Member Interview with Eleanor Limprecht
ALUMNI FEATURE – SEPTEMBER 2018
Introduction and interview by Diana Jenkins
There are always authors I feel I know from the moment we first make contact. Sometimes it’s because their reputation precedes them; other times it’s their work I already know. And for all the stiff competition and entirely fraught difficulty of navigating the publishing marketplace, Australia’s community of writers is surprisingly compact, so the degrees of separation are pleasingly few. Author Eleanor Limprecht ticks several of these boxes and our email exchanges in preparation for this interview confirmed my suspicion that she’s one of those authors – one with whom I have an easy affinity. The engaging accessibility of her writing in her latest novel The Passengers is a brilliant demonstration of what can happen when ability meets discipline; only the best of our writers pull off this act of magic, but it’s what we’re all chasing like hounds at the hunt, and it’s my great pleasure to share our conversation with you now.
Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes it’ll on’y be one.
I think for people of a certain age, it’s quite a breathtaking line, highlighting in such simple language the inevitable narrowing of individual fate against all the hopes and dreams of one’s youth. And yet one of your main protagonists, Sarah, lives a pretty adventurous life for her times: she’s a war worker; a war bride; a post-war migrant when we always assume so much of the human traffic in Australia was inbound after WWII and finally a woman who crosses foreign soil to track down her future: the husband with whom she’ll make a new life.
I’d argue that Sarah occupies several lives across the novel’s span; how would you respond to that in light of the Steinbeck quote you’ve chosen?
EL: To me the quote highlights not the multitudes of experience that one life can hold (which Sarah’s certainly does) but the way that the direction of your life hinges on so many singular decisions. If she hadn’t met Roy and fallen in love, how might her life have been different? If she had never left the farm? If she hadn’t travelled on the USS Mariposa? To me, the Steinbeck quote is about how there are so many paths our lives might end up taking, but we will only tread one of those paths. When we come to a crossroads, which Sarah does so many times, we choose a single direction not knowing whether it is right or wrong. I’m fascinated by that thought – what if you went another way? Where might you now be?
DJ: The grandmother and granddaughter protagonists are a study in contrasts. Who arrived in your imagination first, why did you settle on having both of them as first-person narrators, and how did their characters evolve over the course of writing the novel?
EL: Sarah settled in my imagination first, and at first draft stage I had Sarah’s daughter Caroline as the other first person narrator. But her voice wasn’t working, and when I discovered Caroline’s daughter, Hannah, the story came so much more naturally. I think this is because I was very close to my own grandmother in the same way Hannah is close to hers. She feels like her grandmother accepts her without judgement, with less expectation. Like she can come to her grandmother with anything and be loved regardless.
DJ: The granddaughter, Hannah, has a serious eating disorder that’s previously resulted in her hospitalisation. What drew you to creating this portrait of adult anorexia? How conscious was the contrast that erupts between Hannah’s contemporaneous world of plenty, image obsession and calorie counting, set against Sarah’s lean upbringing and wartime food rationing?
EL: I was drawn to creating it because I have seen it in people I love, I’ve watched them suffer and at a certain level understood it. There are times in my own life when I stood perilously close. I wanted to set those two worlds up against one another – in one there is so much women are told they cannot do, and in another there is so much that women don’t allow themselves to do. The contrast is fascinating to me, and the threads which weave together from both were far more interesting than either story on its own.
DJ: Grandma Sarah and Hannah are on a cruise ship for the majority of the novel, which alternates perspectives between the two. How did the cruise ship device – confining the space, forcing the women into close proximity, limiting their universe – affect the structure and momentum of the novel?
EL: Well, it made it really tricky to write! I certainly have never done a structure which required this much thought. But I also find inspiration in limitation: it challenges me. In a way, the cruise ship creates its own momentum because wherever the past goes, the present story is charging forward, inevitably to arrive at its destination.
DJ: I feel Sarah’s chapters are especially vivid and I love all the detail of her childhood farm, wartime Sydney and beyond. How did you go about researching the novel and was there a specific inspiration for her character?
