Literary Mixers - Alice Nelson and Brenda Walker

Literary Mixers is an event pairing emerging authors with established authors as they talk candidly about their journeys to publication: their highs and lows, friends lost, and amount of wine and chocolate consumed during the writing process. Authors confess their innermost fears, share their vulnerabilities, and reflect on the joys of being a writer.

On the evening of 6 June 2019, Alice Nelson and Brenda Walker shared snippets into the life and mind of a writer.

Read a transcript of their conversation below.

[Transcript]

Alice:

Can everyone hear? We both have quite soft voices…

Right. We had a couple of sets of questions that we wanted to kind of just wander around a bit in a conversation. And we’re always having conversations, because we speak quite frequently, meet quite frequently, sometimes in Australia and sometimes not in Australia, and sometimes in Western Australia… We’re going to be meeting up over East later in the year. In fact, we’ll spend some time in Sydney won’t we? We’re not strangers. [They laugh.]

So please, let’s make this more of a conversation than a disquisition.

Brenda:

Yes, please feel free to jump in and ask us things too.

Alice:

So, shall we start with – when we were plotting what we might talk about, and thinking about the writer’s childhood, and what makes a writer, and are they a different breed to normal people…? [laughter].

Do we have other writers here? Or readers? …Lots of writers, ok, so you guys all know.

So, we thought we’d try to identify what is it about the watchful child who becomes the writer, and… what kind of child were you, Brenda?

Brenda:

Well, quite watchful. Because we lived on a farm, it was quite a distance out of town. In New South Wales, it was very lush, very beautiful, and next to the river our farmhouse had been built by my grandfather, and there wasn’t anything except a radio – or a wireless, as it was called – and the piano. And we didn’t have a television until it was quite late, and we also had quite austere, healthy food, so as soon I as broke free I lived on chocolate mint slice biscuits and the healthy food didn’t kind of stick for me!

But something about the evenings, the long slow evenings without an intrusion of an entertainment, a packaged entertainment… Something about those long evenings of listening and thinking and in some cases storytelling, in my grandmother’s case – that was really generative for me. I think the long stretch of attention span you need as a writer is maybe formed in childhood, maybe formed by children who are quiet, who are calm, who are encouraged to read a lot themselves… So, that was my farmhouse childhood, and big influence was my grandmother, and Alice’s grandmother has had an extraordinary influence on her childhood as well, so perhaps older people who aren’t as directive as parents, quietness, space and a predisposition to reading are really important factors. What about your childhood?

Alice:

You say quietness and space; I think mine was almost completely the opposite because I grew up mostly in my grandmother’s house and she had nine children – six sisters, so you know, it was this sort of crazy, chaotic, mad house full of happenings, and I was the first grandchild born into this house. And so I’d sit at the table with all my aunts and uncles and they were all artists and sculptors and architects and musicians, so there was this sort of expectation that one would become creative. I remember one of the uncles ended up becoming a real estate agent and that was received with great horror from the rest of the family, though he’s probably more comfortably (well) off than the rest of us put together, but that was a terrible failure, to do something that wasn’t in the arts.

So I was sort of bred with this sense of story; and I’d sit around and listen to my aunts who you know, I was the first grandchild and they were considerably older and they’d talk about their love affairs, and sorts of terrible conflagrations and dramas. And there was also a bit of reading, and we’d read Tolstoy and the Russians and Dickens, so I kind of had a sense of the drama of literature and the drama of real life and it was often very hard as a child to separate the two. So I guess for me it was that kind of inheritance of story and of dramatic narrative arcs of people’s lives and of novels and this sense that I somehow had to have a dramatic narrative in my own life as well. For me, I achieved that by moving to New York when I was twenty, I did my undergrad here at UWA in the English department and then had this great sense that to be a writer I needed to… you couldn’t possibly stay somewhere like Perth, you needed to go somewhere exciting like Paris or St Petersburg or New York, and as I only spoke English, I picked New York.

So yeah, I think the watchfulness and the reading and writing is part of it but for me it was that sort of intensity of story, and I think that’s something that’s fed me throughout my life, but I mean, there’s stories in every family –

Brenda:

Absolutely.

Alice:

Whether or not they’re as chaotic or crazy as mine.

