Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Australia, in 1942. She’s been a key figure in Australian letters since 1977, when she published Monkey Grip, a short novel that confronted readers with the grit and lyricism they’ve since accepted as Garner’s trademarks. It was an appropriately bold start — Garner had reaped a whirlwind of controversy in the early ‘70s when she gave frank answers to high school students she taught when they asked questions on matters of sexuality. She lost that job and launched herself as a writer, though she’s said that even with the publication of her first book, there wasn’t some grand shift in her identity. She wrote, then as now, to figure things out, to probe and test her ideas and preconceptions. She’s kept at it through four novels and half a dozen books of nonfiction, through awards — most recently the Nonfiction and Premier’s Awards at the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards — and controversy, as in the aftermath of The First Stone, which so aggrieved “the academic feminists and the Women’s Studies people.”
She writes before we meet to say I will know her, “by [her] unfashionable appearance.” It’s charming if unnecessary, this bit of self-deprecation, not least because she’s standing front and center on the cover of her most recent book, Everywhere I Look. I’d recognize her anywhere, I think, and sure enough, she’s dressed much the way she is in that cover photo when I find her in the hotel lobby. She’s small and neat, with a direct gaze and soft-set, intelligent eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses, her hair swept back from her face. There’s a moment just after I sit down across from her and introduce myself when she stiffens, as if to brace for the unpleasantness to come. I’ve maybe surprised her — she’s on a sofa, reading and doesn’t see me approach — and whether it’s for that reason or not, I can’t begrudge her the moment’s instinctive caution. I’ve read past interviews and profiles beforehand, as one does, and I’m prepared for the prospect that I’m entering the den of Helen Garner: Grouchy Literary Lioness. That prospect strikes me as vanishingly slim, based on her work. I think in particular of a moment’s reflection in “Suburbia,” when she writes of coming across a documentary about Barry Humphries, of Dame Edna Everage fame, on TV several years ago:
It showed black and white footage from the 1950s: a man in tightly rolled up shirtsleeves polishing his new FJ Holden with exaggeratedly vigorous arm movements; a bunch of unsmiling middle-aged women in horn-rimmed spectacles and hats like meringues. These people were offered to us viewers for our mockery. But in the 1950s I was a provincial Australian schoolgirl. I lived back then, in a suburb in Geelong. In that documentary footage I saw nothing to sneer at. What struck me was the man’s cheerful pride and energy. I saw the woman’s shyness, their anxiety about being no longer young, their uncertainty about whether they would be considered fashionable or attractive; and my heart cracked.
And so, I’m more expectant that I’ll meet Helen Garner from Geelong, a provincial girl who moved to the city, made a big name for herself, and has seen something of the world, all while searching for ways to afford the people she meets the same dignity she wants for herself. She doesn’t disappoint.
The Millions: I saw that someone called you “a counterculture Joan Didion.” There’s another comparison I like better: Colette.
Helen Garner: Colette! I’ve hardly ever read Colette, to tell the truth. I must’ve read some many, many years ago. I’ll try again.
TM: The reason I say this is, you read Colette’s things and you think, maybe it’s an occasional piece, maybe it’s a short story, and you really can’t tell the difference a lot of the time.
HG: That appeals to me greatly. It was funny, the other night in New Haven, we had a reading on the last night of the [Windham-Campbell] Festival. When I stood up to read, I read “The Insults of Age,” and I was the last one to read, and I stood up and I said, ‘I’m going to read an essay and it’s called–” and I thought, “Is this an essay?” And I had this moment of thinking, “Shouldn’t I have said ‘story?’” And I thought, ah, fuck it, I’ll just read it. And I read it, and everybody roared with laughter, so that was really nice.
TM: Aleksandar Hemon says there are no words for fiction or nonfiction in Bosnian, Croation, and Serbian. He had to call [The Book of My Lives] “true stories.” But the takeaway seemed to be that the line [between fiction and nonfiction] is porous and not all that important.
