For lovers of Australian fiction, Alex Miller’s novels are essential reading, with writing that reveals his wit, wisdom and keen observations of life’s complexities. In conversation with author and poet Adrian Caesar, Alex Miller will reflect on how love, and the struggle to live a creative life, inspired his exquisitely personal new novel, The Passage of Love. Alex has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and is a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
In association with Allen and Unwin
*Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Adrian Caesar (A). Alex Miller (AM)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 8th of November 2017
K: Good evening. And welcome to the National Library of Australia this evening, I’m Kathryn Favelle, Director of Community Outreach Branch and thank you for joining us to celebrate the publication of Alex Miller’s new book, The Passage of Love.
Our two speakers this evening were both born in a far distant land before deciding to make Australia their home so as we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and I thank their elders past and present for caring for the land that we’re all now privileged to call our home.
I’m sure all of you are here this evening because at some point in your reading life you’ve fallen in love with one of Alex’s 12 books. The Passage of Love is lucky 13 although as Alex just pointed out it’s his 12th novel but his 13th book. Alex’s works have received many accolades and prizes and they’ve been published widely in translation. Of course he’s a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and again in 2003 for Journey to the Stone Country.
Alex’s many books both in English and in translation are held here in the National Library’s collection and Alex was also recognised by the Friends of the National Library at their 2011 celebration event. He was recognised for his contribution to the creation of books and book culture in Australia and some of you may have well been at that event too.
Alex, it’s a pleasure to welcome you back to the Library again this evening. And joining Alex is his dear friend, Dr Adrian Caesar. Adrian’s a writer and a poet whose work, The White: Last Days in the Antarctic Journeys and Scott and Mawson, 1911 to 1913 won a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2000 and if you haven’t read his recent novel, The Blessing then you really should.
Tonight we’re going to eavesdrop on the conversation of two old friends talking about Alex’s new novel, The Passage of Love. Please welcome them both.
A: Thank you and thank you, Kathryn, for inviting me to have this chat, it’s a lovely occasion for me and in a sense a public celebration of a long friendship and a friendship which has its basis I suppose in literature. My enormous admiration for Alex’s work, he has been an inspiration to me in many ways and to my mind he’s the finest contemporary novelist writing in English so it’s a privilege for me to share this occasion.
We’re going to be – I’m going to say a few words about the book. Some of you may have read it already, some of you may have not so I’m – I don’t want to be like the reviewer who gives away the whole show but it is a book that’s – the materials of which come from Alex’s life. It concerns a young man, Robert Crofts, who comes to Melbourne from working out in Queensland as a stockman and the young man’s search for meaning, his conceiving an ambition to become a writer and his struggle to achieve that while at the same time developing a sense of self through three relationships described in the book with women so the quest for love and the quest to become a writer seem to me to be interwoven in this rich and complex way. And the whole book seems to me about becoming a sense of self, a sense – trying to search for a sense of authenticity, a sense of meaning against the existential darkness with which the character is threatened on several occasions.
I don’t think I want to say any more about that until later on but I thought it might be good if Alex read a passage to begin with. And he suggested the passage, I think that’s right, isn’t it?-
AM: Yeah, 312 to 300 and I think 16. And the couple at the centre of the book, Robert Crofts – and if any of you have read my first novel, Watching the Climbers on the Mountain which came out in ’88, I think, the young stockman in that is called Robert Croft so I kind of thought yeah you know why not? That’s the guy. It was me then, it’s still me now, it was him then and it’s them now and you know why change it? In fact my wife first pointed out to me that I’d spelt it wrongly. It was my mother’s maiden name and I thought why not? You know people say my grandfather was so-and-so and I’ll say which one? They’ll say oh Grandad, you know? And they always mean their father’s father usually and their women too so it’s in us, it’s bred in us.
And these two people have had a terrible time, they’ve had 300 pages of it and they’re really struggling as a couple but they love each other. What that means God only knows? As Prince Charles said to Diana famously, whatever that means and has been lampooned for it ever since but it also is something, what is it? People kill for it, people struggle with it but it’s something that has a power of its own over us and when I say love I don’t mean sex, I mean love of children, love of family, love of place, the impossible love that you conceive for somebody and there’s no reason behind it, it’s something in you and them that joins you. They are joined in that way. People say to me why did he stay with her? Because he loved her.
Okay so he’s had a terrible time trying to be a writer and he’s given up writing, he’s abandoned it to save her life. The doctor has said if you don’t get a decent job, mate, your wife’s going to die, it’s that bad, things are that bad. So he’s been advised – he went to the University Appointments Board and ask them what to do and they said well Canberra is – the government is putting people on, apply to them for a job and he did and he got a job as a research assistant in the Department of External Territories where he was asked to read about African postcolonial situations in order to equip him to help design an education system for Papua New Guinea which made perfect sense.
