An adventurer's love song

Nikki Gemmell has just released her third novel

By Murray Waldren
FRIENDS describe her as media-savvy and eccentric. They talk of self-belief, of resolve and an underlying romanticism. If true, such traits have only helped establish what is a developing literary presence. Not just in Australia either, but also in Britain and the US. And France, where Nikki Gemmell's first two novels, Shiver and Cleave, sold 25,000-plus copies each after she appeared on a top-rating television chat show there.

Tout le monde became enamoured with the feisty femmes of OzLit (Linda Jaivin, Julia Leigh and Justine Ettler were also critically feted); it was, says Gemmell, a blow-out. ``In Paris, people would stop me on the street saying `Ah Nik-ee Zhe-Mel, blah, blah ...' It's pathetic I don't speak the language, I'd live there tomorrow if I did.''

Instead, she lives in London, where she speaks the language well enough to produce and present the British news segment of a BBC World Service current affairs program (although the former Triple J newsreader admits to receiving ``complaints from many continents about the horrible Australian accent ... from people expecting cut-glass pronunciation''). Still, the BBC has only ever been a part-time exercise to sustain her true passion. Which is -- or was (of which more later) -- writing.

Now in her mid-30s, Gemmell has just released her third novel, Love Song, the last in a trilogy about women in difficult places. ``It took three years of real slog and 40 drafts -- I wrote my first book with a kind of arrogance and innocence but [now] I realise what I'm up against. And then there was the desire to hit people in the gut, similar to films like The Piano and Breaking the Waves, to write a sexy, compelling, heartbreaking book with rhythm and beauty to its voice.''

It was no vain aspiration -- her least autobiographical novel, Love Song has more polish and less linear simplicity than her earlier work, and comes close to realising her ambitions for it. A lullaby of assertive harmonies and poignant discords, it's spirited and spiritual, undershot with mordant wit and an aching moodiness. As with her other novels, landscape is imperative. As is expedition. Shiver was set in Antarctica, Cleave around the Alice, and this one encompasses a pilgrimage from Australia (and a strict religious community town, the sardonically named Sunshine) to the anarchic worldliness of London. It's similar to her own journey in 1997 when she headed to a Fleet Street to join Melbourne journalist Andrew Scholl, a media adviser to Tony Blair's prime ministerial campaign.

The next year they married, and last month moved into fashionable Notting Hill stables converted into a mini-mews. Seen in Australia as a broadcast journo with literary tickets on herself, Gemmell says she loved arriving in London with no past. She also had the manuscript of Cleave in her backpack, although the first agent she approached ``absolutely hated it'', refused even to take her calls. Then she read of an agent who'd loved a first novel manuscript so much he flew to Delhi to sign up the author. The latter was Arundhati Roy, the agent David Godwin. With nothing to lose, Gemmell met him on a Friday. Godwin was non-committal, telling her to shop around as many London agents as she could. ``On the Sunday he left a message that he'd spent the weekend immersed in the central Australian desert, he had to speak to me immediately and I was to ignore his advice about other agents. The book was sold into many countries and I started to think, well maybe I can consider myself a writer.''

That was the ambition from her teens when, inspired by tales of Robyn Davidson, Isabelle Eberhardt and Amelia Earhart, she determined to be an adventurer-novelist. Life got in the way for several years and her early fervour was slightly dented by her coalminer father's response to her plans at 19 to write. ``Waste of time, that,'' he'd said. Even now he doesn't read her books, not since he got to the first swear word in Shiver, on the first page. Nor was he the only one disturbed by her no-holds-barred approach: Cleave was short-listed for the Queensland Premier's fiction prize but its sexually explicit passages prompted certain South Australian parents to call for its ban from high schools; John Howard was reportedly shocked when shown passages by a radio presenter.

Their shock was as nothing to hers on completing Love Song, which is narrated by a pregnant woman to her unborn child. Whether prescience, wish-fulfilment or life's imitation of art, Gemmell began vomiting the day after she handed the manuscript to her agent. She assumed it was stress because she was utterly wrung out after working at the BBC and surviving on cheap champagne to keep her awake while she finished the novel. Instead, she found she was 10 weeks pregnant.

Her 10-month-old son, Lachlan, has changed her life completely. ``I never expected motherhood to be so absorbing. Once I would spend my time looking outward, seeking new experiences, cities, stories, roads and relationships; now my whole life is focused inward, to my little home and family.'' Trouble is, maternity leave ends October 1 and the thought of returning to the BBC fills her with dread. ``I've completely lost the hunger for journalism; it's gone, gone, gone.'' But she worries how tough it is to make a living just as a freelance writer, especially with agents in London, New York and Sydney all wanting their cut.

And there's another worry. Her 20s were full of loneliness and self-doubt, relationship break-ups, the accidental death of a lover -- dramas rich in material for her novels. Today, deeply happy for the first time, she feels she can't quite float back and just enjoy it. ``Life is not meant to be like this, is it? I've always expected it to be really tough, and with that toughness came the writing. I fear for what may be required to find fresh material.''

Motherhood also means she is no longer as obsessed about writing; it doesn't mean she's letting it go, she's ``just approaching it differently''. The jury's out on that -- because next in the Gemmell agenda is a novel about sex in marriage, The Bride Stripped Bare. It's very graphic and honest, she says, a little like the French film Romance. Cue Gallic shrug, cue gravelly voice-over: plus ca change ...

Extract from Love Song:
"My eyes straining, I step into a room of flapping birds that's facing my far bedroom window and open to the sky and a hand slams across my mouth. Fingers clamping my eyes. Pods of darkness blackening my sight. Glasses clattering to the ground and skidding across it. Physically I've never been held down and I'm like a person drowning as I claw for air and light. I'm scrabbling, scraping at the hands and kicking at the bulk, but I can't shake the ferocity of that hold, the body's too firm and I can't make a sound, I'm writhing and lashing and there's a man's sweat and his smell as he tries to clamp me still and I hate it, hate it. I'm panicking and then suddenly he changes tack and behind my ear he breathes sshh like he's trying to soothe a spooked horse, sshh, and I listen for any threat in it, shhh, and I stand very still and our bodies are tight and the seconds tick and the hand suddenly loosens the brace of its holding, I'm not making a sound and then gingerly the palm slides to my chin and cups it in readiness for a springing back, for it all to begin again if I want."


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

Copyright 2001 Murray Waldren

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