Helen Garner on Court, Burning Diaries, and the Violence of Love
John Freeman in Conversation with the author of Everywhere I Look
The following interview was conducted at the Melbourne Writers Festival in August.
To read Helen Garner—so beloved for her five works of fiction and five books of nonfiction—is to discover what may be her defining characteristic: awakeness; an aliveness to the thingness of things. Her curiosity and its receptiveness to the subtlest of gradation of detail.
It made of her an excellent writer about crime—in books like Joe Cinque’s Consolation—where these details often mean the difference between justice and its lack thereof in a trial. But it also makes her a kind of life accelerant in whatever form she is writing, whether it’s stories like “Postcards from Surfers,” or her great collection of necessary journalism, True Stories, or the novel that one can read in one four-hour bolt, The Spare Room.
And now she has a new book, Everywhere I Look, 15 years of various forms of literary errands—essays, introductions, reports, feuilletons, diaries—and up through its pages’ chimneys travels the “faint perfume” which emerges from the belly of a ukulele. “Even the wind wanted to play it,” she writes of her beloved instrument. In its pages one can hear “the high, long sweet wordless cry that rises from children at play.” Here is a woman who notes that when Tim Winton goes to church, he says thanks, mate to the priest who blesses him.
You get the sense that here is a person who has much more life than she’s written, even though some of her books—like her gorgeous and wracked debut novel, Monkey Grip—are drawn from life. That she is a great friend, a great correspondent, a person you want on your side, if only for the sidereal quality of her wisdom.
You sense it in the aisles. “I shared a house in Melbourne in the mid ’80s with a recently ‘saved’ Christian who used to harangue me about Jesus a lot,” begins one essay. And: “A woman on her own can easily get into the habit of standing at the open fridge and dine on a cold boiled potato.”
You sense that this is a woman who drinks vodka, has a sense of outrage keenly tuned to injustice, and a sense of humor toward the absurd. Lying awake, for instance, one night, sharing a bed with a grandson, she writes “God damn it, I think at five a.m., this is worse than being married.”
* * * *
John Freeman: I want to start by talking about these diaries that are in Everywhere I Look. You mentioned that they became the basis for your first novel. How long have you been keeping a diary and how did it change, if it changed at all, your sense of self?
Helen Garner: I think I probably started when I was 14 or 15, and I know for a fact that I kept a diary before then, but I burned them when I went to university. I was going to have to leave town to go to university. And I thought, I do not want my mother to read these diaries, so I took them out the back and in those days you were allowed to have an incinerator in your backyard—some people present might remember—and so I just tore them up and dropped them into this fiery furnace and my mother was standing there saying, Please let me read them. Please let me read just one page? And I said, Absolutely not. I was dropping them into this bin and they burned up. And so I didn’t keep a diary for quite some time. Then I started again when I was supposedly grown up. I’ve kept doing it every since. Then I had another great conflagration a few years back; I burnt them all up to the year 1980.
JF: This is catching up to you.
HG: I’m very tempted to burn them up. I like the idea of burning them, but I think it would be upsetting for certain people. For other people it would be really very pleasing. But I’ll tell you why I burned the second lot. A few years back I was thinking about the dismissal of the Governor which happened in, what was it, ‘76? He was dismissed in a tricky kind of way. And I thought, I wonder what I was thinking about it around that time? So I went and dug up the diary in question and turned to the date, and I didn’t even mention it. So I thought, Oh, perhaps I should have a look at these books and see if they’re worth keeping. And they were just so terrible, all the ones up to about 1980. There were just whingy, that sort of girl‘s whingy, He doesn’t love me, what have I done wrong? I know it must be my fault. And all that sort of crap. So I just made another fire in the backyard. I don’t how the Nazis burnt those books; they must have thrown petrol on them, because it’s really hard to burn books. The way they’re bound and everything, they don’t catch for ages, and you have to tear them with strength, you have to pull them out of their bindings. So that was very strenuous.
