I’ve known Georgia Blain for many years. We are about the same age and her childhood memories are familiar to me—a decade of educational experimentation (the seventies); family dynamics complicated (further) by the rise of feminism, both parents working and divorce; a certain pressure to be sexually active before one really knew what such matters entailed. Her essay ‘Strange Times’ begins, ‘On the night Gough Whitlam was elected Prime Minister, my parents held a party.’ So did mine. But there are many things about Blain’s life that are particular and her stunning collection Births Deaths Marriages is about, in part, having lived a life more publicly documented than many. Her father, Ellis Blain, was an ABC broadcaster, and her mother is the commentator Anne Deveson. Deveson’s bestselling book Tell Me I’m Here charted her son Jonathan’s—Georgia’s brother—struggle with schizophrenia and eventual death. Soon after that book’s publication Georgia Blain’s first novel, Closed for Winter, was published. Since then Blain has written three novels—Candelo, The Blind Eye and Names for Nothingness. Births Deaths Marriages was published in March this year and is her first book of nonfiction. She lives in Sydney with her partner Andrew Taylor and their daughter Odessa.
Sophie Cunningham: I want to talk to you about your nonfiction writing compared to your novel writing. Of the five books you have written, which was the hardest to write?
Georgia Blain: I don’t think you can say that one form is harder than the other, I think every book has different challenges. Your first book has the huge challenges of: Can I possibly do this? Can I get to the end? Am I able to be a writer? I think you get technically more adept as you go along, but I don’t think your confidence necessarily gets better because you’re more aware of the pitfalls in the public process.
SC: And the more you know, the worse it is, in a way.
GB: Yes, so I think that is one of the main challenges. I don’t think your confidence in your voice necessarily gets better either, because as you get technically more adept you try new things, things that you’re not so confident with.
In terms of whether writing fiction is more difficult than writing memoir, I think the actual act of writing is not necessarily more difficult, but I think the act of going public is a lot more difficult. And by ‘going public’ I mean even those very early stages of consulting with people who are involved in the story. I’m someone who tends very much to work alone, I don’t like to have to talk to people about my work and I hated the fact that I had to, I found that very difficult.
SC: How did you negotiate that process? Did you sit down and work out a kind of ethics policy or did you just follow your gut?
GB: Followed my gut. I wish in retrospect I had worked out more clearly where I was prepared to give and where I wasn’t prepared to give. I was probably more prepared to give than I probably should have been. Because this was new territory for me I had to find my way as I went along, and there were key people I had to consult with. Firstly I had to consult with my mother; but I knew that wasn’t a problem, because she’s a writer herself and she’d written about us and I knew that was going to be okay. I had to consult Andrew [my partner] and I was pretty sure that was going to be okay because he knows the process [from] making films. I also had to consult various people who were at one remove, and there were chapters that I dropped after that consultation process, which is why I say I gave in more quickly than I should have.
SC: Was that because you had less intimacy with those people so didn’t feel able to negotiate with them?
GB: No, it was more that I said to them, ‘Look, I want you to see this book, as it involves you … If you really don’t want me to do this I won’t do it.’ And there was one chapter where someone involved really didn’t want me to do [publish] it so I didn’t do it. There was another one where they didn’t say directly that they didn’t want me to do it, but I could really tell that it had distressed them so I let that one go as well.
SC: In the case of the person who really didn’t want you to use the material, do you think they had the right to make that call or did you give them too much power? What rights does a writer have?
GB: I think ultimately you can just say, oh look, bugger it, I’m going to do it anyway, but in the case of both lots of people we had ongoing relationships that I didn’t want to jeopardise. Even though one of the things I let go was an integral part of the book and I would’ve liked to have kept in there. [But] I’m glad I didn’t have to talk about that chapter [publicly] when the people involved weren’t happy about it being there.
SC: How did you feel at various points in your life when you were children and your mother was writing about you?
GB: When we were little we were oblivious to it—whatever you have when you’re little you take as normal. I write about it in Births Deaths Marriages—that when my mother wrote about my brother I found that very distressing. But in retrospect I’m very glad she did it.
SC: Did your mother write Tell Me I’m Here sooner in your grief process than you would have liked, or was the issue that the book’s publication meant that people started asking you about your family?
GB: It’s hard to understand now because we have, in many ways, improved our attitude towards mental illness, but at the time this was happening nobody talked about mental illness and it was something you were ashamed that you had in your family. [There was] a long culture of keeping quiet about it and then suddenly [we] were out there—it was incredibly public. So that was difficult to adjust to. Now I look back and I think there was no shame, and I find it strange that it was difficult [for me] to deal with that.
