In conversation with Craig Silvey

I understand that literary conversation events in Canberra go best when the subject is political. I guess it’s the nature of the beast – that is, of living in the national capital. But for me, it’s the fiction writers that I want to see, and we do get some interspersed amongst the run of historians and journalists that we get. Even so, it’s been three years since I attended an ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event, due partly to the pandemic which halted the program for a while and partly because I have a pretty full dance card. However, Mondays are often free, so Mr Gums and decided to check out Craig Silvey. I’ve only read his best-selling Jasper Jones (my review) but that’s because you can’t read everything. I would like have read Honeybee. Tonight’s focus, though, was his latest novel, Runt.

The conversation was conducted by local author Irma Gold, who is no stranger to this blog. She’s always good in the interviewer’s chair, being both warm in manner and astute about writing – and so it proved again tonight.

The conversation

After MC Colin Steele did the usual introductions, Irma took over and introduced Silvey and the book we were there to hear about. Runt is, she said, a middle-grade children’t book. It features a solitary girl, Annie, with a penchant for fixing things, and the dog, Runt that she befriends. Irma found Runt a heart-warming book, which was lovely to read to her 11-year-old son. She believes it is destined to become a children’s classic. It would, both she and Colin Steele said, make an excellent Christmas gift. What a shame our grandson is only 4.

Irma Gold and Craig Silvey, 2022, ANU

After some light-hearted banter with Craig about a Fremantle biscuit artist – who knew? – Irma got down to business. Noting that Runt represents a new audience for Craig – that middle-grade age – she asked what his favourite book/s had been as a child. Craig replied that he’d been a voracious reader as a child. (Show me an author who wasn’t!) He loved a range of books, including those traditional classics like Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books, but then he made some points that were specific to him. For example, he liked books that made him feel things, and named a short story by Paul Jennings titled “Busker”. It was the first story, he said, that made him cry. Another favourite was Goodnight Mr Tom, which elicited sounds of agreement from the audience, and which, he later realised, might have partly inspired Honeybee.

He also liked books that made him laugh, and he mentioned Roald Dahl, Paul Jennings again, and the James Herriot vet series.

After this, there was some discussion of Runt, which is set in the perfectly named country town of Ups and Downs. There are Annie and Runt of course, and some villains, including the farmer, Earl, who is also a collector. One of the things he collects is water! Earl is buying up farms to get the water, and wants Annie’s family’s farm. The plot revolves around Annie’s plans to save the farm. There was more chat about the story and the characters, which include the wonderfully named 13-year-old Fergus Fink, and then we moved onto setting and themes.

Irma noted that Craig had grown up on an orchard in a small country town, and asked whether this had inspired Runt. Craig responded that the novel was an “affectionate love letter to country life“. He loves country people – their use of understatement, and their dry humour – and the country makes for great fiction settings because it is “exposed to the whims of elemental forces”.

This led to a discussion about the relevance of climate change to the book. Craig observed that water policy and climate change are putting people under pressure, and that villain Earl’s avarice is boundless. There are subtle messages in the book, including the fact that people are more important than hoarding/collecting things!

Irma commented that Runt is very different to Honeybee, but it does encompass diversity. Craig responded that he writes about Australians in Australia, and that we are a diverse country. Irma then said that the book had a contemporary setting but a very classic feel. Craig replied that he wanted classical elements underpinning his text but that, for example, a 13-year-old boy’s aspiration now would be to be a YouTube star. Of course!

From here Irma turned to screenplays, because each of Craig’s books have or are being adapted to film, with Craig also writing the screenplays. There was discussion about the screenplay writing process, and how Craig, “wrote them sort of together”. Film development for Runt is already underway, with production possibly starting next year.

Craig had some interesting things to say about writing screenplays versus novels. There are rigidities to screenwriting that you don’t have in novel writing, he said. The screenplay format can be too restrictive to let your creativity fly, so he enjoys novel writing, but, conversely, writing screenplays reins him in as a novelist, which has benefits.

Irma’s next question concerned publishing and the fact that Craig has been published for 20 years now. How has publishing changed? Interesting question, responded Craig. For him, the biggest change is in the post-publishing aspect. Back in 2004 when his first novel, Rhubarb, was published, we were not as “connected” so you had no idea what was happening with your book. Now, with social media, you get immediate recognition and can see what is happening. Reviewing is democratised and it is “a really beautiful thing”, he said. (As a blogger, I appreciated this.)

Publishing, itself, though is still painful. You take this tender part of yourself and you expose it to the world. So, while his success means that he no longer has to do the “shitty jobs” he had to do when he was 19 and writing Rhubarb, in terms of writing, he still faces the blank page with the same uncertainty. This is essential, though, to being a writer: you need to “straddle the pain and struggle” but you need also to balance it with hope and pride. Such a mentally healthy attitude.

On whether he was always going to be a writer, Craig talked about meeting his first writer, Glyn Parry, at school, when he was 14. He realised, suddenly that writers were human beings and it could be a vocation. He wrote to Parry, and got some great advice: “Don’t become a writer, be a writer”. Craig didn’t go to university. Instead, he did menial jobs and read and read – and “forensically examined novels.”

After a delightful little interlude discussing his career as an electric ukelele player in a band called the Nancy Sykes (inspired by Dickens, of course). During the band’s short life, they apparently played Shaun Tan’s bride down the aisle! A little later in the interview there was another fun interlude, this time about his being a finalist in Cleo’s Bachelor of the Year contest and being described as “the thinking woman’s buttered crumpet”. It was an entertaining story, but I’m not going to spoil it just in case you get to a launch and hear it yourself. Instead, back to the writerly life.

Irma asked Craig whether he enjoyed book tours, and the response was immediate. He loves it and is deeply grateful to anyone who comes out to hear him. Novelists lead bifurcated lives. They tease stories out of themselves, then release them to the audience at which point they become each reader’s to appreciate and define. He said most authors, like himself, feel profoundly empty when they finish a book, but engaging with readers fills him back up again.


These sessions are always well-run, resulting, always, in time for a Q&A. There were some excellent questions. Canberra didn’t let Irma down!

On getting the voice of a teenager, and whether he sees hope in younger people: Craig said that he has gravitated to teenage protagonists (though Annie is I think pre-teen), because everything is amplified at that age. The bubble your parents keep you in is pierced and you start to recognise the truth of things. It’s a time of profound change, when you start to define who you are, where you’re going. He likes to pair his protagonist with something opposite that can provide the catalyst for change. As for hope, he said that Runt‘s protagonist Annie’s hope is infectious. She inspires change, kindness, generosity, hope.

On diversity and the challenge of writing characters outside his own experience: (This would have been my question if I hadn’t been taking notes and had to get up and go to a microphone!) Craig responded that the further his character is from his own experience, the more responsible he feels. His practice is to connect with the appropriate community, as he did with the trans community for Honeybee. I loved Craig’s response to this question. He had three rules of thumb for writing ethically: do no harm; your purpose must have merit; and execute properly. Ethical writing is something we must discuss, he said. Responding to a follow-up question on Honeybee, he said that while the trans character doesn’t announce herself at the beginning, it was clear to all audiences that she was trans. His writing was informed by the trans community. The risks trans people take in disclosing themselves means that his character would not have announced their trans nature immediately. His character Sam is slow to trust, which is true.