It’s interesting you should ask me because we’re having a bit of renovation done on our house. I’ve had to empty out our laundry cupboards. You know those great big crates you get . . . they’re plastic, transparent with wheels on them. There are six of them and they’re all stuffed with diaries. And I think, Oh, I have to move them to a different part of the house, and I remember that movie in the ‘80s about that guy who had to climb up a waterfall—he had all these things on his back that were representing his sins, and he had to claw his way up with water cascading. That’s what it’s felt like to have kept a diary for 35 years.
JF: It’s just hanging on to you.
HG: It’s crazy. But I don’t think I’ll burn them.
JF: I sometimes wonder, when you’re reading a good diary, they’re not necessarily good because they mark time and remind you that this was happening at the same time. It’s rather a record of consciousness. I wonder if looking back at the erotic or whatever diaries that you were just bringing up, if what you saw was a consciousness that was foreign to you at all?
HG: It was more like a consciousness that was repellant to me. And I recognize that unfortunately as mine. I thought I was ashamed of myself. I thought, Jesus, you’re such a whinger. And I thought, This is why I can’t stay married because I’m such a pain in the ass and I’m so hypersensitive . . . but then reading diaries, you alway forget that the reason why you keep the diary is to get a read of something that’s making you unhappy, try to analyze it and take the sting out of it. So I think people tend not to write down their happiest experiences or just even the ordinary experience of the happiness of everyday life.
JF: It’s hard to write about happiness.
HG: It is it’s much harder to write about happiness than rage and feeling that the other person doesn’t do enough housework. That’s what in my diary, that kind of shit. You think I’m hysterical, but objectively I do more housework than he does.
JF: Isn’t it good to develop that double consciousness that to some degree a writer has? To not just be watching, but watching yourself watching?
HG: That’s interesting . . . The thing is, who you’re writing a diary for is the question. Do you imagine that anyone else is going to read it? I think there must be some sort of fantasized reader, because otherwise it would just be a series of technical exercises. And that’s what it is, in a sense. I taught myself to write by writing letters and diaries, because you don’t—especially diaries—because you’re not thinking about them as being published. There is a fantasized reader that I purposely never consciously think about.
JF: Did you diaries change once you began to publish books?
HG: Yeah, I was whinging about different things.
JF: Book prizes . . .
HG: Yeah, and what people say in reviews. The interesting thing about diaries is how much self dislike there is. Those bits are really interesting to me. You look at Virginia Woolf’s diary which is just wonderful, but so much of it is just a kind of agony of feeling that she was unworthy. A really terrific phrase recently in a book I read, somebody used the expression, “Most people in the world walk around all day in a trance of unworthiness.” And I felt very struck by that. I thought, that’s completely a description of my default mode, that I’m thinking, Oh, I can’t do that. No I’d be hopeless that. No I don’t want her to come with me, because she’ll get bored. That sort of stuff. A constant barrage of self criticism.
JF: Where do you think that comes from?
HG: Well, doesn’t everybody or is it just me?
JF: I think it is shared probably amongst 93 percent of this room and the other 7 percent are sociopaths. But in your case, I’m curious. What are the engines of that self loathing? Where’s the gasoline being poured in?
HG: I’m not sure actually.
JF: Were you from a religious family?
HG: No, quite the contrary, in fact. My parents weren’t interested in religion. I had to get myself baptized when I was 19. I went to a church school, but my parents weren’t religious at all. I remember once saying to one of my three husbands, we were just talking generally about things and I said, Because you know as usual I think that I’m really just a small piece of shit. And he looked at me in amazement and said, What, do you think that? And I said Yeah, doesn’t everyone think that? And he said, No, I’m pretty pleased with the shape of myself.
JF: How much later did you get divorced?
HG: Not long after.
