Alumni Feature February 2015

Alumni Interview: Gabrielle Carey

Interviewed by Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Gabrielle Carey Alumna Gabrielle Carey’s hybrid non-fiction book Moving Among Strangers was a joint winner in its category of the PM’s Literary Awards, sharing the prize with Madeleine, Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John. Gabrielle completed Moving Among Strangers with the help of one of Varuna’s flagship fellowships and several stays during critical development phases. I’d like to welcome Gabrielle to the Varuna Interview Suite.







Moving Among Strangers cover DJ: Gabrielle, congratulations on your PM's Literary Award in the non-fiction category for Moving Among Strangers. UQP notes the book traces 'two literary lives defined by storytelling and secret.' What effect did secrecy have on your family and your childhood? How and when did you first become aware of the power of secrets and stories?

secrets GC: I wasn’t aware of the secrecy in my childhood so did not realise the effect it had on the family until many decades later. I suppose the main effect was the suppressing of stories, many of which I would have liked to have known and yet had to wait until I was in my 50s to find out.

I’m not sure when I became aware of the power of secrets and storytelling; I suppose it’s a truism to say that all the best stories contain a secret. In our confessional age, stories with genuine secrets are much harder to come by and probably more difficult to write convincingly.

Puberty Blues cover DJ: I read a review by Stella Clarke in The Australian online that opens by mentioning Puberty Blues, the classic Australian coming-of-age novel you co-authored with Kathy Lette what is now many, many moons ago...I know that by asking this, I'm committing the same offence, but I'm intrigued to know how you feel about journalists always seeming to reference PB (as my friends and I affectionately called the novel and subsequent film of the same name, that we could, by the end, quote virtually word for word, back in the day). To what extent was that novel as seminal for you as it seems to have been for the rest of us? Do you ever wish everyone would just get over it? What is it about PB, do you think, that makes it so enduring?

groupies GC: PB was important to me as a writer because it was a courageous act to reveal what was then a huge and terrible secret: the way young girls were being treated by young men in the surfie gangs. I think this began my career as a non-fiction writer and as a memoirist because even though it is called a novel and categorised as fiction, it is really thinly disguised memoir.

I went through a period wishing people would just forget about PB and hoping that some young new thing would write the contemporary version that would take its place, but now I understand that there is some basic honesty and truth to the story that continues to be relevant for adolescents even in this generation. If it helps them, especially if it helps the young women, then that’s a good thing.

Randolph Stowe DJ: Your father committed suicide and Randolph Stow attempted it. Beyond the painful tragedy of this unfortunate connection between the two men, what else do you think they shared and why was it important to you to draw out your parents' relationship with Stow?

GC: I think my father and Stow shared a kind of solitariness. I also think they were both men of unwavering integrity. You will find some other comments I’ve made about their similarities on my website.

It was important to unravel my parents’ relationship with Stow so that I could understand more about my family, about Stow’s background in WA, and about the particularities of that place in that era.

DJ: Moving Among Strangers is a hybrid work straddling biography, autobiography and epistolary forms - how much did the blurring of literary boundaries help or hinder the final result?

GC: It is also partly essay, partly cultural and historical criticism and partly biogaphy. I don’t feel the hybrid form hindered the final result of Moving Among Strangers. I believe books find their own form and that form is whatever is necessary to tell the story. I didn’t set out to write a hybrid; that’s just the way it developed.

Kathy Lette DJ: In that same review piece, Clarke talks about 'the thwarting of ambition' along your career's trajectory - what's your own position on literary ambition and success? Personally I found the line of thinking curious, given the earlier mention of your recollections on ‘Australian Story’, being that you specifically resisted the celebrity and profile for which your co-author Lette has always exhibited such a pronounced hunger. How can you be thwarted if you declined to enter the contest in the first place?

GC: I’m not sure what Clarke meant about thwarting of ambition…depends what one’s ambition is. I have always wanted to write and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend much of my life doing what I enjoy and occasionally getting paid for it. I feel very privileged.

DJ: What did you hope for when you began writing to and about Randolph Stow? I ask because over the past couple of decades, I sporadically pursued a mostly one-sided correspondence, hoping to resurrect what was once a close adolescent friendship. I've only recently sworn to myself to abandon the effort; it's clearly futile, plus it's a bit weird to keep trying when my enduring love – completely platonic – is plainly unrequited. Why do you think it's sometimes so enticing to write to someone who doesn't want to write back?

GC: The only time Stow rejected my enquiries was when I asked whether I could visit him. Given his temperament and his health, I think that was fair enough. Otherwise he was always very gracious and polite – and even after that letter he sent me a Christmas card the year before he died. So I never felt I was in pursuit of an unrequited love. I respected the fact that he was very private.

yobs DJ: To what extent do you agree with Stow's assessment of Australia/ns as 'yobbish,' both in the days of his flight to East Anglia and today? In your opinion, how current is that sense that the country is somehow hostile to intellectual and/or creative practices?

GC: Agh, this is such a huge question and as I am nursing RSI in both forearms I will just say that I think the Australian insistence on ‘levelling’ and being seen to be egalitarian is part of a mistaken ideology that makes intellectual and creative pursuits suspicious. But that is really part of a much larger conversation.

