Sofie Laguna, author
When you’re writing a novel you’ve got this secret world you can escape to and channel all of your anxieties, anger and your outrage, it’s almost therapeutic ...
Sofie Laguna knows a thing or two about multi-tasking. In between her full-time role as a mother to two young boys, she wrote her second novel The Eye of the Sheep, which was recently awarded Australia’s top fiction prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award. The Weekend Edition Gold Coast caught up with Sofie for a virtual chat ahead of her visit to sunny Queensland for the Byron Bay Writers Festival.
Firstly, huge congratulations on winning the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award! That must have felt pretty amazing?
It was fantastic but it was pretty unexpected so I really don’t think I was prepared! Part of me wants to do it all again and be ready. You know when something so overwhelming happens it’s almost as if you’re not quite there, you’re in a daze?
What would you do differently?
If I could be more prepared I could take it all in more and have a better speech ready. My husband told me not to prepare a speech because I’d tempt fate.
So you didn’t have a few sneaky words prepared?
No, which is actually really unlike me. I’m an organised person but I really didn’t think there was a chance. It’s a difficult position to be in and it’s stressful in its own way. Part of you is really resistant to letting yourself think that you’d won it so I think preparing a speech is difficult for everybody on a short list who doesn’t know.
Your win has been hailed a welcome change for Australia’s top literature prize by virtue of the fact that you’re not a man and your novel isn’t focused on history and national identity. How do you feel about that sentiment?
I feel really excited, I think for the past couple of years there has been a bit of a change but I am thrilled to be part of a new direction for the prize, both for women, importantly, but also perspectives. The central voice in my novel is the voice of a young boy, which is one that hasn’t traditionally featured heavily so it’s refreshing to see new tales being told.
Do you feel that women have been underrepresented in Australia’s literary awards?
The Miles Franklin has traditionally focused on national identity and men’s voices which is ironic considering Miles Franklin was actually a woman, a radical thinker and a progressive. The Stella Prize really brought to my awareness how marginalised women’s writing really is. Even in a country like ours where we have every kind of privilege, we’re still not getting the same space as men are. Without even realising it we all buy into a system that does negate the power of women’s voices. It’s great to see that changing across the board.
What can you tell us about the piece that won you the honour, The Eye of the Sheep?
It’s a story about a small boy called Jimmy Flick who lives in Altona with his parents. Looked at from the outside, his world is a challenging one because his dad drinks to cope with his past and to cope with a boy like Jimmy who he struggles to connect with at times, especially since Paula, Jimmy’s mum, is such a dominant force in Jimmy’s life. Jimmy’s dad becomes violent but having said that, I’ve never thought for one minute that the story is essentially about domestic violence. The story is about Jimmy and how he understands his world in all its beauty and its horror. There has been an emphasis on that part of the story and I am pleased if I am contributing in any way to some kind of positive change but the book is about a boy called Jimmy and his wonderful way of seeing, relating and loving.
As you’ve just mentioned, the book touches on some fairly heavy themes of family dysfunction, social disadvantage and a mother’s love. What inspired you to write The Eye of the Sheep?
It’s funny because the character of Jimmy has been with me for over ten years, I wrote a radio play many years ago starring Pete Flick who I always wanted to investigate into childhood. I quickly learnt that the character of Jimmy was a very different story to Pete but even all those years ago there was something that stuck with me. It’s a mystery to a writer where these things come from, I suppose we wouldn’t be able to write if it wasn’t. I never set out to explore any specific themes, I just sat down and I allowed these things to come up. I don’t think I approached the violence in any kind of conventional way, the father is not a villain, he’s a goodie and I love him, I don’t judge him. Of course I abhor the behaviour but I never want him to be irredeemable.
You’re a mother to two young boys, how hard is it to find uninterrupted time to write?
That wasn’t the hard bit for me. I know that seems strange and no one believes it or relates to it but for me, that’s not the hard bit. My son was about 18-months when I began so I just squeezed it in when he was having a sleep.
So, what was the hard bit?
Being tired a lot of the time and not having time to potter and read novels. There was no spare time. Being a parent is always at the top and whether I should admit this or not, the novel is a side project. It’s a big side project but of course my priority is the wellbeing of these kids. Because you have limited time, it sharpens your focus and puts pressure on the quality of the writing.
You must work well under pressure?
Yes, put it this way, no publisher has ever had to give me a deadline. I like to work in short furious bursts and I don’t mind noise. When you’re writing a novel you’ve got this secret world you can escape to and channel all of your anxieties, anger and your outrage, it’s almost therapeutic.
Prior to One Foot Wrong and The Eye of the Sheep you wrote a series of children’s books. Which audience is harder to write for, kids or adults?
It’s not really the audience that decides whether a book is hard to write or not, it’s other things. You might have issues with plot or issues with your own interest but it’s not the age of the reader that makes it difficult. It is lovely to have an adult readership because you can swear and put in rude things.
When you start writing a novel do you already have the whole thing planned out or is it a bit of a moving feast?
I like a plan. I definitely like to know where I am going. I don’t write into the void, I hate that.
Let’s rewind a bit, before becoming an author and a playwright, you were studying to be a lawyer and then trained to be an actor. What led you to writing?
I always loved writing in school, I always kept a journal and I always read but my great dream was to be an actress so I left university to work as an actor and then study drama. I didn’t think I’d be a writer but then the reality of an acting life is very challenging, there’s lots of unemployment, so I started writing on the side to provide some structure in my life. After a particularly challenging year working in children’s theater I decided to pay more attention to the writing. I wrote a children’s manuscript and submitted it to about five publishers and got an offer. Since then I haven’t looked back.
You’re coming up for Byron Bay Writers Festival and are taking part in many of the sessions. Are there any events in particular that you’re excited to see?
Oh gosh, it’s so tricky because I am managing so much publicity, a baby who is teething and a four year old who has to get school ready, I am lucky just to know what time I have to arrive at the airport! I’m really looking forward to meeting my fellow panelists Hanny Rayson and Michael Robotham, I just read Hello Beautiful: Scenes From a Life so I feel like I know Hanny and I am going to go and get Michael’s latest book.