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Bacchus, Ruth & Hill, Barbara, First things first: Selected letters of Kate Llewellyn 1977-2004 (Review)

June 20, 2015

Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, First things firstIt might look like I’ve suddenly hired myself as author Jessica White’s PR Consultant as this is the second post in a row that I’ve opened with her, but the coincidence was too great for me not to. You see, this week, White posted on her Facebook Author Page that she’d received funding for a novel from the Australia Council for the Arts, and exulted that “I’m so happy that I can a) afford to eat for the next 6 months …”. One of the several threads running through Kate Llewellyn’s letters in First things first is her struggle to survive financially as a writer. More on that anon …

First, how do you review a book of letters? Yes, I know I’ve done it before for Jane Austen’s letters, but that’s different. Jane Austen is long gone, and was long gone when her letters were first published. Kate Llewellyn is still, fortunately I might add, with us, so, as well as reviewing a book about a living author, which of course bloggers/reviewers do frequently, I’m reviewing something very personal, a book of her letters. She didn’t put this selection together – Charles Sturt University academics Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill did – but she allowed her letters to be published, “trusting us”, the editors say in their preface, “with the contents of her life”. And that, I think, is a brave thing to do. But then again, you have to be brave to be a writer, don’t you?

Some of you, particularly if you’re not Australian, may not know Kate Llewellyn, but she’s an Australian poet and prose writer. Her prose includes travel writing, autobiography, and what the editors describe as “a hybrid blend she has made her own and perhaps pioneered in Australian women’s writing – a sensuous journal, studded with poetry, laced with recipes and concerned with ‘the weather, domesticity, love, art, gardening, the names of plants, a woman’s simple daily tasks and her heart’s thoughts’*”. She also co-edited The Penguin book of Australian women poets, which I own and often refer to.

Now, back to my question of reviewing a book of letters. Late-ish in the book, Llewellyn writes in a letter to Ianesco (artist Ian North) about reading John Cheever’s journals:

I did not know at times if I should be reading them, it seemed even prurient. But I had to keep on reading … and to think he wasn’t even trying … just did it for himself … […] … sizzling honesty.

“Prurience” isn’t the word you’d use for reading Llewellyn’s letters, and these are letters so written for someone besides herself, but they were, initially anyhow, private and they contain a rawness and honesty, together with a poetic beauty, that struck me much the way it seems that Cheever struck her. This rawness and honesty is most apparent when she writes about her relationships with others (romantic and otherwise) and her struggle to survive as a writer. It’s this latter of course that Jessica White’s Facebook post struck a chord with.

“I wouldn’t want not to be vulnerable”

As a reader, I’m interested in how writers do it. How do they manage to write and live? Some, of course, produce bestsellers but they are few. Some have significant others who support them. But most, it seems, scrabble around putting together projects, applying for grants, undertaking speaking and teaching engagements to keep going. It is this, among other things, that Llewellyn conveys with fearless clarity through her letters. She details the challenges of co-editing the poetry anthology with Susan Hampton, and of the difficulty of finding a publisher when the first one fell through. She describes unsatisfying, if not downright unpleasant, experiences of some (though not all) writers’ retreats. She tells of sending pieces off to numerous magazines and editors and of writing applications for grants or positions as writer-in-residence, and shares the emotional and financial pain of rejection, alongside the occasional joy of success. She describes cobbling together projects, such as one which didn’t come to fruition with friend Marion Halligan. She loses confidence in writing poetry, and wants to change her prose style. She writes of “the spite and derangement of the literary world” and of the mismanagement of distribution. She wonders why certain poets don’t like her, questions why some reviewers feel the need to be cruel, and is aware that there are people on boards who “do not wish me well”. It’s an uncertain life, and yet, with her get-up-and-go spirit she writes:

I think there’s a lot to be said for perplexity and bewilderment. Certainty is not all it’s cracked up to be. (to Ianesco, 13 January, 1995)

So, I learnt quite a lot about the life of a working writer. I realise that, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every writer’s life is different, and that each is likely to respond differently to the challenges, but experience tells me there’s a significant core in Llewellyn’s experience that’s true for many writers. What, though, did I learn about Llewellyn, herself?

