This was a great book to discuss as a group as there are two different ways the book can be read. It was interesting to see how everyone’s experience of the book differed depending on how they read it.
The book can be read front to back as three short stories or in the ‘Baroness sequence’ which takes you on an interweaving journey back and forth through the book to tell one story. For example if you read the book in the Baroness sequence you started on page 150 and after reading four pages you jumped to page 39.
But the great thing we discovered with this book is that no matter how it was read everybody loved it!
Which isn’t always the case with our book club books. A lot of the time the group can be split on loving it or not so it is exciting when a book captures us all.
Thanks to the wonderful people at Pan Macmillan Australia, we were able to interview the author and ask him questions about the novel.
Disclosure; there are a few spoilers in the interview, we recommend reading the book first!
with Alex Landragin
Where did you get the inspiration for Crossings?
This book had many inspirations, but the primary inspiration was two personal tragedies that occurred within a few weeks of each other about six years ago. I prefer not to divulge the details. I was writing a blog at the time called the Daily Fiction Project, where I wrote and published a short story every day, and I decided to keep going when those setbacks occurred. Crossings was inspired by story 151, which in turn was inspired by a story recounted to me third-hand by my creative writing professor in first-year uni, more than a quarter-century ago, which he can no longer remember reading.
Other inspirations include Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘On the Concept of History’, written shortly before his death, not to mention the many migrations that have occurred in my own and my family’s history.
How did you first envision the story being read? As one big interweaving story, as can be read via the Baroness sequence or as three short stories?
Originally it was written as one interweaving story but when I realised I could make it work the other way I thought I had to take that opportunity. Obviously in a way it’s a bit of a gimmick, a marketing device, a unique selling point, blah, blah, blah. In another way, it’s an innovation, something fun and exciting for book lovers. But there are serious implications to the structure as well. Firstly, this is a story about separated lovers, and every story of separated lovers consists of two stories. In a way, the conventional sequence could be seen as Koahu-centric plot-wise, and thematically it’s more cerebral and puzzle-like. The Baroness sequence is more Alula-focused, more romantic and emotional.
There are other dimensions too. This is a story about migration, and every migrant (and arguably every person) knows what it’s like to choose one life over the other – the unchosen life continues to haunt you. Similarly with Crossings, the other sequence haunts you while reading the chosen sequence. This metafictional conceit means the reader is never really allowed to become fully immersed. I don’t want my readers to forget they are reading. I want reading to be more engaged, more critical – because more engaged and critical reading is what is required in this age of deepfakes. Last but not least, the dialectical structure means the book simulates paradox, which is the basis of wisdom (remember Baudelaire’s words? “Paradox, all is paradox”). The book cannot be apprehended as a whole, no matter which way you approach it. This book is at one and the same time both one thing and two things – just like the story of the albatross Alula relates, just like lovers, just like dialectics, just like paradox, just like us, and just like life itself.
This is a very unique way of telling a story; what inspired you to write a book in this manner and how hard was it to make sure everything lined up?
I think I answered the first part of this question in my previous response. The answer to the second part is – it wasn’t that hard! It kind of fell into place. What was hard was making the plot work, but that would have been the case even if the dual structure wasn’t in play
How did you write the book? From cover to cover or bunches of chapters? Was this unique format always going to be the way the book was told?
To begin with, it was written in the Baroness sequence, as I mentioned above. I wrote the beginning (the Preface and the Alula chapter), the ending (Walter Benjamin in the hotel room) and the middle (the Baudelaire story). I wrote most of ‘City of Ghosts’ next (while living in Paris) – that was the hardest section, in a way. Then I wrote the missing chapters in the Albatross section kind of in the order they appear. The Edmonde and Balthazar chapters came quite late and were also very difficult to pull off, as by then I was battling fatigue.
Was it hard to write make two different parts of the story read like endings depending on how readers chose to read it?
Not really – the death of Walter Benjamin was always going to be one ending, and when I decided to restructure it so that I needed a separate ending it was obvious that it was going to be Madeleine vowing to wait for her beloved, which is always an effective way to end a story
What made you choose to include real people from history in the narrative? E.g. Chanel and Charles Baudelaire.
Traditionally, I suppose, novels were either entirely fictional or novelisations of real events. It’s only recently that the two have started to be mixed up together. I’ve personally always had an interest in playing with the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘fake’, and this theme is becoming universal now that we have entered the age of deepfakery. We have entered into a crisis of authenticity – mixing real and fictional characters plays on that anxiety.
The description and portrayal of different places and times in history was done exceptionally well. How much research did you have to do for this and what made you choose the places and times that you did?
I spent a huge amount of time in libraries in Paris, London, Melbourne, Charlottesville and New Orleans. If the book had a bibliography it would run to several pages. I chose the locales because of my initial interest in Walter Benjamin. Benjamin lived in Paris, and as I am French I was happy for the opportunity to write a novel set in the city. He was obsessed with Charles Baudelaire, which meant I could write about Paris a century earlier, as well as Brussels. Jeanne Duval’s origins are uncertain, so as I was living in New Orleans at the time I decided to make her from Louisiana rather than (as many believe) Haiti – but that wasn’t too much of a stretch as New Orleans has historically had close ties to the French Caribbean.
Then there was the story of the island. I spent a lot of time trying to make that element fit in with a real island (I was especially tempted by Easter Island, and considered making its mysterious statues fit in with my story), but in the end, to make it easier for myself, and also to avoid lapsing into colonialist discourse, I invented one.
If we look at the book as three short stories; which would you say was your favourite? Either to write or in general?
I love ‘City of Ghosts’ the best of the three. It’s so atmospheric. In ‘Tales of the Albatross’, I like the Joubert chapter and the Balthazar chapters the most.
How long did it take you to write Crossings?
Five and a half years. If you include the Daily Fiction Project, almost seven.
What made you want to be a writer? Was it something you always wanted to do?
I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was 16. Reading made me want to be a writer, on a surface level, but looking deeper I think it appealed as a way of dealing with the enormous cleavages in my life, especially but not only my childhood. In that respect, it was a very astute choice.
What is your writing process? Do you need to stick to a strict schedule or do you write when inspiration strikes?
I write when I can afford it. I need time – not an hour snatched here or there, but long stretches for my imagination to run free. Schedules don’t work for me – I thrive on chaos. Inspiration is critical, but inspiration must be sought and found.
What are your top five favourite books you’ve read this year?
Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall; Philip Roth – American Pastoral; Ryszard Kapuscinski – Imperium; Gerald Murnane – Border Districts; Haruki Murakami – Kafka on the Shore.
Do you have any future projects in the works that you can tell us about?
I am currently trying to decide between two projects, one (a paranoid thriller) is probably best suited to the screen and another (a sequel to Crossings) would of course be a novel.
Is there anything you would like to say to your readers?
Thank you. Also, kudos, Crossings is a challenging read – I hope you found it rewarding. But mostly thank you, not just for me but also and more importantly for helping to keep book culture strong.
BOOKS WE ARE LOVING
Each month at book club we talk about and share with the group what books we have read in the last month and loved!
Here are the books the Cosy Reading Book Club attendees have been enjoying:
- The Blue Rose by Kate Forsyth
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- Bridget Crack by Rachel Leary
- The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse
- Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
- The Storm Crow by Kalyn Josephson
Keep tuned for next month when we discuss Shepherd by Catherine Jinks!