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A Reluctant First Lady: Fiona Capp discusses ‘Gotland’

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fiona capp

In the middle of the Baltic sea lies Sweden’s largest island, Gotland. It’s a wild place, lashed by unpredictable weather, with high, rocky escarpments, medieval churches and towers, cobbled streets, a fortress dating from the Middle Ages and vast expanses of beach that spread out to sea.

Novelist Fiona Capp knows Gotland well. She’s been there three times and is fascinated by its limestone cliffs and timeless presence. Gotland is a refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life. Wandering through the winding streets, gazing at the turrets of its ancient buildings, you’re transported back into a long-lost European fairy-tale. The hazy light and grey landscape of this bleak yet magical space could not be more different from Australia.

Gotland is also the title of Fiona Capp’s new novel. It’s where her heroine, Esther, escapes to after her politician husband David is elected leader of his party, and just before he wins the general election. A shy and private soul, Esther’s uncomfortable with the spotlight. No-one could be a more reluctant prime ministerial consort. She just wants to continue teaching her Year 9s and negotiate the difficult adolescence of her fourteen-year old daughter, Kate. This polarisation of private versus public selves is at the heart of the novel.

Capp could not have known, when she was writing the novel, about the current state of Australian politics, when so much debate has focussed recently on the way in which the media have portrayed the former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the curiosity and speculations over her private life and her very public ousting from government. But she admits to being curious about the partners of politicians, and their ability to cope with the intensity of public scrutiny.

“There is so little privacy today”, says Capp. “The intrusiveness of social media, the constant media gaze trained on public figures, the way you’re being judged and publicly discussed was something I wanted to explore. It’s something I understand because as a writer, I have a very private life when I’m working on a book, yet once it’s published there are interviews, public appearances, readings, signings – not all writers are comfortable with this”.

You sense that Capp feels a touch uneasy with the publicity demands of book tours and writers festivals herself. She’d much rather be scribbling in her retreat, a room in a Fitzroy hotel. Her partner, the novelist Steven Carroll, writes at home, but she prefers “getting up and going to work, I like that discipline of going somewhere else specifically to write”. A quietly-spoken woman, she becomes animated when talking about Gotland and the themes of the novel. It’s a book about different kinds of love, conjugal, the love between siblings, parents and children, as well as the unexpected, heady rush of sexual attraction between two people.

The novel examines the way love, and ideals, change over time. After twenty years of marriage, Esther begins an affair with Sven, an artist who lives in Gotland. In this relationship, she’s trying to recapture the raw passion she and David had in their youth, not simply for each other, but for life in general. Both active in student politics, she and David had believed that anything was possible. Yet with the passing of time, they have both had to accommodate, make do. Sven, too, no longer takes the kinds of risks he faced when he was younger, creating anonymous, pop-up sculptures that sprouted overnight in the landscape. He also learns the importance of playing by the rules. No-one has absolute freedom to do exactly what they want.

So is this a novel about the inevitability of compromise? Capp smiles. We can’t escape the pressures of society, she says. “But of course passion is reignited in subsequent generations – Kate, Esther’s daughter, is also an idealist. As a graffiti artist, it’s true she breaks the law, but she means well, her motives are pure.”

Capp is well-known for her memorable evocations of place. Her novel Night Surfing and her non-fiction work, That Oceanic Feeling, both captured the wonder and mystery of the sea. Her love of the ocean was forged during holidays as a child at her grandparent’s Mornington Peninsula retreat. This intimate connection with the coast can also be seen in her descriptions of Gotland, all sea mist and brackish waves, lowering sky and chill, biting air. You could step out of the pages of the novel directly into that vividly poetic yet tangible landscape.

Our expectations of life may alter as we age, but everyone needs a special place to dream, says Capp, a place where they can be themselves. Perhaps one of the take-away messages of the novel is that even for a day or two, we are all entitled to get off today’s frantic merry-go-round and experience our own, personal Gotland.

Gotland is published by Fourth Estate,  $24.99

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Author: Dina Ross

Dina is a writer, reviewer, journalist and broadcaster. It goes without saying that she loves books. Her blog, Books Now! can be viewed on www.dinaross.com.au and offers news, reviews and interviews with writers from around the corner to across the world.

9 thoughts on “A Reluctant First Lady: Fiona Capp discusses ‘Gotland’

  1. Sounds terrific! Finland appeals to me straight away, I’ve looked across that expanse of ocean from St Petersburg, and even on a sunny day it seemed a desolate stretch of water. And such a prescient topic… it goes straight onto my wish-list …
    Have you read Fiona Capp’s memoir of Judith Wright, My Blood’s Country? I loved that book, see http://wp.me/phTIP-35q.

    • Hi Lisa – I’ve been a fan of Capp’s for a while and My Blood’s Country is a wonderful account of a very special friendship and an unique talent. When I first came to Melbourne, I flicked through a poetry anthology and discovered Judith Wright’s poem “Woman To Man”. It absolutely blew me away and I had to read ALL of her and find out about this extraordinary woman. I still think Wright is one of the world’s finest 20th century poets and she should be much better known outside Australia. Capp recounted to me how she wrote to Wright after JW came and spoke at Assembly when she was still at school and their friendship developed from there. I confess to being very jealous, I would love to have met her! I was toying with somehow introducing My Blood’s Country into this post, but there seemed to be no link. Thanks for bringing it up!

  2. I’ve read about this book and thought it sounded interesting. Your review has confirmed that. Do you like the style of writing? I’ve guessing you do from your comment regarding her evocation of place. Place is pretty important to me in reading.

    I haven’t yet read My blood’s country, but it’s on the pile. I love Judith Wright’s poetry – the sheer diversity of it is amazing, from the highly personal to the overtly political to the beautifully natural (often but not always overlapping). Did you see the wonderful program about her and Coombs recently (on the ABC – Artscape).

    • Hi Sue – no, I missed the ABC programme but I’ll try and chase it up, thanks for pointing this out. Capp is superb at evoking place and she obviously has an affinity for rugged coastal landscapes, so if you enjoy descriptive writing, you should enjoy this novel.

      • I do enjoy descriptive writing, so I’ll keep it on my radar. I hope you manage to track down the program. It was really very good (well, I thought so, anyhow).

  3. Hello SW – thanks for stopping by. This was definitely an interview, not a review! I’m hoping to bring both reviews and interviews to Books Now! and my policy is never to review a book after I’ve interviewed the author (although I have occasionally reviewed and interviewed subsequently) – I think biases can show themselves unconsciously if you meet people face to face. Thanks for accepting my invite and I am now following you.

  4. I have put this on my ever-growing “must read” list! I love the idea of escape, and think it needs to be a wild place for me, too – or perhaps a small, sleepy town.

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