So they arrive in Canberra and she has decided – she can see him sort of dying in the spirit, having given up writing, but determined to go on with her, with Canberra, with this situation as a public servant and she decides that she’s going to help him reclaim a writing life. She’s perfectly sincere about that. On the weekend they went together and bought an expensive new portable typewriter and a new desk and an office chair and a pale pinewood bookcase and they set them up in the spare bedroom. And that afternoon he unpacked his books from the boxes Dr Edie had sent and set them in the shelves of the bookcase.
Lena came in and stood in the doorway and told him dinner was ready. Looks wonderful, she said, and she went up to him and kissed him on the lips. Yes, he said, looking around, it’s not bad, is it? It’s wonderful. Come and have your dinner. After dinner he went back into the spare room which they were to call the study and he closed the door and sat at the desk and he smoked a cigarette and he gazed through the uncurtained floor to ceiling windows into the dark mass of the trees over beyond the bare earth of the garden where the bulldozer had scraped off the vegetation so the house could be built. This is 50 years ago in Canberra.
He rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter. It was a Helvetia, not an Olivetti like his old one. Lena was playing the piano, scales, her fingers running up and down the keys like a rabbit at a wire fence looking for a way out. He tapped out the title, Frankie. Why call it Frankie? Was himself too, wasn’t it? He couldn’t remember how he had begun, he’d already written a version of this book in Sydney without really thinking about it, he’d sat down and written it, it had taken him away.
He thought hard but could not – no image came into his mind. He stared at the paper in the roller with the title in the middle of it and said aloud, Frankie and Me. Sounded silly, made him feel embarrassed. He smoked another of the tailormade cigarettes that he’d changed to. The tobacco was hot and dry in his throat and he got up and went out into the kitchen and fetched a beer from the fridge.
Lena was sitting on the little round stool at the [vonish] 10:07 in the front room. She paused in her playing and smiled at him. How’s it going? It’s going well. He flourished the bottle of beer and went down the passage and into the study. He shut the door and sat in the office chair and drank the beer, smoked another cigarette and looked out the window into the dark forest. How to start. Where to start. Where had he begun in Sydney? He hadn’t thought about it then, he had just started. It had started itself. He sat staring out into the night, drinking the beer and smoking the cigarette.
He decided to write a summary, just setting out the various stages of the story with no detail. He knew them after all, those stages. This happens and that happens, that kind of thing.
On Sunday he went back to the study and sat at the desk. He heard Lena go out the front door. A while later she came back, she began playing the piano. The sound of the piano was loud and insistent and it was all he could think about. He went on with the summary of his story, a dead, mechanical exercise. The room was chilly. He would buy a heater. And maybe get some curtains. Magpies were finding things to stab at in the bare ground. He felt sick.
When he got up to leave the study on Sunday evening he screwed up everything he’d written and decided to buy a wastepaper basket.
On Monday morning he was glad all he had to do was to put on his suit and tie and go into the office. And read about postcolonial life in Kenya. It had shocked him to discover over the weekend that his imagination couldn’t be coerced. He hadn’t known that. But could hide in its black hole and refuse to be enticed out into the open. It wasn’t enough simply to want to write. Did he want to write? There had to be something else.
Whatever that something else was it was missing. He felt burdened and unhappy. He thought of the shiny green Helvetia waiting for him on his new desk in the spare room of their rented house on the hill at the edge of the forest, the red light blinking on the mountain warning of a coming disaster.
After dinner he went into the study and sat on the floor next to the bookshelf and looked at [Carmuz] 12:58, the Outsider. It was a book everyone had read at university. Now where was the magic in the prose? He opened the book and read the first sentence, quote mother died today or maybe yesterday, I can’t remember full-stop. It was all very straightforward, he read a couple of pages and was soon engrossed in the story and forgot to think about the words. He was confident there was nothing unusual or special about the writing, it was just ordinary words strung together, one simple sentence after another.
He took Lena’s copy of Jane Eyre off the shelf and opened it. Quote, there was no possibility of taking a walk that day, it was raining, unquote. He put the book back in its place and picked out Oldest Huxley’s Brave New World. First sentence, the squat grey building of 34 storeys full-stop.
