From Bookseller and Publisher

Reviewer Max Oliver described first-time author Felicity Volk’s book Lightning (Picador)an ‘ambitious, finely written novel’ that tells the story of ‘two outsiders finding each other’. He spoke to the author.

Your publisher is categorising this novel as ‘magic realism’. Was this your intention when writing the book? 

I’m not sure I had any specific intentions when I sat down to write Lightning. Certainly I had no plan to write in the magic realism genre, much as I love to read it—Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (Penguin) are favourites. I had no narrative arc, no plot map and I knew only two of the characters who would populate my pages: Persia and her daughter. I simply had a seed—one you might pick up from a forest floor, wondering what it would grow into if given light, warmth, moisture and time; most importantly, time.  

The label ‘magic realism’ is interesting. Some readers baulk at it (some writers too) without really knowing what they are resisting. The incarnations of magic realism are so variable. Lightning contains features of this genre—exalted realities and surreal coincidences, fantasy married to the commonplace—set within the contemporary narrative. The novel contains a series of stories within stories, like a babushka doll. In some cases, these tales occupy the fringes of ordinary reality. And they link enigmatically across time and place because, as Ahmed observes to Persia, we are all connected as players in a generational cosmic drama.

I’ve written in the blurry landscape between the real and the surreal, because that’s the territory I inhabit. I have a profound sense of the invisible forces that surround us, moving the world’s inhabitants. Life would be exceedingly grey without the mystery of serendipity and synchronicity, the captivating impulse of dreams and passion. 

Within the novel we find several extended tales. Are these original, or did you come across them during your travels? 

Completely original. I first travelled overseas at the age of seven when my family toured Europe in a Bedford campervan. That whetted my appetite for the peculiar charms of itinerancy, and steered me towards my professional life as a diplomat. I’ve travelled extensively for both work and pleasure, but all the stories in Lightning come from the other journeying I’ve done—within myself, across the unpredictable terrain of imagination. None of the people or tales in my novel resemble those I encountered overseas, but I hope they invoke the mystery and magic of experiences I’ve navigated. One of the greatest pleasures of writing Lightning was to chase the white rabbit down his hole into Wonderland to see where he led. 

You incorporate the early history of Afghans in Australia into your narrative. How available is this history to anyone who may be interested? 

For most elements of our culture and history, however obscure, there is a wealth of information which some dedicated researcher has thankfully published. But you need to be lucky and stumble across it, or know where to look. With the research for Lightning, the former applied. In fact, I acquired a wonderful book about Australia’s Afghan cameleers some 15 years before I began to write Lightning. I chanced on Christine Stevens’ Tin Mosques and Ghantowns: A History of the Afghan Cameldrivers in Australia (OUP) around the time that I accompanied a Pakistani official on a visit to Australia. He was interested in the early Afghanistan-Australia connection and, shortly after he returned to Pakistan, I noticed Christine’s book in a shop. Serendipity. I bought a copy to send to him but ended up keeping it myself. Since Tin Mosques’ publication in 1989, significant research into Australia’s Muslim cameleering heritage has been conducted, including an exhibition titled Australia’s Muslim Cameleers: Pioneers of the Inland 1860s-1930s, curated by the South Australian Museum in 2007 (Wakefield Press). 

What was the last book you read and loved? 

That’s surprisingly tough. I have to track back to identify a book I’ve really fallen in love with. I recently reread Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus (Text), and was awed again by his glorious imagination and quiet elegance. Lately, I’ve been in something of a book-loving wilderness. Perhaps because my focus has been so exclusively on the process of picking Lightning apart (the editorial effort to make it more pristine), it’s been hard to read anything without the same critical, interrogative eye I’ve been applying to my own work.

The tangible record of how much I love a book is the extent of dog-earing of pages and sentence underlining I inflict on whatever I’m reading (does this out me as a fugitive from ereaders?). On that score, Heather Rose’s The River Wife (A&U), Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World (Harper Perennial), Julian Barnes’ The Lemon Table (Vintage) and any collection by Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro are frontrunners. They are books that make you weep with the exquisite pain of being human. When you read them, you feel as if inhabited by the author. It’s a beautiful and terrifying sensation to be known so deeply by a stranger.