HG: It’s a strange thing to feel at ease in something that isn’t really a form and that you don’t know what it is. And so people say to me, ‘What do you write?’ People I haven’t met before, they say, ‘What sort of things do you write?’ And they just automatically assume that you write novels. And I say, ‘Oh, well, I used to write fiction, but now I write, um,’ and I go blank. If you say nonfiction to people who haven’t thought about all this, they don’t know what you’re talking about.
TM: It’s fascinating, because the novel has such great cultural power imaginatively, I think, and the writer is a romantic figure to people, but as far as people reading a novel and being invested in who the specific writer is, and the arc of an individual’s career, I’m not sure that’s so anymore on such a broad basis.
HG: I’m interested in this because I used to be married to a writer called Murray Bail. He was a kind of autodidact, and a very severe person, like autodidacts sometimes are. They apply strictures to things, and he thought that the novel was the absolutely preeminent form in literature, better than poetry, better than anything, and anything else was really kind of not worth doing. And so this caused difficulties between us, and it’s probably one reason why I shifted away from fiction, and I didn’t do this with conscious intent, but firstly I wrote The First Stone, which got me in a lot of trouble, but at that point I was thinking I was going to write a magazine article, but it kind of blew out into something bigger. And suddenly, bang, I was on the bestseller list week after week, and started making a lot of money, and people were coming up to me in the street, you know, some abusively and some favorably, but I think this wasn’t much fun for him, and there was some difficult stuff around there. But the thing was, I realized I was comfortable in that form, writing like that, and I’d always written between books, I’d always made a living by writing features, so it was just a matter of taking two extra steps and there I was. I sort of wish I didn’t have to argue, that I could just write a book, and say ‘This is a book by Helen Garner, and maybe you’ll enjoy it and this is what it’s about.’ But bookshops like to know if it’s fiction or not.
TM: I was thinking about The Spare Room, and the Helen character, how people found her unlikable a lot of the time. There were a couple of things that came to mind. You I’m sure saw Claire Messud had written The Woman Upstairs, and this interviewer asked her about the character being so unlikable, and she said she felt like it filled a void in the sense that there are probably a shortage of unlikable woman characters, and often we expect women not to show anger.
HG: That’s the exact point. That book, The Spare Room, it really interested me that a lot of men criticized the book for its anger. Not many women did. I think I know why, I mean here’s my guess, that women who are supposed to be looking after somebody, well obviously they just fall into a maternal archetype. And I think men, especially older men, younger men didn’t seem to have this problem with it, but for example, David Malouf reproached me for the amount of anger that was in the book. He said it was too angry. I do know him, I mean we’ve known each other for years, but he reproached me, and I was shocked. But I can’t help thinking there are men who still somewhere deep inside them have an unconscious fantasy that one day they’ll be helpless again. And they don’t want the person who’s going to be looking after them to be thinking, ‘Fuck you, I wish you’d die in the night.’ Nobody wants that, they don’t, but then, I was terribly taken aback by this. You know, the critics would say, this is great writing, it’s really wonderful, she’s at the peak of her powers and all that kind of shit, but there’s this awful anger and I hated it and it was ugly and how could she have been so cruel? But around this time, I was invited to speak at the annual general meeting of an organization called Carers Australia, and I don’t do much of that sort of speaking, but I got this letter from them saying, would I address their general meeting, and I thought, hey, there’d be people there who know what it’s like to look after somebody long term.
I walked in and I thought, I don’t know what i’m going to say. I walked in and I just looked around, and in that room there were scores of people, most of them women but some men, who had the kind of look of weary endurance. And I’m talking about people who’d had, say, a [special needs child] who was now, like, 6’4”, and that was their life. And there were people there who had children in wheelchairs, anyway we’re talking long term care. People who’ve gone to hell and they haven’t come back. They’ve got to live there and they’ve got to make a life, and it’s terribly impressive. Anyway, so I thought in this company, I can talk about this. So I basically said that, and I said, I’ve been criticized for this book, for the anger in it, and they laughed. They didn’t laugh uproariously, but one of them came up to me at the end, and she said, ‘Helen, never be ashamed of the anger.’ She said, ‘We all feel it. We all feel it. Don’t ever be ashamed, and don’t feel guilty about it.’
