Joanna Murray-Smith is a Melbourne-based playwright, screenwriter and novelist. Her plays have been produced all over the world. Her most recent play is Bombshells which was staged at the Arts Theatre in London in autumn 2004. Joanna has written for ABC and SBS television and recently completed a Hollywood screenplay. Her previous novels are Truce and Judgement Rock. Her latest novel Sunnyside, is published by Penguin.
Will the printed word endure?
Always. It gives such scope to detail, to subtlety, to the imagination of the receiver. And it's very democratic, since it can travel, come home with you and be borrowed, unlike so many other art forms.
Which newspaper do you read?
I read the Melbourne Age everyday. I read the New York Times often and sometimes the Guardian and the Independent. My favourite sections are the NY Times Sunday Styles section, where they show photos and tell the backstories to the weddings that week... there are so many good plots there waiting to be written, and also the Corrections column. I' m fascinated by the painstaking commitment to fact, when my life is all about the rampant imagination! When I'm travelling, I love the Herald Tribune because it's so economical in terms of space and the writing is always excellent. In magazines I always read the New Yorker and British Vogue -- a great mix!
Who/What is your biggest influence?
My parents, to be boring. They lived and breathed the world of books. My father was a literary editor and our house had floor to ceiling books in every room. I was read to every night and learned, subliminally, the most important aspects of storytelling and the sheer power of words. I was very lucky to be raised by people who considered writing to be the most valuable of pursuits and who believed passionately in the ability of language to transform lives, to get to the heart of existence, to make you laugh and to entertain. With Sunnyside, I suppose many of the great American chroniclers of the suburbs influenced me. John Updike and John Cheever wrote about middle class people in the affluent suburbs with such delicacy and humour and humanity that they made this milieu profound. I've always been very attracted to that world where external privilege is punctuated by dark inner lives and secrets.
What books are you reading at the moment?
I've just read Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep -- a brilliant portrayal of a young girl outsider at a fancy American prep-school. The detail in the evocation of youth, the tremendous sadness and ambivalence in growing up as well as the exhilaration of coming into your identity is marvellously rendered. It's simultaneously hilarious and painful. I've also just finished Neil Cross's amazing memoir Heartland -- another story of growing up, but this one summons the strange influence of parents and the pain of having to form yourself in their shadows. So much of who we become is in how we define ourselves against our parents, as well as all the surreptitious ways we grow into them. Neil Cross had a sadistic, racist con-man for a step-father, but he was also extremely good at fathering in many ways. Neil summons the ambiguity of parenting, and the complexity of human beings, who cannot escape their demons. This book was incredibly disturbing, but so powerful and unsentimental. I just read aloud How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff to my son. It's a funny, moving, sprightly and powerful story of a young American girl who arrives in England during a war -- it's an audacious mix, since the time is now and it raises the painful but intriguing question: how would young people now be different if they were exposed to the same global events as their grandparents? I also read a lot of plays... I've just read Martin McDonough's remarkable The Pillowman.
What books did you read as a child?
The classics: the Pooh books, The Wind in the Willows, Tintin, Babar, Marmaduke the cat. Milly Molly Mandy, My Naughty Little Sister. Later C.S. Lewis and Arthur Ransom and Enid Blyton. A friend of mine had the Eloise books, which were not famous (ouside the US) in those days. I used to pour over them and I'm sure that my twin passions for New York and grand hotels is entirely due to Eloise.
Which literary character would you most like to meet?
All of the Jane Austen heroines, especially Emma. On second thoughts, I think I want to be them, not meet them.
Which authors do you most admire?
I adore Shirley Hazzard, who wrote my favourite novel The Transit of Venus. I suppose my desert island writer would have to be Jane Austen. And in playwrighting, Chekhov and Edward Albee. I also love Molly Keane, Nancy Mitford, Alice Munro, Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, Ian McKewen, John Updike, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates... I could go on and on.
Where/When do you do most of your writing?
Anywhere, any time. I've trained myself to be able to write inside my head as I walk across the park to collect my son from school, to write in my head when the lights are off and I'm in bed, to write a paragraph at a stop light, in a queue, or doing Pilates. With three young children, if I wasn't immensely flexible and focussed, I wouldn't be publishing any novels!