Interview: Helen Garner

Mandy Sayer interviews Helen Garner, 1989

Thirty years ago I wrote to Helen Garner, via her publisher, and asked if I could interview her. At the time I was living with my first husband in two rented rooms of a Surry Hills boarding house, and had submitted the manuscript of my first novel, Mood Indigo, to the Australian/Vogel Literary Award for writers under thirty-five. I had also just spent three months providing round-the-clock care for my father, who’d undergone a triple by pass surgery, but had struggled to recover. My nursing duties had left me with no time to write, and this overture to Garner would be my way of filling the creative void of that arduous winter. At that time of my life I hadn’t had anything published except for a poem or two in obscure literary journals. I was curious about the writing life, in terms of craft, process, and also gender. How does a woman who loves to write balance her craving for creativity with the demands of domesticity?

I had met Garner two years before, in Bloomington, Indiana, where she and Australian poet Laurie Duggan had been invited to deliver a talk at the university, and where I was in my first year of study for a BA degree.  While chatting with her afterwards, I found her warm, witty, and completely unpretentious — so refreshing to experience in an American academic setting.

As a teenager, I’d read Garner’s novel Monkey Grip while residing in an inner-city Melbourne housing commission flat with my mother and baby brother. What knocked me sideways about the book was not necessarily its unsparing account of emotional and chemical addiction, but the setting. Previously, for me, ‘Literature’ had always been set in nineteenth-century St Petersburg, or eighteenth-century London, or Long Island, New York in the 1920s. And then along came Garner with her Carlton Public Swimming Pool, her Lygon St cafes, her vegetarian restaurants, all of which were instantly recognisable to me because they were actual venues within walking distance of my home on Palmerston St. Suddenly, ‘Literature’ did not represent a foreign country, in another century, but a voice and subject matter that could be contemporary, Australian, and oh so local.

Garner wrote back to me promptly and provided a telephone number. When I rang her she explained that she was in residence at Sydney University, so it would be better if she came to my place to conduct the interview. She arrived one afternoon the following week and we sat opposite one another at a Laminex table in the kitchen. I recorded the conversation on an old portable tape deck while we nibbled bread and cheese and sipped cheap red wine.

Late last year I was cleaning out a drawer when the old 90-minute cassette surfaced, with Garner, 1989, scrawled across the top. I’d never actually listened to the interview since it had been recorded, and had to borrow an ancient boogie box from a friend upstairs to revisit that sunny afternoon from so many years ago.

Mandy Sayer: Did you write as a child?
Helen Garner: I must have started early on liking it because I still get a buzz off the smell of sharpened pencils. I’m not sure why I like writing so much. I used to have a little cubby house out in the back yard when I was a kid. I’d sit there thinking I was in my studio but I never wrote anything. I just sat there sharpening a pencil.

I never had any ambition to be a writer. I used to write diaries and letters a lot but I never had any ambition because I didn’t know how it was done. I left Australia in the mid-sixties for the first time and I wrote a couple of travel pieces when I got back and that was the first time I ever got paid. Then I had a kid and when she was about two my marriage broke up and I had to go back to work. I was a teacher. Then I got a part time job as a journalist on a newspaper.

M: Was that an alternative newspaper?
H: Yes, it was a political feminist sort of thing. Quite popular for a while, in the very early seventies. I worked there for $60 a week and I was able to survive on that because I lived in shared households. I was trying to bring up a kid and that’s how I first came to think that I could make a living from it.

M: You were thinking more of journalism then?
H: Oh yeah. But it became clear that I could actually write things that people wanted to read, which I hadn’t thought about much before. I got very sick after I worked on the newspaper for about a year and a half. I got hepatitis and I was really very ill.  And when I got better, I didn’t have any means to make any money. I was about to go for a taxi licence when someone told me that the Labor government had established benefits to support mothers. I applied for one of those and I lived on it for four or five years. I look back on that and think, ‘that was my first grant’.