Brenda:

And I think – we’ve talked about this quite a bit – there’s nostalgia in so many families, particularly immigrant families, or families that have – a little time has softened the immigration, and in Alice’s  family there is sort of ‘another place’, another place that people think about, and in my family, the ‘other place’ was Scotland. My grandmother was a Gaelic speaker and her antecedents were from the Isle of Skye and they’d come out during the pearances but they sort of… it was very strange, because to hear these people speak about Scotland you would never know the clan systems had fractured, that people were driven off their land, that they were emigrating to Australia. Because the leds who were previously there, they sort of kindly protected us, had become quite merchantile and decided that sheep were more profitable than people…

This kind of barely expressed longing for a kind of language that’s somewhere else and a light that’s somewhere else was quite poignant in my grandmother’s house in particular, and the names, the Scottish names, came through as well. I haven’t been to Scotland, but when I did an Ancestry.com test after Christmas, I found that I had this kind of little tinge of France as well as Norway. And I spoke to my cousin and said, ‘what’s this about?’, and she said, ‘oh, it’s the Frasers and the McClouds. The McClouds are Norse and the Frasers are French’. I mean way, way, way back in the dawn of time, so this kind of convergence of the past, but it’s preserved through stories, and it’s preserved through a nostalgia that’s somehow for the second generation immigrant bleached of the particular intensity that it should carry.

But I think there’s something lulling about a story for a child; there’s something about that sense of there being an elsewhere, of there being another place where something has happened, having something to imagine and think about… It’s very nourishing, even though it might be grounded in real loss and despair, that kind of drops away a bit. And then, the same experience with your grandmother’s origin, and family’s movement through many countries…

Alice:

Yeah… my family had to h – from all over Europe, my grandfather was a Russian Jew, my grandmother was born on Kofu, so there’s definitely this sense of a great elsewhere. And it’s interesting, that notion of nostalgia, and the actual meaning of it which, which I only just discovered quite recently is it’s a longing for a home that never existed…

Brenda:

Yeah…

Alice:

That notion that you’re nostalgic for something never really was, or wasn’t the thing you imagined. So for me, I grew up on these stories of Russian villages, and islands, and my grandmother was convinced that she was the illegitimate child of the king of Greece, so there’s these kind of amazing – and I’m sure it’s not true –

Brenda:

I don’t know, I think it kind of checks out in some ways.

Alice:

Well… [they laugh] Who knows? Maybe we should get her to do Ancestry.com.

Brenda:

Very helpful.

Alice:

Maybe Prince Phillip? But yeah, this idea of this place that is imaginary, I mean in my case Russia and Greece are real places, but as a child they were just as wonderous and sort of fantastical as you know, the cities I read about in the novels that I read… I think Come to Open talks about how writers are not particularly whole people, and that we write to heal some kind of loss, and I wonder for me if it began with that sense of loss of homeland, loss of culture and country that ran through my family. I mean, me and my family are very much happy in Australia and have found a new home here, as did your family, but I think with the migrant there is always that sense that something has been lost, that a lot has been gained, but a lot has been left behind and how do you ever reconcile the two worlds, really? So, I wonder if migrants and exiles make writers? I wonder if people who are happily born and raised in place are less – need less to go searching in literature. But perhaps not?

Brenda:

[To the audience] What do you think?

Audience member:

I’m curious to know what your first book was that you made, and why you picked that particular one.

Alice:

Gosh, I can’t… The one I remember as the first one is that… my aunts were all taking turns to tell stories and often they were stories from their lives and they would often just retell the stories of novels, and one of them told me the story of Heidi, and this was when I was a very small child, I thought she’d just made it up, so I was absolutely stunned a couple of years later to find it in my school library and realise she hadn’t actually invented it. But along with fairytales – those sorts of stories of children who have to fend for themselves, and children whose parents are not present or reliable – I mean, in pretty much all of Grimm’s fairytales the children have been cast –

Brenda:

Yeah, the romance of the orphan –

Alice:

And for someone who was certainly not an orphan, who often railed against having not one mother but six aunts bossing me around…

I suppose for me I was obsessed with stories of children who were forced to rely on their own resources, Heidi’s the one that particularly stands out but also The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, all of those sorts of stories of lost children and then later discovering them, Dickens… they’re everywhere really, aren’t they? They’re just full of orphans.

Brenda:

The Gothic is grounded in that, the idea of a child pulled away from conventional protection. And that becomes this magical but sometimes fearful figure… but I… my mother actually sort of broke out of her conventional in a lot of space when I was quite small… for someone like my mother, who had trained as a teacher quite young, against the wishes of her parents… She did have some teaching background, but she decided to do a degree when I was quite young, and she did it through distance education through the University of New England.

