Hornsby Library, 21st May 2014You would expect when an insightful author like Alex Miller stands up to talk to his readers he would make us think. Not only did he succeed, but more importantly, he made us feel.
First bombshell: his last novel Coal Creek, winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award , would be just that, his last novel.
The grey heads gasped. Someone cried, No.
He explained that his first novel, Tivington Nott, had an innocence that he’d again captured in Coal Creek. He’d come full circle. Now was the time for a challenge, and another novel wasn’t going to give him that.
This turning point came when he visited a women’s prison to talk about his writing. In the group was a woman who had already served 7 years of a long sentence. She had read all his books and wanted him to talk about the sections she’d marked which related to the theme of absent mothers.
He was stunned. Was that theme in his work?
Yes, she said, and brought out all his books and showed him the passages she’d marked.
While she talked he remembered something. He was 18 months old. His mother was going to give birth to his sister and his father couldn’t take time off work to look after him. So for one week he was placed in a children’s home. Shards of memory remained of this experience. One was how the week had lasted a lifetime.
Miller didn’t say this was why the theme of absent mothers ran through his books, but it was the experience that came to mind.
This prisoner had children. Other women in the prison had children. All were daughters themselves. And every one of them was absent.
The room went silent.
Into the silence the same woman asked a question.
Did he think she could ever get over what she had lost?
Somewhere in his talk the women had transferred responsibility to him. They waited for him to answer as if it was the most crucial thing in their lives. As if he was the person who would know.
In the room in Hornsby Library tonight no one moved. We were waiting, too.
Alex Miller paused as if he was reliving that moment. Then quietly he said, ‘I told them, no, they would never get over it.’
He had said it with compassion. He acknowledged their loss with solemnity. And he honoured them with the truth.
‘But,’ he had said. He told them they could transcend it, and he told them about a friend of his who had done that, who he had written about in a novel, and who had gone on to live a good life.
To write about the pivotal moments in his life, like the women’s prison, is the challenge Alex Miller has set for himself. To write the truth. To write the truth with the clarity of simplicity.
He quoted Berthold Brecht on his death bed, “I always thought the simplest words must do.”
If this evening’s talk gave us a taste of the new direction in which Alex Miller is headed, then I will be doing something I have never done before – pre-ordering his next book.
So here’s the heads-up: it won’t be a novel.
Thank you for sharing this account of an extraordinary meeting with this author. There is so much food for thought here that I hope will inform my writing in the future. What an amazing goal – to write about pivotal moments – just moments that are so critical and important to our lives and to write that truth with the clarity of simplicity. To look back and recognise them for just that. The whole of the story of his meeting with the women in prison gives us insight into the power of the written word. How many people in all kinds of circumstances ,reading alone, can gain insight into their own lives through powerful stories.
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree to write with the clarity of simplicity is a challenging but such a worthwhile goal. That resonated with me, too, and will be something I’ll be more conscious of trying to achieve in my own work.
You’ve touched on an interesting point when you talk about the need to recognise those moments of truth. Maybe that’s the role time plays; it allows things to form in our consciousness. And I think we also need to provide the space for them to come to the surface.
The very best books, and a major reason I love to read, give me insight into my life and the world through the written word. We keep talking about the need for our characters to undergo a change within the story, but I think the best books create a change in the reader.
Thomas Keneally says that Australia’s history is contains stories far more interesting than fiction could allow. Alex Miller has now indicated through his own revelation that our individual history is more prominent in our psyche than we acknowledge and should be addressed with respect and honesty; for ourselves and our readers. By combining fact and truth, with respect and honesty, we get the best of both histories. This can only result in better writing and, of course, reading.
Hi Tony. I was interested, too, in the point Alex Miller made about our individual history playing such a large part in our writing, even when it’s unacknowledged. Readers, he said, often pick up things the author is unaware he put there. In a session today David Malouf said the same thing.
Miller went on to say it’s easier to say or think the truth than it is to write it. He finds things, like false manners, get in the way of it when he writes. He didn’t elaborate, but I guess the written word seems more scarily permanent and undeniable. That’s if we can see the truth clearly, anyway.
I appreciate your comments, Tony.
I just wanted to make a further comment. The story of the women in prison points to two amazing facts – One is that writers often put parts of themselves or their lives, subconsciously in their writing and two that readers, like viewers of art, see more than the writer intended and these things help them make sense of parts of their lives. Good writers enable the reader to read from the heart.
Were you hiding up the back at the talk, Margaret?!
Alex Miller made so many observations it was impossible to put them all in my post. He made both those points about writers putting parts of themselves into the writing and readers seeing more than intended by the author, too. You two are obviously on the same insightful wavelength. Today at a SWF session David Malouf expanded on the idea of the reader in relation to this but I’ll post something on that amazing conversation in the next few days.
Your fascinating last sentence about readers reading from the heart ties in exactly to what Alex Miller says about writing. He writes about and from the human heart. He called himself an ‘old fashioned writer’. He isn’t an experimenter, which he sees is about style and structure. He wasn’t denigrating experimentation, just stating that isn’t the way he writes. Novels, he said, are to be felt.
Thank you Karen for sharing this with all of us who follow your blog. What a great insight into how our lives are either enriched by our past or, in some cases become a burden which we cannot let go.
I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Ruth, and got something out of it. Our past and our life are the best places to get stories, especially the burdens. Alex Miller admits that all his characters are people he knows. Perhaps not all of us use our friends and acquaintances as blatantly as Alex Miller, but I think the characters we create are influenced by them.
Thanks so much for your perceptive comment, Ruth.
Karen, you have encapsulated not only the remarkable thrust of this session of the Sydney Writer’s Festival, but also the atmosphere that permeated the gathering. I am so grateful you shared it. The issues around parental absence, particularly that of the mother, have far-reaching implications both for the parent and the child; it so often represents a pivotal moment in someone’s life. I’m yet to read Alex Miller’s work but I suspect it shan’t be long before I do.
Thanks for you comment, Diana. My first Alex Miller was ‘The Ancestor Game’ which I loved. My next favourite was ‘Journey to the Stone Country.’ I would recommend either of those if you’re looking for a good one.
Wow. What an incredible session that must have been! I was drawn into your writing and felt like I was right there with you. What an incredible human being!
Not only is he an incredible human being but he’s an amazing writer. Thanks for commenting, Jessie.
And some top-notch commenting on this blog piece too! Thank you to everyone 🙂
I’m thrilled when people comment, and love others to add their thoughts and views to the issues I’ve raised. I’m especially grateful when they extend the conversation and give new insights into related ideas. So I was excited, too, Jessie, to have such thought-provoking comments for these top-notch readers. I’d like to add my thank you to all.
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