Georgia Savage speaks to Giles Hugo
I first encountered the warmth, strength and powerful convictions of Georgia Savage
when I read her fourth novel, The House Tibet, which is seen through the eyes of
Morgan, a teenage girl who runs away to the Queensland Gold Coast with her younger
brother, J-Max, to escape from an impossible family situation her father has raped
her and her mother doesnt offer any support or sympathy. When I reviewed it for The
Mercury I wrote: Its a story that all parents including Bob Hawke
should read, and many teenagers would benefit from it. Its message is horrifying,
but not without hope. Then I met Savage at the 1989 Salamanca Writers Weekend in
Hobart. Her paper, Lolita Strikes Back, on the genesis of The House Tibet
moved all who heard it her depth of commitment and sincerity concerning homeless
children in Australia were truly inspiring. In conversation I discovered her keen
interests in photography, politics and Green issues. Savage, who was born in Tasmania but
left in the 1950s to marry a footballer, is refreshingly un-academic, provocative,
eloquent and most candid. When I mentioned I had just picked up a second-hand copy
of her first novel, The Tournament, she said with a groan: Oh, my God, you
could spend your time better. When I asked if the film of her second novel, Slate
& Me and Blanche McBride, was available on video, she said with a certain grim
relish: They say "The Return of the Mummy" is the worst film ever made;
well, have I got news for you
one of the great tragedies of my life.
This interview was gathered over several months. I visited Georgia Savage in her
Melbourne home in February on the eve of her departure for a two-week trip to Vietnam to
research her next novel, Missing Jesse James. She was intending to go on to
Greece for two weeks to research that part of the novel, but illness forced her to return
to Melbourne without making that leg of the trip. I then spoke to her by telephone in May
and again in June, just days before Famous Reporter went to press. As I was working
on this piece she phoned to caution me about a possible libel she is very
forthright in her views and to tell me that she had just got a contract for the
publication of The House Tibet in the United States.
Its the book that has deservedly made her name, and she continues to get
heartfelt responses to it from the people for whom it was written the sexually
abused and emotionally deprived street kids of Australia.
Ive had another letter from a street kid this week that reduced me to tears
because she said that book had helped her come to terms with the death of her brother and
two other girl friends and it had given her a reason to go on living, said Savage.
And she said that if she gets to the end of her life and shes done for one
person what I did for her, she wouldnt feel that her life was in vain. And it just
broke me up.
And I had another letter from the Brotherhood of St Laurence congratulating me on
it and saying that Id got the kids absolutely right and their reasons for being
street kids, and their hopes and their needs and their despair. The woman who wrote the
letter, one of their chiefs of staff, recommends it to their people. And in the same mail
I got a letter from a girl who was a street kid and has got herself to university and has
got her life on the go. And she said the same thing, that Id got the street kids
absolutely right even the social worker and she didnt know how I did
it. And they both asked me to write a sequel. And sometimes when you think that I don't
ever get shortlisted for prizes or anything like that, it doesn't matter because you can't
get better prizes than that, can you? You never could get higher awards than that.
The thoughts and concerns that sparked her to write The House Tibet go back a
Ive never been able to cope with the fact that [Vladimir] Nabokov killed
Lolita off on page two instead of letting her live and overcome the thing and make a
creative experience out of it.
Here I reminded her that a couple of female critics had commented in reviews of The
House Tibet that one aspect of the book that didnt ring true for them was how
nice the street kids were to each other, that they took care of each other out of love and
My answer to that is that those women who are probably yuppie women and
quite possibly from working-class background want to see those street children as
wild animals baying at the gates of civilisation. And that frightens me because the people
who wrote like that were women. No men wrote about it like that.
I think its terrible the way the academics have control of the critical
establishment. Over the last few months Ive opted out of Australian literary life
altogether, and Im just going to toddle along with my little canoe where it takes
me, and that will be OK. I dont really want a part of it. It saddens me to have to
say that. Ive got good friends in that literary world and they always will be
but as far as the establishment goes my God!
