First published 1990 by Allen & Unwin
This is a book which every female Australian writer should own a copy of. I should dearly love one and must track one down.
I first discovered it in a library in 2004 and brought it home because Nancy Cato was in it. But through this book I discovered a whole generation of Australian women writers who are no longer with us, and I thank God that Giulia Giuffré was able to interview them before they passed away.
As Giuffré says in her introduction, “I embarked on this project because I was curious about the women writers of Australia, especially the older ones, whose careers spanned most of the decades of the twentieth century… Many of these writers had known Miles Franklin and Katharine Susanna Prichard.” Some of these authors had their books reviewed by Miles Franklin in her diaries; Christina Stead, Eleanor Dark, Marjorie Barnard, Kylie Tennant, and others flitted in and out of the diaries.
Giuffré worked on the book for most of the eighties, with the book being published in 1990. Not all of her interviewees made it into the final book, and some were approached but the interview did not take place as time ran out. A handful did not wish to be interviewed.
The book has one section or chapter for each author, and has a brief introduction followed by an edited transcript of the interview. I liked the honesty of the introductions, which cover how the writer came across to the interviewer, as well as how the interview went. About Dora Birtles she says, “Sometimes the interview seems fraught with danger and difficulty, and for no immediately apparent reason, perhaps simply the vagaries of human chemistry. But difficulty does not of itself matter and despite the unexplained tension of our meeting, the talk flicked, lively, from point to point.”
Giuffré was interested in their views on life, death, religion, politics, sex, love and writing. Many of these women did not have children, although not all of them chose this; almost none of them held any religious beliefs, they seemed to favour the left side of politics, and many were pessimistic about the future of the world. Nancy Cato thought “that we will end up wrecking this planet”.
I found that while I tended to gravitate towards the writers I’d heard of first, that there was also plenty to learn from the lesser known ones. And it was sobering to find out that even though it was easier to get published in the traditional manner when these women were putting pen to paper or tapping away, that very few of them were able to make a living from writing. Like the rest of us blockheads, they struggled on for the love of it.
One exception was Catherine Gaskin, the bestselling author of about 20 romance novels, of which only three were set in Australia. I find it interesting that the most financially successful author in the book didn’t really like writing at all. But as Helen Heney said in her interview, “a sensible person like Catherine Gaskin set to work to study the people she wanted to buy her books, and did it with tremendous ability and success, but I don’t think she was writing for Catherine Gaskin.”
All of the writers were asked if they ever felt that being a woman had disadvantaged them in their work. None had. Of the women who had to fit writing in with the rearing of children, all of them felt that the children had so enriched their lives and their work, that they could not have done without them.
What I would like to see is the book reprinted, this time including the interviewees that couldn’t fit in the first edition. And then perhaps another volume with the next generation, including people like Helen Garner, Kate Llewellyn, Colleen McCullough, Marion Halligan, Kate Grenville, etc. And then repeated every thirty years.
And as for those poor disadvantaged male writers, whose thoughts have not been collected in the same way, and whose names are therefore being forgotten, well, someone had better organize something for them too!