ELIZABETH DEAN

A conversation with Amanda Lohrey

Novelist Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Morality of Gentlemen and The Reading Group. Her third novel, Camille’s 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 don’t. I get the feeling that some Australian critics feel it’s 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 hasn’t been for many years. I’ve 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 she’d 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. Isn’t that strange?’ The only review that acknowledged the possible political readings of the novel was Stephen Knight’s 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 couldn’t think or work in any other way, even if I set out to. It’s 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 Camille’s Bread is finished. Can you say when it will be published and what it is about?

AL: I have just given Camille’s Bread to my agent who will auction it off to publishers in early December. It’s not a political novel in the sense that The Morality of Gentlemen and The Reading Group are – it’s 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 it’s 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: There’s 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 be interesting.

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 working here?

AL: I’m 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 that’s 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 doesn’t 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. There’s 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 hasn’t 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 general?

AL: I don’t 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 isn’t 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 it’s 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 don’t much believe in it. It’s a patronising concept that belongs to a centre-periphery model, now made largely irrelevant by modern communications.

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 writer’s 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 I’m a Tasmanian writer and I’ve never set anything in the bush. Christopher Koch’s 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 Immortalitywhere there’s 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. McCarthy’s 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 she’s greatly underrated. Didion is another sharp-edged thinker who can use narrative like a scalpel, self-consciously so: she’s always talking about ‘narrative’ as a construct, as a weapon, as a politics.

ED: Who is the writer (or the writers) who have most influenced you?

AL: When I was younger I was influenced by Brecht’s 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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 – it’s so individual for everyone. It’s 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 couldn’t 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 wouldn’t, really. I taught writing because it was the highest-paying job I could get at the time; I don’t 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 aren’t 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 can’t get the work done. And as is perhaps obvious from what I’ve already said, I think the influence on your work of where you live is also overrated. You could say that if I hadn’t lived in Sydney I wouldn’t 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. It’s 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 they’re 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 don’t have to be at the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool or wherever. Mind you, to write a piece on the Conference overall I’d have to be there. What’s more important in the environment are things like publishing outlets and the industry’s nurturing or neglect of particular audiences. The long political essay would be dead were it not for outletslike Island andRePublica. This is a much more important consideration than whether a writer lives in Darwin or Ballarat.

As for having to ‘preserve and protect your voice’ – the essential nature of your voice never changes. It’s as organically a part of you as your fingerprints or the character of your reflexes. I believe that you’re born with your voice. If you’re 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 I’d written when I was fifteen and essentially I have the same writing style now as I had then. Astonishing isn’t it? You can refine your technique, change your subject matter, disguise your own voice with pastiche or parody, but that’s about it. Writing schools teach you to recognise your natural strengths and weaknesses – what you can and can’t do with that voice – and then you go on to learn how to minimise the weaknesses and make the most of the strengths.

(Interview appeared in Famous Reporter 10, November 1994).