Every so often, and usually when the novice writer needs them most, a writer of immense stature, a writer who has written and published and continued to write and publish, impressively, joyfully, doggedly, over the course of forty years and seven books, a writer whose work has been long listed for the Miles Franklin three times and shortlisted twice before finally and deservedly winning the 2021 award for The Labyrinth, very occasionally, a writer like this, a writer named Amanda Lohrey will reach out to the inexperienced writer at the beginning of their career and say something kind. They will say that they like the work or they will recommend places to submit writing or books to read. More than anything, however, they will tell a writer to hold their nerve. They will tell them that writing is hard, that it takes discipline, that writing, true writing, is a practice. And though, I suspect, Amanda will frown, or perhaps laugh, at this backstory – for I know, at least in the literature she writes and reads, Amanda frowns, and sometimes laughs, at backstories – it cannot be underestimated how important these words have been.
In June 2021, I was able to visit Amanda and her husband Andrew at their property on the east coast of Tasmania. We took a walk along the beach and spoke about literature, about Peter Carey’s sublime first novel Bliss, about the struggles I had been experiencing with writing, lately, and that writers, true writers, can never give up because writing is what they’ve been put on earth to do. Later, when we returned for tea and coffee in the house they had built by hand, she gifted me first editions of War Crimes: Short Stories and Exotic Pleasures by Peter Carey, and underlined the stories that were worth reading.
Several months later, I asked if she would be interested in continuing the conversation we were having around literature and art, and she agreed. I explained to her that, after finishing my last book, I was still struggling to write anything that I deemed worthwhile. She told me that everything would be okay. I had been through this before and that I would go through it again, and the thing she had learned was to pay no attention to the downturns, the alarm bells – she explained they were nothing but noise. And then, in a wonderful statement that closes this introduction, she said, But Oliver, I’m not sure I can be of much use to you. I was thinking about this the other day. When you’re a young writer you have a lot of theories and are perfectly convinced about how they work, and as you get older they fall apart. It’s the old cliché that the older you get the more you realise you don’t know – but anyway, we shall see.
Oliver Mol: Your latest book, The Labyrinth, won the 2021 Miles Franklin Award. Julieanne Lamond in her essay A Mad Resistance for Sydney Review of Books wrote: The Labyrinth is a novel that asks how to keep going in the wake of a disaster that has no neat ending. Did you ever feel, while you were writing your novel, that you were unable to continue building the world you were constructing for your characters, and, if so, what would it have meant to abandon those characters, to leave them forgotten, lost, behind?
Amanda Lohrey: I’ve never written anything that I haven’t felt I needed to abandon at some stage. There was an old joke in writing seminars that I conducted that every good book should be abandoned at least once. You should be prepared to walk away from something if it’s not working. I remember I got stalled on The Labyrinth and thought: well, this just isn’t going to work, and then I was, out of the blue, given a fellowship at the ANU – a long story that I won’t bore you with – and I went up there and they gave me a big empty room with almost nothing in it, and I sat there every day and finished The Labyrinth. Had I not got that fellowship, I don’t know that I would have finished it. So there you go. And there have been several other projects I have abandoned for good, and I don’t have any regrets about them. I don’t feel that they were failures or I don’t think: that was a pity. I just think: didn’t work.
OM: Do you remember, before you got that fellowship, where your head was at with the work, and what the fellowship did to change that?
AL: I was about halfway through, and nothing else seemed to be coming. And, so, when I went to the ANU and I had my room I would just sit there and nothing would come, and then something would come. And I think what I needed was a space away from normal life and everyday routines and obligations and somewhere to just sit, patiently, with the nothing, to just see what came. And almost every day something would come, but it might only be a paragraph – but hey, you know, a paragraph is a paragraph, particularly for someone like me because I don’t write long works. And, I suppose, to coin another old cliché, it just enabled me to get into a zone, a patient zone, with absolutely nothing else in life I had to do for that day, that week, that month, and nobody could get to me.
OM: The protagonist of the novel, Erica Marsden, is grief-stricken. Her son is in jail for homicidal negligence. She’s separated from her family, and she’s decided to live in a shack close to the beach to build a labyrinth. How long did it take you to arrive at Erica’s voice, this voice that seems so assured in grief, that seems to encapsulate perfectly that moment of strength and clarity after a long cry, when all one’s emotions have been spent and everything, sadness, and perhaps, even, a way out of sadness, seems clear – this voice that says, Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, or, The point is to not move beyond sadness, but to keep moving through sadness, to swim through sadness as if it were a pool, or a labyrinth filled with water, and one day, without realising it, we might find our way out. I suppose I am asking what did that process look like? Was it a voice you had used before, or did Erica, as they say, one day, sit up and speak?
