As I’ve written before, Muse Canberra, a restaurant-cum-bookshop or vice versa, offers a wonderful program of book events, year after year. I don’t get to many, but today I attended a conversation featuring Tasmanian author Heather Rose with local journalist Sally Pryor.
Heather Rose has written three children’s books and five novels, of which I’ve reviewed two, The Museum of Modern Love (my review) and Bruny (my review). Her latest book, the subject of this event, is different, a memoir, Nothing bad ever happens here: A memoir of loss and recovery.
Sally Pryor is the Features Editor of our newspaper, The Canberra Times, which is now part of Australian Community Media. Since that company changed hands in 2019, it is now publishing local reviews once again, after some years in the dark when most of the arts reviewing we got was syndicated from the big city newspapers.
After Dan did the usual intros, Sally spoke a little more about Heather and her book, explaining that while Heather had always planned to write a memoir, she hadn’t planned to publish one, for several reasons, one of which was that she was wary of outing herself as a spiritual person and of putting her views onto others. Sally described the memoir – which Heather has indeed published – as the “least predictable and most enticing memoir” she’d read. Heather then read the book’s first chapter, “Sky”. It places herself as a 6-year-old at school, and then concludes with
I could write a memoir about travelling, the writing life, or my love of making cakes. But I’m still that girl under the tree who wants to get to the big conversations, to the heart of things. So here are some stories about life and death. About experiences that have no easy explanation, but which happened, nevertheless. The unknown, that 95% – maybe it’s an invitation for compassion. Life is a process of forgiveness for the choices we make in order to be ourselves.
On what started it all
Sally suggested they start with the tragedy that, says the back cover blurb, set her on “a course to explore life and all its mysteries”. Heather commenced by describing her idyllic childhood in Tasmania. It was beaches, paddocks and orchards; days spent outside; a “glorious, wild childhood”. There was the family home on the edge of Hobart and a shack on the Tasman Peninsula, built by her maternal grandfather built the shack. He also taught Heather to appreciate nature, telling her, “Look Heather, that’s what beauty is”. But, just after she turned 12, her grandfather and older brother died in a boating accident. It destroyed the family, and by the time she finished year 12, she found herself alone in the family home. She decided to go overseas, to live her life “very fully” because her brother hadn’t.
On life being “a process of forgiveness for the choices we make”
Sally shared a little of that overseas trip, that “thrilling life”, which had it all, from meeting celebrities, including the Queen, to staying in a Buddhist monastery, not to mention romance, drugs and alcohol. But, asked Sally, what did she mean by life being “a process of forgiveness”?
One of the things I enjoyed about this conversation was Rose’s comments on writing memoir, and one of the places she discussed it was here. One of the most challenging things about writing a memoir, she said, is revisiting who you were in the past. Memories are tough to go back to. She was reckless, but didn’t realise then what dangers she’d put herself in. She made many mistakes, and revisiting all those things is “a hollowing out experience”. She wrote a lot, and then had to decide what to leave out to hone it to the things that shaped her. She needed to confront what she’d inflicted on herself, and to not blame others. It was her life she said, and she was going to own it, hence life being a process of forgiveness for all we’ve done. I found this moving – and something worth thinking about a bit more for myself!
On the book’s spiritual journey
Sally then turned to the spiritual journey aspect of the book, calling it a “very religious book”. She asked, in particular, about Heather’s taking part in a Native American ceremony that lasted several years. I won’t detail it here as it’s all in the book, but it was the Sun Dance. The point is that it changed her world-view entirely because after this she did not see herself as separate. She felt connected to everything (animate and inanimate), and “did not see world as a fixed reality”. She writes in the book, “everything was permeable, malleable, responsive” (p. 132).
Sally, continuing this theme, mentioned that she understands Heather always asks people if they’ve experienced anything they can’t explain, and everyone has! Most are post-death experiences – messages from the recently dead that all is ok – but others include warnings (like “don’t go that way”) that people feel have served them, sometimes to the point of saving their lives. For Heather this is reassuring, the idea that we have other senses, while Sally said she finds it frightening, which resulted in Heather teasing her ideas out a bit more.
Heather’s point is that the hardest thing is to think our lives are meaningless. She goes back to Descartes, but instead of “I think therefore I am” she sees it as “I am, therefore I feel”, “therefore I think”, etc. Life is a finite thing, she continued, and our fear is that maybe it’s all for nothing. Perhaps, she said, but we could also think that maybe it’s all for everything. Don’t we all love people, she said, who are vibrant, alive, who give of themselves?
On the book’s title
Sally suggested that the book’s title was “a way of reframing the narrative”. Heather said that in her 50s she visited the place, Lime Bay, where the tragedy had occurred and “felt nothing”, which brought her to think that “if everything just is, maybe nothing bad ever happens”. (Me: Not sure about this.) She then threw out that she “likes being un-evolved”. In my experience, the idea of being “un-evolved” is usually seen as a bad thing, but I like her understanding of the idea, her sense of never being finished, of always being curious and open.
Q & A
There was a brief Q&A, which I’ll summarise:
- On what she wanted her children to take away from the memoir: Heather shared that her 22-year-old daughter had said that most of her readers were older, but she thought it was a good book for people HER age 22 because it will make them braver. Heather added that it’s not bad for kids to see their parents 360°.
- On her family’s response to the book given they were not allowed to talk about the tragedy at the time: This was hard, particularly how her parents would feel about it, but she also felt that it was her story, not theirs. Her sister read various drafts, and said she felt it completed her life. Heather was most concerned about her father, who has been a great supporter of hers but whose grief had been “enormous but unvoiced”. His reaction was “I think we all needed you to write about it”. Heather also commented that writing memoir is hard, because you can’t avoid writing about people who are alive, and then quoted Hemingway’s, “writing is easy, you just sit down and bleed”! Sally commented here that most people can’t get their feelings onto a page, so she can see what it meant for Heather’s dad, at which point, Heather observed that she was relieved to be returning to the novel!
- On whether characters get away from her: Yes, for example her The butterfly man character “didn’t tell her the truth for two and a half years”! She kept stitching up the end to give him redemption, but had to let that go because it wasn’t him, it was her, the writer. That’s what makes good writing, she said, when the writer stops trying to intervene. She also gave a Bruny example.
- On her reluctance to wear a “spiritual tag”: This was partly because things go very badly when women put themselves out in the world. It can be a “very vicious world” if you stand up and align with a specific perspective. But, she also wants people to take on their own perspective, rather than imposing her own point-of-view. The questioner appreciated that Heather is still exploring, which she saw as the “heart of spirituality”.
- On the process of writing, particularly re fiction vs nonfiction: With fiction there are rules, responsibilities, and voice. We know, for example, that with Murakami we will get a “distant, hapless” voice, and with Kingsolver, “heart”. There is so much you can build on in fiction. With the memoir, she had to start with nothingness to find who she was, and she found she is still that 6 year old girl looking for the big conversations. Writing the memoir was “harrowing, and hallowing” but she feels braver, and now owns all she is.
- On returning to the novel: Heather loves writing fiction because she loves her characters, and she also enjoys the research.
Closing the session, Dan commented on the level of attention he’d observed in all our faces! I’m not surprised. It was such an engaging, different and, at times, surprising discussion – and that always gets my vote.
Brona has reviewed this book.
Heather Rose: Nothing ever happens here (with Sally Pryor)
Muse (Food Wine Books)
Saturday, 26 November 2022, 4-5pm