My review of Julienne van Loon’s novella Harmless was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Canberra Times last weekend, prompting me to think again about the novella as an art form and all that’s been said about it over the last few years. As many readers and commentators have observed, the novella has been enjoying something of a come back, due in part to the digital revolution and in part, in Australia at least, to the Griffith Review novella competition, which received more than 200 entries. Julienne van Loon was a judge of this competition, along with Craig Munro and Estelle Tang.
Harmless exhibits one of the classic features of the novella, in that the action is compressed and tightly constructed – a point I make in my review. But what I didn’t go into – 600 words imposes its own kind of compression – was how that action and those characters are made richer for the reader by the scope van Loon allows herself to explore the characters’ past lives and what has led them to their present impasse.
Harmless could have been an excellent short story, tense and full of a sense of impending doom - not that those qualities are missing from the novella – but it takes longer to reach the climax. It takes its own good time.
While I was writing my own attempt at a novella, called Ashes from the Headland – it made the finals in the Griffth Review comp and you can read more about it here - I was helped in my thinking by an excellent essay called The Novella: Some Tentative Suggestions by Professor Charles May. May talks about various hallmarks of the novella, including ‘an ordered situation broken up by disorder’, a character having ‘to make a choice of nightmares’ and a setting that is ‘cut off from the everyday world of normal reality.’ All of these apply to my novella and to Harmless, a title that contains frightening levels of irony.
It’s a fascinating question, and of course one that will never be answered definitively – how long a work of fiction needs to be in order for the themes and characters to find full and satisfying expression.
My Canberra crime quartet is about to go digital – all four books at once! I’ll be offering special deals and giveaways and using this blog to let readers know about them.
The first three, The Trojan Dog, The White Tower, and Eden, are published by Wakefield Press in Australia, and the first two in America by St Martins Press. I’m glad they’re being released as ebooks this year, when Canberra turns a hundred.
I lived in Canberra for thirty years before returning in 2008 to Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, where I grew up. Writing a mystery series was one of the things I turned to, to try and understand Australia’s national capital both as the city I loved and as a seat of government that is often misunderstood and derided by the rest of the country. I decided early on to write four novels, one for each season, beginning with Canberra in the grip of a hard winter and ending with The Fourth Season, which is set in autumn.
I’ve always been fascinated by the physical aspects of the city, the way the clear inland light seems to promise truth, the way it shines on the Parliament’s enormous, overbearing flagmast. Canberrans have in their mist an imposing castle on a hill; they must struggle to define themselves against it, even if they do this subterraneously. The fact that inland Australian light shines brightly on our castle, that it is seldom veiled in mist like Kafka’s, makes it more, not less mysterious.
All four books feature Sandra Mahoney, and I’ll pause to say a word about her name, which has a good literary pedigree, as in The Fortunes of Richard Mahony; and an architectural pedigree as well, as in Marion Mahony Griffin, whose superb drawings were submitted along with her husband’s prize-winning design entry and are held in the National Archives. I’ve added an ‘e’ to my protagonist’s name, but that is neither here nor there; I often think about literary and architectural traditions when I’m writing about Canberra, and in some ways see my Sandra as an heir to them.
Sandra is an everywoman, falling into her first investigation, and soldiering on from there. My other series characters are a Russian IT person, Ivan Semyonov, and a Detective Sergeant called Brook, who suffers from leukaemia. Sandra’s two children, Peter and Katya, also play important roles.
And my other character is cyberspace. Electronic crime features in each book of my series. In the 1990s, when I began writing it, hardly any Australian writers were focussing on electronic crime; it seems odd to look back on that now. The ACT government once planned to make Canberra the IT capital of Australia; that’s a quaint notion now as well. Yet electronic crime seemed to fit well with the place that for thirty years was my hometown – the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing, or pretending not to know – the government as the country’s biggest spender and therefore an attractive target for thieves and charlatans of all kinds – and something else, less easy to define.