He lit a cigarette and leaned his back against the wall. All he had to do was write a story. He got up and sat at the desk. He put a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter and sat staring at it. The spirit in which he had written Frankie in Sydney was missing and he was unable to conjure it up. He realised Lena had stopped playing the piano some time ago. Was she listening for the tick, tick, tick of the Helvetia? He’d thought he knew how to write. He felt rebuked. It was as if he had returned to the home of an old friend and knocked on the door and discovered his friend had left years ago without ever telling him. Nobody was home. Kenya, the Mau Mau, Jomo Kenyatta, the Kikuyu’s fight for freedom. That was real. The reports and histories he was reading in the office of the Department of External Territories. He felt lonely, empty, he missed himself. Where was he? It was him, he was the friend who wasn’t at home. Maybe this was a punishment. He smoked another cigarette and looked at his watch. It was nearly 10. He would leave the study at 10:30 and Lena would say when can I read something?
A: It’s a wonderful evocation of a kind of sense of hollowness to me and it comes after the energy of the description of the first draft of Frankie when Robert Crofts is written with a kind of astonishing and consuming energy and then into that place. And that sense of alienation from self is overcome when Robert Crofts makes another manoeuvre to go to Araluen. And is it both space and occupation that helps to heal it? I mean Robert Crofts moving from Canberra, taking his suit off and going back and working on the land again in a sense. Is that your sense of it? That that was part of the process? Of bringing him back to the self that could write.
AM: Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. I honestly don’t know, I don’t have any great special understanding about these things. I know things happen. The point is that the book, this stuff that I was reading out to you, 90% of this book is a life of a third person, a him, a he, that silly bloke, that young fellow I used to be had no idea of what was to happen to him, where this was all to lead. We don’t have prescience or we would have all won the Melbourne Cup, we’d have all picked the winner. We don’t have prescience, we have hindsight and the book is written by an 80-year-old author, me, with hindsight, the man who knows where this boy – where this young man is going. I call them boys now if they’re 30 or something like that you know boys and girls. And I say to Steph the girl who introduced me the other day and then I remember she said I’m nearly 42, I think. I should be calling her a woman, come on you know but – should I?
So the book is written from a point of view that knows the future of this young man. The young man however, and that’s why it’s in the third person, if you want to unravel the emotional undercurrents and threads and floods and droughts in a person’s life, in a sense you need to be able to observe them from a distance. Steph says you’ve been trying to write this book for 30 years. She knows my diary, she’s been through all my diaries going – we’ve been together 43 years – she’s going through all my diaries. Her exercise I think is related to some kind of – she’s writing something about us and our lives together so she knows all these things that I’ve forgotten and she says oh you tried to write this 30 years ago then you tried to write it – and remember that other thing you wrote that you discarded and – I think oh my god, lucky I didn’t know that when I was writing this because in a sense that sort of knowledge is the sort of knowledge that closes down your imagination a bit.
What doesn’t close down the imagination, I think, and I think his discovery, the imagination cannot be coerced, is a very important one and you see it – if you get comedians on let’s say the ABC or SBS ‘cause they’re the only programs I ever inadvertently watch for half – a minute or two before I turn them off again swearing and going back out to the kitchen and picking up another book or writing something or just turning the radio on. It’s supposed to be a comedy so the people are dressed in slightly funny clothes and they laugh, they scream with laugher at everything and you don’t know what they’re laughing at, you can’t catch up with whatever it was they were supposed to have said and the audience is all going crazy with laughter too and you think fuck, what is it all about, you know? It’s not funny.
And then you think of the great comedies you’ve seen as people who come onto the stage like Peter Ustinov in the perfect silence and self-containment and walk slowly towards where they think the microphone probably is and everyone’s desperate to hold together their laughter already, it’s very funny. Why? I don’t know. It’s a work of genius, that’s what it is. But when you try and coerce funniness, to me it fails because it doesn’t have the unexpected element that really – I mean Stephen Romei said to me the other day - he’s the Literary Editor of The Australian – he said there’s a moment in this book – and I’d forgotten it, to be honest – where Lena and Robert, Lena has recently had – perhaps I shouldn’t tell you the whole story. Anyway they’re having a sort of life death discussion, it’s perfectly amicable, not going to have a fight or anything, they don’t have physical fights, that never happens but they’re having this really difficult life death discussion and she says I'm going to – she’s been ill – I’m going to make an omelette for your dinner.
She doesn’t sort of eat much anymore and so it’s his dinner and he thinks to himself in the middle of this life death conversation, I hope you’ve bought some mushrooms, I can’t stand those slippery omelettes without mushrooms or something in them you know and he – Stephen said he cracked up when he read that. It’s not funny in itself if you analyse it but given the sort of tension, the stress of that situation, a thought like that suddenly thrown in like in Invitation to a Beheading, wonderful book where the executioner says to the man he’s going to kill in a minute so how many sugars? You know it’s wonderful but it takes you totally away from where you are, that moment.
