Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Robert Drewe

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

In 2016, I wrote five Spotlight posts inspired by Annette Marfording’s Celebrating Australian writing: Conversations with Australian authors, and decided that was probably enough mining of her work for my blog. However, with over two years having passed since then, I wondered if it might be okay to do another. I emailed Annette, and she kindly agreed. But, who to choose from the 21 authors in her book? Well, of course, you know from the post title who I chose, so the next question is, why him?

The answer lies in an email correspondence I’ve had with Carmel Bird over the last week in response to my last Monday Musings posts on pianos. Carmel emailed me privately to mention an anthology she edited, Red hot notes, which includes many pieces about the piano. How embarrassing! I actually have that book. Anyhow, that got us talking about short stories and short story writers, including Robert Drewe whose The bodysurfers I have. Carmel exhorted me to read (or, to be precise, finish reading) it. I will, because what I’ve read so far I’ve loved. (Meanwhile, I plan a future post on short stories more generally, inspired by our discussion.)

Robert Drewe, The bodysurfersBut now, after that rather long introduction, on to Robert Drewe. Marfording’s interview took place in August 2009, at which time Drewe had published six novels, three short story collections, two non-fiction books and two plays. Since then he has written another novel and short story collection, both of which I have given as gifts in recent years, plus four more works of non-fiction. He has won two Walkley Awards, a Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and several other awards. Wikipedia says that his novel The drowner made Australian literary history by becoming the first novel to win the Premier’s Literary Prize in every state”.  And yet, I have not reviewed him for my blog, though I did post on his Seymour Biography Lecture in 2015.

Given the multiple forms he has written in, Marfording started by asking him his preferred form. He said that he likes them all “at different times – sort of equally” but that at the time of the interview he was particularly enjoying short stories, a form he came to after writing a couple of novels. Now, that’s interesting because many people suggest short stories are a training ground for novels, an idea I don’t much like as I see short stories as a form in their own right. Anyhow, Drewe commented that he was “finding the short story more interesting and more contemporary and of the moment.”

Marfording then turned to his origins as a fiction writer, after his early work as a journalist. He talked about always wanting to be a writer, and what his career as a journalist gave him:

It taught me how to write simple declarative sentences, it took me out of a normal Australian middle-class background and showed me how the other half live, it showed me how courts work and crime and how people at the struggling end of the spectrum live. It was really a fascinating background for a writer.

The discussion then moved on to Drewe’s novels and short stories, and how they reflect or comment on contemporary Australian society, including, specifically, such issues as refugees, the environment, and Indigenous Australians. Drewe makes an interesting comment about using the novel versus short story form:

I’m interested in ideas which I try to get across in a novel, but I’m interested in more succinct, shorter forms like relationships and so forth, and conflicts between people are easier to deal with in a short story …

Not surprisingly, this led to a discussion about his treatment of relationships, before returning to the short story, and what he sees as the essence of a short story. For Drewe,

… a good short story makes you look at something about your own life or experience through the prism of what you’re reading. So a sense of identification or recognition is what matters, really.

I’d have to think about whether all “good” short stories need to do this, but certainly I’d agree that many or most do.

Marfording then discussed his writing process, which is something that interests most readers (or, at least, those who read or listen to interviews with authors), and also a little about film adaptations, given his Ned Kelly novel, Our Sunshine, was adapted for a film which starred Heath Ledger. But, I’m leaving those to move on to their discussion about his work as an editor of short story anthologies.

How, Marfording asked, does he choose short stories for his anthologies. Drewe said that he advertises in all the literary columns in “newspapers and so forth”, and, he said, “the stories arrive in their thousands.” He also reads published stories in literary magazines. He said that half the content will be pre-published stories like these, but the rest will be new – “that’s where the fun is for the editor, discovering new people.” I reckon that’s where the fun is for the people he has discovered as well. Imagine being selected by Robert Drewe!