SC: When was Jonathan diagnosed? What year?
GB: Probably when he was about seventeen. It was 1980 that he was diagnosed, yes. So it’s been a huge change, and I think Mum’s book is one of the main movers in that [cultural shift].
SC: You’ve had four novels published, some of which have material drawn from your own life, so why did you decide to move into memoir?
GB: First of all I think everybody draws from their own life when they write, and anybody who tells you they don’t is lying. I always remember my friend Katrina saying to me she saw Peter Carey at the Adelaide Festival and he talked about writers being magicians who were able to totally step outside their own skin and invent incredible experiences. I think you invent experiences, but I just don’t think you ever step outside your own skin.
I hit this point where I felt like I was circling around something and constantly drawing from myself. I thought: why not just do it directly, why not just say it directly? And I found the artifice of the traditional novel plot really frustrating. I’d hit this point where it was somehow blocking me from getting to where I wanted to get and saying what I wanted to say.
SC: I’m fascinated you’ve said that because I also feel that frustration with the form. Do you think you’re expected to be nicer than real life is in a novel?
GB: Yes, absolutely. I think you’re expected to be nicer, I think you’re expected to have resolution, even if it’s anti-resolution. I think you are expected to have characters that are in some way predictable and whose motives are understandable, but I don’t think people’s motives often are understandable and I don’t think people are predictable. I think people are multilayered. But then interestingly when it came to writing memoir I thought: I’ll throw away the artifice of plot, but there’s another artifice that you put on that’s very akin
to plot because I don’t think you can help but make a story of your experience. I set out with the intention of not having a cohesive whole. I ended up with a cohesive whole.
SC: Nonetheless, a series of essays is a more fragmented narrative. As with linked short stories there is a space between the pieces, where there’s an acknowledgement that you are living a life. There’s not the same covering up of cracks that there is in fiction. I didn’t think that Births Deaths Marriages read too neatly.
GB: No, but I still think you have a clear narrative arc of someone who gradually gained confidence and learned to trust their own voice. I still think you ended up with a traditional narrative arc. I was astounded when I got to the end. It’s a bizarre thing, you’re writing this happy ending—which I stressed was ‘fictional’—about how wonderful and happy everything is and you’re editing it on a day when you’re shitty beyond belief, and so your life is, as you say, constantly continuing outside the parameters of the story. I felt the only way I could be honest to life was to make it episodic, but also to stress that the ‘end’ was just one transient point and you could pick any point as the end.
SC: You’ve told me that several different people edited the collection because individual essays were published in various journals. How many editors worked overall on the book? And how did that affect the shape of it.
GB: Four or five pieces were published in various forms and they were each edited by different editors. Then Jane Gleeson-White read it for me as a friend. She did an initial look before it went to a publisher, and it was fantastic having somebody who was a professional editor and a friend. It was a difficult job for her, but she not only advised me on it as a work but also was able to say [at various points], ‘Look, are you really going to feel comfortable about that being out there?’
SC: Which she could only do because she knew you.
GB: Yes. And then it had two editors in the publishing process as well.
SC: Did different editors pull you in different directions?
GB: Not hugely, no. There were moments in the editing where there was a tension between trying to keep it episodic because [some essays had] been edited as self-contained pieces and then they had to be re-edited so they linked. But I was very determined to resist making it too neatly linked and sometimes there was some tension about that. But ultimately I think it got to a place where everyone felt like it was right.
SC: I’m assuming one of the tricky pieces to negotiate was the section when you talk about your feelings both about pregnancy and being a new mother and your frustrations. How old is your daughter Odessa now?
SC: Did you think about her as a reader?
GB: Absolutely. When I initially wrote some of those pieces, it was probably before she was a reader, but then as I edited more it became more and more clear to me that she was going to read them.
SC: Has she read them yet?
GB: No, she hasn’t, but the pieces are about my ambivalence about being a mother in those days, and I have talked to her about that. I said to her that a lot of people love little babies and find the toddler stage really difficult, and ‘I’m someone that found little babies really, really hard but loved the toddler stage.’ You see, I love it. As soon as they start having their personalities and exerting their will … I completely slotted into being a mother at a time when many of my friends found it very challenging. For me it was very important to talk to her honestly because she’s very similar to me and I thought if she has kids she’s probably going to be hit like I was hit.
