A Q & A with Sophie Hardcastle about her new novel BELOW DECK (Allen and Unwin)

In lieu of author launches and book tours due to the current pandemic crisis, we’re focusing on promoting the new work of Australian writers through alternative platforms. Reading is the perfect activity for social distancing and Avid Reader Bookstore is pleased to share conversations with writers about their new books.

Meet Sophie Hardcastle and if BELOW DECK appeals, order it online through https://avidreader.com.au/

Today Avid Reader is thrilled to welcome, in a virtual sense, author and screenwriter Sophie Hardcastle to chat about her third book Below Deck, which was written in 2018 when Sophie was a Provost’s Scholar in English Literature at Worcester College in Oxford. The previous year Sophie was an artist-in-residence with Chimu Adventures in Antarctica. She is also the co-creater/co-writer/co-director of the online series Cloudy River.

Below Deck is a contemplative, literary novel written in beautiful language that explores trauma and love through the story of one young woman’s development of her sense of self through both traumatic and wondrous life-changing circumstances. It’s a book about choices, humiliations, suffering, survival, spirit, control and strength, and everything is overlaid with the mysteries of colour.

Cass: Welcome Sophie and thanks for chatting to us about Below Deck!

A Provost’s Scholar at Oxford sounds very fancy – what does that entail?

Sophie: Fancy, (laughs!). But yes, I guess it was! Before getting my scholarship to study at the University of Oxford, the only thing I knew about it was that I had a dictionary that said OXFORD on the front. In 2018, I interviewed for a Provost’s Scholarship to study for a year at Oxford as a visiting scholar. It was the first year that the scholarship existed, so the conditions of it were quite vague. For two terms, I was allowed to study whatever I wanted from whichever faculty I wanted. Previously in Australia, I’d been at art school studying visual arts. At Oxford, I wanted to try my luck at English literature, so I took the subjects: Theory of the Novel, 20th Century Poetry, The History of Western Thought and Literature of the Environment. In sixteen weeks, I wrote twenty-four essays and read more books than I had in my entire life. Writing and thinking critically about particular movements in Modern and Contemporary literature gave me the opportunity to rethink and reimagine my own craft. As one of my tutors told me, you have to know the rules in order to break them! In my third and final term, I was supposed to write a research paper, but I asked if I could write a novel instead. What became of it, Below Deck was therefore a creative culmination of all of my academic research.

Cass: Tell us about Olivia, the protagonist in Below Deck. What’s happening in her life at the start of the novel?

Sophie: Olivia has come from immense privilege, and we first meet her when she is quite easily walking the path that has been laid out for her. She’s complacent and yet there is a hint that she’s starting to ask questions. Perhaps not out loud, but inside, she’s starting to wonder, as many young people do when they’re on the cusp of adulthood, who am I? And, what do I want?

Cass: Early in the novel she meets Mac and Maggie  – how do they change her life?

Sophie: Mac and Maggie teach her new ways of seeing. They encourage her to see the world from a different angle. As I said, she’s starting to ask questions about who she is and what she wants. Mac and Maggie facilitate much of her personal growth and change early on in the novel because they open her up to other possibilities, to other ways of being, and set an incredible example of what healthy, loving and nourishing relationships look like!

Cass: We don’t want to give too much away, but we can say that the story centres on Olivia at four different periods throughout her twenties. The structure of that is a little unusual in that each of those four sections is almost like a separate scene from her life and you don’t give us a lot of connective tissue to join them. What attracted you to writing this way?

Sophie: Early on in the novel, Maggie tells Oli, ‘Life is a series of happy and unhappy endings, Oli. But it is also a series of beginnings… Never forget that.’

I tried to structure the novel so that there would be multiple beginnings and multiple endings, essentially writing Maggie’s message into the actual fabric of the novel.

I’d also read in an essay by Virginia Woolf, ‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’

I liked the idea that life is not a series of arranged events. Life is sporadic, and over the course of one’s lifetime, we experience moments so profound they create before and after. I structured Below Deck so that these moments weren’t neatly arranged, so that they were, as life is, sporadic.

Cass: As a writer, you bravely wield silence; you leave spaces in the text for the reader to imagine what has happened, for example what has gone on in Olivia’s life in the breaks between sections. How did you find the courage to write that way?

Sophie: So much of what Below Deck is about is silence. It speaks to how victims and survivors of sexual violence have been silenced for centuries. I wanted to write those physical silences into the narrative. I also love reading books where things go unsaid, because I love the space and the freedom to imagine the in-between. I wanted that for my own readers.

Cass: Did you write sparingly to begin with or did you overwrite and then have to peel back the layers?

Sophie: I wrote very sparingly! The first draft was only 46,000 words, and ‘editing’ involved fleshing it out with another 15,000 words!

Cass: This book is absolutely bursting with colour on every page. What is the special relationship that Olivia has with colour and how did that translate to how you wrote scenes in the novel?

Sophie: I have synaesthesia, which allows me to see sound in colour. I also feel pain in colour. If I’m honest, writing Below Deck in this way felt natural for me.

Cass: The language in Below Deck is truly magical. As I was reading it, I kept thinking I wanted to hear you read it in your own words. What is it about the rhythm and tone of language read aloud that transforms words on a page to another level?

