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All About Ava: An Interview with Sara Dowse

21 April 2013

Sara Dowse grew up in Hollywood and at the age of seven spent the weekend with a 22-year-old Ava Gardner. At the time Ava was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, and Sara’s encounter with her was profound, though perhaps not in the way you might imagine. Sara wrote about her experiences in ‘One Touch of Venus’, published in The Invisible Thread anthology, and will be reading her work at Woven Words on 27 April. I spoke to her about ‘Aunt Ava’ and a whole lot more besides.
AvaIrma Gold: The two scenes you recall from that weekend are both vivid and sensual. In the first of these you describe playing in the pool with Ava as a ‘baptism, an initiation into something else’. Can you explain why the experience proved to be so significant?

Sara Dowse: I was trying to capture the whole complex business of initiation into womanhood. Water is, symbolically speaking, feminine. Hence the pool. Unlike older, more traditional cultures, ours has a paucity of rituals, and those we do have tend to be idiosyncratic. In orthodox Jewish culture, for example, the one that shaped my grandmother and great-grandmother, they had the mikvah — the ritual bath a woman submerged herself after each menstruation, before her wedding and after childbirth. I had experienced nothing remotely like that but, still, somewhere in my unconscious those connections were either being made at the time or at the time of writing. Curious that I used the word ‘baptism’ — which only goes to show how far I removed I am from those strictly orthodox Jewish traditions. In any case, it’s all about sexuality really.

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IG: Then back in the hotel you see Ava, the coveted movie star, nude. And what strikes you is how ‘very disappointing’ it is, how she is essentially no different to your mother. This moment had a profound effect on your evolving sense of what it meant to be a woman. How so?

SD: You have to think back to a time when a girl hardly ever saw anyone, even in her own family, in the nude. That’s what it was like in America in the 1940s and 50s, even in a place like Hollywood. You never saw a cleavage and the shortest skirts ended just below the knee. But because of this very suppression we children were terribly curious. And smutty, I guess. That said, I still don’t know quite how to answer the question. Possibly one aspect of it was that, contrary to today’s specifications, I didn’t find Ava’s youthful breasts particularly beautiful. In fact they seemed strange because they weren’t like either my mother’s or stepmother’s, which were those of maturer women. Later, in the 50s, girls like me just wanted to be curvy. And breasts were everything. That’s why we had those bras that shaped them like torpedos. But I suppose the main thing to consider is that becoming a woman was, probably still is, something we had to think about. It was a social construct, it wasn’t something that came ‘naturally’. Still isn’t, when you take all the cosmetic surgery into account. And remember, I was revisiting this event many, many years later. Now I don’t give a damn what breasts are supposed to look like. I am a woman, that’s who I am, and would be even if I didn’t have them.

IG: In your essay you write that every girl needs ‘a woman who will lead her into the adult world, a kind of female Virgil. But Ava was more than that, and less.’

SD: Well, that’s what I’d heard said and it was only when I was writing the essay that it came to me that it might be true. Mother and daughter relationships are complicated, too complicated often. I don’t think a mother can really be a friend to her daughter; a mother is a mother, and she’s unique. But an aunt is an older relative who can support a girl on her journey to adulthood without many strings attached. My own daughter is an aunt to one of my granddaughters in just this way. As for Ava, by dint of her fame I guess she was more than that; even though my sisters and I called her Aunt Ava, as children did in those days, we were of course in awe of her. Movie actors were truly stars then, larger than life to other adults let alone children; and different from the female celebrities we have today. They were goddesses — like the Venus of the title and the role Ava played in the movie of the same name. Think of Marilyn Monroe and then think of Cate Blanchett. Maybe not as rich or savvy or in control because of the studios’ grip on them, but by the same token the studios made women like Ava stars. But that time with her in the pool she was less than that, less than even an aunt. More like a sister, more of a kid herself. ‘Down to earth’ is the term for it — the best I can think of. And funny,  that is what happens in the movie.

IG: You moved from Hollywood to Sydney at the age of 19, and then to Canberra in 1968 where you worked as a journalist before becoming the inaugural head of the Women’s Affairs Section of the prime minister department for the Whitlam government. What was that time like, both in political and literary circles?

SD: I should say here that I moved from Los Angeles, not Hollywood. There’s a difference, though they do overlap. The Los Angeles part is every bit as rich as the Hollywood part and had just as great an influence on me — and on my writing. It has coloured my responses to literature and music and, in a way, my fascination with Sydney, which is some respects very like Los Angeles. I was born in Chicago and lived in New York as well. So for 28 years all told I’ve lived in big cities, where I’ve felt spiritually at home. But then there was Canberra, much smaller, and appreciably smaller when I lived there than it is now, and oddly enough those years in Canberra were undoubtedly the most interesting, the most exciting years of my life.

