What motivates an author? (SWF, Post II)

I know that a lot of people may be surprised to hear this, but before this Sydney Writers Festival session entitled "Cassandra Clare's Underworld" I had never heard of Cassandra Clare or the Mortal Instruments series.

The truth is that I only went to this session of the Sydney Wrtiers Festical because I slept in (as a result of the horrible week at work I had had), and so by the time I got to the festival the event that I wanted to see had sold out and the queues to the other events were too long.

In short, "Cassandra Clare's Underworld" was the only event left that I could be certain of getting a seat at.

Although it wasn't something that I intended to see, I really enjoyed it. The books themselves, I have to admit, still don't appeal to me. YA vampire books just aren't my thing (ok ok, unless its Twilight and then I'm guilty as charged).

What did I enjoy about the discussion if the books don't appeal to me (I hear you ask)? There were two things:

The first is that I gained a real insight into an author's motivation for writing their book. Cassandra Clare was a really interesting lady. She explained how her idea for writing the Mortal Instruments series arose both out of her interest in mythology and how it can be used in modern writing to create story, and secondly out of her interest in 'urban exploration'. Urban exploration is the practice of exploring unknown parts of cities, like underground tunnels and abandoned buildings. Cassandra explained how she became very passionate about this past time, and indeed travelled around different areas of the world practising it. She went on to explain how she conceived the idea of a group of people living in the underworld of a city, that is, in those areas that are not known to the vast majority of a city's inhabitants. Cassandra then used her interest in mythology to conceive of a certain group of people who became the characters that lived in this underworld.

No doubt I am simplifying her creative process, but I hope that you understand where I am coming from.

I don't think that I am a particularly creative person, and so I was fascinated with this insight into the creative process behind a book. Imagination is a powerful tool and one that many adults lack. I can't help but admire someone who can use their own passions and interests to activate their imagination and create a story that thousands of people can come to love and appreciate.

The second aspect of this session that I enjoyed seeing was the number of teenagers who were there and were actively participating in the discussion by asking Cassandra Clare questions and talking amoungst themselves about the various things that she said.

In my line of work, I am constantly amazed by the number of adults who can get through 10 years of education and still can't read or write.

I believe that reading for leisure (as well as for educational purposes) significantly contributes to literacy skills, especially during childhood, and so it was very encouraging to see younger people really engaging with a story and wanting to see and talk to the author.

Up Next

"The Big Reading" – A group of 5 international authors (Kei Miller, Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell, Téa Obreht and Kader Abdolah) reading from their works and the award ceremony for the Sydney Morning Herald's Best Young Author Prize.

Post I: "The good and the bad of writers festivals"

Do you give much consideration to the author's motivation before, after or while you are reading your book? Do you think that giving the author's motivation some consideration can give you a better understanding of the book itself? Or even make a book you didn't connect with more interesting?

Document Z by Andrew Croome (Australian)

As naive as this is no doubt, I have never imagined Australia having much of a political underbelly, so to speak. I know from my own professional experience that there is often more going on underground in society than we imagine, but political espionage and spying isn't something that I immediately associate with Australia. Who could possibly be that interested in a country like ours and what could be interested in about other country's secret political 'going ons'?

Andrew Croome's Vogel Prize winning (2008) novel, Document Z, certainly gave me some insight into this question. It is centred around the Petrov Affair, an incident in Australian history that took place in 1953, deep into the Cold War era. Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov were Russian diplomats, who came to work at the Russian Embassy in Canberra in 1951 and both of whom were functioning as spies for their motherland, albeit in different capacities. When Stalin passes away in 1953, Vladimir defects from Australia without his wife's knowledge – leaving her to make an almost impossible decision about what step she should take in response to her husband's actions.

My knowledge of the Petrov Affair was shamefully limited. Non-existent in fact. Although Document Z was a fictionalised account of their story, I learnt a lot about a rather dramatic and important incident in Australia's political history.

I saw Andrew Croome speak about this book at a Sydney Writers Festival event a year of two ago and at the time I greatly admired his enthusiasm for his subject and the lengths that he had gone to research the Petrovs, including listening to secret recordings made of the couple which are still available to be listened to in the National Library (from memory). His enthusiasm was infectious at the time and so I was very much looking forward to reading the book.

Document Z seems to be creating detailed portraits of the players in the Petrov Affair. We learn a lot about Vladimir (or 'Volodya' as he is referred to throughout most of the book) and Evdokia and about their relationship. There is Michael Biogulski, a Polish emigrant doctor who spies for both sides of the political fence according to whatever suits him best, and to whom Vladimir eventually shares his intention to defect. We see ASIO's spy network in action through Michael Howley, who assists in the defection.

Whilst I appreciated what Croome was trying to achieve in writing this book, and whilst I feel as though I learnt a lot in a short period of time about a point in Australia's political history I previously knew nothing about, I never really connected with this book.

The plot was rather too slow for my taste. In my view, it was the death of Stalin that really instigated the political events that ultimately lead to Vladimir Petrov seeking political asylum in Australia, and until this event occurs in the book, little else happened. Although Croome spends a long time really trying to get inside the various players in the Petrov Affair, I didn't connect with any of the characters and couldn't really identify with them in any real way. Their experience was so far from my own that whilst I could appreciate what life must have been like for them on an intellectual level, my emotions were left unaffected. This, combined with the lack of action until towards the end of the book, meant that although I enjoyed reading the book, it never really drew me in.

Image from Wikipedia
There was nothing political about it. There was no underlying message. There was no real sense of drama. Croome produced a well written book, but also a book that didn't go out on any limbs. I think that it would have been a better book if Croome had taken more risks somehow or been a bit edgier.

The one aspect of this entire Petrov Affair that I was fascinated by was the experience of Evdokia Petrov. You will see that in the body of this post I have inserted an image of Evdokia Petrov being escorted to a plane by armed Soviet Guards following the defection of her husband. Evdokia Petrov was being forcibly removed from Australia, to return to Russia to face punishment for her husband's actions – an event which sparked anti-Communist demonstrations throughout Australia I believe, and certainly at the airport from which she was leaving. In her final moments in Australia, she was then forcibly removed from the Soviet Guards by ASIO and made the agonising decision to defect alongside her husband.

It is her story that I find the most fascinating element of the entire Petrov Affair, purely on a personal, rather than political, level. What was she thinking? How did she feel? What thoughts were going through her mind? In the image you can see how close to collapse she seems – with her hand on her heart, one shoe missing and an agonised expression on her face. If Document Z had been solely from her perspective I think I may have had a stronger emotional response to the story, but then it would have been a completely different story altogether.

5.5 / 8 Enjoyable and well written. Worth reading if you have the opportunity but there's no need to prioritise it unless you have a particular interest in learning about an important incident in Australian political history.  

I would love to know what you thought of this book if you have read it. Were you able to identify with any of the characters? How much do you rely on the truth of the history contained in books that fictionalise true historial events like this one?