Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Conversation with Fiona Place

Having just read and reviewed Cardboard: A Woman Left for Dead by Fiona Place, I am excited to now present an interview with the author.

1) Welcome, Fiona! I am curious about your background and the motivation for your book, Cardboard: A Woman Left for Dead, which won the 1990 National Book Council Qantas Award for New Writers, and has recently been released in North America. Please tell us about the inspiration for Cardboard.

FP: I wrote Cardboard in response to a friend (who was a poet) asking me if I was ever going to write anything longer than a one page poem! Seriously, it was that straightforward--I went up to my attic (yes it was the writer in the attic) and began writing Cardboard--using both poetry and prose. I wanted to remain faithful to my poet status--too many poets it is said move on to other forms--and to my delight soon realised the narrative needed the poetry, that without the space the poetic voice provides the book would implode and be too one dimensional. So I sat and wrote five drafts in six weeks. Then I spent five years working on the manuscript to get it right. In the meantime I was studying and working and so from my perspective it was an easy book to write. I had the structure fairly early on and I only had to work on refining and refining each sentence!

2) I've never read a book quite like Cardboard, in which you creatively mix prose and poetry. I felt as if the poems added another layer, of strong feeling, to the narrative. It's interesting that the story is told in the first person by Lucy, but that the poems are written in the third person, as if Lucy is viewing herself from a distance.
"she misled them
down garden paths
far from her tree of hope"
What was your idea behind mixing prose and poetry, of giving these "two perspectives"?

FP: That was both luck and determination to write a prose/poetry novel. Luck in that I hit upon the idea early (in part as I have said at the suggestion of another poet) and determination in that I worked at it long enough to make it a full-length text. I soon realised the reader would need to see Lucy from different perspectives, that they needed to see an older and a wiser Lucy--right from the beginning of the novel--or else it would be too heavy and too dense. It then made sense to write the poetry in the third person--to flesh out Lucy so to speak. And allow the reader to understand that even when Lucy's world view was extremely narrow there were parts of her that could see out or think about her situation. It was also a sheer love of poetry--of believing Lucy's state of mind needed the complexity and mystery that only a poetic voice can capture.

3) In the book the main character, Lucy, is being treated for anorexia nervosa. She refuses to eat for complex reasons. She doesn't really think she's fat, but wants control over one aspect of her life, eating or not eating. Lucy is very worried about the future and specifically about getting (and keeping) a job. What is the role of anxiety in this disorder?

FP: I think the role of anxiety is far more important than is often talked about. In part this is because anxiety is far harder to articulate--it is far easier for someone to present or understand an eating disorder in terms of a "desire to be thin". It requires time, patience, and individualised therapy to understand and assist someone with anxiety. And unfortunately in today's world where the medical profession's focus is mainly on understanding the underlying biology and genetics of the illness, individualised psychotherapy is rarely presented or even thought of as a viable treatment option. Instead governments and insurance companies are only willing to fund cost-controlled pre-packaged treatment programs which may or may not suit the person who has an eating disorder.

4) Your book suggests that anorexia may be a language based disorder in which subtexts are misunderstood. Tell us more about this. Also, does your frequent use of slashes in the book signify something in that realm? For example:

"They had seen/caught me in the midst of a giddy spell and I knew my pathology report had shown an electrolyte imbalance."

FP: The use of slashes is about many things--perhaps in Cardboard's case about showing a character who is constantly trying to understand the world, to map it, and furiously intent on capturing exactly what it is she is trying to impart. It is also part of my writing style, the poet in me. At another level though I do think anorexia and other eating disorders are related to an inability to express and articulate emotions, that the person gives up on trying to understand the complex array of emotions swimming through them and ends up defining themselves through what they eat and weigh because these are measurable and simple understandings and give order to an inner chaos. I also believe that part of the recovery process is about learning to express yourself in your own words, learning to shape a self through language. And that this often involves appreciating how 'lived' experience is storied. How can there be hidden meanings, hidden agendas, and how we all have to navigate our way through the maze of language, and the stories others tell about us and about the world at large.

