No Easy Reasons: Interview with Camilla Noli

The question at the heart of Camilla Noli's debut novel, Still Waters, is this: Is every woman suited to motherhood? The book is a sharp, distressing look at the answer. PopMatters spoke to Noli about the book, the controversy, motherhood, and the writer's dream realized.

Still Waters

Publisher: Hachette Australia
ISBN: 073362250X
Author: Camilla Noli
Price: $24.99
Length: 320
Formats: Trade Paperback
Australia release date: 2008-04
But then, what I have done is not so unusual, I tell myself. For centuries unwanted children have been killed, exposed on hillsides, sacrificed to gods and bricked into the foundations of bridges, forts, and castles to guarantee the strength of the edifices. Children have been beaten, made to work in mines, bent over looms, and bowed under with hard labour. What I have done is simply build on an ancient traditional where children had no rights and adults determined whether they would be allowed to live or die. – Narrator, Still Waters

The question at the heart of Camilla Noli's debut novel, Still Waters, is this: Is every woman suited to motherhood? Noli's book is a sharp, distressing look at the answer. Her unnamed narrator in Still Waters is a mother of two, living what some would consider the storybook life. She is attractive and well-educated; her husband is successful and caring; and her kids are, for the most part, bundles of joy. We soon discover, however, that such a lifestyle is not every woman's idea of bliss.

Noli's narrator resists her new role as wife and mother. For her, those titles are definitions reserved for women without ambition, content to change nappies and attend kinder meetings. Her new life lacks the adventure, verve, and spontaneity of her old life -- her life pre-children. Noli describes in wrenching detail the decision her narrator eventually makes to return to her supposed former glory.

Revealing the book's narrator as a killer is not to reveal a great plot twist. In knowing what will eventually come to pass, we are able to recognize more fully Noli's purpose and achievement. Tension more than builds, it bludgeons, because we know what's coming. Skilful and energetic though Noli's writing is, Still Waters is not an easy book to read. The events described are upsetting to say the least. But this is exactly the point. Noli's intent is to unsettle, to disturb. She dares us to take these events in, and forces us to react. We may want to dismiss Noli's work as another overwrought thriller, but we can't ignore the headlines made by Susan Smith, Andrea Yates, Diane Downs, and, just recently, Morgan Hite.

In the Susan Smith trial, prosecuting attorney Keith Geise labeled Smith, who drowned her infant sons in 1994, a "selfish and manipulative killer who sacrificed her children". Noli's narrator could be similarly summed up. But Noli reveals, too, that not all is just so black and white. Like Smith, Noli's narrator is a complex woman with a history that goes some way to revealing the source of her violent behavior. Still Waters is very much a page-turner. But it's one that attempts to explore a serious, ugly subject with more care and depth than your average potboiler. Its answers are not always satisfactory, but the fact that a first time writer not only dares ask the questions, but does so this well, gives it great merit.

PopMatters spoke to Camilla Noli about the book, the controversy, motherhood, and the writer's dream realized.

The subject matter has sparked debate, and become a major selling point -- did you consider the impact of the subject matter during the writing process? Did you expect such a response?

While I always believed that the character and the situation at the centre of Still Waters should be written about and explored, I never regarded the subject matter as necessarily a positive selling point -- in fact the very opposite.

As my children were very young at the time that I wrote the book, I worried about potential back-lash against me as a mother. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised to find that people have no trouble separating the fact of me as a mother from the fiction of Still Waters.

Also, in the beginning, the subject matter was a concern for some publishers. Even now we find it easier to believe that a father is capable is killing his kids than we do that a mother is. There are many instances of this where a mother has killed a number of her children before anyone became suspicious (both in Australia and overseas). It is a difficult issue to explore because when parents do lose their children in tragic circumstances they require every support. However, the deliberate killing of children does occur. I believe, very strongly, that these issues are things that people should be talking about and that fiction is a fabulous medium to raise them. I think Still Waters is a good starting point for this.

Have you had any negative feedback due to the topic?

Not really. It has been disturbing for some readers I think, but most people tell me that -- despite feeling unsettled – they cannot put the book down and that ultimately it is a fantastic read. I also think that, as time goes on, people will unpack some of the more subtle aspects of the book. Because, of course, the book deals with so many more topics than just the most obvious one of 'unsuitable mothers'. For example: are there sufficient support networks for mothers and families, how has the breakdown of the extended family made things more or less difficult, what support do fathers need and get (many men identify with Daniel's [the husband in the book] dilemma), mental health issues, etc.

A major theme in the book centers on women without a natural maternal instinct. To what degree do you think the narrator's actions are based on that or simply poor upbringing? Do you think her issues with her own children perhaps sparked a pre-existing psychological condition?

There is no simple answer to this question. I think it was a combination, and certainly one of the tragedies of life is that, at times, nature and nurture combine with heartbreaking outcomes. But we need to also look at the role of others in relation to her. For example if the hospital had been a little more vigilant after the birth of [first child] Cassie, if Daniel had been around a little more, if she had a close friend or neighbour that she could talk to about her feelings, if the police had respected her grief a little less and probed a little harder. All these things would have changed outcomes.