JF: It must be a huge relief when you either enter the dream of a novel, or especially when you write the kind of nonfiction you’ve been writing for 35 years, to sort of leave yourself and sit there and interview someone, or leave yourself to cover an event.
HG: Yeah, that’s fantastic. It’s the time when I don’t feel unworthy. I feel that I know how to do that now. I had to learn to do it. But maybe that’s the one of the great pleasures of nonfiction, the huge amount of research you have to do. Whereas if you’re writing a novel, you just have to sit there in front of your own unworthiness, day after day. But at least if you’re, for example, going to write a book about a trial, you have endless weeks, perhaps even months sitting in a court, which is the thing I like the best in life, really.
JF: Sitting in court?
HG: Yeah, love it.
JF: What about it? Is it the bailiffs and their activities?
HG: No, I think its because its extremely ritualized. It’s very formal, and there are very strict rules about how you can behave, how people can behave, and there’s a power figure, a paternal or a maternal figure, which is the judge. Everybody’s got their outlined and agreed upon role to play. So I’m just sitting there, and I’m not doing anything besides listening and watching. Especially the beginning, hearing someone get up and making this sort of statement which is: All persons having business before this honorable court make yourselves known, and you shall be heard. I always feel like bursting into tears at that moment or shouting out Amen! It seems to me an almost religious moment. It’s like the beginning of a funeral, a religious funeral, a church funeral when people say, Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today . . . And they say who the person is who’s died, and it’s a statement that We are here, this is why we’re here, and the spirit of the law is in the room. I know there are people who think that’s really pathetic. A lot of people have cynicism about the law and how it functions, but I’ve spent a lot of time in court and I find that at its best, it’s people trying to figure out how to deal with the black side of human behavior. And that the people of the court are trying to bring reason to bear upon irrational behavior or wild behavior and its terrible destruction. I find that wonderful, really.
JF: I find it interesting you say wild behavior or irrational behavior, but you don’t say things like evil. Do you believe in evil?
HG: Yes, but I think think people have recourse to the word evil much too quickly when they’re talking about terrible behavior. I’ve given this a lot of thought, because when I wrote that book This House of Grief about the man who killed his three children, I was surprised to find how many people would ask me what I was working on. I would say I’m writing about Robert Farquharson, and they would look shocked and disapproving and say, Why? Why are you writing about him? I’d say, Well, there are obvious reasons why you’d want to write about a murderer, and people would get angry with me. They’d say, What sort of bloke was he? How does he strike you? I would start to describe his life and his formation as a person, and at a certain point the person’s face would harden and say, You’re making excuses, with this accusing gesture. I got used to that. It happened to me very often; it was a very frequent thing.
I realized that people protect themselves against thinking about stories like that by saying, This man is evil, therefore I don’t want to think about him, and nothing that he’s done is connected in me in any way. There is no darkness in me that could possibly connect with the darkness in him. People would say to me, Was he mentally ill, or was he just pure evil? There were these simple concepts you could slot into place to make it possible to contemplate such a person. And so I got less and less interested in the term evil as a way of talking about human behavior. Because it’s really a way of blotting it out. Stopping yourself from having to think about it.
JF: I think about those three books you wrote about various crimes. Sexual crime, murders, as a study of the human context and containers for forms of cruelty. And I wonder if you could talk about the relationship between those three books. Obviously, you like courtrooms and you’re interested in human behavior and its darkness, but because they come into a ten to 12 year period, they feel like they’re connected in a way.
HG: I’ve basically done three books of what I would agree are book-length nonfiction. And the first one was The First Stone and that was the one that got me into a hell of a lot of trouble, because I criticized a certain kind of feminism that seemed to me to be rampant at the time. That wasn’t really a criminal matter. That one to me seems in a little island of its own. Also, when I first started to look into that story, I thought I was going to write a magazine article about it, but it sort of showed itself to be bigger and more interesting than that. Whereas with the other two books, I set out with an idea that there might be a book in it. That seemed to me a different approach.
