The Stella Interview: Katia Ariel – 2024 Stella Prize shortlist

In this Stella Prize Interview, we chat with Katia Ariel, shortlisted for the 2024 Stella Prize for her debut memoir, The Swift Dark Tide.

Katia Arile Stella Prize 2024

You are an editor and have worked in many publishing houses with a variety of authors. How does your editing process influence and benefit (or not) your writing practice?

Being an editor has made me more direct as a narrator, stricter with semantic bullshit. I try to be vigilant about waffle, sleepy repetition; anything that gets in the way of the reader drinking the story hard and fast.

Greek mythology and family history is part of The Swift Dark Tide. Can you tell us more about your research process for the book?

The research never felt formal; I was fascinated by Greek mythology and the imagery lent itself effortlessly to the stories of my life. Frantic mothers, lost daughters, pomegranates, rivers, dolphins, catastrophic attraction, songs as spells … all of this offered itself to the story as metaphor. For the family component, I interviewed my mum and my great-uncle, as well as reading my grandfather’s short stories (in Russian). This gave me not only the facts of their lives but their voice, which I desperately wanted to channel.

Why did you choose to write The Swift Dark Tide as a memoir and not as fiction?

The memoir coalesced from a series of diary entries and writing exercises, tracking my life in real-time. So in that sense it was simply a recording of true events. But as I got deeper into the observation, and when I decided to turn the vignettes into a book, I realised that the only way to tell it was as truth. The story would have held no power as fiction – I wanted to write with crisp honesty about things like female desire and maternal sorrow, experiences which so many people struggle to articulate. By writing them as nonfiction I was understanding them for myself but also building a bridge towards my reader, towards the world. I wanted both of us to feel less lonely.

“I wanted to write with crisp honesty about things like female desire and maternal sorrow, experiences which so many people struggle to articulate. By writing them as nonfiction I was understanding them for myself but also building a bridge towards my reader, towards the world. I wanted both of us to feel less lonely.”

How do you decide how much of your personal life you share and how much to conceal?

Memoir is always a fine line between writing truthfully and bleeding all over the page in an uncontained expose that has no regard for the reader’s interest or narrative shape. Holding that in mind, I wanted to maximise what I revealed because I believe in telling our lives as they are – it is a humanistic endeavour to show up unadorned, standing in the fullness of who you are. Women especially are conditioned to curate their messes into something pretty and palatable. I wanted to breach that, while also showing deep care for those I was writing about. My mother, my children, their father, the woman I fell in love with – they are all splayed wide open, but I hope with love.

The Swift Dark Tide is structured as a love letter, poem, meditation and diary. How did you plot the structure of the memoir and how much it did it facilitate (or not) the writing process?

The book begun as a series of writing exercises and chapter-length love letters; I really had no great architecture in mind. It was when I learnt things about my maternal grandmother that the stories got a frame. I could see there was something bigger than my own experience that wanted telling, that this now belonged to my ancestors too. This formalised the sketches into chapters, and as I researched my past I found ways to weave it with the present. In the end, the book is non-linear and crosses time and place, but I never worried about that. I never wanted something straight. I wanted something that washed up on the reader’s mind like a wave.

You are writing a new book, what can you tell us about it?

This is the biography of a gentleman called Ephraim Finch, who was the director of Melbourne’s Jewish Burial Society for thirty years. He is a fascinating human in many ways; a beloved community figure, but also an avid archivist who took detailed histories of the Holocaust survivors he buried over the decades. These are his stories and theirs. Behind the archives, though, is what I learn from Ephraim about life’s greater mysteries – death, of course, but also burial tradition; what it means to mourn communally; the gift of ritual; family ties; what music and poetry and ancient religious texts offer us by way of navigating grief and the oblivion of loss.

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