Christie Thompson, debut author of Snake Bite, reveals another side to "middle class" Canberra. Photo: Graham Tidy
Christie Thompson swears her first novel Snake Bite is not autobiographical. Despite growing up in Kambah, like her protagonist Jez, despite feeling the isolation of the late teenage years, despite dabbling in drugs, Thompson is quick to dismiss the similarities - but not in the way you would think.
''I did all of that, and probably more,'' she says. ''My supervisor said I would alienate a large proportion of the readership if I made it too explicit. I had to tone it down a lot. You could get really serious and really depressing. There are some serious topics in it, and conflict, but I purposely didn't want to make it too bleak, too confrontational.''
This comment shocked this sheltered journalist, who thought Snake Bite was one of the bleakest, most confrontational books she had read in a long time. A coming-of-age story, it doesn't gloss over anything. And what made it more confrontational was that it was set in our home town. Particularly because there's a general perception that in Canberra we're all middle-class, educated folk, who don't have to deal with things such as teenagers taking drugs and coming home to their parents who are drunk in the middle of the day. And that we don't have to deal with families living in poverty and struggling to stick together. Not here in the nation's capital thank you very much.
But Thompson knows firsthand that there's a side to Canberra most of us, whether we live here or not, don't see.
''I did grow up in Kambah,'' she says. ''I have the experience of growing up in the outer suburbs, feeling that alienation and boredom, feeling like you were living on the edge of the world. Canberra can be bleak.
''I wrote my honours thesis on Canberra in fiction. That's something that has always interested me [and] that's why I wanted to set this in Canberra. There's the media's point of view, the government, the public service, but there's the other side of Canberra. The people who live here who are just people, like anyone else … places like Kambah, Tuggeranong, to me, are like the western suburbs of Sydney, or any sort of isolated suburbia that's on the outskirts of a metropolitan area. They are real places.''
Now 32, Thompson was also interested in exploring how teenagers' lives are different now.
''I was especially interested in looking at young girls, and I wanted to explore how young girls negotiate their sexuality in a time where feminism has created an interesting social climate for young women,'' she says.
''I wanted Jez to be a character who was negotiating this minefield of sexual experiences. She's quite naive comparatively, for someone of her age - she's 17 - but I wanted a naive character so I could explore that process of discovering your sexuality.
''The reason for that was because I was interested in how in feminism at the moment there's this dichotomous view. On the one hand there's this sex-positive feminism that kind of thinks overt sexuality means liberation, that stripping and prostitution are a matter of personal choice and indicate the ownership of one's body. Then on the other side of the fence you have feminists who are quite critical of the sexual revolution, who believe it hasn't lead to positive demonstrations of your sexual self.
''That's quite a serious subtext, one that could be could be quite academic in a lot of ways, but I didn't want to write didactically or push my agenda down anybody's throat. I wrote the book wanting to be entertaining and wanting to be funny and wanting to give a voyeuristic-like view of these young people's lives.''
Thompson did a bachelor of arts at the Australian National University, majoring in creative writing, inspired by her lecturer, who said she had a natural talent for it. She went on to complete her honours year, topping the course, and embarked on a PhD in creative writing on a full scholarship. Snake Bite was borne out of her PhD year and took her about two years to complete.
''I'd love to be able to write full-time, I guess it depends on how this book does,'' she says. ''I might have to get a real job … I haven't worked for years now but sometimes you have to chase a dream.''
Thompson says she kept the book under wraps while she was writing it.
''I purposefully kept it from my friends and family until it was too late to retract it,'' she says. ''I didn't want their input or censorship of what I wanted to say. I wanted to be able to write it without anyone looking over my shoulder and saying 'don't put that in'.
''Now my mum and I are joking about mailing it to my gran'. She's not going to like the fs and cs in it, I'll tell you that, and it was awkward writing sex scenes when you know your gran' might read it. But I had to write from the heart and forget that it was ever going to be read.
''To be honest, I never thought it would be [read]. When I got the call from the publishers Allen & Unwin I burst into tears and had to lie down for two hours. I didn't have that belief in my writing.''
■ Snake Bite. By Christie Thompson. Allen & Unwin. $24.99.