5) Lucy's struggle is not just about food; it's about obtaining independence and autonomy and identity, and I rooted for her every step of the way. How much of you is in Lucy, the protagonist and heroine of this story?

FP: Some I guess, it is hard to say--what I do know is when I tried to read the book before it was republished this year I was taken aback--it was a completely different book to the one I remembered. Neither better or worse--just different. Then again most writers say this about books they have written. And many advise never reread a book. That said I do understand the struggle Lucy endured, do understand how hard life can be at times. And how fortunate I am--as was Lucy--to have made a complete recovery.

6) Cardboard was first published in 1989 in Australia. What do you think about the effectiveness of modern day treatments for eating disorders, in Australia or elsewhere?

FP: The majority of today's research studies and treatment protocols are focused on trying to understand the biology and genetics of the disorder rather than the context in which the illness occurs. And to my way of thinking this line of inquiry has de-skilled the medical profession, causing them to be less capable and less aware that eating disorders occur within a context (families, peer groups, communities) and that that context matters.

7) Are you working on another book, and if so, can you tell us something about it?

FP: I am working on another book. Based on my essay
Motherhood and genetic screening: a personal perspective, it is in the early draft stages. And unsurprisingly once again it is medical in nature! Of interest to me this time is how recent advances in medicine, genetics, and technology are significantly altering our perceptions of what it means to have a disability. Take for example, deafness. Only fifty years ago it was seen as a 'life sentence' requiring institutionalization, whereas today it is considered a 'treatable' condition and something that can be lived with, tolerated. (This is however not without its controversies, with some in the deaf community choosing to remain deaf.) Unfortunately, however, not all 'disabilities' have gained from these advances. Not all lives have become as acceptable/accepted. Witness the advances in prenatal screening. In this domain the ever-increasing capacity to detect disabilities in utero seems to be making us less tolerant of disability, less tolerant of any kind of difference.

If all goes according to plan I wish to explore these contradictory changes and examine the possible consequences of the current drive towards only wanting the 'able', the perfect. Ending up I hope with a readable book!

Fiona, thank you very much for doing this interview with me. It gave me additional insight into Cardboard. I look forward to reading your next book!

For my review of Cardboard, or to enter the giveaway, please visit Cardboard: Review and Giveaway.


  1. It really very interesting that this book is a hybrid of both poetry and fiction, and this interview was very enlightening all around. In fact, now I want to read the book more than ever! Great interview, Suko! Fiona's take on things is fascinating!

  2. You ask the best questions, Susan! Both the author and her book sound fascinating.

  3. I would like to thank Suko for taking the time to review Cardboard. It is rare to find a reviewer who is capable of putting themselves in the shoes of both reader author and I am most grateful for the opportunity Suko has given me to talk about Cardboard.

  4. Zibilee and Bermudaonion, thanks for stopping by and for your wonderful comments. I really enjoy doing these author interviews.

    Fiona, thank you for granting me the privilege of reading Cardboard and for taking the time to do this interview with me; it enhances and complements the review.

    More comments welcomed.

  5. Suko-I recently read as you know of course this book and found it fascinating-I saw it as a kind of a book for anyone who has ever been a slave to doctors or been in the grip of a pathology that is very hard to undersand

  6. That is a great perspective Mel, it is about what happens when you allow or give over control to someone else when you are vulnerable, ill and require assistance. How it seems right to allow the expert take control, seems polite, but how in the long run it is unlikely to end well. I think there are lessons in the book for patients and experts alike.

  7. Great interview ladies. The book sounds very interesting. I like that there's poetry in the writing.
    I also find that upon re-reading a book, sometimes it can seem very different than the first time around. Like she syas...'not better or worse just different'
    Her next book sounds really interesting also!

  8. Wow, what an awesome interview!! Very insightful!

  9. I learned so much through this interview. Very insightful. Thanks Susan.

  10. Stopping by on the Hop. You have a beautiful site. I hadn't heard of this book before - great review!

  11. visiting via Very interesting interview. Thank-you.

  12. Thank you all for the comments. More comments welcomed. :)

  13. This sounds fascinating. I love the title and that it is poetry mixed with prose.


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