SC: Because of genes and personality?
GB: Yes, but also I think a lot of women are hit like I was hit, thinking: what on earth have I done?
SC: Did you have postnatal depression?
GB: I was never diagnosed with postnatal depression. I have been depressed in my life and it didn’t feel like it was depression. I wanted to stress that I didn’t want the way in which I reacted to be termed aberrant or sick. I actually felt it was quite a valid response to such a life-changing event.
SC: One of my favourite scenes in the book is when you see the guy who’s a bit crazy out on Bondi Beach . . .
SC: Yes, and you’re saying to Odessa, ‘I think he has schizophrenia’ and explaining that her uncle had schizophrenia and her subsequent curiosity. Her wanting to embrace him as part of the family.
GB: It’s a fantastic story for a kid. Kids love gothic melodrama and there’s this person who had died young, who was this tragedy within our family, who was mad. As a kid with an imagination it’s like your gothic fairytale stuff, so of course she was absolutely intrigued by that whole story.
SC: That must have been quite affirming for you because it made Jonathan more than a man who had suffered from schizophrenia, and it gave him a certain kind of spunk.
GB: Yes, it was a new dimension and it made me reassess who he was and it made me wonder what it would have been like if he had survived the illness and was around now and what he’d be like with her. [It gave me] an incredibly strong sense that no-one ever goes, that they’re part of the fabric of the next generation and the one after that and the one after that. And I think probably with his death, it was such a full-on life and then the absence was so complete …
SC: There’s a bigger space because he was such an intense …
GB: Yes, that it was only years later that I was able to incorporate him back into my life.
SC: Another really strong essay is the marriage counselling essay, ‘The Final Analysis’. I loved the theatricality of that sequence when you and Andrew are being watched by psychiatrists from behind glass—it’s like you’re in a police station. It felt like a metaphor for being a writer, that public enacting of self. And then there’s a moment where both you and Andrew talk about your fathers’ suicides but with a certain reluctance because you don’t want the counsellor to latch onto those events, but of course she does and so does the SWOT team behind the glass. How do you deal with the fact that people often talk about your life story in terms of the tragedies—your brother, your father—rather than, say, your struggle with being a young mum, which is a more common struggle?
GB: Obviously both those tragedies are a part of who I am, but I do feel strongly that they’re not all of who I am. I wanted to incorporate other pieces that dealt with more ordinary daily stuff, like dealing with the dog, the daily dynamics of just living and the stuff about becoming a mother. It’s all part of the fabric.
SC: It’s also part of resisting that narrative shape to some extent, isn’t it? Because you could have written a memoir in which the peaks were your father’s death and your brother’s death, alongside the love story with Andrew.
GB: Yes, I could have written a traditional memoir of growing up with mental illness in the family and I really didn’t want to do that.
SC: Did your dad have the same illness as Jonathan?
GB: No, I don’t think my dad did have schizophrenia. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my dad now were diagnosed as being OCD.
SC: Let’s talk for a moment about the essay ‘The Germaine Tape’. It is both funny and terrible—you’re listening to your father’s interview with Germaine Greer thirty years after the event and you’re embarrassed by his old-fashioned sexism. Children are always humiliated and embarrassed by their parents and this was that writ large.
GB: My mother always downplayed her own success. She always said, ‘Oh but your father is a better interviewer than I am.’ So I think I always thought he was a wonderful interviewer, and it’s probably not fair to judge him on that one interview but he really … I mean, Germaine Greer was a media performer long before …
SC: She had him for breakfast, basically.
GB: Yes, she ran rings around him.
SC: You first wrote this collection as part of a PhD, didn’t you?
GB: Yes but the Germaine Greer piece was written a long time beforehand and was almost like the centrepiece. I built backwards from it and forwards from it.
SC: Is that because that’s the moment where you had a very clear sense of distance, of observing your parents?
GB: No, I think because that was the first time that I tackled writing about myself and it was probably the piece that I found most difficult to write because it was the first time I did that … but I loved doing it. And I had that incredible narrative gift of having Germaine Greer in the interview there.
SC: How did you deal with autobiographical material in your novels?
GB: With my fiction there really isn’t much of my life in there, in terms of facts and things that happened, but in terms of the emotion there is a lot of my life in there. What I find curious with Births Deaths Marriages I suppose is how I feel looking back at it. I don’t really reread my work for a long time, if ever, because I can’t really bear looking back at it, but I think … am I going to look at that and ask: ‘Is that me?’ I don’t know whether it’s me, if that makes sense. Whereas some of my fiction I might look at it more and think, oh God, that’s me. Curiously.