So things are kind of mysterious to me and I don’t understand how to invoke them but I know when they are invoked. And finding my voice after living in Canberra – I used to blame Canberra because when you’re young you blame your parents, you blame your environment, you blame the weather, you blame people, you blame other people. I never did blame other people very much, I have to say but I did blame things amorphous, great things like Canberra, you know? I said to my publicist today so what do you really think of Canberra? She said it’s inexcusable. That’s the best description I’ve ever heard of Canberra. I said don’t say that to a Canberran or they’ll spend the rest of their life defending the place to you but – anyway sorry about that. What were you saying?
A: Oh I was mentioning Araluen but yeah –
AM: How it comes back. I – really, Ade, I don’t know but it does come back. Liberty.
A: Sure. But I'm interested also in that process in relation to writing The Passage of Love because I recall two conversations with you about the book, one, the book opens in the first person with the older Robert Crofts –
AM: You can say old, it’s alright.
A: Older, older, I was very careful.
AM: Don’t be careful, you won’t tell the truth if you’re being careful.
A: It describes a visit of the older Robert Crofts to do a gig in a women’s prison and immediately I remembered talking to Alex about his visit to a women’s prison and he – it had clearly moved him a great deal. And in part of that conversation he said I’m not going to write fiction anymore, I’m finished with fiction. That’s one conversation. And then another conversation two years later, I think, when Alex was actually writing this book I got an email and said I’ve thrown it all away. I’ve got 600 pages and I'm throwing it all away and I did not know how to reply to this email. I think I said something really banal like are you sure? But –
AM: Or how many sugars do you take?
A: Sugars do you take, yeah, quite, yeah, how many sugars do you take? But I’m interested in the process, I mean some of your books like Autumn Laing and Coal Creek seem to have been written rather like Frankie in here, in a kind of solid burst of energy as if the story’s being given to you whereas others entail more struggle. And is that all mysterious to you? How did we get –
AM: It depends on the book, it really does. I mean I think of books, in a sense they’re a problem to solve. Coal Creek was given to me as a gift, it never was a problem. I was having lunch with a chap, a friend in Castlemaine where we live which is a country town not far from Melbourne, an hour-and-a-half by road from Melbourne and I had finished the previous book which was Autumn Laing and a dear friend had died, a writer, a biographer who I’m sure most of you would have heard of, Hazel Rowley and she’d died a couple of weeks before I was having lunch with this guy and as soo – Hazel and I were to meet two days before she died in Melbourne to begin the celebration of her book about the Roosevelts and yeah and so we’d planned to have a dinner, just the pair of us because we were epistolary friends.
We very, very seldom met and never met just with just the two of us and so we promised each other – it was her idea – we’ll go and have a dinner. You’ve got to find the restaurant, you know Melbourne better than I do now and we’ll have a dinner on our own and we’ll celebrate our friendship so it was really great and we always thought – she was only in her 50s, 59 and I was older, much older than that then and so we talked about old age and she said oh god, I dread it and I said it’s actually pretty good, it’s been very productive, I’m enjoying it. I think as long as you’re not ill it’s probably okay you know and there’s no reason why you should be ill, you’re a big, strong woman and you’re productive and feisty and happy as – well she wasn’t that happy actually but – trouble had come her way but – so we always thought I was going to die 20 years before she would. And then her sister told me she’s dead so it was a terrible shock and I had this little story in my mind that I thought I’d write after Autumn Laing and I – this chap said to me so what are you going to do now?
And I said oh I really think I should write a biography of Hazel Rowley. I sort of dread it in a way, I said, because it’s going to be this great big sort of heavy academic bloody tome, I’m going to have to go all the sources, I’m going to have to – it’s all going to be you know I’ve never written a biography but why shouldn’t I? I just feel it needs to be done, you know? And I felt quite oppressed by this sense of the mor – I’m not doing it by the way but – and I said but I’ve got this other little story which I then told him and I said but I’m not going to do that, I really feel I should get on with Hazel, it’s going to be such a big job. And I got up to leave the café, he said you can’t just leave that story, it’s a really good story. He said you know like I do, a story like that, it’s a gift, write the story, write it as a short story. I said oh great, good idea, I’ll do that this afternoon.
So I went home and sat down - and normally I don’t start work in the afternoon, I start work in the morning about 8:00 and I sat down and began writing the Coal Creek which begins with some sort of quote from St Paul which I really liked and it didn’t stop, it kept going and the voice had me. I think it was Tim Winton who wrote about me being in thrall. I never heard a writer so in thrall to a voice but I didn’t mind, it was like being in love you know it was this mad, wonderful 10-week affair and when it was over I really missed it, I thought oh can’t I get another one? I think I’m just very fortunate to have one like that in my life, sort of given to me whole. And Steph, my wife, who was following the story with me said – I said to her one day oh something awful’s going to happen, I know, it just feels as though something terrible’s going to happen and she said you can’t kill the little girl, don’t kill the girl and I said it’s not me, I'm not doing it, I don’t know what happens, I’m following the story.
