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Gillian Mears

The Prime of Ms Mears

"MASOCHISM REALLY INTRIGUES ME. The notion of affliction and why women become so abject and passive, especially in country towns. In a way, my novels are explorations of that." For a self-confessed timid mouse with "double-barred gates on my vocal chords when it comes to being articulate about myself and my writing", Gillian Mears has a disconcerting way of cutting to the chase. It's a bit like hearing a nun swear in church - masochism and subjugation seem so alien to the picturebook landscape we're passing through, even more so to the waiflike writer whose spent the best part of a day avoiding my questions.

Momentarily, I'm lost for words. Doubly ironic, really, given I'm the city-slicker reluctantly allowed to invade the rural tranquility. It's a contradiction but, as I've discovered, only one of many in the Mears make-up.

For those who've come in late, Gillian Mears is one of Australia's more genuinely talented writers. At 31, she has a depth of insight and a lyrical skill worthy of envy. Her fourth book, The Grass Sister, is just about to hit the stands, and the pre-release interest it's generated has the sales force drooling. Her first book, a collection of short stories, won a Commonwealth Writers Prize. Her third (and first novel), The Mint Lawn, took out The Australian/Vogel Award. All have been, as they say, a financial pleasure.

Which makes it all the more surprising in this PR age that she has retained such personal anonymity. Sell high, stay low could well have been the motto: she has avoided interviews, refused invitations to writers festivals, abjured the normal sell-push enough to be declared a hostile witness. It's perhaps a measure of the esteem her publishers hold her in that this interview is to be her only concession to market realities. As it turns out, it's a limited concession ... although she is open, friendly and forthright, she has (perhaps subconsciously) choreographed enough distractions to subvert the prying eye.

**********************

From the air, Grafton squats like an untidy picnicker on a dun and ochre quilt. Long months without effective rain have made the paddocks around the inland town dustily sunstruck. Even the Clarence, snaking between the Southern settlement and the CBD, looks sullen. The Jacaranda Capital of northern NSW is plainly feeling the heat.

The 16-seater plane has been more turbulent than I enjoy, and it's only when Wendy Botha bots 40 cents from me at the airport to make a phone call that I realise the former world surfing champ and her husband, rugby league international Brett Todd, have been on board. We trained observers are like that in a crisis.

By the time I encounter Mears at the door to the public bar of the Crown Hotel, I've calmed down. She hasn't. She's spent a sleepless night worrying about the consequences, she tells me. Beneath her eyes, dark and large like a spotlit possum's, the bruised rings of insomnia bear witness. Already I feel a cad, and I've only said hello.

Things can only get better, and they do. She has an itinerary planned, she says, if I'm agreeable, so I can get a clearer picture of where she comes from. I'm agreeable - after all, Where I Come From is the essence of Mears, both the impulsion and the source of her creativity, the physical, emotional and psychological landscape she explores and excavates with unwavering curiosity. It may have elastic boundaries of place and time but there's always the one unifying focus: her family.

The plan is this: first a bike ride around town, a sort of sacred site tour, then a trip to the farm where she lives and works, then a chat. It's a good plan, although I have serious doubts about embarassing myself in the bike-riding stakes. Her farm-hand garb of jeans and no-nonsense top may be practical, but it doesn't disguise that she is lithe to the point of skininess, very tanned and very fit. Nevertheless, as a colour opportunity, an expert's guide to such an attractive town is too good to be missed.

Unfortunately, Grafton refuses to play. With a cranky child's obduracy, it closes on itself like a fist, a stage-set after the play is over. Even the jail assumes Dadaesque blandness as we pass and the abuse from a woman in a green station wagon at our riding two abreast seems peculiarly apt.

We visit the footbridge and underpass on the Clarence where she "loitered with adolescent longings but was too scared to be bold''. This was Tryst Central, the site of many a short story. She still remembers, she says, the "shock and envy" she felt when she first saw a sister starring in scurrilous graffiti there.

The fields the Mears girls rode across on horseback are now smug estates of blond brick and manicured lawns, the cedar-shingled cottage where she lived as "captive wife" and emergent writer looks dank with memory.

Along the route, she talks freely, if elliptically. The allusions assume a familiar knowledge I don't yet have, and snatches of significance are often swept away in the backdraft. The ride does, however, break the ice; my lack of cycle style amuses her, she stops shying from questions like an unbroken horse. It's a fair trade.

