Sydney Theatre. 11.30 am. 22 May, 2014The auditorium lights faded.
Enter stage right, David Malouf. Australian Book Review’s first laureate. Multiple literary award winner, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Man Booker short-lister.
Enter Tegan Bennett Daylight. Interviewer. One of SMH ‘Best Young Australian Novelists.’
David Malouf was dapper. Smart grey blazer and cream trousers. He was so polished even his bald pate glowed. He spoke perfectly formed sentences with a beautifully modulated and warm voice. At 80 years old, he looked 50.
Tegan Bennett Daylight was natural. Hair windswept. Red and white swirly sun dress and flat birkenstock-style sandals to match. An Australian accent with no pretension. She looked 18.
If you wondered how this young slip of a thing came to be interviewing the Grand Master of Australian Literature you didn’t wonder for long.
Tegan Bennett Daylight asked those questions you would like to ask yourself, and questions which elicited thought-provoking ideas. Even questions you didn’t know you wanted answered. Even questions you wouldn’t be game to ask. A perfect interviewer, in other words.
Were you in love when you wrote that book? she asked soon into the session. The house stopped breathing. Malouf rarely talks about his personal life. He hesitated briefly. Yes, he said, and steered the conversation smoothly into a discussion of his book.
Malouf shared his writing practice.
– He writes daily, otherwise it’s too hard to keep starting up again.
– When he writes he can often reach a heightened state, where he loses all sense of time and place, so immersed is he in his created world.
– His characters take him on their journey, sometimes where he doesn’t want to go. Story is about characters being tested and having to find a new way of being in the world.
The writing self, he said, is selfish. It will find its own process, its own agenda and logic and way of putting things together. The work, poem or novel, knows something the author doesn’t. You have to trust it.
What fascinated me about his process was this statement, “Form doesn’t matter.” Alex Miller said a similar thing yesterday. For Malouf a novel is worked an inch at a time and creates its own arc magically. I suspect he means that great works grow organically.
Yet almost all writing students worry constantly about form and structure. They have the ideas or the plot, but they are anxious about how to put it all together. Very rarely are they satisfied with ‘write it and see what happens.’ It takes great courage to trust that the form your work will take magically resolves itself, especially in creative arts where doubt and chaos play such an integral and crucial part.
I believe the best way to learn to write is to write , and read attentively. Miller and Malouf have the advantage of coming out of their apprenticeships a long time ago. That’s not to suggest they aren’t still discovering new ways to create, far from it. Miller has written 10 novels. Malouf has 9, as well as plays, poetry, non-fiction, libretti. Their reading lives are extensive. But the experience they have to draw on is colossal, and their trust hard won. When they were writing their first novel were they confident the structure would invent itself? I wanted to hear about the process that took Malouf and Miller to the point where they could say with such conviction that “form doesn’t matter?”
Talking of rich reading lives, David Malouf’s is astounding. Could he really have read the complete set of Shakespeare’s plays at the age of 10 when his father presented them to him? How much did he understand? As a 12 year old he was reading novels like Wuthering Heights, Persuasion, Vanity Fair because they showed him the most extraordinary things about a world he couldn’t wait to grow up to inhabit. I’m ashamed to admit that at 10 I was reading Charlotte’s Web and anything with horses in it.
At one point in the session Bennett Daylight had to ask the audience to amuse themselves while she took a moment to contemplate the profound idea that Malouf had raised. The audience laughed, but it was the laugh of consolidation. Hadn’t we all felt like that at least once during the hour?To celebrate his 80th year Malouf has brought out a book of essays titled A First Place. He said you never leave or grow out of the first place you come to know. Writers form from the age of 3. This early world remains exotic because you see it through the eyes of a child. It is here you learned or became aware of the mystery and unpredictability of the world. Questioning and eavesdropping. You exist in a heightened state because everything is new and exciting. At the heart of his essays is the idea of home, what and where it is.
Graciously, just before they left the stage, Tegan Bennett Daylight thanked David Malouf for his generosity, not just for his open willingness to share himself and his ideas with the audience, but for his generosity to her personally as his interviewer.
It’s Thinking Season flashed up on every screen during the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This conversation epitomised it.
Definitely look out for this session on podcast.