Last night at Gleebooks I heard the prolific writer Georgia Blain speak about her new novel Too Close to Home with the writer Charlotte Wood. Their conversation felt so urgent that I can’t wait to read the novel that prompted it. They ranged from ideas of family in the 21st century to asking why the voice of the ‘latte sippers’ is so easily dismissed in public debate, as vividly demonstrated this week by Tony Abbott’s dismissal of Cate Blanchett’s public support for a carbon tax.
Too Close to Home is set between the ascension of Julia Gillard to the leadership of the Labor Party in June 2010 and the federal election that followed two months later. It takes place in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville and centres on Freya, a playwright, her partner Matt and their daughter Ella. Freya and her friends are ‘latte sippers’. They work in the arts, talk politics and their domestic arrangements are a work in progress.
An idea and a place In perhaps her most emphatic answer of the night, Georgia said her novels always grow from an idea and a place. Her characters come later. The idea that interested her for this novel was the irrelevance in society’s view of the latte sippers – and bohemian Marrickville, the suburb Georgia moved to seven years ago, seemed a good place to set it.
Georgia said she loves structure, shaping a novel: ‘Where are you going to start? Where do you end? It’s like a mathematical conundrum, working out the shape of a novel.’ Too Close to Home is circular, it begins and ends with the stalemate federal election of August 2010.
And yet despite the centrality of this election to the novel, when Georgia started writing it seven years ago it was set when Mark Latham was leader of the Labor Party (December 2003 to January 2005). Georgia said whether or not to reset the novel in the present was a massive decision. But once she’d decided to set it now, she realised how little had changed between the politics of Latham’s day and those of 2010. The same issues were still being fought, notably immigration, and the ‘hip pocket’ was still being used as the measure of a policy’s worth. The major changes, it turned out, were to answering machines (we’ve all got voicemail now) and cigarettes (in 2010 everyone had given up).
Georgia said that it was hard to write about the present and that few Australian novels attempted to do so, with the notable exceptions of Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘The Slap’ (2008) and Fiona McGregor’s ‘Indelible Ink’ (2010).
Charlotte suggested that Too Close to Home centres on the ideas of parenting and various kinds of families: a traditional mother-father-child family, a single woman trying to have a baby with two gay men, a woman in a heterosexual relationship who wants a child but her partner does not. Although Georgia didn’t set out to write about families, she thinks she did so inadvertently because she’s in her 40s, that huge moment ‘when the dividing line is drawn with some finality over whether or not we’re going to have children’.
In their discussion Charlotte and Georgia touched on three subjects that make me extra keen to read Too Close to Home:
1. Can art make a difference? Freya is doing a PhD in creative writing (‘the new arts funding’, as Charlotte called it). She has written her creative component, a play, and is now struggling to write her thesis on ‘whether art can make a difference’. As Freya acknowledges, it’s a big subject: ‘Incredibly broad, I know. I suppose all I have to do is examine my own work and put it in some kind of context, but it’s not easy.’ Freya hopes art can make a difference and likes art that makes her ‘see life in a new way’, but that’s not why she writes. ‘I do it because I love what I do.’
Georgia shares Freya’s ambivalence. She doesn’t think we could demand or expect relevance from art, but hates to think art has no relevance in this world now.
2. Women’s fiction. In the context of the outrage prompted by this year’s Miles Franklin Award shortlist – the second men-only shortlist since 2009 – Charlotte asked Georgia why women’s fiction is ignored. Georgia thinks it gets packaged in a certain way, for example, as romance. But when men write romance this doesn’t happen. Alex Miller’s novels are never packaged as romance even though he writes romance. And when men venture into ‘women’s territory’ and write domestic fiction, it’s regarded as something unusual, so it gets more attention.
3. White writers writing indigenous characters. Charlotte asked Georgia about her decision to write an indigenous character in Too Close to Home, given white Australian writers were afraid of creating a contemporary indigenous character and mostly handle this anxiety by historicising. Charlotte wondered if it had worried Georgia to write this character? Looking a little anxious herself, Georgia said it hadn’t while she was writing him (Shane, a friend from Matt’s past who moves into their neighbourhood), but it did afterwards, when she realised the implications of what she’d done.
I look forward to teasing out these three subjects – and more – here, once I’ve read Too Close to Home.
But next I’ll be writing about Homer’s Iliad, supposedly the work that started the western literary tradition. And then I’ll be writing about one of my favourite Australian mathematicians and writers, Robyn Arianrhod, whose new book I’m reviewing for the Australian. Her first book, the brilliant Einstein’s Heroes: Imagining the world through the language of mathematics (2003), is one of the best books I’ve read on science and mathematics. Cheers!