Looking back on it I was just this shit-kicking single mother. I had an enormous amount of time in which to read, so I did.

Then I wrote Monkey Grip. That was my first novel, which came out in 1977. It took me about a year to write it. I think I wrote it in 1975.

M: Quite fast to write a book.
H: Yes, it was very much based on personal experience so it had a diary-like feel to it. I used to go down to the State Library every morning and work on it.  And I had this thing, which I suddenly thought maybe was a novel. I just started writing without knowing where it was going.

I didn’t know what you did if you’d written a novel. I had a friend who’d just had her first novel published and she told me to take it down to these publishers called McPhee Gribble. I did and they published it a year later. Then I became aware that there were such things as writers grants so I applied for one and I got one and then I went to live in Paris.

M: I can relate to the areas that your characters lived in that North Fitzroy, Carlton community. I was wondering as a writer what you feel is most appealing about that community. Why do you choose to set your work in that community?
H: Because that’s the life I know, I think. It seems interesting to me because there was that whole movement in the seventies of collective life. People don’t want to do that anymore. It is every man for himself and the devil take hindmost these days. But we had ideals back then which often people now dismiss as hippy. It’s funny because when people use the word hippy about the sorts of people that I knew, or was, it makes me laugh. We didn’t think of ourselves as hippies, we thought of ourselves as serious people with politics. We weren’t in it for having fun. It was a very moralistic community in a lot of ways and we rather despised people that we saw living south of the Yarra. You know, the people in Prahran and St Kilda. All those places where everybody just lay around and the women did all the work and the men bludged off them. There was a lot of that going on. It was much more Presbyterian north of the Yarra. We were all very stern about things. There are people who live regular family lives, and who are shockable, who read Monkey Grip and sometimes are appalled by the amount of sex and drugs and everything. They don’t seem to see the moralistic angle that there is to those people’s lives. Almost puritan, oddly. Even though the behaviour wasn’t puritan the ideas were.

M: So you moved out of that way of living or community, or that sense of community. Did you consciously move out or did it just dissipate into something else?
H: Well, I think I left before it started to dissipate. When I got my first grant it seemed to me it would be a good idea to get out of Australia. And I wouldn’t have been able to afford to otherwise.We went to live away for a year and a half and when I got back, things had changed so they must have been about to anyway.

M: Were you writing then?
H: Yes, I was writing my second book. It took me ages to do it because I didn’t really know how to write a book. I think what happens is somebody writes their first book under the pressure of events. And I thought I had a story to tell about this junkie that I knew. And the book sort of wrote itself out of the strangeness and pain of that relationship that I had with him. Then suddenly – the book is published. It gets reviewed and people are going, ‘what are you going to do next?’ That was a sickening moment because I didn’t really know how to write a novel. I didn’t have a clue.

I went to Paris and I wrote this thing that was messy. The temptation with the second book is to try and repeat the miraculous spontaneity of the first book, which is impossible. And so I churned out this thing. And my publishers came to Paris. They were passing through on their way to the Frankfurt Book Fair and they came to see me. They read it and came back the next day and said, ‘This is terrible. We can’t publish this. It’s really appalling so you’ll have to redo it.’

And so I did. After a while I came back to Australia. By that time I was with this French guy and he came too and we got married. I’ve lived in Australia ever since. It was 1980 I think.

M:You were away for a year and a half. Did you find that being away from Australia in such a foreign situation, did you find you had more of a sense of what Australia is, or Australians? Or homing in on what’s unique about the culture or the people?
H: I probably wasn’t as conscious of it as that would suggest. But from being away that long I got a very, very strong sense of how connected to Australia I was and I missed it terribly. Not just the people. I missed the landscape terribly and the hugeness of the sky here. I felt there was a lid on my head all the time when I was in Europe. That there is that enormous space behind you all the time that can make you feel free. But at the same time it’s frightening and it echoes something that’s inside us, I think, which is a kind of hollowness. Everything here is so new. The soil culturally is shallow and there isn’t much compost — to continue a metaphor — but I think it must be terrible to find yourself wanting to be an artist in a country like France, especially a writer, where there’s this incredible wonderfulness of culture looming over you like a great mountain, always behind your back. At least we don’t have that.

