Author Talk with Kate Llewellyn, Barbara Hill and Ruth Bacchus

Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, First things firstHaving 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.

Austen's desk, Chawton. (Photo: Monster @

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Photo: Monster @

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.

Delicious descriptions: Kate Llewellyn on Aussie authors

Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, First things firstSince I couldn’t cover everything in my review of Kate Llewellyn’s lettersFirst things first, edited by Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, I decided that a follow-up Delicious Descriptions on a specific aspect of the book, her discussion of her reading, would be in order. I’m making the assumption that, like me, you’re interested in what writers think about the work of other writers.

Llewellyn mentions many writers – poets and novelists – in her letters, and is generally positive. I can’t (and shouldn’t) share them all, of course, so have selected a few that particularly interested me.

Christina Stead

I was tickled to find myself reading Llewellyn’s letters in which she was reading Christina Stead’s. It twas in a letter dated 19 June 1992, so I think she was reading R.G. Geering’s Christina Stead, a life in letters, which was published in 1991/1992. Llewellyn writes – all the three-dot sets are hers (and not my ellipses):

I have three books, Angela Carter’s last … and C. Stead’s Letters … really, a wonderful book … she is a wizard … so queer, mad, right, sweet, hopeless … not unlike Jean Rhys in some ways … you know, the hopeless, feckless, blighted genius who good things avoid in spite of her almost starving … but gracious, always gracious … a bed-sitter, no money … Basically, Christina is a woman who married her father and who was mad, mad as you know, who had a funny kind of genius to boot … cruel to women … feminist and scathing of that same thing … fawning to men in a way that is quite painful to read in the letters … but generous, encyclopaedic, lusty and full of paradoxes … her husband Bill Blake was in the fur business for a time … can you believe it … and she left money to the conservation foundation … plus had a white ermine coat … Basically, Bill was a wonderful loving brilliant man whose books did not sell and who had a wife and child for thirty years of their life (his and Christina’s) together while she longed to marry … sound familiar …

Well, that’s rather a breathless flow, but it captures quite a lot about what Llewellyn gleaned about Stead from the letters, about Llewellyn’s reaction to that, and about Llewellyn herself. In another letter, in 1993, she comments on a negative drawing of Stead in The Australian which described Stead as “monstrum extremum”. Llewellyn’s response to that was a “4,000 word piece on Stead and the way Australia treats its artists”. Go Llewellyn, eh?

Elizabeth Jolley

Elizabeth Jolley (Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press)

Elizabeth Jolley (Photo: Courtesy Fremantle Press)

Llewellyn clearly admires Jolley, as I do. On 3 July 1992, she writes:

I read Cabin Fever at 3am and felt like you … I like this strange book … I wrack my brains to trace how it is done … but I am lost … I need a writing class … I long for one …

Besides the fact that she so loved a Jolley book, I was fascinated to read about a writer admiring another writer so much she wanted to do a writing class to improve her own writing. It reminded me that we never stop learning or wanting to hone our skills.

Robert Drewe

I haven’t reviewed Drewe here, though I have a book of his short stories next to my bed, The body surfers, that I love. I like his writing, but I was fascinated by the strength of Llewellyn’s comment (in a letter on 7 July 1992):

I am reading R. Drewe’s A Cry in the Jungle Bar (Picador). I am not mad about this book but will read anything of his to see how he arrived at Our Sunshine … We had a talk at the book fair and I told him how sorry I was he did not get any of the prizes (the Banjo was announced that day) for Our Sunshine. He said he needed the money … When he is dead the country with laud him to the skies and sell his book by the thousands and make a film of it and maybe his son will benefit … but until then, it is slim pickings for him.

Our Sunshine is Drewe’s novel about Ned Kelly, and is a book I’m keen to read. The 2003 Ned Kelly film was based on it, but it wasn’t exactly an adaptation. Anyhow, here again is the issue of writers struggling to survive. I know there are those who are uncomfortable about literary awards but they clearly have practical value to many writers.

