Kismet Kate

An interview with the winner of the Orange Prize for fiction 2001

By Murray Waldren

"E XCUSE the mess," the author of The Idea of Perfection apologises as I enter the inner-city terrace. Kate GrenvilleThe fa็ade declares it was built in 1882 and although she and her husband,cartoonist/filmmaker Bruce Petty, have been there 15 years, Sydney novelist Kate Grenville proclaims it still "embarrassingly original". Perfection as an idea is not perfection in reality, she implies, at least not on the domestic front. She's too sensitive … there is no mess, just echoes of bohemian Balmain before it was boutiqued into submission. The walls, lined with paintings by friends, jostle for attention with objects of idiosyncratic art and hordes of books on shelves, in piles or sentinel besides the washing up. Beyond the back deck a handkerchiefed garden hosts hens, several quail and eclectic pot plants. There was a veggie garden too until her son's recent colonisation of it into an outdoor workshop.

A distinctive figure in the literary landscape since the mid-1980s with her red-tinged woolly hair and affable if reticent manner, Grenville was recognised as a thoughtful, challenging writer from her first novel, The Australian/Vogel Award-winning Lilian's Story. And her sales since have been solid enough to place her among the few here who can keep writing professionally, with a little help from grants and external earners (in her case from teaching writing and from journalism). But if critics praise her rebellious sensitivity, others have thought her too literary to achieve wider acceptance. As one commentator puts it, "along with Hilary McPhee, Drusilla Modjeska and to a lesser extent Helen Garner, Kate Grenville is among the Untouchable Four of Australian writing - their reputations are high, yet if you talk to people off the record, they often find the books difficult."

That's a perception Grenville would dispute. Besides, it's irrelevant since she entered a new echelon of acceptance in June. That was when she was flown to England as a shortlistee in the rich Orange Prize for fiction. Contentious given its women-only restriction, the annual award has also become one of the most internationally coveted. And to counter gender carping, organisers this year instituted a shadow male jury to vet nominees. Only one book was shortlisted by both the male and official female panels: The Idea of Perfection. Grenville herself was "tickled pink" merely to be asked to attend, but in London, in a transparent marquee on the banks of the River Thames, she won the $83,000 prize-money ahead of such luminaries as Canada's Booker Prize-winning Margaret Atwood and top-selling American novelist Jane Smiley.

Welcome to halcyon daze: since then it's been a continuous round of overseas offers for her backlist; radio and print journalists from Europe and the Americas have courted her; tantalising bids have been made for translation rights … And the Orange Prize follows a $50,000 grant by the Australia Council late last year, and just before that a $12,000 literary fellowship at the University of NSW. It's a great time to be Kate Grenville ...

Ironically, Perfection was treated with relative ignore by home-town literati on its release in 1999. Critics seemed disconcerted by its unexpected "accessibility" and it featured in no local award shortlists. Even more ironically, perhaps, despite her Vogel Award, grants, five novels, a short story collection and three how-to write books, it's only in the last month or so that Grenville has "finally accepted that I am a writer". Before, she confesses, she'd always felt something of an impostor, uneasy that her life-long desire to be a writer outweighed her being one. It took international kudos to make her reassess herself.

Some of that self-doubt may have been exacerbated by working alongside the daily brilliance of her husband, revered in satirical circles for his integrity and instinct for the societal jugular. They met in the mid-'80s at a launch of a Victoria Roberts cartoon book, for which Petty was doing the honours. Somebody had "taken me along," Grenville scene-sets, "and thank goodness they did. Bruce came up to me at the coffee machine and suggested we go for coffee or lunch one day. I was just thrilled because I'd fallen in love with him at first sight." Their first date, she pin-points, "was at Eric's Fish Caf้ in Crows Nest…" It was, friends say, a meeting of minds, sensitivities and politics. Both advocate a social equity, worker-oriented approach to life and both practise what they preach, although at 71 Petty is some 21 years the older. That age gap, Grenville once confided to my colleague Adrian McGregor, should have concerned her but didn't: "Bruce was the only man I'd ever met who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, and have a family with." To me, she praises him as "sincerely non-egotistical", a gentle, eternally curious man passionate about what he believes in. "He doesn't say much, but what he does is always perceptive. When he reads my work, he might make only one or two brief comments but they're enough to have me scurrying back and rewriting for days."