JF: Would you change your ideas about how to adjudicate unwanted sexual attention or advances leading up to and including assault? In New York City right now we have signs on the subway that say “Unwanted sexual attention is a crime, and if you see it report it.” You probably know that there are women on the subways right now recording gropers, and putting it on blogs and people go and find the guys. It’s slightly demoralizing that this needs this level of CCTV constant attention and reminder. Have your feelings about this issue that you wrote about changed at all?
HG: I still think there’s a level of unwanted sexual attention that could be dealt with on the spot. But it’s plain to me, and it was always was, that women go through life being sexually harassed to various degrees and nobody can deny that that’s the case. There’s so much to say about that book because it came out 20 years ago, and a lot of things happened in the interim. I think looking back on it, the book probably got its energy not from my interest in the matter, but from the hostility I caught from one of the women involved in conducting the case against the master of the college. I look back on it, and I think My God, that whole thing was powered by the fact that she and I just locked horns at the beginning of the story. And I thought, Fuck you, you are not going to stop me from writing this book. And she’s saying, Fuck you, I’m not going to tell the story, I’m going to tell the story. It was a battle between me and her. I haven’t seen her since, and I expect that neither of us would like to meet the other again, but that makes it sound a little oversimplified, I guess.
That book is less interesting to me than the other two. The other two were when I realized that I liked courts. I realized that I had actually sat through another murder trial. There was a little boy who was murdered years ago in the mid 90s, and I went to his trial out of sheer curiosity. What sort of man would bash a two-year-old child to death? I’m going to go to court and have a look at him. That’s the thing about courts. You can go in there. A lot of people, even quite educated people with PhDs will say, How did you arrange that? Where did you get permission to go? And I say, This is a democracy. I can just walk in. You can just walk in. The whole thing is being one in the name of the rest of us; it’s a citizen’s thing. But I got very close to Robert Farquharson’s mother and father. In one respect that was a mistake because if you’re following a trial and you get close to one side, the other side will slam the door in your face. I think it’s very hard to get open access to both sides of a very painful story like that.
JF: Has covering these trials changed the way you think about individuals? Your new book Everywhere I Look has a number of portraits in it, but there’s also a long essay about your mother. And I think living in families, as we all do if we’re lucky, you accumulate a series of wrongs you want to right. Things you wish had gone differently. And there’s no court for that, especially after someone’s died. How do you switch from that kind of version of yourself as the person who’s going to tell the story her way, to the person who in telling an essay has to somehow account for the fact that someone may be unknowable even if they’re very close to you?
HG: About my mother . . . I was actually approached by someone who is putting together a collection of essays about people’s parents.
JF: Susan Wyndham, from the Sydney Morning Herald.
HG: Yeah. And when she suggested it, I was pleased to be asked because it just gave me that kick in the ass to do it. I couldn’t have hacked it otherwise it think. I wouldn’t have had to guts, or I don’t know what. Because the thing is, I got on very unhappily with my father all my life. I used to think, I know what’s going to happen when he dies. I’m going to be guilty all my life because I fought him so bitterly, we fought and fought. When mum dies I’ll just be really sad, and I‘ll miss her. But my mother died first. And that changed everything. The first thing that happened was that I began to get on with my father, which is a whole other story about triangulation. But when my mother died, I was tortured with guilt, and that’s what I wrote about in the essay. I thought this is my chance to look at that feeling which is so painful to me and humiliating. And it was very hard to write that essay. I thought, if I write this I’m going to say some things about myself that are going to make me look bad. And it’s not worth doing it unless I fess up to those.
JF: It seems like one of the hardest thing writing memoir is dropping the rationalizations that you tell to yourself in your head to explain your actions. Because as soon as you write a memoir, they’re all externalized and totally transparent to the reader.
HG: Yeah, and they’re sort of shameful, and you can’t believe you’ve actually clung to them all this time.
