Leslie Cannold is an academic, ethicist and freelance writer. Her first novel is The Book of Rachael, a re-imagining of the story of Jesus told through the eyes of his younger sister.
A long-time activist, Leslie Cannold is committed women’s rights and equality, two themes that feature strongly in her first novel.
She is also the author of two non-fiction books – What, no baby? and The Abortion Myth. Considered one of Australia’s top 20 intellectuals, she is a well-respected columnist and commentator, regularly writing for the Sydney Sun-Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Crikey!, The Herald Sun, ABC The Drum Unleashed, and many more. This year, she was named Australian Humanist of the Year by the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
Click play to listen. Running time: 29.50
* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability
Thanks for joining us today, Leslie.
Terrific to talk to you.
We’re really excited about your book, The Book of Rachael, which is a reimagining of the story of Jesus, told through the eyes of his younger sister. Tell us, how in the world did you come to this idea and decide to write it?
Well, in some ways it’s a reimagining of the story of Jesus, but I suppose I don’t conceive of it that way, although I can understand how some people think that’s what it’s about. For me, it was really more about trying to imagine what would have happened if Jesus had a sister, and what life would have been like for her.
And, of course as she grew older and the novel began to develop, her life began to intersect with the life that he was having, which was such an interesting and well known story. That, as you say, it kind of threw a different light on what that story was about. But, I was mostly concerned with her.
The idea came to me, and I guess that’s why I was mostly concerned with her, because the idea came to me through having watched a documentary that the BBC had put on, that was rebroadcast here in Australia. They were going through quite a lot of minutia about Jesus the man. Did he really exist? What proof do we have for that? Could he really have been crucified? It was very, very detailed.
They let us know, I think around the third episode, that he also had four brothers. They were able to say what their names were. They were able to pretty much say what had kind of happened to them and where they had been buried. That was all because somebody had recorded that information when Jesus was alive, because he was already somebody who had a whiff of notoriety around him.
But, then they said he also may have had sisters, but we don’t know their names. Then it just all moved on. For some reason it had just struck me like a slap in the face. “Gosh, what kind of world would it have been where somebody who already kind of seemed like they might be a somebody would have the names of their brothers sort of painstakingly reported, but not the names of their sisters?”
Initially I thought, “Never mind. I’ll just go off and find them. I will recapture them for history and I’ll write the story about them,” because I was a non-fiction writer. I thought I would do that as a non-fiction writer, but I quickly realized that there is nothing to find. The information simply has not been recorded. These women are lost. They’re lost forever. The only way to bring them back to life is through fiction.
Right. Did you have a background or interest previously in religion? What was your background in that area?
I grew up in a secular Jewish family. I identify as being someone who is Jewish, but I suppose in a cultural way. So, the way that somebody who is Italian might identify with having an Italian heritage. I see being Jewish as sort of the way you understand my story, and how it is my parents came to the United States, and why my grandparents were fleeing Europe and all of that sort of stuff. But, I’m not a person of faith. I’m probably an agonistic.
I guess that was one of the eye openers for of this documentary, which I tried to draw into the book itself, which was that I had always have thought, and not surprising really when you’re not engaged with religion full stop, even less a religion that’s not yours, that Jesus was a Christian person, and so I wasn’t Christian, and therefore he really didn’t have very much to do with me. But, the thing you immediately come to understand when you start to look at who he was as the man is that these were Jews, and they were Jews in fact for hundreds of years after he died. The notion that they were not Jews, and that the people who were following him were a separate group called Christians didn’t develop for some time after.
I identified with this young girl that I immediately imagined. She flew up almost fully grown in my head. I could see her. I could hear her. I knew what she looked like. I knew what her name was. I think I really identified with her, because I thought, “Well, that could have been me.”
That could have been me, a bright kind of girl, in a world in which there really was no space for girls to do anything other than that kind of maintenance work of the house, and feeding people and cleaning up after their mess, doing the hard yacker and really not ever having a chance to do the sort of things that, for instance, Jesus was able to do, and the kinds of adventures he was able to have, and the things he was able to make of his life.
I think that’s how I got into the story was thinking, “That could have been me.”
Obviously you had some knowledge of the story, but to write historical fiction, and to write something authentic in that era you had to get a lot of things right. What kind of research did you have to do for this book?
