BRAD SAYERS

Kate Rossmanith: The jump from literary essayist to author

The Write Stuff

This is the third of five profiles in The Write Stuff series featuring literary journalists from around the world.

Kate Rossmanith is sitting on the terrace of Cult Eatery Café, overlooking a vast, luminous green field, on the first floor of Macquarie University's Faculty of Arts. The self-described middle-class writer and academic is coming to terms with the surprising success of her first book, which she describes as a "hybrid memoir".

In the 18 months since her narrative non-fiction work Small Wrongs: How We Really Say Sorry in Love, Life and Law (Hardie Grant Books) was published, it was long-listed for the UK's most prestigious non-fiction literary award - something Rossmanith describes as a "huge deal" - and praised by critics (The Sydney Morning Herald called it memoir writing at its best). For Australian author Alice Pung it was a "moving investigation into the inner-workings of remorse and forgiveness, not just as a legal concept, but as a tool to opening up our common humanity".

Rossmanith says "one of the big knots in the book was ultimately we don't ever know what's going on inside another person and yet legally judges are obliged to make guesses about that." Her investigation of the demonstration of remorse in the criminal justice system is meshed with a reflection on how remorse has impacted her own life. She draws on childhood memories of a distant father who was quick to anger, and her own married life with husband and child.

'I thought naively, that surely it would feel like an essay, but just kind of 80,000 words instead of 5,000 words.'

She wrote the book while working as a researcher and a senior lecturer in cultural studies at Macquarie University, Sydney, where she also teaches non-fiction writing and literary journalism. Her academic area of research, performance ethnography, is essentially the process of investigating performance in one or all its cultural or social contexts; and in the case of Small Wrongs, she is looking at remorse through its "legal, moral and personal" dimensions.

In reviewing the book, author Drusilla Modjeska pinpointed the challenge for Rossmanith: that as an ethnographer with academic guidelines and procedures to follow, she had to deal with the question of how to be objective when relying on the subjective, something ethnography as a discipline has grappled with for decades.

"It's a paradox that requires the author to take notice not only of what is going on around her but also of what is going on inside her. A doubled perspective that is necessary if the nature of what has been observed is ever to be understood," says Modjeska.

She may be a first-time book author, but Rossmanith has a publishing profile. Her essays have been published in The Monthly, The Australian, The Best Australian Essays 2007 ('Many Me') and The Conversation. 'The Work of Judges', a long-form essay for The Monthly, earned her a Walkley nomination in 2013 and in 2018 her short documentary 'Unnatural Deaths: the emotional power of forensic photographs' was part of a series published by The Guardian. [Small Wrongs was long-listed for the high profile 2018 UK Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction Writing as well as the local 2018 Mark and Evette Moran Nib Literary Award.]

Despite her experience as an essayist and academic, Rossmanith discovered the gap between creating literary journalism and writing a book was much wider than she anticipated. "The transition to the book, it was so hard because I've never written a book before," she says. "I thought naively, that surely it would feel like an essay, but just kind of 80,000 words instead of 5,000 words.

" I thought I would just do a lot more research and a lot more thinking, but the feel would be the same - and I was so wrong.

Small Wrongs took eight years to complete, including three years (2010-2013) of fieldwork and interviews in the justice system. In building her narrative, she sat in on private sessions of the NSW State Parole Authority, more than 100 court hearings, as well as a conducting interviews with judges, magistrates, lawyers, police detectives, forensic clinicians, caseworkers, victims, and offenders.

'We have unarticulated ideas about what remorse is and then we use that to judge people going through the justice system.'

That research was followed by four years "writing and re-writing the book", searching for the right voice and structure to craft an objective story around the exploration of a subjective concept.

In 2013, she tried to start writing the book and sent a few thousand words to a friend whom she describes as a "very beautiful writer". The friend told her "the voice" was all wrong, it sounded breezy, like a piece for The Monthly. Her verdict was "this voice is not going to sustain a book".

"I had a meltdown. I was just like, what? Oh my God, what am I going to do, how am I going to find a voice? … I just precipitated a creative crisis."

Over the next few years, she tried, without success, to work up pieces of writing to find the sound of the book. It was an email from Helen Garner, the celebrated Australian narrative non-fiction author, in 2015 that provided the breakthrough. "[She said] 'listen, the first line of the book is going to come to you like a piece of music … the first paragraph will come to you like a piece of music, have a pen, write it down, and then spend the next two years tuning the rest of the material to the sound of that paragraph'."

A few months later, Rossmanith says, the first line, "Remorse is memory awake", an Emily Dickinson quote, did come to her, and then the first paragraph (a court scene) "and then I slowly tried to tune the rest of the material to the sound of that paragraph". The end result, Small Wrongs, is "quite essayistic, because it's an investigation".

Remorse is very common in everyday life, she says, and it's not something that only happens to those caught up in the criminal justice system. People have problems in their marriage; a tense relationship with a parent, incredibly ordinary situations can lead to situations where things happen, words are said, and people feel remorse.

"We have unarticulated ideas about what remorse is ... and then we use that to judge people going through the justice system." The social justice agenda is very much present in Small Wrongs, but in "a more subtle way" than in her academic research papers where she "explicitly spells out the social inequality that occurs during the remorse assessment process and how we need to improve that and how judges think this and all of that".

It is an "impossible ask" to ask offenders to admit they've done wrong and that then they need to apologise. "They need to say sorry in these particular ways in this big courtroom. And in fact, regret and remorse work upon us in more subtle and intangible ways than that, [ways] that are not always articulable."

She says in writing this book, she is aware that she is a middle-class woman and the issues she has will differ to someone in dire poverty or a situation whereby their everyday life looks very different to hers. "So, I'm not wanting to suggest, 'oh we all share the same everyday life', but the book is absolutely pitched to the middle class. I mean it's to educate, in a way, the middle class and the upper class about the way remorse works for people trying to go through the justice system."

Rossmanith is "really satisfied" with the impact of her first book. She believes, "in mobilising a narrative consciousness to critique the way remorse structures work in the criminal justice system", she brought something fresh to the conversation around remorse. So, what's next for the essayist turned author? A second book is in the works, of which she will only reveal it is also in criminal justice space - and that she may be some time.

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