Anna Funder – The Dymphna Clark Lecture, University of Melbourne. Last night.


Last night I went to see Anna Funder talk and her topic was “Reading My Mind – and Yours. A celebration of the act of the human imagination that is writing, and the act of the human imagination that is reading.”

She was softly spoken and utterly gorgeous. As my thick curly-headed friend and I both agreed upon leaving: Hair that moves. And she was intelligent and intellectual (there’s a difference) and funny, told a story about her mother and herself when she was six, about a bear and the ending of that story, which came at the end of the talk, made tears come out of my eyes, strangely keen to move down my face. They were filming and we were second-row from the front and so I’m guessing there will be footage somewhere, sometime of me with my hair that doesn’t move looking like an idiot, crying at an Anna Funder talk.

The talk was structured like a story, she was clever in that way. I’m not sure that anyone other than writers would have picked it. She wove threads, returned to themes and characters (the Bear) and wrapped everything up. Within the story about readerly and writerly imagination were more stories; about ex-Stasi and their ‘uniform’ of stiff creased trousers, bomber jackets and ‘copious amounts of Brylcreem.’ How they sat in the front row of appearances she made in the former East Berlin to talk about her first book Stasiland. How they would sit with arms crossed ‘looking daggers’ and then when she began to talk, bring out small notebooks and start writing in them. She spoke too about how as she gets older, and now has her own children, she is seeing her childhood memories differently, as if moving to the side and getting a different perspective, or like Patrick Swayze goes into Demi Moore’s body in Ghost. She said she feels she is ‘becoming the unreliable narrator she always wanted to be’ (earlier, in the story about the bear, she said she had ‘form’ as a liar as a child).

On the imagination of the reader

as adults we are well-stocked to imagine ourselves into other lives and we can see how we are all different but how also in some ways we are all the same.

She spoke about the decision for Stasiland to be non-fiction.

It didn’t seem fair to get into another person’s consciousness when they were real people

and presumably could speak for themselves through historical documents and research. She

needed it to be non-fiction because the truth wasn’t credible.

That it was unbelievable to have, in fiction, some of the things the Stasi were doing. The idea that the truth isn’t credible is something that fiction writers sometimes have to think about. In a writing class once we talked about Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. Set in the 1860s, the boat had early electric light. The editors of the ms queried it and the fact-checker  looked it up and found it was historically accurate. So it stayed in but readers and reviewers noticed it and questioned it and it cast doubt on the believability of the rest of the book.

Funder had a small rant about our easy access to all the information in the world via Google. She told us she tried to edit her wiki page, there was some inaccuracy or something. She wasn’t able to and she seemed to find it bemusing that she didn’t have the authority to do it. When you think about it, it is strange. Who would have more authority? was what she said. We have paid for this access to all the information with ‘them’ having all our data. How to escape this? Read a book

to find our way out of the hive and back to the real world.

Anna spoke of an email she received from a group of ex-Stasi, headed by, and she highlighted the implausibility of this but promised it was so, a Mr Wolf. They were suing her over text that appears on page 84 of Stasiland, which details  threats, harassment and intimidating actions of a society of former Stasi men. (Remember the Brylcreem.) Funder read the email and thought she should go and make a cup of tea. She went to the kitchen, turned on the tap and no water came out. ‘Oh no,’ she thought. ‘They have thrown their dark net across the world and they’ll stop at nothing!‘ She later found out that it was just the council working in the street, but this story completed the earlier mention of seeing the men lined up at her appearances, just as the mention of a bear picture, tucked in the back of a photo album her mother made before she died completed the earlier one about the bear near the toilet block on a camping holiday, as did her mother’s mantra

I tried my best, it wasn’t enough but it could have been worse.

The Q&As

– yes, she’s working on another novel. No more details.

– someone asked how she felt or what she did when she felt she wasn’t up to it, or wasn’t doing a very good job (this was a slightly awkward moment, and I wondered what the person asking was thinking. Were they wanting advice, with their own crises of confidence or were they saying something else?) Funder took it as a request for advice and said that people who work creatively have to be both boxer and trainer. There’s no one to rub out your muscles or tell you to keep it up etc. You have to do that yourself.


One of the surprises for the night for me was the introduction of Anna by Sebastian Clark, son of Manning and Dymphna. This old-world man used language that was so quaint and striking. ‘My good mother,’ he said. ‘My good father.’ He spoke of his ‘good lady wife and her sister being guests of Herr Hitler…’ and it was all rather extraordinary. I have never heard someone speak like that before outside of movies. He also told a story about being in Dresden for the rebuild in 1965 but I’m not going to talk about it here. It was kind of off.

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