In fact I had no knowledge. In some ways I think that made me the perfect person to do this, because I had not read the First Testament, or the Torah. I had not read the Gospels. I really had no religious education whatsoever. My parents really didn’t know anything about Christianity either. So, when I asked questions growing up- I had a girlfriend who was a Catholic, so I’d go to church with her every once in a while, but we never talked about religion. So, I really knew nothing.
I started by reading the Gospels, and reading, in fact, the whole Bible. But, as you say, I then had to try to- the Bible is not a historical document. It is a multi-authored religious text. So, I was trying to situate people in a real historical world. I wanted to know things that clearly weren’t going to be covered. What did women do everyday? What did they eat? How did they prepare the bread? How did they pick the olives? What did the olives look like on the trees? What time was picking season? Those very, very fundamental things you need to know to build a world.
So, I could find some of that stuff out just by looking at modern day Israel, and I had been to Israel several times, and I had some photos left, and you could find some on the website. But, I also went into the library and did as much research as I could into finding out what little was available, because people didn’t write histories the way they do now- about the crockery, just those things you take so for granted that if you were to write a modern day story you would just know. If somebody picked up something to write something, you’d know what they picked up to write with, whereas in this world, you’d think, “Oh God, did people even write? Were they literate?” “Oh, if they were literate, what did they use? How did they get the ink? What kind of thing did they use for their quill? Was it a quill?”
Everything is a question. There was a fair bit of research to get the answers I needed to make it real, although of course at times I had to make it up.
How long did this take? How long did you spend on this project?
Probably all up I spent around seven years.
Yeah, it was a long time. You imagine me kind of toiling away day after day just doing that, and of course that wasn’t how it was. I had a job, so I would try to fit it in. I had very young kids as well. I would try to go away for retreats for a couple of weeks. My husband was very wonderful in supporting me to do. I would try to- I took some leaves from work and tried to kind of write lots in, say, three months.
Then I would leave it for quite a long time. I’d return to it and decide I really didn’t like what I had written pretty much at all. Not the plot so much, but I just didn’t like the way I was executing the story, so I would start all over again. Then I worked out that I really didn’t know how to actually write a novel. So, I had to kind of take a leave of absence from that process and go off and actually learn how to write a novel. So, that took a fair bit of time.
Then I had to come back to the novel, and then try to write it properly. So, it was very time consuming, but I think that’s because wrapped up in there was a lot of work, child-raising, and learning how to write a novel.
But seven years is a long time to sustain the same interest and passion. Was it easy or hard to maintain that connection with the project?
I have a lot of experience with long projects, so I am pretty good at that. I have written a PhD, I’ve written a Master’s thesis, so I do have that kind of long span of concentration. But, the other thing that was keeping me going was just this really healthy Jewish guilt, because what would happen is… I would write a draft, put it away, go back to my life, come back to the draft and think, “Oh, this is just rubbish.” And think, “No, that’s it. I can’t do it. I’m giving up. I’m giving the whole thing away.”
I would decide that, but then I would feel so extraordinarily guilty, because the whole thematic of this book is about these women having been forgotten. Everybody went, “No, we don’t care. You’re not important enough. We couldn’t be bothered. You’ve been forgotten. You may have existed. We don’t care. You’re gone.” And, I’m supposed to be solving that problem for them. I’m supposed to be bringing them back to life. And, there I am going, “Oh, sorry too hard. Can’t be bothered. I’m off.”
So, I was feeling terrible, like I was abandoning them. They had names. To me they were completely living creatures, like they were alive. There was just this gap between the world I had created in which I could see them roaming, and my capacity to bring that to other people, so I just kept feeling like it wasn’t good enough to say, “I can’t do it.” I felt like I just had to keep trying until I mastered it.
But when you live with something for seven years and then it’s finished, how did you feel? Are you looking for things to do now? Are you walking around the house going, “Oh…”
“What am I going to do now?”
Well, it’s interesting, because luckily books never really finish. I mean they don’t finish until the moment you actually see them on the shelf in the shop. They just slowly trickle away. For instance, I was just beside myself with delight when Text said they would publish the book. My children who had been living under the shadow of this book for sort of as long as they could remember were also quite joyous. They’re like, “It’s done. It’s finished. It’s finally over.”
