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.
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.