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Charlotte Wood

On editing the anthology Brothers and Sisters

When my last novel The Children came out I was quite unprepared for the intensity of some readers' responses to the relationships between the siblings portrayed in that book. I received many messages from readers telling me how closely they identified with one or other of the siblings, and was enormously gratified when these people felt I had written about their family.

This revealed to me that in a stumbling way, I had somehow touched a nerve - the complicated bonds between adult siblings. For many people the sibling relationship still seems to run deep with conflicting, often ungovernable emotions.

That's why, when the idea of editing this anthology was put to me, I jumped at it. A sibling is often such a powerful mirror. I say in the introduction to the book that 'your brother or sister, it might be said, is your other self - your grander, sadder, braver, shrewder, uglier, slenderer self', and in many of the stories the protagonist defines him or herself by looking at their sibling. There's so much scope for fiction in this relationship - the inescapable lifelong bonds between siblings, like it or not. I've also been drawn to writing about the relationship because, like all interesting fodder for fiction, it's so complicated. One of the themes that comes through very strongly in this collection is the presence within the relationships of completely contradictory, but simultaneous forces - love and hatred; rivalry and solidarity; tormentor and protector; feud and forgiveness...

The collection is small - there are 12 stories in all. I knew from the start that I didn't want too many works in this book, because sometimes I think anthologies can become overcrowded and therefore uneven - quieter stories can be lost, new writers can be ignored in the sheer volume of material.  

I approached writers whose work I admired. It wasn't that they had necessarily written about siblings before, but more that their work had a tone, a mood; a sensibility I thought might work well in this context. And I wanted to gather a wide range of writerly experience. Roger McDonald and Rob Drewe are our most experienced contributors, and Michael Sala and Virginia Peters are the newest, with the rest of us - Nam Le, Christos Tsiolkas, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Paddy O'Reilly, Tony Birch, Cate Kennedy, Ashley Hay and me - covering the spectrum between. I wanted to push these writers up against each other, which I hoped might result in some surprises for the reader. But there was only one essential criterion – all the contributors in this book would, first and foremost, be beautiful writers.

The decision to have fewer stories then created more space, and we asked the writers submit longer pieces if it felt right for them. This meant the writers had space to really enter into the life of their stories, and I think they have a depth they might not otherwise have had, simply because there is this luxury of space and time in which to thoroughly explore what they're saying.

In my own story, I'd already written about siblings in their 30s and 40s in The Children, I worried I had nothing more to say. So I shifted my gaze to old age, and thought about what it might be like for two very different siblings to be left with each other at the end of their lives, when some of the other beloved people and defining structures of their lives had fallen away. My main character Wendy is still defining herself, rather snobbishly, by what she sees as her superiority to her sister Ruth, and her difference from Ruth. But in the end, she needs her sister more than ever.

I reckon these stories are like blue cheese, or dark chocolate - complex, layered with contrasting tones. They have bite. They're not for readers who want simple emotions on the page. The risk with an anthology about love - which ultimately is what this is - is that it can topple into sugary gush, and that's one of the reasons I approached writers who each had a powerfully unsentimental eye, whose previous work had a smoky intensity I found riveting. Which is not to say that the works in this collection aren't redemptive - there are happy endings, and moments of great beauty and of deep, ferocious love. I think the whole book, in the end, is suffused with tenderness. The kind of tenderness that comes after a bruise, perhaps, but that makes it all the more truthful, all the more interesting.

Listen to Charlotte discussing Brothers and Sisters on ABC Radio National's The Book Show



Brothers and Sisters

by edited by Charlotte Wood

Love, envy, resentment, regret, tenderness - established, bestselling and award-winning writers explore the tensions, alliances and affections between siblings in this dazzling collection of stories with contributions from Robert Drewe, Roger McDonald, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Cate Kennedy and many more.