Now I am very, very much in favour of distance education because it reaches people who have no chance to go to a beautiful campus or anything like that. So one course at a time, then many courses at once, she accelerated her study, and she shared this with me because I was the youngest and a girl. The others were older boys, and so I was the person that was sitting around when she was reading things aloud to me. In those days you had to have a grounding in Middle English and Old English to qualify for your English degree, so she was reading Umber Wolf and… one that really struck me was a thing called ‘Advice for Nuns and Anchoresses’. The advice that won’t surprise you to hear was, ‘be careful of your own body and be careful of the priest’s’.

Because these women were literally within the walls of the church. They were sometimes allowed to have a capped, but they were cautioned against anything that might be fun, or a pleasure or whatever. But the ‘Advice to Nuns and Anchoresses’ was a text that she translated with some irony to a small child, that was me, and we laughed about it and found it very funny and she enjoyed herself with this but it was also… Poetry; she used to write up chunks of Milton and stick them around the house, she learnt them off by heart for exams, but you’d be doing the washing up and there’d be some kind of huge, symphonic theme charging out at you from the wall from Paradise Lost and it was hard not to enjoy it. She loved Yates, the poetry of Yates in particular, and even though none of this was really explicit to me as a small child, I revelled in it, because my mother was happy, so I was happy. And because there was this thrill to the music of literature, and the meaning, you know, that’s ok, that comes next. But it was her way of establishing, to my father’s great encouragement, a self away from the domestic duties that women of her age in the seventies were limited by, you know, in a country town or a farmhouse outside a country town. But there was a good deal of disapproval of her doing this, not from my father and not within the family, but it influenced me enormously and it influenced me because it showed me you’re a woman and you don’t need to be contained, that there are men that will cheer you on as you fail to be contained, that there are plenty of people who will approach you with constrictions and you laugh at them…

I remember my mother running into an old friend of her who had nine children, in a public toilet in Armadale, and this friend said through clenched teeth, ‘how’s your long-suffering husband?’ to my studious mother. And my mother said to the woman with nine children, ‘how’s yours?’ There was very much a bit of push-back going on there, but this idea of being drenched in poetry, drenched in in the idea of literature that is musical and rhythmic, and not plotty necessarily, lyrical stuff; very important in my childhood. And I have this milestone formative experience when I was fourteen – she had done really well and the university wanted her to come in on-campus and do Honours. And this was a big dislocation for the family. But by then my brothers were – my eldest brother was away at university and my next brother was about to go, and my father said, ‘right, we’ll commute’.

So they commuted about four hundred miles every weekend and saw one another and my mother went to live, when I was fourteen, in a little flat in the college at the University of New England where I had the run of all libraries, and where I was a kind of anomaly. But I think a welcome one, in that it was quite a sort of warmly naturalistic college system. And I enjoyed myself no end; so there was no containing me either. And then, at the end of that Honours year they suggested that she do a Doctorate and she may have been – she was certainly one of the first people to have a doctorate in Australian literature in this country – and she was told that she should not study Judith Wright, she’d never get a job with an Australian topic. It was a complete waste of time to write about Australian literature.

And she forged a great friendship with Judith and a great body of work from that initial study, so she wasn’t someone to be told, and I was very lucky to have her, and to have someone who showed me that when you get a chance to do something you buy a Volkswagen, and you put your child and a ginger cat in the back of the Volkswagen and the child might be whinging and the ginger cat certainly whinging, and you drive up across a great big mountain range, sometimes in snow, and you get where you want to go, unpack, and everybody gets on with it.

And in the background, the great and unusual kindness of my father who was certainly not a patriarchal husband. So that’s sort of, from the farmhouse, that was the sort of volcanic movement outwards, and it was an unbelievable gift… I always think people are uneasy about dislocating children and sometimes it’s exactly what they need. Do you think that too?

Alice:

I think so… it’s interesting that you were fourteen; when I was fourteen I was at Tiona and my mother was convinced I was becoming dull and conservative at this all-girls Catholic school. And she sent me off to Europe with my grandmother who was going to visit some of her children who had moved there, and one of them was living in an artist commune in Portugal, and another was living in Amsterdam, and it was this extraordinary awakening to live with these people. And I knew them, but to be suddenly in these different locations and to be watching people living very unconventional lives; it broadened things.

