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How I Came to Write Autumn Laing

Alex Miller

Alex Miller reflects on his new novel, Autumn Laing and the people who inspired it.

My first encounter with the work of Sidney Nolan was when I was a boy and was working on an Exmoor farm. An Australian gave me a book on the outback. It was illustrated with black and white photographs of a vast silent land that was mysterious to me and which compelled my imagination. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the haunting photographs in the book were the work of the Australian artist Sidney Nolan. I came to Australia on my own at the age of sixteen in search of Sidney Nolan’s outback. It was the most important decision I have ever made. I still revisit central and north Queensland and have many friends there. That strange and beautiful country photographed with the imagination of Nolan has been a deep and lasting influence on my life as a writer.

My second (recorded) encounter with the work of Nolan was in 1961 when Thames & Hudson published the first major monograph on the Australian artist’s work. Though I had very little money at the time—I was earning a living in Melbourne cleaning cars while studying at night for my university entrance exams—I thought this expensive book so important that I bought a copy and sent it to my father as a Christmas present. Nolan’s art, it seemed to me, would reveal to my father more about Australia than my letters ever could. It was through my father’s encouragement that I had first developed what proved to be a lifelong interest in art. He wanted me to be an artist. I did the next best thing and became a writer.

When I was writing my third novel, The Ancestor Game, in the late 1980s—it was published in 1992—I quoted from Colin MacInnes’s essay from the Nolan monograph:

Australia is an Asiatic island that Europeans inhabited by accident … Everything about Australia is bizarre. I read until I lost interest in the writer’s insistence on a uniquely eccentric nature for Australia and for the ‘kingly race’ of Europeans who inhabited the continent.

These were views of Australia current among the intelligentsia of the time when the book was published, at the beginning of the 1960s. They were views that The Ancestor Game challenges and which a subsequent generation of Australians has discarded. By the early 1990s Nolan, and our interpretation of his work, however, remained important in what we might call the process of Australian cultural history making. Cultural change is continuous and is generational. Each generation rewrites history for itself, but while historical texts become outmoded in this process, the art and literature of the nation continue to be the stuff of reinterpretation. Culturally we are not yet done with Nolan and his art any more than we are done with the poetry of Judith Wright or the novels of Patrick White. Nolan’s art is as much a part of Australian history as the defeat at Gallipoli, and we will surely continue to reinterpret its significance for us till the cows come home.

When my first novel, The Tivington Nott (1989), was distributed in Australia—I’d been unable to find a publisher for it here—Sidney Nolan’s old friend the poet Barrett Reid wrote to tell me he thought highly of the book and that he wished to meet me. Barrie, as his friends knew him, lived at Heide, the home of the Reeds, where Nolan’s art had found its first and most important champion in Sunday Reed. When I told Barrie about the inspiration of the book given me by the Australian in Somerset all those years ago it was Barrie who told me it was Nolan’s photos I’d been looking at. On more than one occasion during the years of our friendship Barrie suggested to me that I write a novel based on Nolan’s life. The project did not greatly appeal to me at the time and I did nothing about it. But it was Barrett Reid who sowed the seeds of the idea with me. Barrie revealed Nolan’s art to me in a way I could not have done for myself and he educated me about its sources and the life of art Nolan had lived at Heide in his early years as an artist. Barrie remained a dedicated friend and champion of Sunday Reed to the end of his life.

In Autumn Laing, the resident poet laureate of the group of artists whose work is favoured at Old Farm is Barnaby. Like Barrie, Barnaby was born and raised on a cattle station in the Central Highlands of Queensland (where I had also worked as a boy). Barnaby is my private homage to a dear friend who is no longer with us. The connection of Nolan and the Queensland cattle station that I made through my friendship with Barrett Reid was a compelling one that was rich in those emotions that make us feel we not only belong to a certain place but that we are in some sense fated to belong to it. Sooner or later I knew I would attempt to write about Nolan. What I have written in Autumn Laing is not, however, what I expected to write. Novels are a kind of dream for the novelist. Although they are most often based on observations of reality, the writer is not in control and must follow the compelling prompts of imagination. For me it has never been possible to plot or plan a novel beyond a few very basic elements. The story reveals itself to me as I proceed with a book and is nearly always a surprise. Autumn Laing was no exception.

