- ELIZABETH DEAN
An interview with Amanda
Novelist Amanda Lohrey is the
author of The Morality of Gentlemen and The Reading Group. Her third novel, Camilles
Bread is due for publication in 1995. In recent months, she has turned her talents to
editing: co-editing with George Papaellinas the first issue of literary
magazine RePublica, and with Peter Hay and Ian Britain the
forthcoming double issue of Island Magazine.
Elizabeth Dean: Your novels The
Morality of Gentlemen and The Reading Group have both received critical
acclaim. I have noticed political and social realism are the
adjectives most commonly used in describing your work and I wonder if this is because much
of Australian writing is concerned with the purely personal? Australia and USA seem able
to make distinctions between the literary and the political whereas older cultures
dont. I get the feeling that some Australian critics feel its a bit heavy
handed to be too political; that writers should keep it light, amusing?
Amanda Lohrey: There is little
or no debate about art and politics in Australia and hasnt been for many years.
Ive pretty much given it up as a lost cause. Much of what passes for literary
criticism, whatever its other virtues, is politically illiterate. The reception of The
Reading Group demonstrated this in a number of ways. As one academic, a lecturer in
politics, said to me, commenting on the many reviews of the novel (which shed kept
up with): Here is a novel that is largely about the ethos of a social democratic
party in a time of crisis and not one reviewer has commented on that fact. Isnt that
strange? The only review that acknowledged the possible political readings of the
novel was Stephen Knights in Scripsi, a review in which he drew on his
English training in what might be usefully described as left aesthetics. The attempt to
set up a left literary tradition here was pretty well strangled by the Leonie Kramer/James
McAuley Cold War hegemony that prevailed in the teaching and writing of literature during
the fifties and sixties. There are various cultural commissars who have inherited a wan
version of this and purvey it now in the books pages of various newspapers and journals.
ED: I have just read your
article Australia Day 1994 in RePublica and I feel you have integrated
the personal with the political in a very clever way. Was this deliberate? (By the way, I
enjoyed the article very much).
AL: All my writing is about the
relationship of the personal to the political I couldnt think or work in any
other way, even if I set out to. Its deeply ingrained. As an undergraduate studying
the great liberal traditions of European and especially English political history and
philosophy I was fascinated with the attempts of thinkers like John Stuart Mill to
reconcile the private and the public spheres, that division that occurred after the
breakdown of tribal society; a loss of community radically accentuated by the industrial
revolution. It can be reformulated in many ways the need to reconcile freedom with
necessity, desire with history, hedonism with social justice.
ED: Your latest novel Camilles Bread is finished. Can you say when it will be
published and what it is about?
AL: I have just given Camilles
Bread to my agent who will auction it off to publishers in early December. Its
not a political novel in the sense that The Morality of Gentlemen and The
Reading Group are its about a wider cultural politics; about the role of
food in our culture and our psyches, and its central role in our practices of nurturing.
In the process it looks at, among other things, the increasing influence of Asian cultures
on Australians, and in that broader sense its something of a portrait of Sydney as
one of the great emergent cities of the Pacific rim.
ED: The Reading Group
was first published in 1988. Why the long silence?
AL: Theres a very simple
answer to that. I needed to earn enough money to support my family so I took a job in a
university teaching writing. The workload was heavy and I had, on average, only one day a
week to write. This became intolerable to me and I have since resigned from that job in
order to write full-time. How I now manage to get enough money to live on should prove to
ED: Tasmania is often referred
to as a backwater and it is certainly true we are isolated from many mainstream events.
What sort of an effect, if any, do you consider this had had on the writers living and
AL: Im not sure that
Tasmania is a backwater. What does that mean? You know what RD Laing said: the centre of
the world is where the heart is. If, more mundanely, we define a backwater as somewhere
with a population thats small in relation to large centres, or geographically
isolated, then Tasmania is a much more culturally diverse and interesting backwater than
some other areas of Australia. But for a writer, everything is grist to the mill; it
doesnt matter where you grow up, or decide to live. The Reading Group is very
much an urban novel and I wrote it while living at Falmouth on the east coast.
Theres a lot of talk now about Tasmanian Gothic and I think that the history, the
isolation and aspects of the landscape have influenced some of the writing produced here
but there hasnt been enough of it to justify large generalisations.
ED: Tasmanians have frequently
been called conservative and lately there has been some media attention focussed on the
image of Tasmanian parochialism. Could you comment on this and on regional writing in
AL: I dont think
Tasmanians are any more or less conservative than people living in other parts of
Australia. And of course Denison and Franklin are two of the most sophisticated and
progressive political electorates in the country. And what do we mean, anyway, when we say
Tasmania? To what degree can you identify people who live in Hobart with those who live
in, say, Queenstown? And which people in what part of Hobart? The boundaries of the
Australian states are quite arbitrary and signify very little in cultural terms (which is
not to say that Sydney isnt significantly different from Brisbane). And we have to
remind ourselves when thinking about the influence of place that the politics
of a community change dramatically over time. My family lived in Queenstown when it was a
centre of dynamic change and political progressivism. Now its not, for obvious
reasons. Similarly, after the war, post-war immigrants from Europe, especially the
educated refugees, had a marked effect on the cultural character of Hobart. When I
attended the Hobart High School I had several teachers who were from European countries
and who had a great influence on me which meant that my education was far from parochial.
As for regional writing, I dont much believe in it. Its a patronising concept
that belongs to a centre-periphery model, now made largely irrelevant by modern
ED: Clearly, Tasmanian writers
are greatly influenced by the landscape. Our sparse population has meant the bush is
always present but this has difficulties because it is sometimes seen as not being able to
get free of the bush tradition, of being caught in a sort of writers time warp.