On film adaptations and how he feels about giving over control: Craig said that he has screenwriter all his novels which partly answers the question! However, filmmaking, he continued, is a vastly collaborative process which is the opposite of writing a novel. He said that seeing Jasper Jones brought the screen was one of the most extraordinary moments of his life. It’s a communal artistic pursuit, and the result can be something larger than you are capable of conceiving on your own.

Irma closed by reiterating that Runt was a “really beautiful book” and that Craig had been compared to Roald Dahl. That is an accolade worth having. Having not read the book, I can’t say whether I agree or not, but I can say that Craig came across as a genuinely positive yet thoughtful and serious-minded person, and that Irma did a great job of bringing it all out. Thoroughly enjoyable – and there should have been more people there!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
10 October 2022
Podcast available at SoundCloud

Stan Grant in conversation with Mark Kenny

Who could resist a conversation involving Australian journalist, author and academic, Stan Grant? Not many, it seems, which is why this ANU/The Canberra Times conversation event was held in a bigger venue than usual, Llewellyn Hall, and just as well, because the audience was indeed bigger than usual. Such is the drawcard of Stan Grant – whose Talking to my country I reviewed in 2017.

Book coverThis conversation, with Australian journalist and academic Mark Kenny, coincided with the publication of Grant’s new book Australia Day and his essay On identity.

After MC Colin Steele did the usual introductions, Kenny took over, introducing himself and Grant, whom he called an “all-round truth-seeker”. Grant is an articulate, confident, erudite speaker who peppers his arguments with the ideas of many writers and philosophers. There’s no way – my not being a short-hand trained journalist – that I could record all that he said, so I’m going to focus on a few salient points, and let you read the books or research Grant for more!

On Identity

Grant’s analysis of the current “identity” situation made complete sense to Mr Gums and me. He said, essentially, that identity (of whatever sort) is problematic when it becomes exclusive, when it reduces us to those things that define a particular identity and intrudes on our common humanity. At its worst it can trap us into a toxicity which pits us against each other. This sort of identity can make the world “flammable”.

On Justice

This is a tricky one, and I could very well be layering my own values and preferences onto it, but I think Grant aligns himself with people like Desmond Tutu for whom forgiveness, leading to a “higher” peace, was the real goal rather than justice, per se. (It’s all about definitions though isn’t it?) It’s one thing, Grant suggested, to feel righteous indignation, but quite another to desire vengeance. Grant talked about inhaling oxygen into the blood, not the poison of resentment.

On Liberal democracy

The strongest message of the conversation, as I heard it anyhow, concerned Grant’s belief in the fundamental value of liberal democracy as the best system we have for organising ourselves, albeit he recognises that it’s currently under threat (and not just in Australia). In supporting liberal democracy, which came out of the Enlightenment, Grant does not minimise the hurts and losses of indigenous Australians under this system. However, he argues there are solutions within its tenets. I hope I don’t sound simplistic when I say that I found this both reassuring (because I sometimes wonder about our democracy) and encouraging (because it was good to hear some articulate so clearly why he believes liberal democracy has got what we need).

His aim in this latest book of his, Australia Day, was, he said, not to look at indigenous issues in isolation but within a broader context. The conversation spent quite a bit of time teasing out what this actually meant.

Grant made a few clear points:

  • we have a problem when a liberal democratic state refuses to recognise its own history. In Australia we are still living with the legacy of our history, and are facing the challenge of marrying this with Australia’s founding principle, the liberating idea of freedom.
  • the Uluru Statement from the Heart was, fundamentally, indigenous Australians stating that they want to be part of this nation; it conveyed an active choice to be part of a nation that had done them wrong; it represents, and this is my interpretation of what he said, a faith and trust in the nation and its liberal democratic processes. For Grant, the Statement represents the foundational idea of a liberal democracy. Grant then spent some time articulating the flawed arguments used to reject the Voice to Parliament. He argued that the rejection was more than a failure of imagination, courage, and politics. It represented a lack of understanding of the system we are founded upon.
  • the problem in Australia is that there are some extreme minorities who refuse to engage in our liberal democracy.
  • nations are not static – just ask the Balkans, he said! – they come and go. What defines them are not borders but story, a shared story. What is Australia’s story? Part of it is that we are a liberal democracy, but this democracy is being threatened, here and elsewhere, by the increase in the politics of identity which tears at the fabric of nation.

Detail of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam

Detail, Michelangelo, The creation of Adam (Public domain)

A key question he said is whether a liberal democracy can deliver on its promises. Among the many philosophers he referenced was Hegel whose idea of “becoming” Grant likes. He talked about Michelangelo’s painting of The creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel, and the fact that the fingers don’t meet. We all live in this space, he said. It’s a powerful image. He believes that “unfettered liberalism can erode community”, and that liberalism is currently failing to deal with fruits of its own success. It works well in an homogenous state, but most states are not homogenous. Resolving this is modern liberalism’s challenge.

On Australia Day (January 26)

I have heard Grant on this before, but I enjoyed hearing it teased out more in this forum. On January 26, 1788, the idea of the Australian nation was planted, and this idea encompassed the ideas of the Enlightenment (albeit, he admitted when question by Kenny, the colony didn’t look much like it in those early days). This day, he says, holds all that we are and all that we are not. It also means something for all of us, indigenous and non-indigenous. For him, the day is about considering, recognising, exploring who we are.

He argues that changing this date would hand January 26 over to white nationalists, but he applauds that the change-the-date campaign has ensured that no-one can now come to the day without knowing the issue, without knowing the angst it encompasses. Indigenous people have changed how we see this day, and we all share deeply that first injustice.

He then asserted that our right to protest that day is a rare thing – and it’s because we are a liberal democracy. Grant argued that antagonism is the life blood of the nation, that being free “to antagonise” is the fundamental principle of liberal democracy. The challenge is to hold these antagonisms in balance.

Considering how the current impasse could be resolved, he talked about ways that the day could be imbued with new significance: wouldn’t it be good if a treaty were signed on this date, or that Australia became a republic?

Returning to the idea of identity, he believes the problem is that we think first about identity rather than policy, but, he argued, powerful communities will always look after identity. What we need is good policy to fix our socio-economic burdens. And that, on this Australian election day, seems a good place to end!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
13 May 2019

Michelle Arrow in conversation with Frank Bongiorno

A few days ago, Mr Gums and I attended another ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event, this one featuring Australian historian Michelle Arrow in conversation with Australian historian Frank Bongiorno. It was an especially interesting pairing because Arrow’s book, which she is currently touring, is titled The seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia, while Frank Bongiorno wrote, just 4 years ago, The eighties: The decade that transformed Australia. So, it was a case of the Seventies facing off against the Eighties! Fortunately no blood was shed…

The conversation was introduced, as usual, by MC Colin Steele, who does a marvellous job of organising and mc-ing these events. In his intro, he told us that one of the main threads in Arrow’s book is the now well-known idea that the personal is political. This theme also ran through the conversation.