You can never go back, we agree, even when you live there. (A few days later, Mears writes to me of her doubts that she had "conveyed ... my fondness for Grafton and rural landscapes, integral to how they feed some of my fiction as well as the sense of strangeness found in any country town. Even though I've lived about two-thirds of my life in this town, it often feels unfamiliar. On our bike ride I wanted to make this sharp to you but I couldn't. And Grafton was so stubbornly not revealing itself.")

Such an anticlimax doesn't really surprise her - there's a fatalism to her outlook ("Since childhood I've been known as the fillyjonk (after Finnish writer Tove Jansson's story The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters) because of my snout and because of my belief in disasters."). We chuck the bikes on the ute's tray and head for the hills.

***************

Home is 50 acres of Aussie paradise. Beside the river, the landscape of knolls, rugged promentaries, curving plains, eucalypts (complete with wallaby colony) and rainforest scrub suggest an idealised artist's colony. Lantana and weeds add a laconic reality, but it's here Mears exiled herself a year or so ago to finish her book.

She had been living in Paris at the Keesing Studio; its seductive distractions forced her to flee first to Dorrigo then into Grafton itself. Finally, she retreated back to family HQ. "In a way I imprisoned myself here on purpose, purely for my book. But then the world opened out in ways I didn't expect, perhaps as compensation for all the things I hadn't been doing for the past few years."

Her agricultural scientist father and step-mother (her mother - upon whom the hero of The Mint Lawn was modelled - died several years ago) are, in retirement, running herds of hereford angus and brahmin cattle, planting a tea-tree forest and pursuing an arcadian ideal.

Mears herself lives in a lean-to tent on a ridge above the river. It's rough-hewn nature is romantically spartan: a camp bed, knock-about desk, elementary "kitchen", bookshelves, cooking fire, woodpiles, jerrycans of freshwater, canvas shower bag, wildflowers in a glass jar ... it's million-dollar view stretches across the Clarence to distant hills in distracting perfection. There's a knockabout attractiveness to the scene, as cows graze nearby and her three dogs laze in the tent's shade.

I should quiz her father, she suggests, about living as a character in another's book, about seeing family fact and fiction so publicly interwoven. It's an idea with merit, given that The Grass Sister has a father character who's life is not unrelated to his. On cue, Peter Mears has just arrived bearing cake fresh from the farmhouse, both a welcome and a means of checking me out.

We dispense with the billy-on-the-fire routine for the efficacy of electricity, and sit in battered canvas directors' chairs to orchestrate the view. As we begin to talk, he shifts suddenly from wary amiability to extreme circumspection. While they obviously have a mutual respect, there's an edge to this father-daughter repartee.

"I haven't read other than working snippets of the new book," he disclaims after we've chased off an intrusive cow from the campsite. "I'm very keen not to influence her work or how she handles the material. All I've said is I'll read it with interest, I'll know what is embellished and what is truthful - anything I'm slightly shamefaced about or prefer to ride quickly over, I'll just say that's totally fictitious." He laughs at the catch-22 get-out clause. He's surprised, he says, to figure in the book at all, proud but doubtful how interesting his life might be to others.

"Over three years or so I've provided a little oral history about my growing up in South Africa - Gillian's gradually built up a recollection, a rather instantaneous recollection on my part in that it's not reflective, although I always tried to be as honest as I could. And, of course, when we went over to South Africa together, my old friends there very quickly mentioned things I've skipped over or conveniently forgotten ..."

"I can't believe you went rowing naked at the regatta ..." "I did have a shirt on, I'm sure ..."

******************

"Peter thinks I've written an entirely different book," Mears mentions later. This surprises her, and she's rueful about his reaction, both to me and to the finished product when he eventually reads it. Later still, she mentions that "living with a parent is never totally ideal but it's a one solution when you're impoverished and don't want to pay rent. And if you can live harmoniously with them, why not? The only problem really is my own feeling of slight embarrassment that here I am, 31 and back living 'at home'. There's that disquiet at having 'failed' somehow. Initially I'd try to disguise that fact with certain acquaintances; now I'm beginning to see it as something curious, and very worthwhile."

In her battered caravan office, parked a casual walk away from her tent, the tidily spartan air is maintained. Formica table, word processor, pet huntsman behind the noticeboard, watercolours and visual prompts culled from magazines, numerous images of fillyjonks, and frail cupboards more bookshelves than clothes holders. She's obviously proud of her set-up although still shy. But the sidelong glances to check reaction are now becoming more direct, and a smile that transforms her initial severity is becoming more frequent.