But, I had written a couple of books before, and so I just had to go, “Wait a minute.” This is kind of the beginning of the end, but now we’re going to go through the editing process. So, it’s just going to keep coming back. There’s going to be a proofreading process. It’s going to keep coming back. Then I’m going to need to do stuff around the publicity, where you get people to say puffy things about it, all that stuff. There’s a lot of business.
The last year has been full of that, which is relatively pleasant and not that arduous. In that time I’ve been trying to do a bit of work, because it’s been obviously quite stressful financially to work for less than $0.01 an hour. One really does have to eventually say, “Enough is a enough.” But, I’m also kind of hatching another idea, a couple of other ideas, actually, of things I would like to do, and hopefully that will be possible in the not too near future.
Before we go onto those other ideas, a lot of people would be interested to know about the publishing process and how you got the attention of the publisher. What happened? How did you get published?
Well, this experience is my experience because I’m not a completely unknown person. So, it was a somewhat different experience to the one I had when I got my first book published, which was called the Abortion Myth. This time I knew a number of people already, because of having published previous books, and just because I’m an older person now, and Melbourne is a small place, you tend to know people.
So, it wasn’t really very hard for the book to get- it didn’t have go in the slush pile. You either have to go through the slush pile, or you don’t have to go through the slush pile. Getting out of the slush pile, as we all know, is somewhat of a challenge. I didn’t really have to negotiate that challenge this time around. People were willing to read it.
The question really was when they read it whether or not they were going to get it, and think this was terrific. I always wanted Text to be the publisher, because they have a fantastic reputation. I must say every last scerrick of it is deserved. They are a wonderful publisher, they are wonderful editors, they are wonderful producers of books. I get wonderful marketing. They are just wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
They came with this reputation, so I was lucky enough that they knew who I was. They were certainly willing to read the manuscript. In the end it came down to exactly what as an author you want it to come down to, which is whether or not I had written it such that it was as compelling as they thought it was going to be and delivered on what they thought I could deliver on. And, they felt that way, so I was very lucky.
In terms of getting yourself known, obviously your work, apart from as an academic, your columns, your articles in the Sun Herald, The Age, and so on, that’s useful to gain a profile. For those people who are listening who want to try and not be the unknown person. Is that right?
Look, I do think for years, and years, and years, I did a lot of radio, TV, any kind of publicity sort of thing I did. As you say, I wrote columns in the paper, which I really enjoyed. But, if there were opportunities where I would get asked to do something, it was a fair amount of work, there wasn’t really any pay for it, everyone would say, “Oh, you should do it. It’s really good for your profile.” I think, “The profile? God, it’s like this great big, sucking vacuuming. No matter how much you throw into it, more wants to be taken. When do you finish?” Like, when you do you finish building your profile?
I always was kind of a little bit suspicious of it, but most people are smarter than I am, so I thought, “Right, I’ll just listen to them. They keep saying, it’s good. Build a profile. It’s good, good, good.” I think this is where having a profile did actually cash out for me. I think this is where I can concretely see that this was helpful, because I did get a number of people of people who were more than happy to read the manuscript. That doesn’t mean that everybody loved it, but I didn’t have trouble having it get an audience.
I think for some writers that is a huge problem. So, I do actually think if you can develop a reputation, and that’s of course these days, not just in the mainstream media, which is really predominantly where I was doing it, because that’s where the thing was at the time, but now online. I’m a prolific Twitter-er. I have a number of Twitter followers, and also Facebook followers. That’s, of course, where it’s going. So, I think if you can develop a profile, even solely online, that again is helpful, because at the end of the day publishers have to sell books. And, so they’re looking not just at the book itself, even though that’s the primary thing. They’re also looking at whether or not you are somebody is going to be capable of marketing that book.
What would you say to those writers out there who really shun the online world, social media, and believe that their writing should speak for themselves, and that it’s a publisher’s job to market it? What would you say to that? Because I hear those comments.
I think people earn title to have whatever views they want, and to conduct themselves in whatever way they want. It’s their life. It’s their career. But, you want to that, you want to know people are doing that in light of what the potential consequences are of a decision like that. My perception is the one I have just shared with you, that probably these days it’s not good enough.
