We dug up this brilliant interview with Helen Garner from the seventh issue of Going Down Swinging, published in Autumn 1986.
GDS: Why did you want to be a writer?
HELEN GARNER: Well I didn’t want to be. I turned into one gradually. I suppose through that I got thrown into it when I was sacked from the education department. I had to do something else for money.
GDS: What were you sacked for?
Oh, talking dirty in the classroom. They called it using gutter language. There was a scandal and a strike at the time, but it didn’t do much good. Basically I was sacked for publishing an article in DIGGER. I wrote about a conversation I had with some kids I taught. They asked me what I thought about sex, and where babies come from, the things that teachers aren’t supposed to talk about. So I answered their questions and we had a very interesting conversation. I wrote about it without putting my name to it, but it was picked up by some people who had it in for me anyway. So there was a sort of witch hunt and I got the sack. Though I had already started to write then, I was thinking of myself as a teacher, not a writer. I started doing the sort of journalism that was popular at the time, personal journalism I suppose. I didn’t think of myself as a writer until I did my second book. I mean I even though MONKEY GRIP was a fluke. To tell the truth, I don’t think I’ve thought at all, I’ve just blundered on in life.
GDS: Have you always had confidence about your feel for language?
When I was a kid at primary school we still learnt parsing and analysis. We were taught to pull a sentence apart and put it back together. I’ve always been glad about that because I don’t think it’s being taught any more. Yeah, I feel comfortable putting words together. I went to university and crawled out of there with a third class degree in English and French. That experience was more social and sexual than intellectual for me.
GDS: What are your aims as a writer, and what do you see as your social role?
I don’t think I could say I have worked out aims. I suppose most of my aims when I’m actually sitting at the table are technical. I certainly don’t aim at changing the world. I think it’s often quite surprising to realise that something you write gives someone a jolt or turns them around. It seems to me that that’s secondary.
Someone once told me that Kafka said “A book must be the axe to break the frozen sea within us”. I suppose I feel like that.
I don’t see myself as having a worked out social role. I think writers are … no, I won’t talk about writers, I’ll talk about myself. I feel a bit of an outsider in this society. I used to feel part of it, when I was a teacher. I could see where I fitted in, and I began to understand all sorts of things, like the way politicians tell lies and money gets misused. You really only understand stuff like that by having a job, and being exposed to the effects of those sorts of behaviour. Once I became a writer, and thought of myself as a writer, I had no idea where I fitted in. I’m an outsider, and lonely a lot of the time. So, I don’t have an answer to that question, and furthermore I suppose I could daringly say I don’t think it matters.
GDS: So you began writing after you were sacked?
No, I’d always been writing. I used to keep diaries as a kid. But I hadn’t been thinking of myself as a writer.
Yes, as I said. I felt like it was a fluke. I didn’t set out to write a novel. I was living on a supporting mother’s benefit. That meant I lived in collective households where we shared the rent and food. I didn’t have any big money troubles. It was then I started writing every day. So I suppose I’ve had a grant for years really.
GDS: How has your style of writing changed since MONKEY GRIP?
How do you think it’s changed?
GDS: MONKEY GRIP seemed like a diary, and I always thought I could see Helen Garner there, but in THE CHILDREN’S BACH and POSTCARDS FROM SURFERS the writer as a character is a lot more difficult to distinguish.
That’s terrific. I don’t know if you like that, but I do. I got pretty sick of myself in MONKEY GRIP.
MONKEY GRIP’s my albatross. It’s going to hang around my neck for the rest of my life.
Not that I think it’s bad, it’s just that when I look at it now I can see its self indulgences, and I don’t like very much the me that I see in the book. There’s a lot of whingeing and taking myself seriously. I suppose most people feel like that about their first book. So far there’s nothing I feel embarrassed by in THE CHILDREN’S BACH. There’s a lot in the stories I feel embarrassed about. I think the quality of the stories is up and down too. I can see myself plastered all over that book, but because I’ve made certain technical advances my presence in the stories is not as crude as it was in MONKEY GRIP. I don’t feel quite so much that the world revolves around me. I can see now that if I’ve felt something it’s a safe bet that two or three million other women have felt the same thing. So I don’t have to push myself into the foreground. It’s been a great relief to get myself off centre stage.
GDS: One story where you’re off centre stage in POSTCARDS is ‘Little Helen’s Sunday Afternoon’. How do you feel about that story?
That’s a total invention. It isn’t me at all. A lot of people didn’t like it. But a lot of others did like it!
GDS: It’s more traditional. I couldn’t understand why you’d do it when you were writing more interesting stories.
