Having attended Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography lecture at the National Library of Australia last week, I was thrilled to see another event come up this week. It was billed as an author talk with Kate Llewellyn, and with Barbara Hill and Ruth Bacchus who edited First things first, the collection of Llewellyn’s letters which I reviewed a few months ago. They also discussed Llewellyn’s most recent “journal”, A fig at the gate. In the end, it was Llewellyn who did most of the talking, but that didn’t matter – sorry Barbara and Ruth – because she was the main one we’d all come to see.
I’m not going summarise the whole talk, but just share a few ideas that interested or, in some cases, tickled me. Llewellyn is an engaging speaker.
On letters and letter writing
Naturally some of the discussion focused on letters. Llewellyn explained that the letters included in First things first were held in the ADFA library collection, and that they’d been acquired from the recipients of her letters. She doesn’t keep copies of letters she writes, she said, horrified that we might think she did. In fact, she’d rather recipients of her letters would destroy them! However, she sang the praises of the American ADFA librarian who initiated the project of collecting the papers of Australian poets.
Llewellyn confirmed that she did not censor Bacchus and Hill’s choice of letters. She trusted them not to include anything that would do her harm. Some names, though, have been changed to avoid hurting people. Don’t believe everything you read, she said! There is artifice at work, even here. The project had some specific principles, including that the focus would be letters to other writers or artists, and not family.
Llewellyn was asked about her current letter writing activity, but she said that she rarely writes letters now because of emails. She only writes now when “something means a lot” and she wants to share it. She sees letters as capturing the important things in life.
She likes to write by hand, so her books are written that way. She believes that the hand-to-brain sensibility is different to the hand-to-machine one, and that she doesn’t have “ardour”, an important quality for her, when using a machine.
The letters in her books, like A fig at the gate, are made up, she said. For example, the letters to her daughter are a device to enable her to talk about her relationship with her daughter, and about Australia.
I found all this fascinating because I have read and discussed Jane Austen’s letters with my local Jane Austen group, looking at how or whether they could contribute to our understanding of her times and her novels. And then, this month, we discussed how Austen used letters in her novels – to develop character (the writer’s and/or the recipient’s), to progress the plot, and to provide information and solve mysteries.
The writer-reader relationship
Llewellyn talked about the complex relationship between reader and writer, particularly highly autobiographical writers like her. A fig at the gate is true, she said, because she is writing to a reader with whom she shares a trust. It is her pact with the reader that what she writes is true. However, a problem arises when readers think they know her. They mix up life with art. There’s no winning in this she said. After all, she has done it: she has created the relationship, she has made that sacred writer’s pact to not lie, to not betray the reader. However, some readers misunderstand the protocol, they forget that the meeting is one of writer-reader, not of friends. That’s when, she says, she uses her umbrella to create a physical barrier!
Llewellyn shared a few amusing stories. One concerned being asked why she had titled her last book A fig at the gate. Because, she said, there’s a fig at my gate. But why call the book that, the reader apparently persisted. At this point Llewellyn said she had to admit that some things just aren’t deep! (She admitted, though, that she often does think metaphorically.) She also talked about the origin of the book. Now in her 70s, she wanted to write about ageing but believed that would not sell, so she decided to write a book whose “flesh would be the garden, but the bones would be ageing”.
Weather, the great story of life
I can’t remember how this topic came up, but it tickled me immensely because I have been sharing a weekly snail-mail correspondence with a wonderful American friend for over 20 years. Writing about the weather has become a bit of a running joke between us. We try to hold off for at least a couple of paragraphs and then admit we can’t hold out any longer! The weather will out.
Anyhow, Llewellyn’s story relates to meeting an English-born lecturer, who was her lover at the time, for lunch, and he started to talk about the weather. She thought that was boring and that maybe he wasn’t for her, but he told her that the English love the weather. He taught her, she said, that the weather is a good subject. (Of course, anyone who has read a good symbolic Shakespearean storm, for example, knows that.)
There was another lovely connection here for me because I had just finished, the day before, Karen Lamb’s biography Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (my review) whose title comes from Astley’s idea of weather as representing the highs and lows, the fluctuations in life.
To recap: Lessons learned
- Don’t believe everything you read.
- Don’t confuse life with art. Art – even autobiographical art – is artifice.
- Respect the writer-reader protocol.
- And, most importantly, the weather is a perfectly fine topic to write (or talk) about!
Llewellyn concluded by reading aloud her clever, funny, wicked poem, “The breast”. Do read it online if you don’t know it.