I mean you may the most talented writer in the world, maybe they’ll put up with you being reclusive and difficult, but in general there’s a fair number of talented people out there. A lot of people want to write and have their books published. I think you are apart of the package that a publisher is looking at. And, it’s seems to me silly- it’s almost like kind of going into a test going, “Oh, I don’t really want to do Section A of this test. I’m just going to do so well on Section B that Section A won’t matter.”
I mean why wouldn’t you have a go at doing everything, because that’s in the end… for some people they’re just writing because they want to write, and maybe publishing is gravy, but for those who really feel they want to be published- and I was very clear about that, I was very clear that for me the end of this process was to get these women’s stories out. I wanted other people to read them. So, I feel like you kind of go, “Right. That’s my objective, what are the steps I need to take to get as close as I can to that objective?” Certainly, making yourself a marketable, and interesting, and engaging, and known quantity is a plus for you when a publisher is evaluating taking you on.
Most of your work previously has been non-fiction. This is fiction. What did you have to do to get into a different head space, or mindset to write fiction? Because it’s very, very different to sticking to the facts and making sure you’re telling an accurate story, and all of that. What did you have to do to switch hats?
Well, I wish somebody like you had been around at the time, who had made it completely clear that this was a different kind of event. When I first thought to do it, and quickly came to the view that I couldn’t write another non-fiction book, it would have to be fiction, I didn’t have one person say to me, “Leslie, what the hell would you know about fiction?” Instead they said, “You’re a great writer. You’ll be fine.”
My public persona, I’m very confident in the sense that- that’s my thing. I’m not really into putting my insecurities on display. People tend to think of me as being very confident. I must have seemed really confident, and they thought, “Well, she knows what she’s doing. Off she goes.”
It did actually take me a while to realize exactly what you just said, as though every idiot knows it, and every idiot should know it, which is that it’s a completely different skill set. However competent, and capable, and experienced a writer I might have been in one domain, a non-fiction domain, I had plenty to learn in the fiction one. I needed to pick up those skills.
Once that kind of penny dropped, and it took a couple of drafts, a couple of writing drafts, and then getting back to them, going, “God, they’re terrible.” I am a reader, so I could easily see what was wrong with my stuff. I just didn’t know how to fix it. I didn’t have the editorial language to fix it.
Finally a friend of mine said, “Just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider going back to school.” I was like, “Oh, god, I’m such an idiot. Why didn’t I think of that?” You think it would have been the first thing I’d think of, because I’m an academic and a educator, but of course I sort of saw myself not as a student. So, it didn’t occur to me. Thankfully people say the bleedingly obvious. I don’t know what I’d do in my life if they didn’t.
So, I went off. I took this wonderful course at RMIT, which I’m just a huge fan of. I was really ready for the information that was delivered. I had already run into a lot of problems. I knew exactly what I didn’t know. As the information was pouring out of the teacher’s mouth, it was pouring into my brain, and really making connections absolutely everywhere. “Oh, that’s it. Oh, that’s it. Oh, right. That’s what-” You know? Like, I just got it straightaway.
So, once that process was completed I went back and did the third blind rewrite.
Oh my god.
That was the one that worked.
When you were in that writing routine, then, did you have a writing routine? Did you have any, or did you just write when you can, because you do so many other things? Or do you actually sit down and get caffeinated in the morning? Describe your writing day.
I strongly, strongly prefer to clear at least two to three days to do any kind of big project like this. What I really prefer is for everything else to go away, including my family, all dinner requirements, and just have someone bring me coffee while for the next kind of two and half days, until I can’t stay up any longer. I get through the bit that I’m working on. That’s actually really what I prefer, but that doesn’t quite pan out.
And, so far I can get that. So, for a while I had this wonderful space at Glenfern, which is a writer’s kind of trust, it’s a national trust house where they’re putting writers. And, that was wonderful, because it was like a door that I could close. At the moment I have to work at home. I have two teenage sons who are in and out with their friends and video games. It’s very difficult.
In fact my capacity to work at the moment is under siege a little bit, because I haven’t really found a very quiet place. I’ve been raging about the lack of quiet in the public libraries, as a consequence of it. But, yeah, for me if I can I try to- and I’m not really at that stage at the moment, because we’re doing publicity for the book. So, I’m focused on other things. But, when I’m ready to start this project I will look in my diary and try to block out days, and go, “Right, for this week I’m writing and I’m not going to put anything else in there, because I need to get into the space. As you say it’s kind of a different mental space to write fiction.
