31 August 2022
An interview, by Colin Varney, author of Earworm (a novel narrated by a love song)
Romance writer Minnie Darke emerged from the mists of Tasmania, seemingly from nowhere. Despite obscure origins, her prose was accomplished and confident. When her richly imaginative rom-com, Star-crossed, became an international smash in 2019, comparisons were swiftly drawn with Monica McInerney and Graeme Simsion. If Minnie Darke didn’t exist, somebody would have had to invent her.
Somebody like author and academic Danielle Wood. Wood, whose novels are suffused with a sense of place and haunted by Tasmanian gothic, has juggled pseudonyms before, as half of children’s author Angelica Banks (with co-writer Heather Rose). Yet Angelica is clearly Danielle relabelled. Minnie Darke is something else. Playful, wicked, she is more off-leash than Dr Wood. Surprisingly, they do not share a star sign (Wood is Leo, Darke a Gemini). They even look different. Minnie is Hyde to Danielle’s Jekyll, albeit less homicidal. Probably.
Minnie Darke’s latest, With Love from Wish & Co, introduces us to Marnie, whose bijou gift-giving service muddles parcels intended for a businessman’s wife and his mistress. Attempts to repair the dire consequences are compounded when Marnie falls for the businessman’s estranged son, Luke. Suddenly, dreams and ambitions are compromised by questions of trust and integrity.
Minnie and Danielle have clearly abandoned social distancing, so let’s see how they infect each other. I posed the same questions to both authors to tease out their differences. We found ourselves discussing genre snobbery, feminism and… erm… prosthetic hands.
If you received a compromising gift intended for the other, what would you expect to unwrap?
Danielle: If I were to receive a compromising gift intended for Minnie, I would expect to unwrap a pair of prosthetic hands. I have a sneaking suspicion she’s looking for ways to write without my assistance.
Minnie: If I were to receive a compromising gift intended for Danielle, I would expect to unwrap some great big doorstop of a fantasy novel. She’s been reading a lot of these lately, and I have a sneaking suspicion she plans to spawn another alter-ego and start writing in yet another genre. Unfaithful cow.
You’ve known each other for some time. How does your relationship influence your writing?
Danielle: Well, if we’re going to keep this positive, and avoid the uncomfortable fact that Minnie has basically cannibalised my writing over the past few years, then I’d say this – my relationship with Minnie makes me think more about the emotional aspects of my writing. I can tend to get stuck up in my head a little bit, and she helps me climb down from there into my heart.
Minnie: So, if we’re going to keep this positive, and avoid the uncomfortable reality that Danielle often behaves as if she owns or controls me, then I’d say this – I’d be lost without Danielle’s insistence on precision in writing. She doesn’t let me get away with being vague or sloppy. If ever I whine ‘but you know what I mean’, she says ‘that isn’t the point; the point is to write what you mean’. And so, I try again.
You are both proud feminists. How does this manifest in your works? Are there challenges in composing feminist romances?
Danielle: Especially in my contemporary rewritings of fairy tales (Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls and Mothers Grimm), I’m interested in women’s experiences: coming of age, the complexities of conception and pregnancy, birth and motherhood. Are there challenges in composing feminist romances? No idea. You’ll have to ask Minnie…
Minnie (rubbing her hands together with glee): Thanks, Danielle. I’d like to answer that question on two fronts. At a meta-level, there’s still a lot of snobbery around the romance genre and what it means to its primarily female readership. This is despite the fact that it’s now pretty widely theorised that reading romance, far from enslaving women to heteronormative and patriarchal orthodoxies, is actually quite empowering. Plus, romance has actually proved itself to be incredibly malleable, incorporating love stories of every colour and flavour. I’m pretty persuaded that reading and writing romance is all about people thinking through, defining and ‘experiencing’ the kind of emotional lives they want to manifest in their real lives.
At a more practical level, yes, there’s one particular challenge that I’ve wrestled with in writing feminist romances. And that has to do with how easy it can be to ‘villainise’ the person (usually a woman) who is not ‘the one’. Although it sometimes happens in my novels that a romance is complicated by one partner or the other having multiple options, I try not to throw anyone (especially another woman) under the bus. You see, romances don’t actually have to have a ‘villain’. The role of the antagonist can be played by circumstance, social expectations, or misunderstanding. My novels are concerned not with ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but with complications in the lives of people who are doing the best they can, and choosing their actions based on what makes sense to them at the time.
You work with common themes such as issues of trust and the tangled skeins of romance and parenthood, yet your styles and methods diverge. Why choose the genres that you do?
Danielle: I’m more interested in questions and problems than I am in answers and solutions. I don’t think it’s the writer’s job to supply answers; I think it’s the writer’s job to ask questions in new and interesting ways. I suppose what this means is that I’m content to sit with the tangled skein. Or perhaps tangle it up even more! Literary fiction allows that.
Minnie: I don’t pretend I can supply all the answers or the solutions, but I do think it’s my job to at least have a go at untangling the skein. I hope my stories aren’t simplistic, or trite. I hope they incorporate complexity and difference. But I also hope they are the kind of ‘equipment for living’ that Kenneth Burke (American literary theorist) spoke of, in that they help us process experiences we’ve had, or prepare for situations we might one day face. Readers of romances have expectations, and one of those is that the novelist is going to set up a bunch of problems, and then – at least in part – solve them.
Danielle: I’m working on a novel about Lake Pedder, the beautiful lake at the heart of Tasmania’s south-west wilderness that in 1972 was drowned as part of a hydro-electric power scheme. My story is about the people who fought to save the lake, and those who continue to fight for its restoration.
Minnie: I have a novella coming out on Audible early next year; it’s called Wild Apples and it’s set in a town called ‘Lovett’ which is fictionalised version of the town of Cygnet, located in Tasmania’s orchard-rich Huon Valley. The protagonist, Jane, is dealing simultaneously with the challenges posed by her difficult, ageing mother, and those created by her difficult, teenage daughter. Stuck in middle of that sandwich, can Jane find room for herself? For love?
Minnie was originally conjured to defy the expectations a Danielle Wood novel would generate. Now, like the characters of a rom-com, they find themselves overcoming differences only to discover they were meant for each other.