Here is the second half of my interview with Katerina Cosgrove, author of Bone Ash Sky (see my review here). We talked about how conflicts and opposing beliefs can affect personal relationships, and how really we are all more similar than we are different.
This interview was transcribed and edited from an audio recording so please forgive any grammar errors. It also contains spoilers.
My questions and comments are in italics.
Throughout the novel love and sex connect people in various ways – so do you think people from opposing sides can have a harmonious personal relationship?
Yeah I think they can – and again it comes down to education doesn’t it? if you think of India, where Christians, Muslims and Hindus live in relative harmony, and they intermarry – so I think it’s possible. I think – what difference does it make which god we worship? Or if we worship no god? I mean, I come from a family where my mum’s greek, quite conservative, my dad’s Australian and agnostic, doesn’t believe, doesn’t know if there’s a god; so again it worked it some ways, but in other ways obviously it broke down. It’s a hard one.
I think its quite interesting within the novel that there are several different coples, and these issues always affect them in some way whether they stay together or they don’t.
Because as humans we’re so wedded to being right, we’re so wedded to thinking we have the truth, we know, and everyone else is wrong, even in relationshops. I see it myself, I do it with my husband; not on fundamental issues but on little things.
I think everyone does to a degree. You can get along and be happy and those things always exist within you.
Because we define who we are with our beliefs. But wouldn’t it be a freedom if we had none? If we just said it is what it is with nothing extra on top of it. We’re always adding extra on top of what is.
How did you go about creating Anoush? That she’d be female, Armenian, and that she’d be in 95 and 96?
It’s probably because the first itme I ever went to the Middle East was in 1995. I was 21 and it made such an impression on me, it was a total culture shock. So I think on an unconscious level, it wasn’t conscious, that was where I set the present day action. And then on a conscious level, chronologically speaking it needed to be the 90s because of the [Lebanese] civil war and the [Armenian] genocide. I couldn’t have brought it forward to now. So there was that as well. There was a chronological reason and an emotional underlying reason as well.
I did think, especially towards the end, when she meets with Sayed, and you’re thinking what would it be like now – we’re in a post 9/11 world and this was a pre 9/11 world, so I thought that was quite an interesting contextual factor, that it would all be different now.
Yeah it would be much harder to fall in love with a guy like that now.
And also she wouldn’t be able to get the access to him – that was a big thing. I was very young in the 90s but there wasn’t that kind of awareness of these issues.
No it hadn’t become global – it was contained to the Middle East, whereas now its bled into everything.
I wonder what it would be like now, to have a similar story.
She wouldn’t even have been able to see him – he would be in solitary, a Guantanamo situation.
I want to ask you now about your writing process, because I know the book took you a long time – so did you work on it steadily, or did you have gaps?
I had big gaps. What happened was I did the bulk of the research in 2002 – I had lots of trips overseas but the first research trip was in 2002 – and then in 2003 I was given a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland; and I went there for two months and started the book, and finished the first draft in that period. So it was written fast and furious, it was the shitty first draft. And then the rewriting took anther ten years! When I finished that first draft I gave it to my agent and said, have a look at this, do you think I should keep going, and he said yes! So then came the long process of writing and rewriting and chucking.
And there was more research, more trips?
I did more trips along the way – so I did about three more trips in those ten years. I was learning more and more about where I needed to go and what I needed to do and also my daughter was born in 2005 so for a whole year I don’t think I did anything – I was just in shock! Then I had a melanoma in 2009, and my sister died in 2010. So there were a lot of big life events stuck in there that took me away. But it was good because I needed that space.
And I suppose when personal things happen to you, and you’re writing this book alongside, do personal things affect how you go back to the book?
Oh yeah, definitely. It deepens your view of life and death and love. Those three things – again I keep talking about the older I get, but the older I get the more I realise all that is left is love, we don’t have anything left but love at the end of our lives, so in some ways this book is about that too.
I can see that.
Everything else falls away, it doesn’t matter.
That also makes me think of relationships within the book – something like with Selim and Sanaya, even though they have all these things fighting against them, when they’re together they’re just together; they’re just the two of them.
And everything else doesn’t matter. I’m sure we’ve both had that experience, with boyfriends that aren’t right but it doesn’t matter, everything else is ephemeral. Like when I saw my sister’s dead body before me, all I could see was love. All the worrying, and the anxiety, all the acquisition that we care about – success, money, ambition – who cares?
I know what you mean – I’ve never been through that experience, but when you get down to fundamental family things. When my sister had her baby, you realise that’s all that matters, that’s all there is.
It’s an amazing moment to realise that.
It’s almost like a crisis moment, but not in a bad way, just an opening, like a shattering of everything. We go along in our lives, everything’s mundame, and we think it’s always going to be like that – and then bang, something happens, she had her baby, everything changes.
I think with Anoush, she kind of has that moment more than once in the book, when she connects with people, and especially at the end with Inam, the little girl – she connects with her, it’s difficult at first, but she does it. And the ending is like a moment of peacefulness, after all this that’s happened, like this is what matters, this is what we’ve got at the end.
And like you say it’s a moment – all we have a moment. We can be worrying about what’s going to happen tonight or whatever but we only have this now. We don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Do you have plans for more novels? Are you working towards something?
Yes I do. I’m thinking about a sort of post-apocalyptic eco thriller, so more of a big picture, getting away from the sectarian, political stuff, and into the earth. Are we still going to be here, what are we doing to the planet, that sort of stuff. But also for a while I might be away from writing. I have have a website I’m setting up, which is a death memorial website for people to memorialise their own deaths, so that will probably be my next project.
But then writing will come back in?
Writing is always there, I cant not write; but I’d like to have a bit of short term gratification! Because writing is long term.
I can imagine, when I was reading this book, it such an emotional book and quite intense, there are lots of intense moments – it must be quite draining to do that so it must be nice to have some breaks.
Yeah and be normal for a while; and also not to be divided – because when I’m writing, I’m divided between my writing life and my real life, and sometimes it’s not great as a mum because I’m not present with my child. I’m there and not in the moment with her. And that’s the most important thing to me now. Writing is what it is but I can live without it; she’s the most important thing to me.
So it’s getting a balance between the two things.
My thanks to Katerina for taking part in this interview, and to Steph Vizard at Hardie Grant for sending me Bone Ash Sky in the first place.