He commented that some anthologies include “slabs of novels … which goes against the whole point of short story collections.” I have certainly seen that. It’s seems fine if it’s a story that the author later develops into a novel, but to excerpt a novel feels a bit suss to me. However, I don’t want to be absolutist about this because there are always exceptions, n’est-ce pas?

Then, of course, there’s that other question we readers all love, his favourite writers. Drewe’s include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Helen Garner, and Peter Temple. You can see a few short form writers in there can’t you?

Another behind-the-scenes question concerned judging literary awards. It’s not so hard, he said, to choose shortlists, but choosing the winner is something else:

I generally tend to go for the imaginative ones, the ones that strike me as being less like another story than I’ve read before. The more original, the better, really.

A good rule-of-thumb, methinks, though a risky one. It can result in the selection of books that many readers won’t like, and the work may not stand the test of time. But, if award-winners don’t push boundaries, where are we? We need brave judges.

I did say I’d pass by discussing his writing process, but I’ll conclude with a selection of first lines from The bodysurfers which exemplify his comment that “you owe it to the reader to engross them”:

“My father wasn’t in his element in party hats”. (“The manageress and the mirage”)

“It was possibly lucky my mother didn’t marry her first fiancé because he ended up in Fremantle prison”. (“The silver medallist”)

“The murders took the gloss off it.” (“The bodysurfers”)

Would these lines make you want to read on?

Previous Spotlight posts:

Annette Marfording
Celebrating Australian writing: Conversations with Australian authors
Self published, 2015
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.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Georgia Blain

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
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.


Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Larissa Behrendt

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

This is the fourth 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 an indigenous author to coincide with Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Indigenous Literature Week.

Larissa Behrendt is the perfect subject for what is also NAIDOC Week, not only because she has a few books under her belt, but also because her new book published earlier this year, Finding Eliza, explores how colonisers have written about indigenous people. Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman, and in her interview with Marfording describes herself as a Type A person. Looking at what she has achieved in her less that 50 years I can well believe it. She is currently Professor of Indigenous Research and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney. She has won awards for her fiction, and been on the boards of various arts organisations including the Sydney Writers Festival, Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Museum of Contemporary Art. She was the National NAIDOC Person of the Year in 2009 and NSW’s Australian of the Year in 2011. As a lawyer, she has served on many boards, review committees and land councils, most of them indigenous-related. The list is impressive.

Marfording’s interview occurred in August 2010. As she does with each of her interviews, Marfording commences with a brief biography of her subject at the time of the interview, and follows the interview with a biography update to the time of publication. It’s nicely done.

I particularly loved this interview not only because Marfording asks, as she does in all the interviews, thoughtful, relevant questions showing her understanding of the subject, but because in this interview she covers some issues of particular interest to me. More on that anon.

Marfording asked Behrendt, as she tends to ask all award-winners, what winning awards means to her. Behrendt admits that it is affirming to win an award but also says that the richest prize is when a reader tells her that a book “touched” them or that it’s “like me and I never see myself in a book”.

Some of the questions Marfording asked relate to the autobiographical nature of her work, as her two novels, Home (2004) and Legacy (2009), both draw strongly on her family, with Home looking particularly at the stolen generation issue and Legacy being more specifically about her father and her relationship with him. She said that although Home was heavily fictionalised, her father found it hard to read. “It was flattering to me as a writer,” she said, “because it meant I’d got it right.”

Marfording also questioned Behrendt about the fact that her two novels also tend to be issue-based. As a fiction reader, I loved Behrendt’s response. She said that, as a lawyer, she has advocated and written factual pieces on many of the same issues, but that

telling a story that actually explains how a policy can impact on somebody’s life so personally, telling that story from a really human point of view, can influence more people than the most eloquent legal argument, especially when you can talk to somebody through the universals that they understand, like the love between siblings, the love between parents, etc.

I love this reference to universals – to the things that bring us all together. She mentions them again later in the interview, but here I want to share her gorgeous language. She said:

I’ve got very strong opinions, and I think it was a real learning process to learn that sometimes it’s through the whisper of a story that you can influence people more than through the louder, shouting style of activism.

