I saw Helen Garner at two events in the last week. It’s a bit exciting because before that, I’d never seen her and I’m not sure I’d even heard her voice. So it was interesting.
This session at Mildura was billed as a reading, and both writers read. Apparently they arm wrestled (really?) and Helen was to go first (I don’t think it was explained that was because she won or lost. She blew him a kiss so it looked like a victory, and said something about how we all know that the person who goes last is the one with higher status.) Anyway she had some sheets of paper, typed, and they were the opening pages of her new book This House of Grief, which covers the Robert Farquharson case, the father who drove his car into a dam and killed his three sons on Father’s Day in 2005. Helen said it was the first time she’d read anything from the book in public.
– the book has three epigraphs, that she hopes strike three ‘thematic notes’ for the book. One is to a lawyer; one is a quotation from the Kaddish (I’m sure she said) and the third was a Janet Malcolm quotation. The dedication of the book is to the Victorian Supreme Court. Surprising, but not really once you realise that most of the action takes place there and it’s the centrepoint of the story as it wasn’t an interview book (Garner was unable to speak to the boys’ mother Cindy Gambino because she’d sold her story to a magazine; and was unable to speak to Farquharson for reasons I’m not sure of. EDIT: there are hints below.)
The intro pages seemed to be from RF’s POV. Expressions like ‘discarded husband’ and mention of the car he had ‘slaved to buy.’ I’ll be interested to see how the POV plays out when I get to read the book. Garner got emotional when reading the part where she and a friend go and see the boys’ grave – her voice lowered and shook. She paused and collected herself.
– the first pages, RF was described a couple of times. No mention or description of Gambino other than that she asked for a divorce, said F could take anything he wanted from the house only she asked for the ‘better car’ and ‘took up’ with a concreter. I’m wondering whether these descriptors and details will be revealed to have been his words?
– she describes the lawyers, judge and jury and at the end of the reading, Alex Miller said he thought it was as good a courtroom scene as any of Dickens’s. “And we’ll all read the book. All night. And curse you…” he said.
Miller read a story called ‘The Writer’s Secret’, a delightful piece he’d written for his daughter a while ago. In the story she was six, and now is an adult. The story was about finding your own beginnings. His voice caught too, at a moment in his reading when he said ‘we both know that she has almost ceased to be a child.’ It was very sweet and moving. And ‘the writer’s secret’? – to choose just one thing from all that you can see and focus on that. It was a gorgeous and touching story, and it felt intimate to hear it shared. The whole day felt intimate, that’s the best word I can think of to describe the feel.
To HG: Do you believe people are intrinsically good?
HG: No. There can be a lot of good in people but some are damaged and aren’t… Robert F not only thinks he’s not evil, he says he’s not guilty.
Question: Do you think it’s true that the reader can get closer to human experience via fiction than non fiction?
AM: I don’t think so… I don’t think fiction offers a greater insight into life… there’s a lot of crap out there. You know how they say be careful what you watch on tv? Well, be careful what you read. And on television these days: ‘HBO. Where would we be without it?’
HG: Fiction – there’s a kind of freedom that you have, you can pull stuff in from everywhere. NF you have a contract with the reader – to say it might have been this way, it might have been that, “I don’t know.”
AM: I’ve given myself to fiction; it’s sacred country – it’s not about lies… it’s about fiction. (There had been talk about lies and fiction, an interesting discussion.)
HG: After the first trial, I wrote 50,000 words and then there was the appeal. I expected the second trial would be a second production of the same play but it wasn’t. I had to turn myself into a different kind of observer. When you enter into a story you don’t know how long it’s going to last.
Garner keeps a diary record of her ‘engagement with the material’ – notes from court are different (she got on an email list and each day the court transcripts were sent through to her) but the diary was carefully dated and timed; notes on how people struck her, charting moods in courts, the states that ‘I myself pass through’ while following the case. The comments, remarks, interactions with others, and all the tiny observations in terms of mood, tone, feeling that would otherwise have been forgotten at the time. Having the transcripts emailed through meant Garner could be free to concentrate on all the other things descriptively; the looks from person to person… she ‘had tonnes of that material’ she said.
Question from the audience and it was Stefano de Pieri: In the future, would you ever visit RF in gaol?
Stefano: You’ve written a book, you’ve invested a lot of time (here I noticed Garner had both her legs outstretched. She was uncomfortable? Fair enough.)
HG: I lacked the gall or the hide to approach RF or his supporters. Or his wife’s family. (Gambino remained unnamed and undescribed at this point).
AM: So the main arena is the courtroom?
HG: Yes, it was the best way, the only way to tell it. RF is ‘not an interesting person’ (and here she mentioned Joe Cinque’s Consolation, and Joe’s killer; that she was different and presumably psychologically interesting is what I thought).
– the judge in Joe Cinque’s case said to HG ‘people come to court to get justice, but what they get is law.’ HG said readers were very angry about that truth. She said she is interested in the question of justice, and what it is. She’s also really interested in how judges think and would ‘love to write a book about [that]’.
From the audience: a man talked about Astraea – the Greek goddess of justice. Then there was an exchange about Plato’s Republic and how ‘justice has left the world.’ (Bloody poignant at that time, and only to become more poignant over the following days.)
A question about The Spare Room, and how it ‘was presented as a novel.’
HG: I would have liked to have not put ‘a novel’ on it, even though ethically and morally it’s a novel, but while it was based on real events, characters were composites of real people, and some passages were invented, and once you go there you’re ‘out of the realm of non fiction.’
A big problem was the legal aspect; the potential for being sued by the shonky medical practitioner. She had to change the doctor and clinic. The original location was an office on Collins Street overlooking the Adelphi Hotel’s pool, and Garner changed it to the Nicholas Building. Garner says she doesn’t think she’s ‘very good at making things up.’*
Then my friend asked a question and it was like, for a few minutes, a three-way conversation between her, Alex Miller and Helen Garner. It was surreal. But I don’t have the question written down! I thought it was the one about fiction versus non fiction but in my notes it’s not in that order. Argh.
AM: All my books are mostly based on people I know and love. It’s a novel but Coal Creek is based on real events.
He said he loves how HG always puts herself in the books – “all that uncomfortable stuff and we know how uncomfortable she is, we feel it.”
HG to AM: It didn’t take you very long to write Coal Creek. It’d been simmering a long while. (I was thinking here, it doesn’t seem to take AM long to write anything. Autumn Laing was just out, wasn’t it?)
AM said his wife ‘Steph’ is the best editor he’s ever had. Editors don’t want to get you that far offside but ‘she’s not afraid to say it.’
Next up: The Writer as Editor, with Christina Thompson from Harvard Review, author Alice Pung and ring in Gideon Haigh (he wasn’t on the program but they asked him to sit in), and ‘hosted’ by Chris Wallace-Crabbe who stood for the entire session of more than an hour.
* My mother also went to see this de-registered dentist-come-cancer-‘doctor’ and describes the office as Garner did: mess, papers everywhere. A shambles. She had one meeting and decided not to go ahead, even though the person she met, and she believes it was ‘the dentist’ said she had a good chance of responding well to the treatment. They took a sample of her hair, though, for analysis in New Zealand.