It’s one of the few stories in the book that doesn’t proceed out of some kind of painful situation of mine. The more painful a situation you’re trying to work out, the more likely you are to get somewhere technically. There’s no pressure in that story. The ones I like best in the collection are ‘The Dark, The Light’ and ‘The Life of Art’. Both began without my knowing what they’d be like. I had to thrash my way to the other bank without knowing how to swim.
GDS: What technical advances helped you to get yourself off centre stage?
I think that THE CHILDREN’S BACH is a big advance on MONKEY GRIP. Though there’s no ‘I’ character in there, a lot of what happens has happened to me, or to people close to me. Before THE CHILDREN’S BACH I always had an axe to grind, but with this book I wanted to write about some sisters who have some kind of upheaval and can survive it, maybe; I wanted there to be an extra reason the wife couldn’t just leave. I put that little boy in there with something wrong with him so that she’d have a double responsibility. I wanted there to be once again that character Philip who always seems to surface when I write.
GDS: He’s the same person?
No, he’s an archetype I suppose by now. He’s very talented, charming, usually a musician or an artistic figure of some kind, who is morally completely slippery. You can’t depend on him. I don’t know what he’s doing there but he keeps surfacing. And every time I have an urge to call him Philip.
So, during the four years between HONOUR AND OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN and THE CHILDREN’S BACH I kept a notebook. I blindly took notes. I didn’t know what it was for or what I was going to do with it. Then when I got a grant I took out the notebooks and typed them up. It was completely random note taking. I had no characters in mind. I noticed there were themes running through the notes that I didn’t know were there when I was taking them. It took me six months to work out what I was going to do with it. When I worked out the characters I realised the notes might apply to situations these characters could be put in. What I’m saying is I didn’t know I was working when in face I was working. I had to nut out ways to stitch them together.
GDS: So when you’re writing a story or novel, you basically work from notes.
I don’t understand how anyone can work without keeping notes. By notes I mean things like: what the light looks like at a certain time of day, or what the swimming pool looks like when the sun goes down or the tone of voice somebody uses to their child.
So I had all these observations in notes and I typed them up on separate pieces of paper and filed them into five sections, each a different character.
The notes were very rough but I could see a shape emerging.
GDS: What writers have you admired?
Just off the top of my head I’m pretty keen on Raymond Carver at the moment. I like Virginia Woolf. People always expect you to say that but it’s still true. Tolstoi, Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Christina Stead, David Malouf, Flannery O’Connor.
GDS: Who would you say were your influence?
Well I don’t know how influences work. I think they work unconsciously most of the time. I think men tend so see themselves as writers and behave as writers much earlier than women do. I found from my experience as a judge for the Vogel prize that when they put the age up from 30 to 35 that a flood of women’s entries cam in. Men seem to stick to their necks out at a much earlier age and they make more blatant use of other writers. So it would be easier to ask a male writer that question because he could think back and say, “Yeah, when I was seventeen I was trying to copy Hemingway or be like Kerouac”, whereas I just read a lot, not thinking that I was training myself to be a writer. Until quite recently I didn’t look for guidance because my reasons for doing things was personal. I was writing to try to work out why something was wrong or why it was causing me pain. I once showed a friend a story I’d written which went mushy at the end. He said, “Why don’t you read a bit of Chekhov, or Turgenev, and see how they do it?”
It never occurred to me that you could do that, go to a writer with a technical problem. That was a moment of enlightenment for me.
So now I’d look at someone like Carver, because Carver’s technique is right up front, but I wouldn’t have it there beside me as I wrote; I wouldn’t be saying, “How does he do that?” I would be a more spiritual thing.
GDS: A writer said she found writing an erotic experience. She said she had an orgasm while writing.
I wish I could. I write with a pencil. I get a lot of pleasure from it and I like to doodle. I can’t understand how anyone could write straight onto a typewriter. I like sharpening a pencil. That’s why I use a pencil. It’s something to do while you wonder why it went mushy at the end. I don’t find writing erotic though. It’s work. I’ll do anything rather that start. But when I did start THE CHILDREN’S BACH I found that I couldn’t wait to get down there in the morning to see what would happen next. For instance I didn’t know that Dexter was going to fuck with the teenage girl. That emerged on the paper. That was the most enjoyable writing. I bawled and cried. Usually if I start to cry I think, ah, I’ve hit a nerve here.
GDS: Do you think of yourself as a woman writer or as a writer?
