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Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Georgia Blain

December 19, 2016
Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

This is the fifth in my occasional series of Spotlight posts inspired by Annette Marfording’s Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, and this time I’m featuring Georgia Blain who died just over a week ago, three days before her mother Anne Deveson also died. In a comment on my Vale post, Annette Marfording reminded me that she’d interviewed Georgia Blain for her book and so, with her support, I decided to make Blain the subject of this week’s Monday Musings.

Marfording’s interview took place in 2010, at which time Blain had published 4 novels, one of which had been shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award; plus a memoir, which was shortlisted for the Nita B Kibble Life Writing Award, and a young adult novel. She had also been named in 1998 as one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists. At the time of her death, her eighth novel, Between a wolf and a dog had won the Queensland Literary Award for Fiction and been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. In addition, her first novel, Closed for winter, had been made into a film, and her second novel, Candelo, had been optioned for a film. Not a bad record for a writer who wasn’t, really, on everyone’s lips!

Marfording asked her, as she asked many writers, what awards meant to her. Blain simply said it “was incredibly pleasing” to be shortlisted and also to have one’s work made into a film, although on the latter she commented on the work required from others and that she “applauded” them more than herself for that. Sounds pretty humble to me. Later in the interview, when asked about her role as a judge, she comments on the degree of serendipity involved.

Anyhow, Marfording then moved on to talk about her most recent book, the young adult novel Darkwater which was published in 2010. She asked the question that I often want to ask writers who set novels in the recent past, which is why she’d set her novel in the 1970s rather than the present. This question is particularly pertinent when you are talking about a young adult novel because, as Marfording commented, “the young adults for whom the book is written weren’t alive then”. The simple – and probably obvious – answer which Blain gave is that it was the time of her own youth. She was writing what she knew, in other words. However, she also said she wanted the challenge of writing about a time when there was no technological communications – no mobile phones or texting or emailing, etc. And it was also a fascinating time she said that encompassed both “great conservatism and great liberation”.

Marfording then notes that her adult novels were also set in this period, and wondered, given Blain was only a child then, how she’d managed to evoke the mood so well. Blain replied that, being the period she grew up in, it “soaked” into her.

Moving onto subject matter, Marfording asked Blain about her focus on darkness, on pain and the loss of a major character. Blain responds not only that loss and pain are part of life but that they can lead to positive things.  I wonder whether she remembered this when six years later she wrote in The Saturday Paper about her initial hope that there’d been a mistake, followed by attempts to rationalise and intellectualise her prognosis, and finally her realisation that she needed to try

to live alongside this unwelcome guest, a guest whose presence cannot be ignored, and must be accommodated in the best way I am able.

Can we see this realisation – and her later understanding of what it means “to truly love” – as some of those positive things? It’s a hard – tragic – way to learn these lessons, isn’t it?

Interestingly, particularly given their deaths, Marfording comments on what she saw as “the autobiographical base” to Blain’s novels and whether there was “an element” of her trying to understand her mother and their relationship. Blain said that she didn’t see it this way, and that she didn’t believe in writing for catharsis. In fact, she said, that this can be self-indulgent and that she writes when she has some measure of resolution. But she followed this up with

of course I constantly draw on my life when I write and I think any writer who says to you that they don’t is lying to you.

I like her calm reason, I must say. Later in the interview, Marfording returns to her relationship with her mother, from a different angle, that of being the child of writers. Blain’s response is interesting, and perhaps a little guarded, when she says she “thought Why bother hiding it? It’s part of who I am and it doesn’t bother me that much”. My understanding, I should add here, is that Blain had a good relationship with her mother but that the family did suffer under a physically violent father, Ellis Blain.

Here is an excerpt from her autobiographical essays, Births, deaths, marriages:

Detailing his extreme physical outbursts was also an easy way of making people understand why I had so little love for him. But there was so much I could not describe in neat episodes. His presence alone created tension; it was the threat of what he might do that kept us tiptoeing, scared, around him. Each night we ate dinner in silence, knowing that the wrong word, a dropped piece of cutlery, even the scrape of a chair could set him off. He would slam his fist down…

I’m not going to summarise the whole interview, of course, but I do want to share a few more things. One of these is in relation to researching her various settings. Blain responded that

I’m quite a lazy researcher [laughs] but I write about places that have had a strong impact on me, and I work from memory … “Candelo” was set in a town where we had holidays when we were young, and again, I did not go back and research there. I actually got the geography of the town completely wrong – I did a reading in Candelo once and readers almost chased me out of town – but that actually doesn’t matter to me because what I’m doing is drawing on the impact that the place had on me.