AL: Is this true? Do writers
here now talk in these terms? I must say that when I was editing Island Magazine I
did notice that all the fiction accepted for publication from Tasmanian writers was set in
the bush. But then Im a Tasmanian writer and Ive never set anything in the
bush. Christopher Kochs work, as I remember it, is largely set in urban landscapes.
ED: All writers relish stories
of other writers, probably as a means of learning more of the writing craft or in the case
of admired writers, discovering secrets of achievement. Can you say which writers you
presently admire and why?
AL: I have a great admiration
for writers who can achieve the difficult art of self-consciously marrying narrative and
philosophy. Kundera does it sublimely in The Unbearable Lightness of Being but
dismally in Immortality where theres too much philosophy and not enough
narrative. The trick is to balance them on a knife edge and the art of achieving that is
endlessly fascinating to me. Marquez sometimes gets it, sometimes not Chronicle
of a Death Foretold is a masterpiece in this respect, though in a quite different way
from Kundera. Two other writers I greatly admire are Mary McCarthy and Joan Didion.
McCarthys ouvre is instructive in the pitfalls that can snare the
intellectual or intellectualising writer. Some of her novels are just dreadful, others are
among the best ever written and overall I think shes greatly underrated. Didion is
another sharp-edged thinker who can use narrative like a scalpel, self-consciously so:
shes always talking about narrative as a construct, as a weapon, as a
ED: Who is the writer (or the
writers) who have most influenced you?
AL: When I was younger I was
influenced by Brechts writing on aesthetics. How these precepts could be applied to
the novel was a question that absorbed me for a long time and The Morality of Gentlemen
comes out of that. I read Dos Passos for clues I found his technique
interesting but overall his books are dull their epic character is of a
nature that doesnt hold your interest. I looked for more influences than I found.
Sometimes you have to invent your own form.
ED: Could you say what the
influences are that have shaped your view of the world and your writing?
AL: This is too big a question.
I could talk all night and probably, in the end, have to admit that I dont really
know. The unconscious plays a large part in all this.
ED: You are probably one of the
most experienced teachers of creative writing in the country. Do you feel it would be
possible to identify students who have been taught by a particular writer for
example, to say that is an Amanda Lohrey way of looking at writing?
AL: Absolutely not, and one of
the reasons is that damned unconscious its so individual for everyone.
Its said that in certain American schools of writing there is a slavish modelling by
students so that schools produce a house style that can be traced back to the
most prestigious teachers. I had a student who went to a US writing school and found her
classmates more anxious, more overtly ambitious and more conformist than their Australian
counterparts. Whether her experience is typical I couldnt say and the US of course
produces a great diversity of writing.
ED: Given that you have spent
so much time teaching creative writing I wonder if that has affected your own writing.
Could you become inhibited by your own teaching?
AL: The only inhibiting thing
about teaching is the lack of time for your own work.
ED: How would you link the
various aspects of your work as a fiction writer, essayist, editor and teacher?
AL: I wouldnt, really. I
taught writing because it was the highest-paying job I could get at the time; I dont
see it having any relation to my own writing, except to frustrate and delay it. As for the
link between essays and fiction; in my case, they are two sides of the same coin. All
narrative is a form of argument, a way of examining contradiction.
ED: You have lived in Sydney
for some years now. I wonder how you are able to preserve and protect your voice against
all the stimuli of a big city?
AL: I think the stimuli of the
big city is overrated, unless you count the noise, the traffic and the smog as
stimuli. Many other forms of stimulation simply arent available to you
unless you have a high income. Moreover writers tend to be relatively anti-social: if you
go out all the time you cant get the work done. And as is perhaps obvious from what
Ive already said, I think the influence on your work of where you live is also
overrated. You could say that if I hadnt lived in Sydney I wouldnt have been
able to write the political essay, Australia Day 1994 but I wrote five or six
political essays on national themes for Island in the early days when I was living
in Hobart. I could write something for you on the evolving character of the Labour Party
in Britain (which I take an interest in) and even from all this distance it would have
some validity. Writers can live anywhere. Its their own idiosyncratic interpretive
apparatus that matters not that I mean to suggest that they spring fully formed
from the head of Zeus. Of course theyre influenced by their environment but
that environment is at least partly made up of mass communications which
negate physical distance. I could watch a video of Tony Blair and write a piece on his
voice and body language. I dont have to be at the Labour Party Conference in
Blackpool or wherever. Mind you, to write a piece on the Conference overall Id have
to be there. Whats more important in the environment are things like publishing
outlets and the industrys nurturing or neglect of particular audiences. The long
political essay would be dead were it not for outletslike Island and RePublica.
This is a much more important consideration than whether a writer lives in Darwin or
As for having to preserve
and protect your voice the essential nature of your voice never changes.
Its as organically a part of you as your fingerprints or the character of your
reflexes. I believe that youre born with your voice. If youre young and/or
inexperienced it may become distorted for a time as you try to imitate some established
writer or conform to fashion (I went through a phase in early adolescence, for example, of
imitating Dickens) but even then your own distinctive take on the mode will
emerge. Last year while cleaning out the attic I found some stuff Id written when I
was fifteen and essentially I have the same writing style now as I had then. Astonishing
isnt it? You can refine your technique, change your subject matter, disguise your
own voice with pastiche or parody, but thats about it. Writing schools teach you to
recognise your natural strengths and weaknesses what you can and cant do with
that voice and then you go on to learn how to minimise the weaknesses and make the
most of the strengths.