I don’t know whether the little girl gets killed or not but I won’t be killing her so we almost came to blows now – no, we didn’t. We had a momentary separation. Steph was really worried that the little girl was going to get killed. I didn’t know until it was over that – blimey, actually I’ll tell – don’t tell anybody this ‘cause you’re not supposed to let people know these things but – I don’t know why – when I’d finished it I left him in prison. If anybody’s read Coal Creek. Steph said no, no, you can’t leave him in prison. I see them walking down the road with the little girl between them, the three of them holding hands when he comes out of the prison, they’re walking away from us down the road. I said alright, alright, yeah, good so I changed it. So she let you off, I was going to leave the poor bastard in jail. It seemed more realistic to me that you know he’d end his days there.
So that book was this gift that - I couldn’t predict it and I had no control in a sense. Of course I’m not being smart about this, there is some control over everything, to a degree we know, even a child’s tantrum. If they’re having the 17th tantrum by then you’ve learnt something and you’ve got some element of control. But – and they maybe are beginning to get some element of control too so we do – while these things engulf us and take us suddenly by the throat we do if they’re repeated and hang in there, we get some element of control, I’m not being silly about it. But when I came to write the – whatever this one’s called, The Passage of Love – I was going to call it something else.
AM: Landscape of Farewell but I already wrote –
A: You’ve already done that one.
AM: I already did that, yeah so – but – and it – I went – we – I went to the States with Steph to give a lecture at Vassar College and there’s a memorial lecture they do every year there and they pay you 10,000 US and pay your fare so I thought we may as well go you know and do that and it was a sort of honour to be asked, I guess and I have lovely friends there so we decide okay, we’ll do a trip down to New Mexico and meet some people while we’re there which we did. And by the time we got back the women in the prison had read Coal Creek, it had been out only by then two or three months but the book club at the prison - there are about 12 women in it – had read it. And Josie, who runs the book club there, rang me and said any chance of coming out and having a chat? They’d like to speak to you about the book and I said sure.
So I went out thinking about an hour maybe max, I was there for three or four hours, all afternoon and it was a hugely important moment for me for two really major sort of reasons, one was there was a woman then, she was there when we arrived – and this is all in the book, actually, it’s just word for word, really – and she had read all my books and she had them all and she had them marked with Post-It notes here and there and everywhere and I thought she’s got some big argument that she’s going to support with quotations in case I resist it, you know? And I'm going to be reminded once again of things that I would say no, no, I don’t know anything about that. Well why did you write this then? And you know so - but she wasn't like that at all and she’d – she asked me can I ask you a question? I said sure, she said would you like – and they were just like a bunch of normal middleclass women, there were no evidence of them – they didn’t have stripes with arrows or anything you know or shaved heads.
In some ways it would have been better if they had, it would have been more honest. Their situation in some ways was a very dishonest situation. They had the appearance of a normal life, scones and cream and jam, nice coffee, good coffee and nice tea, good black English breakfast tea and so on but no, no, something was wrong here, something is really wrong. And she said to me – and as she said it – as she began to say it, and we all know that feeling of being caught off-guard when our emotion kicks in when we’ve thought we’ve got control of it and then it suddenly grabs us – and she began to redden and her eyes reddened and tears began to sort of build in them but she didn’t weep, she hung on and she said I wonder if you could say something about a theme that I’ve noticed running through quite a few of your books? And I thought yeah, I wonder what that theme is. And she said the theme initially, the theme of the absent mother and then – I didn’t say anything, I was so taken by surprise and then she said you know I mean the influence of the absent mother. And I thought of this fragment, these three fragments of my earliest memory.
Anne Mann who’s a great friend, when talking about it to her - when I was 18 months old my father took me to a children’s home and left me there for a week while Mum went into hospital to have my younger sister. I don’t know, I suppose a lot of people did it then, I don’t know but how could you understand at 18 months what was happening? To me it was abandonment forever, I guess and Anne Mann said yes, 18 months is the worst – I’ve always thought well how can I have a memory from then? Eighteen months old. She said yeah, you would have and fragments, three fragments never – they’ve never stitched together, they’ve never unwrapped, I’ve never been able to unfold them and develop them in any way. And she said it’s the worst moment, that’s when the bond with your mother has reached its pinnacle and that’s the worst moment. And no-one understood that, no-one realised that. No-one was being cruel. And this woman said that to me and that memory whacked into my mind and I knew I’m going to have to tell her and I hadn’t told anybody. I’d never talked about it. I hadn’t expressed it.