I used to think a lot about Umberto Eco’s description of three types of labyrinth when working out the kind of mystery novels I wanted to write.
First, Eco says, there is the classic labyrinth of Theseus. Theseus enters the labyrinth, arrives at its centre, thanks to Ariadne’s thread, slays the minotaur, then leaves. He does not get lost. Terror is born of the fact that you know there is a minotaur, but you do not know what the minotaur will do.
Then there is the mannerist maze. As Ariadne’s thread is unravelled and followed, the Theseus figure discovers, not a centre, but a kind of tree with many dead ends, many branches leading nowhere. There is an exit, but finding it is a complicated task.
Finally there is the net, which is so constructed that every path can be connected to every other one. The labyrinth has no centre and no one entry or exit. Cyberspace is clearly this third kind of labyrinth. The computer criminal, hacker, virus king etc can be tracked, but the mode of tracking, of following the thread, soon corresponds to becoming lost in the maze, which indeed itself can become the minotaur.
I find this space enormously appealing, though its complexity has far outstripped by ability to comprehend it. Yet what also appeals to me is the traditional structure of a crime investigation – a fictional crime investigation, that is – the progression from a beginning to an end where the criminal is identified and caught. I like the tension that’s created by putting one inside the other, and I strove to create this tension in each of the books comprising my quartet. They represent a sizeable chunk of my writing life and I’m glad they’re going to have new lives of their own.
Canberra has turned a hundred, and March is the birthday celebration month. Meanjin’s centenary issue was released last week and I’m lucky enough to have a story included; it’s called ‘Mrs B’. At just over 2,000 words, my story is a modest contribution, and indeed fiction is modestly represented in the issue as a whole. There are four short stories, compared with sixteen non-fiction pieces – essay, memoir, the section titled ‘Perspectives’ which begins the issue, and the superb Meanjin Papers section about Walter and Marion Griffin. Add to this the conversation with Christos Tsiolkas and the twelve poems, and you’ll see what I mean.
Does this matter? Not a bit. The qualities I look for in a good short story – originality, attention to detail, authenticity of voice – are there in abundance in the non-fiction pieces, and – it would be a surprise if this weren’t the case – in the poetry as well. I read the issue in several sittings – or rather lyings on the couch – over the weekend, and, as I sat down to write about it, I realized that it was the simple acts of bearing witness that moved me the most, the way the different contributors have of homing in and saying, ‘Yes, this is way it is; this is the way it was, and is.’
I’ll go further and say that I believe it is these simple acts of bearing witness, rather than arguments and counter-arguments, that will, in the end, dismantle the myths about our national capital, myths too well known, and enumerated by me in other places, to repeat here.
I’m not going to refer to every contribution that impressed me; this blog post is by not meant to be any kind of comprehensive review; but I’ll begin with Andrew Croome’s quiet and reverent description of Mount Stromlo after the 2003 bushfires, and his comments on the observatory’s history, as an example of the kind of ‘witnessing’ I mean. On the subject of fire, there is the excellent poem, ‘As Flames Were My Only Witness’ by Russell Erwin. And going back in time, David Headon’s ‘The Genius and the Gypsy: Walt and Marion Griffin in Australia and India’ is a piece I cannot recommend highly enough. If you read the issue for nothing else, read it for this. Headon’s scholarship, his elegant prose, and his own humanity shine through.
It is fitting that monumental buildings are given their due place, but it’s the ironic, scaled, human perspective that drew me in and made me want to read about them. Two of the memoir pieces – ‘Very Happy to be Here’ by Yolande Norris, and ‘Constructing a City, Constructing a Life’ by Marion Halligan are good examples of a refusal to be over-awed by generalised assumptions, but to state, in lyrical and careful prose, what is.
I plan to write more posts about Canberra’s younger generation of writers in the coming months, as well as Canberra’s not-so-young-any-more, but not as well known as they should be writers too.