AL: Very lovely question – alas, no, she didn’t. I tend to write each book the same way, which is: I write the first, roughly, 20,000 words over and over and over and over again until I hear the voice and the tone I want. And that’s a real trial and error process. I can’t say that anything ever comes to me easily. In this particular case, the woman that was going to build the labyrinth was Erica’s friend Diana, and Erica was going to be the observer, a bit like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby who observes and commentates. So I wrote quite a bit of that and read it and didn’t like it. Then I changed it to Erica and that felt better. Then I wrote it in the third person past tense. That didn’t feel right. Then I wrote it in the first person past tense. That didn’t feel right. Then I wrote it again in the first person present tense, and I thought: that’s it. So, it’s laborious and it’s like being in a lab, almost, experimenting. David Malouf said something once I liked: sometimes you’ll write a paragraph and you’ll think: that’s it, and I think he said he’d put it up on the wall and that was his tuning fork, that was the voice and the tone he wanted. I don’t actually do that, but I knew where he was coming from. You can, then, retrospectively, rationalise how you arrived at that voice, but the only way for me is through trial and error.
OM: I know what you mean about the tuning fork. I think we’ve spoken about this but I remember people used to ask how long it took to write my first book and I would say, I wrote three failed books for three years, and I deleted everything but 1500 words, but I told myself: these are good words, and thematically, stylistically, tonally that sample chapter became my keystone, and I wrote the book in three months.
AL: That’s right, and that reminds me of how important it is to keep old work: because you go back and you read something and it’s fresh and it’s engaging. And that’s why I never edit online because I might over-edit and lose something that was better the first time. So I run off every version, and then, often, over a period of one or two years, I’ll go back and read earlier versions just to check that I haven’t lost something, that in the rewriting I’ve gained and not lost, and sometimes I’ll find I’ve lost an initial freshness, that I’ve over-edited and I’ve cut too much. I’m a cutter. Cut. Cut. Cut. Then I’ve got to go back and put more in to get the pace right. I mean, to be a writer you have to have a certain dogged temperament. You really do – it’s a slog. You have to be driven. You have to be the sort of person that can read the same stuff over and over and over and over without getting sick of it. It’s why I don’t get attached to my characters. They’re just a pattern of words to me. And if I’ve got to cut one because they’re not working, I can cut a character, even a major character, without any attachment. They’re never real people to me. They’re manoeuvres, narrative manoeuvres. Not very romantic!
OM: Who said writing was romantic! It makes sense, though, and reminds me of that analogy you came up with in the Charlotte Wood interview, and that I came up with while writing my last book – I still can’t believe we separately created the same analogy – that goes: writing a book is like doing a puzzle except the pieces are constantly changing and there’s no picture on the front of the box. I guess what I’m saying is: I understand your willingness to cut a character, or a plot point, if that erasure is going to strengthen the overall structure of the work.
AL: Yes, that’s right – because what you’re trying to do is arrive at a form. The whole must be greater than the sum of the parts. And you’re trying to arrive at some invisible form. You don’t know what it looks like, but you know it when you see it. We’ve all read books that page for page are very well written, but we get to the end of it and we think: what was that about? It doesn’t add up. The writer didn’t find their form. The pieces don’t come together to form a pattern of a whole, and that’s what you’re aiming for. It’s quite a platonic idea. Plato had this idea that there are a number of ideal forms that exist. I don’t think he actually said art is about trying to uncover them. He had a fairly low opinion of most artists. But, anyway, that’s my take on Plato. Those forms are there; they’re invisible; the artist is attempting to manifest them in their own way. And if you get it right the reader responds intuitively. I suppose you could write an interesting book that doesn’t find its form, that’s patchy and good in parts. I can’t think of one offhand but I’m sure there are plenty. That’s what you’re aiming for. When everything goes click into place. And sometimes it’s very, very late in the process. I used to say to postgraduate writing students: the last 10 per cent or even 5 per cent of work you do, you will be surprised with what a difference it makes. There might be two or three scenes in a novel that are undercooked, but until you fix them the thing won’t fall into place. There’ll be a few jagged edges.
