Author Joanna Kavenna focuses on childbirth in novel

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - For award-winning British author Joanna Kavenna it took seven unpublished novels before she made it took the book shelves, finding time and life experiences, such as having children, had enhanced her writing.

Kavenna, aged in her mid-30s, always wanted to be a writer but discovered she needed experience to find the right story.

Her first book, “The Ice Museum”, a first-person travelogue, was published in 2005 to much acclaim and was followed two years later by the novel “Inglorious”, about a woman turning her life upside down, which won the Orange Prize for New Writers.

Her newly released novel, “The Birth of Love”, focuses on childbirth with four intertwining stories.

Kavenna, who studied English literature at Bristol and did a doctoral degree at Oxford on the poetry of Charlotte Mew, spoke to Reuters from Italy where she is writing her third novel:

Q: Why did you start your career with a travelogue?

A: “I wanted to write about these northerly lands and I got to travel through all these layers of history from Scotland into Norway to Greenland. It took many years and it was a meditative book. I stayed in Norway for a year and in Estonia. I loved doing it but my bent has always been quite novelistic. I wrote an amazing collection of unpublished novels. So I came up with Rosa whose life is up in the air after the death of her mother and that sends her off on a quest. That was “Inglorious”.”

Q: Your latest novel takes up the topic of childbirth, written as you had two children. Is it auto-biographical?

A: “I was determined it would not be auto-biographical. My first book was focused on a single person going on a journey but with “The Birth of Love” I wanted lots of characters. But without having had children I don’t think I could have written it.”

Q: What triggered this novel?

A: “In the midst of this debris where there is this beautiful child, I read a lot of books about childbirth and came across a Hungarian doctor -- Ignaz Semmelweis -- who in the 19th century found that the high number of women who died after childbirth could be prevented if doctors washed their hands between examining women but all his colleagues said how dare he. He was seen as mad and in the end he went mad as he could not bear to see these women dying. In the book we see him in the last hours of his life. He was the perfect way to start the novel.”

Q: How did you manage to write a book and have two children?

A: “I started reading during the early months of my son and I wrote it before the birth of my second child. I was finishing it with her on my lap. One of the other characters, Brigid Hayes, is at the end of the pregnancy of her second child and I wanted to write it before the physical memories faded. You forget the true agony of childbirth.”

Q: How has winning the Orange Prize impacted you?

A: “It was an enormous help in justifying my writing. Your children need you and there is so much against you writing and so to have that sign of appreciation in my work was massively helpful. All those dark moments where you doubt the point of your own writing - which you always do - then to have that sense that there is an audience who appreciates what you are trying to do.”

Q: It took a while for you to get published.

A: “I was very unpublishable for a very long time. I never did a creative writing course so I was trying to teach myself to write. Initially my novels were pretty dire. I was an apprentice but it was a useful time for me. There are people who can write when they are young but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t quite find the sorts of things that were right for me.”

Q: But you clearly knew that you always wanted to write?

A: “I did always write. I wrote a lot as a child. I wrote truly appalling poetry that has fortunately been lost. I realized it had to be novels. I had a brief disastrous period of play writing. I did an academic doctorate but I was writing novels the whole time then too. I couldn’t think of anything else and I had this desire that was quite definite. I never had a respectable job. I sailed though my 20s without getting a career but trying to write.”

Q: How has having children changed your writing style?

A: “Before I had children I would write all day. I spent too many hours a day writing. Now I might get five or six hours. It does focus your mind as you have less time.”

Q: Any advice to aspiring writers?

A: “I feel that you have to be really sure that it is what you want to do and be completely bloody minded about it. If you maintain your integrity and keep your own idiosyncratic vision of things you hope someone will find it interesting. But it is all about luck. I think there is no such thing as a completely unpublishable book.”

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Miral Fahmy