My review of Iris Lavell’s debut novel, Elsewhere in Success, was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Canberra Times online today. It’s an interesting and well-crafted novel, the more so, in my view, for not flaunting its achievements. I’ll be posting more about this review and others soon. Just in case you’re wondering about the novel’s title, Success is an actual suburb of Perth, Western Australia, named after the HMS Success, and ‘Elsewhere’? Well, I recommend that you read the book.
Twice so far in my writing life, I have had the experience of being contacted by a stranger and told that the name I had chosen for a main character in a novel was her name, that it belonged to her. I’m wondering how many fiction authors have had similar experiences.
In one case, the person contacted me directly, in another through a relative. The first time it happened shortly after The House at Number 10 was published. I was contacted by Sophie Harper’s sister. Sophie Harper is my protagonist, and ‘the house at Number 10’ a brothel in Canberra, where my Sophie, recovering from a marriage break-down, and with a four-year-old daughter to support, finds work. Not surprisingly, the real Sophie Harper – and I’d chosen the name without thinking about this – was unsettled by my choice.
The second time it happened, the name belonged to one of my series protagonists, Sandra Mahoney, the main character in my Canberra crime trilogy.
This time, the contact was by email, and the real Sandra Mahoney was amused by the co-incidence.
I kept our emails, which I think provide interesting reading for anyone pondering the choice of a fictional name, especially a series name that a writer may have to live with for decades.
The real Sandra Mahoney’s first email:
Hi Dorothy well how about that!!! I was killing time waiting for a download to finish, doing searches on my name to see if anything came up and there it was Sandra Mahoney!!! Actually my married name is different but I was Miss Mahoney for a good 30 years. Now I can’t wait to see what I got up to. I wonder how many of us there are. Naturally I am curious as to how you came up with the name and if you have a spare minute I would love to hear from you.
Good to hear from you. I’m wondering if you’re any kind of a detective, like my Sandra? I wanted an Irish surname, and Mahoney has a degree of literary fame, (as in ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’), though you’ll see I’ve added an ‘e’. And Sandra struck me as a good solid Christian name. Actually you’re the second person to bob up and claim one of my protagonist’s names. The first was Sophie Harper…
No I am not a trained detective but I do fancy that I could have been one. I find myself thinking like one when problems happen. I read on your website that your Sandra has some dealings on the internet. I did too. I was going through a separation and found myself in the chat rooms and two years later have a new love through internet dating. The 2 years up to that point were wild, amazing, enlightening and voyeuristically crazy. I have often thought there was a book in it but as yet haven’t put fingers to the keypad. If you’re interested in the stories let me know. There was one point where I was so fed up with the lies and double crossing that goes on with the chat room people – I was seeing a man that I had met there and found out he was seeing several other women at the same time, so I set him up, with fantastic success. My best detective work yet. It was funny and very satisfying…
A nice example of nature following art? Perhaps. More a case of the wily dance art and nature are always engaged in, I think, a dance that can be intriguing for both writers and readers.
What did not strike me at the time, but what strikes me now, thinking back over the experience, was how defensive I felt, as though my choices were deliberate, when really it must happen every day that a fiction writer hits on a name belonging to a living, breathing person.
Then, a little while later, I began to feel proprietorial. I had as much right as these strangers did to the small words that we happened to hold in common. The books in question had been published; there was no going back. And the identity of my imaginary people was very much bound up in their names. I knew what their names meant to them, and the wealth of meanings that they carried, not just for themselves as characters, but for other characters as well.
I wasn’t vain enough to predict fame and fortune for them, but convinced myself that the point remained a valid one. Who could imagine Pride and Prejudice without Jane and Elizabeth Bennett, who an Anna Karenina without precisely that name?
I’d stumbled on something obvious, yet disturbing: Juliet was wrong. When she asked that famous question, Juliet was guilty of a piece of special pleading, understandable in the circumstances. The names of things and people do matter, and the meanings that accrue around them matter even more.
