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Fostering fans ...
An interview with DAVID FOSTER

SO this is the crofting lifestyle, I think, as I turn into David Foster's driveway. Publicity for the reclusive author has always emphasised this aspect of his life, something I wasn't sure I understood and anyway found difficult to reconcile with the street-wise acerbity of his texts. Foster greets us with shy friendliness - he's returned to his "suburban-rural'' Southern Highland home only this morning after a month of promoting his latest novel, In The New Country (Fourth Estate, pp213, $22.95) in London and Oxbridge and a week's research in Orkney. It's released here next week, following this week's publication of another work, Studs and Nogs: Essays 1987-98 (Random House, pp218, $17.95).

An intriguing duo, in a very cognitive way they inform each other - there's reward in reading both. The British reception for New Country was "surprisingly successful" he says. Less so is his echinacea-aided battle against the 'flu. And jet lag. "No, I'm okay," he protests. "No, he's not his time clock's somewhere over Singapore," trumps his no-nonsense wife Gerda, a prison counsellor. She's served up a welcome-stranger hearty soup with "homegrown Savoy cabbage so fresh it's still screaming from being picked". It's as good as it sounds.

Outside, the half-hectare of garden around the old stone house is flourishing a colourful wave of flowers breaks against the house and saggy veranda edges, but on the other side of the path it's lush practicality. A hot house strains with luxuriant tomatoes, chili, capsicum and eggplant. The fig bursts in second fruiting, cabbage, broccoli and brussel sprouts are Royal Show size, as are the pumpkins, squash and carrots. Lemon trees sag in overproduction, grape vines stagger the fence, crowds of berry bushes tempt, chickens scratch near vines of ripening kiwi fruit, the pear trees would support a bevy of partridges. Two cockatoos in a shading oak eye off potential booty, ignoring Foster's ire at their presence. At the front, the five hives are abuzz, and somewhere in the neighbour's bordering paddock Foster's milkers seek shade.

It's nirvana on a stick to me, the superannuated hippie's dream of artist and nature. Foster admits the delights but knows the reality. For starters, the garden takes "about half a day's work every day to maintain". Not counting the time spent on managing hives and honey, or making cheese and butter. He and Gerda moved here 20-odd years ago into a derelict property "that had cows on the veranda and grass growing in the floors". Renovation has been slow ("getting gas two years ago was a big improvement") if effective - the house has retained a family feel even as it converts into country dignity. But it's always been a battle, given nature, nurture and the neediness of the long-distance satirist. After all, there's been his three, her two and their three kids to raise. Now ranging from 18 to 32, they've all left home and it's the turn of the next generation - a dozen grandkids and rising - to regularly riot around. There's poignancy, too, in the ladder left abandoned against the gigantic eucalyptus, leading to the skeletal floor of an absent tree house.

One recent addition has been the A-framed studio loft above the garage, a retreat of wood-lined cosiness to which we retreat. The ambience is Australo-Scandinavian, with wood-fired heater, stained glass window, epigrammatic etchings and office efficiency. Here, Foster comes as close as he ever does to relaxing. Which is not that much although he has in his mid-50s mellowed from the feisty suspicion of earlier years, "purely a function of age" he suggests, "I've got nothing to be more mellow about in terms of prospects". No compromise is the motto, still.

He's always had to fight for his end, a self-made man sceptical of those whose recognition owes more to "playing the game" than rigour. Katoomba-born to "vaudevillean" entertainers, he never knew his father. His mother, herself a foster child, married a banker, and the family moved around NSW rural banking traps. Which helps explain, perhaps, why identity is so elemental in his work. At Sydney Uni he won the university medal for Inorganic Chemistry, took his PhD at ANU and did post-doctoral work in Pennsylvania (he's the co-author of a dozen papers in international biochemical literature). He's also a second dan black belt in taekwondo, was for 20 years a motor-bike riding drummer in various bands (including a stint playing way back with Peter Allen), is a deputy captain in the bush fire brigade and yearns at heart to be a farmer.

More than most, he has suffered from being prickly in press and in attitude, as much to do with aesthetic puritanism as with literary sensibilities. His leather-jacketed hawkishness threatened the genteel doves, even if it was more terse frustration than ungraciousness. Which is a shame because in person and in performance, he is singularly impressive. Trouble is, what Foster says he means: plain-talking is plain-talking whether in vernacular or scholarly allusions. Thus it was with his "about-time" comments that so offended high art journalists and career apparatchiks when he won the 1997 Miles Franklin Award for The Glade Within The Grove (possibly the least accessible of his works, if the most extensive in ambition and realisation). He firmly believed (still does) that he should have won it previously - he's especially affronted to have been overlooked the year no prize was awarded). He's convinced his readership was affected by some literary editors regularly assigning reviewers antagonistic to his work. And that his satire was adjudged beyond the polite pale by a generation of cultural arbiters. (Even in recognition there was bitter irony, with the "breakthrough" coming only after the Glade's release in the UK prompted a Times Literary Supplement reviewer to declare that "here the work of the novel is done so well there can be no achievement beyond it".)