I hear you, Georgia! I am one of those readers who doesn’t care about this sort of factual detail in a novel. I care about emotional truths, about whether they make sense to and move me, not about whether that hill is really here or over there. But, I often feel I’m in the minority. Anyhow, I wouldn’t have driven her out of town!

Marfording asked her about the impact of bad reviews, commenting on her reference to self-doubts, but once again Blain responds with a calm reason. She admits they can “knock you for a six” but then says that her main concerns are commercial. Will the bad review affect sales and/or the ability to find a publisher for the next book?

Finally, Marfording asked her about her favourite writers. Like Annette, like me, I’m guessing you’re interested in the answer? Well, they are Alice Munro and Richard Ford (his short stories specifically). In a 2008 article in The Australian, she also mentions Alice Munro, but this time alongside WG Sebald. Interesting choices don’t you think?

It’s an interesting interview. Blain says at one stage that maths was her best subject at school. I think you can see the clear, logical, mathematical brain at work here, a brain that, given what we know of the challenges she faced in her life, probably stood her in good stead – or, am I generalising too much?

Previous Spotlight posts:

Annette Marfording
Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors
Self published, 2015
273pp.
ISBN: 9781329142473

Note: All profits from the sale go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. To find out where you can purchase this book, please check Marfording’s website.

 

26 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2016 11:50 pm

    Great post, Sue, and a lovely tribute.

  2. December 20, 2016 12:17 am

    I’m afraid I’m anal about factual detail, but I agree with Blain that the period you grew up in soaks unto you.

    • December 20, 2016 3:45 am

      Yes it certainly does doesn’t it, Bill. I am sometimes surprised by people love and memory of the 1989s. After all I was alive then too, and then I realise that by then I was an adult and living my life, not living in that weird growing up time when everything around you demands your attention and you just soak it up almost holus bolus. The 80s are for them what the 60s and 70s are for me (and I feel a little sorry for them!!)

  3. ian darling permalink
    December 20, 2016 1:21 am

    I have a notion that novels almost need to be set a little back in time- of course any number of novels are utterly contemporary and that’s OK. That distance of perhaps 20 to 50 years has produced so many great novels- Middlemarch, Great Expectations and War And Peace obvious examples. Not at all surprised that the 1970s are seen more clearly a few decades down the line!

    • December 20, 2016 3:48 am

      I agree Ian, and have been thinking along similar lines lately. Something related to this idea will probably come up in a post I’m hoping to write in the next few days, if this busy time allows.

  4. December 20, 2016 4:29 am

    She sounds like an interesting person and writer. That’s pretty funny about getting the details of the town wrong. I can understand not caring about the details if I didn’t know the town in real life, but if it were a town I lived in, I can see how it might be a bit annoying to have an author get the details wrong.

    • December 20, 2016 6:58 pm

      Fair point, Stefanie, but in the end I care about the truth of thy he story and the feelings. I’m rather glad not many people write about my city! (Am writing this in the air p out lounge after 5 says down south.)

  5. December 20, 2016 8:05 am

    Thank you for this warm hearted appraisal of a wonderful writer. Vale Georgia Blain.

    • December 20, 2016 7:00 pm

      Thank you Alison… So glad you liked it. I’m just reading her Births, deaths, marriages and warm-hearted is it.

  6. December 20, 2016 9:51 am

    Thank you Sue, for writing about this interview. In light of your recent post about the RN presenters and the books they regarded as their top reads of 2016, it’s interesting to be reminded that so many of the authors I interviewed named overseas writers as their favourites, and gave the names of some Australian authors only if I prompted them. Richard Ford was one of those mentioned by a few, and I read one of them not so long ago (Wildlife), and at least with that book, I wondered why he is so well-known… I don’t think I’d have finished the book, had I not thought ‘There must be something great in here somewhere…’ I find Australian authors’ books so much more inspiring and exciting!