Those two instances I had, of being made to feel that I had ‘taken’ someone’s name, occurred quite close together, and, for the next few months, I nervously waited for the next one, the next phone call or email; perhaps, this time, having to face someone who was angry and accusing. It didn’t happen and my worry lessened until I more or less forgot about it. But I haven’t been able to think about those characters in quite the same way since. Shadows branch out, behind and to the sides of them, and I realize I’m still waiting for these shadows to take a form I recognize.
My Invisible Thread interview is finally up on youtube. I’m the lucky last in the series that Irma Gold, editor extraordinaire, has made for the anthology, The Invisible Thread: a hundred years of words, celebrating the centenary of Canberra. I’m proud to be included. Both the interviews and the book are marvellous chronicles of writing produced in and about the national capital.
My father suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for a decade before he died in December 2001. For about half of that decade, he no longer recognized me as his daughter. My father lived with my mother at Point Lonsdale on the south coast of Victoria. I lived with my growing family in Canberra. My visits were infrequent. I could, and have, blamed myself for this. But almost till the end of his life, my father and I and I listened to music together.
Several areas of the brain are involved in our ability to remember music, scientific research tells us, and different localized brain regions are activated when we respond to music with opposite emotions, for example sadness, or happiness. I’ve written an essay about music and forgetting, and my father’s Alzheimer’s. If you’re interested, you can read the essay here.
While I was writing it, I was reminded of the different pianos I have played – and yes, played badly for the most part! Those memories didn’t fit into the essay; they seemed unwarranted digressions; but I’ve decided to give them some kind of outing in this blog post.
One time I arrived at Point Lonsdale by myself. I climbed the steps and knocked on the door.
My father opened it. ‘Who are you?’ he asked me.
At about the time my father forgot who I was, I started playing the piano again. I had learnt for three years as a child, from the age of eight till eleven. When I think about those music lessons, what I remember most is the unpleasantness of travelling to and from them, on an old, heavy bike, up and down Belmont hill. In my recollection of these rides, it was nearly always cold and often raining. The house was dark and the piano teacher grumpy. The piano was dark as well, with a winter lamp on top, alongside piles of music.
My clumsy hands seemed embarrassingly spotlit, and the smell of the face powder my teacher wore made me feel like choking.
Hers was an upright piano, as ours was at home, passed down through generations. It has never occurred to me till now to think of my piano teacher as living on the breadline, but she clearly was.
The piano belonging to my family is an old Randall upright, which my grandmother used to play before handing it on to her daughter, then to me.
That piano, in the house in Geelong where I grew up, sat in a sunny corner of the living-room. I hated practising and wanted to learn ballet instead, like my friend.
It is the melody in music, some researchers say, that makes our minds hold onto it the way they do. When I took up the piano again, thirty years after I had dropped it, it was to learn, haltingly and over several months, Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat Major, written in that extraordinarily productive year before he died. I could not play the piece at the proper speed; hence the melody was wrong. But my slower speed didn’t bother me. Indeed, I found it an aid to memory. Images of my father as a healthy younger man, a man who recognized his daughter, came into my mind unbidden, and were a comfort to me as I played.
A few years ago, when I was staying at Ledig House, a writers’ residency in New York State, I discovered that, just before I arrived, the piano had been moved from the communal room, where it was okay to make a noise, to the ground floor of a barn that had been converted to living quarters. This floor held computers and a fax machine, but people slept and worked on the other sides of thin wooden walls.
Undaunted – I had asked beforehand if I would be able to practise the piano and was told yes, no problem – I asked the other writers if they would mind me playing for half an hour before dinner. Nobody objected. In fact, to my face they were very nice about it. But one evening, as I was sitting down to my allotted half hour, a team of young people arrived. Their leader, a robust, sunny-haired man, told me they’d been instructed to move the piano back into the main house. I knew why immediately, and it seemed, from the expressions on their faces, that the movers did as well. I wondered who had complained about the noise, and why the complainant had said nothing to me directly.