Marion Halligan

Halligan is the recipient of some of the letters in the book, including the one I’m going to quote from, written on 5 August 1992. Halligan also wrote the Foreword to the book. I tell you this, because it suggests a relationship between the two. I don’t, however, think this undermines the validity of Llewellyn’s admiration of Halligan’s writing. In this letter she talks of Lover’s knots, which was my first Halligan (and which inspired me to read more):

Really, Marion, you know I admire your writing because the thing has a will of its own … […] … because long before I ever met you, I said so in print … and you just get a firmer and firmer grip on your style and wide range … no, range wider and wider … also your quite encyclopaedic knowledge is impressive, but not just that, as that would be a bore if it was only that, but it is illuminating and lovely to read and I learn and that’s a real pleasure … mictouricious (?) or some such word … from micturition … the verb to pee … no micturate is the verb I suppose … I barely went to school and it constantly shows … music and spelling were on the days I didn’t go.

How better to end this post than on praise of our wonderful local writer, Halligan, that is written with such generosity and self-deprecating humour. I’m sure you can see why I enjoyed reading this book.

Bacchus, Ruth & Hill, Barbara, First things first: Selected letters of Kate Llewellyn 1977-2004 (Review)

Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill, First things firstIt might look like I’ve suddenly hired myself as author Jessica White’s PR Consultant as this is the second post in a row that I’ve opened with her, but the coincidence was too great for me not to. You see, this week, White posted on her Facebook Author Page that she’d received funding for a novel from the Australia Council for the Arts, and exulted that “I’m so happy that I can a) afford to eat for the next 6 months …”. One of the several threads running through Kate Llewellyn’s letters in First things first is her struggle to survive financially as a writer. More on that anon …

First, how do you review a book of letters? Yes, I know I’ve done it before for Jane Austen’s letters, but that’s different. Jane Austen is long gone, and was long gone when her letters were first published. Kate Llewellyn is still, fortunately I might add, with us, so, as well as reviewing a book about a living author, which of course bloggers/reviewers do frequently, I’m reviewing something very personal, a book of her letters. She didn’t put this selection together – Charles Sturt University academics Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill did – but she allowed her letters to be published, “trusting us”, the editors say in their preface, “with the contents of her life”. And that, I think, is a brave thing to do. But then again, you have to be brave to be a writer, don’t you?

Some of you, particularly if you’re not Australian, may not know Kate Llewellyn, but she’s an Australian poet and prose writer. Her prose includes travel writing, autobiography, and what the editors describe as “a hybrid blend she has made her own and perhaps pioneered in Australian women’s writing – a sensuous journal, studded with poetry, laced with recipes and concerned with ‘the weather, domesticity, love, art, gardening, the names of plants, a woman’s simple daily tasks and her heart’s thoughts’*”. She also co-edited The Penguin book of Australian women poets, which I own and often refer to.

Now, back to my question of reviewing a book of letters. Late-ish in the book, Llewellyn writes in a letter to Ianesco (artist Ian North) about reading John Cheever’s journals:

I did not know at times if I should be reading them, it seemed even prurient. But I had to keep on reading … and to think he wasn’t even trying … just did it for himself … […] … sizzling honesty.

“Prurience” isn’t the word you’d use for reading Llewellyn’s letters, and these are letters so written for someone besides herself, but they were, initially anyhow, private and they contain a rawness and honesty, together with a poetic beauty, that struck me much the way it seems that Cheever struck her. This rawness and honesty is most apparent when she writes about her relationships with others (romantic and otherwise) and her struggle to survive as a writer. It’s this latter of course that Jessica White’s Facebook post struck a chord with.

