Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Georgia Blain
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:
Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors
Self published, 2015