But in Australia I think it is much looser and nothing is really expected of anybody. Well things are expected of you but you’re not quite sure what they are and the cultural discourse is pretty crude.

M: Did you start off writing poetry or have you been influenced by particular poets?
H: I’d like to do that more. I’ve written poetry that was teenage bullshit, you know. No, I’ve never tried to write poetry, but I like metaphor, imagery. I like things to be bright, I like things to shine. There really isn’t anything like poetry for power. When you read a poem you feel like the book’s going to explode out of your hand. It’s rare that you find that sort of power in prose. But we can try and get that. When you talk about economy, I wonder if I should try and get things to expand a bit. I’m trying to write longer sentences. (Laughs.)

M: You seem to be able to get it through in a couple of sentences or just one, where a lot of people would dribble on for a few paragraphs.
H: I cut a lot. I worry about being too telegraphic at times, because it isn’t poetry. I was once at a conference and there were a couple of German writers there. Everybody chucked in their little poem. And I had this passage that I was going to read out of one of my books and I said to one of the writers, ‘Oh, well what I’ve got to read is so long.’ He said, ‘But Helen, you are a novelist. You have a story to tell.’ And I always remember that because it had the immediate effect of calming me down.

M: Do you read a lot of poetry when you are writing?
H: No, I don’t. Lately I’ve been reading Proust and I’m about two thirds of the way through and I’ve also been reading the Bible. It’s one thing I’ve been meaning to do since I was a girl. I thought, one day I’m going to sit down and read the Bible from front to back. It’s one of those fantasies that you have and I haven’t actually finished it yet. I’ve still got the Prophets to go. I started with the New Testament because it was familiar and then I went back to the start and worked right through the Old Testament. I’m doing massive reading on that scale. I try to write in the morning and read in the afternoon.

I read poetry, but not as a poet would read it. I read it because it gives me a kick up the arse. A blast of power. I think Les Murray is a good poet. Recently I read by chance Elizabeth Bishop who I like and I’ll read Mark Strand. I read people like John Ashbery without really knowing what the hell it’s about but I sort of love it. I think it’s very funny. James Merrill and August Kleinzahler. I like his stuff a lot. Who else? Milton.

M: So you read while you’re writing?
H: Yes, because I don’t work very long hours. I don’t write long hours. I’ve still got work habits developed when I had a kid. She’d go to school and I’d jump on a bike and ride down to the State Library. Years later when I was earning a bit more money I would usually rent a room and set myself up in a little office. I need to get out of the house because I waste my time with displacement activities. When you’ve got a kid you have to turn everything off at 3 or 4 when they get home from school. I could never work at night and I don’t work in long bursts. Three or four hours a day if I’m lucky.

M: So you keep up the same kind of work routine?
H: Yes. I think it suits me metabolically anyway, because I’m good in the morning and hopeless in the afternoon.

M: Having your daughter and pretty much being on your own raising her, has that affected your work or restricted your work?
H: Well, my daughter is the best thing that ever happened to me. A lot of my friends who are younger than me but are approaching forty and who haven’t had children yet are in a terrible agony about whether to have children or not. I feel great relief that I did it before it was an issue. Before feminism. I got married the first time and I thought, well when you get married you have a kid. That’s just what you do!

M: How old were you?
H: I was not all that young. I think I was 26 when I had her. The discipline that’s involved in being a parent is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me. Although anybody can torture themselves with their failures as a parent, and I do that as much as anybody else.

The thing that you realise the morning when you wake up after you’ve had a baby is that you are no longer a free person. Your freedom is just over. I mean, the sort of freedom that you’ve experienced before. It’s just amazing how one day you’ve got the baby inside your body and you can do what you want. You can sit, you can sleep, you can lie, you can wake. You can have a drink or not have a drink or you can whatever.  Or you can go somewhere presumably without having to pack something.