As I began to express it I thought I wonder if it’s going to unravel and it didn’t, it stayed in these – no, I didn’t actually – I did tell her in reality, in the book I didn’t. That’s right, I knew there was – I was doing something wrong there. In the book if I’d told her – because we already had a sense of the climax of that scene with her was when I realised that she and the other mothers were having a life sentence, seven years, she was in there for seven years, seven years away from your children. They were absent mothers. It was so moving. They were silent listening to her because she’d hit the red button and there weren’t any other questions to be asked. So I did actually tell her what I later on when I wrote the book - I thought no, that’s - there’s – they’re going to lose the balance of the scene if you now go into this long business so I told that to myself on the road later.
But that was amazing so that to me was a critically important moment if you like in my life, in my late life when something like that was revealed to me, that these women were lifers, sentenced to life who lose your children, young children presumably, they were only people, 40s and stuff like that, seven, eight, 10 years old, 15 maybe max, some even younger possibly. You’ve lost it forever and you would always feel the awfulness, the terror in a sense of that and so it wasn’t five years, three years, 10 years, seven years, it was life. Which reminded me of a friend of mine who was in this book appears as Martin Block. He was tortured by the Gestapo. When he told me about that and he didn’t give me the details of the actual physical torture, he told me of the effect of it but he didn’t say it was a life sentence but then of course one reads and I eventually read Jean Amery and his – To the Mind’s Limits, his book about having been tortured and then he commits suicide after he’d written the book. That’ll do, I’ve done it now, I’ve said it now, I can kill myself you know it’s – I’ve paid my dues to that thing.
Another life sentence, those sorts of traumas one lifetime – that’s the other thing the woman said to me, somewhere in one of your books, and I can’t remember which one it was - she actually picked it out - one of your characters says a lifetime is not long enough to get over or to forget such a thing and she said to me do you think I will get over this? Do you think I will forget it? And she sat there looking at me in the eye and I thought and I thought wow, I’ve got to be completely honest with this woman and I said no, I don’t think so. How could you? You know how could you forget it? But I said I have a friend who was in Auschwitz, he’s written three wonderful books. He wasn’t going to forget that, was he? But he surmounted it, he made something powerful of it in the end, transformed the memory, the experience, the trauma into something positive. Jacob Rosenberg. And I don’t know whether that helped her or not but – and whether it’s a matter of help, I don’t know, it may not be a matter of help, it may be a matter of human communication being a value in itself, I don’t know but certainly we did communicate strongly to each other.
When I left the prison, as the door closed behind me – by then we’d been eating scones and drinking pretty good coffee, you know? Better coffee than you get in Queensland. And better coffee than you get in Germany. But yeah as I stepped out into the empty carpark ‘cause it was quite late by then it hit me that all my life I had never really valued my liberty and that they – that the awful thing about – was that they were locked in there and they were going to be counted again in a minute, you know? So it’s very powerful and I thought Al – I call myself Al at moments of high emotion – Al, did I really do that? I don’t know, I might be lying. I said – I realised you got to step back and examine your life, you’ve got to do something different, you can’t just sit down and write a bloody novel, you know? Hence my email to Adrian, not writing any more novels, I’m not writing any – maybe I didn’t say novels, maybe I said fiction. I’m not writing any more fiction – same thing – and yeah so I went off thinking that I have a responsibility that I have never addressed, that was the strongest feeling I had and that responsibility seemed to me to relate to Martin Block who I call – who was really Max Blood, I’m writing his book now and I’ve been researching his life in various European archives for four years and yeah so I thought that’s what I was going to do.
And then the reason why I chucked it all away – I did 150,000 words of that and when we came back from the States – this is just slightly different to the story that Adrian has given us but in spirit it’s the same – I had a look at it and I thought it’s no good, it’s just not right, something wrong about it and my editor, my best editor, my first editor, my wife Stephanie who over the 40 odd years that we’ve been together has become a very, very acute editor of my work and she will say – if it’s not right she will say something like – I mean I’ll give her the manuscript to read and she always wants to read it. And I’ll hear nothing for three days and then one morning I’ll go in and it’ll be on my desk, the manuscript on my desk and when I see her she’ll say well are you cooking today, the dinner, or am I? Who’s worrying about what we’re having for dinner? Perennial question like every day, what are we going to have for dinner? So we share it, of course, why should one person have to worry about that every bloody day?
So whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t the book and then a couple of days later still no word – I know better than to suggest there ought to be a word - we’re having a coffee in a café that we like and she says the problem with that book and she’s thought it out, just getting ready to express it and I can – I never forget when she said, not about this particular book but another one – it’s not the book you’ve been telling me about which seemed to me okay, I haven’t got it yet, I’ve got to rewrite it so I go back and I rewrite it. I don’t mind how much I have to do, what's the point of leaving an unfinished or a poorly finished book and moving to something else? What, you can do that badly too? No, I don’t mind the work, the work can take 10 years or it can take 10 weeks, I don’t mind doing it.
