Australia’s newest literary sensation, Sophie Hardcastle, charts a new course with Below Deck

Sophie Hardcastle. Photo by Charlie Ford.

Sophie Hardcastle. Photo by Charlie Ford.

Poetically confronting, Below Deck, explores themes including consent, trauma and the sea, allowing readers to see how easily bodies – of water, of earth or a human body – are exploited when others feel entitled to them.  Author, artist, screenwriter and scholar, Sophie Hardcastle, shares with us her inspiration for behind Below Deck.

You were programmed to speak at Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). While the event couldn’t go ahead this year, how does it feel now to reach its audiences through podcast?

I’ve dreamt of speaking at SWF for years. Though it happened this year not quite as I imagined, being included in the Festival’s podcast series still felt like a dream come true.

Writer, Bri Lee has said that your novel “has captured the powerful words so many of us struggle to find.” How long did the novel take you to write, and did it prove easier to write as you progressed with it, or more difficult? Did other writers’ works provide inspiration to you?

I wrote the first draft of Below Deck as my research project while studying as a Provost’s Scholar at the University of Oxford in 2018. Their terms there are only eight weeks, so I wrote the draft quite quickly. I spent most of 2019 fleshing out and then paring back the novel in editing. I struggled, as I always have, at the very beginning of the book. I think this struggle comes from not knowing my protagonist yet. As I got to know the contours of her psyche, however, writing a world as seen through her eyes became easier and easier. Poems by Mina Loy, Marianne Moore and H.D. influenced the creation of Below Deck, as did essays by Rebecca Solnit, and a landscape memoir by Tim Winton (Island Home).

How did your experience of writing your first novel for adults, Below Deck, compare to that of writing your previously published works? Have you got plans to return to this genre again?

Writing Below Deck, I thought not only about what I wanted to say, but also how I wanted to say it. I’d previously not given a lot of thought to my craft, but after studying Theory of the Novel at Oxford, I thought seriously for the first time about form and language and structure.

Below Deck was an attempt to mimic how trauma fractures memories, by physically fracturing sentences and images with irregular punctuation. I think of this book as being separate from my other two, not because of its genre or intended audience, but because I thought critically about my craft and experimented with form in a way I never had before.

Below Deck explores the themes of consent, trauma, and the sea. Can you tell us about the thematic connections and how your time studying English Literature at Oxford influenced Oli’s story?

I wanted to write a book about climate change and environmental exploitation. I also wanted to write a book about victim shaming and sexual violence. At the time, I was studying ‘Literature of the Environment’ and was thinking a lot about the intersection of environmentalism and feminism. Below Deck interrogates entitlement, and whether it is a body of water, a body of earth, or a human body, I was interested in showing how easily bodies are exploited when others feel entitled to them.

In 2017, you were an artist in residence in Antarctica, and upon returning, you completed honours in Visual Arts. Having immersed yourself into a practise that was all about colour, can you tell us a bit about how those experiences influenced your writing through your synaesthesia – a trait that both you and Below Deck’s main character has a very close experience with?

I painted the Antarctic peninsular for the whole of 2017. I was doing my honours in visual arts and through my practice, was attempting to unpack, interrogate, and understand my experiences of Antarctica’s sublime icescapes. I listened to recordings of glaciers calving in my studio, and painted glaciers in the colours I heard them cracking in. The thunderous sound of a glacier calving was, to me, seen in pastel pink and vivid violet. Later, in 2018, when I began writing Below Deck, I fell quite naturally into writing through my synaesthesia, because I’d been painting through it for so long.

Below Deck is about who is seen and who isn’t, whose story gets told, and whose story is believed. I chose to give Oli synaesthesia in an effort to tell a story about sexual violence, which I know is familiar to many, in a new way, to show it from a new angle so that we might try to reimagine and rethink its ending.

What have you been reading over recent weeks? Have you returned to any of these writers’ works during lockdown?

Recently, I’ve read Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, Weather, by Jenny Offill, Come, by Rita Therese, and have revisited some of my favourite Rebecca Solnit essays.

Purchase Sophie Hardcastle’s debut novel Below Deck.

Listen to Sydney Wristers’ Festival’s podcast with Sophie Hardcastle.

Image: Sophie Hardcastle. Photo by Charlie Ford.
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