19 Aug 2017

Charlotte Wood - The Natural Way of Things

From Saturday Morning, 10:05 am on 19 August 2017

Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s latest book was inspired by the hidden history of one of Australia's most notorious state institutions, a story she says filled her with fury and pushed her to create the powerful novel, The Natural Way of Things.

Wood is the author of five novels and two books of non-fiction, including Animal People, The Children and The Writer's Room - a collection of interviews with writers about their work.

Charlotte Wood

Charlotte Wood Photo: Supplied

Speaking to Saturday Morning, she says The Natural Way of Things was written after she watched an ABC documentary, Exposed to Moral Danger, about the Hay Institution for Girls.

The Hay was a former prison for adult men in the 19th century, but reopened in the 1960s to young women.

“These 10 young women were taken there – they were officially called the 10 worst girls in the state,” Wood says.

“They were basically locked up in this hell hole and brutalised beyond belief.”

Wood says many of the women had ended up in the Hay because they were victims of sexual abuse and had spoken up about what had happened to them.

“I heard this documentary and I just filled with fury that… these young women were blamed for something that had happened to them.

“It was so distressing that the response of our culture was to lock them up.

“It was the speaking that was the great crime.”

Wood says she initially resisted the darkness of the story when she was writing but when she finally let it flow there was no holding back.

“When I think about those women in Hay, I think about the ways that women around the world are degraded and discriminated against and suffer violence, then I get an absolute torrent of anger.”

It wasn’t an easy book to write for Wood, and she considered quitting one day when she saw then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard suffering a particularly scathing attack.

“There was a fundraising dinner and there was a menu of chicken in pieces, using parts of Julia Gillard’s body as a kind-of hilarious little gag about her thighs and her breasts.

“It was absolutely vile.”

Wood says she became overwhelmed by the amount of misogyny in the world.

“I felt like, I’m just making more of this stuff.

“The way through was to understand that beauty can come out of darkness and that my job was to make something powerful.”

Wood says she has received and incredible response to the book from young women, and also men.

“To say they have felt a renewed sense of their own power – and a sense that that are not going to put up with garbage when they can choose to fight it.”

She says it can feel in recent times as if the world is entering a new ‘dark age’.

“The fact that they voted for Donald Trump after the things he said about women, particularly, and the way he is still kind of courting a white supremacist supporter base.

“The fact that climate change is off everyone’s agenda in terms of government.

“I find it deeply frightening.”

Comparisons have been made between Wood’s book and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the story of fertile women being forced to bear children to elite couples in a future totalitarian USA.

“It’s interesting to me that Margaret Atwood says ‘nothing that happened in the Handmaid’s Tale has not been done in our real world'."

Wood says her book has also drawn on real events: “I can see why the comparisons came up.”

The film rights to The Natural Way of Things have been sold to a pair of Melbourne film makers.

Wood, who won the 2016 Stella Prize for the book, bucked a recent trend when she announced she would not be giving away any of the $50,000 prize money she received as part of the award.

“I think I said in my speech I want to stake a claim for literature as a worthwhile enterprise.”

While she says she respects those who have decided to make donations in the past, she wanted women who won the prize in the future to not feel as if they had to do the same.

“I just wanted to hold up a gentle hand to say, I think a prize for literature is a good thing and I have no qualms about accepting it with enormous, enormous gratitude and not feeling that I had to be a good girl and give it away.”