The piano at Ledig House had not been well looked after. The D sharp/E flat note didn’t work at all. During my stay, I learnt the whole piano part of a Schubert trio leaving out one essential note. But I took my music with me to Boston, where I’d been invited to give a conference paper. I could only afford to stay at the conference hotel for two nights, and the rest of the time I spent at the Boston YWCA. This remarkable building, with over three hundred rooms, is home to some of the city’s poorest women, quite a few getting about in wheelchairs, or walking the corridors with oxygen tanks on trolleys trailing behind them.
There were two pianos – one a grand in full view of the entrance foyer, another in a practice room in the bowels of the building, next door to the kitchens. This practice room was always in use. Guests booked ahead and lined up for a key at the front desk. All of a sudden, I had an E flat again. Thrilled by the soundproofing, I pounded out my trio.
The following year, I was lucky enough to be invited to another writers’ house, in Switzerland this time, at an eighteenth century chateau called Lavigny.
That piano was an old upright as well, hidden behind a screen in a corner of a living-room that was more like an opulent reception area filled with antique furniture. My piano and I shared our hidey-hole with a television set that nobody bothered to plug in and watch the whole time I was there.
Here is the living-room at Chateau de Lavigny during a reading. You can just see the screen on the left hand side, concealing the piano.
By then I’d moved on from Schubert to Chopin – of course, once again, far too hard for me. My three weeks in Switzerland were spent learning his Nocturne in E minor. Though tucked behind the screen, the piano wasn’t far from the short-cut everybody took to the alcove housing the computers we used to check our email. (There wasn’t any wi-fi.)
When somebody went past, I stopped and waited. I always played softly, but this suited the Nocturne.
Now I sit at what has become my piano – no one else lays claim to it, or no one who is still alive – searching out the spaces between notes and chords. I count each rest, having lately bought a metronome, and wonder what resemblance mid-way silences have to the final one.
When I heard the Schubert Impromptu on the car radio and found the sheet music and decided to open a lid that had been closed for a generation, I didn’t think of my father immediately. Images came later, and most often when I paused with my hands just above the notes. Dad was never sick and old in them. The front steps up which I climbed to hear that unanswerable question were less worn.
Irma Gold tagged me for the ‘Next Big Thing’. If you haven’t reached this post from her blog post about the next big thing then you can read it here.
What is ‘The Next Big Thing’? It’s like one of those old-fashioned chain letters where authors promote their own work and tag five of their colleagues to create a huge network of linked web and facebook pages about what everyone hopes will be ‘The Next Big Thing’.
1) What is the working title of your next book?
Nine Pieces on Prostitution
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
The book will be a collection of my prostitution stories written over some thirty years, so obviously ideas for stories came from different places; but one, which is a very long story, almost novella length was inspired by a client dying ‘on the job’ as it were, and what the women did with the body.
3) What genre does your book fall under?
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Now that’s a curly one: I can’t somehow see a movie of a short story collection; but one, in particular, I think would make a great movie. It’s called ‘An Artist’s Story’ and is about an architect who’s hired to design a brothel, and her friend, ho becomes involved with the house, and the women who work there. The female lead I envisage being played by Cate Blanchett. The music score would include lots of Tracy Chapman.
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A collection of stories on a theme that has intrigued me for my entire writing life.
6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I plan to self-publish the collection on Smashwords.
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
No single story took me very long, perhaps a couple of months for ‘Where The Ladders Start’, the longest in the collection.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
John Clanchy’s ‘Her Father’s Daughter’ is a collection of stories on the theme of father/daughter relationships, and, since I admire Clanchy’s writing very much, I’ll be so bold as to cite it here. While there are obviously plenty of short story collections based around a theme, I really don’t think there is much of a precedent for my ‘Nine Pieces’.
