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Meeting Biff Ward

April 11, 2015

WardMotherAllenUnwinIn her comment on my review of Biff Ward’s beautiful memoir, In my mother’s hands, in which I mentioned that Biff had been present at my reading group, Stefanie (So Many Books) asked if I planned to post specifically about Biff’s presence. While I don’t always do this when authors visit my group – Biff was our sixth author in our 27 years – I did do so for Marion Halligan and Alan Gould. Since our discussion covered a lot of ground that I didn’t include in my review, I figured that this was one of those visits to write up …

The writing process

The most common questions readers ask authors tend to relate to why and how they wrote the book in question. We were no different. And really, I think such questions can be good ice-breakers because “how did you come to write your book” is surely a question most authors can answer without too much angst? For Biff, the answer was quite complex. She said that her father, and others, always assumed that she would write his biography, but she wasn’t interested in biography … and so … WardFatherDaughterGrove

Biff had, she said, been writing for 40 years or more. Her first book was the ground-breaking Father-daughter rape*, published by The Women’s Press in London in 1985. One of our reading group members, a psychotherapist, knows the book and said it is still referred to for its discussion of child sexual abuse. Biff, quite rightly, seemed rather chuffed at this news!

The memoir, though, was written over 15-20 years – in bits and pieces. The first “bit” she wrote was a reminiscence of her mother’s in which she remembered hearing of the assassination of the Romanovs. Uncertain about where Russia was, she asked her father who vaguely said, gesturing, “over there”. For her mother “over there” meant “out of sight beyond the horse paddock”. It’s a lovely anecdote shared between mother and daughter, but it has deeper resonances in terms of her mother’s life, and Biff included it pretty much untouched in the final memoir.

Biff said that she started writing more on the memoir as she transitioned to retirement, but work on it intensified after she attended a writing retreat in Byron Bay in 2009. By the time she presented it to her publisher, Richard Walsh, it was 105,000 words, but it was gradually whittled down to the final 70,000 words. We wondered whether she could publish some good short stories from the bits edited out.

We aren’t, I guess, a very original group because another question we asked is a common one: how did you choose the title? Biff responded that she brainstormed it with her writing group. Her original title had been  Alison, for her parents’ first child who had died at 4 months, but then, through brainstorming, it was decided that the title should refer to her mother. The final challenge was whether to go with At her mother’s hands or In her mother’s hands. We agreed that “In” is better. It feels more inclusive, and less aggressive.

We also talked a little about the sources of her information, but I mentioned some of those in my review. I was intrigued by a reference in the book to how a lover washing her hair brought back childhood memories of her mother washing her hair. It made me wonder what memories don’t come back and the implication of almost serendipitous memory-joggers like this on the final story. I loved Biff’s answer that the “memoir” form is more forgiving than “autobiography”. It is, after all, about memories, so what you do and don’t remember, for whatever reason, is essentially what it’s about.

Writing (and reading) as therapy

If you’ve read the book, or my review, you’ll know that the underlying story concerns mental illness. You won’t be surprised then to hear that the book brought out some painful (but valuable) sharing. It was truly special that we all, including the “stranger” in our midst, felt safe enough to do this – and for that reason, obviously, what was shared in the room will stay there. I can say though that it also brought up the idea of writing as therapy. Biff believes that writing for therapy is valuable – but in journals and diaries, not in published books.

Related to this theme, we asked whether writing the memoir was a painful or traumatic experience but, as Biff mentions in the book, she had undergone extensive psychotherapy so had, she said, worked her emotions through before she came to write the book. We also asked her whether she was angry about her childhood, but she said she was more sad than angry. She said, thinking of her father, that partners can suffer more than children. That’s a generous response I think – but then this is a generous book.

We also talked a little about the way the family had hidden its problems, but we could all relate to the fact that people are generally anxious to say “I’m fine”. People don’t, as Biff discusses in her book, have the words, the language, to express difficult things. Biff did refer, though, to the moment in the book when she and her father had finally been able to talk about “the terribleness” they had experienced. An “odd word” she wrote in the book but it was lovely, she told us, to have been able to be honest about their experiences. Biff’s father had his failings, about which she’s clear in the book, but he was she said “a deeply moral man” and late in his life regretted his less admirable behaviours.

Our reactions

As you will have gathered we all enjoyed the book and deeply appreciated having Biff present for our discussion. We shared our various reactions – profoundly moving, harrowing, kind, a stimulus to remembering our own childhoods, and the like. One member used the word “endearing” for Biff’s portrait of her father, for the way she showed her love for her father while writing “all sides” of him. Biff said she enjoyed finding the words to describe him.

A point that intrigued us was the fact that a country university, the University of New England (UNE), had employed a “communist” academic who had been rejected by the major city universities. Biff told us that UNE had quite a reputation for employing “all the Reds that no-one wanted”! We all loved this.

Near the end of the evening, Biff unveiled the “show-and-tell” she’d brought. It was a beautiful, sensitive portrait of her mother painted when she was in her late 20s. A cropped black-and-white version is in the book (p. 62) but to see the original full version in colour was, well, special. But then again, it was just one more special thing in an evening that was very special.

* Lest you be concerned, this book is not about Biff and her father – there’s no such sexual abuse in the memoir – but about her later research into child sexual abuse after meeting two young abused girls in a women’s refuge.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2015 06:31

    Love this more intimate look into the writer. Loved the author’s answer regarding the forgiving nature of the memoir.

  2. April 12, 2015 09:03

    «the “memoir” form is more forgiving than “autobiography”. It is, after all, about memories, so what you do and don’t remember, for whatever reason, is essentially what it’s about.»
    Entirely true, from my p.o.v.
    «the idea of writing as therapy. Biff believes that writing for therapy is valuable – but in journals and diaries, not in published books.»
    I disagree with this – but it has to be a case of horses for courses. Has to be.
    I should so love to have had a group of intelligent women discuss Atlmd. Still, what I did get from one member of your reading group was better than anyone could ever expect.

    • April 12, 2015 11:32

      Thanks MR … and I’m so glad you engaged with that comment. I think it probably is horses for courses, and perhaps partly to do with what we mean by “writing for therapy”. I think a lot of writing can be therapeutic. I suspect Biff was talking about the sort of writing that involves the pouring out of unresolved feelings/emotions? How often can that be done well for publication? There’s probably a fine line …

      • April 12, 2015 16:12

        You’re right, of course – it’s all a matter of how much …

        • April 12, 2015 19:44

          I wouldn’t say “of course” but glad you agree on this occasion, MR.

        • April 13, 2015 07:16

          Oh, I would. You are. 😀

  3. April 14, 2015 02:45

    Thanks for sharing this! It sounds like Biff was a very special visitor. I like what she said about writing as therapy. Because she had had all those years of therapy first, her book was probably much better for it. And how wonderful she brought the portrait to show you all in person!

    • April 14, 2015 08:11

      Thanks Stefanie and yes, I think the book probably was better for it because she was able to reflect rather than emote, and yet still produce a deeply moving book.

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