Truth, Fiction and Autumn Laing — A Conversation with Alex Miller

Neda Vanovac

Novelist Alex Miller is one of Australia’s most successful, with two Miles Franklin awards under his belt for Journey to the Stone Country and The Ancestor Game. His latest book, Autumn Laing, began as a work loosely modelled on the life of artist Sidney Nolan, but quickly morphed into something quite different.

In Autumn, Alex has created — or is it found? — a narrator of questionable reliability, who wrestles the story away from the formidable, fictionalised, Sidney Nolan. She pushes him into the background of the memoir/fiction that she feels compelled to write, consumed as she is with setting down her own truth, resolutely avoiding a memorist’s compulsion to portray herself as sympathetic — and yet she is.

A cranky, fiery woman of 85, Autumn is flatulent, impatient, and furious at the indignities and ravages that old age has wrought upon her. Having spotted the ex-wife of her former lover, artist Pat Donlon, she finds herself looking back on her life with no small measure of guilt, remembering their brief affair which would mark the rest of her life.

In the novel, Autumn, as an impressionistic portrait of Nolan’s lover and muse Sunday Reed, continually casts back into the past. She plunges back into Melbourne of 1938 and her circle of artists, poets and writers trying to tackle the art establishment of the time.

I spoke with Alex upon the release of Autum Laing, touching upon the subjectivities of biography and memoir, guilt and the mask of the confessional, and the influence Sidney Nolan had on his own life.



I read that you’d said that she [Autumn Laing] inhabited you.

Yeah, it’s not to be taken literally.

You weren’t possessed?

No. I mean, people say ‘oh, you heard her voice when sitting on a bench in Holland Park?’ Well, yes. But it was a realisation on how the book ought to be written.

And how did that differ from your original conception?

Radically. I thought for years it was going to be a book about Sidney Nolan. And it’s not. It’s a book about something else. Which involves Pat Donlon, who is loosely modelled on Sid Nolan, with whom I’ve had a long association going back to my childhood.

What form did that association take?

I was working as a farm labourer when I was kid, when I was 15, 16. And an Australian, my first Australian, moved in next door, and he gave me a book on the outback, which I’d never heard of. Australia was as remote to me as Serbia.

And he gave me this book and said, ‘if you want to go to somewhere really wild and remote’ — And I thought Exmoor was pretty remote – ‘why don’t you go to Australia?’ And I read the book. I have no memory at all what it was about. Presumably the travels. But it was illustrated with wonderful black and white photos of this country, which was a straight line dividing the top of the page from the bottom of the page, and that was the horizon line. Or there would be one feature and it would be a dead tree. Or it would be a figure of a man, taken from behind in silhouette, standing at the edge of a veranda, looking out at that straight line. And it just possessed me, this idea of going there.

What was it? Was it this idea [of] the vastness of it?

When we’re young, and also I think when we’re old, and I’ve experienced both, we still dream of a kind of freedom; we’re not sure what we mean by it. But it’s probably a liberation from the kind of thing Artaud dreamed of, having a theatre that was liberated from all the constraints of all the usual theatre he’d ever seen, and he wasn’t sure how to see this. How do we see that? What is it?

There was this very powerful sense in me that I needed to go and find out. The images of emptiness weren’t so much emptiness to me, as promise. A kind of lure. Particularly a picture of stockmen on a veranda, looking out toward this undeviating horizon line. And they seemed to me to be in this vast, wonderful, mysterious silence that I’d never before imagined, having come from South London and being brought up as a Londoner. And of course those photos were taken by Sid Nolan – I didn’t know that at the time.

They were images through the eye of the camera by a person I would say was a very great artist. In The Australian [recently] there was an article about a famous Australian artist living in Italy, and the heading was ‘Nolan wasn’t a real artist’. Which is to me a loud announcement of envy. Well, are we talking about Nolan or are we talking about you, mate? And that a person of 90 can feel that sort of unassuageable envy is a good comment on human nature.

Nolan refused the training of the Europeans. And this was something that always intrigued and delighted me. He’d done that, and was the only Australian artist to come up with something the Europeans were interested in.

So then, this sort of criticism of Nolan as a non-artist, did it surprise you at all to see Australian artists to be spoken of that way, still?

No, I’ve seen it often.

Not only was he unconnected from the art world, but he was working class. And somehow he leapt the fence and beat them all at their own game, which most of them didn’t forgive. Plus he was a hard bugger. Whereas Pat Donlon, who’s the figure in my book based loosely on Donlon, is not.

Well he’s hard enough.

Hard enough, yes. But he’s not vicious, the way Sid was.

Where would you draw the line, then, in terms of how much of a Sid cloak you put on Pat?

It’s not a matter of putting a cloak on characters. Characters either find you or they don’t. This story’s been a long time maturing for me. It’s had a long history, beginning with me being fascinated by those photos by Sid Nolan. So much so that I came to Australia alone when I was 16 to find that place.