I mean, as with your mother, this sense that you didn’t have to didn’t have to stay in place, didn’t have to live the conventional life that that might have been mapped out for you, and that was enormously liberating for me. And I suppose that kind of grew into making me think I could live abroad, and I could move countries, and later spend time in Mexico and more recently France… I think it’s this idea that you can unshackle yourself from what might be seen as a sensible pathway of life and career and occupation and… stagnancy, in some ways. So, I think it’s important to have those models, in literature and in life too, and I suppose for us that came in the form of these formidable women.

Brenda:

Tough women, and also, look, I started writing because I came to Western Australia and I missed the Eastern States so much, I missed my family actually, and it was at that point in particular quite a tight-knit family. I came over here with twenty three boxes of books and a bicycle and a cat (a different cat), and my husband – he wasn’t my husband then – and we set up house in various little flats in Mount Lawley and so on, and I missed the East. And out of that stretch, that feeling of stretch, I started to write, and I wrote a little novel set not in the East but in Northbridge. And it was such a pleasure to write, and something about that feeling of…

I don’t subscribe to the view that writing grows from some wound. I think writing grows from tremendous hard work and from a background that generates writing and a huge amount of reading and thoughtfulness, but I do think that there’s some little stretch; some little sense of something missing, something that you’re looking towards in the distance that stimulates your writing. And your first novel was about Hong Kong…

Alice:

Yeah, I left Perth and moved in Manhattan and lived in Highland and that’s where my second novel was set. And yes, I was homesick for my family and the place that I had been so desperate to leave, I found myself suddenly dreaming of Cottesloe Beach and Norfolk pines and the sounds of Australian birds because I was living in big, busy, bustling Manhattan which I also loved, but…

For me it was interesting. I had this grand plan to write a New York novel and this novel was going to be set in New York and it would be in this big sort of very sort of Seri Husket, Paul Aster, John Dundillo style, that sort of New York book. And I realised that sometimes you can’t consciously choose the thing you write about, that sometimes you may have these great plans that don’t come to fruition because I was trying to write about New York but I found myself going back… I’m a great journal keeper, as are you, Brenda, and we both have a mania for documenting the world as most writers do, but… I’d stopped on the way in Hong Kong to visit and friend and I would read my journals from that time in Hong Kong, and I suddenly was writing a story about a woman in Hong Kong and the story just grew and grew and grew and soon it was an entire novel set in Hong Kong.

Which had never been my plan, you know, Hong Kong was a foreign and strange city to me, I hadn’t spent much time there at that point. But I once heard a writer, I think it was Joy Williams, say she could only write about places she knew barely at all or incredibly well, there was no in-between. And for me that was very true because I knew Hong Kong barely at all and I discovered – imagined and dreamed it – through the process of writing, and then my second novel was set in New York which at that point, I’d left New York but I’d lived there for several years and knew it intimately. And it’s a New York novel, but it’s a neighbourhood novel set in Harlem where I lived.

So… that might have completely deflected the question, but this idea that you write out of longing… I’m not sure I was longing for Hong Kong but I was longing for something, some rootedness in something or someplace, and then when I was writing the New York novel I was back in Perth, and I was desperately missing New York and wishing I was back there and I was in that strange psychic disorientation. I hadn’t planned to move back to Australia, I came back to my now-husband; these men lead us places, so I was resigning myself to being in Perth – very, very happily of course.

But I was missing New York enormously and writing a kind of love song to it, and writing the streets of Harlem as a way of not missing it as much, and also as a way of making sense of the years I spent there and the things I’d seen and done, I worked with refugees and documented migrants, so it was very much writing from longing and as a kind of sense-making of what that time had meant, and what some of the human stories I had been immersed in had meant to me and how I could resolve them in my life and… yeah. I think it’s a book full of longing for home and for community and for place. I think there’s a line in one of the DeLillo novels, and it might be about the Twin Towers burning, and he takes a little Japanese poem that’s about Kyoto actually and he says, ‘even in New York I long for New York’… you get that specificity that satisfies the longing, and this is kind of connected to the idea of nostalgia too. Nostalgia is a longing for something that doesn’t exist, and sometimes our passion for cities is full of fantasy and stimulates the imagination enormously. And …what time is it? Ten past seven? We were going to discuss…

Brenda:

Yeah, we were going to discuss houses.

Alice:

Shall we talk about houses?

