Monday musings on Australian literature: Spotlight on Robert Drewe

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

Courtesy: Annette Marfording

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would these lines make you want to read on?

Previous Spotlight posts:

Annette Marfording
Celebrating Australian writing: Conversations with Australian authors
Self published, 2015
ISBN: 9781329142473

Note: All profits from the sale go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. To find out where you can purchase this book, please check Marfording’s website.

Who me?: Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture

One of the best parts of living in Canberra – and there are many best parts, despite what the politicians and media seem to say! – is that we have the National Library of Australia. It presents many literary events each year, to which I only ever manage to make a few. Some of them I’ve written about here, some not – but I am going to share the latest, Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture.

Robert Drewe, Shark netThe Seymour Biography Lecture, endowed by the Seymours in 2005, is an annual lecture devoted to life writing. The inaugural lecture was given by one of Australia’s most respected biographers, Brenda Niall. Later speakers have included Robert Dessaix and Drusilla Modjeska. Initially hosted by the Humanities Research Centre‘s Biography Institute, it was transferred to the National Library in 2010. When I saw that Robert Drewe was to give this year’s lecture, I had to go. While I haven’t reviewed Drewe here yet, I have mentioned him a few times, and have read some of his work in the past. He has written novels, short stories, essays and memoir. The shark net, his first memoir, was adapted to a well-regarded miniseries in 2003, and his second, Montebello, was published in 2012. (I mentioned these in my recent Monday Musings on literary autobiographies.)

The lecture will I’m sure, like those before it, be made available via the Seymour Biography page (link above), but I would like to share a few ideas that struck me.

Memoir, or autobiography?

Drewe talked about how memoir is viewed, the fact that some see it as self-absorption or as narcissistic, about revenge or self-justification. He quoted American critic William Gass (author of Autobiography in the age of narcissism) who attacked memoir for being about self-absorption. Gass ridiculed the genre: “Look, Ma, I’m breathing. See me take my initial toddle, use the potty, scratch my sister; win spin the bottle. Gee whiz, my first adultery-what a guy!” Hmm, I have friends who don’t like memoir for this very reason.

Drewe gave a brief history of memoir – particularly memoir as confession, or redemption – through the writings of St. Augustine who made memoir, he said, an interior exercise, and Rousseau who moved the confession or memoir into the literary arena. He told us that Patrick White described his Flaws in the glass as not a memoir but a “self-portrait in sketches”! Flaws, Drewe said, is regularly criticised. English critic, Richard Davenport-Hines, for example, wrote that White’s “spiteful bestseller Flaws in the Glass must rank as the most inadvertently self-diminishing memoir since Somerset Maugham’s”.

Memoirs, Drewe said – looking at works like St Augustine’s – predated autobiographies. He defined the two forms as follows: memoirs are written from a life, while autobiographies are of a life. The change in preposition here is significant. As Gore Vidal would describe it, memoirs are about memory, while autobiography and biography are about history. In a memoir, a writer can take a memory and describe or expand it to tell a story about his/her life or experiences. Facts can be played with in order to find the emotional truths. Autobiography on the other hand – despite George Bernard Shaw’s “All autobiographies are lies… deliberate lies” – are expected to be factual.

Drewe told us that Sigmund Freud, when asked to write about his life, refused, arguing that it would be a reckless project. To tell his complete life would require so much discretion, it would be an exercise in mendacity. No wonder that, as Drewe told us, 99% of memoirists wait until their parents have died. Oh dear! I do hope my writing-oriented children are among this 99%! We did our best!

All this might sound dry and boring, but Drewe’s presentation was entertaining. He told us that when he thinks of autobiography he thinks of Father’s Day – and sports (particularly cricket) and political autobiographies. He regaled us with the punning titles of cricket autobiographies, such as At the close of playOver to meTime to declare (two in fact); Over but not out; and No boundaries. 

Before we had a chance to call him sexist, Drewe said that Mother’s Day made him think of WOTOs, that is, Women Overcoming the Odds, like, you know, widowed women running a cattle station in the outback, or a woman sailing solo around the world or saving an endangered animal!

Drewe returned several times in his talk to the issue of “facts” versus “truths”. He quoted Louise Adler who commissions political autobiographies for Melbourne University Press, including Mark Latham’s The Latham Diaries, Peter Costello’s The Costello Memoirs, Tony Abbott’s Battlelines, and Malcolm Fraser’s The Political Memoirs. Politicians have a good memory for insults and slights. Being memoirs, they are not necessarily verifiably factual. However, Adler, Drewe said, argues that their unreliability makes them riveting reading. They may be myopic, partisan, but they deliver riches. Drewe didn’t say this, but I’ll add that this requires a certain level of sophistication in the readers, that is, we readers need to understand the memoir genre and read with that understanding. I have no problem with that!

There is, however, what he called “the veracity squad”. These include the righteous readers or burgeoning historians – his descriptions – who are pedantic about facts. They don’t believe, for example, that you can remember dialogue from a family Christmas dinner twenty years ago and so they discount works that include such content. They wouldn’t approve, also, of crafting a particular person into a standout character.

Around here, Drewe referred to his first memoir, The shark net. He said he decided not to focus on the ego, but on the serial murderer with whom his family had contact, Eric Edgar Cooke. It’s basically factual he said, but he did imagine a couple of scenes – that is, he “fictionalized fact” – because he wanted to show Cooke as a human being.

I recently posted a review of Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen. She tells us, in the Epilogue, that she’d initially written the story as a novel but her editor, I believe, suggested it would be better as a memoir. Drewe said in his lecture that “some stories are best kept true, some best as fiction”. The challenge is to decide which form is best. Some writers don’t make the right decision and find themselves in a literary furore, such as Norma Khouri with her fake memoir, Forbidden love. A more complex situation is Helen Demidenko with her fiction, The hand that signed the paper, which she falsely claimed was autobiographical. What both these writers failed to realise is that the first rule of memoir is that you shouldn’t lie!

Memoirs named by Drewe

During his lecture, Drewe identified a number of memoirs, some of which I’ll share as we all like lists:

Top selling Australian memoirs

  • Clive James, Unreliable memoirs
  • Albert Facey, A fortunate life
  • Errol Flynn, My wicked, wicked ways

Other memoirs

  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, memory (in my TBR)
  • Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings (read before blogging)
  • Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking (read before blogging)
  • Anne Frank’s Diary of a young girl (read before blogging)
  • Sally Morgan’s My place (read before blogging)

So …

Towards the end of the lecture, Drewe referred to an article titled “Reflection and retrospection” by American critic Phillip Lopate. It commences:

In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.

Makes sense to me …