So she said when I said I’m not going – she said how’s it going? How does it look, you know? When we came back from New York and I started rereading what I’d written, I said it’s no good, I’m going to chuck it out, it just doesn’t work. And she said let me have a look at it, don’t chuck it out and she spent the next month with it, working with it on her screen. And she knew the history of the book which was the story I just told you about the woman in prison and also my sense of responsibility about telling Max Blood’s story, I owed him so much. I should tell his story and the people I’ve met through him since and he’s always been my mentor, dead or alive. Been dead since 1981. I still write in a sense with would he admire this work? Would he admire this book? If not it’s not ready for Steph to read yet, you know? She’ll find something else but – so she took it on and she realised that what I’d done was something that I was unaware of, I’d kind of melded not successfully the two books, the Max Blood book and the Robert and Lena book and so she kind of took them apart, unknitted, literally unknitted – I see somebody unknitting. God, imagine knitting and then unknitting. I can imagine it being a German word, unknitting.
My god, only a German woman would be doing that, Jesus. I saw her knitting it, she was knitting it for weeks and it was a horrifying-looking thing you were doing, tiny little stitches and nothing happening. Now you’re undoing it? Anyway she unknitted, she’s amazing like that. A totally different attitude to those sort of things than mine, I could not have done it. And then she took out 85,000 words altogether and gave me the stump and said see what you can do with that. So I actually threw that away, I did but I didn’t just throw it away on the day, as I worked into it it disappeared in front of me so the book then got completely rewritten without the confusion of the two stories. Which is this little story behind the brief emails to my friend, Adrian Caesar, whose book The White by the way was – I suppose it was the most powerful, innovative and simply done mixture of fact, historical fact and imaginative recreation, in other words, fiction, that I’d ever come across. It was so brilliantly done. Utterly convincing. What were the private thoughts and events of these two explorers? Polar explorers. They died after all, they couldn’t tell us what they thought but that was beautiful and that so I met him ‘cause I admired it greatly and got in touch with him, said I love your book and yeah.
So I mean Drusilla Modjeska’s book, another one that inspired me in the same way was Poppy where she said it’s a memoir and I thought it was misguided honesty calling it a memoir, it was a novel because it was based on a diary written by her mother but her mother she says never kept a diary so oh come on, it’s a novel, it’s a fiction, this is what it is and it’s – there’s a difference between fiction – there’s a difference between the memoir and the novel that is critical to the reader. The memoir sets a boundary for you and it may be a book about a cricketer and the cricketer might – and it’s a memoir of his life as a cricketer and he says he was playing in the MCG in 1987 when he was expected to do very well and unfortunately he was out for what it’s called when you get the first ball that knocks you out. And the consequences of that, you can go and check up on that. And the memoirist is saying to you, this is a memoir because what I'm telling you is something that happened then at that time to those people in those circumstances and if you want to you can check, there will be sources.
The novelist – the memoir sets boundaries that doesn’t invite your story in. If you’re reading a novel your personal story is invited in, you become part of – as a reader you read your own book. You become part of that story that you’re reading, you bring your own story to it and that’s what you’re invited to do because it’s an imaginative creation based on an imaginative process. It’s not based on a pack of lies, there’s a distinction between lying and telling the truth but allowing – I mean there’s a woman in this book, The Passage of Love, called Wendy and she’s the first – maybe I – think I should tell them this?
A: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting.
AM: You think I should tell them? They won’t tell anybody, will they?
A: No and I als – yes, I mean I think it’s really worth telling.
AM: Do you?
A: And I think that you know I’d like to lead you on to talk about -
AM: You just like to lead me on.
A: - the paradox of fiction enabling you to tell the truth in a way that nonfiction sometimes doesn’t allow. There’s a paradox about –
AM: But what it is, what I was going to say is there is a woman called Wendy and I was having an interview with a chap at the library in Melbourne the other day and he started talking about Wendy and saying you know okay, I know it’s your – it’s what Virginia Woolf called autobiographical fiction when she was confronted with criticism of To the Lighthouse and people said this is not really a novel, is it? It’s just you and your mob down there at that house you’ve got down there near the beach. And she said drawing herself up to her full six foot, three looking down her large nose at them, both eyes fixed somewhere just slightly above them, she said haughtily in her Fascist tones, autobiographical fiction. And no-one has ever doubted it since except it still goes on. Still goes on. Anybody who is out for a clear definition between autobiography and fiction is in for a very disappointing life. It’s like the distinction between good and evil, there isn’t one, we just know one and we know the other when we encounter them. Why are you lurking there?
K: Because I have the worst job in the world at the moment which is to call time.
