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Interview: April 8, 2015

Australian author Annabel Smith’s latest novel, WHISKEY AND CHARLIE, is about Charlie Ferns, who learns that his estranged twin brother Whiskey has been in a terrible accident. Although they barely have spoken in years, Charlie can’t help but wonder: Who is he without Whiskey? In this interview with’s Alexis Burling, Smith discusses how --- with seemingly fluid ease --- she gets into the heads of her characters, as well as how the things we internalize as kids can continue to affect us as adults. She also explains “Six Degrees of Separation” and “Writers Ask Writers” --- two monthly features on her blog that celebrate writing, great books and community. Congratulations on the publication of WHISKEY AND CHARLIE! Your publisher’s summary of the book describes it as a “captivating novel of brothers who have drifted apart and the accident that will determine their future…” What was your inspiration for this intriguing plot line?

Annabel Smith: I should start by admitting that I didn’t plan this book at all. I just showed up at the desk and waited to see what would come out. The concept I began with was to write a story about two brothers who spend their childhoods trying to get into the GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS. But as soon as I began writing, it immediately became clear that the dynamic between the brothers was the most important element of the story. The idea for Whiskey's accident came when I had written a few chapters and found that the story was lacking tension. The accident and subsequent coma created a dramatic backdrop for the brothers’ relationship to play out against.  

BRC: Whiskey and Charlie are twins --- and boys! As a non-twin female writer, what was it like inhabiting the minds of adolescent boys as your protagonists? Did you do any research on twins before writing their story?

AS: Over the course of my life, I have had several sets of twins who I’ve been close to, and everything I wrote about twins was anecdotal, based on my own observations or conversations I’d had with these friends about their experiences as twins. As for writing about boys, I grew up with two brothers, so I was all too familiar with adolescent boys! When I read a scene aloud at a book event, a young man came up to me afterwards and told me he felt like I had gone back in time and hacked into his teenage brain, which I took as a great compliment. 

BRC: It’s interesting what happens when we humans try --- and often fail --- to process information during stressful moments. When Charlie finds out that Whiskey has been in an accident and might not live, he first latches onto the idea that Whiskey’s foot is crushed and that he might not surf again. Later, he keeps hoping that he’ll fully recover despite his being in a coma for an extended period of time. As a writer, how did you approach getting inside the heads of your characters during such moments?

AS: This part of writing is so unconscious for me, I don’t even know if I can articulate exactly how I do it. I suppose I just inhabit the world of that character so completely, I imagine myself in their position, and as a result, what they think and feel, how they behave, seems to come to me intuitively through this process.

BRC: Throughout the book, there are flashbacks from the boys’ childhood and scenes from the present as Whiskey is lying in the hospital bed. Why the decision to write using flashbacks? How do flashbacks add to a story’s depth and texture?

AS: Whiskey’s coma is the heart of the story, the catalyst for Charlie’s soul-searching. It was important to me that the coma be the present in the book, and that the reader should know about it right from the start. However, the past is also an essential part of the story, because the scenes from Whiskey and Charlie’s childhood illustrate how they were once inseparable, how the breakdown in their relationship happened gradually, over many years, through an accumulation of misunderstandings. In addition, many of the flashbacks focus on humorous episodes from the twin’s past and as such provide light relief from the tension of Whiskey’s illness.

BRC: The world inside a hospital can be life-affirming, with doctors accomplishing miracles every day to keep patients alive. But it’s also incredibly claustrophobic and scary. What was most important to you stylistically when writing these scenes set in this insular environment?

AS: I wanted to convey the anxiety and helplessness we feel when someone we love is gravely ill, the unbearable apprehension while we wait for surgery to be performed, or for the result of a test, the frustration at not understanding the procedures, the overwhelming need to be told that everything is going to be okay, and the simultaneous understanding that such a thing is impossible.

BRC: The chapters of your novel are organized according to each letter of the two-way radio alphabet. It seems like loads of fun to craft a story this way, but did you encounter any difficulties when trying to fit a segment of the narrative into a specific chapter with a mandatory title at a predetermined time?