"I usually write in the very early morning or, less often, at night - it means until daylight I can't see the river, only my face in the curtainless window when I look up. The disconcerting aspects of coming face to face with yourself and the looting aspects of fiction ... It's better looking up to see the river or the lantana wrens. Most days I put in four hours solid effory then help Helen (her partner of two years) work, or slash weeds, chop wood ... small daily distractions help everything coalesce away from the desk." By now, Helen, a farrier, has dropped by. This isolated site is busier than Collins St - and suddenly, virtually interviewless, I need to fly to fly.

***********************

"That's an Aboriginal camp site," Mears tells me as we pass through a coven bounded by boulders and fringing trees. The area emanates a cool sense of peace and was "full of old tools and artefacts. I often wonder how long since they were here. The first convict escapee actually came to the Grafton area in 1835; by 1880 all the cedar was gone. The takeover didn't take long."

We drive bumpily by the plantation of 60,000 tea-trees planted over the past year or so and head towards the road. It may be illusory but she appears more relaxed. The pulse in her neck, which all day has fluttered manically, has now stilled for one thing. "It's because I know in half an hour you'll be flying back to Sydney and this will be all over," she tells me.

"I'm not a good driver," she apologises soon after, as she clambers into the ute's cabin. Her whippet has dogged our trail and at the gate separating highway from farm road has leapt aboard, necessitating a safety noose. "I'm sure bolder people love to drive," she says accelerating hesitantly onto the highway. "I always wanted to be like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News and drive my New York cab driver around but it'll never happen."

As we belt towards the airport, I enter last-chance territory. Just the engine's roar, a bumpy road, limited time, natural reticence and a whippet to overcome. About the book, I offer. "It's been my most difficult - a lot of family issues came into it. In some ways it was a process of avoidance, skirting around material until I found a structure to hold the information I wanted to convey. After all, there are endless plots to be found within any family."

"I've always seen it very much as a book about letters and lying, pretence - especially family pretence - abandonment and absence, patterns of abjection and masochistic behaviour and how these are perpetrated across different sexualities." We contemplate the road in brief silence.

"I'm sure within any country town there is eroticism there," she says suddenly, almost wistfully. "They can be very sensual places but it's all shut in." Another substantial pause, then she giggles. "Sometimes I wonder what people are going to think about what I've written - it's very confronting. In the Grass Sister, I was particularly interested in investigating why patterns of dominance and dominated emerge.

"The answer I came up with was very much to do with how you relate to your sisters or your siblings. You learn the pattern of submission in family relations and it's very hard later to assume a different mantle. Some learn to use domination as a weapon through passive aggression." And others find submission erotic, I suggest. "Without a doubt. I think I was like that for years. That's partly why I've written about it."

Her history is novelistic, just as well given her obsession for revisiting it. The Mears girls (she's the third of four) were by all reports (especially those of their chronicler) a riotous rumble of a clan, a precocious free-thinking pack that scandalised and titillated the community. Much to the girls delight and disgust. They brawled among themselves with frightening intensity but united as a feral pack against outsiders. Her contribution to the anthology Sisters is the last word on this.

At 14, she met her husband-to-be. He was a teacher at her school, and when they "eloped" to Sydney some four years later (where she completed a communications degree), it caused no little angst in the township. The seven-year relationship (they were married for three) started to deteriorate as she matured and began to believe in herself as a writer. They had returned to Grafton but "my husband was horrified at what I was writing - he wanted me to be a literary features writer or a writer of nice children's stories, and he was shocked and dismayed by my fiction. Luckily, the little literary magazines gave me my confidence, supported my self-belief by publishing my stories." They separated just before The Mint Lawn won its prize.

Of that time she now admits she went "through a period of being angry at all that power stuff of older men/younger women but I've accepted I was an incredibly passive teenager and that not all teenage girls in country towns would have thought what I thought. Something in me was seeking it as much as it was being inflicted. I look back on those years as something that conversely gave me the freedom to write. And there is that contrary streak in me - I am incredibly determined in some ways. When I have a goal I will do everything to pursue it. I have a core of self belief."

By 1989 she was in Sydney ("my party-girl period"), then travelling overseas, before living with writer Alan Close for a year. They're still good friends, and all she'll say of that time is that "It's probably not good for two writers to live together, especially when their careers are at different stages of recognition - it's too forlorn a feeling if one's career is going well and the other's isn't. Much better, I think, a farrier and a writer."