OM: Or you might need to remove something.
AL: Well, removing is your editor’s job, up to a point. Very dangerous to censor too much at the source, and always better if you’ve got an editor you trust. I remember Judith Lukin-Amundsen – I don’t know if she’s still editing – but she was a very well regarded freelance editor, and she used to take retreats at Varuna Writers centre in Katoomba with writers who had a full length manuscript to work on, and she’d say, writers are often not the best judge of their own material, and they will cut some of the best passages. I sometimes feel , she said, that I should go around when they’re asleep and rummage through their waste paper bins (this is some years ago, when people ran things off) and see what they’ve cut. And one of the things I used to say to postgraduate writing candidates that I was advising was: show me what you’ve cut because it might be good.
OM: Gerald Murnane says, When I think of the word fiction I think of someone at a desk, grappling with what are largely unseen, what I call the invisible world or the world of the mind. In The Labyrinth, you have sections where Erica visits her son in prison and records what has transpired in italics as notes. Did you, at various points, feel a sort of kinship with Erica in that she was attempting, through her own authorial voice, to explore and extend the invisible world she had with her son, while you were attempting to explore and extend the invisible world you had with her?
AL: I felt almost no kinship with Erica. People assume, because she’s a woman of a certain age who lives in a coastal town, and I’m a woman of a certain age who lives in a coastal town that this must be a semi-autobiographical portrait. The character I felt the most kinship with is her son, Daniel, the obsessive artist. And, to me, the novel is about art, and how art keeps us sane. I think it was Nietzsche who said, the truth is unbearable and only art enables us to endure it, or something like that. I’ll find the quote, typically I can’t remember it [Amanda, later, sent the correct quote: art is with us lest we perish from the truth]. Henry James argued that every novel is about the novel itself, as a form, as a set of possibilities. But to get the reader interested, the writer has to dress it up with relationships and other themes, but the secret subtext of every novel is the novel itself, is art itself. I mostly subscribe to reader-response theory, which says that every novel is co-constructed by the reader so I never tell readers what they should think or what a novel is about, but for me The Labyrinth is about the redemptive power of art, and Erica’s project is to try and restore her son’s sanity by restoring him to his work. It’s the same with Jurko. Jurko is a little mad, but he has the gift. And in having the gift he brings people to him and unites them in a project that creates a mini community, and a consolation, which is what art does. So I’ve written a book about art and pretended it’s about a whole bunch of other things, which, for many readers, it is. Many readers say to me this is a book about Erica and the pain of parenting, that’s what they bring to it; that’s what it offers them. But that’s not what it’s about for me.
OM: For me, it was a novel about sadness, about how to, almost, stoically, keep moving through sadness. How to not become stagnant. Because I think when you become stagnant you sink, or you think, and, for me, all of your characters, through art, were constantly in a state of movement. It might have been a circular movement. They might not have been going anywhere specific, but they were moving, and that was the take away that I really enjoyed.
AL: Well, yes. Art is redemptive. But when I say art I mean art in the broadest sense. It might be gardening. It might be weaving. For some people it’s cooking. Knitting. Pottery. Carpentry. Whatever it is, creating something, and through the doing, going into the zone of just being, in the moment, ot overthinking it, that’s what keeps us nsane, and the labyrinth is an image of that, not a symbol, not a metaphor but one of those enigmatic images of the mystery of being that can’t be reduced to a formula.
OM: Do you know exactly who your characters are before you begin writing? Or is it a process of trial and error to, almost, excavate them, to discover who they are?
AL: Some characters come to you out of the blue, and you’re a bit surprised.
OM: Like Jurko?
AL: Jurko came out of several sources. I met a journeyman, a stonemason, an itinerant one, once, or maybe twice, and I was intrigued by the German idea that when you finish your apprenticeship you travel the world and practice your trade for board and lodging. We get a few of them in Tasmania. He didn’t stay with us or build anything for us, but he worked for a friend. I’ve also been intrigued for many years, as a reader of Tolstoy, in particular, at the idea of the holy fool. The naive, slightly mad person who nevertheless has an insight and a wisdom that’s on the margins, and how mainstream people react to that person or deal with them. Jurko kind of came out of a constellation of interests. I wasn’t interested in writing a feminist tome where Erica is a practical woman who does all the work herself. I don’t know why I wasn’t interested in that – probably because I wasn’t writing a novel about how to build a labyrinth, a practical guide. But it’s interesting that in what I’m working on at the moment, there’s a character who I thought would be a minor character and he’s kind of developing, and it’s a sort of novel of ideas, and I only realised after a while that the best way to incorporate these ideas was not through character X but through character Y, and I couldn’t foresee that. It was only in the writing that that began to happen. Character Y’s voice was more convincing in articulating the things I wanted to include than character X’s was. When I did it with character X it sounded stagey and research driven, whereas when I did it with character Y it sounded natural and engaging. And so character Y is playing a bigger part than I foresaw, but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? You don’t know where you’re going or what’s going to turn up, and someone you think is going to be a major character becomes a minor character or drops out all together.