The Seventies was a big decade for me. It’s the decade in which I graduated, established my professional career, and married. It’s also the decade in which I read Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch, and when the great reformer, Gough Whitlam, came to power – and showed what a government with vision and heart could do. I must say that it is rather disconcerting to think that an era in which we were fully adult is now the subject of serious history! Such is life!

Now, the conversation …

The conversation

Michelle Arrow, The SeventiesBongiorno commenced by asking Arrow how she defined her decade. Before I share her answer, I should explain that Arrow later told us that, while Bongiorno had taken a comprehensive look at the Eighties, she had narrowed her decade’s focus to gender and sexuality. This affected how she defined the decade. So, her answer was that she took the formation of the Homosexual Law Reform Society in the ACT in 1969 as her start, and the Women Against Rape in War protests (which also originated in Canberra) of the early 1980s as her end. She noted that soon after these protests, the ANZAC narrative began to dominate our national mythology.

Bongiorno asked Arrow to describe the discourse characterising the Seventies. Arrow talked about its being a time of rapid social and economic change and, consequently, of some disarray. Feminism and Gay Rights were big issues.

The conversation then turned to the theme mentioned by Colin Steele that the personal is the political. The main example of this, Arrow explained, is feminism. Women began to realise that their personal experiences and concerns (economic and social, for example) were structurally and politically based. Formal and informal consciousness-raising groups began exploring the underlying issues. This theme also played out in the gay and lesbian rights movement: being gay was also seen as having a political component. She mentioned here the work of the early-1970s-formed group, CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution).

After this rather long introduction, we got to the core of Arrow’s book, the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. This Commission grew out of the Whitlam government’s failed attempt to reform abortion law. It was reading the fascinating personal submissions to this Commission that inspired Arrow’s book. While the Dismissal and Fraser’s election resulted in funding cuts to the Commission, bringing the Report forward and affecting the end result, the submissions themselves remain valuable.

Bongiorno noted that this Commission initiated a new role and purpose for these sorts of enquiries. Arrow agreed, explaining that it legitimated people’s stories and played a therapeutic role, both of which we still see today. (The recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a good example)

Another issue discussed was that of violence – and its appearance in the submissions. Violence also reflects “the personal is the political” theme. Corporal punishment for children, violence against women and girls, and gay bashing were all issues that played out politically. Bongiorno referred to Pierre Trudeau’s famous statement that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”. Arrow explored the paradoxical nature of this argument: homosexual people sought freedom and privacy for the expression of their sexuality, while women were seeking protection for theirs!

There was of course a discussion about the Pill and its role. I was interested, given contemporary politics, in Arrow’s comment that the liberation of the 1960s, afforded by developments like the Pill, transformed in the 1970s to concerns with identity.

Bongiorno, though, pushed on to ask about the relationship between women’s liberation and the sexual revolution. Arrow talked about researching 1970s popular culture. She read magazines like Cleo and Forum, and suggested that Cleo had a more feminist aspect underpinning its exploration of sexuality and bodily knowledge, than did Forum. She commented that “letters to the editor” were particularly informative. She shared her shock on reading a response to a letter about father-daughter incest that said it was caused by wives not satisfying their husbands. How far we have (hopefully) come!

She also looked at movies – such as Alvin Purple and Petersen – for their evocation of sex, class and gender.

The conversation concluded by discussing Whitlam, the Seventies, and whether it matters. Arrow argued that there was a particular convergence in Australia of the height of the women’s liberation movement and the election of the Whitlam government. This resulted in things like Elizabeth Reid becoming the first women’s adviser to a leader anywhere in the world, to a big government commitment to International Women’s year, to attempts to reform abortion law (still an issue today), and the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. Fraser, coming into power at the end of 1975, had to face this new infrastructure. She traces in her book what happened to women’s issues as time passed – for example, to Women’s Refuge funding made by Whitlam in 1975.

Q & A

The Q&A, though brief, demonstrated the audience’s knowledge of the Seventies! Topics included:

  •  No-fault divorce laws (the Family Law Act of 1975): Arrow agreed this was crucial social change, and it is covered in the book
  • Multiculturalism: This is mentioned in the book, but given her focus, it’s mostly in relation to migrant and indigenous women in the women’s movement, and how the movement accommodated difference.
  • Indigenous issues (Tent Embassy, Land rights, etc): Again, because of her focus, her coverage mostly relates to women. She noted that because of Indigenous people’s specific concerns, Indigenous women did not particularly feel part of the women’s movement.
  • Education: Arrow agreed that Whitlam’s opening up access to tertiary education was transformative, and that it was particularly so for middle-class women (rather than for its main intention, working class people.) This led to the rise of women’s studies in universities, and to women (as teachers) then taking their learning out to schools – proving, again, that “the personal is political”.
  • Backlash against feminism: Arrow noted PM Malcolm Fraser’s (1975-1983) “more fractious” relationship with the women’s movement, and the rise of anti-feminist groups. However, the women’s movement, she said, “opened up spaces for protest”.

Another questioner cheekily asked which decade – the 70s or 80s – was most influential, to which the replies were mutually respectful!

The final question I’ll share concerned whether “the personal is political” theme played out in other parts of the world. Arrow responded “yes, mostly in women’s movements”, but that in Australia the convergence of Whitlam with women’s movement gave it a particular flavour. She noted the significance of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships being not just about work but private life as well, and that this influenced the flavour of action in Australia.

Vote of thanks

Frank Bongiorno, The eightiesSociologist/social commentator Hugh Mackay gave an inspired vote of thanks. With a cheeky glint, he compared the subtitle of Arrow’s 70s book – “the making of modern Australia” – with that of Bongiorno’s 80s book – “the decade that transformed Australia”.

He discussed the major “revolutions” Arrow explores – women’s and gay rights. He noted that histories like Arrow’s show how rocky these were, and how far we have come. It is because of these revolutions, he suggested, that we now better understand Gender and Equality. He then talked a bit about gender and its place today – and why young women seem to feel that it, as a concept, is less relevant to the inclusive, gender-blind, world we want. However, he said, those wanting to eschew the “feminist” tag might want to read Arrow’s book to see just how rocky and difficult it’s been to get where we are today.

It was a lively and engaged encounter, and one which I’ve got even more out of by writing up!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
7 March 2019

Jane Caro in conversation with Alex Sloan

It was to the ANU’s brand new Kambri Cultural Centre that we went for this week’s ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event with Jane Caro, who is doing a book tour with her new book Accidental feminists. Kambri is not as cosy as the old venue but is bigger, more flexible, and offers a cash bar! What’s not to like? Oh, and to add to the enjoyment, there is, on the lecture theatre’s side wall, an impressive 20-metre-long Sidney Nolan mural, The Eureka Stockade, which was donated to the University by the Reserve Bank of Australia, for whom it was originally created in 1966.

Anyhow, as always MC Colin Steele started the evening off with some housekeeping and then introduced Jane Caro (who needed no introduction) and her interlocutor Alex Sloan (who needed no introduction – in Canberra, anyhow). And then we were  off …

With no beating about the bush, Sloan got stuck right in by sharing the Walkley Award judges’ comment that Caro was “an invaluable warrior for women’s rights”, and then referring to Caro’s comment on the morning’s TV show Sunrise regarding the renewed asylum-seeker/people smuggler debate. Caro said that “Australia needs to find its moral compass again” and that the scare campaigns being waged against “people who are in tragic circumstances” means we “have reached a new low in this country.” Sloan asked Caro to comment on this, particularly regarding the reactions to it.

