Tell us about your book, One Hundred Days.
Karuna is a sixteen-year old girl who falls pregnant, not on purpose but not entirely by accident either. She has a complicated relationship with her very controlling mother, who wants to raise Karuna’s child as her own. The story explores the struggle between who ultimately gets to be called the mother of the baby.
One Hundred Days explores whether, as parents, our flawed, anxious and inadequate love is enough to get a child through their most difficult trials; and as children, whether we can forgive our parents their best attempts.
Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind this book?
In this book, I wanted to explore two main questions: what is love, and what is abuse – emotional, physical and spiritual? And to what extent does culture and class affect our judgement on these matters that we perceive to be immutable? I wanted to do this through the prism of a parent–child relationship, because most people now understand that you cannot and should not control every facet of a romantic partner’s life, but legally and socially parents still control every facet of their children’s lives.
One Hundred Days is described as a ‘fractured fairytale’. Can you tell us a little about what this means?
Many parents inadvertently or deliberately want their children to dream big. They are not aware they have fairytale aspirations for their offspring. Not all kids who play piano will be prodigies, and not all kids who win beauty pageants will be Miss World. I wanted to explore what happens when a child deliberately fractures her parents’ dreams for her because she cannot claim them as her own.
The voice of your main character, Karuna, is beautifully realised – she’s sassy, tender, smart, wild, sensible. How did Karuna come to be imagined into being? Were you always going to write her story using the first person?
I was always going to use the first-person narrator because that’s how Karuna came to me. I wanted the reader to get an immediate and no-holds barred look into a teenager’s thoughts, in all their hormonal, tempestuous, melancholy raging glory. More importantly, I wanted to show her capacity to reason and be more adult than the adults around her. We often infantalise teenagers, but when their circumstances demand it, they are sometimes better than us.
You are now the mother of a young baby, were you pregnant when you wrote this story? How has your own experience of pregnancy/motherhood shaped Alice the writer, or shaped this book?
I was, twice! I did the silly thing of having three babies in five years, and this book took four years to write. So if you work out the maths you will realise I was mostly pregnant or taking care of newborns as this book developed. Being so busy as a mother meant I really didn’t have much daydreaming time, except in the early hours of the morning, perhaps when breastfeeding, or when going for a walk with the pram. So this is a real character-based book, and the plot is led by the characters, because I did not have time to do it any other way. And it was really a great journey, to let Karuna and Grand Mar take me where they wanted to go, instead of me trying to omnisciently control them.
Karuna’s mother is a formidable force. As a reader we sympathise with her in many ways, even though the control she wields over her daughter is devastating. In what ways has it been even harder for Karuna’s mother to straddle two cultures than it has been for Karuna?
My parents watch a lot of Chinese television, and they particularly like the talk shows. Chinese talk shows are not like Oprah or Ellen. They are much, much more emotional, because really terrible things happen. The last one they watched two days ago was about a widower dad who was so poor he had to give away one of his daughters to relatives in the next village. Then because the toddler was so smart, she found her way back home. So he gave her away to really distant relatives. Then those relatives sold her!
My dad’s mother had to give away one of her sons to my granddad’s other wife, and then send three more of them away because she could not support them as a single mother. My mother’s mother, like Karuna’s, let her run around in the streets getting up to mischief because she was too busy hawking boiled eggs and making a living.
So to people like my parents, and to Karuna’s mother, and to perhaps Karenni and Sudanese and Sri Lankan parents who have really suffered privation, starvation, true abandonment, we Australian-born kids have it so easy. We are lucky. We don’t understand the dangers that are not theoretical but real to them – child kidnappings, murder, rape, being shunned by society. Growing up is a serious business when you come from a third-world country, and then to be plonked into the first world – what a shock. How entitled the children seem, like dumb fat paddock calves, to these elderly working buffalo or lean dingoes.
Tell us about the setting, a fourteen-storey apartment block – why was it important to keep the setting mostly to this cramped and stifling space?
I had relatives who lived in these apartment blocks at the time the book is set, during the eighties. And last year, in 2020, I did some school visits through Zoom with kids still living in these housing commission flats. There’s no outside for them. There’s no relief from boredom if they are not connected to wifi. And if they have abusive family members, there is no succour. These places really test a young person’s resilience.
Some of our favourite scenes were those set in the beauty parlour where Karuna experiences a glimpse of freedom and also a sense of belonging. Do you know a place like that?
Yes! My best friend who’d spent much of her childhood in a refugee camp, opened up a beauty salon when she was in her mid-twenties. She leased a shopfront in a relatively affluent suburb and did women’s nails. She would tell me, ‘The ladies who have the least to do in their day are always the ones talking about how busy they are!’ She now runs a hairdressing salon, and let me visit a while ago to do research for my book – which is why the waxing room and lunchroom are such detailed features in my novel!
When and where do you write?
Whenever I can and wherever I can. Sometimes even in the car, while waiting to pick up a child, or on the back of envelopes.
Why do you tell stories?
I don’t write because I think I have some great wisdom to impart to readers, but more because there is a burning question I am trying to figure out philosophically and emotionally. I usually pick one particular person to whom I am writing each book, and I ask myself: would that person (sometimes real, sometimes hypothetical) be satisfied with how I have attempted to work out that question, even when I haven’t found an answer?
What are three things that sustain you as an author, or while you’re writing?
My husband Nick, who understands what I do. My own mum, who is so good with the grandkids and gives me time. Finally, a lot of chocolate – and I am talking, without exaggeration, of a kilo every two weeks or so. It’s my drug of choice.
One Hundred Days is in bookstores now. This Q&A compiled with thanks to Booktopia and Matilda Bookshop.