OM: A little bit like life.
AL: Exactly. I find one of the tests, the signals, is whether I can get their names right. If I can’t get the character’s name right pretty quickly then it won’t work. Names are so important. And when I read other writers and I’m not convinced by the names of their characters, when they don’t resonate for me with the psychology the writer is trying to portray then I can’t finish the book. It’s weird. You know what I mean? I’ve never heard anyone speak about the names of characters before and I’ve wondered why not because, to me it’s so crucial. It’s a vibration, a sound, andI collect names. I’ll be watching television and there might be some footballer with an interesting name and I’ll write the name down and think: ah, that’s a good name. Because the name mustn’t be too obvious. I remember I had a friend come visit, and her father had just been to the Bay of Fires, and he was talking to me about a young couple who were wandering along the beach with beers in hand in a … what do you call those things beers sit in?
OM: A Koozie?
AL: The beer sits in them and keeps it cold?
OM: Like, a Koozie!
AL: Anyway, my friend said: They were a real Darren and Lisa, by which he meant bogan – not a word I like – and I thought, yeah, but in a novel you would never call them Darren and Lisa. It’s too obvious, and you’re stereotyping. So that’s why names are key. You’ve got to find similar names that are a bit off-centre. The character in The Labyrinth called Lexie,I called her Shannon to start with. There’s a lot of Shannons around here. And then I thought: no, too obvious, too stereotypical. So I couldn’t work with that character until I’d found another name that was just a bit off centre.
OM: Do you ever write out each character’s likes and dislikes, their secrets, their fears, their histories, or do you keep it all inside your head and work instinctually?
AL: No, I don’t do any of that. They’re either there on the page or they ain’t. Maybe I’m just lazy. I’ve heard of writers who do that, and it’s interesting. I think for some writers their characters become like real people they live with, whereas as I said to you before, for me they’re a collection of words. They’re a sort of verbal construct, verbal profile, and no more. They’re not real to me.
OM: So, for you, the story is more important than the character?
AL: The idea behind the story is the most important thing. I’m probably an essayist disguised as a fiction writer. I’m not trying to convince anyone of an argument, but I’m always trying to put forward: what about this idea, what about that? But embodied in characters and action. I remember when I wrote Camille’s Bread I wrote about a character, Stephen, who decides to reinvent himself by going on a very extreme diet and becoming a shiatsu masseur. That’s what interested me. And then I got about 20,000 words into it and I thought: I’m going to have to put a relationship into this because that’s what readers like. It was as calculated as that. I shouldn’t admit this, should I? So I went back and started to write the relationship into it, and then I got interested in the relationship. But, initially, I was interested solely in the idea of how you reinvent yourself.
OM: This is, almost, one of my favourite things to discuss: the peeling back, the layers of the novel. Understanding what went on behind the scenes, being able to see, almost, the scaffolding of a story.
AL: Well, as I’ve said many times before, and when you get to my age you repeat yourself constantly, but writing a novel is a conversation between your conscious and your unconscious. There’s what you think you want to do and what you set out to do, and then there’s what your unconscious throws up. And there are things in The Labyrinth I can see that I didn’t know were there until I finished it. You know, I go back and I think: Oh, that’s interesting, that connection I was making that I didn’t know I was making. And you can never underestimate the role of the unconscious and what it’s revealing about you. It can be very revealing. Sometimes I read writers and I think: did they know how much of themselves they were giving away? Not that it matters. So, you have the dominant idea, which is what happens when someone sets out to reinvent themselves, and then it makes certain demands because the work must have a plot, and then, in order to create some intrigue and surprises for the reader, because that’s the pleasure of reading, then other things have to come into play. And that’s why books on narratology are so boring. They read like car manuals. They have all this technical discourse. I don’t know if you’ve ever read or studied one? It’s appallingly dry and useless. They take no account of the unconscious.