EL: The war brides and their children I interviewed in the US were inspirations, but the story was not based on any single story. I was also inspired by the farm that my husband’s family owns on the South Coast of NSW. It was once part of a larger dairy farm, and we spend many weekends and most holidays there. Much as I began my life in Virginia and ended up in this valley surrounded by bush, I wanted Sarah to begin life in this valley and end up in Virginia. I think because landscape is vitally important to me and I know how much you can long for a landscape you have left behind.
DJ: I had no idea before reading The Passengers about the ‘ bride ships’ transporting new dependents of American servicemen from overseas. The novel reprints an article from The Sydney Morning Herald, dated 12 December 1945, that estimates this figure at 50,000 wives and 20,000 children. An astonishing figure! It blows me away every time I think of it. Ever since reading the novel, I’ve reflected on that number of new Americans, wondering about the impact on not just their lives, but on the lives of what must be tens of thousands of American girls disappointed by lads who left and came back married with children. Surely there’s at least another novel in that side of the story?!
EL: There are so many other novels in the stories of war brides! They are astonishing figures, and that was something that every war bride had to reckon with, the resentment from the local women who already had lost so many sweethearts and brothers to the war, to then lose the ones who survived but married foreign women. Many war brides have spoken of how they were met with hostility and told they “stole” their husbands from local women. What the US government did, however, by giving war brides married to American servicemen free passage and waiving their visa requirements is they ensured that these men would return home to a country with a shortage of young men, rather than settling with their new brides and children overseas. It was quite a savvy move on the part of the US government.
DJ: Both Sarah and Hannah comment on the ruin of their mothers’ bodies after children and it’s implied in both cases that this softening and spreading of a mother’s body leads the husband astray, first Sarah’s dad, then Hannah’s. It made me incredibly sad. It’s especially troubling since Hannah’s anorexia is to some extent a protest against her mother’s flesh – a resistance to the same thing ever happening to her. And yet in this losing battle to maintain control, she’s unable to create intimacy, either with her boyfriend, her mother, her grandmother and even to some extent the reader. I wonder if you could unpack these all too human frailties for us a little, in terms of the fault-line you walked in the writing?
EL: Well, it’s no secret that I’m obsessed with the way our culture views motherhood and the ensuing pressure for perfection. I don’t know that I meant to imply that the softening of the mothers’ bodies alone leads the fathers astray, but that combined with the tedium of domesticity and other things…it’s a hard question!
I was fascinated by that in Hannah because I remember intensely feeling it myself as a child. I never wanted breasts or hips, an arse or cellulite. I wanted to be straight up and down like an arrow, narrow and fast. I still remember being nine and hoping that I would be that size forever. I wanted to explore that and why a girl would feel that way, and how it would make her feel when she did – as we do – inevitably hit puberty and become a woman. It is sad but it is so pervasive. And there are so many complex and various reasons why it exists.
DJ: One of the things I most appreciate about Sarah’s character is her lack of judgement. She’s got the wisdom of years and such a rich range of experience to her advantage, of course, but it’s another way in which the two women sharply differ. Hannah’s very hard on herself and others. To what extent was that contrast something you consciously explored and what is it about the intergenerational female relationship that most compels and repels you (for surely it’s both)?
EL: As I mentioned earlier, my relationship with my grandmother was something I drew on very strongly here, her own lack of judgement about my life (especially compared to my parents) meant that I was comfortable telling her things I wouldn’t tell them. Yet, you’re right, Hannah is the opposite: she’s hard on everyone, but particularly herself. I think this contrast was less consciously explored and more came out of my subconscious, where all the best tensions and character motivations come from. I’m fascinated, though, by the intergenerational female relationship – because of the contrasts that it allows me to explore. I’m fascinated by the societal changes that women have experienced in the last three generations, yet despite having more freedom we are still facing limitations men don’t even consider.
Does this relationship repel me as well? I’m not sure it does. I’ve always been drawn to the elderly since I was a child. I’ve been fascinated by the process of ageing, not repulsed by it, and I’m drawn to wrinkles and grey hair…even as they happen to me. I was the kid who wanted to jump straight from being nine to being a granny with a cane. It was the in-between part that frightened me; it still does.
DJ: What were some of the creative and technical challenges you needed to overcome in order to see the novel through and how long did that process of resolution take?