JF: Is there a bit you could read on the essay about your mother?
HG: Yes sure. “Dreams of Her Real Self.” I’ll start at the beginning:
It was alway clear to me what would happen when my parents died. Dad would pitch forward without warning into the grave he had dug with his knife and fork. The struggle that had shaped and distorted my character would be over. I would be elated to see the back of him. Then I would torture myself with guilt for the rest of my life. Free of his domineering presence, my mother would creep out from under her stone. She would show herself at least. At last I would know her. Shyly, she would befriend the five remaining children, maybe even come to live with one of us. She would take up her golf clubs again, put on her flowery bathing cap and swim in the surf, simmer her modest vegetable soups, knit cardigans in quiet stripes with a lot of gray. In a few years she would fade, weakened, and slip away. Surely about her I would only feel a bit of mild sorrow that would pass in the middle of the night, as intended.
She went first. She was in her early eighties when dad dragged her to the last of the scores of dwellings he imposed on her during their long marriage. A seventh floor apartment in central Melbourne that in a fit of schadenfreude he had bought from a member of her family whose finances had hit the wall. Isolated up there with a view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Parliament House, she sank into a stunned resentful gloom shot through with flashes of bitter sarcasm. She would pour a gin and tonic on the table and say, grim warning tone: Mark my words; in a minute that ice is gonna melt and then the glass with overflow and there will be a hell of a mess to clean up. She slumped into depression, then drifted away into dementia. She wandered at night. She fell and fractured a bone. She withered. In a nursing home she became savage. She snarled at us and lashed out with her claws. Lost to herself and to us, she died at last, by means of something I can only call chemical mercy. My younger sister and I, strained and silent, chanced to be the only ones at her bedside when she exhaled her last, hoarse breath.
HG: Now I’ll skip to something that makes me look bad. Yeah, this is the worst bit.
Well, when my daughter was a teenager she had a dog. A poodle cross called Polly. Polly fell down the crack between two of my marriages. She trudged again and again across inner Melbourne to my ex-husband’s house and died a lonely painful death by misadventure in a suburban backyard. She was an anxious creature, timid and appeasing, who provoked in me an overwhelming impatience. She would lie at my feet tilting her head at this angle and that, striving for eye contact. The more she begged for it the less I could give. In just such a way over many years, I refused my mother the eye contact she longed for. I withheld it. I lacerate myself with this memory, with the connection I can’t expunge between lost mother and lost dog. When in the street I see a mother walking with her grownup daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mothers pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted the daughter’s company, and the iron discipline she imposes upon herself to muffle and conceal this joy.
JF: It’s not all bad portraits of you in this book.
HG: I guess.
JF: There’s a lot of joy leaking through parts, and I wonder if becoming a grandmother is something to explain that. I noticed that in The Spare Room—the absolute joy that the character takes with the girl who comes from next door. It’s throughout Everywhere I Look. I find that sometimes people can be easier as grandparents than they were as parents, and I wonder if putting these two things next to each other in your diaries, in which you’re writing quite a bit about your grandchildren and your children, if you find any kind of juxtapositional peace?
HG: I do feel that as a grandmother. I’m working hard to redeem myself. I don’t know how many other people in this audience would understand that feeling. Quite a lot, I think—that I feel I’m a much better grandmother than I was a mother, and it’s a very privileged thing to be grandparent. The love that you feel is much simpler and cleaner and you’re not where the buck stops. You’re kind of the backup person in this setup, and there’s freedom between someone and their grandchildren that’s really quite astonishing. Do you want me to read a bit of the diary? Okay, hang on . . . I’ve got a granddaughter who’s now 16, so I haven’t written about her very much because I think she might be getting a bit sick of it, but the grandsons, they don’t care anyway, they’re just out in the backyard. Oh, here’s a nice one:
A man came to install a shutter on my kitchen window. While he worked, Ambrose, who would have been around six or seven, wandered in the kitchen to tell me about a disappointing experience with his schoolmate, Hazel, a very spirited little girl who had come over yesterday to play. I tried to kiss her on the trampoline, I tried to hug her, and I tried to dance with her. But she didn’t want to be kissed, she didn’t want to be hugged, and she didn’t want to be danced with. The shutter bloke put down his tools and listened with full attention. What grade are you in? he said. Grade Two. The man had a good look at Ambrose, paused and said quietly. Wait a while. That’ll change.