AM: He was going to lead me on.
Au: Can we find out about Wendy first?
K: I think we have to find out about Wendy first.
AM: You can?
K: Yeah and I loved Wendy, I was quite disappointed when she left the story.
AM: Anyway this guy was interviewing me, was saying there’s a person from your past, what happened to her? Can you tell me? You don’t reveal it in the book but you must have come across here again. And I said I quite like you. You know I’ve known him for half an hour but I said you’re somebody I sort of like and I trust you a bit which is silly in a way but still, I allowed myself to be drawn into that and I said I don’t want to lie to you, I made her up. And he got up, he said oh Christ, oh you didn’t, oh not Wendy, oh no. Oh, he said, I’m – oh I’m really disappointed, you know? I said look, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t exist, she exists in our imaginations and obviously she seems authentic to you. Oh he looked really unhappy, I couldn’t cheer him up after that. It’s not that I just made all of her up, I mean she was parts of women that none of them would have fitted, I guess and I don’t know how self-conscious I was in doing that, it wasn’t a matter of Lego you know bit of yellow top and a blue side and a red brick here. I should have a little bridge there maybe. No, it was - somehow came together but yeah, she did not have a real existence in the memoir. In my memoir, if there were such a thing, she would not be present.
K: I’m really disappointed.
AM: Yeah, you’ll have to just deal with that somehow.
K: Oh no, I loved Wendy. While I'm getting over my disappointment and before we have some refreshments downstairs would any of you like to ask Alex a question? Be brave. Thank you.
Au: <inaudible> 52:46 I’m interested whether you ever wake up in the morning and your subconscious has provided you with a character or a story?
AM: I usually wake up about 3 or 4:00 in the morning, get up and go to the toilet and come back to bed and can’t get back to asleep so I lie there thinking of all the ghastly things like the people I really don’t like, the neighbour who will only speak to us through her lawyer, how bad can this get? And could I kill her? I don’t suppose I could. I just don’t want to go to prison for the rest of my life and anyway I’d feel awful if I did kill someone. But you lie there and I think worry about my son, he’s a banker, maybe he could get the sack ‘cause banks are starting to do their thing again you know and my daughter who lives in Berlin and is a DJ and how’s it going to go? Is she ever going to come home or is she going to marry Marto, the German guy she’s with and – no.
Au: <inaudible> 53:59.
K: And have we got any other questions?
Au: This is not really about your novel but I enjoyed reading the Canberra Times article where you said you’ve got quite a few more years of writing ahead of you.
AM: I haven’t seen it so you’re ahead of me.
Au: Oh haven’t you seen it?
AM: No, I don’t read the Canberra Times.
Au: Some chance meeting with an Indian man who said to you that you were going to live ‘til 94.
AM: Yeah, I did have a meeting. I did tell that to somebody, I can’t remember whether it was Jason Steger or Stephen Romei.
K: Think it was Jason Steger.
AM: Was it? One of them. They make stuff up. No, they do.
Au: I want to meet the Indian man too.
AM: Yeah. He might tell you you’ve 18 months to go. You never know, you don’t want to know that. No, I mean they do, I mean Stephen has me asking for a Bundy and Coke with him in a bar. I’ve never been with him in a bar and I have never drunk Bundy and Coke. I didn’t know there was such a drink until Steph’s brother and sister-in-law who are kind of a bit odd, slightly bogan and they go for Bundy and Coke and wonder why I don’t so God knows – where’d he get that from? I did have a couple of friends say to me Bundy and Coke? Well it’s just – he made it up. He might have sincerely made it up out of a number of different bits and pieces and – the way I made up Wendy in a sense and I mean I do believe in Wendy.
A: I believe in Wendy.
AM: Yeah, it’s the title of the next book, I Believe in –
A: I was going to do that one.
K: On that note I can promise you no Bundy and Coke downstairs but if you would like to join us for a glass of wine and some nibbles that would be lovely, we’ll continue the conversation. Alex has agreed to sign copies of The Passage of Love this evening and it’s available from the bookshop. We’ve had the most wonderful journey this evening, I think – I felt really dreadful bringing it to an end, I think we could go for another couple of hours quite easily.
A: Yeah, a couple more matches.
K: We’ve been to New York, we’ve been to Canberra, we’re not going to hold your blaming of Canberra against you at all –
AM: Well I did all sorts of things when I was young that I don’t do now and that was 50 years ago, I –
K: But you still come to Canberra.
AM: I really love the Library and I’ve done some good things here and I’ve really enj – and the bookshops, I have to say that you know I meet lovely people so I don’t know.
K: So please join me in thanking Alex Miller and Adrian Caesar for a wonderful evening.
K: And we’ll see you in the foyer.
End of recording