OM: Ottessa Moshfegh famously used The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt to write her bestseller Eileen.
AL: I couldn’t do that. And you can’t predict a bestseller. I mean, if you’re into genre writing like crime or spy novels there’s a certain path you can follow, but even so you need a pretty good marketing machine behind you. There’s an American novel called Where The Crawdads Sing, it’s often been recommended to me, and it’s so far sold 11 million copies worldwide, but it’s got the American marketing machine behind it. Had that novel been published in Australia and been exactly the same book it would not have sold 11 million copies around the world. So there’s a lot that goes into a best seller. I remember the poet, the late Dorothy Porter, telling me that she got sick of not making any money, and she was told to write young adult fiction. They told her that’s where the market was. So she wrote some young adult fiction that didn’t sell very well, and she thought bugger it, and she wrote, because she was essentially a poet, a novel in verse called The Monkey’s Mask, and low and behold it did well in several countries. So it’s not that easy to calculate sales. And if you write a book that wins the Miles Franklin it will sell a lot more copies that if it doesn’t win the Miles Franklin. Same book.
OM: Is writing full time your preferred method of writing?
AL: Yes, I don’t know how people do it any other way. Although, that’s not true. I know writers who get up at 5am every morning and do two hours work and then go to a fulltime job. I mean, it must be wonderful. I couldn’t do it. And we all know Anthony Trollope who worked full time for the British Postal Service and got up every morning and poured out thousands of words. It just depends on how you’re made. I need to write full time, although by full time I mean a good day might be two hours, maybe three. But you don’t know which three hours of the day are going to be the good hours. You’ve got to keep the day clear. And even when you’re not writing you’re thinking about the work and you’ve got to not be using up all that mental energy on some other job. But, at the same time, that’s a trap because if you’re a young published writer, a fulltime writer, you’ve got an agent, you’ve got a publisher, but you haven’t had much experience of life. And you Oliver are a good example. You had to get that job on the railway and that job generated a wonderful book. Whereas, if you look at, say, Sally Rooney, she’s only 30 and already she’s writing a novel about being a writer. That’s a red flag for me. I think she should get a job for a couple of years. Get out there, girl, and do something! You’re trapped in a paradox: you need to have experience of the world because that feeds your writing, but at the same time you need a lot of time to do the writing so you yo-yo back and forth between jobs, at least that’s what I’ve done.
OM: How do you know when a work is completed?
AL: A work is resolved when you no longer think about it, and if it’s truly resolved in ten years time you won’t even be able to remember much of what went into it. I know I’m close to finshing a novel when I start to think about the next one. But if a work is not resolved it means you continue to think about it because you haven’t yet found your form.
OM: Is writing, for you, a dance or a fight? Do you view creativity as a spiritual practice?
AL: That’s a good question. It’s not a dance or a fight. I would describe it as a practice. Is it a spiritual practice? I can’t answer that because I don’t know what a spiritual practice is. There’s an orthodox view of spiritual practice: prayer, fasting, good works. There’s a mystical view of spiritual practice, which is setting out to annihilate the ego and just be in the moment and at one with everything. I don’t fit either of those categories. For me, writing is just something I do. And I always knew I would do it since I was young. I don’t know why I do it, but I do it. It’s what I do. Have I told you that story about Ringo Star, The Beatles drummer?
OM: I don’t think so.
AL: I read an interview with him once, it was about ten years ago, and the interviewer said: Look – you’re rich, you’re famous, why do you keep on making music? And Ringo said: Because I’m a drummer, that’s what I do. I thought: bang on the money! That’s what he does: he’s a drummer. And that’s what a writer does: they write. And so, if you want to take an eastern philosophical view, particularly a Hindu view, it’s your dharma. You come into the world to do a particular thing, and that’s the thing you should do. It doesn’t mean you will be good at it. It doesn’t mean you’ll be successful, but it’s what you’ve come into the world to do. Many people know their calling from a very early age, and it might be to be a mechanic. You love cars. You’re only really at home in the world when you’re tinkering with a motor. It doesn’t have to be anything artistic. When I was young I realised I must be a writer because when I was reading other people’s books I’d start rewriting them in my head, and thinking: oh, I wouldn’t have done that. I’d have cut that bit. It’s just a practice. It’s who you are. And that’s why you either are a writer or you’re not. The minute I met you I knew you were a writer because you’re obsessive and you couldn’t talk about anything else. And I thought: oh yeah, he’s the real thing. So I haven’t got any theory about creativity, and I don’t understand what the word means, and I don’t understand what a spiritual practice is. I can’t be more help to you than that.