TM: There seem to be a lot of women, readers and writers I mean, who are very invested in you. You’re someone’s Janet Malcolm, as it were.
HG: Yeah. Well, there are also lot of women who are invested in hating my guts forever, and that’s what came out of The First Stone, when I kind of crossed the academic feminists and the Women’s Studies people. There were some people who never got over that, but that doesn’t worry me anymore, because I get quite a lot, well not a lot, but I have had letters from people who’ve said, I was a student when your book came out, and I put shit on you, and I refused to read the book because I knew what it was supposed to say, and now I’ve been out in the world, and I’m really sorry. They were really quite funny letters, saying, “What an idiot I was!” And one woman said, “We all ran around town blowing the shrill whistles of outrage.” And I thought, great, you just have to live a few more years for it to pan out.
TM: What about the people who are a bit overawed, a bit too fervent?
HG: That’s kind of embarrassing, but by the same token, every now and then people, especially this latest book, Everywhere I Look, I’ve had these really sweet letters from people. Not adoring, worshipping ones, but ones saying, “I’m sending you this little scarf that I knitted. I think you might like it.” This other woman sent me, after The Spare Room came out, I had a little parcel from this woman, and I open it up, and there’s a note in it that says, “Dear Helen, I read in The Spare Room that when your friend was sick, you gave her a hot water bottle and it was wrapped in a tea towel,” she said, “so I’m sending you two hot water bottle covers that I made,” and she said, “I made them out of old Japanese kimono material. These are things that I make.” She’s obviously an artist. These two glorious things, with little ribbons around their neck, but there was something kind of dry and funny about the way she did it. She didn’t say, “Aw, I adore you, and here, please use these.”
TM: What have you been reading where contemporary writing’s concerned? How about Australian writers?
HG: I’ve been reading Svetlana Alexievich. She’s fucking awesome. I spend a lot of time reading that kind of stuff, but I read novels from the ‘40s and ‘50s by English writers. I’ll tell you a terrific Australian novel that was published last year, by Joan London, it’s called The Golden Age. I loved it. It’s very, very good, but she’s a quiet person, she lives in Western Australia, which is a component of the story, and she’s a beautiful writer.
TM: You’d written that David Malouf writes a paragraph and keeps it as a tuning fork for the tone of a piece.
HG: That makes me think of a writer that I absolutely adore, Charles Portis. He was a journalist, and some of those novels of his, they’ve got this perfect voice. I’ve read True Grit about a hundred times. When he’s got that Mattie Ross talking, I read somewhere that he used to have to coordinate the stringers, people in the furthest flung parts of Arkansas or wherever they were, and a lot of them were women, and that’s where he must’ve gotten that voice from, that sort of rather strict voice but full of this kind of gutsy contempt for falseness.
TM: I did want to ask you about your diary because you’ve published parts of it, and obviously if you’re keeping a diary every single day, which is what you’ve said, there’s a lot more.
HG: Yeah, heaps. There’s crate after crate.
TM: I had talked to James Salter, who did the same thing [kept a daily journal], toward the end of his life, and I said, “Are you thinking about doing anything with these?” And he looked back at them, and he said he couldn’t publish them yet because there were so many people’s names in there who are still alive, and the things he’d written about them weren’t meant for public consumption. And he said, the big thing he came away with is thinking how much life he wrote down and just didn’t use in fiction.
HG: Same. There’s so much there that I don’t know what to do with it. But I’ll think about it. You know, it’s very tempting to do something super rational, like burning everything. I have had two big burnings.
TM: You’re making me think of the Writers’ Pyre, which came up in one of your diaries, where a group of writers got together and read a piece they’d written and wanted to do away with for one reason or another.