EL: I needed to work on my transitions between Hannah and Sarah’s stories – and to trust the reader to stay with me. I had really obvious, tedious transitions in early drafts, which I had to (for the most part) get rid of. I had to tell more of Hannah’s story, because as the story progressed she became a larger part of the novel than I initially imagined her being. I had to create timelines and sort out my characters over the span of their lifetimes in the realm of what was actually happening during WWII and afterwards. These things all took about a year. And I had to get over myself and edit my work. This can be hard – especially when life is demanding and you’re trying to do a million different things. I remember that I had a week at Varuna during this time, which was immensely helpful.
DJ: The value of an editor and the benefit of access to the full resources of a traditional publishing house: let’s hear it.
EL: My first two books were with Sleepers Publishing, [whom] I have to say were amazing publishers, especially considering the resources they had, and I felt as though those books were very well edited. The Passengers is with Allen & Unwin, and I will say that it was the most thorough edit I have ever had. I received a sixteen page structural editing report, which was terrifying but also improved the book immensely. I’m also very grateful for their eagle-eyed proofreaders, who picked up all of my dodgy maths and overused phrases (I learned that I’m obsessed with describing people’s hands). Having a publicist those first fraught weeks is really helpful, and the distribution is better than smaller presses can achieve. However, I still find that I have to work really hard to keep the book out there. You can’t just sit back and wait for opportunities to come, you have to seek them out.
DJ: Now, about Varuna! How did you first come to Varuna and how has Varuna contributed to your development?
EL: I think I first heard about Varuna from other students at UTS when I was doing my Masters. It was always spoken about in hushed tones, with a kind of reverence, like it was a magical word. I first came to Varuna as a paying resident when I was pregnant with my second child. I worked on a novel that never saw the light of day, but I learned so much about perseverance from that manuscript. I later returned with a fellowship and as an alumni – I get so much done at Varuna. It’s about having the mental space to think about the work, as well as work on the work. And then the dinners where you hear about other writers and their work. It is magical. I use the same reverent tones now.
DJ: Please tell us about your writing practice, Eleanor: the where, how and when, including any superstitions, habits and biscuit/beverage preferences. I always love reading these details about how each author pulls off the miracle of writing a novel that finds its way into print – I don’t think we ever tire of hearing the minutiae and idiosyncratic details comprising each writer’s tiny bespoke world of one.
EL: I write when my kids are at school, when I’m not teaching. I used to write at the kitchen table but now there is a studio in my garden where I can ignore the washing up and laundry. I frequently turn off the internet, I never listen to music, and I’m certain I write better when a dog is close by. I drink lots of tea (after a single morning coffee) and always keep chocolate or Haribo gummi bears in my desk drawer. Sadly, my children have discovered these and I need to find a new hiding place because they keep disappearing.
DJ: Are you able to generate enough income as an author of fiction to earn a living wage, and if not, how else do you scrape a living together?
EL: No way! I teach as a casual academic at UTS and short courses other places, but I also am lucky to have a partner who has a practical career.
DJ: Who are some of your major inspirations, both among authors and other figures in your life? How do they influence your work?
EL: There are so many but among them is my mother, who always encouraged me to read and write. The Little House on the Prairie books, which showed me that struggle can create character. My high school English teacher, Mary Anne Bell, who introduced me to William Faulkner. Other writers I adore: Toni Morrison, Ann Patchett, Rachel Cusk, Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth Strout, Arundhati Roy, Annie Dillard and Joan London.
DJ: Finally, Eleanor, why? Why do you do it? Did you always want to do it? Do you struggle to do it? Do you have several novels lined up in your mind, politely waiting to be written, or do you have to hunt each one down with grim determination? What makes writing fiction simply impossible for you to ignore?
EL: I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer, but I always read everything I could get my hands on. I began to write when I couldn’t find the stories I wanted to read. Writing fiction is impossible for me to ignore because it tells the truths we’re afraid to speak aloud. I hope to keep doing it as long as I can. I have more ideas than I have time or energy to write, but I know the one which gives me shivers is the one I need to follow through. I do feel when it’s right in my spine.
DJ: Thank you so much, Eleanor. My very warmest wishes for answering the call of that next shiver down your spine.