Caroline Hamilton Interview part one

Having raved about Caroline Hamilton’s debut novel Consumed (ABC Books, 2008) on my PaperBooks blog earlier this year (click here to read review), I was delighted to catch up with Caroline recently and interview her for The View From Here.

Can you describe how the story of Consumed grew? Did it spring from a completely different idea and gradually change shape, or from a phrase you liked the sound of, or the idea for a character, or...?

I have always been obsessed with writing about food, and I do say obsessed because since I began writing, a lot of my work (particularly the earlier stuff which was mostly performance poetry) used food metaphorically. Food is sensuous, sexy, necessary, sometimes it can be gross, people abuse it, rely on it and in the wrong hands it can be used to kill people (think of The Young Poisoner's Handbook). During some of the research for Consumed I remember reading about this serial-killer grandma-figure in America called Nannie Doss – sweet old lady who ended up being somewhat of a ‘black widow’ type character. And it was all in her apple pie that just happened to be laced with rat poison!!!

Anyway, I digress. I wrote the first paragraph of the book. And that is where the idea came from. It really ‘just happened’. I started writing and the story grew… and grew… and grew. Obviously, there was a lot to do with structuring, character development etc that happened along the way. BUT, the idea really came from that first paragraph.

Originally I called the book Appetite and whilst I liked this, I knew it wasn’t right. So then when I hit on the title Consumed the story came along in leaps and bounds – having the right title is very important – it can influence the writing very much.

By what path did you find a publisher and how straight-forward or time-consuming was this?

Well… I was very lucky, but I also worked hard at getting the manuscript out.

Originally, there was another publisher (who shall remain nameless!) who was interested in seeing a first draft. But… people come and go and so when it came time to submit the manuscript, the people I was dealing with had left and the new people just weren’t interested in it.

Then, I entered it into the Varuna Awards for Manuscript Development and was one of the recipients. This meant that HarperCollins had first right of refusal. They helped me shape the story, but eventually they did exercise that right of refusal – but through it all I got a great agent, and finally ABC came on board. It’s interesting to note though, that finding the right publisher is very important. In retrospect, I can truly say that whilst the initial rejections were disappointing, ABC really were the ‘right’ publisher because they ‘got’ the book, ie understood it, and let me drive the story.

What was the experience of working with a mentor at Varuna like?

Great! Scary! Sometimes it can be hard to allow someone in to your writing process. But, even though writing is (generally) a solitary undertaking, if you are serious about getting published then there comes a time when you absolutely have to let people in. Ultimately, you want people to read your work – and not just your mates!

I was very lucky to have Michelle De Kretser as my mentor – she basically told me to keep going, and she also asked me a lot of questions about what I was trying to do, what the story was about, etc, etc. And I guess what really helped me was that I had assumed that people would just pick up on certain things whilst reading the story, and if they hadn’t, then what did I need to do to change this? Plus, by the end of first draft, it is very difficult to remove yourself from the story; as a writer you are just so invested in it all. It’s really great to have someone look at it with fresh eyes – especially if that someone tries to get the best story out of you, rather than trying to get the story they would like to see (the difference being that some people are too caught up in what they want to read and take no notice of what the writer is trying to do!)

Some of the qualities that, I believe, give the story a timeless appeal are the focus on food, hunger and satisfaction, love and revenge, sensuality and violence. That you’ve also drawn on fables (Baba Yaga) and biblical references (Lilith in the Garden of Eden) reinforces the universality of some of the ideas and characters. Can you say something about your connection with the roots of these stories? Where did you first come across them or did you discover them through the process of writing the novel?

Some of it was through research – I wanted to have myth / legend / and a lineage of women that was based in fable, truth and stories that are handed down from mother to daughter, so I looked up as many different versions of the Vassalissa story that I could. I’ve also always loved the Lilith story, and I remember reading a story in high school called Children of the Dust (a bit of a post-apocalyptic world, kind-of John-Marsden-ish) that introduced me to this fable. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that a lot of this stuff was just percolating inside me, ready to come out, and that in order to help it along I did some research as well.

Through reflecting on the significance of food and its preparation, did the writing of Consumed change your own attitude to food in any way? Perhaps you could describe your perfect meal?

Ooh… perfect meal… look, I’ve ALWAYS wanted to do the whole degustation menu thing and never actually had the opportunity – it’s about twelve courses, each one has its own wines etc. They’re supposedly not big courses (they wouldn’t want to be!) but it’s all rather decadent and lasts for hours (a bit of a Babette’s Feast). You get to try all these different flavours… that would make me pretty happy (as long as it didn’t involve Brussels sprouts or celery – I cannot stand these two vegetables – I don’t know why, I just hate them). But the other side of it is that I love to try anything weird, I’ve always wanted to try cheese in a can!

I love a good roast, I have a fantastic recipe for an oven-baked-chorizo-paella-type-thing that is legendary; bacon and eggs are a massive fave of mine, as is a good smoked-salmon bagel with cream cheese and dill (love dill!). I will try any kind of food… except I don’t know that I could eat chicken feet. I have actually killed a chicken, and yes a turkey, before, and that was quite disturbing, but I figured if I can eat it, I should be able to kill it.

When I visited the US I got completely addicted to ranch dressing… and I have been known to crave KFC. (Sad but true.)

Did writing the book change my attitude to food? A little, I guess. Look, when you’re researching there’s a lot of interesting and weird stuff that comes up – it doesn’t have to end up in the book, but you read this stuff and absorb the ideas. One of these things (that didn’t end up in the book) was recipes that involved human placenta. One that I will never forget was this recipe for placenta lasagne. I couldn’t think of anything more bizarre that I would never, ever even contemplate trying.

I was about to say that all this talk of food is making me hungry, but on that last note my appetite has disappeared!

Part Two of this interview will appear on Monday.

Click here for Part 2.


Described as 'a sensuous tale of food, madness and revenge', Caroline Hamilton's Consumed can be purchased from ABC Books Worldwide (click here), the ABC Shop (click here) or off-the-shelf in Australian bookshops.

For the printed edition of this interview at TVFH go here.

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