Parting Words - Cass Moriarty interviewed by Sally Piper
Sally Piper talks to Cass Moriarty about her latest novel Parting Words (UQP 2017).
In Parting Words, three siblings fulfil the posthumous wishes of their father, Daniel Whittaker, to hand-deliver his letters, content unknown, to people who are strangers to them. They discover much about the man they thought they knew.
What motivated you most when writing Parting Words: showing how personal histories define people or the need some people have to unburden themselves of those histories?
The book began with an idea about someone keeping large parts of his life hidden from his loved ones until after his death. I was interested in his motivations, and how they would affect his children and their perceptions of him. As the story developed, his children’s evolving concept of their father took shape, redefining him as father, husband and man.
We sometimes know so little about those close to us. Our representations of our personal histories define us more than the actual histories – what we choose to share, the prism through which we allow others to view us. To choose to divulge our secrets only after death is powerful.
If Daniel had been living when his secrets were revealed do you think their impact upon his children would have been so great?
Perhaps not. Daniel kept secrets for many reasons: shame, pride, loyalty, humiliation, kindness. He retained control of how much he told, therefore avoiding confrontation and questions from his children.
The recipients of Daniel’s letters are diverse as is their content. What swayed you most when writing them – the historical, social or personal connections?
I didn’t plan Daniel’s life beforehand, so I wasn’t sure what shape it was going to take until it unfolded – it hovered somewhere, just outside my field of vision, waiting for me to uncover it, much as it did for his children. A scene would appear – an event or an emotion – and I would try to unravel it. I imagined the people and issues that captured Daniel’s attention during his long life – the war, for instance – and then sought to clarify what his role was in those events. I focused on the regrets he wanted to address and the wrongs he wanted to put right. And for his children, how these discoveries affected their thinking about their own lives.
There is a large cast in Parting Words. How did you manage all of the competing voices?
Through Daniel’s letters, and the reminiscences of those close to him, he remained prominent even though he is dead from the first scene. But the novel is really about his three adult children, Richard, Evonne and Kelly – their discoveries about their father, and their emotions unleashed through the process. At each stage of writing, I kept bringing it back to their responses and reactions.
I found writing the letters very powerful, probably because they are all written in the first person: each letter is a direct account. I enjoyed the strength of that, the capacity to drill deeper into emotions. I was careful that the first-person accounts of minor characters didn’t overwhelm the experience of the siblings (it was still primarily their story) while providing vivid vignettes of a person, event or circumstance, and use the brevity and potency to deliver a clear image of Daniel at that particular time of his life.
Did you know you were going to tell Daniel’s story through letters from the outset or did this technique come to you later?
The letters were integral to the structure of the story. Daniel’s hurts and wrongdoing were so shameful that it was impossible for him to address them directly; he could barely admit his regrets to himself. The letter-writing assuaged his guilt; he could write down his feelings then put the letter away without sending it, thereby avoiding any confrontation. As a literary device, the letters show the reader Daniel’s mindset at the time, and give glimpses into the lives of the recipients. Despite different circumstances, the characters are connected through human emotions: love, fear, guilt, loss.
Were there particular historical events you wanted to include or did these evolve with research?
Daniel’s age made him a participant in certain events, such as World War Two, and this shaped his character. As I wrote each section, I researched what would have been happening in his life at the time, and incorporated my general findings into his specific circumstances.
What were the greatest structural challenges with writing Parting Words?
Wrangling the ambitious scope of the novel – the number of characters, the timeline, the various sub-plots associated with each letter – was the biggest challenge; providing details on each separate storyline without detracting from the primary focus on the three siblings. And allowing them to connect with their father’s emotional journey despite viewing him through their childhood experiences.
Sally Piper is the author of Grace’s Table (UQP 2014), shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award, Emerging Author Category. She mentors on The Writer’s Surgery mentorship program for Queensland Writers Centre. Her second novel The Geography of Friendship is forthcoming with UQP in 2018. Visit her website: sallypiper.com.
Cass Moriarty’s debut novel The Promise Seed (UQP 2015) was longlisted for the 2017 Dublin International Literary Award, and shortlisted for both the 2016 Queensland Literary Awards (Courier-Mail People’s Choice Award) and the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards (Emerging Author category). Her second novel Parting Words was released by University of Queensland Press in August 2017. Both novels explore the silences and secrets in families, and both feature themes of betrayal, loyalty, loss, grief and forgiveness. The Saturday Paper has published her work, and she recently received an Australia Council grant towards her next novel. Cass enjoys reading – and writing – stories that ask more questions than they answer. She lives in Brisbane and has six children.
First published in WQ Online, April 2018