I first wrote what is now chapter two, Autumn’s (realist) portrait of the artist’s first wife, Edith. After writing this chapter I had to leave the book while I spent a month on tour in the United Kingdom with my previous novel Lovesong. At the end of the tour (the end of September 2010) I was sitting on a bench in Holland Park watching squirrels and remembering my boyhood in London’s parks when the idea for the present form of the book suddenly occurred to me. I hadn’t given the book a thought for a month. As I was sitting there that lovely September afternoon watching the squirrels diving about among the ivy I suddenly heard the voice of Autumn Laing, ‘They are all dead,’ she said, ‘and I am old and skeleton-gaunt …’ It was a realisation. The realisation that the character I had originally based on Sunday Reed, Nolan’s muse and lover and his greatest supporter during his early years, might have lived on until the age of eighty-six, alone, deserted and with a deep sense of having been betrayed.

The woman whose voice I heard that day was no longer the Sunday Reed of history but was my own fiction, a prompt from my imagination, a fiction of how such a person might have become had she lived another ten years and had she decided to tell her story, telling it at a time of her life when she had nothing left to lose. Autumn has nothing left to lose but everything to gain morally by telling her story. She quotes Tennyson: ‘Let me shrive me clean and die. None of us,’ she says, ‘willingly dies unclean. Whether we are religious or not, to seek confession and absolution is surely an essential moral imperative of the human conscience. To absolve means to set free, and that is what we yearn for, freedom. Young or old, it’s what we dream of and fight for. We never really know what we mean by it.’ And so she tells the story of their youthful passions, their betrayals and their terrible judgements. What is youth for, she says, but to commit the great follies? And they do.

When I got home to Castlemaine from London in early October I wrote for ten hours a day six days a week for five months in the voice that I had heard in Holland Park—the voice of Autumn Laing. It is the longest novel I’ve ever written and the quickest. I loved every minute of it and was sorry when she finally left me. I don’t think I will ever find anyone like her again. She is confident, well informed, passionate, cultivated and very down to earth. She is, in some ways, the personification of a certain type of the cultivated Australian woman. She couldn’t possibly be English or French. Like Sunday, Autumn’s commitment was always to Australia and to our art. She was never tempted to live in England or Europe. In her person my own early life as a stockman in north Queensland is connected to my life as a writer in Melbourne, just as these aspects of my own life were connected for me by my friendship with Barrie Reid, a faithful friend of Sunday Reed until the end, and a faithful admirer and interpreter of the art of his old friend Nolan. It is the experience of the artist and of Autumn in this book while they are visiting Barnaby’s parents’ cattle station in north Queensland that changes them both forever.

Autumn Laing is a story about the intimate lives of passionate, ambitious and gifted people, it is a story about their loves, their hates and their betrayals, but it is also a story about Australian art and culture and some of the questions and problems that Australian art and culture have had to confront and continue to confront today. The inspiration for this story may have originated in the model of the relationship of Sidney Nolan and Sunday Reed, but Autumn Laing and Pat Donlon are my own fictional inventions. They are the products of my own dreaming, the presences of my own haunting and my own experience. Anyone looking in this book for the real Sunday Reed or Sidney Nolan will be looking in the wrong place and they will not find them. Autumn Laing is not biography or cultural history, and makes no claim to any such thing. It is fiction. My own fiction, and that is the only sensible claim to be made for it. And there is nothing novel is having based these characters on real people. All my major characters in all my novels have been based on real people. I’ve had only one objection, and that was from the original of the Cap in Lovesong. He is the only one to have disliked his fictional representation.

But why fiction? Why not cultural history or biography? My only answer can be that my interest is in the currency of the intimate lives of ‘us’, and neither the historian nor the biographer can deal in such a currency. Private intimacy is of necessity a language requiring something more than textual and eye-witness sources. One has to make it up. And this is what I most enjoy doing—dwelling among the liberties of the imaginative arena of make-believe, writing novels, doing fiction. The inner life is where my interest lies and for this I have to pretend to understand, to empathise to the best of my ability, with my characters. Our motives may remain opaque to us even in our most lucid moments; confused, changeable, impenetrable, and interesting only when complex and irreducible. What interests me is motivation, shadows forever shifting their ground in the partly conscious spaces from where our hopes and fears for ourselves arise, and for those we love and cherish—and equally our hatreds for those we love and our wish at times to see them destroyed. Without this enduring interest there can be no energy for the work, no inspiration to visit the tangled webs of the interior life. Vivid moments of destructive hatred that we reserve for our intimates. Dangerous moments when we are not ourselves. Absurd and irrational behaviours driven by the almost hallucinatory power of lust. Or when we are too much ourselves. It is these private shadow grounds of contradiction and elaboration beyond fact and outward appearance that interest me. Fiction is the only mode with which we can approach this ground in others. As with all modes of writing, we are at liberty to do it well—in which case our readers are convinced and willingly enter into the illusion with us—or to do it badly, in which case they are repelled and abandon us.

© Alex Miller

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