THE ONLY DAUGHTER of a Sydney barrister and country-born pharmacist, Grenville spent her childhood "wait-for-me-ing" after her much older brothers. She was a short-sighted tomboy in "a blurry, fantasy world" of self-created stories with her as heroine, happiest when constructing ambitious cubby-houses. From her father came a desire to write - he published a novel and "a book about the Vietnam war which I disagreed with passionately" - while her mother "was a prime influence in subverting the stereotype". In middle age she returned to university then taught English as a second language: she was "a real model," Grenville says admiringly, "not only for being a strong, intelligent woman but for proving you could reinvent yourself with enough willpower and personal strength." It was her mother too who told her "memorably as I was growing up, 'I am not going to teach you how to cook or how to do housework because if I do you will become some man's domestic servant.' " Poor Bruce, she laughs, shrugging QED-ishly at the room.

In primary school she was no good at anything but composition "so I decided to be a writer - I'd compose lurid stories about being trapped by the tide and swept away by whirlpools, real Swallows and Amazons stuff. I'd read 60 Biggles books and they were my literary models." At Sydney Uni she studied English literature "as you do if you want to write," but four years studying masterpieces "makes your own efforts look exceptionally feeble. By the end, I'd all but given up … there was this implicit idea then that the muse spoke and you wrote it down obediently. And it wasn't speaking to me."

So she joined Film Australia in what was the hey-day of Australia's cinema revival: in the early 1970s it was a de facto national film school - Peter Weir was there as was Phil Noyce and others who led the renaissance of the country's movie-making. Grenville became a film editor amid an energy of ideas she describes as breathtaking. In 1978, while in a "tumultuous" relationship with a cinematographer, she was hired to work on a film in London. She was 28, and "as soon as I got to England I felt I was home. It was all that Wordsworth I'd read." When her film contract ended she'd work as a temp typist then travel in Europe until the money ran out.

Life changed in Paris. The city "totally seduced" her and she stayed nine months in her own studio "on the sixth floor of the same building in which Flaubert had lived". There she began to write again. She also hung out at Shakespeare & Co, the legendary English-language bookshop, and met Americans for the first time. "I'd had the classic Australian snobbery about Americans being oafs (but) I realised in Paris they had the most vibrant contemporary literature by far, more so than the English, and were in themselves courteous, cultured and informed." She read authors like John Hawkes, Robert Coover and Flannery O'Connor and met experimentalist writer Ron Sukenick. "He read a novel I'd written, atrocious tripe that if one of my students showed it to me today, well I would not think there was any talent there at all. But Ron suggested I apply to the University of Colorado to do a Masters in Creative Writing. … he must have thought I needed it."

By 1980 she was "in the middle of the Rockies with racoons coming in my window … wondering what a nice girl from Sydney was doing in a place like that." In Boulder her teachers, including Sukenick, poet Edward Dorn and soon-to-be husband Robert Steiner, "made me be much bolder", freeing her from cultural inhibitions. In 1983 she made a flying return to Australia "to tie up loose ends - I was sure I didn't want to live here any more … my future was in America" - but obstacles arose. "My marriage was on the skids and for a couple of years life was in disarray. When I could return to America, I didn't want to ... I'd realised I belonged in my own language. I'd been having real problems writing, whether to describe someone as a guy, a chap or a bloke. And Australia was no longer the place I'd left - it had transformed into a multicultural, exciting place to be [and] I could see there would be stories to tell."