Brenda:

Yeah.

Alice:

Yeah.

Brenda:

Well, we’ve had this experience which we don’t expect sympathy for of writing together in this house in France the last month.

Alice:

Yeah. It’s a very hard life. [They laugh.]

Brenda:

It kind of plugs in to some of the things we’ve been talking about. And I know Charlotte Wood did a collection of interviews with writers and the interview with Joan London really spoke to me because she said, ‘take huge risks’. ‘Take huge risks’… well, going to France isn’t a huge risk, but it’s a step outside your normal routine and so forth, and I think embarking on any new piece of work is a huge risk, and most of us have work that’s followed a certain trajectory, and then not followed the kind of rational expectation – like, you wanted to write a New York novel and you wrote a Hong Kong novel – at various points I thought I was doing one thing and then I found the thing that actually spoke to me was something off on a tangent. And I think as writers – and I’m assuming people in the room have this experience – you can write and write and write and suddenly get blocked. You get blocked, and you think, ‘huh. What’s this about?’ And then it comes to you in the next few days that you’ve been following a wrong direction.

Writer’s block is usually a consequence of following a wrong direction and then you regroup… because writers proceed like a vehicle on a highway writing this oblique, bits sit against other bits even paragraph to paragraph and there’s a trajectory of stories but there’s always surprise, suspense, obliquity, and so it seems to me that your writing follows some unconscious imperative to some extent. Though it has to be rationally ordered, and the work is considerable, but also in life, if you get the chance to follow some, you know, out-flanking manoeuvre, it’s often the right thing to do… in our family, which comes from a place where there are plenty of flying foxes, it’s called springing sideways like a bat, that thing where you just kind of launch yourself in a kind of sideways motion from the darkness of some tree.

So going to France was a little like that for me, although Alice has been repeatedly to quite a wonderful house; which she will describe for you, not me, but I can say it’s a house that’s owned by a man who has filled it with his family’s treasures, his own treasures, and the treasures are often very modest because it’s full of stickers from 19th century travel, etchings, lovely paintings, lots and lots of books, some quite magnificent pieces of furniture and plenty of well-loved and quirky objects. But as with all houses you walk into, something that speaks to you, and it speaks to you on a level that isn’t entirely rational. I’m sure we’ve all had that experience of walking into a house and feeling a bit uneasy, and so often the opposite occurs and the feeling of the house and the people who live there sort of flows through the objects and creates a bit of illuminosity. And this house had a terrifically luminous sense of thought and writing and the secretion of personal history. But you can describe the beautiful bits.

Alice:

Well it’s interesting, this notion of the house of writing, and the literal houses of writing. I’ve been to a lot of writer’s colonies and retreats, and I once wrote a piece for the West and some reader sent a very snarky email saying, ‘does that journalist spend her entire life living in writer’s colonies?’ which sadly is not true, but… this notion of houses sort of possessing you in a way – because I do think that houses can possess us as much as we possess them – and before I went to this house in France I was writing my book in New York; and I was very kindly given use of a house in Cape Cod that belonged to some nuns that I worked for. And suddenly I found myself writing a whole chunk of this book set in this house in Cape Cod, and it was not my intention, it was a Hong Kong.

So I toiled to write that, but it’s the idea that things sort of waylay you, and the same thing has happened with this house in France. We do quite a lot of house swaps when we travel, which is quite a nice way to see parts of the world, and this is how I first came to this house. We swapped with the owner of the house and he came to our house in Perth when we went to France. And it’s that thing that is such rich material for a writer; you’re not staying in a hotel room, you are actually stepping into someone else’s life, the people who own this house, their photos and the two bedrooms and relics of their history, and I think they’re very brave to allow not one but two writers to live there. Because you know, parts of their history might be immortalised in forthcoming novels …but we’ll disguise it heavily.

So yeah, it’s this idea that, you think of that Doctor O quote, and he says that writing is like driving down a really dark road in the middle of the night with only the headlights of the car to light your way, so you have to go very slowly and you can only see a metre in front of you, but you can go a very long way like that. And I guess for me, it’s oblique in terms of the house, but it’s this idea that you don’t always know what you’re doing. And I was writing one book about a German novelist, and then I landed in this house in France and suddenly it haunted my dreams and I found myself writing about cypress trees and the light of France and the wild irises that grow in the garden and it’s become a book set in a house in France. So, it’s this idea that life can continually surprise you in your personal life, but also in your fiction, which you have to sort of abandon yourself to it, you can’t, for me – there are some writers who plot very tightly, and I’m deeply envious of them because I think it would be easier to write like that. But for me, it has to be – a kind of openness to the world, to the people, to the places and the houses that come into your life and that just seeps into your work.