Before I became a public service journalist I worked in publishing and taught professional writing at what was then the Canberra College of Advanced Education, now the University of Canberra. In 1973, I worked on the labour minister’s staff and a year later went to prime minister’s. The section was set up initially to help Elizabeth Reid who was Whitlam’s women’s adviser deal with the huge backlog of correspondence that built up after she asked the women of Australia to write to her about their problems. And boy, did they take her at her word! She ended up getting more correspondence than any government minister except Whitlam himself. Eventually the section took on a substantial policy role, particularly in relation to child care, but we also had our fingers in many other policy pies. It was a very exciting time to be in the public service, a period of long-lasting, long-awaited reform but also political crisis. We hung on through some difficult challenges, most notably the dismissal itself, in order to preserve what had been achieved, and throughout it all the section grew into a branch and then into an office — higher in status but presaging its ousting from prime minister’s. I resigned then to bring this significant but essentially bureaucratic move to public notice. An additional, personal reason was my desire to devote myself, once and for all, to writing.

I really didn’t know the literary scene at all and sometimes thought of this mad career change so late in the day as comparable to Zelda Fitzgerald’s announcing she was bent on becoming a ballerina. It was as exhilarating and at the same time as hopeless, I thought, as that. None of my friends were writers, all my associates were in the women’s movement or in government, and I had recurring dreams about their disapproval. Deep down, I saw it as ‘indulging’ myself. But I couldn’t help it. It was also quite scary. Few of the supports writers have now were available then, and what was there I knew next to nothing about.

IG: In the eighties and nineties you were part of Canberra’s Seven Writers group. Having spoken to fellow members Marion Halligan and Dorothy Johnston about their experiences, I’m interested to know what the group meant to you.

SD: Dorothy Johnston came to Canberra around the time I quit prime minister’s. She heard about me through a mutual friend and got in touch. It was a truly serendipitous meeting, a life-changing one for me. She heard about Margaret Barbalet in much the same way and gradually the three of us got together. Dorothy was the prime mover in this, and it was wonderful to be around someone so dedicated, so positive that something as exhilarating as writing was an authentically important thing to do. It amazes me now to recall that I never dreamt it could or would become a career for me. Nor did I ever imagine that my connection with Seven Writers would come to be better known and possibly more valued than my government work.

After the three of us got together Dorothy put an ad in the Canberra Times and the first tentative groupings were formed. A few months later these coalesced to five of us, Dorothy and Margaret and me, Brenda Walker, who was doing a PhD at ANU, and a woman named Elizabeth Toombs. When Brenda left for Western Australia and Elizabeth to Wales, then Singapore, we were down to the three of us again. That’s when Marian Eldridge, Suzanne Edgar and Marion Halligan joined and, soon after, Dorothy Horsfield. This was in the mid-80s. The group remained as it was until 1998 when I left for Canada. Marian Eldridge had died two years earlier and that kind of kicked the stuffing out of us. We were never quite the same again.

Would I have persisted without the group? I’m not sure. It certainly would have been lonelier and I did learn a lot about the writing craft. But then, as an artist of any kind, you’re always learning. Being in the group meant my work was taken seriously by friendly rivals. That’s what we were, friendly rivals, and we gave each other something no one else could give us, especially as women, especially for that time.

IG: Given that you are both a writer and a painter, how do these two art forms influence each other?

SD: Of course they’re intertwined. But it hasn’t been an easy relationship. For quite a while I agonised over the fact that the time I spent painting was time taken away from writing. I sensed the same disapproval from my writer friends that I’d felt from my politico-academic-public service friends when I started writing. And I kept insisting to myself that painting was only a hobby and that I was entitled to have a hobby just like everyone else had, now that my children were grown and I had the time to have one. But the point was it wasn’t acting like a hobby. It was misbehaving. It was demanding. It was as insistent as the writing was. They both are, and it can be bloody exhausting. And I wasn’t getting any younger and none of it was making me much money. And then I said, the hell with it, I am who I am and I’m going to have to live with it. And enjoy it. That’s been the hardest part, all through my life, not feeling guilty about enjoying myself. (It comes in the Jewish package — along, thank god, with the laughs.)