It’s the first book where my interest in art and the Australian landscape have come together. But the inspiration in Holland Park in September last year was that the story should be told through the voice of this old woman.

How much had you developed the story up until then?

Yeah, I’d written a chapter. I mean, I didn’t know yet how to write the book, but I began by writing. I don’t begin by researching, but by writing. And if I write myself into an area of ignorance that is still attracting me, then I’ll go find out something about it. But unless that happens I’ll just keep writing. Because often with me it’s an aspect of myself I’m dealing with. Based on the masks that I’ve assumed, and these are the masks of fiction.

And in this case Autumn Laing came to me as a surprise. I didn’t intend to write a book about Sunday Reed. I didn’t know her. I’d never met her. Sunday ended in despair, partly because of the way Sid Nolan persisted in treating her so meanly and horribly til the end. Which was something I don’t think Pat Donlon would do.

Well, no, but Pat removed himself from the scene entirely.

It was too difficult for him and it wasn’t going anywhere. What was he going to do, be her toyboy?

He was too proud for that.

He didn’t have a lot of choice. Was he going to hang on and grow older there? He was 21, 22 in my story, and there wasn’t a lot of choice. ‘You either hang around with me and Arthur, or you move on.’ And he did move on, as anybody would, unless you want to be caught in a place where there was no room for them to be themselves or develop. But Autumn came to me as a surprise. She was 10 years older than Sunday Reed was when Sunday died, and Autumn is not bitter. She’s not defeated.

But she is angry.

She’s aware of her own guilt. And sets out initially, she’s triggered by seeing Edith Black, to feel that guilt. When she sees Edith, she realises, ‘that woman could have been my oldest friend, instead of my oldest enemy’. But as you know, she vastly overestimates the damage she’s done.


But, we don’t know what we do to other people. I feel guilty about when my son was young, I used to work assiduously on Sunday morning, until lunchtime, and he’d slip a little note under the door, and I wouldn’t read the note until I was done. And it would say: ‘Can we go to the park or kick a ball or something, Dad?’ When I look back on that, I feel almost tearful with guilt over it. Ross, who’s 33 now, and a banker, with kids of his own, says, ‘oh for Christ’s sake, Dad, we used to have a great time with Mum. We used to say, “geeze, I hope Dad doesn’t come out!”’

So it’s quite different, and it was the same for Autumn and Edith. Autumn remembers what she sees as the destruction of this woman by taking her man and taking away from her and the child and destroying a potential family. There are a number of reasons why a person like her would feel so guilty, because her own relationship to children is a very complex one, right to the end of the book. Finally she says, ‘I had one child.’ And I think there’s a catch in her throat when she says that. You had one — what did you do with it?

I think it’s towards the end of the book when Autumn says of Edith, ‘she’d been a character in my story and no longer a real person, and they no longer inhabit my reality but my private fiction, which represents the truth of things to myself only and only for today,’ which is interesting, the way she circles round this memory and casts it in different lights.

How can you not?

You can’t.

Your memory is yours, not somebody else’s. In a sense one of the problems with memoir, is we assume that the memoirist will tell the truth, will say, this is how it is. But no memoirist – Michel de Montaigne, the French 16th century essayist, said of Voltaire, ‘yes he did, he did admit his faults, but only his endearing ones.’ It’s almost impossible for a memoirist to portray themselves as odious.

Whereas Autumn doesn’t seem to have a problem with that — she seems to revel in portraying her faults.

She is prepared to tell the truth truth, warts and all, as they say.

Well, her truth truth.

Yeah, her sense of herself and her sense of her guilt, requires her to deal in the coin of her own guilt. Which she does, and exaggerates, as we find out.

When you’re writing a character like that, how much are you seeing her through the eyes by which she’s looking at herself, and how much do you step back and say, ‘well, this is how she really was and this is how I’ll allow her to depict herself’?

I don’t see it that way at all. When I realised this story could be told by Autumn Laing, this woman who was originally a side issue and was based on a period of Nolan’s life, I realised, ‘it’s her, she’s going to do it’. And it came to me, this realisation, along with the sense of her feistiness and her determination: ‘There’s nothing left to lose, I can do it now, I can tell the truth, stark as it may be. For me, I can tell my truth. Who else’s truth can I tell? Nobody’s, we don’t know another person’s truth.’

So it makes the last year of her life, and there can’t be another, surely, she says, she’s done with it, her body’s had it, she doesn’t have any friends any more—

Her friends are gone, her family’s gone, her lover’s gone.

Her last friend is gone, left her quite upset, by all that. The only person who’s come along is the bloody bollard, the scavenger, who’s going to have the last word, as biographers do—

And she did.