There were other questions too, but I want to conclude on two that focused on her as an indigenous writer, one on labelling, and the other on the issue of non-indigenous people writing about indigenous people (which, as you know, I’ve raised here a few times).

Regarding labelling, Behrendt described it as a complex question. While she has no problem being identified as an indigenous writer, she said it can become problematical when writers are pigeonholed. For example, at the Byron Bay Writers Festival she was invited on a panel discussing “fathers”, a panel that recognised the diversity of perspectives, but in many festivals indigenous writers are lumped together on a panel about indigenous writing. She said that:

What we like to say is that within our writing – and I think that’s true of every Aboriginal author – there are universal themes about family, about love, about betrayal, about hurt, about anger and jealousy, and these are the things that actually unite us.

It’s a problem, in other words, when indigenous authors are seen to be writing only about indigenous subjects. Love it. The comment reminded me of Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light (my review) in which some of the stories didn’t focus on or clarify race or ethnicity of the characters. They were just about people. For Behrendt, any story – whether the focus is an indigenous issue or not – is, essentially, about universals.

Larissa Behrendt, Finding ElizaAnd finally, that issue about non-indigenous writers writing on indigenous people. Again Behrendt is thoughtful rather than dogmatic. She says she’s always interested in how non-indigenous people portray indigenous people – hence, obviously, Finding Eliza – but that it’s difficult for them to do it authentically because they don’t know enough about Aboriginal life and culture. The reverse is a little different because Aboriginal people are “so bombarded with the dominant culture”. She identifies some writers who have not done it well – albeit she respects their hearts – and then names some who have impressed her. Kate Grenville in The secret river is one. Grenville, she says, doesn’t try an Aboriginal point of view. Instead

through using her non-indigenous characters, by showing their ignorance, their violence, their sense of entitlement, their fear, she tells a very strong story about Aboriginal experience. You read her book and you know exactly what it was like for Aboriginal people.

Grenville talks in Searching for The secret river about the issue of presenting the indigenous perspective. It was something she thought carefully about. Nice to see she’s been vindicated, in the eyes of Behrendt anyhow. The other effective portrayal she offers is Liam Davison’s The white woman. (Davison was tragically killed in the MH-17 disaster, and Lisa reviewed The white woman, as well as his other novels, as a tribute to him.) Behrendt says that Davison tells the story of massacres in Gippsland but relates

the story from the perspective of somebody who goes out as part of those hunting parties, and by getting into the psyche of the kind of person that can actually commit the most brutal aspects of a colonisation of a land, he tells a very strong story about Aboriginal people.

So, while she doesn’t see it as a no-go zone for non-indigenous writers, she does believe that the level of ignorance makes it a difficult challenge.

Another great interview with a writer who’s been in my list of must-reads for a long time. I’ll be starting soon with a short story. Watch this space.

Previous Spotlight posts:

Annette Marfording
Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors
Self published, 2015
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.


Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Charlotte Wood

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

This is the third in my occasional series of Spotlight posts inspired by Annette Marfording’s Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors. (See the end of this post for links to the first two.) Since Charlotte Wood won this year’s Stella Prize, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction (NSW Premier’s Literary Awards), and has just been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award for her latest novel The natural way of things, who better to choose for my third post.

Charlotte Wood is no stranger to awards. She has written five novels to date, and each of them has won or been shortlisted for awards, which is a pretty impressive achievement. She has also written a non-fiction work on food, Love and hunger, and edited an anthology, Brothers & sisters. Oh, and she has numerous essays, and newspaper and journal articles under her belt too. She is about to publish another book, The Writer’s Room, which will contain interviews with Australian writers selected from the digital magazine of the same name that she edited for three years.

And this makes a good place to segue to Annette Marfording’s interview with her, which took place back in 2010. Marfording’s first question was about awards. Wood indicated that she was “anti-awards” and that the book she thought was her best, The children (at that time she’d published three novels), had received the least notice in awards listings. She says:

I guess it’s easy when you’ve been shortlisted a couple of times to start dismissing it, but the whole prize culture is kind of damaging to literature, I think. It turns books into a horserace and it’s not good for writers and it’s not good for writing either.