OM: I remember a line I wrote in my last book that did not make the final edit that went something like: All these hours sitting alone at my desk: I could have been making friends; I could have been outside. Have you ever dealt with burnout? Or rather, have you ever felt that you didn’t want to be a writer or that you wanted to live your life rather than spend your time simply writing about one?
AL: No. I’m at my happiest when I’m writing. I’ve never felt that I wanted to do anything else – there was a brief period in my 20s when, because of my upbringing and my politics, I thought I should go out into the world and do good works. I thought being a writer was too self-indulgent because it wasn’t going to change the world for the better. So I tried out a few jobs, a few attempts at saving the world, and I wasn’t very good at it.
OM: What did you do?
AL: I taught at high school, delinquents, really tough kids. And I saw people who were good at it, much better than I was, and I thought: yeah, let them do it. They’re good at it and I’m rubbish, and I should do what I can do. There’s a wonderful line in The Bhagavad Gita, there are various translations and my favourite is actually the Penguin translation, and it’s about dharma, and Krishna says to Arjuna, they’re talking about the meaning of life on the dawn of the great battle – you should read The Bhagavad Gita, it’s a phenomenal text – but Arjuna looks across the battleground to the enemy camp which is made up of some of his family and he doesn’t want to fight, it’s too much, and Krishna says: You have to fight. You’re a warrior. That’s your dharma. That’s what you came into the world to do. What matters is how you fight. You have to have a certain detachment. You have to follow your duty and your obligation and not get too invested in personal animus. You must pursue your calling, whether you succeed or not doesn’t matter. If you deny that and pursue someone else’s calling you will become ill. It’s a profound statement of the doctrine of dharma. And when I look at some young people I know who are distressed or depressed, if they ask me for advice I say, basically: Well, you’ve got to find what your calling is, and pursue it. Those of us who know what it is, no matter how much trouble it gives us, we’re lucky. We know. You know. I know. It’s much harder if you don’t know. And some people arrive at it in middle age, or later.
OM: Were there any books in your adolescence that made you want to be a writer, that even, perhaps, made you feel less alone?
AL: Too many to mention, really, and it varies with age. The writers who are important to you in your 20s are not important to you in your 30s and so on. I couldn’t single out a writer who had meant a lot to me over a period of time. I can think writers who have meant a lot to me at a certain time, and then maybe 20 years later I couldn’t read them. They didn’t speak to me anymore because I had changed. But the book is a wonderful thing. People talk about loneliness and when they do I think, well, they’re probably not a reader. You can be much lonelier in a group of people than with a good book on your own, as you know. I can’t imagine not being able to read. It’s just a kind of miracle, and you think back to a time before the printing press and you wonder what that would have been like: not to have access to books.
AL: Whenever I had a problem in my childhood it could always be solved by a good book. Even now, if I’ve got a problem, and I can get absorbed in a really good book it will transform my mood. Isn’t that what art is about? If I went to a good concert or an enlivening exhibition of paintings it might have the same effect. But when you read good work, you feel elated, elated at the achievement. I remember reading a novella by Gabriel García Márquez and going straight back to the beginning and wondering: how did he do that?
OM: Which book was it?
AL: Chronicle of a Death Foretold. And, I mean, I’m pretty I’m pretty good at picking apart a work but I could not figure out how he’d created this magic. And I don’t like all his work. That’s my favourite of his books. And you just think: isn’t this wonderful? And it doesn’t have to be literary. People get it from all genres. Mills and Boon. Romance keeps people going. People who read romances are not stupid. They know that the world doesn’t work like this. That’s not why they read those romances. They read them for certain pleasures and for tan experience of that utopian moment when all is resolved. There’s a wonderful statement by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss where he talks about myth, which, I think, is also true of narrative: it resolves on the plane of storytelling, those contradictions in life which are not open to resolution, and in that way they promise the possibility of change, and in the short term offer meaningful them solace.
OM: I like that a lot. Amanda, we’ve been talking for almost two hours so I thought I would ask you your last question.
AL: Go for it.