Say what you think

It was the perfect question for Caro to explain her modus operandi. She’s not “going to play the stupid game” and hide from unpleasantness, she said. This is about morality, and she believes that “If you say what you think, and mean it genuinely, nothing bad happens.” I like this faith!

The problem, she says, is that we worry too much about what we say, and how we look. She learnt – with, she wasn’t afraid to admit, the help of therapy – that she can’t control how people respond to her, so she now just says what she wants. She’s not here, she said, to be liked or approved of. Confidence, she believes, comes from recognising this, and from realising that there is no magic formula, that risk is a reality.

Jane Caro, Accidental feministsThe conversation then moved to the main reason we were there, her book Accidental feminists. It was inspired by her discovery that women aged over 50 comprise the fastest growing group of homeless people. She was shocked because this was her age-group, a group she’d believed revolutionary because they were the first cohort to earn their own money for most of their lives. Why were they ending up in this situation?

At this point the conversation turned historical, to how things were in the 1950s to 70s:

  • many girls were discouraged from continuing their education because they’d only be working for a while and then getting married.
  • many women were suspicious of/didn’t support Women’s Libbers (Feminists today), feeling that their lives were being criticised rather than that they were being “offered new horizons.”
  • women were brought up with a sense of inferiority, of feeling lesser, something which continues today. (For example, women are still less likely to speak up in public gatherings.)

Caro quoted Hugh Mackay’s definition of feminism from his book What makes us tick?:

Feminism is the fight by one half of the human race to be taken seriously by the other half.

Sloan asked Caro, how, then, had these “accidental feminists” come about. Caro identified a few causes, which were obvious to those of us who lived through this time:

  • the Pill which “unshackled women from their reproductive system” providing them with choices never available before
  • the Whitlam government’s provision of free tertiary education, which saw more young (and in fact middle-aged middle-class) women go to university.

What about the men?

Next Sloan moved onto the role of men, quoting ACT feminist Virginia Haussegger’s suggestion that men should be seen as crucial part of the solution, not the problem. Caro agreed, suggesting that feminism, in fact, offers men, too, the opportunity to live broader, freer lives. She also said that men are starting to defend women. Hmmm, my immediate reaction was why should women need to be defended by men, but Caro second-guessed that when she went on to explain that male champions are important because they put people on notice that it’s all about being human.

A brief reference was made to the #metoo movement whose main benefit Caro suggested is that it is shattering the silence, because silence puts the vulnerable at risk.

From here the conversation covered a variety of topics. One concerned “dutiful daughters” and the fact that women tend to take on the major caring roles – for children, for parents – which interrupts their working lives. She reported Betty Friedan’s criticism of the anti-feminist group, “Women Who Want to be Woman”. Friedan pointed out that such women “are one bread-winner away from the poverty line”. Caro discussed this in some detail in the Australian context – particularly regarding women’s inability to get jobs when they are older, the gap between when they are no longer employed and are able to access the pension. She somewhat jokingly suggested that the most important financial advice for women is to “work on your marriage!” Hmmm, perhaps that’s what the “women who want to be women” think they are doing, but my, they are taking a risk.

I have just given the bare bones here. The actual conversation included several anecdotes, not to mention facts and figures, to support Caro’s arguments, but you’ll just have to take these as read I’m afraid. That sort of detail is hard to capture while trying to enjoy yourself as well!

Q & A

There was a Q&A but the session was recorded so if you are interested, do Google the event in a couple of days. Meanwhile I’ll just share a couple of the points that were made:

  • Caro hates the term “work-life” balance because she doesn’t see them as separate things. Work is part of life. Now this could lead to a whole new conversation and what “work” is and how we “value” it, and it was clear than Caro has a raft of arguments to support her view.
  • Reference was made to Julia Baird’s recent article about politicians, merit and quotas. Worth reading if you haven’t seen it.
  • Caro argue that there’s nothing wrong with preaching to the converted. If you don’t keep them on-side someone else may convert them! Further, “the converted” have a sphere of influence which they can impact if they are kept informed and on-side.
  • Caro critiqued women taking their husband’s names. Women, she said, argue they’re assertive at work but then take on a “placatory” attitude at home. Yes! I truly cannot understand why contemporary young women are regressing in this regard. It’s a small thing in one sense, but in another it feels indicative.

Finally, when asked what advice she’d give young girls, Caro said:

Look to your Super. You are not here to make someone else’s life brilliant. You do not have to perform a role. Your job is to become as fully yourself as you can.

An interesting, inspiring and, yes, entertaining conversation, that was nicely managed by Sloan who, with the professionalism she’s known for, went with the flow while also ensuring the main issues were covered.

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
18 February 2019

Monday musings on Australian literature: some Australian feminist “classics”

Jane Caro, Accidental feminists

Tonight I went to an ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author event featuring author and journalist, Jane Caro, in conversation with local radio personality and booklover, Alex Sloan. It was of course inspired by Caro’s new book, Accidental feminists. So, I thought it might be fun this Monday Musings to just list some of Australia’s best-loved feminist books – in chronological order of publication.

While I call myself a feminist, I wouldn’t call myself an expert on the history of feminist writing in Australia – and most of what I’ve read I read before blogging so I have minimal reviews here. Consequently, I don’t want to pretend to be offering anything like a complete or thorough list. Instead, this list is just a taster, a sample, an introduction to some of the best-known books and writers. (Oh and I admit up-front that I’m using the term “classic” loosely as I will be including some rather recent books which might, in time, become classics.)

Here goes:

Louisa Lawson’s The Dawn: a feminist magazine published between 1888 and 1905, The Dawn was established by feminist Louisa Lawson (under the name, Dora Falconer). It became, according to Wikipedia, the official publication of the Australian Federation of Woman voters. The journal has been digitised on Trove, and this comes from its first issue, May 15, 1888.

Every eccentricity of belief, and every variety of bias in mankind allies itself with a printing machine, and gets its singularities bruited about in type, but where is the printing-ink champion of mankind’s better half? There has hitherto been no trumpet through which the concentrated voice of womankind could publish their grievances and their opinions … Here then is Dawn, the Australian Woman’s Journal and mouthpiece – phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings and demands of the sisterhood.

Here we will give publicity to women’s wrongs, will fight their battles, assist to repair what evils we can, and give advice to the best of our ability.

Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch: first published in 1970. Reading this while still a teen was my founding feminist moment. I had been brought up believing I was equal, that I could go to university and get a job just like my brother and the boys around me, that I didn’t have to marry to live a good and enjoyable life, but Greer’s book gave me an understanding of the structural, personal, psychological issues behind the struggle women faced (and still face) to gain true equality.

Anne Summers, Damned whores and God's police

Anne Summers’ Damned whores and God’s police: first published in 1975, this book examines the two main stereotypes that are used to define women – “bad girls” who refuse to conform to society’s expectations of “the good girl”, or “good women” whose role it is to civilise society, to keep everyone else moral. Forty years on, Summers believed that, despite some progress, the stereotypes persist, and a revised edition of her best-selling book was published in 2016. Lisa (ANZlitLovers) posted on this book, focusing on the introduction to the new edition.

