Shoreline

By Kristel Thornell

© Joi Ong

In the first Clarice Beckett landscape I saw, two trams were passing one another in a milky, bluish haze. The simple scene was somehow recognizably of the early twentieth century, and yet timeless. I had never heard of this Australian, who lived from 1887 to 1935, working for most of the interwar years with breathtaking stamina—despite much criticism for not conforming to the artistic fashions of the day—before she was largely forgotten for decades. Beckett’s paintings are often resolutely spare. They show straightforward stretches of city and suburban road, seaside views, country fields. What is involving and even transcendent about them? Her wondrous restraint and instinct for the moody merging of tones generate atmospheres that are resonant without being quite fathomable. A haunting airiness. The viewer’s imagination is teased beyond those crepuscular streets, or those plain telegraph poles against a rainy sky and sea, the landscapes seeming to only barely belong to the physical world.

Beckett’s quietly heady paintings strike me as images of reverie, exalted introspection, contained yearning. I fancied they also represented the shoreline mingling history and fantasy where the writing of Night Street occurred. I knew I couldn’t have written a novel that kept strict faith with biographical fact. It felt necessary to try to hold the stark facts of her life in a gaze as soft-focused as the one that produced some of the most dreamlike, open-ended meditations on landscape in Australian art.

For more about Thornell and her appearance at IFOA, click here.

Five Questions with… Kristel Thornell

Kristel Thornell will share her debut novel, Night Street, in a reading October 23 and a round table discussion October 27.

© Joi Ong

IFOA: You used to live in Canada. What’s your favourite Canadian pastime?

Thornell: I lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in an apartment overlooking the St. John River. Back then it was watching the river from my windows and long walks, especially in the fall. These days I most often visit Toronto and Montreal, where I love to wander aimlessly and to eat my way through the tantalizing mix of cultures.

IFOA: Night Street is about an Australian landscape painter, Clarice Beckett. What do painters and writers have in common?

Thornell: A lot, I think. In my experience, they seem to share a compulsion to observe, to catch resonant impressions and preserve, shape, communicate and revere them. Perhaps, too, an attraction to intense, transporting experiences.

IFOA: Writers of historical fiction take fact and render it fictional. How do you fictionalize history while maintaining a sense of historical accuracy?

Thornell: It’s tricky. I try to develop a guiding sense of a period, any and every way I can – through fiction and non-fiction, archival material, art, music, food, clothing, and my own experiments with making a voice that seems to belong to it. I aim to see and feel that time as fully as possible, as a vivid three-dimensional space, and then to let my characters move freely there.

IFOA: If you could have lunch with any author, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?

Thornell: Virginia Woolf. I’m a fan. And I imagine it would have been interesting – entertaining or unsettling or both – to be in the company of a mind so sharp and curious.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: One day I will…

Thornell: Write a novel (some sort of mystery involving a translator?) set on a Scottish island. This will require a lengthy stay on such an island, a lot of walking, fireside reading, pots of tea and oatcakes. For research.

IFOA: Bonus question: This year’s International Festival of Authors in one word..

Thornell: Alluring.

For more about Kristel Thornell and her appearance at IFOA, click here.