And just as she has been misunderstood by female literary critics, she has also turned
down two offers to film The House Tibet because she thought the proposed
treatments were not faithful to her intentions, and that if she allowed a mediocre film to
be made it would break the faith that she has earned from her younger readers.
A chap came down from Sydney and it turned out he was going to alter the whole
thing; he was going to have a big international star for the part of Xam, which I thought
was great, but he was going the write that part up to be the main character in the thing,
and then he was going to shoot the whole thing from the eyes of the little boy, J-Max. So
in one fell swoop he was going to turn it from the point of view of the girl into being a
male film. And he thought the girl should end up being an architect like her fucking
A thing that frightens me is that men do this all the time, they turn things
around without even knowing theyre doing it. Because they dont know there is a
female point of view.
In a letter to Savage I had said that I thought it would be hard to cast the kids in a
film version of The House Tibet, and she took me up on this.
I dont agree, I think the kids will be fairly easy to cast because kids are
marvellous until they get up to about seventeen when they become self-conscious. I think
the adults might be more difficult. I worry about the adults. For instance old Xam
I think he should be an Englishman, somebody like John Gielgudd. He would be wonderful!
And I think he needs to be splendid. The real Xam died on St Valentines Day last
year and didnt live to see the book published and I did want him to. I
just loved him to pieces both in and out of the book.
Savage readily admits to being obsessed with politics, and she was delighted to discuss
the total reversal in the last year of the political balance.
Im mad about politics. Im also a cynic, and I keep thinking of all
the people who are now naturally and very sensibly renouncing communism. But you
dont ever find what you want and Im old enough to know that and
theyll end up being disappointed. But I think its great to see any regime
overthrown. We have to keep overthrowing regimes to use Don Chipps phrase
to keep the bastards honest". The worst thing about communism is that it allows
the same people to stay in power, and as soon as that happens you get corruption.
This change is happening all over the world and its all really tied in with
the greening thing, whether people know or not. And I think, thank Christ we are softening
a little because if we dont were done the race is done. And I hope the
survival instinct in the human race is good and strong. I think it is some days I
think its not. As far as Eastern Europe was concerned, like most people, I was
watching those things about the Berlin Wall coming down in tears. You couldnt not
because Im old enough to remember when the wall went up. Im old enough to have
lived through the Second World War and the whole bit. And its just the most
That all happened in three weeks. It think its wonderful George Orwell said
and I remind myself of this all the time: "When youve defeated the
bullies on the right, you must immediately turn round and be ready to fight the bullies on
the left." And I believe that there is no Utopia.
Youve got to be cynical about everything except love
people. There cant be a 1000-year Reich. And we must never underestimate the human
spirit because always in every generation theres that wonderful spark who passes the
torch on to the next generation.
Savages efforts to find meaning in the political world are mirrored by her deep
The spiritual is the best part of life. I believe one can only find the track
oneself also that one can always get help from whatever it is as long as you ask
and believe absolutely. And you can ask even for the most ridiculous things but you
do get help if you ask wholeheartedly. You find the same ethics run through all the major
religions, and they are right.
Im a yoga fanatic and I do my yoga every day meditation and the
physical assanas. When youre coming out of meditation or out of sleep you often get
your best ideas. And when you cant solve something you just have to wait because
your unconscious will solve it.
Savages spiritual orientation overlaps with her belief in Green consciousness.
Of all the things Ive ever seen on television the thing I love most is
"The Edge of Darkness" (a BBC drama series about a radical group of believers in
the Gaia principle who are seeking to reveal abuses of power in the nuclear weapons
industry]. I have a video copy of that and whenever I cant bear life I watch that. I
think its one of the greatest dramas thats even been written. I cant see
that without crying, not sad tears happy tears because I believe the planet
will save itself and bugger us. It doesnt care about us if we dont care about
I believe in the Gaia principle, absolutely wholeheartedly with all my might. And
I have felt it sometimes in meditation something, something just so wonderful that
its almost impossible for us to comprehend it.
