Today I am absolutely delighted to welcome Miles Franklin Literary Award winning author, Sofie Laguna to my blog.
Over the summer holidays, I read The Eye of the Sheep which won Australia’s most esteemed award in 2015, and was completely captivated by the originality and beauty of her language. So when Sofie’s name appeared on the 2018 Perth Writers Week program, it was an easy decision to attend. Sofie is as engaging in person as her words are on the page, traversing dark subject matter with a deft touch, laced with a therapeutic dose of humour.
After leaving the auditorium, I barely drew breath before picking up her latest novel, The Choke. Spoiler alert – I love this book. I’m like a child who has just discovered ice cream. The number 1 ticket holder for the Eagles, the Dockers, or Manchester United. I want to read everything she has written.
As soon as I finished reading, I penned my thoughts to capture how it made me feel, and invited Sofie to contribute to my blog. Contacting an author of Sofie’s calibre, (when I’m just me) is nerve wracking. So you can probably imagine how excited I was, when Sofie replied.
I hope you enjoy my review and Sofie’s generous insight into the genesis of both The Eye of the Sheep and The Choke.
Review of The Choke
The Choke is another haunting masterpiece by Australian author Sofie Laguna.
Told through the tender eyes of Justine, a young girl loved only by her chooks, it follows the treacherous path of Justine’s young life on the muddy banks of the Murray River.
Justine is raised by her war-torn Pop and when her itinerant father shows up, he teaches her just one thing. Violence.
Justine’s world is dangerous, made worse by her dyslexia. How can she find her way to safety if she can’t read the signs?
Laguna captures the naivety and innocence of Justine’s fragile voice so expertly that it’s easy to forget that this is a story and there is a page between you and Justine. There is nothing to separate reader from the character. With each sentence, I was on the farm, watching and listening as Justine talked to the chooks and ate the eggs.
At points, I needed to stop reading. Laguna’s hold on my emotions was too strong, like the grip of the banks on the Murray River itself. I needed to take a break, but not for long, as I wanted to see and hear Justine, to know her fate.
While incredibly dark and unsettling, Laguna also shines a light on the beauty of friendship, but most importantly, those children that slip through the cracks. She is their voice and protector, reminding us to keep them safe.
A corner of my mind with Sofie Laguna
I wrote the bulk of The Choke in 2016, but I first had the idea for the story seven years earlier. My boyfriend was in Europe and I was at home alone, when I thought What better time to watch a documentary about a female serial killer? It was Nick Broomfield’s film about Aileen Wuornos, and it devastated me.
Aileen’s childhood was impossible. I was outraged on her behalf; it didn’t seem there was any chance of hope for her. I couldn’t bear the feelings the film gave me. I wanted to write a book that might give that child a voice, and my own feelings a place.
‘I wanted to write a book that might give that child a voice…’
I decided, in my naivety, that I would set the book in America – my characters would be American, and I would follow my central character’s journey through to death row. I actually wrote scenes set in an American prison where my character would die. I saw Aileen as a child giving birth in the snow-covered American woods. I wrote scenes in those woods where she lived for a while, separated from her baby when she was thirteen. I had it all planned.
And then I got pregnant. The plans changed. I wrote instead, a series for children, Our Australian Girl, followed by The Eye of the Sheep. Alieen’s story was always there – it hadn’t left me.
In fact, in 2012, when considering what project I would next write, I said to a friend, my choice is between a fictionalized account of Alieen’s story or Jimmy Flick from Altona. My friend said time for Jimmy Flick, and Aileen was put aside.
In 2016 I was ready to begin a new book and there she was. Aileen. But when I read over the scenes I had written, I felt foolish. How on earth did I think I could write an authentically American story? And why did I want to? Why couldn’t I set it in the land and culture that I knew? Once I decided to do that, I took ownership of the story in a new way. Justine did not suffer Alieen’s childhood – nobody did but Aileen. It was too weighted to fictionalize. Too horrific, unbalanced. Unbelievable. Justine was mine, and her story took it’s own shape, with its own resolution.
‘I relished setting the novel in my own country…I knew the highways, the weather, the redgums…’
I relished setting the novel in my own country. So much material – beautiful and funny and familiar. I could use the vernacular, I could go to the locations – literally drive there and immerse myself in the natural settings I had chosen. I knew its cast of characters. I knew the highways, the weather, the redgums and I could get to know the river.
The early months of the writing were pretty challenging – I was a bit tortured about whether I could live up to the Miles Franklin and all that. But soon enough the book took over; I became deeply connected to my characters, more and more, word by word. It became an escape for me, from the challenges of ordinary life. I could go there, to that world, over and over and over, like being in a trance. Time flew, with me in another world. The Choke gave me a double life. I wrote it in grabs, but many of them. I wanted to go there. Be there in that world.
If you haven’t read The Eye of the Sheep or The Choke, move them to the top of your reading list. Better still, go pick up a copy now. I’m sure there’s a book store open somewhere.
The Choke was published by Allen & Unwin in September 2017. The Eye of the Sheep was published by Allen & Unwin in December 2015.