And sometimes, you have to abandon whole chunks of books that were not going in the right direction, and I think that idea writer’s block is not necessarily an inability to write, it’s focussing on the wrong thing, and that the book has a wisdom that’s often bigger than you, even if it resists you there’s often a very good reason why. So yeah, in terms of the house, my current book has now morphed from a book set in India and Germany to being a book set in a house in France…

Brenda:

Which is a lovely, convenient reason to go back and research…

Alice:

Exactly!

Brenda:

We came to this house because we were visiting a friend in Bath and then we were going on to Italy and Alice had emailed and said, ‘oh, jump in, it’ll be nice’, and we did. We just had three days there, but it was so interesting to me because… I was swept with dreams. I pay attention to these things; I’m not tremendously mystical or anything like that, but I find so often there are patterns in dreams and that dreams can be directive. And in that house – in that particular room – I was just washed with dreams, all through the night. And, uh, my husband wasn’t. He slept through stolidly, but the house has elements that are so physically beautiful. It’s got to do with the light and the shape of the windows… it’s not grand, it’s not a chateau or anything like that – but there is this feeling, a feeling very much for me, of other people’s habitation, and it was enlarging. It was so beyond myself.

And that’s what fiction is about; it’s about, for readers and for writers, going beyond yourself, and that’s what makes the novel so interesting. It’s basically, I think, historically democratic, a form that invites us to consider how other people might be full and complicated and internally contradictory and also the beset by problems that speak to us, and joys that speak to us. It’s an expansive form, in terms of human personality and I think that’s why it’s an anti-totalitarian form. I think that everything that tries to be reductive about individuals is opposed by the very form of the novel. And I also think it’s a form that speaks to life. There are plenty of gloomy goth novels out there, but by its nature it’s ongoing, it’s expansive, it opens up, linking to other novels in this kind of sea of story way.

But when you walk into a house that’s entrancing in various ways and it has a history; the history of this house was not entirely joyful. The house feels entirely joyful, it’s really a gift, and I found myself in the last two months – I had a study that faced onto a courtyard with a cypress tree and a fountain behind that that wasn’t actually working, and archway in the limestone walls, and so… I liked to write in the early hours, so I’d go to this place at about 4 am, 5 am, and start working. It was cold, so I had my hot water bottle, I had my laptop, and as I worked, everything changed. Like, there was a wall, kind of a wall of windows before me, and outside initially I couldn’t see, it was all blackness, but then I would see the cypress start to take shape, I would see, through an archway, a big heavily-pruned tree start to take shape, and then, as the sky lightened even more, some extremely curious little cats would start to come in and, used to the house being empty, decide to be in there. But I like writing coming into dawn and writing in twilight, because the kind of turning of the light matches the shift and the transformation that’s happening on the page, in a way. So it was this great gift of someone else’s study, a beautiful big desk, a hot water bottle and computer which I really needed – I think you were writing upstairs in the warm – ?

Alice:

I was writing upstairs.

Brenda:

And you didn’t find it cold?

Alice:

No. But you know, I was asleep.

Brenda:

But you wrote during the night. Late.

Alice:

Yeah, I wrote up late, we keep different hours. And my husband would build a big fire every night, shame that warmth didn’t reach across, but it was also a little disconcerting because I had French doors behind me and my husband was asleep in a bed behind that and at some point he’d wake and have a cup of tea, smiling at me, which was very annoying, when you’re trying to concentrate and you know someone is behind you beaming away at you while you’re trying to –

Brenda:

Was he trying to work out how it was going? It’s really good that –

Alice:

I don’t know, maybe he’s looking through the door to see how it’s going, and it’s like, how many words have you written today –

Brenda:

How many words have you written today?

Alice:

That’s a bad question to ask. Often, you’re shuffling things around. Never ask a writer that.

Brenda:

You’ve done, like, I don’t know, a few paragraphs or something.

Alice:

Often, I delete words and end up with less words than I started with.