And then 24 hours can make all the difference. Suddenly, there is this creature whose life depends on you. It’s very alarming when it happens. It’s fabulous in another way, but I’m very glad that I did that.

M: Have Australian women writers affected you?
H: Yeah. It’s always hard to say how people have influenced you. Christina Stead is a writer that I admire very much but I don’t feel she’s influenced me in any way. I think she’s fantastic. Elizabeth Jolley I like very much. Surprised not everybody does. I notice a lot of men don’t like her stuff at all. They don’t get it. I’ve just reviewed her latest book, My Father’s Moon. Jessica Anderson is a writer I like. Can’t think of another one offhand.

M: Culturally, what was it like in Melbourne in the sixties? Before feminism. And how did the onset of feminism in Australia affect your life and your work?
H: I felt the very strong effect of feminism. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was still married to my first husband when I became aware that there was a way of thinking about things that could make some sense instead of slogging along miserably as I had been with nowhere to stand to judge or work things out properly. All these womens’ groups started and we started talking to each other. Looking back, it’s not as if we didn’t have women friends before then, but there were things that you didn’t talk about. There were these things which were hideously called consciousness-raising groups which were quite extraordinary when you found out that what you thought was your personal lack and failure was actually quite a common condition. That had a very strengthening effect on people.

It was as if I’d lived my whole life underwater and feminism was like sticking your head out and having a look around. You didn’t realise that you were desperately swimming along. I was probably a really horrible feminist. I was a tub-thumping feminist and I was probably quite unbearable for a long time. I know I was. I had a couple of incidents in which I sobbed and wept because people wouldn’t agree with me. You know, that sort of crap. I could have learnt more looking back on it all.

I worked on a feminist newspaper for a while. These old Jewish women used to turn up to our editorial meetings. They didn’t talk much but they always brought food — we were half-starved hippies from Carlton and they were practically feeding us. They seemed so old, I had the naïve idea they’d been around during the Russian Revolution, but I was so obsessed with my personal struggles that I never asked them anything about their lives. They must have thought we were complete dills. There was one I particularly liked called Fima — big-bosomed, motherly and incredibly generous. Anyway I drifted off and went to live in Paris and never saw Fima again. When I got back I asked around if she had died and when I heard she had I suddenly felt filled with shame. There she was with her incredibly rich life and I hadn’t asked her a single question.

M: She probably would have been surprised.
H: Yeah! I look back on that time and think … we were so knowledgeable about what was right. We were going to tell everyone about it and put it in our fucken’ newspaper and here were these women who’d lived through experiences like the Second World War.

M: Did you read a lot of feminist literature then. Was it in bookshops?
H: It wasn’t the kind of sophisticated stuff that there is now, which I can’t understand. There were bookshops.

M: Was there a bit of a gap between the theory and the practice?
H: Yeah. Of course. We were trying to live with blokes in these households.

M: Do you ever feel some kind of responsibility to have a feminist perspective in your work?
H: I used to but in a way that wasn’t very useful. By the time I started writing I was getting a bit of an angle on this because of having left the country. I realise now that I had a kind of emotional straight-jacket on. I felt like it would be treacherous to write a character that was bad. I felt like I had a responsibility to see good in everyone. Women in particular.

M: Have you found it hard to make a living?
H: The grant system has been very good for me. I’m on a grant at the moment for this and next year. I’ve been very generously treated but in between grants it is hard. Even though my stuff sells quite well, if there is a lapse between books — I haven’t done one for four years now — sales gradually simmer down and drop. My royalties are nowhere near enough to live on now. I couldn’t even scrape along.

But next time I do a book, suddenly there will be an upsurge. So I do reviewing, bits of journalism and that kind of thing. A rich lady in Queensland sent me some money once.  I’d never met her but she was a bit of a fan so she sent me a little bit of money. That was good.

