Before turning her hand to fiction writing, Kate Murdoch exhibited widely as a painter. Her novels include Stone Circle, a historical fantasy novel set in Renaissance Italy, and The Orange Grove, about the passions and intrigues of court mistresses in 18th century France. Kate spoke with the Broad about writing, creativity and finding inspiration in the latest Creative Women at Work interview series.
Tell us about your latest book, The Orange Grove.
The Orange Grove tells the story of a group of mistresses living in a château in 18th century France. When a new mistress arrives, the duke is infatuated and the duchesse starts a malicious campaign against her. Her friend and eldest mistress, Henriette, stands by the girl which puts her position at the château and that of her daughter in danger.
Can you share your process for writing fiction?
I start with research into my chosen period and country. I usually spend about six months on this before starting to write as I need the information to ‘percolate’ in my mind. I also continue to research as I write because this fuels my plotting and ideas. In terms of the work flow itself, I write a minimum of five hundred words in a day. Over time, these small efforts add up to a draft.
Does your process differ depending on whether you’re writing a novel, a short story or flash fiction?
Yes, most definitely. I don’t generally need to research for short stories or flash, depending on the piece. It’s a much more fluid process of just allowing the story to emerge. For both, I need something thematic to inspire me, an overarching purpose or message to the narrative.
Where do you develop your ideas from for your fiction?
Each project is different and has a unique starting point. For my first novel Stone Circle, I began with a dream, then pinpointed specifics and time period. For The Orange Grove, the story evolved from my love of all things French, from speaking the language, and my fascination with French history, specifically the period during Louis XIV’s reign. It was a decadent period, but the society was very unequal and the struggle to maintain position created a lot of tension. I wanted to explore how this might have impacted peoples’ behaviour and relationships.
Why the move from fine arts to writing?
I had been exhibiting as a painter for fourteen years and loved expressing myself visually. Yet, after I had children, there were many thoughts, feelings and ideas that I felt were better expressed in words. I was able to be more specific and I’ve found it more satisfying in terms of actually connecting with people. I can’t decorate my home with my books, but the writing community is very cohesive, and my life has become more outward as a result of the change.
Photography, graphic design, painting, writing – do you enjoy having artistic interests in many forms?
Yes, I do. I’ve always moved between these different mediums and consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to have experienced them all in my life. At this point in time, I’m the most focused on writing, but I know my painting is there for me if I feel like a slower, more meditative means of expression.
How does travel inform your work?
Quite a lot. My travels to Italy and France over the years informed the writing of my first two novels and gave me both a visual and cultural understanding. My next novel is set in Sicily which I visited on a research trip last year, and I’m also working on a dual timeline project set partially in Croatia, which I also had the privilege of seeing last year. It would be easier to set stories in Australia, but I love the process of finding out small details about places, their histories, and their varied customs. It’s also a good excuse to travel!
Do you think it’s still harder for women to succeed in the arts?
I think it’s improved a lot. There are many successful women authors and I haven’t personally experienced prejudice. It’s important to just get on with our work, produce the highest quality writing we can, and let it be judged on its merit. Having said that, women’s fiction is sometimes taken less seriously than literary fiction, so it would be great if there was more openness to the literary merit of a larger variety of women’s stories from authors of all backgrounds and ages.
How important is creativity to you?
It’s integral to my sense of balance and happiness. I feel like something is ‘off’ if I’m not being creative. I’ve been this way for most of my life and it’s unlikely to change. Luckily, I have a family who understand this about me and don’t mind when I am absorbed in a project—I can come across as only half present as I try and work out where a story is headed.
Are you working or thinking about the next book?
Yes, as I mentioned, I have two projects at the moment. The Glasshouse is finished and is in edits at the moment with beta readers. It’s about a girl orphaned by the 1908 Messina earthquake in Sicily who is adopted by a wealthy Palermo family. The other untitled project is a quarter of the way in and is set in wartime Croatia and 1960’s Melbourne.