Brenda:

Yeah, that’s a process I’ve been doing in the last few days; it’s very satisfying, because everything comes up…

Alice:

It really is like, you know, old-fashioned photographs where the image comes up through this sort of slurry of some kind of transformative chemical. I keep talking about transformation… and obviously stability is a good thing too, change isn’t always a good thing, but there is that feeling that fiction gives us the chance as readers and writers to work with transformation and, I believe, a kind of secular blessing. I think that, you know, without being trivial about it, I think that that sense of the largeness of life comes through even in difficult literature.

Brenda:

And I’ve been in St Petersburg in France; I had to go on to France to do some research for the thing that I’m writing, and I didn’t have nearly enough time and I’ll have to go back, but… we had a guide called Julia, and she drove us back to the ferry that would take us back to Helsinki. And it was a great gift, because she was a personal guide, she was an artist by night. And she said, “Many of the people I take around this city say that they feel that they’re living inside a novel.” Well she didn’t know that I was writing about the city and that I was a novelist, I kept that quiet, as far as possible, but there is a sort of sense that when you’re writing something, you are living inside a novel. Some places encourage that feeling, and that house in France was very much a place like that. That made you feel there was something expansive going on. Yeah, it was a great pleasure. We also ate a great many cherry and marzipan tarts…

Brenda:

Yes…which we cooked and ate by the fire. It gave us that kind of long time. I don’t know. I find that I can get a bit too chattery in my mind. I try to stay – I try not to leap about on the internet so much and fracture my attention span. And that house had these long – and it was cold too – these long, interior days, and a sense of being outside of time, and a sense of, you know, many, many personalities that had come and gone through these rooms… yeah, that’s what I was thinking.

Alice:

I think it’s that immersion; I think it’s – obviously we have to fit writing into our lives – and here, in our busy lives you fit it in in chunks around all the other pressing things you have to do – but when you have that opportunity to spend a weekend, or a week in a writer’s colony, or this time in France, it’s that kind of – you plunge deeply beneath the surface of your work and just factor it in every single day for long stretches of time. I think for me that’s where breakthroughs come. Because it works on your unconscious, you dream about it, and you’re walking in the afternoon and turning over what you’ve written that day.

So, obviously we can’t spend our lives on retreat writing, but for me, the crucial moments of transformation happen in my work are when I get a stretch with it, and that’s difficult to do when you’re working and tending to families and dogs and houses and lives and jobs and washing and banking and all those things we all have to do. But to even have a weekend – sometimes I fly by myself to Rottnest just for three days, and often I won’t take my phone with me because I sometimes find I get pulled out of the work to talk to somebody else or answer a text or all the things you do. It’s difficult, but that kind of plunging deeply into the work; do you find that that’s when you work best or are you able to do it in chunks?

Brenda:

Oh, I can’t – I can’t have too much choppiness around me, and in fact I worked at UWA for thirty four years, and for the last couple of years I had an administrative position, so I was in meetings a lot, I was trying to make collarsee fit reality and vice-versa, and it was a time of change within the university. It was a very good thing to have done; I wanted to do that, I wanted to have that role, but I had been told very early on in my academic career that I’d been offered a position within the sort of academic administrative hierarchy of the university, and I spoke to a friend, a professor of Australian literature at Sydney University and I said, “Should I take this up?” Because of course, it’s flattering to be asked, and you have this feeling then you’re part of the machinery of the institution.

And she said, ‘You’ll never write a single sentence’. And she was right. I had four years of policy and administration and I didn’t write. Because you show up at eight thirty and you, well you’re not working ten hours a day, why couldn’t you write in the evenings? But the narrative of the institution occupies your mind. And for people who are writers I think narratives are very compelling, and the narrative of, you know, what the history department was planning as opposed to what the English department wanted within the faculty – um, that’s all, by the way, hypothetical.

But the narrative, you know, of shifts and challenges and changes within the institution was so absorbing. It matters, I mean, the university matters, the humanities matter so much, so that kind of knocked out my writing capability. Before I took on that job of administering the discipline of English, I was able to sequester bits of time. We had a research day where you could spend a day – well, you could be marking essays, but you were in this kind of bubble of quietness and could get writing done. But in the end, I decided – I decided to make a decision to become an emeritus professor with just PhD students and not undergraduate responsibilities, and concentrate on writing, and it’s been wonderful, because I could not manage the two…

I think it could be beneficial to have a job that’s like data entry, that’s completely divorced from the literary, sometimes. But having a job that was involved with the humanities but had that specific institutional responsibilities meant that I now have a kind of gap, what, it’s been nine years since my last book came out. I’ve published a few short stories, often in America, in the interim, but that was all that I could manage. I’m trying to find that way of making a sort of space for yourself; a tent within your life that you can go into and light a lamp in and people are welcome to bring cups of tea and… but not necessarily say, ‘oh, by the way, can you deal with X, Y and Z’.

