For more articles and interviews, go to Literary Liaisons




A terrifying night in a foreign jail inspired Janette Turner Hospital's latest novel

IT'S spring in South Carolina and the air is balmy with optimism. On the park-like campus in the state capital, Columbia, dogwood trees are in full bloom, tumbling ranks of azaleas press against border fences, live oaks lend a gnarled geometry to the landscape and the cherry trees, as one local puts it, ``do not so much blossom as stage a performance''.

It is a scene serene and stage-set, and one far removed from terrorism, torture and war. Yet it is here at the University of South Carolina that Australian novelist Janette Turner Hospital wrote much of her eighth and latest novel, Orpheus Lost. A feminist subverting of a classic tale of love, liberty and the darkness of the human soul, it ranges from Queensland rainforest to the Bible belt of the US deep south, from Boston's academic civility to Baghdad's murderous mayhem via music, mathematics and the inexplicable melodies and equations of attraction and betrayal, of logic and blind faith.

Hospital admits to being influenced by ``the horrors of Guantanamo, David Hicks and bodies found in secret Baghdad torture chambers'' in writing her book, but its genesis traces back to May 1999 when she was thrown into a foreign jail. Along with writers Brian Castro and Frank Moorhouse, fellow guests at that year's Prague festival, she was herded off a train at gunpoint on the Czech-Slovak border and locked in a tiny cell.

It was a 2am frontier crossing and the three refused to pay what they saw as a shakedown bribe. That meant several hours sitting on a concrete floor and some high-tensile paranoia before a release could be negotiated. After they paid the fine.

Hospital says she would do nothing differently today, ``not even not picking the pocket of the police sergeant to get our passports back, which raised the stakes considerably when he discovered what I had done''. For several reasons, she has never been able to write about the incident, but the sense of powerlessness and fear she experienced then has fuelled her previous novel, the political thriller Due Preparations for the Plague (2003), and Orpheus Lost.

Melbourne-born and Brisbane-reared, Hospital left Australia in 1967 for Boston, where her husband Cliff Hospital completed a PhD at Harvard and she worked as a librarian and seamstress. In 1971 she followed Cliff to Toronto, where he had been appointed a professor at Queens University and where Hospital soon completed an MA in medieval literature. Canada remained their base for 30 years.

For the past eight years, Hospital has been in Columbia as Carolina distinguished professor of English at USC. She is a sharp contrast to her predecessor in the endowed chair, Pulitzer prize-winning poet James Dickey: he was a shambling man of generous girth and tall tales, celebrated for writing the novel Deliverance; she is a diminutive but straight-talking 80-hour-a-weekwhirlwind.

Like Olga Masters and Elizabeth Stead, Hospital is a pin-up girl for late starters; her first novel, The Ivory Swing (1982), was published when she was 40 and she has since racked up another six -- seven if you count the crime novel she wrote as Alex Juniper in 1990 -- and three collections of short stories. Her books are translated in a dozen languages. Plaudits and prizes have accumulated.

She's patently proud of the university, founded in 1801, and popular if the number of students and faculty members who greet her as we traverse the campus grounds is any guide. One of them is Cleveland Sellers, head of African-American studies, a close friend of Hospital, who only minutes before had been describing how he had been the only person jailed after the Orangeburg massacre in February 1968 for alleged incitement of a campus riot in which three men were killed and 27 others wounded. It took 25 years and concerted protests before he was pardoned.

This is a state proud that Charleston's Fort Sumter is where the first shot was fired in the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression, as it is still called in these parts). They do things differently around here, Hospital mentions again over a lunch of shrimp and grits. Early in her tenure, she berated a short-story writer for delivering an assignment about a six-year-old receiving a gun and shooting lessons as a birthday present; no one would believe such a thing, she scoffed. Then she noticed a stony silence among her students; all 12 in her graduate class, it transpired, had received similar presents at a similar age.

South Carolina was once so prosperous that Charleston, 150km to the southeast, was in per capita terms the world's richest city. These days, Hospital notes wryly, the state comes second last on every national list: ``People here are very grateful for Mississippi, which always comes last.''

Moving to South Carolina appears to have answered needs she didn't realise were there. ``When I was offered the position I just thought, `You've got to be kidding; why in heaven's name would I want to go to the deep south?''' Flying out of a blizzard in Toronto to a place that smelled of sultry summers ``aroused all my Queensland instincts'', she says. ``It was also a place that in those days still flew the Confederate flag on the statehouse and I thought it would be so weirdly interesting to live here; that's always a temptation for a writer, to live in dangerous and interesting places, and it has been good for my writing, I think.'' She was surprised to find Queensland and South Carolina twinned in many ways.

``In a funny way, when I started this book, I felt I was on home turf but it was less stressful because it wasn't my baggage and my responsibilities like it was in Queensland,'' she says. ``It is really deep fundamentalist here, Pentecostal, and I grew up in a fundamentalist family from which I started extricating myself intellectually when in high school. But we were a very close, loving family, which made it very difficult because I did not want to be in a state of anger with them. ``I have been angry with them but there has never been a break or a rupture; they are very decent.'' Both her parents are in their 90s.

For someone so gentle and genteel, Hospital has a determination that if harnessed could drive power stations. That nerve and stroppy sense of self are characteristics she has given to Leela-May, the Eurydice in Orpheus Lost. Leela is a charismatic and feisty (naturally) survivor who would have had ``a hell of a lot more problems growing up in South Carolina than I would have ever had growing up in Brisbane'', Hospital says.

Hospital collects facsimiles of illuminated manuscripts as a hobby and her own manuscripts are illuminated by character-rich, plot-strong tales that don't talk down to the reader. ``A lot of people don't forgive me for that, suggesting they are too difficult, but the truth is, I'm not thinking about audience at all when I am writing; I just get grabbed by a subject and writing becomes this long wrestling match over how best to convey whatever it is that I want to convey,'' she says.

Her books start with an image and this one came in a visit to Boston. ``I've always loved the subway there, dark and gritty though it is; the music is absolutely first class because the buskers are all Harvard music students. I was listening there one day and realised it was a modern Orpheus and Eurydice, that this is where they would meet, there in the Underground.'' It was a eureka moment. ``I'd just finished Due Preparations and had promised myself, and my agent and publishers, that I would not write such a dark book again. I was going to write a simple love story. But I'm afraid it took a turn for the dark because world events seep into my consciousness and they are hard to ignore when you are writing about the times.''

Nonetheless, she says, Orpheus Lost is not anti-military. ``I am very conscious [that] I have students and friends with a father or husband or son in Iraq: I am highly aware of the cost and anxiety of the people who go into the military or national guard. I'd happily put a sticker saying: `I support our troops' on my car -- because I do -- if it were not for the context of being interpreted as pro-Bush and pro-war.''

As for the mathematics that drives Leela, ``I just got very interested in that connection that exists between maths and music.'' Leela's religiously obsessed father has a fetish for number patterns, ``which my father didn't have, but he does have certain biblical fixations not that different from Leela's father. You know, I grew up in a family where 666 was significant, and [this is] the only other place I've lived where it was as well understood as being the mark of the beast.''

In a way, she offers, ``in my book I was seeking to say that transcendence, redemption, is here, earth-linked. I think I have believed that ever since I lost faith in mid-teenage years.''


This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian Magazine, 12 MAY 2007. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren


Feel free to Feedback Just drop a line to

Back to Literary Liaisons