He writes to live, he says (although the obverse obviously holds). And without grants or awards in Australia, few can earn enough to live on. After nine novels, three non-fiction works, two books of poetry, three novellas and innumerable radio plays, he resented having in mid-career to support his family by prawn-fishing or delivering mail. Not that he's been totally ignored: he's won Age and NBC Books of the Year, a Suspended Sentence award, a Marten bequest and received a Keating "National Treasure" Fellowship and NSW Premiers Fellowship, among others. And Glade's Dublin Literary Award shortlisting was worth kudos if no cash. Overall, though, given Australia's inherently small book-buying population and an uncertain tradition here for the satiric, his writing life has been financially constrained.

In The New Country is a tour de farce, a dark (naturally) exposition of an Irish-settled colony struggling to survive the rural squeeze and retain identity. And of the search for common identity between cultures, Irish, bushman and "the very dark Irish", the Aborigines. With a cast that includes an energetic "entrepreneur", Ad Hock ("a minor character who quickly became the linchpin I was happy to put the book into his hands, even if everything he touches turns to dross"), a famous son Country and Western singer named Dud Leahey, pyromaniacal fire-fighters, a mysterious City-to-Surf winner in a gorilla suit, plus gender and racial confusions, death and doughtiness, it's a gleeful confusion of character and happenstance with a bitter-sweet underbelly. Again, Foster forces the reader to look through, as well as at, his mirror the laughs loiter, the subterranean significance time-bombs.

Glade "took a lot out of me," he says, "and although it was a critical success, it appealed mainly to sophisticated readers. With New Country, I wanted to do something that would be more widely reader-friendly. It's Glade with the metaphysics extracted, a rustic farce in the Steele Rudd tradition." His wanted to "present a picture of an overlooked but still critical rural Australia its neglect verges on tragedy. I grew up in that 'Irish' area of NSW and I recognised so many features of it when I went to Ireland - I see the Irish landscape as a Dreamtime landscape. That helped coalescese what has been on my mind for some time, the contrasting attitude to the land of a hunter-gatherer and a settler-farmer much of the land conflict here today is not really between blacks and whites but between those two groups. Take fire hunter gatherers can move on from a fire and come back, but someone who has put up fences and houses is much more threatened. Fire for them is devastating."

Equally devastating is the discovery by one character of an Aboriginal great grandparent it's a catalyst for immediate adoption of a land rights and lassitude persona, and a change in community perceptions. The satire is merciless, and close to Foster's heart. He's dedicated the book to his "part-aboriginal grandsons in the hope Australians may learn to see them, so they may be permitted to see themselves, as Australians rather than aboriginal Australians". If we're to have a multicultural nation, he says, we need "a realistic perception of what happens when cultures interbreed. I have a great-grandparent who came from Lancashire, but that doesn't make me a Pom. At present we are pigeon-holing people into restrictive categories we don't seem to know what it means to be Australian. The only thing I can see we all have, or that we rapidly acquire, is an Australian accent. That's why I've immersed myself to such an extent in that creative and allusive Australian vernacular." Probably to the detriment, as he recognises unrepentantly, of his international appeal.

Later, interview over, we descend into autumnal afternoon. The yard is "on stage" now, an anarchic Aussie "secret garden", complete with knockabout shed, found sculptures and birdcall soundtrack. Everything is spotlit with surrealistic intensity. I cityboy enthuse over a nicotine hit and rural views that stretch to bush-clad horizons. He's more anxious to check his cows. He hasn't seen them for five weeks and his relief is plain when he spots one in the distance. He calls her name and up she trots, heavy with calf and inelegant ebullience, to greet him. As we traipse off with dog and cow in tow towards the others near the dam, he mentions (amid thistle and blackberry inspections) that farming animals "is treachery really you teach them to trust you then you end up knocking them. I keep the heifers, had these for 12 years, but I knock the steers. Don't have any qualms about eating them, either, although my kids certainly do that's the nature of the farmer settler though. Probably why the hit and run of the hunter gatherer is better. In Orkney ..."

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.

Copyright Murray Waldren 1999

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