Sara DowseDo my art forms feed each other? Definitely. Two of my biggest paintings are of swimming pools. This is because of the amazing view from the windows of our Sydney flat. Towards the east we see North Harbour, Manly, and the ocean beyond. But turning northwards we look down onto swimming pools, one after another, like a sparkling chain of turquoise flung over the fences and into the suburban yards. And it reminded me of John Cheever’s story ‘The Swimmer’ in which Neddy Merrill crosses his neighbourhood by swimming in one pool after the other, swimming as he does into the mistakes of his past. It’s a classic rendition, maybe the classic rendition, of suburban failure and loneliness, and was made into a fine movie with Burt Lancaster in the role of Neddy, arguably one of his best. So I started painting these scenes and two big ones that will be on show at Woven Words came out of this process. The first I did indeed call ‘The Swimmer’ but the second, painted a few years later, morphed into something else.

I now belong to an artists’ studio not far from the flat and not dissimilar from Seven Writers in that it’s made up of women and we’re all very close and supportive of each other, even though there’s that implicit, unavoidable sense of rivalry, especially among the painters. But I share my own studio space with a young Mexican filmmaker who observed when I was working on the second painting that it looked just like Cuernavaca where her grandmother lived and she spent her childhood vacations. So there it was, ‘Cuernavaca’. But come to think of it, it could have been that first pool — the one I swam in with Ava.

IG: At the Woven Words event we’ve asked you to combine literature with a different art form by selecting two musical compositions to bookend a reading of ‘One Touch of Venus’. How did you go about selecting these works? Can you take us through your thinking process?

SD: I can’t tell you how much delight I had in choosing the music for the reading. Thanks to the Net, I was able to watch One Touch of Venus online. And because of this, I hit on something that over the years I had completely forgotten — that one of the most beautiful songs ever written was part of the soundtrack. The movie, which came out in 1948, was originally a 1943 Broadway musical with Mary Martin in the Venus role, and Martin was the first to sing it. The music was Kurt Weill’s and the lyrics were by Ogden Nash, a favourite poet of my childhood, the one who wrote hilarious things like ‘hand me down my rusty hatchINVISIBLEet, someone murmured do not scratch it’ and ‘a wonderful bird is the pelican, his beak can hold more than my belly can’. But he was more than a nonsense poet and for the opening of this song he drew on a line of Don Pedro’s from Much Ado About Nothing. ‘Speak Low’ has been sung by everyone from Billy Holiday and Frank Sinatra to Tony Bennett and Nora Jones. It is truly a classic. Ever since I heard it again I can’t get it out of my head. And I’m so glad someone as great as Chanel Cole will be singing it on the night.

The second song, ‘Old Devil Moon’, comes from the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow. Burton Lane composed it, with lyrics by Yip Harburg. I saw the musical as a kid in New York before moving out to California. My mother was friends with Ella Logan, the star, and her husband Freddie Finkelstein who produced it, and we went backstage to meet them. Believe it or not, as a kid of six I could sing every song in it, even getting my tiny lungs around ‘How are Things in Gloccamorra’. But ‘Old Devil Moon’ is a ballad, very powerful, very sexy, the one that everyone knew Sinatra sang about Ava.

Woven Words is on 27 April at 7.30 pm. Writers Alex Miller and Alan Gould will also read their work, and Sara’s artwork will grace the walls. The authors have chosen a mix of contemporary piano, funky jazz, classical string works, and flamenco guitar to be performed by a quartet from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. For more to details or to purchase tickets you can visit the website here or Facebook page here.

Spark and grit: an interview with Susan Hampton

9 March 2013

Sixteen years ago, in my first year living in Canberra, writer and editor Susan Hampton made a lasting impact on me. She was my tutor in first year creative writing, and she was fierce and brilliant. She seemed able to reference or quote from every book ever published. She never gave false praise; her honesty could be brutal. And I loved every second of her class.

A pivotal moment occurred early on. The first time we had to present a piece of creative writing I suffered serious writer’s block — to this day the worst I’ve ever had. I wanted to impress, to show that I could really write, but nothing I came up with was good enough. In the end I resorted to bringing in a story that I’d written in Year 12. Back then — and this was some time previously because I didn’t begin studying writing until I was 23 — it received top marks, was selected for publication in the annual school magazine, and was praised in the highest terms. That is, until Susan’s class.

We had to read our piece out. I don’t remember exactly what Susan said but I do remember the words ‘twee’ and ‘clichéd’. She ripped it apart. And it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I realised that if I really wanted to be a writer I was going to have to do a whole lot better. Later that year Susan quoted a line from a story of mine in her book, A Latin Primer, so I felt that I must have redeemed myself. And now here I am, the editor of an anthology in which Susan’s work is included. Sixteen years ago I couldn’t have contemplated the possibility. So it seems like an apt moment to interview Susan about writing, reading and editing. Given all of the above I couldn’t help starting with the following question.

