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Author Talk with Kate Llewellyn, Barbara Hill and Ruth Bacchus

September 26, 2015

Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, First things firstHaving attended Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography lecture at the National Library of Australia last week, I was thrilled to see another event come up this week. It was billed as an author talk with Kate Llewellyn, and with Barbara Hill and Ruth Bacchus who edited First things first, the collection of Llewellyn’s letters which I reviewed a few months ago. They also discussed Llewellyn’s most recent “journal”, A fig at the gate. In the end, it was Llewellyn who did most of the talking, but that didn’t matter – sorry Barbara and Ruth – because she was the main one we’d all come to see.

I’m not going summarise the whole talk, but just share a few ideas that interested or, in some cases, tickled me. Llewellyn is an engaging speaker.

On letters and letter writing

Naturally some of the discussion focused on letters. Llewellyn explained that the letters included in First things first were held in the ADFA library collection, and that they’d been acquired from the recipients of her letters.  She doesn’t keep copies of letters she writes, she said, horrified that we might think she did. In fact, she’d rather recipients of her letters would destroy them! However, she sang the praises of the American ADFA librarian who initiated the project of collecting the papers of Australian poets.

Llewellyn confirmed that she did not censor Bacchus and Hill’s choice of letters. She trusted them not to include anything that would do her harm. Some names, though, have been changed to avoid hurting people. Don’t believe everything you read, she said! There is artifice at work, even here. The project had some specific principles, including that the focus would be letters to other writers or artists, and not family.

Austen's desk, Chawton. (Photo: Monster @

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Photo: Monster @

Llewellyn was asked about her current letter writing activity, but she said that she rarely writes letters now because of emails. She only writes now when “something means a lot” and she wants to share it. She sees letters as capturing the important things in life.

She likes to write by hand, so her books are written that way. She believes that the hand-to-brain sensibility is different to the hand-to-machine one, and that she doesn’t have “ardour”, an important quality for her, when using a machine.

The letters in her books, like A fig at the gate, are made up, she said. For example, the letters to her daughter are a device to enable her to talk about her relationship with her daughter, and about Australia.

I found all this fascinating because I have read and discussed Jane Austen’s letters with my local Jane Austen group, looking at how or whether they could contribute to our understanding of her times and her novels. And then, this month, we discussed how Austen used letters in her novels – to develop character (the writer’s and/or the recipient’s), to progress the plot, and to provide information and solve mysteries.

The writer-reader relationship

Llewellyn talked about the complex relationship between reader and writer, particularly highly autobiographical writers like her. A fig at the gate is true, she said, because she is writing to a reader with whom she shares a trust. It is her pact with the reader that what she writes is true.  However, a problem arises when readers think they know her. They mix up life with art. There’s no winning in this she said. After all, she has done it: she has created the relationship, she has made that sacred writer’s pact to not lie, to not betray the reader. However, some readers misunderstand the protocol, they forget that the meeting is one of writer-reader, not of friends. That’s when, she says, she uses her umbrella to create a physical barrier!

Llewellyn shared a few amusing stories. One concerned being asked why she had titled her last book A fig at the gate. Because, she said, there’s a fig at my gate. But why call the book that, the reader apparently persisted. At this point Llewellyn said she had to admit that some things just aren’t deep! (She admitted, though, that she often does think metaphorically.) She also talked about the origin of the book. Now in her 70s, she wanted to write about ageing but believed that would not sell, so she decided to write a book whose “flesh would be the garden, but the bones would be ageing”.

Weather, the great story of life

I can’t remember how this topic came up, but it tickled me immensely because I have been sharing a weekly snail-mail correspondence with a wonderful American friend for over 20 years. Writing about the weather has become a bit of a running joke between us. We try to hold off for at least a couple of paragraphs and then admit we can’t hold out any longer! The weather will out.

