Helen Garner at Nunawading Library, 23 July

The Friends of the Nunawading Library (FONL) work to make funds available to community libraries in the area to invite guest speakers along to talk to readers. A few weeks ago it was Helen G, and I headed along with my dad to listen to her. Helen is my dad’s second cousin but this time (unlike sundry family funerals) they didn’t get to say hello. And so I again missed the opportunity to meet her as something other than slavering fangirl. (My dad reminded me that one family funeral was in the early ’80s. ‘You were reading Monkey Grip at the time,’ he told me, as we found seats in the corner of the  library. ‘I suggested you come along and meet her, but you said no.’ I remember something of this, mostly that I didn’t want to go to a funeral at all, let alone for an old codger I didn’t know. The old me is kicking the young me for that but really, what would have happened? My dad would have said [maybe] ‘this is my daughter Jen. She’s reading your book right now and she wants to be a writer,’ and the teenage me would have cringed and been unable to say anything. Just like the older me now would cringe and be unable to say anything. And so the world turns.)


Another thing, as we sat there, waiting for her to start, my dad asked me when her new book was due out.

‘Oh, either in October or November,’ I said, with the blithe authority of someone in the know, someone who keeps her finger on the pulse of Australian fiction.

Helen started speaking, and said that she would be talking about The Spare Room, not her new book, which was being published in about three weeks.

Ahem. But I was happy it was earlier than what I had thought.


Garner got a show of hands, asking who had read The Spare Room. There were lots of us. She read the epigraph (a quotation from Elizabeth Jolley: ‘It is a privilege to prepare the place where someone else will sleep.’) Then she read a few pages of the opening, as the main character Helen gets ready for her friend to come and stay. She spoke about the real situation behind the story, that while it was called a novel for a good reason (and she explained what it was a bit later, that it was based on a real experience that she had.)

I’m going to be candid here. While I do love Garner’s prose, and I admire what I see as her honesty and bravery in her work, I felt during this appearance a lot of what was covered was about her reaction to her friend’s illness, and how horrified Helen was that her friend had her teeth pulled, for example, because of amalgam and cancer links (she said ‘I still shake when I think about the teeth. That was the worst part…’) and how angry she was that her friend didn’t or couldn’t accept her prognosis.  Garner described her friend, the real person who the Nicola character  was based upon in, I thought, slightly mean terms and it made me feel uncomfortable, sitting there in the audience. ‘You’re talking about someone who’s dead, I thought… The teeth were the worst part, for you. What about your poor friend who was dying and terrified and possibly in panic, trying everything possible to stay alive?’

I should confess that my own experience has a significant intersection with both Garner and her Helen character. My mother had cancer in the early 2000s and it took seven years for her to get a remission (and it’s great that she is well now and going amazingly). Mum tried almost everything (in addition to conventional treatment) and yes, she went ‘off book’ too. She went to the Gawler Foundation (she credits that with her turnaround, meditation specifically); she looked into weird shit in Brazil; at once stage she was drinking aloe vera stuff that arrived in mail packages; she was juicing vegetables and very hardcore with her diet for a few years; and yes, she even went and had an appointment with this particular quack from the book (can you call a non-doctor a quack?), the dentist that Garner talks about in The Spare Room. My mother describes the building in the same way Helen does: papers and files everywhere, boxes on the floor, chaos, people sitting around (my mum said she saw people in kind of teepee things with their heads sticking out). And what did the de-registered dentist say to my mum: ‘If I had your condition, I’d try this. I think you’d have a good response to this treatment.’ They didn’t get up to talking about money, but Helen said her friend was being charged 3K per week, for a 3-week course.

The reason Garner called it a novel, she said, was to not get sued because of including the description of the clinic. She tells a funny story about finding another location to set it, specifically a top-floor bridal shop located in the Nicholas Building in Swanston Street.


The anger

Helen said:

I learned a lot, I’m very short-tempered, and that I need to control myself better but I learned that there can be a tyranny when people are terribly sick.

