossed with nightmare. So it comes as a surprise to hear that the inspiration for the book was a radio documentary about the Hay Institution for Girls, a detention centre which actually existed in New South Wales in the 1960s and ’70s.

“It was a nasty, brutal place where girls were taken from another home called the Parramatta Girls Home. They were incarcerated there and brutalised beyond belief. I’ve learned since the book has come out that our whole country was filled with places like this,” says Wood.

“But the thing that wormed its way right into my head was that quite often, the girls in those homes had been assaulted or sexually molested in some way, and they told somebody about it. So the response was not to punish the perpetrator, or find out what had happened to these girls at the hands of men, but to punish them and lock them up.

“That seemed to me almost the cruellest thing – that they had asked for help and that they were then deemed to be a threat to our society and our culture, and had to be punished.”

Wood began to write a realistic book set back in the 1960s, but couldn’t make it take flight. “The writing was just dead on the page,” she says. “I was desperately trying all kinds of things to get the engine turning over. So I literally just thought, I’ll do the opposite. I won’t set it in the past. I’ll set it in the future – or some kind of future, or altered present. And as soon as I picked that time frame, possibilities started to come alive and the work took off.”

Language as a weapon against women

There is overt violence in The Natural Way of Things, but the most strikingly aggressive element is the way in which language is used as a weapon against the women, to debase and humiliate. While she was writing the novel, Wood says she developed a hyper-awareness of various sexual controversies that were hitting the headlines in Australia – as well as the high-profile clash between then prime minister Julia Gillard and leader of the opposition Tony Abbot.

What linked these very different stories, Wood realised, was the virulence of the vocabulary. Words and phrases such as “slut”, “fat slag” – and, in Gillard’s case, “ditch the bitch” – had become commonplace. “I haven’t based any of the characters of the girls on the real people involved, but I have taken the language that was used. And I think that when all those horrible expressions are put together in the way that I have, it has been very confronting for people.

“But it has struck a big note that I didn’t know it was going to strike here, among women and also, I have to say, among men. I’ve been so stunned at the positive response from men to this book. I get emails and messages every week from men saying how important the book is and that they want their sons to read it, or their grandsons. Which I’ve never had to any of my other books – which have had male protagonists, and have been a lot kinder towards men! So I think it’s the drawing of all these things together that has struck a chord.”

If the novel were merely a litany of misogynistic misery, nobody – of any gender – would want to read it. But Wood has created a group of strong female characters, and puts two of them at the centre of her story. Yolanda, the footballer's girlfriend, misses her cigarettes and her sexy clothes and her jewellery; Verla, the political intern, is haunted by lines from Walt Whitman's poem Leaves of Grass, given to her by the politician with whom she had a ruinous affair.

Faceless corporation

There is also a good deal of sly humour. The prison is run by a faceless corporation, Hardings International, whose slogan is "Dignity and Respect in a Safe and Secure Environment". The girls eat "bright orange gloop" and other delicacies – food is a favourite subject of Wood who, in 2012, published a book of essays called Love and Hunger.

And then there is the Australian bush. Vast, silent, oblivious, it emerged as a setting almost by accident; Wood wanted to place her novel somewhere remote, far from the possibility of external communication or interference. “But I also think that my subconscious was choosing a landscape that could have the possibility for beauty in it,” she says.

“Because the book is so dark, I needed there to be some sort of opportunity for light to leaven the darkness and lack of hope. And also, to give the girls an opportunity to get some sort of autonomy – literally, to start to go a bit wild. Personally I find the bush to be a very positive and redemptive force in my own life. I grew up in the country and spent quite a bit of time camping and driving across Australia and stuff like that. So I wanted there to be some possibility of redemption.”

She pauses, laughs. “Although a lot of people wouldn’t think that it’s a redemptive ending.” And that, dear reader, is something we’ll leave you to judge for yourself.

The Natural Way of Things is published by Allen & Unwin

Australian female writers: Four great novels

The Other Side of the World By Stephanie Bishop An English couple move from Cambridge to Perth in the early 1960s. She's a painter; he's Anglo-Indian. A vivid exploration of homesickness, identity and the vast, vast space that separates Us from Down Under.

Mullumbimby By Melissa Lucashenko An Aboriginal woman buys a rundown farm in Queensland and moves in with her teenage daughter – who's not impressed by the back of beyond. Hilarious, heartwarming, deeply rooted in an ancient landscape but alert to the twists and turns of contemporary indigenous life.

Foal's Bread By Gillian Mears This one dates from 2012, and it will be the last book from Mears, who died in May after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis. Set on the showjumping circuit in Australia before the second World War, it's a tough, bleak, beautiful examination of a family like no other.

Heat and Light By Ellen van Neerven Innovative collection of short stories from the young indigenous poet, divided into three sections – Heat, Water and Light – which range across time, space, kinship and the form of the story itself.

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