M: And you’ve written some screenplays?
H: Yeah, two. Only one of them has been made. The other one is sitting there waiting for a director at the moment.

M: With the ABC?
H: Well, I’m not sure. The ABC paid me both times. They made one called Two Friends. It was on TV. I got a bit of money for that. Then I wrote this other one called The Last Days of Chez Nous and it’s new. They commissioned me to do it more than a year ago. I handed it in a year ago finished and they hated it.

And it just sat on the desk.  They paid me fifteen grand to write this screenplay.

M: Was it their idea or could you write whatever you wanted?
H: The idea was mine. The first one I did won a prize and was kind of well thought of. I said to the producer, I’ve got this other idea for a film and she said, ‘OK I’ll get you a contract’. They have three different contracts – one for each draft. If they don’t like your first draft they can say, ‘oh well, we’re not interested.’  But then you haven’t worked for nothing. I got paid and then it just sat there! She wanted to produce something but her superior couldn’t find time to read it and a year passed. I mean, God! It takes you an hour to read a screenplay! I was so mad. Especially when I turn on the TV and see the crap that they are doing on the ABC. It’s really embarrassing.

Anyway, so there’s my screenplay sitting there, but it might get made as a feature.

M: That’d be good. Has writing screenplays helped you with fiction or changed the way you look at fiction?
H: Well actually, writing fiction helped me with screenplays. Writing a screenplay in a sense is easier than a novel. With a novel it has to be perfect and done and made. It’s a much more complex process than a film.

M: Do you have spells when you find it difficult to write?
H: I do have dry spells. It’s sort of a nightmare. It surprises me when I get working on something I realise that a lot of thinking I’ve actually done while I thought that I wasn’t writing. A lot of stuff that’s been churning around in my mind over that period was all ready to go. I’m going through this awful period at the moment. I know what I want to write a book about but I’m just not ready to —

M:— make it happen?
H: Yeah, exactly.

M: That’s fascinating. How long have you had this spell?
H: I wrote something a while ago because I’ve got this grant. I want to do it by the end of next year. I know the area of thinking and behaviour that I want to do and I’ve got a huge folder with all these notes and I’ve got the characters pretty well worked out, but not well enough and that’s probably what’s stopping me. I’ve got this big folder with a little tag sticking out…

M: So you do a lot of research?
H: Oh well it’s not research, it’s more just thinking about things. I try and divide this mass of stuff that I’ve got in my mind into characters’ names or descriptions of natural things or dialogues. That sort of thing. Dreams that I’ve had. It’s a matter of finding a point at which to go in.

M: After you’ve written a first draft do you put it away for a while or do you try it out on a friend?
H: Well I don’t tend to do different drafts. I write really slowly the one draft. I don’t blurt it out in a big rush and then go back. I don’t show things to my friends. I take it straight to the publisher because, well my publisher and I have become quite good friends. She is a wonderful editor and she is the best person to show it to.

M: So you write the whole thing really slowly. You don’t show anybody and then you take it to a publisher?
H: Mmm. It’s only lately in this country that people have been interested in buying manuscripts. And I throw everything away. I’ve thrown away thousands of dollars’ worth of rubbish. What I considered to be a mess. People have got this sentimental thing. They’d like to own a handwritten copy of Monkey Grip. I wrote by hand but then typed the thing and threw away all the written bits.

M: Is that the way you usually work now? Do you have a word processor or a typewriter?
H: Typewriter, yeah. I write by hand then typewriter. Have you got a word processor?

M: No. No, I write everything by hand.
H: I like it. Writing is actually physically very pleasurable to me. I like doodling in the margin and all that.

M: Do you ever get tired of writing?
H: Oh no, because I don’t do it enough. I always do it less than I’d like to. I actually love it. I’m really lucky to do it and get stuff published. I’m a bit stunned with my luck sometimes.