AS: In the beginning, the chapter titles were a great springboard for ideas. Some I interpreted literally (“Golf” is about a game of golf between Whiskey, Charlie and their father), and others laterally (“Echo” is about the Ferns family’s journey to Australia aboard a boat). A few took the novel in exciting and unexpected directions --- for example, someone had to go to or come from “Lima” and “Quebec,”which is how Rosa and Mike came into the story. Some of the chapter headings gave me my characters’ names (“Charlie,” “Oscar,” “Juliet” and “Mike”). But there were some really tricky ones. For example, “X-Ray” doesn’t seem too hard --- after all, it is a book with many scenes inside a hospital. But it seemed most likely that Whisky would have needed an X-ray right at the start of the story --- and the “X-Ray” chapter came close to the end. So I had to mess around with the chronology a little in places. The two hardest chapters were “Yankee” and “Kilo,” but even those came together in the end. 

BRC: Since he can remember, Charlie has played second fiddle to Whiskey (or so he perceives) --- and it continues to affect his relationships, from girlfriends to bosses to friends. How breakable are the habits we set in childhood, and why do you explore this theme in your writing?

AS: I’ve been reflecting on this very question a lot lately, in terms of my own personal growth. I think the ideas we internalize in childhood have a huge influence on who we become as adults, especially if we are unconscious of them. But with self-awareness --- the kind Charlie earns through his therapy sessions with Thomas, and through some painful self-reflection --- I believe we can transcend some limiting beliefs. 

BRC: At one point, Charlie describes Whiskey as a “cardboard cutout” of his former self, surrounded by flashy cars, fancy clothes and adoring girlfriends. Of course, this is just Charlie’s point of view. But what about Whiskey’s? Was there ever a point during your writing process where Whiskey had more of a say in the story? Why make the choice to keep his perspective hidden?

AS: Whiskey never had a say. It was always Charlie’s story. It never even crossed my mind to look at things from Whiskey’s point of view until a reader suggested it at a book club I visited. I guess for me, it was about Charlie’s journey, which was an outgrowth of his perception of how things were. It was, as he comes to see, a skewed version of events, but in a way that was the whole point.

BRC: Rosa is such a keen character. She’s outspoken and forthright. Plus she’s the only one who’s managed to get underneath Whiskey’s armor. Charlie and Juliet like her, too. What is it about Rosa that makes her the ideal partner for Whiskey --- and the inadvertent glue for the family?

AS: Whiskey seems to be the kind of charismatic character that everyone wants to be friends with, and, as a result, ends up surrounded by sycophants and people who value status over meaningful relationships. Rosa is the first person in a long time who really challenges Whiskey, and I think he finds it a refreshing change. The Ferns family loves to sweep their issues under the carpet, but Rosa is so forthright, she makes it impossible for them. Though at first they resist it, eventually they come to see it as the path to wholeness.

BRC: The chapter entitled “Hotel” got under my skin, as anything about storage units is apt to do. There are so many stories of people who have suffered a loss, or have given up on life, or have come to rely on a storage unit for whatever reason. Hoarders. Thieves or scammers. Homeless people. But ironically, storage units are, by their nature, designed to be helpful. What prompted you to center a chapter called “Hotel” around a storage unit?

AS: When I first met the man who is now my husband, he moved from Perth to live with me in Melbourne. We weren’t sure if it was going to work out, so he didn’t ship any of his stuff interstate --- he just packed it all into a storage unit, and we lived for more than a year with my stuff. It got me thinking about how many people literally have whole households of stuff inside those units, and how you could almost live in one if you wanted to. 

BRC: Charlie’s therapist tells him that “there are some things in life we never feel ready for, that it’s only by doing them that we become ready.” So wise. What are your thoughts on that quote, and how does it apply to your life as a mother and writer?