Yeah. I actually run my grandchildren on a very short leash. When they come to my house, I actually impose severe discipline on them.
JF: Do they love you for it?
HG: Well, they come back. They have terrible table manners, in my opinion, at home, and I try and make them eat with a knife and fork, but you know they consider this to be an overreaction.
JF: Do you have a theory of humor? I mean if you’ve read any of Helen Garner’s books, even the darkest of them, even in This House of Grief, there are moments of humor, and it’s a very unusual thing. I think typically humor and tragedy are siloed. They’re in different parts of the farm, but in each one of your books they’re together. Even in The Spare Room, there are moments of savage humor in that book. I wonder if you could talk about what you find funny, and how you amuse yourself.
HG: As you spoke, I was thinking of something I read that Jean Cocteau said that I picked up years ago. He said, “What would I do without without laughter? It purges me of my disgust.” That struck me a long time ago, and it’s stayed in my mind. I actually really like to laugh with people, and I like it when everyone cracks up at the same time. Laughter seems to me an ecstatic state, and so it’s not only to do with someone making a joke. Sometimes you laugh in shock when you hear something bad, but laughter is very close to tears I know that’s a really corny thing to say, but they’re linked states. My father was really funny person. And he really liked to make stupid jokes, and there was plenty of laughter in our family.
JF: Well, what were his jokes like?
HG: He could mimic people, and he saw the ridiculous in things. He was the sort of guy who liked to take it up to pompous people, and after he sort of won a clash in a restaurant he’d say, I’ve never seen such a deflated manager. That kind of guy you know. It was quite amusing.
JF: Is he the father in Postcards from Surfers?
HG: Certainly he’s the guy that breathes loudly through his nose while making a corned beef sandwich. I don’t know actually, I’m not sure you’re right about tragedy and laughter being in different silos. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is most books that are really really great—and agreed by everybody to be great—I’m always furious that I didn’t read them when I was younger. For example, Dostoevsky. You don’t expect to laugh when you read Dostoevsky, but it’s terrible that people at universities don’t tell you, Read this book, you’ll get a laugh. Here you are thinking, Oh god, do I have to read this great big fat thing? It’s as if the funniness of great literature is a sort of secret, and you have to read the book to find out.
I was glad you said that you thought there were funny things in This House of Grief. Because a friend of mine who’s a very sensitive person and said she really didn’t want to read the book rang me up when she read about ten pages of it and said, Oh, I just laughed out loud. I asked, What made you laugh? And she said the scene when I was in the courthouse and I had a young woman with me, a young student called Louise, who was very hip and was wearing a certain kind of hoodie, a sort of sky blue hoodie. She was the kind of person who sits back with an analytical look on her face all the time. But when one of the witnesses was giving a very, very painful testimony everybody in the court was crying, and I looked around and Louise was crying, too. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her hoodie, and I’d written “The sleeve of her hoodie was black with tears.” And my friend the sensitive person had burst out laughing at this point. I was terribly happy about that because people tend to think that if you laugh at something you’re not taking it seriously, but I don’t think that’s true. Do you?
JF: I think obviously the darkest humor comes from some of the darkest places that have suffered the most. The Balkans is full of terrible, funny jokes. I wonder to what degree your father’s sense of humor was a defense mechanism, if you will. Because humor can be a very agile and sometimes largely benign way of keeping the world a little bit at bay. It can be a very useful way to survive the world.
