Updated on May 19, 2015
An interview with Rowena Wiseman
It’s time for my first interview of 2014! This month I’m talking to Rowena Wiseman, a writer of literary fiction and children’s stories. She also writes plenty of great advice for writers trying to get published, on her blog Out Of Print Writing.
Searching for Von Honningsbergs was longlisted for the 2007 Australian Vogel Award and has been published exclusively on Screwpulp, an exciting crowd-driven publishing platform that markets and builds demand for each book. Readers rate and review books, and the best books move up the rankings to a higher-tiered price.
Searching for Von Honningsbergs is told from the perspective of Lawson, a gallery-worker who travels around the world to acquire works of art by artist Von Honningsberg. Lawson paints the people and locations he encounters on his journey, and eventually uncovers a rather unsavoury plot that traces back to his gallery in Australia.
The narrator of this novel is an artist, Lawson, and the entire book revolves around his paintings. Are you from an artistic background?
I’m not an artist myself but I’ve always been interested in art. I read an article in the newspaper about a curator who was sent overseas to find paintings for a Sidney Nolan exhibition and this inspired my story. I wrote the first draft and soon after I went for a job interview at a regional art gallery as an editor. I had no actual experience in the visual arts sector, but in desperation I said that I’d written a novel about a curator. Funnily enough I landed the job! A friend later said that this was my life imitating my art.
I’ve been working at the gallery for over eight years now. It’s a fantastic job and I’m always learning about different artists as we have about twenty exhibitions a year. Somehow artists are always creeping into my stories now – I think it’s because often they live outside the norm and I find this really interesting.
When you were writing, which ideas came to you first: the paintings or the stories?
The first few versions of my novel were just the straight story of Lawson’s journey. The idea to structure the novel around each of Lawson’s paintings didn’t come to me until much later and this required a major rewrite.
I’m the type of person that always looks at a label before I look at an artwork in an exhibition. I like to read about a work first and find out the story before I look at a painting. But I’m not always satisfied with what I read on didactic labels; sometimes I find it confusing, or somewhat meaningless. I have this burning desire to find out ‘well, what’s the story here?’ So I guess, that’s why I decided to structure my novel as I did.
This novel is one artist’s attempt to control how his work is interpreted. Do you think any artist can succeed at this?
No, I don’t think any artist can really control how their work is interpreted. Once it’s out in the public domain it’s fair game.
Did you travel to any of the places in this book?
I’ve travelled to all the places in Searching for Von Honningsbergs. I was an exchange student in Liepaja in Latvia for a year when I was 16, so Liepaja has a very dear place in my heart. I made some wonderful friends and got similarly confused by the Russian/Latvian dynamic there, as Lawson does. When I was 20 I went and worked as a kids’ summer camp coordinator at Lake Baikal in Siberia. I had a few bunya experiences by the lake (a Russian sauna – I got hit with birch leaves, told to drink shots of vodka and jump in the deepest lake in the world in the dark!). I’ve also been to Rio de Janeiro and Beijing and Nanjing – so yes, everywhere Lawson visits have been places that have left strong impressions on me.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I’ve recently written a novella about a war artist, which is loosely based on Scottish war artist Peter Howson’s experience in Bosnia. I’ve also just written a story about a man who has been completely tattooed by an artist and he wants to bequest his skin to the National Gallery of Australia. And I’m currently working on a series of children’s books about kids growing up in the circus.