I don’t want to be a woman writer. Obviously I am, because my whole sensibility has been formed by my experience, which is a woman’s. I suppose what I mean is I don’t want to call myself a feminist writer. I may have an axe to grind in my personal life, but I don’t want that to be central to my writing.
GDS: Some writers have suggested that women in general write more clearly and subtly about social relationships. Do you think this is a distinctive feature of women’s writing?
That’s what I feel most comfortable with. Women have always been good at writing novels. People say that novels are about social relationships and that’s why women are good at them. They have an enormous amount of time to observe – well, certain kinds of women do (as soon as I make statements they begin to sound hollow). I spend a lot of time sitting around watching people and listening to them interact.
It’s necessary to separate me from the ‘I’ character because I don’t want that to be my final statement about relationships between women and men. I think that’s a very sad story. It’s a statement about what women have to do to become artists in this society. They have to deny themselves certain comforts that they could have had if they were prepared to compromise themselves. Another type of this sort of woman is Elizabeth in THE CHILDREN’S BACH, although she’s quite unsympathetically drawn. She’s part of myself, and I recognise that disillusioned and withdrawn person. It’s part of the experience of the seventies – if you pushed yourself certain expectations you came across brick walls.
Feminism made a lot of things possible for me, but now I feel it as a leg-rope.
Any ideology that’s going to tell you what you can write or think, even if its basis is benevolent, becomes a straitjacket. You have to wave your arms around to be an artist. It took me a long time to realise I was allowed to write a woman character that wasn’t fully endorsed by me. Once when I was reading to a university audience one woman said she isn’t interested in men characters in fiction. She made these incredibly crashing statements. I used to be like that; for years I was out to kill. That sort of attitude is either someone who’s embittered and dropped their bundle or they’re young and in the first flush of feminism when they’ve been handed the key to understanding their own frustration. But you nut that out and move on to the next stage.
GDS: Do you do many drafts of your work?
I do a paragraph at a time, and I don’t usually go on to the next paragraph until I’ve got that one as right as I can get it. This is before I’ve typed anything. Then whenever I have what looks like a paragraph, I type it up and put it aside. To do three or four pages in a day would be a lot for me. I might only do two paragraphs a day. When I get a run on, stuff comes out that surprises me. I don’t work more than four hours a day. David Malouf said that very early on in the piece he writes one paragraph that has the tone right, the tone he wants to have in the whole book. He keeps that aside as a sort of tuning fork, and if he thinks his tone has changed he’ll go back and check it against the paragraph. The tone seems to me the most crucial thing. The tone is an echo of what your motives are for writing it. If you’re getting revenge on someone, or hating yourself too much it shows in the tone.
GDS: So did you re-write your stories for the collection?
I tried to, but I couldn’t, because they proceeded from a part of my life that is now like a foreign country to me. So I just had to let them go, and that was a relief. It’s a relief to know you can let something go. Jessica Mitford wrote a book called POISON PENMANSHIP where she gives advice to writers. She said one piece of advice someone had given her was “Murder your darlings”.
You know, if you think you’ve written something gorgeous it’s almost certainly there for the wrong reasons.
I’ve found it to be true that if you have a little treasure there and you nerve yourself to throw it out, you find that what was around it springs into a completely different relationship. You murder your darlings and it’s like sweeping the stage clean. It was the darlingness of the darling that was preventing the whole piece working.
GDS: As you’ve gone along your fiction has become shorter, is that…
Intentional? Yeah, I’m trying to disappear. I like short things. I like to see how much power you can get into so few words. I was knocked out when I started to read Raymond Carver, to see the effects you can get from so few words. I’ve always felt like that about poetry anyway. Poetry’s mysterious to me. I don’t know how it’s done.
GDS: So you think you’ll stay with the short story?
I don’t think so. I’ll do more short stories though, because they’re the most fun to writer. I like what Carver says about the short story: Get in, get out, don’t linger.
The shortness of the story imposes a lot of restrictions on you and you have to fight your way out in a short time.
I think that’s quite stimulating. You don’t have to take a big moral stance in a short story. A novel’s like a marriage. It’s got to make sense and it’s got to be balanced. You put bits of yourself into a power struggle with each other. But you don’t have to do that in a short story. In another way the story has to be perfectly balanced too, but you don’t have to spend so much time doing it. I’d love to write another novel some time. I want to write something about me and my father next, but I don’t know what form to do it in. I’m going to have to invent one for myself, without being realist or sentimental. I’m not ready to do it yet.
GDS: Do you friends mind appearing in your work?