HG: Yeah. And sometimes it can be really infuriating just when you feel like you’re getting somewhere in a conversation with someone and they’ll crack a joke. That’s their way of saying, Okay, that’s enough, you’re not getting any deeper, you’re not getting any further with this. That’s the other side of this.
JF: When you’re interviewing people, if you felt the wall going up, what would you do?
HG: I’m actually quite good at interviewing people; I’ve gotten good at it over the years. Setting aside the books, I made my living in freelance journalism, feature journalism. And I learnt to interview people just by sheer practice. I also learnt something from the man I was married to at a certain point who didn’t want to talk about himself. He was a very contained person, but I noticed that socially he was brilliant at getting other people to talk about themselves. And I was rocked by this. I watched him do it. He’d just be introduced to a couple sitting around having a drink, and he’d say How did you two meet? and their faces would soften and the man would tell the story, and the woman would tell the story, and they’d tease each other. And then instead of saying, Oh, well we met the following way, he would say, And what happened next? Or he’d lead further on with another question. So he just kept asking questions. And he never got tired of asking questions. In his case, it was partly a defense because he didn’t want to talk about himself. But he did this with a gracious kind of gentle curiosity. And I thought, Oh, I see. That‘s how you do it. So I realized I could use that as a skill. I was once sitting in an airport lounge waiting for a plane and sitting next to me was that guy who wrote Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
JF: John Berendt.
HG: Yeah, he was sitting next to me talking to another man. And they were talking about interviewing. The guy who wrote that book said, Oh I never stick around. I just ask questions, I push until I get the answer, I close the conversation, and then I leave. I thought, oh, that’s really terrible. That seemed to be really limited and also self-protective. The thing is, the further you get into somebody else’s life, the more open territory there is. And I think that terrifies people sometimes. Afterwards, it sometimes is very exhausting to go that far into someone’s life.
JF: And usually the last thing that someone says as you’re turning your tape recorder off is the interesting thing.
HG: Or after you’ve turned it off.
JF: Like, Oh, I used to kick my dog. This last, trailing thing.
HG: Well, that was done to me by a journalist and it nearly ruined my life. When I was in my thirties, this guy was interviewing me about something and at a certain point he was taking notes, and he just closed the notebook and put it down and said, By the way, what do you think of so–and-so? I relaxed, because I saw he put the thing down. I didn’t realize until I read the article that almost everything in the article came from what I’d said after he closed the notebook. And I thought, Oh, right, that’s how you must do it. As it turned out I didn’t say anything I regretted, but yeah, that is true.
JF: I don’t sense regret in these essays, but there is a moment where you write about how you look back on the person that you once were, looking with contempt on where you were from. And it feels like in this book, more than any book, you’re sort of looking back with warmth and a way of reclaiming where you’re from, every part of it. Is that a fair assessment?
HG: Yeah, totally. It’s part of getting older. And because my parents are both dead now, and I don’t have to fight to sort of differentiate myself from them and where I came from. I think one thing that happens as you get older is that you feel more kindly towards others. You don’t feel quite so angry and contemptuous about things. You see people’s struggles more. Perhaps you see how people become less enraging and more endearing.
JF: Because you don’t want to change them?
HG: Yeah, maybe that’s it. Or maybe you realize you can’t. You accept that. Look, I used to be a feminist. I mean, I still am, but I used to be one of the raging ones in the seventies, and we really thought we were going to change the world. We thought, if only guys would listen to us and understand what we’re saying, they’d go, Oh sorry! Okay, let’s sort this out. Now, after a while you come to understand that that’s not going to happen. The whole thing is just this endless battle that’s going to go on forever, as long as we’re on the planet, and it’s the same with just about everything. Some tiny advances might be made, a few laws might be changed, but I don’t know . . . I just feel that this sounds kind of wet, but I think people sort of do their best. There are plenty of people who are complete ghastly beasts, and tyrants, and swindlers, and criminal manipulators, and liars, and you know how we all have those characteristics, but just seeing how the people struggle to be decent to each other is—it’s a wonderful thing that you sort of come to understand or you don’t. I don’t compare myself with people so much anymore either. It’s part of what I was saying before.
