Melanie Joosten, Melbourne-based author of popular novel-turned-movie Berlin Syndrome [B2113] and note writer for CAE Book Groups, shares the challenges and the real-life inspirations behind her latest novel Gravity Well [B2272].
What inspired you to use the theory of gravity as a metaphor for relationships?
I really admire science writing – and particularly writing about astronomy – for the way complex ideas are conveyed in a way that is accurate and also fascinating. Space and physics are best described by math, which I only have a high-school understanding of, so I am reliant on those who can interpret it in a way that renders it intelligible but not simplistic.
I noticed that people writing about astronomy would often describe celestial bodies and planetary motions in poetic, almost romantic language, which lends itself well to writing novels and describing relationships.
How much research did you do while writing Gravity Well?
So much! It took me such a long time to write (the dreaded second novel!) and having a subject to research meant I could be working on the novel even when I had no idea what it would be about. I read books, visited observatories, watched films, studied constellations – and the whole time somewhere in my subconscious I was weaving together the strands of the story. Probably about five per cent of what I learned about astronomy (and sound, and genetics) ended up in the novel.
Gravity Well is such a cathartic and deeply moving novel. What were your major difficulties when writing the novel?
I wanted to write a quiet novel that explored how relationships change over time, and I wanted to write about people who were real – good people who didn’t mean to hurt those around them, but sometimes did. To my editor at the time I think that sounded like ‘a novel that would be incredibly boring and nothing would happen.’
So one of the challenges was to prove her wrong! I worried that if I were to write a brief synopsis of the novel it would sound sentimental and reductive. I didn’t want to write something that could be described derisively as ‘women’s fiction’ yet I was invested in wanting to write something quiet, domestic and un-sensational – and something that was about women’s friendships, which are often the most important of relationships.
As a mother to a young girl, were there any challenges when writing about Eve and her daughter Mina?
I actually finished writing the novel just before I had my first daughter. When I was editing it for publication twelve months later I was pleased to find that everything I had written about pregnancy and being a new mother felt right. In many ways I think it was easier to write about the early years of mothering before I experienced them because I was more open to imagining different feelings and outcomes rather than just sticking to my personal experience.
Gravity Well plays with shifting timelines and perspective throughout the novel, especially during emotionally climatic scenes. Was this intentional?
This was really difficult to pull off, but so important to me. I really love playing with structure and exploring what it is that novels can do that other mediums cannot. There are so many limitations to novels – they are essentially a long line of words running in a single direction to be read by one person at a time – but with those limitations also come possibilities, such as the ability to be deep inside characters’ heads but also view them from different perspectives.
There are a few structural and perspective tricks in Gravity Well that jolt the reader – this was intentional. It was a way of reminding readers that our first impressions are simply that – impressions – and everyone has a lot more going on below the surface. People are made up of every memory and experience we have ever had – the challenge when writing a novel is to communicate this complex mix of present and past even as the narrative marches forward.
Eve and Lotte’s friendship is one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. How did you come up with the two characters and their relationship to one another?
In the first few drafts Eve and Lotte did not even know each other. Originally, the novel was more about Lotte’s relationship with her parents, and particularly how she and her father got on after her mother’s death. But somehow the character of Eve, and the way the two women would relate became the focus. I think it is because I have such love and respect for the women I have deep friendships with – and they are friendships that have grown over many years when other relationships may have fallen by the wayside. I think the friendships women have with each other are some of the most important and sustaining to be found but we often take them for granted.
Can you tell us about some of your favourite books?
This changes all the time – some favourites (which I define as books that I keep on thinking about long after I have read them) from the last twelve months have been Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, What We Lose by Zinzi Clemons, Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles, Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Outline by Rachel Cusk and Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi.
What message do you hope that readers will take away from your novel?
That we are each so much more than we seem.
Melanie Joosten is a Melbourne-based writer, social worker and note writer for CAE Book Groups. She is author of the novels Berlin Syndrome [B2113] and Gravity Well [B2272], and the nonfiction essay collection A Long Time Coming: Essays on Old Age.
Melanie’s first novel, Berlin Syndrome (2011) saw her named as a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist and awarded the Kathleen Mitchell Award for Young Writers. Berlin Syndrome was released as a film in 2017 starring Teresa Palmer and Max Riemelt, with a screenplay by Shaun Grant and directed by Cate Shortland.