“I wouldn’t want not to be vulnerable”

As a reader, I’m interested in how writers do it. How do they manage to write and live? Some, of course, produce bestsellers but they are few. Some have significant others who support them. But most, it seems, scrabble around putting together projects, applying for grants, undertaking speaking and teaching engagements to keep going. It is this, among other things, that Llewellyn conveys with fearless clarity through her letters. She details the challenges of co-editing the poetry anthology with Susan Hampton, and of the difficulty of finding a publisher when the first one fell through. She describes unsatisfying, if not downright unpleasant, experiences of some (though not all) writers’ retreats. She tells of sending pieces off to numerous magazines and editors and of writing applications for grants or positions as writer-in-residence, and shares the emotional and financial pain of rejection, alongside the occasional joy of success. She describes cobbling together projects, such as one which didn’t come to fruition with friend Marion Halligan. She loses confidence in writing poetry, and wants to change her prose style. She writes of “the spite and derangement of the literary world” and of the mismanagement of distribution. She wonders why certain poets don’t like her, questions why some reviewers feel the need to be cruel, and is aware that there are people on boards who “do not wish me well”. It’s an uncertain life, and yet, with her get-up-and-go spirit she writes:

I think there’s a lot to be said for perplexity and bewilderment. Certainty is not all it’s cracked up to be. (to Ianesco, 13 January, 1995)

So, I learnt quite a lot about the life of a working writer. I realise that, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every writer’s life is different, and that each is likely to respond differently to the challenges, but experience tells me there’s a significant core in Llewellyn’s experience that’s true for many writers. What, though, did I learn about Llewellyn, herself?

Well, here is the challenge of course, because not only is a volume of letters, like this, one-sided, but these letters are a selection (and a selection, at that, of a period of her life). What letters weren’t included and how might they have affected our view of Llewellyn? Not much I think, because Llewellyn is so honest with her friends – and these letters are all to friends, many of whom are artists, writers and musicians – that you get a clear picture of her. She’s funny, vulnerable, emotional, warm-hearted, generous of spirit, depressed and lonely at times, subversive and yet a little conservative too. She can also, she’s aware, be rather full-on (high-maintenance, perhaps): “when I meet people I’m attracted to and with whom I feel great sympathy … I leap in”. She’s intelligent and, of course, creative.

One of the delights of the book, besides its various insights, is her writing. Funny that! It’s almost impossible to find one good example, but I’ll try. How about this description of a couple met at a dinner:

The former was a thin 50 year-old woman with husband to match … it was like talking to an oyster … a khaki woollen frock, grey hair, no colour anywhere, no lipstick … cold, grey, elegant, been everywhere, smoking, khaki skin, eyes like cold stones … I felt so defeated in my scarlet outfit I decided to try to get some reaction … (to Jerry Rogers, 19 June 1992)

Llewellyn, you have probably gathered, likes colour and life, and she likes “ardour … perhaps more than anything else in life”. Anyhow, I can’t leave it at one example, so will share a few more:

In fact, I think this town [Sofala] where not one building stands erect, but leans like a person into the wind, has only goats and tourists for income. (to Marion Halligan, 11 April 1994).


I swam in and out of it [Adelaide Writers’ Week] like a fish and took what came my way, be it seaweed or krill, but no bait, I hope. (to Marion Halligan, 11 April 1994).


… she [friend Jerry Rogers’ teen granddaughter] has been a real joy here … laughing like a gutter full of fresh rain after a drought, it is the loveliest laugh I ever heard. (to Ianesco and Mirna, 8 July 1996).

I will write another post or maybe two on this book – to share some of her thoughts on Australian writers, and a little of her humour. But, I don’t want to give the whole book away … which brings me to the question of whether I’d recommend it. Well, yes I would, but with, I suppose, a little qualification. This is a book of letters, and letters aren’t for everyone. With the best editing in the world, they can’t help but be disjointed. However, for me, Llewellyn’s voice is so compelling, her persona so open, and her writing so frequently funny, that I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in her head.

awwchallenge2015Bacchus, Ruth & Hill, Barbara
First things first: Selected letters of Kate Llewellyn, 1977-2004
Mile End SA, Wakefield Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781743053645

(Review copy supplied by Wakefield Press)

* Llewellyn’s own description of her best-selling book in this genre, The Waterlily, in a letter to Bob Boynes and Mandy Martin, 20 July 1987.