Sophie: Interestingly, I read the whole novel aloud to my tutor, Professor Sir Jonathan Bate. This process helped me to become acutely aware of its rhythm. It also gave me the space to experiment with language and punctuation to break up or slow the rhythm. Most obviously, I occasionally use commas and full stops where they shouldn’t be, and I did this so that the sentences would be fractured and inconsistent, to mimic how trauma fractures and warps our memories… how trauma creates inconsistencies in our stories.

Cass: There are several traumatic incidents in the novel, and one in particular that really changes Oli’s life, separating it into Before and After. What emotional resources did you use to interrogate the effects of trauma?

Sophie: I drew off an event that separated my early twenties into a Before and After, and wrote from personal experience of how this event rippled through my own deep.

Cass: Readers can use their imagination – or better still, read the book – to discover the meaning of the title, Below Deck, and we don’t want to talk about the critical incident that occurs, but could you talk a little about women’s bodies and the indignities of how they function, and the complex issue of that line between control and consent? How does this fit in with the #MeToo movement?

Sophie: When I was reading during my subject Literature of the Environment at Oxford, I found that the ‘natural world’ was frequently written about as either beautiful, virgin wilderness, or soiled, ravaged and spoilt country. Oli’s body is written about in a similar way in Below Deck, because, through the eyes of the men who she sails with from Noumea to Auckland with, she is ‘beautiful, virgin wilderness’ – an object of desire – and becomes, again through their eyes, ‘soiled, ravaged and spoilt country’ – an object of disgust. I wanted to show how the virgin/whore binary has been applied, throughout Western history, to both the natural world, and to women, and how debilitating, problematic and terribly reductive this view is because it fails to recognise the agency and inherent value of both nonhuman landscapes, and of women’s bodies.

Cass: Even though the book only covers about 10 years of Oli’s life, we see her go on a rollercoaster of emotions from timid to confident, from traumatised to strong, from settling for less to demanding more for herself. How did you maintain that tension and keep that rollercoaster so compelling?

Sophie: It’s very nice to read that you felt that way! Though I’m not entirely sure how to answer the question. I guess I was trying to propel the narrative forward by showing the stories we’ve heard before from a new angle.

Cass: How important for you was it to depict Oli in her late twenties as being outwardly functional but still very much traumatised and sort of emotionally frozen by her past?

Sophie: I wanted to show the After, perhaps mostly for people whose experience sits outside of or beyond sexual violence. I wanted to show people who’ve never experienced this how trauma lives on in our bodies, and also to show how ultimately, the body may be reclaimed.

Cass: You navigate the issue of domestic violence with a very light touch; less details actually make the message more powerful. Why? What themes did you want to explore around the boundaries of healthy relationships?

Sophie: I wanted to show how when you’re young, and perhaps haven’t yet been in a healthy relationship, you haven’t been able to set a precedent for how you want to be treated. I also wanted to show the cyclical nature of violence, and show how that cycle might be broken.

Cass: I love this quote about Maggie and Mac, that they ‘wrap themselves around me, like rings of a tree, layer upon layer. So that I no longer feel exposed. I feel whole, and because their love doesn’t make me weak, I feel unbreakable.’  Can you talk about this?

Sophie: A big lesson Oli learns early on is that love shouldn’t render us weak. Healthy love should fortify us, like the rings of a tree.

Cass: Repeatedly throughout the book, Olivia asks six words, sometimes as a question: ‘We choose to breathe, don’t we?’, sometimes as a rhetorical question, sometimes an answer, sometimes a riddle and sometimes a lament, depending on the emphasis: ‘We choose to breathe, don’t we?’ ‘We choose to breathe, don’t we?’ I found this very powerful . What were you aiming to achieve with this literary repetition?

Sophie: So much of the novel is about choice. It’s about the choices we make, and the choices we don’t make. I kept returning to this question so that readers would think about their own choices. Is breathing something we consciously choose? Or is it something that happens to us?

Cass: The empowering message underlying this story is of strong women overcoming self-doubt, taking back control of their bodies and being okay about being ambitious towards what they want in life, whether that’s professional or personal. Can you talk a little about this?

Sophie: I wanted to show how sexual violence makes it difficult, if not impossible, to inhabit our bodies afterwards. But I also wanted to show that the body can be reclaimed. Below Deck is about the rebuild of your home after someone has set it on fire.

Cass: I want to ask about the section titles and the chapter headings, which are so apt and so lovely. Eg Sea Garden, Sea Monsters, Desert, Sea Ice.Where did this idea come from? How do you think these very visual titles enhance the writing?

Sophie: Sea Garden was inspired by a collection of poems written by Imagist poet, H.D. It is the part of the story where Oli’s world is flowering into colours she’s never seen before. Sea Monsters was inspired by the myth of Medusa, a beautiful princess who was raped by Poseidon, then punished for her own rape by Athena who turned Medusa into a hideous monster. Desert was an extended metaphor for Oli’s state of being after the critical incident. As you said, outwardly functioning, but internally haunted, famished and parched. And without giving anything away, Sea Ice was named for its evocation of ancient ice, cracking off glaciers, returning to the sea.

This is a courageous book that seeks to amplify women’s voices through the trauma they face and the numerous ways they survive and thrive. It is also beautifully written and the language is a joy to read. I highly recommend it.

Thank you Sophie for sharing your insights into the craft of writing, your process and the ideas and themes behind Below Deck!

You can read a review of this book here: https://cassmoriarty.com/below-deck-sophie-hardcastle/

You can purchase a copy here: https://avidreader.com.au/