We sat down with Krissy Kneen, the Stella Prize–shortlisted author of An Uncertain Grace and The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen, to talk beginnings, endings, artistic influences and her total lack of interest in rugby.
Kneen is appearing in three MWF21 events: shedding light on how we inherit our flesh and fears; together with Sam van Zweden discussing excavation of memory; and with Debra Oswald for a late-night relationship advice panel.
Tell me one of your first memories connected to writing.
I remember being at primary school with a friend—I think it was in grade 4 or 5. Gillian and I were writing a novel in a notebook. It was something we did every lunchtime. We developed characters and continued the story, writing it down. One lunchtime, Gillian was tired of writing and wanted to do something else instead. I think that was the moment I realised I was going to be a writer. I just couldn’t do something else. The story needed to be continued. For her, it was a game but for me, it was way more serious.
Can you speak a little about your creative process? How does your day begin and end?
My creative process is a little bit erratic, to be honest. I usually have three days of clear writing each week. I used to sit in a cafe for those three days to write, but since COVID, I’ve been trying to do this from home or from the library. Not quite as stimulating as a café, to be honest. Other days, I try to read for or make notes about the book. Then a couple of weeks a year, I try to retreat to do a run on finishing the book or getting to the end of a particular draft. I often go to Tasmania to do this. Mid- winter in Tasmania, there is nothing much you can do except stoke the fire and write. If I get stuck, I try to go to galleries to stimulate me to write. It is a bit of a mixed bag.
What are the most important literary and non-literary forces that shape your writing?
Well, having to earn money to live is a force that pulls in the opposite direction to writing. That is the constant struggle—buying myself time to write is my weekly task. But in terms of positive forces, reading feeds the work. I try to read around the style or feel of the book I am working on. I try to find voices that sing in harmony with the voice of my book and then stick to reading those. I keep circling back to Shirley Jackson as one of my main muses, but each book demands a different set of voices. Poetry can be a quickly inhaled drug to kick-start the creative process. I also watch movies that help me think outside the general frame. Movies like Upstream Colour and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives were films that recently opened my mind to new possibilities in storytelling. I also use art a lot. Galleries and exhibitions are my go-to place to reset my brain and to find new ways into a story. Patricia Piccinini, Bill Henson and Sebastião Salgado have all been really influential on different books.
Which artists or writers most intrigue you at the moment and why?
I am doing a bit of an Olivia Laing deep dive as I am struggling to look at bodies and art in my current book, and they are both obsessions of Laing’s. I am also back reading Angela Carter who also shares those particular interests. Jenny Saville, the visual artist, is also someone I have just discovered. I am looking at her work a lot right now.
How did you know when your latest book The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen was finished?
Three Burials has been a really different process to my other books. In some ways it was easier to write. I knew when it was done because the story was there on the page. Sure, there was a bit of tweaking and moving, but it came out as a complete work. I started at the beginning and then I moved to the end. It is such an erratic structure jumping back and forth in time and place and it shouldn’t work but, I think, because I started at the beginning and moved back and forth as I went, it seemed to flow like automatic writing. It was as if the story just wanted to be told in a particular way. It has been a very mysterious book which has challenged my view of the world. The line between the spirit world and the real world was thin with this one. I could feel the ancestors knocking. Maybe it was the ancestors who told me it was done. When I got to the end, I just knew that was it.
If there is something you never want to see the end of, what would it be?
Cinema! I know COVID has challenged cinema. People just watch stuff on streaming services rather than go to the movies now and that has beckoned the closure of cinemas. But I love the experience of sitting in that big dark room watching a big screen. My emotions are never engaged as easily on a small screen. There are too many distractions. But when I go to the cinema I am transported to another world for a while, and I love it so much.
And conversely, what is one thing that could end today and you wouldn’t even notice?
I know this will be very unpopular, but I have no interest in rugby of any form. All these big games and people get very caught up in it and I understand their passion, but I really can’t see the appeal. I really wouldn’t notice if it stopped tomorrow. YES, I KNOW THIS IS MELBOURNE AND EVERYONE LOVES THE GAME THERE! But I have tried to watch the games. I (surprisingly) like soccer so I thought I might get into Rugby League and Union, but they really didn’t connect with me. I don’t like the physicality of them and I don’t like the big crowds. Please don’t judge me for this!
Krissy Kneen is an award-winning author of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including An Uncertain Grace, which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. She has written and directed broadcast television documentaries and is the current Copyright Agency Ltd Non-fiction Fellow. The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen is her latest book.
Find Krissy Kneen at MWF21.