It seems to me there is a kind of surface we live in most of the time but there are uncounted depths, and you need to have some acquaintance with the depths to get the stories that aren’t just the… shifting ephemera of your necessary quotidian life. There are people who make great art out of those quotidian lives, but I certainly need something a bit different, more poetic and more full in terms of character. What do you think?

Alice:

Yeah, I think for me the stakes have to be high, and the stakes of the novel… Well, the novel that I’ve just published is about children and mothers, and it’s about my experience of caring for a child who is not my own biological child, and it was a really difficult book to write. I had that plunging beneath the surface and the stakes of a novel being really difficult. It was really hard to write in the sense that I had to go… I had to be incredibly candid about my own motivations and my own relationship with the child and the child’s mother… and I don’t think it would’ve sustained my interest in the several years it took to write it if I’d felt the stakes weren’t high, and if I was writing about something different.

I don’t – I mean, as much as I would love to write a novel that’s slightly less complex, less ethically and morally complex, I think that to engage me there has to be that complexity, that depth, and I think that’s what you were alluding to, that idea that you have to sort of sit beneath the surface of your own life and have to reach deeply within and examine your own motivations. Particularly, this book for me was a process of self-analysis, and I think the next one will be as well, and maybe it’s just cheaper than therapy… [they chuckle] but that’s the way it has to be. It has to challenge something, capture your literary imagination, but also, for me, your emotional and ethical imagination. Otherwise, it doesn’t sustain my attention.

Yeah, it’s not a… A.S. Fye is in the business of making structures as if in her writing it’s like she’s sculpturing things. And so you have that feeling, when you’re structuring, and looking at it, you have to care, and you only care by throwing yourself in. And that can be difficult too. There are times in your life when you want to talk about certain issues and there are times in your life when you can’t. And that whole issue of personal privacy and other people’s privacy points to the fore.

Brenda:

Yeah, I think it’s very complex when the stories you are writing brush up against the stories of other people, and you’re trying to work in the intersection of those stories, and it’s particularly potent for me in my current novel which is about my friendship with that London woman. I was very conscious that I wasn’t telling her story, I could only tell my own story, and the terrain on which those stories met, that was the where the complexity lies. But yeah, I agree, you have to tread very carefully, not just for reasons of cultural and ethical credence but for reasons of protecting the privacy of others. I think Margert Duraz has a great line, when she was writing her novel she said, ‘I couldn’t write the details of his life, because he chose to be in my life, not my novel’. So I think you need to be a little bit careful. Helen Garner says that writers can’t be friends because they always turn the dry-eyed stare of writerly gaze upon each other, but I don’t think that’s entirely true…

Alice:

No, you should be friends with us…

Brenda:

You should beware. [They laugh.]

Alice:

But where I see reticence, I’m often really curious. There’s a photo on our wall of a man from my husband’s family who had stories about everyone, and they were just such wonderful stories. My husband’s mother and grandmother were refugees making their way down through Germany to Dresden, which was in fact a centre for refugees. They missed a train. And because they missed the train, they missed the fire of Dresden, and didn’t get killed. This is a kind of breathtaking story in a way, and my husband’s family has these stories of survival, and ultimately, happiness, and so forth.

But there is a man on the wall or one of our walls, at least. And he looks out at me and his bone structure is the bone structure of my husband. And he’s sitting on a kind of couch; he’d kind of relaxed, he’s sitting on the arm of the couch, and within the couch is the very beautiful and strict face of my husband’s grandmother. This is my husband’s grandfather, because he’s wearing the uniform of a first world war junior officer, and what speaks to me about him is the bone structure of the face, which is my husband’s. The other thing that speaks to me is wanting to know more about him, which had me going through Russian archives trying to find out a little more about him and it’s linking in to the literary story I started to write about St Petersburg.

So there’s this sort of – you look around you and faces speak to you and they speak to you through the structures of the people that we love and the strange curiosity of research, and story floats up out of that kind of quiet entrancement.

…That’s quite a good line to end on.

Brenda:

You said it beautifully.

 

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