Sofie Laguna

There's plenty of interest in Sofie Laguna's new novel, The Choke. After all, for her previous one, The Eye of the Sheep, she won Australia's most significant literary prize, the Miles Franklin.

And if that surprised some people, it was nothing to how she felt on the night. She describes the whole occasion as surreal. One of the judges told her that she looked "poleaxed" when her name was announced, and her publisher, Jane Palfreyman, said she seemed completely blindsided by it.

In The Choke, Justine, Laguna's 13-year-old up-against-it main character, says at one stage that she can't afford to "let in the good" in case it cracks her open like one of her Pop's eggs. Laguna felt much the same way on her big night.

"There was no way I could absorb it. I was so far out of myself ??? I still am trying to come to terms with it so I wasn't prepared and I didn't prepare a speech so that added further." A moment later, though, Laguna acknowledges the profundity of her win, but says she knew it would take getting used to.

"It hasn't really changed the creative process, that remains very rich. For the first couple of months [writing The Choke] I was pretty tortured, thinking it was not as good. But I did the same with [Sheep, following One Foot Wrong] so maybe that's what I do. Every success, I suppose, pushes you further into your own self belief, trusting your own instincts."

Laguna has breezed in for a coffee and to talk about The Choke. She's right at the beginning of the publicity trail and is still getting her head around discussing the book and all that entails. It means a new mindset.

"You're in a bubble with the book in the period of time you're creating it and you're getting to know the characters and all that happens to them and suddenly you're sharing it with the world and asked to articulate ideas behind it and articulate why you do it and that is not a question I particularly relish.

"But I do relish conversations about the characters. I do enjoy talking about them. They feel real for me, the stakes are high for them and I love talking about them and where they're at and what made them do the things they did. But that's different to questions about my motivations."

That's a topic she's almost wary of. "Certain things have a trigger, a trigger for a voice or something to say that must be in there."

One prompt she acknowledges was Nick Broomfield's documentary about the American serial killer, Alison Wuornos, who was eventually executed for her crimes. It distressed Laguna because of the appalling childhood Wuornos endured, how she was exploited and abused and had a child at 13. "Her childhood was impossible to believe. In the film it works - he told an honest story - but truth is stranger than fiction."

The childhood that Justine endures in The Choke is grim - as was that of Jimmy Flick in The Eye of the Sheep and Hester in Laguna's first adult novel, One Foot Wrong - but, rest assured, she doesn't turn into a murderer.

It's 1971 and Justine Lee is a teen with dyslexia - no one realises this - whose mother has done a bunk and whose father, Ray, is given to prolonged absences but turns up to his daughter's delight and horror as the catalyst for the dramatic events of the book. The Lee family has had an ugly falling out with their neighbours and cousins, the Worlleys.

So Justine lives with her grandfather and his chickens on the three acres he bought when he came back traumatised from the Burma Railway. He smokes White Ox and drinks beer and when it all gets too much takes to his bed to continue an ongoing monologue about the horrors he and his friend Sandy, who saved his life, endured on the railway. Pop and Justine adore the films of John Wayne, and the Big Man becomes some kind of moral voice in their lives.

The Murray is Justine's sanctuary; on its banks she builds her hideout. At school, as in life, she is an outsider - her one friend is Michael Hooper, a severely disable boy who is blessed with the loving family that Justine lacks.

Laguna tends to start her novels with a character in some sort of pickle. Then, she says, the details rush in, as if she were tuning into a radio station.

"I feel the essence of the character instinctively, and then on the heels of that will be various predicaments that are part and parcel of who they are and what they are," she explains. "As soon as I understand that, then I'll have a basic understanding of what that journey is going to be for them."

Laguna trained as an actor at the Victorian College of the Arts and has described writing as some sort of inner performance. "I do think of it that way, it feels so much that way. When writing took over from acting, I felt no deprivation. I am fed as an actor even though I don't go on stage," she says.

"I'm fed in that way because I'm making all the stuff up, making what they say, not having to do someone else's script, which I often failed at, often overcome with self-consciousness, expectations outside of me, or trying to work with other people or meet the director's vision, which often I couldn't. Writing is the complete opposite. One is in a very unthreatening, very rich, very alive space all of my own making."

Thus she identified totally with Jimmy in The Eye of the Sheep, his voice was a thrilling and joyful one. "I wasn't separate from him." But was she equally passionate about Justine?

"I worry because it took a little while for that to happen. I was pretty close to Jimmy; I really cared for that kid and when I began this next book - it takes a little while - I thought I don't care about it yet. Then I began to really care."

The Murray becomes a significant presence, but Laguna has no particular history with the river, encountering it through going to ConFest, the alternative lifestyle festival, and weekends in Echuca. But she recognises its power, the stillness around it and the magnificence of the red gums along it. For Justine, the Choke is "where the river was at its thinnest, the banks like giant hands around a neck". At the climax of the book, the banks finally touch - "there was nowhere for the water to go" - and as Justine finds her own life blocked she is forced to take drastic action to get it moving again.

Laguna was raised in Sydney but when she was 11 her family moved to the country; not the Murray, she quickly points out - they were on a farm near Bundanoon in the NSW Southern Highlands (where another Miles Franklin winner, David Foster, once worked as a postman).

She always kept a journal and her father was so thrilled by her early poems that he gave her a typewriter. Writing always gave her a sense of freedom. "I'm somebody who is hard on myself, but as a writer I don't think I am. What I mean is that when I'm in that creative space it's a free, enjoyable, quite liberated, playful space. Writing is a lot easier for me than all the other things in life, definitely."

Sometimes the smallest thing can have the biggest impact. Many years ago, Laguna submitted her first book, a picture book called My Yellow Blanky, to several publishers. Four rejected it quick smart. Somehow, she had forgotten the fifth, who also rejected it because they couldn't find the right illustrator for the job. But the editor said she loved the idea.

"When the fifth letter came, because I had a good feeling about that picture book, it affirmed my own instincts. That's what these things do; that's good for your writing, isn't it?"

Laguna says that letter remains the most important she has ever received. She reworked the book, adding some action and a dog chase, and resubmitted it. The same editor said she couldn't bear to lose it, but Laguna still had to wait nearly two years for it to be published. But that sent the acting career up in smoke: "I was off and running. I never looked back."

Sofie Laguna discusses her books at Melbourne Writers Festival (mwf.com.au) this weekend. The Age is a festival sponsor. The Choke is published by Allen & Unwin at $32.99

The story Sofie Laguna first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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