I am really delighted to welcome Helen Garner to the 'dovegreyreader asks...' armchair and the gentle light of the standard lamp to answer our usual three questions about her book The Spare Room which I enjoyed so much last year and published in paperback this week by Canongate. We've done another plump up of the cushions and the virtual Devon cream tea is to hand and so now over to Helen.
Helen, you once suggested an image for writing that sits very comfortably with us here at dovegreyreader,
"like trying to make a patchwork quilt look seamless. A novel is made up scraps of our own lives and bits of other people's, and things we think of in the middle of the night and whole notebooks full of randomly collected details."
and I wonder if you could talk about this in relation to the writing of The Spare Room. Where did you find the fabrics and how did you piece together this wonderful book?
friend whom I dearly loved did come to stay with me while she underwent
alternative treatments for terminal cancer. I do live next door to my daughter
and her family. The real-life clinic to which my friend entrusted her body did
turn out to be an outfit of the most bare-faced shonkiness. The treatments were
useless. She refused to acknowledge this and I tried to force her to. The
deepest parts of our characters clashed. Our friendship began to crack under
the strain. I couldn’t last the distance. My friend died.
So the fabrics of the story come from actual experience. I didn’t know what sort of quilt I was going to be able to stitch together, but I knew that if I didn’t make something out of it, I was going to go crazy.
My first few books, in the 1970s and 80s, had been novels or short stories. But then for twelve years or so I was married to another novelist. Gradually, and unconsciously, I shifted off our dangerous common turf into non-fiction. I enjoyed this. It seemed to suit me, and I had some success at it.
I thought I could write The Spare Room as straight memoir, giving everyone their own real-life names and sticking to the dates and the literal development of events. But as soon as I sat down to start, it became disobedient. It had a life of its own, and it went bounding away from me.
The quilt metaphor has got left behind!
The shackles of non-fiction, which had been clamped round my ankles for fifteen years, fell off with a clang. I saw that if I thought of it as a novel, I would be free to compress the story, and trim away what was inessential. I would be able to create scenes about religion and psychology and their comfort, or their failure to comfort. I could bring to it any amount of material that had been haunting me in other contexts for years. In short, I could tell this story any way I damn well liked.
I gave the narrator my own first name for one major reason: my fantasy of myself as a decent person took a terrible battering while I was trying to care for my friend, and I’ve tried hard not to sentimentalise this, or to go easy on myself. I wanted to own up to the unattractive effects of caring for a dying person, the unheroic resentments, the impatience and anger, the bossiness and the bullying. I hope that in reality I’m slightly nicer than the Helen in the book. She’s a monster of anger at times. There’s a lot of the Head Prefect in Helen. Awful. The real Nicola would laugh about her, I know -- she was such a funny woman. Before our friendship turned into a power struggle, we were always staggering about in fits of laughter. I wanted to get that side of us into the story, and I think I did. The worst thing about someone you love dying is that once they’re gone, the language of laughter you created together is now spoken by only one person in the world -- you.
It took me about nine months, that wonderfully symbolic number, to write the book. Strangely I remember it as a calm and very happy time, though I spent a fair bit of it lying on the carpet in my workroom bawling till my nose went red. But now I don’t only miss the real Nicola. I miss the Nicola in the book as well. I’ve lost both of them. Even that sad thought makes me laugh, when I’m not crying over it. It reminds me of how I felt watching that movie Tootsie, where Dustin Hoffman plays a man disguised as a woman. When the trick is discovered and Tootsie no longer exists, I remember how empty I felt, even though it was only a story. As if anything is ever ‘only a story’!
We are hopelessly inquisitive here and we love to know all the details about your writing day, must the dog be walked and the taps polished before you can sit down, pen (fountain or biro ) or computer, special desk, special room, special place?
I never understand how anyone can work at home. There are so many worthy displacement activities available. You put on a load of washing, which means that in half an hour you have to get up from the desk to hang it on the line. On the way along the hall you see dust and can’t go back to work till you’ve run the vacuum cleaner over the carpet. And there’s that packet of biscuits that will go stale if you don’t finish them today, etc. So I rent an office in an old building two suburbs away. I can pedal over there in about 20 minutes, or take the tram if I’m lazy. I try to get here by 10am. It’s a small, quite shabby room without a view. Table, chair, lamp, bookshelf, sky-blue filing cabinet. Computer, printer. No phone, no internet. Mat, pillow, cotton blanket for a nap after lunch. Jug to make me drink more water. A lot of pencils. A mechanical sharpener. Dictionary. Thesaurus. Scissors. Hand cream. No one else has ever come here and I hope no one ever will. Sometimes I go for months without working, and of course even when I don’t use the space I have to keep forking out the rent; but just thinking that the office exists makes the rest of my life possible.
Finally, who must we read, your favourite authors and books, those greatest influences.
I’m not sure why I can never pull together a convincing answer to this question. But here’s what comes to mind right now:
by Janet Malcolm. But particularly The
Journalist and the Murderer,
Everything by Gitta Sereny.
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
Raymond Carver: Collected Stories
Henry Handel Richardson: The Getting of Wisdom
Marion Milner (aka Joanna Field): An Experiment in Leisure
William Thackeray: The Rose and the Ring
Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse
Elizabeth Jolley: My Father’s Moon
My sincere and grateful thanks to Helen for such a fascinating dovegreyreader asks... and names in comments because there are three prize draw copies of the new paperback edition of The Spare Room ready and waiting for three lucky winners (apologies, UK only)