Jocelynne Scutt’s Different lives (ed): published in 1987, this is less a feminist treatise, than an anthology of writing by women who were active in the second wave of feminism (either formally through organisations or informally through individual action.) This is just one of feminist lawyer Scutt’s several books on feminist issues.

Dale Spender: I’ve included Spender here because of the volume of her writing on women’s issues, in the 1980s and 1990s in particular, rather than for one particular book. Her focus has largely been women writers, and their neglect. Her first book, Man-made language, analyses how the English language is constructed from a masculine point of view, and the ramifications of this. Other books include Writing a new world: Two centuries of Australian women writers and the provocatively titled The writing or the sex?, or, Why you don’t have to read women’s writing to know it’s no good. I have her Mothers of the novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen, in which, among other things, she discusses how and why the work of these early women writers has been lost while that of their male peers has entered the canon.

Tara Moss’ The fictional woman (my review): published in 2014, this explores her thesis that women’s lives and roles are subject to an inordinate number of fictions that contradict reality, and that this helps perpetuate ongoing inequalities for women in representation, status, value. I’m not sure of Moss’s longterm standing in feminist literature, but I found this an engaging read.

Clementine Ford, Fight like a girl

Clementine Ford’s Fight like a girl: published in 2016, this book belongs to the new generation of Australian feminists of whom Ford is clearly one of the frontrunners. The book’s starting point is that things have not changed for women – at least they haven’t changed enough. The book is therefore, writes Readings bookshop, “a call to arms for all women to rediscover the fury that has been suppressed by a society that still considers feminism a threat.”

There are many other Australian writers who explore aspects of women’s experience from a sociopolitical, and feminist, perspective, including Drusilla Modjeska’s Exiles at home, on Australia’s lively, fierce and often activist women writers of the 1930s; Diane Bell’s Generations on the way women pass on traditions; and Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza (on my TBR) which takes on colonialism – and how the attendant stereotypes and myths have played out in the treatment of indigenous people, particularly women, since 1788. But, I had to stop somewhere…

Now, over to you: do you have any favourite feminist texts, Australian or otherwise, you’d care to share with us?

My literary week (14), lists and a celebrity

I don’t really need to write a post today having written two in the last two days, but there are a couple of things I’d love to share with you, so here I am for the third day in a row.

Reading group schedule

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeFirst up is my reading group schedule for the first half of the next year, which we decided by consensus – with a bit of the usual argy-bargy – a few days ago. Here’s the list in the order we’ll read them:
  • Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe : strongly recommended by an ex-member (“ex” because she moved away) whose recommendations are usually spot on – and with supporting recommendation by Brother Gums whose taste is also impeccable.
  • Anita Heiss (ed), Growing up Aboriginal in Australia : for obvious reasons, and because if the University of Melbourne believes its staff should read it, then so should we!
  • Marilynne Robinson, Gilead : because many of us have been wanting to “do” Marilynne Robison for some time.
  • Amor Towles, A gentleman in Moscow : because many of us have heard good things about it.
  • Sayaka Murata, Convenience store woman : because we’d like to include more translated fiction in our reading diet and this sounded interesting.
  • Mary McCarthy, The group : our “classic”, which some have never read and others are interested to read again in our current climate.
You will of course hear more about these as 2019 progresses …

Eric Idle in conversation with Alex Sloan

Eric Idle, Always look on the bright side of lifeAs most Aussie readers will know, Monty Python member Eric Idle is currently doing the rounds in Australia promoting his book Always look on the bright side of life: A sortabiography. I’m intrigued by that subtitle given the various discussions we’ve had here recently about memoirs and biography – but I haven’t read it yet so I can’t tell you what angle, if any, Idle has taken on the biography form.

Anyhow, the event I attended was part of the ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author series, this one a paid event, with the ticket price including a signed copy of the book. I went with friends so didn’t take my usual copious notes. Indeed, I took no notes, so this will be a brief report.

I suspect most of the events ran pretty similarly, with a few variations depending on who “conversed” with Idle. Anne of Cat Politics, who occasionally comments here, went to the Melbourne event where the conversation was conducted by Michael Williams of The Wheeler Centre. She has written about it on her blog. We had a similar discussion, led beautifully by Alex Sloan, about Idle’s life and, career and his friendships with people like George Harrison. We also had a couple of songs, including the “Selfies” one (for which Anne provides a Youtube link.) Our event, like hers, ended up with Idle singing “Always look on the bright side of life”, except we had a small backing group, The Idlers, drawn from the Canberra Choral Society. That was fun – and I think they enjoyed themselves, too.

But, I think we may have had something else unique to us – a discussion about physics. Our event commenced with a YouTube video of Idle doing his “Galaxy Song”, after which ANU Vice-chancellor and Nobel Laureate in Physics, Brian Schmidt, came to the stage to introduce Idle. In doing so shared with us some – let us say – disagreements between Eric Idle and physicist Brian Cox about certain facts in the song. Schmidt suggested that, on one fact at least – to do with the power of the sun – he’s decided to agree with Idle. There was some lovely banter about all this, with Idle, who has performed the Galaxy Song with Cox, telling us that he’d told Cox that the facts were correct when he wrote the song: it was Science that had changed (due to that darned Hubble Telescope). You can Google Brian Cox and Eric Idle to find out more – if you haven’t seen them already.

Kate’s list of lists

As a service to us all, Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) has published a post titled Best Books of 2018 – A List of Lists. In it she has listed the Best of 2018 lists already published by magazines and newspapers around the world – with annotations explaining what they cover. For example, of Esquire’s list she says “excellent mix of 50 fiction and nonfiction titles” and for NPR’s Best Books of 2018 she writes “use the filters to wade through this 300-strong list”.
Kate will be adding to this post as more lists are published. If you love book lists, bookmark her post!

Quote of the week

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomHopefully, by the end of next week I’ll have written my post on Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom, but I can’t resist sharing just one of many wonderful quotes from the book. This one is not Clare Wright’s own words, but a description of England’s “suffragette agitators” by the UK’s attorney-general at the time. He called them “those unsexed hyenas in petticoats”. Really!? You have to laugh!


Elizabeth Kleinhenz in conversation with Chris Wallace – about Germaine Greer

Elizabeth Kleinhenz, Germaine GreerIt made for a busy night, given that the last Tuesday of the month is also my reading group night, but I had to go to this ANU Meet the Author event, because it involved Canberra academic/journalist (not to mention Germaine Greer biographer) Chris Wallace conversing with Elizabeth Kleinhenz, whose biography, Germaine: The life of Germaine Greer, has just been published.

MC Colin Steele commenced proceedings by introducing the participants, then noting that Germaine Greer’s archives had been bought a few years ago by the University of Melbourne for $3m! Not cheap, eh, but it is a significant collection about, as the back cover artwork says, “arguably one of the most significant and influential Australian women of her time.” Hmm, there are a lot of qualifications here – “arguably”, “one of the most”, “Australian”, “women” and “her time”. Whoever said this was not going out on a limb!

Anyhow, it was an excellent conversation – not just because it was about this fascinating woman, Germaine (b. 1939) but also because Chris Wallace led the conversation in a logically, but not rigidly, structured way and Elizabeth Kleinhenz was open and articulate in her responses. I’m glad I made the effort to attend.