She became a sub-editor at SBS television in the subtitling department, "along with other writers like Sue Woolfe, Gerard Windsor, Martin Johnson and John Tranter … it was a sheltered workshop for writers, reasonably well paid so we could support ourselves part time." She wrote Lilian's Story there, and at 34 was just under the age limit when it won the Vogels. The previous year she'd entered Dreamhouse: that made the short-list but the judges probably did her a favour - it had been written very much under the influence of her teachers at Boulder, and a win might have entrenched her in that Americanised approach. Having the judges like it with reservations made her "go back over it and see it was full of posturing and pretentious structures - I ripped the heart out of it and simplified it before it was published."

Lilian's Story, an imaginative retelling of the life of Shakespeare-declaiming, taxi-driver-terrorising Sydney eccentric Bea Miles, was the first book she had written "determined to please nobody but myself … it was totally self-indulgent, the first time technique and heart came together." The best thing from it was "the feeling that my voice, my idiosyncratic view of the world, was what people wanted." By 1986 she'd won a literary grant, left SBS, moved into Balmain and had her first child (she now has two, daughter Alice being born four years later). She also had a commission to write "a book about Australian history" for the Bicentenary. "I can remember sitting at the dining room table with Tom in the pram - he was a fairly restless baby, let's say - and I was pushing the pram with one hand and writing with the other." The resultant Joan Makes History was a subversive, ironic book written from an Everywoman domestic viewpoint … Then followed a long gap to her next novel, interrupted by children, two how-to-write books and a struggle with theme.

Eventually she came to terms with the dark horrors of her "sequel" to Lilian's Story, a novel centred on an incestuous, bullying father. Dark Places won the 1995 Victorian Premier's Literary Award, a Miles Franklin short-listing and a shocked response from the reading community. It also stranded Grenville in dark places of the psyche. "I gave up several times. The last time, I went and sat in Callan Park, which seemed very appropriate. And I thought, I've honestly tried and I can honourably say I've done my best to understand that particular human behaviour, and I can't … so I'll do something else. And the instant I gave up is the moment that suddenly - it was almost a Joan of Arc experience - a voice spoke to me and said, 'you don't have to understand, all you have to do is tell the story … it's for others to try to understand it'. It's probably what Keats meant by negative capability - the moment you stop trying to control it is the moment at which revelation comes."

Dark Places, she qualifies, "is a difficult book even to talk about because it sounds so gruesome, but it's actually quite funny. I'm proud of it, I think I tackled something very difficult in an honest way even if it was deeply confronting for many." In a curious way it also empowered the writing of Perfection. "In Dark Places I had to acknowledge I'd internalised a lot of the misogyny that the father, Albion, has … that a part of me was misogynist because I live in a misogynistic culture. I no longer had to pretend I was perfect, I could acknowledge a dark side. Once I'd finished Perfection, I could see it is really about people accepting the dark side of themselves, the imperfections and weaknesses. And realizing that not only are they things you have to put up with, they're what make you a proper human being."

The Perfection manuscript she sent her publisher was Draft 24. Does this mean she's a bit of a perfectionist? "It's the only sphere of life in which I am," she laughs. "As someone sitting in our messy house, you can see I'm not perfectionist in any other way. With a book, I can't bear a sentence to be clunky. I can't bear that sense you are not reinventing each sentence ... I can't bear that feeling of the second-hand and the lazy. And because I write those sentences just like everybody else, that's why it takes me 24 drafts. I'd have liked more. Every time I do a reading, I change it on the run because I'll come to a little phrase that I feel, 'Ooh, that's ugly'. It's a work in progress."

She's too harsh on herself. In Perfection, she has captured the essence of Anytown, Australia (rural division) with humorous discernment. It's all there, from the economic conversations and ever-watching eyes to the sense-surround of dust, smells, flies and languid dogs huddling from the heat-haze. Her observations are so astute you'd suspect she's obsessed with the minutiae of life. "Absolutely true," she agrees. "I keep notebooks of those little things that flash past in life, like in some one-horse country town seeing a man leave the hardware store with a neon light under his arm, exactly like a Frenchman leaving a bakery with a baguette. Things like that you can't invent but they're the images and contradictions of life." As are the ideas of perfectionism and untidy houses …

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian Magazine, 8/9/2001

Copyright ฉ 2001 Murray Waldren


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