When I asked Savage about her novel-in-progress, Missing Jesse James, whose
heroine is a woman photographer who goes to Vietnam long after her husband was a
journalist there during the war, she replied: Ive only got her to the age of
thirteen, so Im not certain what kind of photographer shes going to be. Part
one is about her childhood I know that sounds corny but Im trying to
give it a new slant [here she drawled "slant" with a mock American accent] and
Ive only got her up to the age of thirteen when she loses the love of her life.
Later she goes on impulse to Vietnam in the 80s and she does find out a lot of
things about herself and her marriage and so on when she gets there.
Later during one of the phone interviews Savage said she had decided to make her
heroine a photo-journalist.
Savages trip to Vietnam to research Missing Jesse James gave her a lot of
material for her book and realigned her thinking in unexpected ways.
I got ten million times more out of my trip to Vietnam than I thought I would;
Im still coming to terms with it. Ive just been reading two books about the
battle of Long Tan and Ive read A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, about
the American involvement there, which just takes the lid off the entire war.
I also believe that America is going back into Vietnam very soon, but not as an
aggressor as a military ally of Vietnam. I believe that; I think the press is
preparing us for that. My personal view is that they will reopen their naval bases there
when they leave the Philippines. Thats only my view, but Im a great Vietnam
While in Vietnam, Savage went with a group of Australian veterans to visit one of the
underground bases used by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army to escape the horrific
B52 bomber raids. The underground installations made a deep impression on Savage.
I suppose that to live like that they must have had an enormous amount of
camaraderie which buoyed them up. Its easier to survive in those situations when you
have that feeling. The walls of the tunnels are smooth like the walls of my house
they were lucky in that they had the kind of earth that they could make underground rooms
just by carving it out.
That was at Chu Ci. First there was a little lecture by an officer in the
Vietnamese Army with a short film and maps and things, which was very instructive. And the
part I liked best was that he said the women were the best guerillas their daring,
their determination and their guts. They were fighting for their children and their
families and their bit of land. Thats not taking anything away from the Vietnamese
men, because they were fighting for those things too. Ill tell you how it changed me
I came away with an almost unbearable admiration for the Vietnamese people and what
But I also came away knowing our soldiers who fought there were part of me. I
mightnt have wanted to send them there [indeed, Georgia Savage marched in
demonstrations in Melbourne to end the war] but they were sent there by my government and
they were part of me.
And while I was there I learnt of my great debt to America because I grew up from
the age of four seeing American films and all of my history of literature is in American
writing, merely because it was what I liked listening to the American hit parade
when I was a kid. And I suddenly faced that when I was in Vietnam because there were a lot
of Russians staying at the hotel, and they were terribly unfriendly because they thought
we were Americans. They wouldnt even acknowledge a nod, they were really frozen, but
they were fascinated by my Reeboks and every time I bounced into the hotel foyer in my
Reeboks forty pairs of Slav eyes watched me. But then one night when Id had a few
gin and tonics I really got sick of them being so horrible to us, I stood in the hall and
sang as much as I could remember of the Battle Hymn of the United States Marines until my
friends dragged me away into the lift. So I learnt that about myself that I had an
enormous debt, and of course I love American whether I want to or not. On that trip I
learnt more about myself than in the rest of my life put together. I have to say
Im very happy with the new book. What Im doing with it at the moment
is putting all of part one onto computer because its in my unreadable handwriting. I
like to write in longhand, I think it works better for me. I dont always do
the second draft like that sometimes I do it by hand, sometimes with a typewriter.
I believe that the standard of writing has gone down because people are using computers.
In all the terrible rewriting that people were forced to [before computers] you dont
so much make your writing better because youre rewriting it, you make it better
because you have time all that time to improve your thoughts, not the words but the
thoughts. I dont think the words matter so much. Its the quality of thinking
that you put into your work that matters.
I think weve done the most terribly sombre thing about war and torture and
watching everything with tears in my eyes. Ask me about some of the things that I like. I
like football, and men and