This is not an uncommon view, and I do understand her point. The arts are not something that can be objectively measured like, say, a 50m freestyle swim or a high jump, but the money and recognition can, on the other hand, be very helpful to careers, particularly, I suspect, early ones. Wood admits that the money is useful, and can help writers keep writing.

Charlotte Wood (Courtesy: Wendy McDougall)

Charlotte Wood (Courtesy: Wendy McDougall)

Marfording then asks Wood about some of the ideas that recur in her novels – family, and abuse and violence. Regarding family, Wood says that it’s because “the intensity of human relationships plays out so well in families”. She doesn’t think that abuse and violence are strong themes – in those first three books – though agrees that there’s an abusive relationship in Pieces of a girl, and there is psychological warfare in her books. As she says “A story without any friction is not a story.” True!

Some questions naturally come up in most interviews with writers – recurrent themes being one. Another relates to the writing process, use of research, drawing from other people’s lives, and so on. Marfording asked Wood about these as well. Regarding her process, Wood said that “I start writing and see what happens”. She doesn’t plan, so sometimes the shape of the book comes quickly, other times not so. She doesn’t do a lot of research she says, but may check out the odd specific thing.

And then of course there’s that issue of writing from the perspective of other, such as a male point of view. Wood said that she used to worry about this, but her view is that, despite gender, we are not all that different in the way we think. So, she tries to avoid focusing on the physical issues – which are different – and keeps instead to the mental space.

They also discussed her writing, which is often described as “lyrical”. Wood says that with more experience she had become “sparer”, that at first she was “so lyrical that it kind of made you throw up”. Imagery, it seems, comes easily to her. In this she reminded me of Thea Astley who also found imagery easy and did put some readers off. She too became a little more spare in her later years, though perhaps not to the degree that Wood describes herself doing. Wood talks of actively focusing on character, plot and structure, and balancing that with her interest in language and lyricism.

Other topics discussed included the anthology, Brothers & sisters that she edited, and the place of short fiction in Australia. Re the latter, Wood said she felt things were improving, with new works by Cate Kennedy, Paddy O’Reilly, Robert Drewe, Tony Birch and Nam Le recently appearing. Wood says that:

a short story is perceived as a step to a novel, and there is nothing less true. I find them so hard to write that I hardly ever write them.

The interview concludes with some discussions about the “business end” of writing – publishing, editing and writing courses – topics which always interest me, even though I have no plans to write a novel, memoir or any other book!

A question they didn’t really cover, but which was asked by Booktopia in their Q&A with her in 2011, was which writers she admires. She tells them:

I admire any writer who has the courage to push through the barriers of ambition and vanity to get to the real thing – truth and beauty. Some of the best writers I know are struggling to get published, but they keep going because they are real artists. For the same reasons – truth and beauty – I respect and admire Alice Munro, Helen Garner, Anne Enright, Marilynne Robinson, Kim Scott, Richard Ford, Joan London, William Maxwell and Nina Bawden, among others.

What a lovely range of writers – they give a great sense of her writerly values don’t they?

Wood comes across as calm and level-headed – and I have heard other writers say that she’s generous in mentoring others. I have decided that my next book has to be The natural way of things.

Previous Spotlight posts:

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

Note: All profits from the sale go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. You can purchase the book from its distributor,


Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on David Malouf

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

A couple of weeks ago I published the first of a number of posts which I’m planning to write using Annette Marfording’s Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors as starting point. That post was on the first interview in the book, Robert Dessaix. I decided that my second post would be on one of my favourite Aussie writers – you could call him one of our grand men of letters – David Malouf. And then last week I heard that Malouf had won the 2016 Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature – for his 55 years (55 years!) in literature. A most apposite coincidence!

