INTERVIEW: T.A.G. Hungerford Award winner Natasha Lester

What prompted you to change careers and become a writer?
It was partly to do with a coincidence of timing and partly to do with finally being confident enough to pursue a dream.

My husband and I were living in Melbourne where I was the Brand Manager for Maybelline cosmetics. But then we had to come back to Perth for his work. So my choices were: look for a job in Perth or try something new. I’ve loved to read ever I was a child and so writing was something I’d always wanted to do, and had always talked about doing. I knew if I didn’t take the chance offered to me by my sudden unemployment then I probably never would.

So I went back to uni to study creative writing, to find out if it was something I enjoyed and to find out if I was any good at it. Luckily for me I loved it and I think maybe I’m okay at it!

You deal with some tough and sensitive material in this novel. What were the main challenges for you when writing?
The biggest challenge for me was working out how to actually write a book! When I began writing What is Left Over, After all I had in my head was the character of Gaelle and her unreliable, at times abrasive, but often utterly charming voice. I also knew that I wanted to write about the kinds of mothers whose stories we don’t often hear – no yummy mascara-ed mummies with perfect children. But I had no plot, no idea where to start, and not a clue where it might end. So it was hard for me to trust that if I just kept writing, it would all work itself out.

Redrafting is actually a lot less stressful because at least you have the bare bones of the story in front of you. First drafts are, for me, like diving into mud; you can’t see where you’re going and you’re constantly afraid that you might just get stuck and never be able to find your way out.

The idea of storytelling weaves through the novel in magical stories and childhood re-tellings. What is the role of storytelling in this novel?
Mothers have always played such an important role in storytelling and in passing on stories to their children. So this was where the idea initially came from. Then I discovered wonder tales, which I refer to in What is left over, after, stories that were almost the precursors for fairytales, stories that were primarily told by women. But somehow these stories and the women who told them got a little lost in history, which is really a metaphor for the way stories work in my novel.

Each of the main characters in the book – Gaelle, Lili, Selena – relies on storytelling to some extent to make sense of themselves and their lives. They’re not always aware that they’re telling stories, or that they’re being told a story, and they each get a little lost in their stories. By the end of the book, the three women have to work out whether storytelling will, for them, feed a damaging delusion or save a life.

At one point Gaelle says, ‘Mothers don’t always behave the way they do in stories.’ How important is this idea to the novel?
Very important. The story of motherhood that we are most often presented with through the media is, I think, very narrow; it’s either too glossy or too idealised. How many ‘yummy mummies’ do you really know? How many women have immaculately coiffured hair, a face full of makeup and are wearing size zero jeans just a week after giving birth?

Or then there’s the perfect mother story, with its longstanding roots in images of the Madonna and Child, a passive women consigned to spend eternity with her eyes rapturously downcast to her baby. There’s so much more to motherhood than this.

These stories exclude lots of mothers. So I wanted to write about other kinds of mothers. I wanted to tell stories about some of the hidden facets of motherhood, facets that we should talk more about, if given the opportunity to do so.

How has your own experience of motherhood impacted on your novel?
I began writing the novel before I had children. I think this was a huge benefit to me because I could imagine my way into the issues in the novel rather than being restricted by my own experiences of motherhood.

But I re-wrote it after I had children, which was also very important because it meant that what began as imagination could then be embellished by experience. There is one part of the novel, for example, which is absolutely drawn from life. It’s the scene where a pregnant Gaelle is sitting at home glugging laxatives, fainting and hobbling from back pain. I think I might have given her heartburn as well, just to really make her feel terrible, but otherwise I could have been writing about any one of my pregnancies!

How did the character of Selena come into being and develop?
Selena was a wonderful gift from my writing muse. I was in the middle of a month long writing residency to work on the first draft of the novel. At that stage I had the characters of Gaelle, Jason, Lili and Gaelle’s grandparents on paper but I had no notion whatsoever of Selena.

I began to write one of the scenes at Siesta Park and this girl, Selena, appeared on the page. So I just kept writing to see what would happen. She began to pop up on the page every time I wrote a scene set in Siesta Park. And the more I wrote about her, the more I loved her and so she became, completely by chance, one of the shining lights of the novel.

What would you say is the influence of imagination on Gaelle’s life?
I think one of Gaelle’s strong points is that she has a rich imagination. It is also one of her weaknesses. The entire story of What is left over, after comes from Gaelle’s imagination and we can never be sure of the extent to which she has adorned the truth. When she meets Jason, for instance, she describes him and their love almost as if it were a myth or a fable. She imagines what she might be like as a mother, sometimes persuading herself that she will be just like her own mother, and at other times dreaming that she will be entirely different. She’s unable to escape from the gift of imagination that her mother has given her and nor would she want to, because who wants a life without fantasy?

If (hypothetically) you were going to run away, where would you go?
I think about this all the time! And it’s never a particular geographic location that I dream about, but more a wonderful imaginary place. This place would have a bath full of warm water and bubbles. The bath would be surrounded by bookshelves filled with all the books I want to read but never have time for. And I would be in the bath, book in one hand and glass of champagne in the other. There would be no sound except the turning of the pages of my book, the splash of bubbles in the bath and the sipping of champagne. Right, I’m packing my bags now!

What is left over, after is available now.

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