But first, a little craftily-gleaned* behind-the-scenes info. Elizabeth flew down to Melbourne accompanied by a publicist from Text, who had helped her pack her suitcase, in her little flat in Sydney, taken her to the airport, and was staying in a room nearby in Melbourne. It’s stories like this that add to the mystique of Elizabeth Harrower, who to me seems to be a brilliant writer who turned her back on the publishing world, for reasons unknown. I’d wondered why this woman, friend of Patrick White and Christina Stead, a writer who it seems stopped writing in her prime when she could have gone on and become a name as recognised as those other two, just stopped. Did she stop writing altogether? Was it because of lack of attention or too much attention? These were the questions I had. While I didn’t find out whether she stopped writing during that time, or indeed whether she has written anything new, I did learn why she stopped publishing, or being published.
Here are some of the gems from the session on the last Sunday of the festival:
‘Writers should surge out into the world not huddle in groups like plumbers.’
[We tittered at that, sitting there with our tool belts and bum cracks spilling out of low-rise jeans. But that was the first thing that she said that resonated with me. So I’m going to surge a bit more and huddle a bit less because I agree with her.]
She didn’t have many writer friends, back in the day.
[Oh how different it must have been but not in a good way. Would have been so isolating? But you wouldn’t have had the static and buzz of all the connections and links? Is it easier to write, or harder, when immersed in ‘the world’?]
“Down in the City” – a friend said there’s one sentence in there that *says it all*.
[Elizabeth wouldn’t say what it was… Said a writer friend picked it instantly. (Was it Patrick White?? I wanted to stand up and call out…]
She was friends with Christina Stead. ‘Oh yes. We met and we liked each other.’ Harrower hadn’t read any Australian writers, but had read ‘the whole Sydney city library A-Z, fiction and non-fiction’.
“Three novels in three years… What fun, how lucky I was.’
Didn’t know any writers ‘just me and my typewriter really.’
The Sydney Morning Herald ‘always loved her’, always had good reviews by total strangers. ‘I didn’t want anyone to do me any favours.’
On writing: ‘It’s strenuous; you give up the best of yourself.’
There was also a story about Patrick White being asked to comment on Elizabeth’s work and she was furious they’d (publisher? publicist?) asked him, and at the same time there was another writer Elizabeth knew whose face showed the terror that White might give her work a boost. White gave a comment in due course which was ‘positive but muted’. Once it came through, the other writer’s face showed relief (that it was muted). ‘Don’t give yourself away like that,’ Elizabeth thought. (She also said White shouted at her a lot. I wonder what about, she didn’t say. Was it because she stopped writing? Who knows, but it’s things like this that intrigue me. One impression I got of Harrower was that if she didn’t want to talk about something, she was clear about it, and Heyward was 100% respectful of her boundaries.)
Heyward asked the question: ‘what were your hopes for the books?’
‘I wanted some people to read the books and understand them. And for them to mean something to people. To know what I know. Local or overseas success, I never thought about it.’
Possibly my favourite quotation: ‘I notice too much. People like me can be dangerous, we notice too much.’ [This makes me want to rub my hands together and cackle.]
Also: ‘Lots of waiting in writing you sit at the typewriter and wait, if you wait long enough you know things. It’s very pleasurable.’
And why did she withdraw In Certain Circles from her publisher in the early ’70s? Because they wanted her to do more work on it, or said it couldn’t be published in the form it was in. ‘You don’t like me so I don’t like you,’ she said about her decision to withdraw the manuscript. So how great is it that Michael Heyward – who is clearly a massive fan and admirer of the woman and her work – has brought her books back to the Australian publishing world. It’s more than a labour of love, it’s something like the honouring of a voice who he felt needed to be introduced to contemporary readers.
I have only read The Watchtower which I liked very much. But what I liked even more was how she spoke of the pleasure, the joy of writing. It was refreshing and inspiring.
* not really. Someone just told me.