While she's rueful the title may prove prophetic, for the record there is no comparison between bringing a book and a baby to life. "Childbirth definitely takes the pain cake," she laughs. "It's not an original comment but all I can say is 'thank God for epidurals'."
Nature, though, is compassionate to mothers, and authors - it's why she invented selective amnesia. "I hadn't really understood just how intense an experience having a baby is," she says in still-bemused tones. "Not so much the birth as the minute-to-minute emotional and physical intricacies of having him in our lives." It's also given perspective to the intensities of getting Sane Days to print, even if its gestation was three times as long. "The book was always a real wrestling match, a stop-start affair with so many drafts going nowhere. Some of that may have been the Second Novel Syndrome, but so many issues needed to be resolved, so much research had to be done. And then I always edit and edit and edit; I like to keep it spare." Which, while an admirable process for a reader, can send any writer into despair.
A self-professed "Melbourne girl", Capp grew up in suburban Heidelberg ("people constantly snigger when you say you come from there"), the "second-last in a family of 4 sisters and 2 brothers, a GP father and a psychologist mother". An honours graduate in English literature, she joined The Age in 1986 as a general reporter before sidling "pretty quickly into feature writing with a literary perspective - I always knew my future was in literature, and I was in a hurry to get started." In such a hurry, in fact, that she left in '88 for a 7-month "backpackers' special" tour of Europe before returning to a regimen of freelance journalism, sessional tutoring at RMIT and further study. By '92 she'd accrued a PhD, with her thesis, Writers Defiled, becoming a well-quoted McPhee Gribble publication the year after. Now, at 36, her literary CV reads novelist, essayist, short storiest, reviewer, critic. And despite multiple detours to Europe, she's settled just a few kilometres across town from Heidelberg in increasingly arty Brunswick, with her partner of 12 years, novelist Steven Carroll. And Leo. And the realisation that life has changed forever. "As a mother," she smiles, "I'm very much on L-plates." As a novelist, few such restrictions apply.
If Writers Defiled was of the mind, her debut novel Night Surfing (1996) was of the body. Reprinted three times, shortlisted for many awards and published in France, it was an evocation of surfing, with a coming-of-age edge. Sane Days, however, is a melding of mind and body that resounds with echoes and codas, ironies and intimacies. It is a haunting novel, with ambivalence at its heart - philosophical, sexual, emotional. It could also have become over-heated and pretentious, especially as the invisible fifth character, and pervasive influence, is the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. That it doesn't owes much to Capp's calm intelligence. Against evocatively-drawn landscapes of Australia's unforgiving South Coast, France, Switzerland and Italy, she unravels a quest novel that encourages questioning on the nature of faith, love, loss and redemption. And which provides some answers.
She wrote it, she says, "simply because I had to ... it was a journey I hoped readers might want to take with me. Uppermost in my mind were two questions: to what extent can we enter into another person's experience? and how can we make sense of suffering in a world without God?" Her hero, a young pilot battling chronic undiagnosed pain, becomes obsessed with the writings of the similarly-stricken Nietzsche on "amor fati" (loving your fate), superman, the death of God and the eternal recurrence. On a pilgrimage in Nietzsche's footsteps to find how he might embrace his fate, he meets Hilary, a doctor fleeing a loss of faith in medicine. A contrapuntal figure to Nietzsche, she's also his godmother (in his mind almost a fairy godmother) whose sexual tension with Joy, his mother, makes her relationship with him almost oedipal. Then it gets complicated ...
"Without dwelling on it, chronic pain is something I've had personal experience with," explains Capp. "I wanted to give some insight into how wearying it is, but I knew before I began how far pain is beyond words' reach - it is so abstract, and resists language. Part of the challenge was that very difficulty." And whereas acute pain, has an inherent narrative structure of beginning-middle-end, "chronic pain has no end. It's relentless, almost meaningless and beyond depression. Raf's dilemma is that his pain is unnamed and therefore unreal to others."
He's a pilot because Capp wanted a hero with a passion that gave meaning to his life "and intensified his sense of loss when it was taken from him." To understand flying, she interviewed an RAAF flight lieutenant "who gave me a literary reference rather than the mechanical. By the end, I felt I had a clear understanding of the technical and the psychological, of the force of gravity and the sense of speed as well as the compulsion and impulsion." But whereas Night Surfing was based on personal experience, "I declined all invitations to go up in the air - I was chicken, something I now regret."
To map Raf's pilgrimage, she undertook her own Nietzschean research trip in February '97. It was nice in Nice but totally the wrong time of year in the Swiss Alps, "serendipitous really, because it added to the frustrations of Raf, and emphasised the futility of trying to emulate a hero."
And her own heroes? "Not Nietzsche" - about whom she remains highly ambivalent, although she believes "few thinkers have been so misrepresented as he" - but Paul Robeson ("for the voice that comes from his boots and his boots 'n' all political integrity") and Judith Wright ("for the passion of her writing and her political commitment"). Which seems poetically apt for someone who writes with such lyrical style.
This article was first published in The Weekend
Copyright © Murray Waldren 1999