Reading someone’s words can be a very intimate experience for a reader. You are allowed, if for a moment, to experience their thoughts, emotions and experiences through their lens. It can be both rewarding and frustrating, perhaps solidifying your own thoughts or perhaps so completely oppositional that you are angry. This intimacy is the centre of The Children’s House, something I could not wait to bring up as I chatted to the author, Alice Nelson, over the phone.
Softly spoken and thoughtful, Nelson is as delightful as her characters that hide between her pages. As she explains, “it is always nerve wracking putting it [her work] into the world.” It’s easy to imagine her in the brownstone that is central to the story, working with the very people she has written about.
Which is how we came to what inspired the novel; herself and her lived experience.
“It was very much based on my life, in that I’d moved to Harlem from Perth after finishing university and I worked with refugees and asylum seekers once there,” she says. “Whilst I didn’t set out to intentionally write about that experience, I found all these complex and intense friendships with various people I was working with.”
Nelson took these real experiences and fashioned them into The Children’s House, weaving a complicated and intriguing tale around Marina and the colourful people she meets and makes her life with. The novel is emotional and Nelson’s writing style easily draws you in, to invest in the people she introduces to you. Of course, when writing about real people, there is a certain level of honesty that must be kept for the story to remain realistic and a balance must be kept so that the story remains a tale and not an autobiography.
“I found it harder to write the real stuff, because I obviously wasn’t putting it out wholesale on the page, as it happened,” Nelson explains. “I was however, influenced by the story and this idea that I could tell my own kind of story. But it also belonged to other people and it wasn’t really mine to tell. It made it much easier to make things up in the end.”
As the reader turns the page, it is impossible to distinguish the imagined from the real, Nelson having blended a very real and human struggle that could apply to anyone – the true magic of the story.
Every writer has their demon and Nelson explains that the real reason you won’t find much dialogue in the pages of her novels is “because with all the things I write, I hate writing dialogue. I find it so difficult and I wish that I didn’t have to do it.”
This works in favour of her style – you won’t find the novel lacking in any way. If anything, the introspective nature of Nelson’s writing makes the characters come alive.
“I guess it influenced my writing, the sense that it helps focus on the intense ideas, difficult concepts and personal things that are happening all at the same time.”
We discussed the timeliness of her book given the recent Nobel Peace Prize winners; Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, for their ‘efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war’. Given the backstory of some of Nelson’s characters, it serves to highlight the ever-relevant themes of racial division and continued hope of the human race.
“I am interested in that notion of kindness and what that means and what our responsibilities are to treat other people with compassion and generosity. It’s so easy to forget that,” she says.
In the end, The Children’s House is a pleasure for anyone to read. Nelson has done a fantastic job and hopes that everyone can connect with her characters much as she can, “because they feel completely real to me. It’s been years and it’s nice to know that other people can connect to them too.”
Interviewed by Zoe Butler
The Children’s House, by Alice Nelson, was released in October 2018 through Penguin Random House Australia and is available now.