First things first

To get things going, Wallace asked some general questions about the book itself. Its cover pic, for example. Kleinhenz responded that it was the publisher’s choice, though she was involved, I gather, in the discussion. They wanted a picture that would be attention-grabbing. And so it is.

Wallace, Steele and Kleinhenz,

Wallace, Steele and Kleinhenz, 2018, before the session

Wallace then asked about that back cover quote that I’ve already mentioned. It led to Kleinhenz talking about why she’d chosen Greer as her subject. She spoke about all the negative reactions she’d received on telling people that she was writing about Greer – comments like “that silly old bat”. But, Kleinhenz felt that Greer had made some significant contributions to women’s lives and that she’s an excellent scholar: she wanted to “set the record straight”.

She also said that Greer, despite her obvious impact on women’s lives, doesn’t like women (like me, for example) telling her that she’d changed their lives. “I didn’t change your life,” she apparently says, “you did.” Well yes, technically she’s right, but, without enlightenment from Greer, many of us may not have made the leaps we needed – or may have made them much more slowly – so I think our belief stands, whether or not Greer accepts it!

Anyhow, then, before getting into the nuts and bolts of the biography, Wallace asked Kleinhenz to say a little about her first biography on Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is, apparently, another misunderstood woman. I won’t go into details, but Kleinhenz said she had always wondered why Kleinhenz, when offered a Professorship, had declined, saying she wasn’t good enough. She found the answer, she said, when researching Greer: it’s that women of Greer and Fitzpatrick’s generation were not brought up to be equal. Greer, said Kleinhenz, saw that women had to change themselves in order to move forward.

Wallace asked Kleinhenz how it was that we had moved from Fitzpatrick to Greer. Kleinhenz, born in the 1940s, related her own experience as a young women who, although she had a good job as a teacher, “just” wanted a house and family. However, when she got there she found it wasn’t enough. She realised, as Greer argues in The female eunuch, women could/should not blame men – doing so, in fact, cedes power to men – but must change ourselves. So, she did – she went back to work.

Early, mid and late Germaine

We then got into the guts of the conversation. With Greer now 80, how, asked Wallace, do we assess her? Kleinhenz felt that Wallace had got it right in her biography, Germaine Greer: Untamed shrew, recognising that Greer writes from where she’s at at the time. In that, said Kleinhenz, she is consistent!

However, later in her career, she said, it seems that Greer “went funny”. She is known to suffer depression. Maybe she wasn’t well. Her book, The boy (2003), about the beauty of young boys’ bodies, comes from, Kleinhenz feels, an unfortunate period in her life. But some years later, she bought the rainforest – which was in fact funded, I understand, from that sale of her archives. Kleinhenz suggested that this period marks her “return”.

Wallace, though, seemed not so sure, and asked Kleinhenz about Greer’s book On rape. Wallace is appalled by it, while Kleinhenz admitted to a “softer” response, one that she has also found amongst other women of her age. She admitted that Greer takes a very narrow definition of rape, but felt that Greer says some sensible things about the legal system, for example, and about the role of violence in rape.

Research and writing

The discussion then turned to biography writing. Wallace asked whether readers are surprised that people are, in fact, rounded, that is, not all good or all bad. Kleinhenz said that she tried not to be soft on Greer in her book, but she did find Greer an interesting woman. Greer has, in fact, a lot of friends – the implication being that she must have some good things going for her despite all her critics.

Wallace noted that Greer is charismatic, and wondered whether it’s been a problem that she has been too uncritically treated, here, rather than getting “energetic” Australian feedback. Kleinhenz agreed somewhat with this. There was some discussion, for example, about Greer’s taking a cultural relativist view towards female genital mutilation, rather than opposing it categorically. Kleinhenz suggested that Greer has been criticised in Australia – but “of the silly old bat” variety rather than more “critical” criticism, that is, serious analytical discussion of her ideas. Kleinhenz also said that it’s hard to dislike someone who makes you laugh. I understand that!

Wallace then moved onto a subject dear to my heart – the issue of the archives. Were they rich, she asked. Did they change Kleinhenz’s view? Kleinhenz, laughing, started by comparing Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s ordered 8-box collection with Germaine’s nearly 500 boxes that were not organised chronologically. She discussed her process – the role Wallace had played in her getting “more organised”, and how she handled the closing of the Greer archives for 12 months partway through her research. This turned out to be useful, because during this time she went to secondary sources and conducted interviews, so that when the archives opened again, she had a framework.

She shared some of the treasures, some of the things that stood out – such as letters from Clive James, Helen Garner, and a French girl who told a very personal story and to whom Greer wrote a personally revealing reply.

During the Q&A at the end, the issue of Greer keeping copies of the letters she wrote came up. Why did she – do some – people keep not only the letters they receive but copies of those they write? There’s no single answer of course. However, Kleinhenz did say that she believes Greer knows her “commercial” value. The words “no fee, no work” appear at the bottom of many of her letters. Wallace interjected here commenting that writers’ incomes are “lumpy”, so it’s quite likely that potential financial value drove her decision to keep her papers – and, Greer knew she was big. (However, it could also simply that she’s a hoarder, or, a historian who likes to keep her records? I can understand that.)

Kleinhenz also said that she suspects that Greer had probably removed some family-related material from the archives before she sold them. Also, there was not much “childhood stuff” in the archives, but the audio material is wonderful. Greer apparently records her thoughts, for example, as she goes for walks with her dogs.

Q & A

I’ve included some of the Q&A discussions above, because it seemed logical, but other issues were discussed, including:

  • Why did she choose Greer? Kleinhenz said she grew up with Greer. Greer is only three years older than she, but also lived in the same area of Melbourne, and they both went to Catholic schools. However, the main reason is that she felt Greer deserved it: she wanted, she reiterated, “to put record straight”.
  • What difference do her archives make to assessment of her? Kleinhenz answered that while they don’t contain much in terms of signficant new facts, they add a depth of understanding. Those letters she mentioned above, and other letters like those with John Atwood, whom she appeared to love at one stage in her life, helped here.
  • What impact did the birth control pill have? Kleinhenz said that Greer was highly aware of the pill and felt that women needed to think through the changes the pill brought, and how they would manage those changes, what they would do with them. This came out in the excellent notes she made for writing The female eunuch.

Kleinhenz added at this point, that Greer had felt a freak as a young person – she felt too tall, too noisy.

Closing the session

In closing the session, Colin Steele referred to the small Trailblazers book – accompanying Australia Post’s Australian Legends series – in which Greer says she’s not a tour operator, but wants to encourage people to think for themselves. This, in fact, perfectly sums up my attitude to Greer. She’s a bit (hmm, just a bit?!) of an iconoclast. I don’t always like – or perhaps, fully comprehend – what she says, but I love that she’s around saying it. She can always make me think – and sometimes, she makes me laugh!

I’d love to say more about Greer and some of the ideas generated by this conversation, but will, perhaps save them until I’ve read the biography.

