‘I’ll have the avocado salad,’ she says to the waiter with the understated grace that is a trademark of her Miles Franklin Award–winning prose. A passerby wouldn’t guess it, but this woman, who chose the avocado salad after seriously contemplating the mushroom risotto, has just released her seventh critically acclaimed novel. And this time, just like her decision not to add the poached chicken for an additional $4.50, it comes with its share of controversy. Her latest tome, which tackles the difficult topic of government censorship, has been banned in six countries. Naturally, I decide to address the elephant in the room straightaway.
‘Why did you go with the vinaigrette dressing when they suggested a citrus dressing?’ I ask. Breaking with the politeness she learned from a childhood spent on Sydney’s lower north shore, she is blunt, telling me that citrus gives her heartburn.
When the avocado salad arrives, she studies it closely, poking at the cherry tomatoes balanced on top of the salad, testing the structural integrity of the dish with the same rigour she famously uses to test the integrity of her plot lines. In between bites, her fork and knife dance around the bowl as if part of the corps de ballet, while her spoon, the principal dancer, performs a plié in one sizable and evidently unripe chunk of avocado. After observing this magnificent dance, I’m not surprised to find that when I speak with her friends, they have nothing to offer but praise.
‘I’ve seen her wear a crisp white shirt, eat a burrito in under two minutes, and finish with a shirt just as crisp and white as it was pre-burrito,’ close friend Tim Winton tells me. ‘I’d be lying if I didn’t say she makes me feel like a total fraud.’
David Marr, whom she has often cited as her closest confidant, is similarly gushing. ‘When the storm of controversy about this latest book hit, she came to my front door in tears, holding a large calzone pizza,’ Marr says. ‘She sat down on my new couch, and finished the whole thing one-handed. No plate.’ Marr, not usually one to become flustered, takes a moment to steady himself before looking me dead in the eye. ‘Do you think even Patrick White could have done that?’ he asks. ‘Of course not.’
The winner of last year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Prize is taken aback when I ask whether this kind of praise ever goes to her head. ‘Why did you just ask them about food?’ she asks me defensively. Barely hidden in this line of questioning are clear signs of insecurity; they lurk beneath her calm and composed exterior, like flakes of feta in a forest of rocket.
While she’s been welcomed with open arms into the literary community, there is one famous author who has never truly embraced this two-time Man Booker Prize nominee. He lives alone in a craggy terrace in Balmain, Sydney, surrounded by dusty half-finished manuscripts. Now aged 90 and coming to terms with stage four leukemia, he has finally decided to talk about what came between him and his daughter.
‘I last spoke to her 20 years ago,’ the famously reclusive giant of Australian letters tells me. ‘We went to a café in Melbourne, and I haven’t seen her or that city ever again.’
A lump in his throat appears; its shape reminding me of a passionfruit I have at home that I should eat in the next few days before it goes bad.
‘I know it must be difficult to recall memories like this,’ I say. ‘But can you tell me what she ate that day?’
‘She ate a Vietnamese beef salad with a lime dressing,’ he whispers. ‘I couldn’t eat. Not after I’d seen the memoir she’d published.’
The memoir in question, A Penny for Your Words, was explosive. Over the course of 500 pages, her life is laid as bare as an unbuttered slice of sourdough. On page 52 she accuses her father of plagiarising from their conversations plot lines for his successful Judy Noyce novel series. On page 133 she claims he refused to attend the Miles Franklin Award ceremonies because he felt he deserved to be nominated instead of her. On page 245 she is forced to eat a lamb ragu without parmigiano reggiano.
‘Things were different when you last saw each other,’ I offer, to break one of the many long silences in our conversation. ‘She was still eating citrus.’
‘She’s not eating citrus any more?’ he asks, the lump in his throat becoming more of a grapefruit now.
‘It gives her heartburn,’ I reply.
Suddenly, pain is written all over his face, like ‘Happy Birthday’ written on a birthday cake.
‘Well, you tell her, she gives me heartburn,’ he yells, slamming the door behind him and leaving his salted caramel brownie virtually untouched.
I leave the café with goosebumps all over, and a tupperware container with the brownie. The winter sun is beginning to set, and a bakery on Darling Street is offering half-priced loaves of bread. But I am too lost in thought to notice. Writing this profile has made me realise that the longer we live, the more of a mystery life can become. Characters who have been central to our lives can disappear as quickly as parmesan rind into a hearty stew.
Still, there is one thing I know with absolute certainty. The subject of this profile was eating an avocado salad with a vinaigrette dressing.
Evan Williams is a Sydney-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Monthly, McSweeney’s and The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts column.