And she did. Only fair. So they do. And they correct the mythologies of the person who has lived the truths they’ve inquired into, and theirs becomes another truth, the biography becomes the biographer’s view. Not many biographers view kindly a fictional treatment of their subject.

You say it wasn’t Sunday, and there’ll be some degree of defence that you’ll have to put forward when people continue to link these things—

No, I don’t have to defend it.

I don’t mean in a negative sense, but people will always be curious about where that line is drawn—

Of course.

You said you started out with this idea of writing about Sidney Nolan, and then Autumn hijacked that, and there are enough parallels that people will persist in seeing this as an ‘officialised’ account.

I see her as emblematic as the Australian, well-educated woman of means. Very independent about her views of life or anything else. Couldn’t be English, couldn’t be Irish, couldn’t be French. There’s something to me very Australian about the woman, and her belief in Australia and Australian art, never having thought like our friend in Italy, ‘I should go and live in Europe,’ or somewhere else. Australia was always going to be where she was going to do it, whatever it was. Like Patrick White did. He had a choice, absolutely, and said, ‘we’ve gotta make it Australian, if we’re going to do this.’

What I find so interesting is that you have such a dominant character in Autumn, and so much of the book revolves around her relationships with the other women in her life. And yet so much of that is in the orbit of the men in their lives. And Autumn talks about this gift of recognition that her uncle recognises, and she talks about how her true talent is to see talent in others.

It was. There’s a class of such women. Numerous people, young, scruffy, working class, gifted artists, or poets, artists, writers, whatever, over the years, over the centuries, have encountered an upper-class woman of means who’s recognised them as authentic. Other people might have recognised them as authentic and not been able to do anything about it. The woman that scrubs the floors once a week, she night have recognised them as authentic but so bloody what? You’re not going to be able to do anything about it. So there’s always a sense of a selecting-out process, where the woman who acts as a muse often to a younger man, and I’ve brought Pat as nearly 10 years younger than Autumn. She’s 32 and he’s 21, it’s a huge difference at that age. And also the attraction of an older woman at that age is something mesmerising too, someone who’s confident and approaches with that confidence. And also the power, her ability to seriously help him and see him on his way. And also the acknowledgment is very seductive.

But who recognises the recognisers?

Yes, good question. Autumn’s been there at the coalface, when it happened. She’s helped, she’s had her hands on the paint herself—

She’s in the pictures.

—And more and more in that series she appears at the window, a solitary woman, which she is. And remains. It’s very sad.

Without her what would Pat have achieved? Can we even speculate?

I don’t think so. I can’t. It’s not the novelist’s place to judge. It’s the reader. The novelist observes. And hopefully they observe accurately. Because accurate observation is at the base of it. Accurate observation of human behaviour, intimacy of one person with another, whatever level, your relationship with whatever it is, needs to be accurately observed. And when it is, it’s a delight to read. When it’s not, you can’t quite go along with it, you don’t believe it, doesn’t feel authentic, you’re not dragged into that world, you don’t become part of it yourself, and the reader makes those judgements, the writer doesn’t.

As you’re writing, how much space do you leave for people to read for themselves? Is that something you think about or something that happens unconsciously?

Both. The only thing I can tell you is, tell them nothing.

Bare bones.

Tell the reader nothing. Let the story unfold. Tell them nothing, otherwise the reader doesn’t have to read the fucking book. If you tell them anything at all, it’s like saying, ‘don’t worry about this, stop being interested, I’ll just tell you what’s going on.’

And in Autumn Laing, there is that back and forth between her very present first person narration and her own biography, the memoir she creates herself—

Her fiction.

Yeah. Her fiction. Which is interesting in a character that’s so determined to tell the truth, that doesn’t seem to extend any further.

The mask of fiction. She’s following Oscar Wilde’s perception that you have to give someone a mask before they’ll show you the truth of themselves. Also the mask goes back to Balinese theatre and that sort of thing. You can’t behave like that normally. People will be disgusted, unnerved, or uneasy.

You’ve got to put them in the confessional box.

Yeah. But you put the mask on and you can behave within the landscape behind the mask. And it’s vast. In a sense it enables you to call upon the unconscious. And that’s what she’s accepting. She says, ‘you’re not going to hear it all from me.’




by Meredith Feldmar
02 Sep 12 at 15:53

I absolutely loved this fucking book. I truly enjoyed getting to know Autumn Laing. It is difficult for me to realize that the author is male. I just assumed it was a woman and then checked at about page 100. I am a painter, Canadian, almost 73. Thank you Alex Miller.

by Ralph Lewis
13 May 13 at 15:14

A very enjoyable read, if a bit dark at times – but that is life! I am interested that Mr Miller wrote another book about an artist, this time a tradionalist, but who also left his wife and had an affair with another woman. Prochownik’s Dream, anotherr good read.