The impressive thing about Malouf is that he has written in multiple forms – novels, short stories, poetry, essays, memoir and even libretti – and he has been critically acclaimed in all. Most of his work that I’ve read, I read before I started blogging, though I did review his latest novel, Ransom, here. It was published in 2009. Since then he has primarily published poetry, essays and short stories.

I haven’t read all of Malouf’s novels, but I’ve read a good number, starting with his first autobiographical novel, Johnno. It’s set in Brisbane where he grew up (and where my Mum spent her youth after moving there when she was 5, and where I spent 6 years of my childhood!), though his youth – incorporating World War II – is well before mine. To say that I enjoyed the book would be an understatement.

However, my favourite two of his are Fly away Peter (which I often buy for or recommend to people asking about Australian literature) and The conversations at Curlow Creek. This latter, for some reason, gets less press than most of his other novels. I’ve also read An imaginary lifeRemembering Babylon and, of course, Ransom. In other words, I’ve read his first three novels and his last three (to date), but not the three in the middle!

Now Marfording’s interview. She starts by asking him about awards, of which he has won many. I liked his response that

it’s more important to be on the shortlist in some ways because who then comes out of the shortlist as the winner is a bit of a lottery.

Of course, the money attached to prizes is very useful – it often means the ability to keep on writing – but in terms of what awards mean, Malouf makes an important point.

She then talks about translation, because Malouf’s books have been well-received overseas and many have been translated into multiple languages. Malouf’s response gets to the heart, really, of my concern about reading books in translation:

And really, what the translator is doing is not just carrying the book over from one language to another, but recreating that book in another language.

Re-creating, yes. Still, it’s better than his books not being available to others at all.

She asks him about Patrick White. I found his answers again spot on in terms of my understanding of White’s place in our literary culture. He says that White achieved two things that have paved the way for writers after him. One is that White showed that “an Australian life could be of significance” and not just in Australia but more generally. The other is that

he made it possible for you to write a novel in which the major interest was the interior, not really on action, but on what was going on in people’s heads.

David Malouf reading Ransom

Malouf reading Ransom, National Library of Australia, August 2009

And this is exactly how much of Malouf’s fiction reads. The conversations … for example is about the conversations that occur between a military officer and an arrested bushranger who is to be executed in the morning. It’s about the connections made between the captor’s reflections on his own life and the condemned man’s concerns about death, God and forgiveness. It is such a quiet, mesmerising and deeply humane book.

Marfording and Malouf talk about Ransom, his latest book at the time of the interview, and his writing style and practice. They also talk about his main themes. Marfording suggests that “being an outsider – a foreigner or someone in exile” is one, and that family is another. Malouf says that

family is the first little society, a little mirror of society … but family is also reflective of the larger society we live in, and then families are – as far as I have observed – the greatest repository of secrets, and secrets are always what writers are interested in.

Secrets. Yes, I can see what he means.

A theme that I see in his work relates to travel and transition – again, like outsiders and secrets, not unusual for a writer! He starts his essay “The traveller’s tale” (originally published in 1992) with “One of the first stories we tell is the story about leaving home”, and argues that:

The story moves us so deeply because it touches our lives at the two extremes of our experience, the moment when we leave our mother’s body and the moment when we must leave our own, but it speaks as well for the daily business of going out into the world – to hunt or on a war party or simply to see what is there – and then the return to the homeland or hearth.

Our two men – the policeman and the bushranger – in The conversations … travelled to Australia from Ireland, then find themselves, in the 1820s, at a critical point in both their lives. Priam travels with Somax to Achilles’ camp in Ransom on an inspired errand. The characters in Fly away Peter go overseas to take part in World War 1, and one doesn’t return. In Remembering Babylon, a young British cabin boy lands in the far north of Australia and is taken in by Aboriginal people, and doesn’t return to the European world until 16 years later. In Malouf’s very first novel Johnno, the narrator returns home to bury his father, and in the process remembers, and reconsiders, his youth and his childhood friend Johnno. And so on … Malouf himself has lived overseas for large “chunks” of his life. He is clearly very familiar with what it means to move to-and-fro between “home” and new places – physically, spiritually and psychologically.