Helen said that she lives next to her daughter and family, like the Helen in the book. Very quickly, she said, her friend stopped the coming and going that was customary between the two households. The friend said ‘I only want you,’ and Helen admitted to being flattered but also that it was controlling.

When people said there was too much anger in the book, I was rocked by it.

Garner said most people who said this were men (one was David Malouf) but that women somehow make those comments. She was puzzled by this reaction. She said that the three-week experience was one of the worst experiences of her life. I had the thought that yes, it would be really hard, it IS really hard caring for someone who’s really ill and in your house, I did it twice with my mother for far longer periods, months not weeks. But on top of that, many people would consider it a privilege and show of trust from the ill person. We rise to the occasion, and while there may be anger and resentment, the greater thing is the person who’s sick, who needs the help. It seems to me Garner missed that potential.

On the anger thing, Garner went to talk to Carers Australia, people who are looking after family members and others. After she spoke, women came up and said things like ‘that anger you talk about? We all know about that. It goes with the territory. Don’t feel guilty.’

I had the anger, I admit it. And the resentment, and some of it still lingers. That I was the child and here was my mother and the whole thing was flipped around and at a time in my life (small child, broken marriage, money struggles blah blah blah) I had to look after her as well. But I did it and I did it well I think ans while it’s true, that illness like this can wear down so many people and damage families over time, at the same time, we come to know these loved ones far more intimately than we ever could have had we not been in that situation. And we come to know things about ourselves, and, if we are open to it, we can transform.


Audience questions

I have a note here: ‘Audience members who treat a question as a private conversation with the speaker. OMFG shut up.’ (This was a woman who thought she could have a three- or four-time back and forth with Garner on the topic of cancer.)

I asked a question, two actually! About whether in her mind from the beginning the book was always going to be a novel or was it ever looking like it would be non fiction; and why she decided to call the main character ‘Helen’.

She said she just wanted to write the story and ‘see what it wanted from me’ (someone else had asked if she’d taken notes while her friend was staying with her. Garner had already said she always kept notebooks and diaries, since she was young. Always travels with something to write on etc. Garner said that yes, she wrote in her diary. That she always writes in her diary about things that are going on.) She said she didn’t think ‘fiction or NF’ but that the first bit she wrote, with lots of description, ‘felt like fiction’.

She said the main character originally had another name – she couldn’t remember what it was (really? I thought) – but then an ex editor, who read the manuscript as a reader, suggested ‘why don’t you just call her Helen?’

Writing the ending was hard, she avoided it, and this was because it involved the writing of the Nicola character’s death.

Writing’s my way of making sense of everything, making it bearable.

Someone asked her what’s next, and she said she doesn’t know what’s next. That she never has ideas stacking up, she has very few ideas.

On the current book, This House of Grief, Garner said that neither side spoke to her, and not Cindy Gambino (the mother) because ‘she had signed a deal with a magazine.’ So the new one is not ‘an interview book’ and most of the story is a direct reporting of what happened in court.

It’s very hard to get a balanced view. If you speak to the perpetrator, then the victim’s door slams shut.

To me, this seems to be what probably happened with The First Stone.

Someone in the audience asked a question but I couldn’t hear it up the back (just a note to event organisers and speakers: it would really be good if speakers could remember to state what the question was so everyone knows? KTHX).

The answer from Garner: My advice to writers, on the question of ‘I don’t know who owns this story; the family might get angry,’ is not to worry about that, don’t worry about defamation and lawsuits and upset. Don’t show anyone, don’t ask their advice. She said she made the mistake of showing an early draft of This House of Grief to a sister, who said ‘I couldn’t finish it, it was really boring.’

[we all laughed.]

There was more than that but they are all the notes I took. On the next page of my notebook are jottings from the For Auld Lang Syne Scottish exhibition at Bendigo Gallery, that I went to a couple of weeks ago, but I don’t suppose anyone’s interested in them? It’s finished anyway. It was grand.


NEXT UP: Qaisra Shahraz PEN event at Readings Hawthorn, last Tuesday.



2 thoughts on “Helen Garner at Nunawading Library, 23 July

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