JF: You mentioned your father moving your mother around to all these various houses in one of of these essays. And at one point in this book, you say you can count up to number 26 and then you lose track of the houses you lived in. So obviously you’ve had an itinerant, maybe restless, life to some degree, but then you describe moving into a new place, getting rid of some stuff, and getting comfortable being in one place. Is that strange, to give up restlessness? Or are you still restless?
HG: The house I live in now I’ve lived in for ten years. That’s the longest time I’ve lived anywhere in my whole life, including childhood. Because Dad was always moving us on. I mean, he wasn’t one of those guys who lost his job or went broke or anything, but he’s the sort of guy that would walk down the street and see there was an auction and buy a house. And he’d go home to my mum and say, I’ve just bought a house in such-and-such and she’d say You what?! And sometimes he would make her move. She’d just pack up her stuff.
JF: And you and all your siblings.
HG: No, this is mostly after when we’re all grown up. But he was just bored, and he wanted to. He had a bit of money. He also liked auctions, he liked fighting with the auctioneer, fighting about prices and money.
JF: Tell us where you get your love of confrontation.
HG: Yeah, I do love it.
JF: Yeah, it’s in the novels, too. One of the glorious energizing forces of them is you show people in confrontation. Enraged, entangled, wrecking their lives. Even in The Spare Room, where doing something generous can be a form of confrontation.
HG: That’s true. There’s a guy who wrote a review of The Spare Room, and he said something that really jolted me that I think is true. He said that when the narrating character, which is really me in disguise, thinks she can take on this friend and be a kind and wonderful person, she’s surprised to find that what she really wants is violence. I read that, and I thought, Oh, that’s the first time anyone’s pointed that out and it’s absolutely true. It really gave me a jolt. I get in a lot of stupid fights with people. You’re right, I must like confrontation. I always think of myself as being more pacific than that, but I got in a terrible fight with a plumber recently, and I lost it. I came out $410 down. And then I lost my nerve. I sent him a text saying you have ripped me off, and he went berserk. I got a bigger reply than I expected and didn’t deal with it at all well. I might cave in the early stages, but I’m not really good at working through confrontation.
JF: I wonder, though, like when you were talking earlier about grandchildren, I feel like love has veins of violence in it.
HG: Yes, it does.
JF: And you write about this. We all know this. One of the pure forms of gentler love that we can have is towards children, especially grandchildren or children that you’re not necessarily responsible for, because it has no violence in it. Do you agree?
HG: I think that that desire for violence goes very deep in people, and I think everybody feels it. Some people perhaps have resolved it better than others, and a lot of people lie about it themselves. It’s gotta be true because otherwise certain historical events couldn’t have happened involving whole populations. Yeah, I’m sorry, I’m not quite sure what to say about that. But haven’t you wanted to kill a child that you didn’t know?
JF: See now the notebook’s closed! And the interview starts!
HG: On a plane, yes. I can’t imagine having that sort of feeling that towards a child that was related to me. To children that I know, like my youngest siblings when we were kids, and my grandchildren sometimes, I have an urge to—not rain blows, but to deliver a blow. Mostly I’m more like the person who says THAT’S ENOUGH GET IT OUTSIDE YOU CAN SLEEP IN THE BACKYARD. Bang, click, lock the door. And I can hear the little one sniveling and the big ones saying, I know what we’ll do, I’ll sleep in the dog’s bed. The bigger ones are kind of more cunning, the little one collapses and sobs. That’s only happened once, and I let them back in. But they did have really nice manners when I let them back in.
Helen will appear in conversation with Ben Lerner at McNally Jackson tonight at 7 p.m.