Whenever I think of Malouf, I feel a sense of well-being, because I know I can trust that whatever he says or writes will be considered, humane, and well-worth giving time to.

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

Note: All profits from the sale go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. You can purchase the book from its distributor,


Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Robert Dessaix

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Last year, I published a guest post by Annette Marfording, who was, for many years, the Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival. At the time of this post, she had just self-published her book, Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, containing a selection of interviews she’d conducted over many years with a wide range of Australian writers. Rather than review it, I’ve decided to use it for an occasional series within Monday Musings. I won’t be quoting large slabs of the text, or giving away all the content of the interviews. Besides the fact that that would break her copyright, I’d like to see people buy the book because not only is it a good read but Marfording is generously donating the profits (see the end of the post). My plan is to use Marfording’s interviews to springboard brief discussions about some writers who interest me. OK?

I won’t necessarily discuss my selected authors in the same order as Marfording’s book, but I am starting with the first author, Robert Dessaix. I haven’t reviewed Dessaix here because I haven’t completed any of his books since I started blogging. However, I have read his first book, the critically acclaimed memoir A mother’s disgrace (1994). I’ve also dipped into other books, including his collection of essays and articles As I was saying (2012), and I have enjoyed his thoughtful, engaging contributions on language to ABC RN’s old Lingua Franca program. He also presented, for many years until 1995, ABC’s Books and Writing program. Language and literature, as you’ve probably gathered, are his passion

So, who is Robert Dessaix? Wikipedia describes him as a novelist, essayist and journalist, but it would probably be more correct to call him an essayist, memoirist, journalist and novelist, because novels – of which he’s written two – form the smallest part of his output. He reminds me, in this regard, of writers like Drusilla Modjeska and Helen Garner (though Garner does have a good number of novels under her belt as well as other writing.) Anyhow, for a better bio than that provided by Wikipedia, it’s worth checking out his own website. He was born in Sydney, adopted as a young child, and was married, but now lives with a male partner. Much of this story is told in A mother’s disgrace. Here is an example of his writing from that book:

There’s something deeply comforting, after all, about the promise of a linear narrative: birth, school, university, marriage, family, career, onwards, upwards … the autumnal years a bit misty, perhaps, the phut as the fuse runs out, best not thought about too graphically but on the whole not a bad way to live out a sequence of years. The trouble is that, once you’ve set out on that alluringly straight track, it’s hard to swerve off it or come to a standstill. It’s hard to live what I’d call swoopingly.

I have tried to swoop and veer. I didn’t have the wit to veer away from marriage, I had to be sent packing. But I did curve away from teaching Russian literature to university students into working at the Stables Theatre in Kings Cross and then in radio, I did swerve sharply away from Canberra to experiment with being a Sydneysider again, I did deviate (after a messy start) from the heterosexual straight and narrow to try more fulfilling, multifaceted ways of loving …

But now, to Marfording’s interview. Marfording clearly researches her subjects and asks questions specifically relevant to each of her interviewees, rather than rely on a standard set of questions. She talked to him about some of his specific writings of course, and a bit about his writing practice. She also talked with him about travel, which features in much of his writing. He has some interesting things to say about what he looks for in travel, and how that has changed over time. What he now looks for, he tells Marfording, is conversation. It’s also one of the topics in As I was saying. He writes:

‘The grand business of our lives,’ the novelist Henry Fielding said, ‘the foundation of everything, either useful or pleasant’ is conversation. It’s quite a claim. His contemporary Samuel Johnson was hardly less emphatic: ‘There is in this world,’ he said, ‘no real delight (excepting those of sensuality) but the exchange of ideas in conversation.’ They were eighteenth century English gentlemen, so their enthusiasm is not surprising: the eighteenth century was the heyday of conversation in England …