Anyhow, Llewellyn’s story relates to meeting an English-born lecturer, who was her lover at the time, for lunch, and he started to talk about the weather. She thought that was boring and that maybe he wasn’t for her, but he told her that the English love the weather. He taught her, she said, that the weather is a good subject. (Of course, anyone who has read a good symbolic Shakespearean storm, for example, knows that.)

There was another lovely connection here for me because I had just finished, the day before, Karen Lamb’s biography Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (my review) whose title comes from Astley’s idea of weather as representing the highs and lows, the fluctuations in life.

To recap: Lessons learned

  • Don’t believe everything you read.
  • Don’t confuse life with art. Art – even autobiographical art – is artifice.
  • Respect the writer-reader protocol.
  • And, most importantly, the weather is a perfectly fine topic to write (or talk) about!

Llewellyn concluded by reading aloud her clever, funny, wicked poem, “The breast”. Do read it online if you don’t know it.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Moira Nolan permalink
    September 27, 2015 15:31

    ‘A problem arises when readers think they know her’… and ‘respect the reader-writer protocol’… ‘don’t confuse life with art’… hmmm these are interesting statements, I understand what she / you are saying, but it’s all more complicated than that, surely? A good writer, a good work, has one curious about the extent to which it might be autobiographical, and curious about the author as a person. It IS fascinating that one author completely disappoints in the flesh, and others don’t. That Louis de Bernière has such a wonderful speaking voice for example. It’s intriguing that Robert Dessaix is so revealing and so confessional or is it just ‘personal’, yet manages to completely side-step, for example, ‘the body’. I enjoy the interplay of what’s real and what’s not, what did and didn’t happen to an author, or even what they reveal and don’t reveal. Would you say the same about protocol for literary bloggers?

    • September 27, 2015 16:49

      Good questions Moira – and nice to hear from you. I’ll try to elaborate first on Llewellyn’s point. She said she loves readers talking to her and engaging with her about her work. It’s when they forget that they know her through reading, and approach her as a “friend” that it becomes uncomfortable. They don’t recognise – because clearly they’ve engaged so closely with her writing, which is good – that their relationship is one of reader-writer not of friends. She doesn’t know them from a bar of soap. So, I don’t think she was saying she minds curiosity – she surely can’t really, being such an autobiographical writer. She’s happy to answer questions and discuss what she writes about – she’s a pretty open “vulnerable” writer. I think it’s the jumping to assumption that she’s a friend that’s the issue.

      I feel sorry for authors who disappoint in the flesh. Authors who are great talkers/presenters/conversationalists are such fun but not all are are they and must hate the promotional round, the need to perform and explicate.

      As for literary bloggers. I guess there is a protocol too – I would expect some personal space. I do share some things about my life here – but mine is not one of those confessional blogs. So, as it’s a litblog I would expect people to expect to engage with me on that basis. Mostly though when I meet people in my role as a litblogger it’s other bloggers and so we both approach each other on that basis first, recognising that that’s our connection, not some personal relationship. A more personal relationship may develop, but it starts from a protocol, a recognition of the basis or origin of the relationship, I’d say.

      Does this all make sense, or have I missed your point?

      • Moira Nolan permalink
        September 30, 2015 18:43

        Hi, I suppose it’s naive of some readers to think they know an author personally by virtue of having read their work, but to me completely understandable, and I think it would be naive of an author to be annoyed or surprised to have the attention of a ‘fan’. What is writing but an act of communication, a reaching out?
        Reminds me again of Robert Dessaix quoted in a recent article (in the Sunday Tasmanian or the Weekend Age) when his book ‘What days are for’ came out, that a lot of people contacted him in regard to his autobiography ‘A mother’s disgrace’. His work ‘spoke to them’ so much, they loved it, etc. But then they just went on about themselves and their own mothers – it set them off on their own recollections (and that was enough re Robert Dessaix!). As he pointed out, his style somehow allowed that contact and ease with the reader, and that, combined with his distance and artifice (the artifice that is writing), is, I think, his great success. As you can see, I’m a fan, but hopefully not one who will bother him.