Clive James DJ: Are you generally fascinated by expatriate writers or is the interest specific to Stow? I'm always equal parts riveted and repelled by figures who make bold pronouncements about Australia and its culture without having lived here for decades (including Germaine Greer, Clive James, and of course Kathy Lette) - to what extent do you think such prolonged physical displacement reinforces a sense of psychological separateness?

Shirley Hazzard GC: No, I’m not fascinated by expatriate writers although I am interested in why writers in general feel the need to self-exile ( James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Stow, Shirley Hazzard to name a few).

DJ: Secrets create spaces, or gaps, in both families and individuals. Sometimes the spaces are literal - some secrets require a locked drawer or a room at an unknown address - but there's a sort of monstrous limitlessness to the spaces of the mind and heart, where secrets take root and flourish (or metastasise, depending on the species). How effectively does writing about your experience help map the topography of your love, grief and family history?

GC: Very effectively!

DJ: What elements of combining a study of Randolph Stow with your family history most appealed to you? How did the structure of Moving Among Strangers evolve?

letter GC: Structure: the book began as a series of scraps of letters and then it was a case of trying to fill in the (rather big) gaps in between. Much of the appeal was the attraction or affection I felt towards as a person and as a writer; I wanted to get to know him better. I also wanted to honour him as I felt he had been unjustly erased from Australian literary consciousness (if there is such a thing).

DJ: What were some of the chief challenges you faced portraying your parents and this time in Randolph Stow's life?

GC: The biggest challenge was getting behind the very determined wall of privacy erected by all three – Stow, my mother and father.

DJ: As a joint winner in your category, you've received half the $80,000 prize money, which is a shame in my view (I'm all for every winner receiving the big bucks!), but $40,000 is still a huge lump sum for most of us - what does winning mean for you and your writing practice?

GC: The prize means that I can reduce my part-time job to even more part-time and prioritise my next book. (It also meant more frivolous things such as buying a kayak and building a treehouse and maybe even a watch that isn't out of the ANZ rewards catalogue.) It also means being able to afford to pay for the extraction of my daughter's wisdom teeth.

DJ: How significant do you think award recognition is to raising your and your book's profile? Are you still ambivalent about this side of things or has today's fairly brutal publishing climate meant some changes to your public engagement whether you like it or not?

GC: I really don't know if the award has had much influence on the profile of the book but it has given me the confidence to keep writing. (I had intended to retire after the last book.)

DJ: Please tell us about your relationship with Varuna and how it has influenced and/or assisted your development as a writer.

GC: Varuna has been like a fairy godmother to me: appearing exactly when I needed her and providing just the right support. I think my first fellowship was around 1997, so it has been a long and fruitful relationship. Moving Among Strangers would not be the book it is without the Mick Dark Flagship Fellowship - which I split into three one-week residencies, the last week probably being the most crucial. When you're on the final draft it's so important to try to keep the entire framework in your mind and that's next to impossible if you're also doing your day job as well as the shopping and cooking and housework and gardening etc, as most women do.

DJ: You've lectured for a long time: to what extent does academic life support and/or restrict your creative writing?

GC: I agree with Coleridge that no one should be a writer full-time so I am grateful to have a part-time job. Sometimes the energy you need for writing feels like the same energy you use for teaching, so one has to be careful about maintaining boundaries and being aware that that particular energy source is finite.

DJ: Like last month's interview subject and fellow PM Literary Awards winner, Felicity Castagna, you have an excellent author site - how important is it to you that you have a well executed and well managed online presence? Do you design and maintain it yourself and how much does it facilitate greater contact with your readers?

GC: Hmm. My author site was designed by my sister-in-law and I am extremely lazy when it comes to maintenance. (note to self!)

DJ: Your books all deal to a greater or lesser degree with personal experience, particularly filial bonds. How consciously did you decide to expose these intimate parts of yourself, and to what extent is it simply what you feel compelled to write about?

GC: I certainly don't set out to write 'intimate' books, but my form is the personal essay and intimacy is an integral part of that.

DJ: WA is a significant place in your family history and is the scene of the original connection to Randolph Stow. How much do you think WA's geographic separation from the rest of Australia speaks to what Clarke calls a 'species of artistic alienation'?

GC: I believe most if not all artists are alienated to some extent - this is their nature - so maybe WA's geographic separation from the rest of the world just emphasises this.

DJ: What's next for you? What can you tell us about your plans for your next book?

James Joyce GC: My next book hasn't got a title yet but the working subtitle (is that the right word?) is: Living with James Joyce. It's something about how Joyce relates to everyday life.

DJ: What are some of your interests outside of reading and writing and how do they feed your work and/or offer an escape from it?

yoga GC: My other interests are physical, rather than intellectual, which I think is essential for people who spend most of the day sitting in front of a screen. So: yoga, cycling, walking, swimming, gardening.

DJ: Any writing superstitions or quirks you care to share?

GC: Not sure if I have writing quirks; I'm a plodder and I believe in the power of the plod to get you there eventually.

DJ: Finally, please tell us about some of your greatest literary influences and why you love them.

GC: Greatest influence, literary and in other ways, is James Joyce. I love him because he makes me laugh and his way of reinventing language helps to reinvent the world.

DJ: Gabrielle Carey, congratulations on your win and thank you for playing.

 


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