He goes on to discuss those with opposing views. The Hebrews, he suggests, cared little for conversation, neither did Jean-Jacques Rousseau who saw it as “frivolous”, and Presbyterianism, he writes, “has never been good for animated intercourse”. He concludes by analysing the art of conversation then and now – but that’s a discussion for another day, because …

The part of the interview that particularly interested me stemmed from his contribution to the Little Books on Big Themes series (from which I’ve reviewed Dorothy Porter’s On passion). Dessaix chose his topic – On humbug! I enjoyed this section of the interview because it got into discussing truth and facts. He shares two of his epigraphs. For A mother’s disgrace, he used a line from Jeanette Winterson, “I’m telling you stories, trust me”, and for Arabesques, it was “When I invent things, it is to make the truth clearer”. He explains:

I try to distinguish between fact and truth […] things can be broadly speaking true without being absolutely factual, if you know what I mean.

Yes, I do, Robert! Marfording then questions him about his review of Helen Garner’s The spare room, a raw novel based on her experience with a friend who had terminal cancer. Dessaix, and he wasn’t the only one, said that it shouldn’t be described as fiction because it’s based on fact. Yet, Marfording questions, putting him on the spot, Dessaix’s own novel Night letters is also based on his life. Dessaix’s answer is that his was “partly fictionalised” and that he “changed the order”, implying that Garner hadn’t. Indeed he suggests that she simply publishes her notebooks and that “she should come out and admit what she does”. Hmm … all this said, the  interview does conclude with Dessaix talking about his favourite books and writers:

I do actually love Helen Garner’s writing; I love Michelle de Kretser’s writing, The Hamilton case and The lost dog; I was very taken with Thea Astley at the time, I mean I haven’t read her for years, but I just read book after book of Thea Astley’s …

His very favourite books, though, are the 19th century Russians.

Dessaix is an interesting, erudite – dare I suggest, Renaissance – man who’s well worth reading. Thanks to Marfording for an excellent interview.

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

Note: All profits from the sale go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. You can purchase the book from its distributor,


Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post by Annette Marfording of the Bellingen Writers Festival

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Having been intrigued by comments made by Annette Marfording, Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, about running a literary festival, I approached her about writing a guest post for my blog. I thought her experience might intrigue at least some of my readers here too.

Marfording chairs one-on-one conversations and panels at the Festival, and is also a broadcaster at Bellingen’s community radio station 2bbb fm for which she created a monthly program on Australian writers and their work. Marfording’s recently published book, Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors, is based on in-depth interviews broadcast on this program. All profits from the sale of the book will go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. What a generous gesture! I have bought a copy of this book, which includes writers like David Malouf, Cate Kennedy and Larissa Berendt. You can too at

Now, here’s Annette’s post …

Some time ago, Sue asked me as Program Director of the Bellingen Writers Festival (full name Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival) to do a guest post for her wonderful blog on the joys and challenges of organising a writers’ festival. I’m delighted to do so.

This year the Bellingen Writers Festival (full name Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival) had its fifth birthday. In the period since our first in 2011, there’s been an explosion of new literary festivals all around Australia. With the exception of big city specialised sub-festivals, such as the Sydney Jewish Writers’ Festival and its Festival of Speculative Fiction, and some school or suburb festivals, such as the Abbotsleigh Literary Festival and the Sutherland Shire Writers’ Festival, most of the new festivals are in small regional towns and not specialised in any particular genre. Even though not all of them survive (for example the Gloucester Writers Festival), at the time of writing there are at least nine such regional festivals in New South Wales alone in addition to the big ones: the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival and the Newcastle Writers Festival.

