Sonya Hartnett with IdahoMining emotion

 Her books for young adults confronted taboos.
 But as Murray Waldren discovers, Sonya Hartnett's new novel
 is 'not child's play any more'

"STUBBORN, overbearing, inquisitive ... and becoming more and more reclusive." As self-assessments go, Sonya Hartnett's is unflinching. And suitably in character. The 32-year-old author of 10 often-contentious novels for young adults (the first written when she was 13) is diminutive in stature but big on directness. First impressions had been more equivocal. On the wind-swept street where we met, she'd been in sizing-up mode, wrapping wariness around her like a coat before striding resolutely into Carlton's noisy cafe scene. It took time - and a succulent slice of carrot cake - to effect a thaw. Then it was down to straight-talking, with droll side-trips into provocative self-mockery.Thursday's Child Her initial hesitancy, she explained, owed something to social rustiness, more to   new-book nervousness - in trade circles the whisper is that her just-released Thursday's Child  (Penguin) is the breakthrough novel to launch her into the bigger league.

 A veteran of pre-release hype, Hartnett is hopeful but far from sanguine. Her experience is one of  frustration at her books hitting a 5000-reader ceiling, despite critical acclaim, numerous awards  and release in Europe and America. Her publishers are talking top-seller, however - they're giving  it full-mettle marketing under the orange spine of general fiction (not as young adult) and promoting it via bookseller dump-bins, reading group notes and cover blurbs spruiking ``a dazzling novel by a writer of startling originality''.

Still, she's always been original, polished and confrontational even if, as she recognises, her books "have not been as broadly appealing as, say, John Marsden's. But then my audience is probably more a literary one. My themes are challenging and deeply felt yet I see myself overall as a creator of situations. I'm not so much a storyteller as a ... (she searches for the exact word) trouble-maker." Then she laughs with elfin delight.

It's true though that in the often coy world of young adult writing, she's been a renegade. She's never coddled her readership, refusing to talk down to them or "soften reality". And because she has variously written about murder, drugs, drinking, family dysfunction, depression, suicide, sibling incest and devil possession, she has faced attempted censorship and librarian/teacher/parent outrage. The convenient perception was that her books were problematic taboo-teasers, suited to select readers. This despite her 1993 Sleeping Dogs winning the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction, the Miles Franklin Inaugural Kathleen Mitchell Award and a CBC honour citation.

Such a background makes Thursday's Child an intriguing divergence. It's no less intricate, elegantly written or thought-provoking than her other works but it has a stronger cross-readership potential. Seen through the eyes of a young girl, it's set in back-blocks rural Australia as the Depression looms. Her family is struggling to survive soldier settlement deprivations, poverty, an unforgiving landscape, war-scarred psyches and white-trash despair. And while dirt and death are close neighbours, the tale bears a peculiar optimism and the central characters are strange if strangely attractive - they invite our care even as their situation deteriorates. And then there's the brother, Tin, whose preternatural ability for digging sees him live amid a labyrinth of underground tunnels. It's Carey meets Winton, with traces of magical realism, Gothic humour and the traditional Aussie yarn. And it has an addictive appeal.

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

BORN and raised in Melbourne's unpretentious Box Hill North, the second of six children, Hartnett lives with a 16-year-old whippet, Zachary, and Idaho the cat in a renovator's delight in inner-city Northcote. The dog's "a bit old and demented now", she smiles, while she herself is "gathering eccentricities as I get older. I have a small group of close friends but I'm most comfortable with solitude - you can't live alone unless you are. Mind you, when I do meet my neighbours they're pinned up against the wall as I blabber on for hours and hours."

Despite her output, she has persistently resisted labeling herself a ``writer'', claiming instead to be a "hobbyist''. A year ago she was so disenchanted that she told a journalist she had "never wanted to be a writer... and as I get older, I want it even less". It wasn't false modesty or attitude-parading, more a factor of having written since Year 10 and 18 years later feeling trapped because she was unqualified for anything else. The communications degree at RMIT (majoring in film) hadn't provided alternatives - she was too much a loner for such group-dependent activity. Perhaps success had come too easily, too early and too restrictively; she's always lacked confidence, feared "drying up", dreaded perpetual poverty.

In many ways, too, her achievements have been her biggest hindrance. She wrote her first novel "partly out of boredom", was 15 when it was published as Trouble All The Way and acutely aware that the impetus for its release was marketing-inspired - the ``cute prodigy'' factor. It's taken this long to shuck the suspicion that her acceptance owed everything to product placement.

But the self-image has now changed, and the catalyst was an Australia Council grant late last year, $80,000 over two years. It's not the first grant she's received but certainly the biggest. It was also unexpected ``but you know you can't go wrong," she laughs, "when you open the letter with shaking hands and read, 'Dear Ms Hartnett, we are pleased ...' That's the bit I wanted to read, nothing bad comes after we are pleased."

The short-term effect was "relief from a decade of budgeting over bus fares"; in the longer term, "it encouraged me to finally think of myself as a professional writer ... when somebody believes in you enough to give you $80,000, well it's not child's play anymore. It's a career. That's why I sit down and get a book like Thursday's Child written in three months - I'm a professional now, I have no right to stuff around. Besides, there's always the secret fear that if I stop, I'll forget where I'm up to.''

The book, she says, "just pulled itself together. I'd wanted to set a story in the Depression for some time, in an isolated community that was strongly supportive. I wanted a cast of periphery characters because I knew my central family would need help, and that I as a writer would also need help. Once the dual ideas of the boy who tunneled and the young girl as a narrator gelled, it almost wrote itself - I had the cast, I had the setting, I just said go."

For Hartnett, ``working with a seven-year-old girl was a dramatic change from writing about a 24-year-old guy as in my usual stuff. I found her difficult to approach - I'm not really used to children and it's been a long time since I've been surrounded by them - but once I started, I found you could have fun with her: she could tell lies, she could deny the truth.'' Playing with a child's ignorance presented a further challenge because a "child is prey to what adults allow them to know. That made life difficult until I turned her into an eavesdropper and gave her older siblings to reveal the realities."

And the tunelling Tin? He had his origin in ants. "I was living at the time in two rooms, just going back and forth, back and forth and going crazy as I watched an entire summer of ants excavating under my house. One day I thought to myself, they've probably got this hu-u-uge palace under my house - that's how I started to think about ways of taking your existence into your own hands, of how if the space around you was not big enough, you just dig out some more. That kind of self-reliance and industry I really admired; at the same time I was thinking `You little bastards, you're going to knock my house down'."

Nevertheless, the finished product remains "a bit of a puzzle to me. I think I achieved something more than I intended. I sat down innocently to write just another novel but it seems to have impressed people in a way I never expected. It makes women cry, especially those who have or want to have children. It didn't make me cry when I wrote it but once I got to the end ... I was able to sit back and think, `that's actually a quite complicated story'."

As we wrap up, I ask if she still rues her profession. A little, it seems. "When you put everything that you are into your books, what does that leave you to have as your own?" she asks. "There's very few things about myself I haven't written about, and sometimes I wonder at the wisdom of that. The only private part of my life I keep to myself is my own animals ... when you live alone, your animals become your company and your friends. Sad, but true." Then she laughs - it may be true, her marine-coloured eyes suggest, but she knows it's far from sad.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian, 5/8/2000

Copyright 2000 Murray Waldren


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