        The more recent trend of hawking one’s novels around the world at book festivals and the imperatives of social media is like a return to the early days of the novel, for example when Dickens read out his serialised pot boilers in theatres, very much the author in contact with their readership.

        • September 30, 2015 19:07

          Yes, good points, Moira. I love your reference to Dickens. Good point.

          As for “fans”, my understanding of Llewellyn is that it’s the type of response though she didn’t go into detail. I agree it’s understandable for readers to feel that way, but it’s what they do with that feeling that is the issue? I think there’s appropriate and not-appropriate sharing/response, e.g. there’s imposing on an author’s privacy and expecting them to want a personal relationship with you versus honest responses in an appropriate setting. I think that’s what Llewellyn was talking about. It’s a fine line I’d say …

          Oh, and I read and loved A mother’s disgrace, but so long ago now that I don’t remember details.

  2. September 30, 2015 04:27

    What a wonderful talk you got to attend. I had a good laugh regarding the weather. Minnesotans love to talk about the weather! It is a general topic everyone can talk about. I always mention the weather in my letters and sometimes in email depending on the purpose and who it is to. A new coworker who moved here last year from California laughed at how much we talk about the weather. When you live in a place where the weather is the same nearly everyday there isn’t much to talk about 🙂

    • September 30, 2015 07:23

      Haha, Stefanie, thing is, my weekly snail mail correspondent is Californian, and southern Californian at that, yet she finds plenty to talk about, even if it’s sometimes a hankering for change!

  3. October 6, 2015 18:25

    Thanks for this. I just finished First Things First. I wondered if her letter writing frequency had dropped off because of email.

    I’ve now read all her prose books; in fact, I own them all because I had to buy most of them from Australian booksellers. Most are not readily available in the US.

    Time to start collecting her poetry books as I’ve read quite a few of her poems online but they are probably not all there.

    I do love her from afar!

    • October 6, 2015 19:22

      Oh, how wonderful Tangly Cottage. If she ever read this, she’d be thrilled, I’m sure, to have such a fan from afar.

      That issue about letters being replaced by emails is a real issue isn’t it. Not only because emails are often even less kept than letters, but also because the sorts of things people write in emails are different. They tend to be briefer for a start, and often less carefully framed and then proofread.

      • October 6, 2015 19:32

        In Kate’s case, they might be more readable, because I gather her handwriting is hard to read in those letters. I would love to get to decipher her entire letter collection no matter how challenging.

        Agreed about emails. I have files of treasured letters from friends over the years. I suppose I haven’t got a letter for ten years other than notes in Christmas cards. It’s all email now and unless I printed out an email, it’s harder to keep hold of than a letter was.

        • October 6, 2015 20:52

          Haha, Tangly Cottage, true. I have been writing a snail mail letter to a friend in the US for 21 years now BUT they are almost always word-processed as my writing, once neat, is no longer so.

          A couple of things about her letters: one is that the letters here are chosen for their recipients being other artists/creators; and the other is that she doesn’t keep copies of her letters so what’s survived is very serendipitous. We didn’t ask the editors who did the research how many letters there were … from which they chose.

        • October 7, 2015 05:05

          I found this which shows the size of the Kate Llewellyn collection; the links show the letters organized by sender and recipient. It’s amazing.

        • October 7, 2015 17:16

          Well done Tangly Cottage … 58 boxes is a good collection for researchers, and it looks like it’s been well organised and described. Music to my librarian/archivist heart!

        • October 7, 2015 05:10

          I was thinking late last night that the thing about a letter is, if you have strong affection for the sender, it is meaningful that it came from his or her hands, that the writer touched the paper. Among the books I ordered (a moderately expensive quest!) from Australia was one signed by Kate and I as I held it in my hands, I was pleased that she had once touched it. Silly but true.

        • October 7, 2015 17:17

          Not silly at all, Tangly Cottage … I now have my copy of First things first signed by her as I took it to that talk. Digitisation is a wonderful boon to research, but there’s nothing like a real object is there?

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