Podcast: click this link to see if you think I’ve captured the conversation accurately enough!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
30 October 2018

Nadia Wheatley in conversation with Marion Halligan

Nadia Wheatley, Marion Halligan,

Nadia Wheatley and Marion Halligan, ANU Meet the Author

Nadia Wheatley is, I fear, not as well-known in Australia’s literary firmament as she should be because her credentials are excellent. Not only is there My place (1987) – a wonderful multi-award-winning children’s book about the history of place – but her biography of Charmian Clift, The life and myth of Charmian Clift, has been described by critic Peter Craven as “one of the greatest Australian biographies.” She has appeared here in a Monday Musings list of books recommended by indigenous writers (even though she is not indigenous) for her book, with Ken Searle, The Papunya School book of country and history. And these are just a few of her literary credentials.

All this is to say that when I saw that she was to be a “Meet the author” subject this week at the ANU – on a free night for me, no less – I didn’t hesitate to book. It didn’t hurt, too, that her Conversation partner was to be Marion Halligan (who has appeared here several times, in various guises.)

Now, I don’t want to discuss in detail her latest book – Her mother’s daughter: A memoir – which was the reason for this event, because I have almost finished it and will discuss it in my soon-to-come post, so I’ll just share, briefly, some of the main points from the conversation.

“Caught between an independent woman and a controlling man”

The book’s title suggests that the book is Wheatley’s memoir of her life with her mother (Nina, familiarly called Neen.) However, this is only part of the story. The book is, in fact, like a few I’ve read recently, a sort of hybrid biography-memoir, because it is as much a biography of her mother, who died in 1958 when Nadia was 9, as it is a memoir. Three others I’ve discussed here in recent years are Susan Varga’s Heddy and me, Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. Interestingly, the mothers in all of these books experienced World War 2 in some way, though Wheatley’s mother differs from the other three European-born women in that she was an Australian who went over to work in the war.

Marion Halligan commenced the conversation by commenting that the book was a difficult read, and that it must also have been difficult to write. Wheatley agreed, commenting that people under-estimate children’s ability to suffer, but also their ability to survive…

… and both suffer and survive, Wheatley did. She was caught, she said, “between an independent woman and a controlling man”, but that was only the half of it. She wasn’t helped by a family which – only partly because it was the 1950s – did not feel the need to tell Wheatley what had really happened to her mother, resulting in the young Nadia hoping (if not totally believing), for some years, that one day her mother would return. She was abandoned by her father, whom she described as “a strange, sadistic person.” The family dynamics are complex, and I’ll discuss some of them a little more in my post on the book.

I will say, however, that the underlying biographer’s question for Nadia in writing the book was:

Why would a nice person like Neen marry an awful person like my father?

Because, awful he was … though not, it seems, to Neen in the early years of their relationship when they were working for/with refugees and displaced persons in post-war Europe!

What lifts this book above what could so easily have been a misery memoir is that it also works as social history of an era – of life in Australia in the first half of the twentieth century, and of the work Australian nurses did during and after the Second World War. The pictures Wheatley draws of the joys (yes) and challenges of the War for Nina are vivid, and ring true. Nina was a truly independent woman, despite the demands home and family exerted on unmarried “girls” at the time. The pictures Wheatley then draws of Nina post-marriage are, consequently, even more devastating – because of the gap between what could (should) have been and what was. Nina’s dire situation was compounded by the confluence of a controlling, sadistic husband and a time, the 1950s, when women had little agency in the face of such a situation. Even so, Nina did her best …

At one point during the conversation, Wheatley made the interesting – and obvious, if you know their stories – point that there are some parallels between her and her mother’s stories. Both were motherless from a young age, and both became involved in social justice action. There was discussion in fact about how her mother’s work with refugees is relevant to today’s refugee situation. Nina worked for the short-lived UNRRA and was involved in the early definition of just what a refugee is and in the practice of placing them.

Telling the story

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughterIn the Q&A, I asked Wheatley about the structure she chose to use in the book, about the fact that while is it generally chronological, she inserts herself into this chronology at times when she herself wouldn’t have been alive. For example, she describes the young Nadia asking her mother about a photo in an album. This enables us to see Nadia’s interest in her mother’s story, her reaction to her mother’s story, and her mother’s later reaction to the events in her life, at least in terms of how she wants to present them to Nadia. From the reader’s point of view, it makes reading this book far more engaging.

Wheatley answered that felt she needed to be in there “on the quest”, and referred us to AJA Simon’s biography A quest for Corvo: An experiment in biography, as one of her inspirations. She wanted the book to be her journey of discovery – “to have the detective story of her unravelling her mother’s story” – rather than just be a presentation of the evidence. Again, I will talk more about this in my post, but Wheatley did share some of the stories about how she went about this unravelling. I like this approach to non-fiction, not only because it’s usually engaging, but because it can strengthen the authority or integrity of the work.

There was more to the conversation – but some of it, as I’ve already said, will come out in my post, and some of it is best left for you to read yourselves in the book. I mustn’t give it all away!

Vote of thanks

To conclude, MC Colin Steele introduced The Canberra Times’ past – and, distressingly, to date, last – literary editor, Gia Metherell, to give the vote of thanks. In doing so, she said that Wheatley’s book shows why childhood biographies can be so potent. She quoted the late Australian critic Geraldine Pascall* (I think) who said that Australian writers write more often and more potently about their childhood than anyone else, besides English and French writers. What an interesting thought on which to end a thoroughly engaging conversation.

* Gia Metherell clarifies this in the comments below saying that it wasn’t Geraldine Pascall to whom she was referring but English academic Roy Pascal. However, on checking later, she realised she had misremembered and it was Richard Coe, in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Australian: Childhood, Literature and Myth”, Southerly, 41, no. 2, 1981. Thanks Gia.

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
8 October 2018

Robyn Cadwallader in conversation with Catherine Milne

It’s some time since I last attended an author event, not because there haven’t been any but because they’ve clashed with other commitments. I mean, why do organisations choose the same day of the week for events, like, say, Thursdays? Why don’t they get together and agree to share them across all the week days? (Hmm, then they’d only clash with something else, so let’s just recognise that life is busy, that we have too many options, and move on …)

Robyn Cadwallader, The book of coloursAnyhoo … it so happened that our regular Thursday activity was off this week, as was our occasional one that bumps the regular one, so we were free to attend the In Conversation event with local author Robyn Cadwallader. You have met Cadwallader here before: I’ve reviewed her debut novel, The anchoress, and have reported on another event with her when she conversed with Irma Gold. Now, with her second novel, Book of colours, having been published, she’s doing the rounds again, as authors do.

Book of colours is also historical fiction set in mediaeval England, but in the 1320s, some 70 years after The anchoress. Introducing Cadwallader, HarperCollins publisher Catherine Milne commented that in contrast to The anchoress’ small, cramped setting, Book of colours encompasses the world, or, at least, London and Paternoster Row. Its subject is the creation of illuminated books, in particular those little books of hours owned by women; its characters include Mathilda who commissions such a book, and its creators, John Dancaster, his wife Gemma, and a man called Will. (I think that’s right; I haven’t read the book yet.)