HG: They didn’t invite me to the Writers’ Pyre, but I wish they had. But I burnt all my diaries when I left home to go to university, when I was 18. I just burnt the lot, but there wasn’t very much, just a few exercise books, and I didn’t want my mother to read them. Then, about 10 years ago, I burnt a whole lot up to, well, what happened was, I was thinking about this particular political [event], the Labour government in what must’ve been 1975, and it was quite radical, and it did all sorts of fantastic things, but it was economically hopeless, and the other side got organized and basically, there was a double dissolution and they fired them, and it was called “The Dismissal,” and it was a great wound in the modern political la-di-da. So, I was just thinking about it, and I said, “I wonder what I wrote about that at the time.” I thought, I’ll go and get it out, so I dived into the pack, I found the date, and I hadn’t even mentioned it. And I thought, ‘Oh. This is worse than I thought.” And again I started reading all around, and the whole thing was just so whiny and adolescent, and you know, I was 30 or something. So it was like the worst sort of diary keeping that women and girls do, which was “He did me wrong, and I’m sick of it, and he’s wounding me,” and all this crap, so I just kept reading slightly forward in time, and I got to a part where there was a switch, and suddenly it was like I opened a door and the world came in. So I burnt all the bits up to then. I just kept a few things that my daughter had, little drawings she’d done and little stories and things like that, I kept all that in a folder. Also, Monkey Grip came out of that period, so I have never regretted this act, not for a single second, but now I wouldn’t. But it was almost like [the change in tone] was from one day to the next, and I don’t know what made it change, but suddenly there were dialogues written out, or there were descriptions of places and strangers that I’d met.
TM: So suddenly it became sort of a writer’s diary.
HG: I guess, yeah, that’s what it was. So you’ve put your finger on it, because maybe that was the turning point. That was after I’d published a book.
TM: Well you’ve said that the first book happened and you still didn’t feel consciously like anything was different, or that it had set you on some path that you absolutely had to stick to.
HG: Not consciously, no, I didn’t. But I think perhaps it did. Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m going to tell you something really shocking that happened the other day in New Haven. Do you know a woman called Amy Hungerford? Anyway, she was chairing this session, and there was me, Tessa Hadley and Hilton Als as part of this panel. We were talking about why you write certain books and how you don’t know why you’re writing them, and I said I don’t know why I chose to write a book about a man who chose to drive his kids into a dam and left them and ran away. And she said, but don’t you remember? In The Spare Room, she said, the narrator is driven so insane by her sick friend that she’s driving along the street and she has this fantasy that she’ll drive the car into a tree, the friend will die, and she’ll get out and run away? I was so shocked. But I kind of felt relieved, because strangely, when I look back on it, the two books kind of overlapped slightly in time, because I’d started going to the Farquharson trials when my friend came to stay. So anyway, there, that gave me a terrible shock, and there must be more of those traces that I’ve left behind.
TM: Do you read other writers’ diaries?
HG: The last one that I looked at was Witold Gombrowicz. Well I read about it, you know in the TLS, or, “What I Plan to Read This Summer.” I always like that better than the ones that say, “This is what I read this year.” This woman, whoever she was, said “I’m going to read Gombrowicz’s diary,” and she put a little quote from it, it said, “I felt hungry, so I went downstairs and I went to the shop and I bought myself a sandwich and I ate it,” and she said, “That’s why I’m going to read these diaries.” And I thought, “Yes!” and I rushed to the shop and I bought the book and of course it’s like a doorstopper of a thing, and I’d never read any of his work. I didn’t know anything about him, how he went to Argentina and lived there right during the war, and he was in torment all the time, but he’s very kind of like, The Angry Pole. I dip into them, but I don’t read straight through. And I’ve looked a million times over the years at Virginia Woolf’s diaries, of course. Who else have I read? Probably heaps but I can’t think of any right now. No, I don’t go looking for them, no.
TM: I’d go letters, then diaries.