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My first novel, Tunnel Vision is set in a Melbourne massage parlour in the 1970s, and the oldest story in ‘Nine Pieces’ was written in the ‘70s as well. I think it was the extreme oddness of the sex industry in Melbourne at that time, the theatricality and subterfuge and madness! of it that got me in, and that has stayed with me.
10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Some – more than half – the stories are very Canberra. I think prostitution is a great way to write about the underside of our national capital. I would also like to mention that one of the stories, titled ‘Mrs B’ has been chosen for inclusion in Meanjin’s Canberra centenary issue. I’ll be writing about this special issue in a later post.
If you’d like to read more about Nine Pieces on Prostitution you can do so here.
I have tagged Lucy Sussex
Lucy Sussex is a writer, reviewer and editor, whose work ranges from children’s writing to the herstory of women crime writers. She has either written or edited over 20 books, published internationally. Her next big thing, deadline July, is VICTORIAN BLOCKBUSTER: FERGUS HUME AND THE MYSTERY OF A HANSOM CAB. It looks at the story behind the biggest-selling detective novel of the 1800s, one which created the market for Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. VB touches on much, from theatre history to a copycat murder, and how a small-press book from the colonies conquered the crime-reading world.
And Margaret Innes, who says,
I have one completed manuscript of contemporary fiction titled A Bracelet of Bright Hair requiring some redrafting. I’m also well into an historical novel City of Men where I examine the life of one of the earliest surgeons, William Redfern. Writing this has proved one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a writer.
Maureen Cashman writes
This post is a follow-on from my last one, in that I’m writing it out of a resurgence of memories regarding literary Canberra. A nice bit of serendipity over the weekend has resulted in my website going live at the same time as James Ley’s review of ‘Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia’, edited by Peter Kirkpatrick and Robert Dixon, was published in The Australian. It’s a thoughtful review, engaging with the book’s arguments about literary communities and the fraught nature of the term, and including a wide range of examples.
And it’s taken me back to D’Arcy Randall’s chapter on 7 Writers.
D’Arcy begins by remarking how, in ‘the 1970s, Australia’s thriving literary scene was typically associated with networks of male writers in such urban bohemian venues as Balmain in Sydney and Carlton in Melbourne.’
And how well I remember that! I was trying to be a writer in Carlton in the ‘70s and it was very important to drink in the right pubs, and to look the part. When my journalist partner was offered a job in the Press Gallery, instead of moving to Canberra with him, I decided on a foolish geographical compromise called Sydney. Then, after ten months on the highway – I was often too poor to afford the train fare and I’m lucky I didn’t end up buried in the Belanglo State forest – I gave in and settled in Canberra.
The relief was enormous. Here was a small, feisty literary community – and yes, I use the term ‘community’ aware that contains many kinds of ambivalence – where it didn’t matter what pub you drank in, or if you drank in any pub at all.
D’Arcy has been painstaking in gathering information about our writers’ group – where we met, how often, what we did, how many books we published between us. How torn we often were!
Of course, we’re still publishing, but 7 Writers ended its collective life in the late 1990s, and with, its end, the centrifugal pull, the push outwards, the ongoing battle between solitary creative compulsion and the possibility of actually sharing flowed away.
I’ve always liked Edith Wharton’s description of how writers view their work, indeed are forced to view their work, from the back of the tapestry. They can’t walk around the front and look at it; this is an impossibility. Well, writers’ groups are like that too, I’m discovering. It’s a strange, unsettling, delightful experience to have something you participated in, were intimate with, for almost twenty years, presented from the right side of the tapestry, but without the presentation glossing over or hiding the knots. Thank you, D’Arcy!
And ‘Republics of Letters’ contains other treats as well, including a chapter on my favourite Australian writer, Christina Stead and her no-longer neglected masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children.
* D’Arcy Randall was born and educated in the US, but during the 1980s she lived in Brisbane, where she was senior editor at the University of Queensland Press. She there worked with Marian Eldridge and Marion Halligan on their first books. After returning to the US, she founded the journal Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and began a teaching career at the University of Texas at Austin.