Tell us about the next project, or projects. Can you tell us a little bit about what you want to be working on next?
I can tell you two thought bubbles, and they really are just thought bubbles. My initial impulse, because that’s just so me, is to think, “Right. I’ve done history. Now I want to do something completely different. I want to do a contemporary novel. I want to do one based on today in St. Hilda which is were I live.
Because of all the struggles that I had with the historical novel with Rachael, nothing was easy. I couldn’t ever just write a sentence, because inevitably it had some anachronism, some little thing that didn’t exist back then, or some word that didn’t sound right. So, I was really kind of playing around with the idea of doing something quite contemporary, just so I could talk and write without having to kind of deconstruct every word and think, “Did they really say that? Would they have really done that?”
But now I’m starting to shift again, because I really am fascinated by history. For me, history so comes alive in a historical novel. I love reading them.
I just heard on the radio the other day this fascinating history that has just been written about a case that was very influential in terms of turning the tide on slavery. Basically I had imagined all of a sudden, I got that kind of image in my head where I thought, “Oh god, wouldn’t it be interesting to kind of follow the journey of somebody who was learning about this court case and then thinking about activism and how you persuade other people to do something, and how you turn this into a movement, because activism is something I do. So, I’m kind of interested in whether or not you could paint kind of a modern tableau over the history of how I understand social change works, and political change works.
So, I’m floating around with those two ideas at the moment. Like, I said I’ve got no space and no money. Nothing is about to happen in any immediate sense. Hopefully by the time I do have some space and some money I will have decided which of those I am going to pursue to start with.
Now this year you were named Australian Humanist of the Year, by The International Humanist and Ethical Union. Tell us a bit about that award and what it means to you.
Look, that award was just- I was very humbled by it. It meant a lot to me to be recognized in that way. I do a number of different kinds of advocacy, but other than the advocacy where I’m like literally on the ground with a microphone in my hand, which is a minority, most of the stuff I do is I’m sitting in my own room and I’m writing something, and then it kind of goes off into the electronic ether and gets published.
But, you don’t have a sense of people reading it. You don’t know how many people are reading it. You don’t know how many think whatever they think about it. You have no sense of influence. This is that kind of thing where all of a sudden you think, “Wow, somebody was paying attention to me, like for years.” This award kind of dates back to kind of they’re thanking me for ten years of mostly my kind of written advocacy around issues that are of concern to humanists.
It’s just so extraordinary to think, “Wow, someone has been watching me for ten years and I’ve been meaning something to them that whole time.” I can’t tell you the sort of boost that it gives you. It gives you the boost that will take you through another ten years of doing that in a silent room without knowing what’s really happening.
Finally, what’s your advice to budding authors, people who have not yet had their first book published, very interested in writing, and that they want to do what you’ve done. What are the key things they should be doing or considering?
Well, there’s a couple of things. I actually did start out when I was young, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, wanting to be a fiction writer. I did actually take a course up at Cornell University. It was a beautiful course and the teacher was really quite lovely. At the end of the course he handed back my final assignment. I can’t remember his precise words, but the upshot of what he said to me was, “There’s no problem with the way you write, but essentially you’re too young to have anything to say. You need to go out. You need to put your pen down, go out, live a life, gain some perspective, and then come back to writing.”
That’s a bit hard to take when you’re nineteen and you know everything.
Yeah. Of course.
But I did take it on board. I did stop writing fiction for a very long time. I guess I might have never had gone back if it hadn’t been for this project, but who knows, maybe the reverse is in fact true. Maybe this project found me because I was ready to go back to fiction writing. But, I do think there is something that you do need a fair bit of maturity, and perspective, and life experience to write good fiction. So, going out and living a life is pretty good advice. It’s the rare person who can write something astounding and interesting when they’re very young.
But, if you’re an older person, then I would really strongly suggest, unless you already have those skills, that you find a fantastic program, like the one at RMIT if you’re in Melbourne, and acquire those skills, because once you’ve got that kind of toolbox, all you need then is for that idea to strike you, that idea that is going to sustain you over years and years and years; that fascination, that question that sense of obligation, whatever it is, so you have your project, then you have your skills, then you’re old enough to have something to say, and Bob’s your uncle.
Wonderful. On that note, thank you very much for your time today, Leslie.