The conversation focused on two broad (and obvious) issues – the research and the book itself. So let’s start with the research …

Exploring a gap, a fault-line

Milne began by asking Cadwallader to read from her book, something she did a few times throughout the hour. Milne and Cadwallader then discussed the period. It was a turbulent, often violent, time for London, for England in fact. There’d been famine, the inept King Edward II was on the throne, and tension was rising (though it would be another 60 years before the Peasants’ Revolt).

Howard Psalter and Hours (British Library, Arundel 83 I), 1310-20. Public Domain

Cadwallader explained that her inspiration for the novel was her interest in books of hours, and particularly in the strange marginalia that many have. This marginalia often depicts weird creatures, and scenes telling stories, some of them rather bawdy. Sometimes they support/illustrate the content, but sometimes they seem to do the opposite, representing, for example, the wages of sin. These stories told via the illuminations, she said, can operate at different levels. What was behind this practice? No-one knows apparently, so here was her gap, her fault-line to explore.

Cadwallader’s research included:

  • lots of reading, about London, about illumination and art, of court rolls and proceedings, about privies and prostitutes. You name it, she probably read it.
  • walking London with a 14th century map, trying to capture what the place was like.
  • talking to an art historian who told her about identifying the different artists working on a particular book of hours …
  • and spending time with that book of hours until the different artists became apparent to her.

Gradually, she said, she began to see the four different people working on this book and by the time she’d finished looking at it she had a sense of her characters.

Milne then told us that in Book of colours, Cadwallader had written a book-in-a-book. Called “The art of illumination”, it’s written, I think I’m right, by Gemma. Excerpts from this preface many chapters. Milne asked Cadwallader to read one of these, and I’ll share a bit here. It starts by stating that the words must be in an order, in lines, to facilitate reading,

But the requirements of decoration are not so simple. The page needs shape and order, but not so much order that life withers. Consider the beauty of the curve and curl. And, as with a breathing city, let all of life be there in the book, from high to low, animal to monster, story and joke, devotion and dance, for God the Artisan made it all. On some pages, simple vines and flowers may be enough. On others let decoration be lush and bountiful.

“Animal to monster” took us to gargoyles and another reading of a vivid scene in which Will, looking at gargoyles, senses one coming to life … he represents Will’s secret, his shame, said Cadwallader, who loves gargoyles. (Don’t we all?)

Challenging the centre …

Moving on to the core of the book, its meaning, Cadwallader said something interesting about marginalia. It’s on the edge she said, a bit like shadows. Because of this position, it challenges the centre, but in so doing it makes the centre more real. I liked this. She said that there’s something about pictures and stories. They refuse to be bound by convention. They – their meaning, their impact – change depending on the reader, or viewer.

Milne then asked about the main theme of the book. It’s a novel about power, she said, of which women have little. How do they wield what they have?

Cadwallader responded, as she also did about The anchoress if I remember correctly, that she’s interested in ordinary women. Gemma and Mathilda (despite the latter’s privilege) are ordinary women. How do they manage the second-class roles they are assigned by their society? Illuminators, for example, like Gemma, worked alongside their husbands but were never recognised by the guilds, while women like Mathilda have more privilege but are controlled by their husbands. In fact, she has less freedom than Gemma.

Cadwallader is interested in how these women dealt with what they were given, “in how they managed to find value in their lives within the constraints.” Laughingly, she said she’s impressed with the gains her characters managed to make!! She spoke briefly about ensuring these gains, their achievements, are real, that is, believable for the time. She feels, she said, knowledgeable enough about mediaeval times, in which she has a PhD, to be able to strike the right balance. During the Q&A, Cadwallader reiterated this point, and said that she was determined not to “damage the women of the era by presenting them differently from what they are”.

That the audience was enthused by the conversation was evident in the wide variety of questions which concluded the event. The topics included the ownership of books of hours, the education of women, the writing process, and the fact that, for all its historical research, the novel contains a “ripping yarn”! I’m always interested in the writing process, and enjoyed Cadwallader’s answer to a question about Will. She said she was able to “find” him by writing a scene with him, that she discovered more about him as the action developed. For Cadwallader, as for many authors I think, their characters are, in a sense, living, changing beings.

The final reading was another excerpt from “The art of illumination”, near the end of the novel. It concluded with:

All you can do is paint faithfully and well, let the book go.

And so Cadwallader has done. I look forward to reading it and sharing my thoughts with you in the near-ish future.

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
26 April 2018

Sarah Waters in conversation with Marion Halligan

Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters, 2006 (Courtesy: Annie_C_2, via Wikipedia, under Creative Commons CC-BY-2.0)

In a delightful coincidence, Sarah Waters was in town tonight for a literary event, just one night after my reading group discussed her novel The little stranger – and so, naturally, those of us who were free turned up to hear her converse with Canberra novelist and literati, Marion Halligan.

It can be very special hearing one novelist interview another – and this was one of those occasions. Marion and Sarah appeared very comfortable together, respectful of each other’s skills, and Sarah was generous and open in her answers – except when it came to the ending of The little stranger! All she said on THAT score was that she left it deliberately open but that she tried to lead the reader to a certain conclusion. She’s been fascinated, she said, by the discussions that have ensued about the ending. Don’t we know it!

That said, she did share some things about The little stranger, and these may or may not throw light on the mystery! Its subject is of course class, and the changes that were occurring in post-war England. She said that her original plan was to use Dr Faraday as a straightforward, transparent narrator, someone who was firmly in the middle class and a friend of the family, and who would chronicle their decline. But as she started writing, she decided to make him more uncomfortable class-wise with some lingering class resentments. A little later, she talked about poltergeists and how they represent the release of unresolved tensions, conflicts and frustrations. Hmmm … if we accept poltergeists, then I think we have to see that more than one “person” is implicated in what happened at Hundreds Hall.

Some interesting issues were raised during question time. I’ll just dot-point the ones that grabbed me in particular:

  • Echoes of and homages to other works. Waters said that she does a lot of research for her novels and that that research includes reading fiction of the era she’s researching. It’s not surprising then, she said, if people see echoes of works like Brideshead revisited, The yellow wallpaper, Rebecca and The fall of the House of Usher in this novel. She doesn’t mind people seeing these in her work.
  • Genre. She was asked how the demands of genre shape her work, and her response was that she likes to see how you can both bend genre and surrender to it at the same time.  You can certainly see her doing that in The little stranger in the way it takes the conventions of the ghost story and yet does not resolve it in any way that you could call traditional.
  • Setting a novel overseas. For some reason, someone asked whether she would ever consider setting a novel outside of England. Her flippant response was that she thought she did well to move The little stranger from her usual London to Warwickshire!  But, then she answered seriously, and I found her response interesting. She didn’t give us that old chestnut about “writing what you know”. Rather, she said she likes “to have dialogues with the traditions of British fiction”. Good for her; she has a PhD in English literature and is clearly imbued with its traditions. The Roger Federer of the literary world perhaps?

Interspersed throughout the hour were some light-hearted interactions between Sarah and Marion. One concerned the fact that Sarah writes historical novels while Marion focuses on contemporary subjects. Marion said she admired all the research Sarah does, and suggested that lazy people write in the present. Sarah quickly rejoined that writing in the present is terrifying. Where, she said, is the security of the research. Vive la différence, I say!

There was more, as you can imagine, but that is the gist of it…except of course to boast that I do now have my very own signed copy of The little stranger.

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author