M: A lot of people say ‘I don’t like writing, I like having written.’
H: Yeah, I know that feeling. I share a house with a woman who’s just finished a biographical fiction about her mother. It’s taken her something like two and half years to do and she’s just finished it. She’s in the most awful state. And I remember that state myself. You’ve been working on something for a long time and suddenly it’s done and you feel sort of lost and bereft. She keeps bursting into tears and not knowing how to spend the day. She thinks she’s miserable but I’m fifty times more miserable trying to start one.

M: So you are happy while you are writing?
H: Yeah! I love it! Actually this morning was the first time I felt optimistic. You know when you’ve got a project going and you sort of feel like you’re in love with it? And you can’t wait to get to it?  Well I haven’t felt like that for years.

M: Like meeting a lover or something.
H: Yes, and you don’t quite know what’s going to happen when you get there. That sort of feeling. And this morning was the first time I felt that. I felt fond of this mess. I wondered what was going to happen today. It’s a funny country, Australia, for being a writer.

M: We don’t have a university system backing up writers at all here.
H: No. If you’re lucky you get a grant or a residency or something but the really successful writers, like Peter Carey, people are suspicious of them. Not ordinary people, but newspapers give people a hard time.

M: It’s such a small community, especially the writing world.
H: Yeah, it’s very small. In a way I think I had a dream run at the start. Not that I haven’t had bad reviews because I have. Everybody gets those. There’s no point complaining about that. It’s so disappointing that you can’t make a living from it here. And that’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just that there aren’t enough people here.

M: Would you teach it if you could?
H: I’d avoid that. I quite like doing it and I’m quite good at it because I was a teacher for all those years. It goes well with my nature. I’m quite gregarious and I get on with people but in a sense that’s the exact reason I would avoid doing it. I tend to get sucked into it. I couldn’t do that and write. I don’t know how anybody can. It would be a different matter if I just hopped up and gave a little lecture once a week or something.

M: Think it would take away from your own books too?
H: Yeah, I reckon. Probably. I don’t really write enough. My books are small and cheap and I don’t write enough of them to have the whole thing spinning along, you know. If you were somebody like Tim Winton — have you heard of his stuff?  Well he’s written what — how many books — five books or something? And he’s not even thirty yet. He’s pumping it out and he’s supporting his family and everything.  But he works very hard at having a kind of opus. He writes more ambitiously somehow. Ambitious to be a writer.  Whereas I seem to write under a form of personal necessity so that if I don’t need to write anything, I can’t think of anything to say.

M: What do you think you’d be doing now if you didn’t write?
H: I’d probably be a teacher. Doesn’t seem such a bad idea. I’m unemployable, you see. I haven’t had a job since 1972.

M: You’ve lived off your writing for that long?
H: Well, grants or writing. Freelance stuff with a bit of teaching now and then. I have done a bit of teaching with the odd residency where I’ve taught. I suppose I could be an editor. A publisher’s editor. But then I’d rather write than edit, I think. It’s a bit of a dog’s life when you’re not actually writing, you feel frustrated and angry.

M: Do you feel guilty?
H: Yeah, I feel guilty every day. I feel guilty because I’ve got a grant. I am guilt-prone anyway, I think. But you do want to justify your place. In a lot of ways I’ve been very well treated by this country. People behave towards me with respect.

It’s a funny country though. It’s a weird country. People are terribly sort of philistine and they suspect you are being a bullshit artist. When I said people treat me with respect, I mean some people have treated me with respect. They’ve liked what I’ve written. I’m always being offered work, I can’t complain about that.  People or newspapers are always ringing me up.

Actually, when I was on my way back from that trip to America where I met you, I was coming through Brisbane and I got to the passport check and the bloke picks up my passport and has a look. It said, Occupation: Writer. He sort of looked at the photo and he read the passport and he looked at me and he hit me with this really hard stare. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ And he said, ‘I’ve never seen a writer before and so I just wanted to see what one looked like.’