26th November, 2021

In conversation with BOTY shortlisted author: Kirsten Krauth

Holly from The Small Press Network recently chatted to Kirsten Krauth, author of the 2021 shortlisted BOTY title Almost a Mirror. Kirsten Krauth is a writer and podcaster based in Castlemaine. Almost a Mirror, published in 2020, was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize and named by The Guardian in ’The Best 20 Australian Books of 2020’.

Like fireflies to the light, Mona, Benny and Jimmy are drawn into the elegantly wasted orbit of the Crystal Ballroom and the post-punk scene of 80s Melbourne, a world that includes Nick Cave and Dodge, a photographer pushing his art to the edge. With precision and richness, Kirsten Krauth hauntingly evokes the power of music to infuse our lives, while diving deep into loss, beauty, innocence and agency. Filled with unforgettable characters, the novel is above all about the shapes that love can take and the many ways we express tenderness throughout a lifetime.

Q: What was the writing process like for this book? Where did the book emerge from?

A: When I started Almost a Mirror, I was interested in photographs of teenage girls in the 70s and 80s. I wanted to write from the perspective of a naked teenager and have her step out of the frame. I liked the idea of continuing her story in the contemporary world where she had become a photographer herself, taking pics of her son. As I looked into photography more, I encountered the work of Rennie Ellis in St Kilda and visited the Crystal Ballroom to do some research. I became fascinated with this venue and era of Australian music and the early days of Nick Cave and The Birthday Party in particular. The process of writing was one of joy and excitement and I enjoyed interviewing many of the musicians from the scene.

Q: How heavily was the book influenced by your own life?

A: All the characters have aspects of my experience and personality, but like all writers, I work to carefully shape this into something new. I wasn’t a part of the Ballroom era but I did share the experience of growing up as a teenager in Melbourne about a decade later. I had a passion for the New Romantic bands like Kids in the Kitchen and I had a bungalow out the back of my house where I slept and these were starting points for the character Mona. I was also interested in looking at being a mother and parenting, and creating art, and how those experiences you have in relationships as a teenager branch out and extend tendrils decades later. All of those aspects were close to home.

Q: The book is non-linear and jumps back and forth from the 2010s to the ’80s, what made you decide on this format? What does it represent for the book?

A: After I read Sarah Sentilles’ groundbreaking Draw Your Weapons, I interviewed her for The Saturday Paper, and I learnt more about her process of writing fragments and sorting and distilling them. I thought it was such an effective and fascinating way to write that suited me, so I set up working on Almost a Mirror the same way. I decided to structure the book as a mixtape of 80s song (44 in total) where each episode revolves around a song – Total Control, Wide Open Road, Into the Groove, a few examples. In each chapter/song I tried to capture the mood of the song, the lyrics, the video clip through characterisation and atmosphere – a type of ekphrasis. I also thought this fragmentary approach was a good way to explore narrative in terms of memory. Life and how we remember key moments doesn’t work in a linear way.

Q: The book deals with a lot of dark themes such as suicide, abortion and drug addiction, how did you navigate writing about these topics that are still very much present in today’s society?

A: I do tend to explore dark themes in my work. Writing for me is always about trying to work out moments in my life, or moments I’ve heard about from friends and family, or strangers, that disturb me on some deep soul-level and that I haven’t been able to let go of. These kinds of stories don’t leave me alone until I process them through writing. I believe writing comes from the body and that’s the place I start when I sit down, exploring emotional resonance. I have been close to suicide, abortion, drug addiction. But I’m also interested in writing about recovery, the healing process, and I think making art can be a way to work through grief.

Part of the story follows the post-punk scene of the 80s in Melbourne, and references lots of places and musicians popular at the time, have a lot of readers who experienced that time reached out to you and said that the book resonated with them?

Yes, this has been the most wonderful aspect of writing Almost a Mirror. When it was initially released into those first weeks of lockdown, there was a sense of despair because all the bookstores had closed, and launches and festivals were cancelled. But many in lockdown took the chance to go down memory lane, to listen to the music from their teens and early 20s, and to read. I had so many beautiful responses especially from people who were a part of the Ballroom scene because it was often a time where these kinds of people felt like they belonged for the first time (in a culture that could be conformist). It’s been quite emotional for me reading those responses at times when people have shared their own histories and memories. Someone I interviewed for the book and podcast said he felt that lockdown had forced on men of his generation a kind of reckoning: where am I at and what have I achieved compared to my dreams when I was at the Ballroom? So this was a confronting aspect of the book as well.

Q: When writing the book what did you hope the reader would get out of the experience?

A: I always hope the reader will engage on some kind of sensory, visual, level – that they will feel like they are there, whether that’s in the audience at a Birthday Party gig, or holding sparklers at a birthday party for a teenage girl. When readers say they finished the book, went off and listened to the playlist on Apple Music or Spotify, and then read it again as the music was playing, that’s my ideal reader! The music is so intricately entwined. But I don’t see the book as primarily nostalgia. It’s as much about the contemporary world and how we are shaped by memories and how we shape them too to tell ourselves the stories we need to hear.

Q: You have started an ‘Almost a mirror podcast’ that has reached #2 on the Australian Apple Music Podcast charts. Where did the idea for the podcast begin?

A: Yes, that was unexpected! When the book was launched into Covid, I was looking for another avenue to explore the research I had done around pop and post-punk songs for the novel – interviewing musicians like Mick Harvey and Robert Forster for example – and I applied for funding and got a fellowship to do postdoctoral research from the University of Canberra. I’ve chosen the Australian song chapters in the novel and focused each podcast episode on a particular song. I’m currently working on (I’m) Stranded by The Saints and the first two released episodes are about Zoo Music Girl and Nick the Stripper by The Birthday Party. Upcoming episodes include Wide Open Road, Send Me an Angel and Boys in Town, so it’s a real mix. Each episode has a reading of the book intertwined with a new version of the song by some of Australia’s top musicians including Adalita and Amanda Brown. It’s been an incredibly exciting way to combine cultural history and voices from the time – musicians, fans, punters – with documentary and fiction, combined with a soundtrack. For a writer, incorporating all these elements into storytelling and collaboration with musicians and sound designers was a great way to get through the lockdown. Cellist and composer Zoe Barry (who just won an ARIA Award for Best Music Teacher today!) and I will be performing Wide Open Road at the awards ceremony, looping in the voice of Inga Liljestrom, so it will give an idea of the soundtrack and the themes we are exploring.

ALMOST A MIRROR – THE PODCAST. Listen to the Podcast. https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/almost-a-mirror/id1586500703

Listen to the Soundtrack. https://almostamirror.bandcamp.com

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