Keeping faith with the kids

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 doesn’t offer any support or sympathy. When I reviewed it for The Mercury I wrote: ‘It’s 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 Writer’s 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 1950’s 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.

It’s 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.

‘I’ve 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 she’s done for one person what I did for her, she wouldn’t 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 I’d 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 I’d got the street kids absolutely right – even the social worker – and she didn’t 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 long way.

‘I’ve 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 didn’t 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 mutual respect.

‘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 it’s terrible the way the academics have control of the critical establishment. Over the last few months I’ve opted out of Australian literary life altogether, and I’m just going to toddle along with my little canoe where it takes me, and that will be OK. I don’t really want a part of it. It saddens me to have to say that. I’ve 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 father.’

‘A thing that frightens me is that men do this all the time, they turn things around without even knowing they’re doing it. Because they don’t 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 don’t 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 Valentine’s Day last year and didn’t 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.

‘I’m mad about politics. I’m also a cynic, and I keep thinking of all the people who are now naturally and very sensibly renouncing communism. But you don’t ever find what you want and I’m old enough to know that – and they’ll end up being disappointed. But I think it’s great to see any regime overthrown. We have to keep overthrowing regimes – to use Don Chipp’s 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 it’s 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 don’t we’re 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 it’s 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 couldn’t not because I’m old enough to remember when the wall went up. I’m old enough to have lived through the Second World War and the whole bit. And it’s just the most incredible thing.’

‘That all happened in three weeks. It think it’s wonderful George Orwell said – and I remind myself of this all the time: "When you’ve 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.’

‘You’ve got to be cynical about everything – except love … and people. There can’t be a 1000-year Reich. And we must never underestimate the human spirit because always in every generation there’s that wonderful spark who passes the torch on to the next generation.’

Savage’s efforts to find meaning in the political world are mirrored by her deep spiritual concerns.

‘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.’

‘I’m a yoga fanatic and I do my yoga every day – meditation and the physical assanas. When you’re coming out of meditation or out of sleep you often get your best ideas. And when you can’t solve something you just have to wait because your unconscious will solve it.’

Savage’s spiritual orientation overlaps with her belief in Green consciousness.

‘Of all the things I’ve 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 can’t bear life I watch that. I think it’s one of the greatest dramas that’s even been written. I can’t see that without crying, not sad tears – happy tears – because I believe the planet will save itself and bugger us. It doesn’t care about us if we don’t care about it.’

‘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 it’s 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: ‘I’ve only got her to the age of thirteen, so I’m not certain what kind of photographer she’s going to be. Part one is about her childhood – I know that sounds corny – but I’m trying to give it a new slant [here she drawled "slant" with a mock American accent] and I’ve 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 80’s 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.

Savage’s 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; I’m still coming to terms with it. I’ve just been reading two books about the battle of Long Tan and I’ve 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. That’s only my view, but I’m a great Vietnam watcher.’

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. It’s 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. That’s not taking anything away from the Vietnamese men, because they were fighting for those things too. I’ll tell you how it changed me – I came away with an almost unbearable admiration for the Vietnamese people and what they did.’

‘But I also came away knowing our soldiers who fought there were part of me. I mightn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 I’d 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 that.’

‘I’m very happy with the new book. What I’m doing with it at the moment is putting all of part one onto computer because it’s in my unreadable handwriting. I like to write in longhand, I think it works better – for me. I don’t 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 don’t so much make your writing better because you’re rewriting it, you make it better because you have time – all that time to improve your thoughts, not the words but the thoughts. I don’t think the words matter so much. It’s the quality of thinking that you put into your work that matters.’

‘I think we’ve 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…’

(Interview first appeared in Famous Reporter 4, July 1990).