‘The shock was so deep’: Novelist Charlotte Wood on the experience that changed everything

By Melanie Kembrey

New horizons: Charlotte Wood says she has changed as a writer.Credit: Henry Simmons

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Australian writer Charlotte Wood had just finished her new novel – about a cloistered religious community – when she found her own world stripped back to the basics.

Wood, 58, was diagnosed with breast cancer. And so were her two sisters. All within the space of six weeks, last year.

“It was shocking. The shock was so deep. It just reverberated for a long time,” the Stella Prize-winning author of The Natural Way of Things and The Weekend says. “It was like going into another lockdown really. That time. I just shrank everything to a tiny circle.”

Wood’s oldest sister, who received the diagnosis first after a routine scan, prompting the other siblings to get tested, was the same age as their mother had been when she died of brain cancer when Wood was 28. Their father had died, 10 years before their mother, of stomach cancer when Wood was 19.

Novelist Charlotte Wood’s new novel is set in the Monaro region, where she grew up.Credit: Henry Simmons

“I mean, in some ways, I thought, well, here it is. I mean, I think when you have two parents dying of cancer when they’re young, you’re sort of like, it doesn’t look good,” says Wood, who lives in Sydney’s inner west.

Wood and her sisters don’t have the inherited gene mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 – and no others showed up in tests – that increase the risk of breast cancer, which one in seven women will have during their lives. It was, she says, just “bad luck”.

“I remember writing to my close friend at the time, I feel like I’m caught in a rip taking me away from my life. And I’ll probably be fine. But you just, you don’t know. And you don’t know if you can cope with it.”

Wood’s novels – including her latest – frequently interrogate relationships between women, and the shared diagnosis brought a new dynamic to hers with her sisters.

“We were very close, but we got closer. We had a family group chat, but then the three of us had our own one because sometimes there were things that you didn’t want to tell the others just because you didn’t want to upset them.”

Charlotte Wood, 58, says she wanted to strip her new novel back to the essentials.Credit: Henry Simmons

Wood’s cancer was detected early, and she underwent an operation and radiotherapy, but her sisters had to undergo more intense surgery and chemotherapy, with one only finishing the final round this year.

“The news for me was good. But it was like, I’d walked away from a car accident and my two sisters were still in the wreckage. So until everyone was out the other side … We were kind of like a little relay team and I got home first, and then I was waiting for them to finish.”

While Wood repeatedly puts her experience in perspective – she was lucky to have financial means and familial support, a positive prognosis from the outset, and her sisters have recovered – the psychological impact was enormous and endures. The impression on the couch from the many days she spent crying there – out of fear for her sisters, and herself – can’t be long gone.

“We all know we’re going to die, but we mostly pretend that we don’t know that. That’s just how we get through life,” Wood says. “But there was an acquaintance with your own mortality, even though I wasn’t going to die from this, it’s a psychic thing. That closeness to death was not physical for me at all, but psychologically, I did at many points think and I still think, well, that was a rehearsal.”

That sense of mortality – and the closeness of it – ripples through Wood’s remarkable tenth book, Stone Yard Devotional.

I feel like I’m caught in a rip taking me away from my life. And I’ll probably be fine. But you just, you don’t know.

The novel is about a woman who abandons her job, home and husband to live with a rural community of nuns. She is not religious, but she participates in their rituals, seeking peace in her passivity.

“There may be a word in another language for what brought me to this place; to describe my particular kind of despair at that time,” the narrator writes. “But I’ve never heard a word to express what I felt and what my body knew, which was that I had a need, an animal need, to find a place I had never been but which was still, in some undeniable way, my home.”

There’s a steady stillness to their lives; but storms in the form of a mouse plague, the repatriation of the bones of a sister who had left the community years earlier, and the appearance of a figure from the narrator’s past.

Charlotte Wood’s new novel is about a woman who leaves her life in the city to live with a community of nuns.

Wood describes the novel as her most personal. It’s the first time she has written in the first person since her first novel, Pieces of a Girl, was published in 1999. The story is set in the Monaro plain, where she and her four siblings were raised in Cooma, their father working for the Snowy Mountains Scheme, and her mum as an occasional florist. Wood is not religious, but religion was important to the family. There was Catholic schooling and church every weekend; her mother was a believer and her father had once spent a year with an order of Cistercian monks.

The novel is also the first time Wood has written directly about her mother, and her grief at her death nearly three decades ago. Her mother was a deeply private and reserved person, whom Wood feels she never really knew. She never talked about approaching death after her brain cancer diagnosis, Wood says, preferring to stick to the practicalities.

Charlotte Wood at her home in Sydney’s inner west in 2019.Credit: James Brickwood

Wood says she still feels shame about being grief-stricken about the death of her mother. It’s a shame she shares with her narrator, who reflects on her mother, her childhood, and her grief during her time with the nuns, acknowledging after great devastation there’s not a before or after, “even when the commotion of crisis has settled, it’s still there, like that dam water, insisting, sweeping, across the past and future.”

“It is easier over time, but there are also times when it suddenly resurfaces,” Wood says. “When we were young and our parents died, I felt tremendous grief for us that we had lost a parent. But now we’re their age, I think what they lost, and that’s a different kind of sadness.”

The tone of Stone Yard Devotional mirrors the landscape and monastic life. It’s elemental, bare, and austere. There’s uncovering and burying of bones and mice; and of the past. When Wood returned to revise the novel after finishing her cancer treatment, she supercharged the starkness of the stories.

“I felt like we, our life, and our family had had some kind of acid thrown over it, and that then kind of burnt away all the inessential things,” Wood says.

“I think I returned to it with a colder eye and a feeling that nothing extraneous should stay in this book. I want it to be kind of bare as a bone really. And I wanted to be more spacious in the writing, to leave more for the reader, to leave things unanswered. To have the guts as a writer to do that. I think lots of my work in the past has had a kind of anxiety of, do people understand what I’m trying to do?”

Wood’s novels have long resonated with readers, and are familiar fixtures on the Miles Franklin and Christina Stead Prize for Fiction shortlists.

Her feminist dystopian novel The Natural Way of Things, about women who were drugged, kidnapped and imprisoned in the desert after being involved in sexual scandals with powerful men, won the Stella Prize in 2016. Her last novel, 2019’s The Weekend, which was staged as a play this year, was about three friends in their 70s gathering to clear out their late friend’s beach house.

While Wood seems to move between the symbolic and real in her novels – or those, to use her words, stories that are “in the world” and “out of them” – Stone Yard Devotional feels like a new frontier for the author.

“I suppose I feel like I have changed as a writer and I wanted the work to be deeper, and sort of cooler, and maybe slower, even though I still think, don’t say slower, no one is going to want to read that. But also, when I think about the book, all that anxiety falls away.

“I’m just like, I’m happy with this book. And I don’t think everyone will be happy with this book. But that’s fine. And they never are anyway, but you know, I don’t have that same sort of anxiety because I just think life is short.”

Charlotte Wood’s Stone Yard Devotional is published by Allen & Unwin on October 3.

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