On the one hand, this proliferation of festivals is wonderful for readers and book sales and demonstrates that the book is not dead. On the other, for several reasons, it is cause for concern:

  1. All these festivals compete for government grants and sponsorships.
  2. They also compete for authors, and understandably authors tend to prefer the greater publicity and book sales associated with the big festivals. Our invitations are often declined on the grounds that the author is overseas at the time/wants to concentrate on her/his next book/can’t possibly attend every writers’ festival in the country.
  3. Several of the festivals are scheduled in winter, enhancing the competition for authors during those months.
  4. Sadly these difficulties are compounded when other regional festivals choose to schedule theirs at the exact same time as another, as the newer Batemans Bay Writers Festival did with the Bellingen Writers Festival. Thus two of the authors we had invited appeared in Batemans Bay instead. Similarly it is confronting to find that other regional festivals have copied your advertising slogan, as the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival in Bowral did with their adoption of ‘Be a part of the story‘ (in comparison to Bellingen’s ‘Be part of the story.’

Even if there were only one literary festival in the country, organising a festival is not for the faint hearted. The large festivals attract big money from government agencies and sponsors while the smaller ones have to make do with far less. That usually means that large festivals have a large number of paid staff, while the smaller ones tend to be organised and run by volunteers.

In Bellingen all festival committee members work as unpaid volunteers, which means they have to be brimming with passion and enthusiasm for there is a lot of work to be done: books must be read, authors and chairs selected and invited, contracts drawn up, funding applied for, sponsorship sought, venues booked, an experienced bookseller chosen, transport and accommodation organised, possibly a schools program organised, the program put together and proof-read multiple times for print and website, newsletters written for the website, social media and print publicity employed to spread the word. For the event itself, you need an event producer/organiser, sound engineers, microphones for all venues and multiple speakers, additional volunteers and an organiser for those volunteers. After each festival there are clean-up tasks, author payments and accounting to be done. Over the five years we have lost several festival committee members due to burn-out or the need for an income-generating job. We have also gained a few new ones each year, but they don’t always stay. Only four members have been involved since the beginning.

Government funding bodies often demand the introduction of a new aspect or theme for each year’s festival. For 2013 the Bellingen Writers Festival chose Celebrating Women Writers and Women’s Stories, because 2012 marked the beginning of a conversation about gender in literary culture. In 2013 the Stella Literary Award was awarded for the first time. As the readers of this blog may remember, a number of women authors, critics and publishers pushed for the introduction of an award for women writers after women had been left off the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Fiction for two years in a row. Another response was the creation of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge. For 2015 the Bellingen Writers Festival chose Politics and Society and attracted a number of politicians, journalists, screenwriters and fiction writers exploring social issues and added three forums on mental health issues with Professor of Psychiatry Gordon, clinical psychologist David Roland and author of Australia’s first memoir on youth suicide Missing Christopher Jayne Newling.

Festival visitors often don’t realise that authors need to be paid not only for their transport costs and accommodation, but also earn a fee for every festival appearance (in accordance with standards set by the Australian Society of Authors). In small regional towns such as Bellingen, where small businesses often struggle, it is very difficult to attract sponsorship from local businesses, especially since Bellingen hosts several music festivals as well. Government grants are difficult to obtain on a recurring basis, especially in these times of funding cuts to the arts. This means that smaller festivals become ever more reliant on ‘big name’ authors to attract visitors prepared to pay for tickets. The further away authors live from the festival location, the higher the authors’ transport costs. This means that authors who live on the other side of Australia, in Tasmania, let alone the US, are unaffordable for the Bellingen Writers Festival.

I think it’s obvious from the above that the challenges are formidable. The joys of organising a writers’ festival require far fewer words, but nevertheless win in the end for those who are engaged and passionate about reading and/or writing. The joys of introducing favourite authors to new readers, observing the audience’s enthusiastic faces, rapt attention, and long queues for books and autographs. Even better if the authors have a good time, too, and in Bellingen, they always do. For me personally, involvement in the festival has also made it easier to interview some of the authors in my recently released book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Writers which has sold 80 copies in the first two weeks – to the benefit of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which will receive all the profits from the sale.


Thanks so much Annette for this wonderful behind-the-scenes insight into running a festival. Readers like me owe a big debt to people like you who are willing to undertake the hard yakka of putting on a regional festival. I wish I lived closer to Bellingen!