No. Well, I’ve lost a few, but most of them don’t. I’ve had phonecalls from friends who’d never normally read a book saying, “Thanks for preserving a part of my life”. I don’t like to do it now, though, and when I think of THE CHILDREN’S BACH I think of the characters as part of myself. I do keep a diary. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. For example I always write down my dreams because it’s good practice to try to get down on paper that weird feeling there is in a dream. I used to use my diaries for writing. MONKEY GRIP is from diaries. It’s been a kind of practice book too. I write down sections of dialogue just to get good at remembering turns of speech. I write down accounts of incidents in an impersonal way, not to relieve my feelings but to practice on the raw material of the day.
GDS: In your work as a judge for the Vogel competition, how do you distinguish between good and not so good writing?
Oh hell. It has a lot to do with whether the person enjoys doing it, I reckon. A lot of writing betrays no pleasure in the use of language. I find that tedious to look at. Tone is connected with this, and it’s the hardest thing to get right. I reckon any subject matter will do. Good writing doesn’t have a lot to do with the ideas that are in it.
GDS: Some would put Peter Carey in the compartment of those writers who are working off ideas, but you’d be seen as working off language.
In interviews you can see the ideas come first for Peter Carey. I work quite the other way round. I haven’t got any ideas you see. In fact the older I get the fewer ideas I have. No idea that I can ever think up can carry the weight of detail, and the detail’s what I’m interested in. The detail is more important than the idea for me. A lot of people who interview me have the impression that I write a book because I have an idea I want to express. It’s difficult to talk to people like that. For example they think that THE CHILDREN’S BACH is a book about the treatment of handicapped children in our society. But that boy is there for structural reasons, and because I’m interested in the fact that he’s got perfect pitch. He can communicate only through music, and it interests me that there could be such a person.
GDS: In your work on the Literature Board have you found that there’s a leaning towards traditional kinds of writing?
We get very few big manuscripts written in an adventurous way. You know, using language or syntax in new ways, like Ania Walwiez does. I’ve often wondered about that, about whether or not it’s sustainable, or there aren’t the people around who can sustain it. Who are the novelists you think are adventurous?
GDS: Colin Talbot’s MASSIVE ROAD TRAUMA is one.
Colin’s been badly mishandles. His second book, SWEETHEARTS, went down without a trace. I’m interested in that. Another person who’s trying to do new things is Gerard Lee, and his books have never been properly marketed. David Malouf has a theory about this. He thinks that books are marketed in unimaginative ways in Australia. In America there’s a strand of writing that’s popular and quite original, such as Tom Robbins’ work. It’s writing that’s quirky. In Australia, the writing’s there, but the publishers don’t know how to market it so that those people who’d like it know it exists. They don’t know how to present it to the world. When I read SWEETHEARTS I laughed and laughed, and I remember it got one review. The headline was “Talbot’s triumph of wit and style”. Nothing else was heard of it. Australia’s a funny place isn’t it.
GDS: So do you think Gerard Lee and Colin Talbot are similar in the way they write?
I think they both have a naïve quality. And if you’re and Australian man you’re not allowed to be like that. Perhaps they’re not very masculine as writers, and that’s why people don’t understand them. They have a light touch, and I don’t mean an intellectual light touch, I mean an emotional light touch. Maybe people expect something else from men. I reckon it’d be terrible to be a man in Australia. You have to be so silent.
GDS: Are you finding it difficult to make a living as a writer in Australia?
I don’t think any writers in Australia are going to have problems with affluence. I’ve made some money out of film scripts. I started doing it because I needed the money, then I found I was comfortable with the whole thing, which surprised me. I learned when they looked at what I’d written that you need to put down a lot less dialogue than you’d think. The less the better. You tend to forget how much work the visual images are doing in a movie. Once you twig that, it’s a breeze. I think anyone who’s watched movies all their lives knows the language instinctively and so as a writer you should be able to do scripts. The collaborative process of making a film was terrifying at first because I thought it was going to show up all my weaknesses. But I worked with two very experienced and diplomatic women. It’s very challenging when someone suggests changes, and if you can accept that sort of challenge it pushes you further. The film’s called TWO FRIENDS and it should be shown on television sometime in August this year.
GDS: And you don’t think you’d attempt to write poetry?
I find poetry so powerful I can’t bear to read it sometimes. I have to shut the book. I find Shakespeare too powerful to bear.
GDS: Have you read Penguin’s new Australian anthology, OFF THE RECORD?
— interview conducted in Carlton by Kevin Brophy, Myron Lysenko & Nolan Tyrrell, January 1986.
First published in Going Down Swinging No. 7 (Autumn, 1986)