SC: Is that because you were being clearer about not letting people in because it was writing from life?
GB: Take Closed for Winter. I look back on it and—I can’t bear to look back on it actually—but I would think it was very much how I was when I was depressive. So I see a part of myself in there so very strongly, even though it’s not my story in that sense of the word. Whereas Births Deaths Marriages is ostensibly much more me, but it’s a much more crafted me, it’s not a raw me. Closed for Winter is a raw aspect of me.
SC: I got frustrated with the characters in my novel Geography because they grew to some extent from life. I find you’re more judgemental of characters who have grown up that way, the way you are quite hard on friends who’ve behaved badly and the way one can be hard on oneself.
GB: That’s an interesting one actually because I think when you’re writing about life you feel more of an obligation to write about the more generous, positive side than you do with a novel. I felt much more of an obligation to try and bring out the finest in people in how I portrayed them in my work than I would have in a novel, which is a curious thing.
SC: How was the reading of this collection for Andrew—the reading of the essay ‘Close to the Bone’ on the death of his father? It’s a very sad essay.
GB: Look, I think it can’t have been easy. He’s a person who believes in letting you do whatever you need to do, so it would be very rare that he would say, ‘Don’t go there, I don’t want you to do that.’ It was very difficult to write about him because the relationship with him is a constantly changing dynamic and so it’s a very hard thing to fix it in a time and place. I found it more difficult to write about him than I did to write about anyone else.
SC: In a way what you do in that essay is give him space. You write about physically giving him space and standing back. You don’t presume to know what’s going on for him.
GB: I guess it was more that the way in which I saw how he reacted to his father’s death was a constantly changing thing. I saw it in one way at the time when we were in the midst of the grief and then I reinterpreted it later on. I reinterpreted it again and again, which is what the whole book’s about, that life’s constantly open to reinterpretation.
SC: I’m interested by the idea of the writer as therapist. I’m not talking about a book being therapy for you, I’m talking about reading a book being therapy for other people. You have used quite intimate material. Do you find that people want to engage with you in a particular way?
GB: After this book there was a period where everyone was saying to me, ‘I feel like I know you,’ and my immediate internal response is, ‘Well, you don’t.’ But of course I can’t say that because it is one aspect of me …
SC: But the real you is changing constantly.
GB: The real me is changing constantly, and it is very much crafted as an intimate voice. People say I was very hard on myself in the book, but I actually think it’s the nicer side of me. The thing that I was really anxious about was the people who know me vaguely, the people I have passing acquaintance with, who are more likely to conflate the book and me and to put me in that prism.
And some material is confronting. Take the essay about losing my virginity. Usually women either do the brazen act of saying bugger this, I’m showing you everything and it’s a political act, and it’s out there, you’re going to get it in your face, bang! If you’re not doing that it’s much more difficult territory to negotiate. I felt there was a huge dearth of pieces about a female experience of losing your virginity, but there’s a hell of a lot about boys.
It is as if it is very unladylike to reveal that side of yourself, it is a pornographic act. To me one of the only films that ever really talked honestly about that was Somersault. Men hated Somersault, women loved Somersault. Women really understood that awful stage of having sexual power and not knowing how to use it, of confusing love and sex and it being this terrifying land where you put yourself in danger. It was frightening.
SC: What are you working on next?
GB: Absolutely nothing.
SC: That’s not a particularly inspiring end for our readers!
GB: I feel like I have finished a phase. I feel like I’m a different person to the person who wrote all my previous work. Different things interest me and different things concern me and I don’t feel capable of writing until I have some perspective on this new person.
SC: I find it very weird how different we feel at different phases of our lives.
GB: Do you find you don’t even really remember … you think, who was she? How did she think and how did she feel?
SC: Sometimes I think you write things and you don’t realise how brave they are. I don’t know if you experienced that with Closed for Winter. You just write it and you’re maybe unaware of how intense an experience it might be for people who love you. You don’t think that when you’re writing it because you probably couldn’t write if you did. There’s a certain wilful naivety to writing, I think.
GB: Which you have to have to be able to do because …
SC: … otherwise you don’t do anything.
GB: I think you have to close yourself off from what anyone would think or … almost the entire outside world in that act of writing. I almost feel like the process of editing is a kind of slowly getting dressed to leave the house.