HG: Oh, you read writers’ letters?
TM: Yeah. Actually, I wish people still wrote letters.
HG: My diary’s all handwritten, and I like to write letters. I’ve always loved writing letters, and I know that the landscape is thickly coated with letters from me, up until about 10 years ago, when i started to do email. But I really miss it. I love to get a letter.
TM: There’s a different charge to that than an email.
HG: Yeah, totally. The only person I correspond with, in letters — no, there’s two — is Tim Winton, he lives in WA [Western Australia], so we write to each other. He’s the sort of guy, though, who can write a 14-page letter without turning a hair, and the other is a painter friend of mine who lives in Sydney, a guy called Tom Carment, and we write to each other, too. He writes in pencil on little scraps of paper when he’s out. He’s the sort of artist that goes out and draws and paints outdoors, and he does quite small, lovely works, beautiful painter. I love his work and I love his way of seeing things. He likes to tell what’s happened with his kids, or he tells who just walked past. He’s a lovely letter writer.
TM: Nobody does that anymore. It just doesn’t fit [emails] somehow.
HG: No, it’s a great loss. It’s just very intimate. I think people don’t want that sort of intimacy. I’m shocked by how, oddly in New York it’s not like this — people tend to greet you, strangers will give you eye contact and nod — this is something that seems to be dying out in Australia. You find that people just act as if you’re not there, quite often, and that’s part of the insults of age factor, I think, if you’re outside that erotic part of life, erotic in the broader sense, it’s not like they trample you. It’s just like they walk past without giving you eye contact.
TM: It seems a lot of people find those granular, day-to-day interactions are easier to skip over.
HG: I think old people, that’s a privilege of getting older, is that you can actually strike up conversations and people aren’t threatened by you. You know, there’s something I love about where I work. I just have an office in a little office building in a suburb of Melbourne, and it’s right opposite the big central hospital, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and in the basement, the ground floor of it, there’s a great big cafeteria, and I often go there at lunchtime just to get a sandwich.
TM: People watching in the cafeteria?
HG: Yeah, but not just watching them. You can strike up a conversation with anyone in a hospital, because everyone’s in extremis or they’re really worried or else they’ve got their arm in a sling, or they’ve got a drip in their arm and they’re sitting there.
TM: It takes you out of regular life.
HG: Yeah, and so you can say, Oh, what happened to your arm?’ ‘Ah, I come off my tractor,’ and then they tell you the whole story and I love it, I could spend hours in there. But I get the same feeling from that, being there, I recognize from being in the court. When I walk into a court, there’s this zing of adrenaline, because people around you are in a state. And when people talk to you, they don’t just bide the time.
TM: Well, there are stakes attached to what they’re talking about. It’s a world unto itself. I’m trying to think of what other situations would be similar.
HG: Those are the only two that I know. I must’ve experienced it, but restaurants, it’s not the same. It’s just that those are places of trauma, I suppose, where you can be a stranger there and not be in trauma yourself, and you can just be there.
TM: It’s acceptable to be vulnerable there.
HG: Maybe that’s what it is, yeah. I remember once having to go and get a mammogram, and there were a whole bunch of women, and we were all sitting around, and you’d go and get the mammogram, and then you’d wait for the results. So there was maybe six or seven women, and we’re all strangers to each other, and we’re sitting around this waiting room and we all got to, everyone was talking quite intimately. And I guess I was there for three quarters of an hour, and every now and then the nurse would come out and call your name, and you’d go and she’d say, ‘You’re okay, you’re clear,’ and you can go home. And so, when my name was called, I got up and she says to me, ‘All clear, you can go home.’ And I looked around to say goodbye to the women and they all looked and they all reached out and they all touched me. It was kind of like they wanted a piece of my luck? But it was so lovely, they smiled and said, ‘Oh, fantastic! That’s such good news.’
TM: That’s a gracious moment, what with you all also being so worried about yourselves.
HG: Yeah, it was a moment of grace, exactly.