Alumna in Focus - Delia Falconer

9 June 2011

University of Sydney graduate Dr Delia Falconer has fast become one of Australia's most critically acclaimed writers. Best known for her ability to bring the reader right to the heart of her characters through her poetic writing and strong principled observations, Delia's best- selling novel, The Service of Clouds (1997), has been shortlisted for many of Australia's major literary awards. These include: the Miles Franklin Award; NSW Premier's Literary Awards; Victorian Premier's Literary Awards; and the Australian Booksellers' Book of the Year; and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers (2005), shortlisted among other awards for the Spur Award for Best Short Western Novel (US) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Now a Senior Lecturer at UTS, Falconer has edited and contributed stories to numerous short story collections, as well as writing as a critic for publications such as The Australian Literary Review, The Monthly, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Fellow literary critic Peter Craven has described Delia as "The young Australian writer who has arguably done most to put her signature on the literary of this country."

Delia's most recent book, Sydney, is her first non-fiction offering, and brings to the fore her talent for articulating the unspoken landscape, that leaves even the most familiar Sydney-sider with an altered view of their city. (Read the Sydney Alumni Magazine Review)

Below she shares with us happy memories from her times spent first studying an Arts Law degree and later converting to a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) at the University of Sydney, and the journey she has travelled to becoming one of Australia's most eminent authors.

A Conversation with Novelist Delia Falconer

What are your happiest memories about your time here as a student?

For me the happiest times weren't in the classroom, but being involved in all the other things that for me are essential parts of university life: conversations in the sun, editing Hermes, the student literary magazine, watching the student reviews and plays at the Footbridge Theatre... and reading, always reading. One of the best things that happened to me as an undergraduate was becoming part of a small writing group that met at the Harold Park Hotel — not necessarily to talk about writing, but to be around other people who wrote, and cared about it. I remember one night, after Writers in the Park had finished, a few of us co-opted the empty stage, which was still spotlit. Some of the others encouraged me up to read. It was a huge thing for me — a big step.

Who was your favourite Professor whilst you were a student at the University of Sydney and why?

The best year of my arts degree was the year I drifted from the English Department to the Fine Arts (now the Art History & Film) department, before doing honours; something I owe to free education. The Fine Arts department was kind and flexible enough to let me do first and second year concurrently. The whole department was immersed in the high theory moment, and Alan Cholodenko, Rex Butler and Keith Broadfoot's film class was the place to be. We'd have a one-hour lecture, then watch a film or films, then have a tute for another hour — and often that tute would end up migrating down to the Manning Bar veranda. I just said that my happiest times were outside the classroom, but now I'm going to contradict myself. These classes were among the best times of my academic life. I think it would be fair to say that this is where, for the first time, I began to really think. I loved the intellectual seriousness (which was often quite competitive) of this subject; I loved the course materials, which would consist of around 5 hard articles per week, and an optional folder of 10 or so additional readings that we could photocopy for ourselves. I still have very fond memories of the quiet seriousness of the tiny Fine Arts library where they were kept. My lifelong love of film began here, and, I think, my sense of the visual possibilities of prose fiction. I ended up being awarded prizes in first year fine arts and film, but, perhaps oddly, didn't stay. Novels still had too much of a hold over me. Though, when I went to Melbourne Uni, my PhD thesis on the road in American and Australian post-war culture examined both literature and film.

What is your proudest achievement?

Too personal to share — but in terms of my writing career, I'm perhaps fondest of my second novel, The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, which enters into the secret conversations and thoughts of men, and takes what I hope is a new look at America's Indian Wars. This was my hardest book to write. For me the imaginative leap into an entirely other world is when writing is most satisfying.

Tell us more about yourself and how you began writing and chose this path which led you to become a well respected novelist?

I had written at Sydney University, and had my first small encouragements there, through its publications and competitions. But when I finished my PhD at Melbourne University in 1994 I was still on the career path as a cultural studies academic. I guess life chose for me, because that year I had two wins in two big national essay and short story competitions (the Island Essay Competition and the inaugural HQ/Joop! Short Story Competition). I came back from the Island presentation at the Adelaide Festival with an excellent agent; then went on to receive an Australia Council Grant. So within two weeks of finishing my PhD I was in the Blue Mountains researching and writing The Service of Clouds. I guess this says two things about me. First, that I'm not a planner, but tend to follow my interests. Second, that I don't see an enormous gulf between non-fiction and fiction writing, or ideas and fiction. To me all writing is on a spectrum, albeit with different audiences, and it's always ideas, and clarity of expression, that drive me.

What has been the most memorable success you have had?

I tend not to look backward — I'm usually thinking about the next project.

What is the mantra you live by?

No mantra, although I did feel enormously liberated when my PhD supervisor once said to me, when I was filled with angst, "It's just a thesis." Sometimes I repeat to myself, over and over, "It's just a novel", which is a way of forcing myself to get on with the craft and not take myself, or my work, too seriously. (Which is not to say that I don't paralyse myself with anxiety at times!)

What are your plans for the future?

I'm trying to engage creatively with Japan — and finding it fiendishly difficult.

What drives you?

I alternate, I'm afraid to say, between drive and long periods of torpor. It's not the most professional way to write, but I have to fall in love with my subject matter. Then I'm driven by wanting to know as much as I can about it and finding a form to express that passion.

What advice would you give to students graduating from the University of Sydney?

I don't know that I have much advice for graduates. But for people still studying I'd say that it's possibly a good idea not to be too directed; it's often the byways of study, or university life that yield the greatest returns in later life.