Her collections of short stories were startling for their freshness and uninhibited nature. The Mint Lawn, however, was an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink effort of images, word plays, sex, sin and death, a no-holds-barred pastiche of exuberant skill. Leon Trainor's slightly condescending review in The Weekend Australian noted that "the best parts ... are those given over to evoking the tiny magical moments that transform a life."

It's the next sentence or two, however, that Mears quoted with relish as we cycled down Fig Tree Lane: "The text is rich in references to snot and rot and grottiness to which the flesh is heir ... The overall effect is not unlike a flower arrangement upon which someone has recently chundered." She hooted with delight then. "Such a good image."

Despite that, it's a mistake to lump her with the raw sex and sadism school - she's of the same era as the "dirty realists", with a similar earthy approach to life, but her writing is eons removed: lyrical, finely tuned, building layer upon layer of observation and analysis. Whereas male critics tend to focus (with a subtext of affront) on her carnality and "vulgarity", women are enchanted by her evocative sensuality, the sights, sound and furies of her memory, the strata of detail she adds so painstakingly and painlessly.

Random House publishing director Jane Palfreyman is, unapologetically, a fan. So much so, that Mear's book has been selected as the flag bearer for the Knopf imprint in Australia. "She was the only writer I had on my imaginary hit list when I first came to Random," Palfreyman says. "When I heard she was finishing a new book, I went all out to get it - I nagged her agent incessantly, and in the end put in a very good bid to secure it."

*********************

Meanwhile, back in the utemobile, I ask about the homosexual substance in her work, and her down-home approach to it. "Some elements of lesbian literary society will probably criticise my having made lesbianism so ordinary, not showing it as something perverse but just as part of life," she admits unapologetically, "but that's the way I see it - a fact of life."

Still, she is a bit chary about the book's reception back home, "with good reason, I think. This is a neo-conservative stronghold and yet strangely enough I choose to position myself here. Maybe the two go hand in hand." But her "openly affectionate" behaviour has, she says, caused ructions in the past. She doesn't seek them but neither will she submit to pressure.

"That's where I do feel tough - I won't be inhibited about that kind of thing." It's a contradiction, given her repeated claims of timidity and uncertainty, but "I am full of contradictions. The whole business of writing is the prime contradiction ... I'm a secretive person and yet I sit down each day and go into the darkest things and reveal all types of thoughts I wouldn't talk to my family about or my mates. But you have to write about them or you're just writing plasticene."

Bruce Pascoe, who knows Mears through her contributions to Australian Short Stories (which he co-edits) and through subsequent friendship, has praised her "careless bravery". Earlier this year, he commented on how "(she) looks straight through whatever she sees ... Frank Hardy would have killed to have her facility with language. I fear for anyone she meets. She knows you instantly. And what is worse, she tells other people. People like her are to be revered and feared. They come amongst us like tuning forks and make awful sense of our confusion."

Given this, has she ever felt she's gone too far? "Yes, and sometimes now I'll censor myself, more and more so as I become more published. In a way it's inevitable - you must become more careful just to remain friendly with your family. There's something about enmeshed families - all sorts of things happen within them - tempests, madness ... You have to write about them but you disguise them, to be more revealing but with a personal safety margin."

As the airport looms, I ask about the drive to write. "Basically, I love putting things together. I love making compost, woolen rugs of little squares; I stockpile images, I'm a slave to a good image and addicted to the whole process of writing out snippets. I have magpie tendencies; I snaffle images, snatches of conversation, characteristics and reactions, and squirrel them away for later.

"What I love is putting it all together within a context that means something to me. The satisfaction comes when a set of images that have been brewing find a home in the one story ... that might take years. I have notebooks going back years ... in a way it would be wonderful if the caravan burnt down and they all went."

No time now to find out just how the world opened up for her, or what inspires her. She promises a list of the latter which, when it arrives in the mail (she's the last of the true letter-writers) includes "river fishing, Bob Brown and Wilderness environmental issues ("he's a hero; I wish I was brave enough to go to jail over these matters"), classical music, dressage, showjumping, the Alexander technique, good food and wine, Sam Fullbrook watercolours, William Robinson landscapes, Davida Allen, bush regeneration, lantana, trees, aunthood, coffee, confectionery and sisters ..."

As my flight is called, she quotes Faulkner: "The past is not dead, it's not even the past - that really explains why I'm still in Grafton - I'm still deep within my own little past; and it's not even the past because it is still flowing through me. In the end, I'm just trying to make sense of my own experience."

* The Grass Sister by Gillian Mears is published by Knopf. This story first appeared in The Australian magazine.

Copyright (c) Murray Waldren


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