I have decided to call my first blog post ‘Feelings of déjà vu’ because I’ve recently been back to Canberra, for a book launch and an exhibition opening, and these visits have brought back many memories and images from my life in the national capital. I lived in Canberra for thirty years before returning to Victoria in 2008.
‘The Women who made Canberra’ exhibition, on at the Canberra Museum and Gallery , is part of the city’s centenary celebrations, and open till March 2013. It features women who contributed to Canberra’s political, social, sporting and cultural life over the past hundred years.
It includes a possum cloak belonging to Matilda House, an elder who identifies with the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people of Canberra.
Matilda House performed the welcome to country ceremony at the opening of the 42nd Parliament in Canberra on 12 February 2008. It was the first time a welcome to country ceremony had been held for the opening of the Federal Parliament. As Mrs House explained on that day, “A welcome to country acknowledges our people and pays respect to our ancestors’ spirits who have created the lands…It is a good and honest and decent and human act to reach out and make sure everyone has a place and is welcome.”
Mrs House burned the designs on the cloak, drawing on imagery of the Murrumbidgee River, the Brindabella Range, bush tucker and the wedge-tailed eagle and brolga.
The youngest woman in the exhibition is Lauren Jackson, born in 1981 and now an internationally famous basketball star.
And my writer’s group, 7 Writers, is featured as well.
This is my favourite photograph of us, taken by Brenda Runnegar. The seven are, from left to right: Sara Dowse, Marion Halligan, Margaret Barbalet, me, Dorothy Horsfield, Suzanne Edgar and Marian Eldridge.
The display for the exhibition includes a selection of our books and notes taken by Suzanne Edgar at one of our monthly meetings.
We started meeting as a writers’ workshop in the early 1980s and continued until after Marian Eldridge’s death in 1997. We became known for our longevity and the vigour of our discussions (some of which were televised!) I think we continue to be of interest to the reading public because of a mistaken, but persistent view that Canberra is somehow inimical to the creative life. The myth is fading, but it still pops up in the most surprising places. I’ve written about it in an essay called Disturbing Undertones.
For anyone interested in reading more about ‘7 Writers’ and other Australian literary communities, an excellent book has recently been published called Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia. Our chapter, by D’Arcy Randall, is called ‘Seven Writers and Australia’s Literary Capital’.
While I was in Canberra, I recorded an interview as part of the publicity for The Invisible Thread : One Hundred Years of Words. The anthology includes a story of mine called ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’.
Here is an impressionistic account of the interview. When I sat down to write the account, it came out differently from the way I intended; I think of it as an example of the unpredictable way that memories surface.
Two kayaks are going past, as silently as swans. I am sitting in the shade of European trees, around the corner from where both my children were born, from where the hospital used to be that so spectacularly killed a girl when it imploded. And I think of my son, of whom I am about to speak, who lay desperately ill in that same hospital, only eleven months after he came out into the world inside it. And how long it took him! And how happy and exhausted I was! I am not here to speak about the birth, but about the illness, which gave rise to the story which began my love affair with Canberra. A literary love affair, but that makes it sound too cerebral, too much a matter of the mind alone. My story, ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’, has found its way into an anthology called The Invisible Thread, celebrating a hundred years since the founding of our national capital. A curious word that, ‘founding’ – like being born and yet not like it at all.
I’m here to be interviewed about literary Canberra, and I give my interview, under the shadow of the trees, but in my heart thirty years have lifted off. Thirty years lift off my shoulders and I’m around the corner, with the hospital rising at my back, and my son whom I cannot bear to look at no bigger than a skinny mouse with tubes going every which way, and on the lake an old man in a long coat, going round the edges, looking for a way out…
I’ve written a great deal about Canberra, from fictional and non fictional points of view. But I know that, now I’ve found them again, nothing will ever again replace those earliest images, and the desperation that gave rise to them.