AS: I’m so proud of that quote. I think it is the wisest moment I’ve ever had! To be honest, I think it’s true of almost everything in life. It is, as you suggest, a perfect description of parenting. I thought I was prepared for motherhood --- but boy, was I wrong! I now believe there is literally nothing that can prepare you for the enormous change of caring for a helpless human being. I had postnatal depression to add to the mix, so it was a pretty overwhelming experience. It is also true of my writing. In fact, I don’t think I would be engaged by writing the book I feel ready to write; what interests me is pushing myself to write the book I have no idea how to write --- just learning through the process. Exactly as Charlie does in the novel. 

BRC: In light of your novel’s subject matter, what do you make of Tolstoy’s (now famous) quote in ANNA KARENINA: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”? 

AS: Every time I’ve come across that quote, it has stopped me in my tracks. It doesn’t feel true to me. Though I agree that there are many different causes of unhappiness in families, at their heart I think most of the problems stem from the same root --- which is that some or all members of the family lack the self-awareness and willingness to change that is essential for mature relationships. 

BRC: WHISKEY AND CHARLIE was originally published in Australia. Describe the process of “Americanizing” your book for a U.S. audience. Did you have to change some of the vocabulary? Was the editing and publishing process any different from what you went through back home?

AS: Americanizing the book was such a fascinating process. I don’t think I had ever really noticed how many everyday words were different between the two countries. Nappies became diapers, cubicles became stalls, toilets became bathrooms, tutorials became homerooms, and my favorite --- arses became asses! The editing process was similar to the one I had been through in Australia, but every editor has a particular set of things they focus on, and it was really insightful to see my novel again through fresh eyes. It turns out my original edition of the novel had a lot of “dangling participles.” Though I teach English as a second language, I have somehow managed to avoid teaching grammar, so I must admit that I don’t completely understand what a dangling participle is. And my Australian editor obviously didn’t mind the odd dangling participle, whereas my US editor insisted they had to go! 

BRC: For US readers who may not be aware, tell us about your digital interactive novel/app THE ARK.

AS: As rapidly dwindling oil supplies wreak havoc worldwide, a team of scientists and their families abandon their homes and retreat into a bunker known as The Ark, alongside five billion plant seeds that hold the key to the future of life on Earth. When their charismatic leader’s hidden agenda is revealed it becomes impossible to know who to trust. Those locked out of The Ark become increasingly desperate to enter, while those within begin to yearn for escape. The Ark is a contemporary epistolary novel; the story is revealed through a collection of blog posts, memos, emails, news articles and text messages. The web-based app allows readers to delve deeper into the world of the novel and access audio-visual bonus features, as well as uploading their own fan fiction to continue to develop the world of The Ark.

BRC: I love your monthly edition of “Six Degrees of Separation” on your blog. For those who don’t know about it, might you explain what it is so new readers can stay tuned? While you’re at it, tell us about “Writers Ask Writers” too.

AS: Each month, I select a great book (such as Graeme Simsion’s THE ROSIE PROJECT or Cheryl Strayed’s WILD) and link it to six other books in a chain, using any connections that spring to mind --- settings, themes, titles, cover art, or even more personal connections. For example, I once connected two books because I read them both while on my honeymoon. It’s interesting to see where I end up, that is, which book has six degrees of separation from my starting point. I invite other bloggers to create and share their own chains, starting with the same book, and the different paths they go down are fascinating to see.

In Perth, we have a wonderful community of writers who I have met over the last few years. Each month, a group of six or seven of us choose an aspect of the writing life, and each share a post on it --- such as where we work, our approach to research, our best-loved books from childhood, or even which writer we would like to live a day in the life of. We call these posts “Writers Ask Writers.”

BRC: What’s next for you?

AS: I have two works-in-progress right now. The first is a contemporary take on the classic epic quest in which a trio of unlikely heroes must join forces to overthrow a sadistic cult before a tsunami destroys their city. It’s kind of wild by my standards! The other is the story of a mother and wife who feels stuck in a rut and turns to a self-help tarot to shake things up, with somewhat disastrous effects!