There are also many secondary issues which Still Waters raises of course, which people have barely even begun to focus on yet. One of those is the role of fathers. Some people have blamed Daniel for his lack of support of the narrator or have asked why he didn't do more to stop her. But of course like many 'good fathers' and 'good husbands' he was doing what he thought was best -- working hard, earning money, and providing for his family. And even when he was suspicious of the narrator at the end, what could he have done? Who would have believed the word of a father against that of a mother? Maybe we need to also be having a debate on the role, rights and responsibilities of fathers as well.

Was there a reason you didn't dwell on the narrator's past? To what extent, do you think, does her past make us sympathetic towards her? Was that your intent, or was it more about explaining her actions?

We do feel some sympathy for the narrator at times, but in terms of her past explaining her actions ... well we need to remember that we have only the narrator's word for everything that occurs in the book. This is her story and while she is self-obsessed, she is not locked into unending retrospective analysis of why she is the victim in this situation. Also, I feel that too often books provide an easy out for bad characters -- something that allows readers to relate to them and say "if only ...". There are no easy reasons here.

The flashbacks to and comments about the narrator's childhood indicated this was a damaged woman more than a damaged mother. Do you see her that way?

Yes she is a damaged woman and would be a dangerous person to cross in any setting -- not just in a domestic one. However, I think we need to be careful in attributing that damage as being necessarily caused by her upbringing. We need to remember that she is a skilful actor and liar. It is clear that she doesn't like her mother and blames her for many things -- but the story shows some cracks in that story. The narrator's cousin thinks highly of her mother, Daniel trusts the mother enough to ask her to come and babysit when he is untrusting of others, and I would hope the reader may question some details of the narrator's story about her father's death ... Yes, the narrator is a damaged woman, but whether it was because of her childhood is a debatable point.

What was it like to live with this narrator during the writing of the book? Can you describe what it was like to write those scenes of child abuse?

She is not a character whom I plan to revisit! I let her inhabit my head for only as long as I had to; she was, and is, a powerful voice and her character dictated the writing of Still Waters very strongly. The more disturbing scenes were written very quickly without me dwelling on them. They have changed very little from the very first time they were ever written, as if every word had its exact place.

Did you do much research into infanticide and child abuse? Is the narrator's situation uncommon?

I have always been appalled by the idea that people can hurt children. I have never understood how it is possible. A recent report from the Institute of Health and Welfare, shows very clearly that incidents of child abuse are on the rise -- unfortunately this is a statistic which cannot be ignored and should be talked about. And these are the statistics which we know about -- perhaps elements of the narrator's situation are more common than we realize.

I really thought the narrator was going to heave Daniel off a cliff towards the end of the book -- they were so tense, those hiking scenes. Did you always know how you were going to end the story?

Not entirely, but I knew that she was a character who would never allow herself to be circumscribed. I didn't want a Hollywood-like ending where she got her just desserts, because this is not what life is like.

I really wanted Daniel to go to the police -- why does he let her off like that, or does he? What was Daniel hoping at the end, do you think?

This is such a complicated question and I'll have to give you the short answer. I think that Daniel was trying desperately to hold onto what he had and, of course, it was always only ever going to be his word against hers and who are the police more likely to believe in such a situation ...? Men, fathers, don't always have a lot of power in these type of situations.

I read that the narrator came to you in a dream. Can you describe how you "met" her, and what made you want to tell her story? Do you know, exactly, how you came to dream about her?

Writing for me is all about evoking a particular response -- an emotional feeling of some kind -- in the reader. Because it is not unusual for both characters and situations to present themselves to me in dreams I try to use the 'feeling' of these dreams to make my writing real and evocative.

The narrator of Still Waters entered my head one night and she certainly evoked a very strong reaction in me! I think that I was particularly fascinated by her at that time in my life as my children were still very young and I couldn't help but wonder how someone like her would be if she were responsible for caring for young children. With those two impulses -- the character and the situation -- the premise of Still Waters was born.

Can I ask how/where you think the narrator is?

She is free, in her own mind at least -- wherever she is physically -- and for her that is perhaps all that really counts. And at the end I think that she has become almost symbolic, representing the embodiment of archetypal evil, a little bit of which we all carry within us.

How does it feel seeing your book on the shelves? What do you think of the art?

It is wonderful of course, but a bit nerve-wracking -- my little book in such big shops. But I love the cover design -- which sums-up the feel of the book so well -- and think that, with such an evocative cover, Still Waters really stands out.

The book is to be published in the UK -- do you feel as though a dream is coming true?

It is very exciting. And yes, it is a dream come true. I have written all my life, but for a time work and family took precedence. I began writing Still Waters almost seven years ago, so it has taken time to get it to this point -- even dreams require hard work! But now I love being able to balance writing time with family life and am looking forward to hearing about a US deal, perhaps sometime soon ...

And, finally, what's up next?

Well, I have a second book scheduled to come out next year, hopefully around April as well. I love looking behind the façade of seemingly happy lives and I think that fascination will be around for awhile!

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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