    • December 20, 2016 7:11 pm

      Yes good point Annette re their choices. You can understand Munro but I’m a little mystified too re the frequency with which Ford crops up. Do you think Aussie writers find it hard to name one friend and not another, or to not name any friends at all while choosing another Aussie altogether? Safer to go offshore? This is what’s been crossing my mind.

      • December 21, 2016 7:59 am

        One of the authors I interviewed expressly stated they don’t read Australian authors because they are the competition – which I think is rather ridiculous… But I had the feeling with some that that may indeed have something to do with them reading overseas authors instead…

        • December 21, 2016 8:01 am

          Ah, I hadn’t thought competition so much as worry about hiring feelings. I agree the competition idea is ridiculous. It’s also sad for an artist to see their fellow artists in that way.

  7. December 20, 2016 10:43 am

    Great post. I like the comment about your youth soaking into you. The older I get the more the soaked in youth comes to mind. I like that she liked to write about the time before all the screens of technology. I enjoy watching films of that time for the same reason. There is no distraction of all the technology in the story. Except of course if you slip a bit and get the detectives running around holding the old phones that looked like a brick. So funny by today’s standards. I think I would have liked this lady very much. Have checked library for her books. It really is true about ‘Only the good die young.”

    • December 20, 2016 7:13 pm

      Oh dear Pam, does that make us bad? Though perhaps it doesn’t say “all the good due young” so perhaps we are ok? Anyhow, glad my post has inspired you to read her.

  8. December 20, 2016 11:38 am

    It is a tragedy, no doubt, her dying, and thank you for posting what you drew from the interview. I agree with all that you say but want to add that in addition to all else she achieved in her sadly abbreviated life, Georgia was chair of the Australian Society of Authors for a time. A big contribution all round, and a loss on so many counts.

    • December 20, 2016 7:15 pm

      Thanks for adding that Sara, I think I had read that somewhere but I’m glad you’ve documented it here.

  9. Meg permalink
    December 24, 2016 2:49 pm

    Sue an interesting post. I understand Munro being one of Georgia Blain’s favourite authors. Munro writes directly and what she knows. I do prefer factual detail about people and places. When I read fiction I want to believe what the author is telling me. I don’t want to have to question, something I know to be different.

    • December 24, 2016 3:10 pm

      Thanks Meg. What is it that you want to believe what the author is telling you in fiction? I really only want the emotions, the ideas, the attitudes and values to be believable. Does it matter if the author has moved a church from one side of the river to another if it’s a novel, because, say, s/he needs the church to be nearer something else, or because that’s how s/he remembers the place and it’s those feelings s/he is trying to recreate/convey?

      I know that authors of historical fiction will sometimes play with the facts, perhaps changing the date of an event to suit their narrative drive. As of course do writers and directors of biopics. I can live with this, though I do like it when authors add a note explaining what they’ve done, generally at least.

  10. Meg permalink
    December 24, 2016 5:04 pm

    I want to believe the author so I am able to immerse myself into the story. If I can believe the characters, I will believe the emotions, the ideas and attitudes that you also desire from fiction. Everything doesn’t have to be clear. Facts don’t have to get in the way, but it is annoying when I know that the church has been placed on the wrong side of the river. I want to think and wonder about the story, not the church. The disclaimer is always nice to read; and I never let the facts get in the way of a good story! Merry Christmas Sue.

    • December 24, 2016 5:26 pm

      Haha, Meg – a foot in both camps a bit then. I don’t think I’d even give it a thought if the church wasn’t where I knew it to be – but maybe I’ll be tested one day when more people write about Canberra. Still I think the thing that would worry me would not be that they said the lake was filled in 1960 when it was a few years later but if they said it was a soulless city!! Ha! Have a good Christmas too, Meg – we are having thunder right now as I write.

  11. Meg permalink
    December 24, 2016 5:47 pm

    Can you believe 31 here in Hobart, the last three days have been beautiful. Nearly warm enough for a swim. Digger girl is having a wonderful time swimming for sticks!

    • December 24, 2016 8:15 pm

      Wow, my Hobartians would not like that. They like cool. I bet Digger girl had a great time.

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