OM: Recently, you sent me an article by Stephen Marche published in Lithub titled: Winning the Game You Didn’t Even Want To Play: On Sally Rooney and the Literature of the Pose. In the work, Marche considers contemporary fiction’s slow abandonment of literary voice in favour of the pose. The writing of the pose, he writes, is, first and foremost, about being correct, both in terms of style and content. Its foremost goal is to not make any mistakes. Its foremost gesture is erasure and its foremost subject is social anxiety and self-preservation, for which he cites Sally Rooney, Ben Lerner and Ottessa Moshfegh as exemplars. He finishes with the following: All writers of today, of all generations, exist in resistance. The escape from ourselves is narrowing and the network grows wider, tighter. Sinking down into impotent cruelty, we avoid, by whatever means available, the deepest darkness: perhaps we are no longer meaningful to one another. What do you think of the current state of the Australian literary scene? Do you see yourself as a writer of voice or pose? And, finally, what do you think, in a global context, is the job of literature today?
AL: Some big questions there. I didn’t entirely grasp what he was on about, but what I suspect what he might have been trying to get at. If you’re my age you remember generations of writers who, for better or for worse, had a commitment to something larger than their own career. Some were very left wing and thought they were writing in the service of reform and the good, or they were very scholarly, like Borges, and had a philosophical view that they wanted to encapsulate in their short fiction. They always had some large, meaningful project. I feel a lot of young writers today, who have grown up in the world of neoliberalism are at sea in a kind of morass of anxious, individualised sensibility. But, you know, this is a big generalisation, and a lot of them I haven’t read. There are so many writers out there, I don’t know about you but I walk into a bookshop and am totally bewildered. There are too many books. I’ve tried to read Sally Rooney and I really was bored. But she’s a cult figure and she means something to those mostly young readers who queue up around the block to read her new book. So I ask myself: what is it? And I think she represents that sensibility, that anxious sensibility, cut loose from its traditional moorings. And part of that is the question that dogs affluence: Iis this all there is? Is this what life is about? In the fiction there are mostly only anxious relationships. But if you talk to young people of that generation they have ideals and commitments and useful work, it’s just that it’s not always reflected in the fiction. So I’m not sure what’s going on.. I know I start a lot of contemporary novels that I can’t finish, but I always put that down to my age and the sense that I think: oh yeah, I’ve heard this before. Been around this track a few times before. Tell me something I don’t know. Put me on a train, night after night (a reference to Oliver Mol’s forthcoming work, Train Lord). And you know, the thing about the train is that it’s not about sensibility and relationships. Ultimately it’s about the extraordinary fact of community. It’s about the amazing fact that the trains keep running. The trains keep running, no matter what, and that’s a kind of wonder and a marvel in your book. The narrator has his personal issues but there’s this sense of a larger phenomenon that stands in for what actually works in the world. I don’t think any serious young writer is just about pose. They couldn’t do the work they’re doing if it was just about pose. Frankly, I’m amazed that Sally Rooney would write about being a successful writer who’s fed up with being successful. I think that’s a somewhat shameful thing to write about, and it comes across as a pose. Whether it is or it isn’t, it comes across as one. And it’s kind of insulting to the reader. You liked my books, you bought them and you made me successful and now I’ve over it. I don’t know what’s going on there. I guess we have to wait until the next book to find out.
As far as the role of literature today, it needs to entertain, console, resolve the contradictions in life in a hopeful way that engenders faith and optimism. And the novel especially must bring news. The original meaning of the word novel meant to bring news, and I cling to the old-fashioned, realist, meaning of the novel: bring news. Tell me something I don’t know. Surprise me. Take me into another world. That’s what I look for all the time in fiction. Don’t parade the usual. So when you say: I’m writing about climbing, which I never do, I think: great. Seriously! And if someone said they were writing a novel about being a Formula One racing driver, I’d want to read it just to see how they did it, how they sustained it over 70,000 words. So that’s what I’m looking for. But different readers are looking for different things. Often it’s just an escape. A good plot just takes you away. I’ve got a good friend who watches a lot of AFL on TV, an academic, and he said: My wife doesn’t understand it, but when I’m watching I’m just totally in that moment. I’m not worried about anything; I’m not thinking about anything, and I’m watching people who do something really well do their thing. And I think the same applies to writing. It’s just the joy of it. Being in the moment. The satisfaction of being immersed in artistry. Artistry is a wonderful thing. I was in my friend’s garden the other day which is a work of art. I didn’t want to leave.