Helen Garner: ‘People would give me death stares in the street’ | Helen Garner

Helen Garner: ‘People would give me death stares in the street’ | Helen Garner

Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Australia, in 1942. She worked as a teacher and as a journalist before her first novel, Monkey Grip, came out in 1977. Garner has since published novels, stories, screenplays and several volumes of her diaries, but she may be best known for her acclaimed nonfiction, which includes The First Stone (1995), about a university college principal who is accused of groping two female students, and This House of Grief (2014), which tells the story of Robert Farquharson, on trial for the murder of his three sons. In 2016, she was awarded the Windham-Campbell literature prize for nonfiction. New editions of three of Garner’s best-known books have just been published in the UK.

For a long time, you were Australia’s great secret. How do you feel about all the new attention you’re getting in the US and the UK?
I guess it would be annoying if I’d had hopes, in all those years, that I’d ever get published outside Australia. But strangely, I never did. I’m aware this sounds like “little me” talk. But in Australia, in my generation and among those who were slightly older like Germaine [Greer], people would get their books published in London first, and then come back to us. You had to get out of here! That was everybody’s aim, because everything important happened somewhere else. I never felt I had to get out, though. Perhaps this was because I wasn’t really an intellectual. I was just somebody with a pathetic third-class degree who taught in high school.

Did that attitude have an effect on your style?
It meant that I didn’t adapt my way of writing for some fantasised international audience. I didn’t have to explain Australian things; to do massive introductory descriptions of Sydney harbour. I wanted to write about stuff I knew and had lived; about the sorts of people I’d grown up with.

Monkey Grip, about a single mother’s relationship with a junkie, was controversial when it came out, wasn’t it?
Yes. This bloke [a critic] said: she has just published her diary. I felt snarky about it, but I ignored it. It was much worse when I was attacked later for The First Stone. If I published something like that now, I’d be cancelled. People were mad with rage. They said I’d set feminism back 20 years [by suggesting the victims of the assault had overreacted]. I was flabbergasted by those attacks, and the way they went on and on. People would give me death stares in the street. I’d be in some cafe, I’d get a bad feeling, and turn round and there would be some young woman staring at me. But I get letters of apology now, which is very gracious. One said: “I was doing women’s studies at university, and I ran around with my little tin whistle of outrage. But now I’m out in the world and I can see things aren’t so black and white.”

What did you make of #MeToo, given that The First Stone anticipates the arguments around it?
At first, I thought: wow, this is great. Some of these guys are going to get what they deserve; they’re going to get their asses kicked. I was happy about that. But as it rolled on, so many people hitched their wagon to it. That terrible, self-righteous tone… The whole idea that some people get cancelled, and that other people are so tremulous and don’t feel safe when they hear an opinion. I find that repulsive and stupid.

Is it true you began writing nonfiction because your then husband was a novelist, and didn’t want you on his patch?
That was my third husband [the Australian writer Murray Bail], though he would never actually have said it. He had a very stern hierarchy of forms, and the novel was right at the top. He’d never written for money; he’d never been a journalist. But all my writing life, I’ve made a living as a freelance, and I love it with a passion because it gives you an entree into the lives of strangers. I don’t think he thought I was as good as he was, and I think that I unconsciously shifted to [a place] where we wouldn’t be rivals.

How do you feel about nonfiction now?
The First Stone sold a hell of a lot of copies, and from then on I began to feel I belonged on that side of the line. I feel at ease in nonfiction. I’ve learned how to use myself in it: to say to the reader, let’s look at this together.

You love a courtroom, don’t you?
My hearing is going now, so those strange acoustic spaces are difficult. But it used to be that I couldn’t wait to get there in the morning. When you’re watching a trial, you’re watching how society tries to deal with human wildness.

Would you say that in a book like This House of Grief you’re fascinated by the line that separates the person who commits a crime, and the person who doesn’t?
It’s not really a line. It’s a very fine membrane, like a net – and you can put your foot right through it, and down you go. I’m not interested in psychopaths, because there’s no ethical struggle going on.

The American writer Janet Malcolm, a Freudian, has been a big influence on you. Did you mean it when you once said you should have been a psychoanalyst?
I think now that I wouldn’t have been very good at it. When I was kicked out of teaching [for giving an unscheduled sex education lesson], I should have joined the police. I reckon that would have suited me better. But I do find analysis fascinating, especially the way you see it in Malcolm’s work: that extreme concentration on what people are like when they’re talking. I’ve followed her example, especially as it’s laid out in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which is fantastic. I had the chance to meet her once. I chickened out.

What are you reading now?
A Heart So White by Javier Marías. I’m loving it. And I’ve had a bit of a resurgence with all those wartime writers called Elizabeth: Bowen, Jenkins, Taylor. Elizabeth Jenkins’s The Hare and the Tortoise is a really great book.

What about your next book?
It won’t be out until November, because it’s about my youngest grandson’s football team – Aussie rules, not soccer. He’s got all these exams, and I thought it would be distracting if there was a book out about him and all his friends. I love football. It’s so beautiful and, to me, heroic. The body language of footballers in moments of shame as well as triumph is like the postures you see in Greek sculpture. Really, it’s a book about men.

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