Well, here is the challenge of course, because not only is a volume of letters, like this, one-sided, but these letters are a selection (and a selection, at that, of a period of her life). What letters weren’t included and how might they have affected our view of Llewellyn? Not much I think, because Llewellyn is so honest with her friends – and these letters are all to friends, many of whom are artists, writers and musicians – that you get a clear picture of her. She’s funny, vulnerable, emotional, warm-hearted, generous of spirit, depressed and lonely at times, subversive and yet a little conservative too. She can also, she’s aware, be rather full-on (high-maintenance, perhaps): “when I meet people I’m attracted to and with whom I feel great sympathy … I leap in”. She’s intelligent and, of course, creative.

One of the delights of the book, besides its various insights, is her writing. Funny that! It’s almost impossible to find one good example, but I’ll try. How about this description of a couple met at a dinner:

The former was a thin 50 year-old woman with husband to match … it was like talking to an oyster … a khaki woollen frock, grey hair, no colour anywhere, no lipstick … cold, grey, elegant, been everywhere, smoking, khaki skin, eyes like cold stones … I felt so defeated in my scarlet outfit I decided to try to get some reaction … (to Jerry Rogers, 19 June 1992)

Llewellyn, you have probably gathered, likes colour and life, and she likes “ardour … perhaps more than anything else in life”. Anyhow, I can’t leave it at one example, so will share a few more:

In fact, I think this town [Sofala] where not one building stands erect, but leans like a person into the wind, has only goats and tourists for income. (to Marion Halligan, 11 April 1994).

And

I swam in and out of it [Adelaide Writers’ Week] like a fish and took what came my way, be it seaweed or krill, but no bait, I hope. (to Marion Halligan, 11 April 1994).

And

… she [friend Jerry Rogers’ teen granddaughter] has been a real joy here … laughing like a gutter full of fresh rain after a drought, it is the loveliest laugh I ever heard. (to Ianesco and Mirna, 8 July 1996).

I will write another post or maybe two on this book – to share some of her thoughts on Australian writers, and a little of her humour. But, I don’t want to give the whole book away … which brings me to the question of whether I’d recommend it. Well, yes I would, but with, I suppose, a little qualification. This is a book of letters, and letters aren’t for everyone. With the best editing in the world, they can’t help but be disjointed. However, for me, Llewellyn’s voice is so compelling, her persona so open, and her writing so frequently funny, that I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in her head.

awwchallenge2015Bacchus, Ruth & Hill, Barbara
First things first: Selected letters of Kate Llewellyn, 1977-2004
Mile End SA, Wakefield Press, 2015
299pp.
ISBN: 9781743053645

(Review copy supplied by Wakefield Press)

* Llewellyn’s own description of her best-selling book in this genre, The Waterlily, in a letter to Bob Boynes and Mandy Martin, 20 July 1987.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2015 9:00 am

    Ah Sue, I opened this up this morning, and laughed 🙂 If I ever make any money, I’ll ask you to do my PR! However, you’ve certainly sold me Llewellyn’s letters – not only do her descriptions sound so inviting, but her accounts of struggling to survive ring so true. I’ve added this to my reading list!

    • June 20, 2015 9:36 am

      Haha, thanks Jessica. The book can be heartrending in places, and it does comprise letters not intended for publication, but I reckon much of it will resonate with you.

  2. Glen Hunting permalink
    June 20, 2015 11:34 am

    Sounds intriguing, Sue. Must look out for it.

    • June 20, 2015 12:31 pm

      I suspect, Glen, that much will resonate with writers – as of course I’ve said. And, I really enjoyed her comments on writers she’s reading, which I’ll do in another post. They include Western Australians!

  3. June 21, 2015 3:19 am

    How interesting to allow letters to be published while the author is still alive! And presumably many of the recipients are too. I wonder if they all had to give permission? It sounds like a lovely collection though, letters sure, but kind of memoirist/essayish in letter form.

    • June 21, 2015 8:27 am

      Yes, many of the recipients are still alive. Re giving permission, good question. The letters are in the ADFA Library, which you’ll be intrigued to know is the Australian Defence Force Academy, so, as you’ll know, conditions of access and use will be managed according to what was agreed at the time of acquisition. Brave all round, I’d say.

  4. June 28, 2015 7:37 pm

    Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.

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  1. Non-fiction roundup: May to June 2015 | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog
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