IG: Susan, there’s been plenty of debate about the value of university creative writing programs and whether creative writing can be taught? Given your experience, what’s your view?
SH: Probably it can’t really be taught. I have a few successful students from 30 years of teaching, that is, publishing with big presses, winning prizes, etc. They were already pretty good when I met them. Most students end up in related work: arts administration, making crossword puzzles, the front desk of the National Gallery, web editing, journalism, radio, TV, teaching. Some then leave it alone altogether. Renounce their urges. You have to be obsessed, and voluntary poverty can be a good skill. That said, Kate Grenville went to writing school in Colorado, and Flannery O’Connor and I think Carson McCullers spent time at Yaddo. Being around other writers can help a lot if you have the spark and the grit.

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IG: Does your work as an editor have an effect on your writing?
SH: The more bad writing you read the more you see what not to do. But that’s only what not to do. And when they do a good thing, which happens now and then, you can’t take it, just admire it.

IG: Your poem, ‘Banquet of the Invisibles’, is included in The Invisible Thread. Where did it come from?
SH: ‘All gods are invisible,/ made from mere suggestion’ it starts, but where this came from is a mystery. I did have a discussion about god or gods with my niece, whose response was totally secular. She served me up a dose of logic. That said, the actual words she or I said, I didn’t remember and had to make them up for the dialogue between us in the poem. We laughed about this after the book was launched. I even made up that she was doing a project on good and evil, and practising drawing pictures of the devil. Totally made up. So beware anything presenting itself as innocent autobiography. The gesture of autobiography is often simply a means to an end. My niece was thirteen, old enough to rebut an adult and to understand that the poem while not true in a literal sense, made ‘sense’ of our discussion.

IG: What book has had the most significant impact on you and why?
SH: No individual book. But a book I would never sell is Cocteau’s On the Film. He is supposedly speaking off-the-cuff, but it’s brilliant.

IG: What books are currently on your bedside table?
SH: Nabokov’s Speak Memory. It’s my fourth attempt to read it, and this time I am immersed enough to continue. His sentences and thoughts can be very beautiful, but I found it hard going for a while as I did not grow up in a city with sleighs and balls, or on a country estate with fifty servants, and people putting my shoes on and parents hiring French German and Latin teachers to keep me occupied while I was between bouts of butterfly catching and classifying from my mother’s ancient etymological texts; nor was my father assassinated; nor was most of my life spent in exile because my family’s extensive estates were confiscated by a new government. I found it easier to read Camus’ The First Man and his Notebooks, which are manna to a writer. I reread Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Stein’s essay on composition, saw more things than I saw before. Stein is really very world-weary and very witty. I can see why Hemingway went to her for advice, and her advise to lose the adjectives I think really helped him forge his famous style.

IG: You run a number of book groups through the library. What are the benefits for you as a reader and writer?
SH: It allows me to reread loved books and find new ones in the company of other people who want to find out what makes a narrative work, or understand layers of meaning in a poem, and how sometimes a meaning is all in the surface. Any job which pays you to read what you want to be reading is in my view a great job. It satisfies the reader and the writer in me. I like to the broad range of opinion in any group — the fierce arguments.

Susan Hampton will be reading her Invisible Thread poem at an evening of readings on 14 March at Paperchain Bookstore. Other readers are Bill Gammage, Marion Halligan, Geoff Page, Suzanne Edgar and Julian Davies. All welcome. Details are here.

 

Spitting out poems: an interview with Geoff Page

1 March 2013

Geoff PageGeoff Page is one of Canberra’s best known and most loved poets. He’s lived in this part of the world for almost 50 years which means he’s got a story or two to tell about the region’s literary goings-on. He is one of 75 writers included in an anthology that I recently edited, The Invisible Thread, and he’s appearing at a forthcoming evening of Thread readings, which all seemed like a good enough excuse to ask him a few questions. His responses were rich and insightful and I particularly enjoyed his recollections of time spent with Australia’s late great poets.

Irma Gold: Geoff, over the course of your career you’ve published a very significant body of work. What is it that drives you?

Geoff Page: Mainly the enjoyment of doing it — though there can be painful stretches when things aren’t going well. Initially, writing requires self-discipline but quite soon it becomes an obsession. After that it’s a matter of quality-control.

IG: I was speaking to Alan Gould recently about Canberra’s vibrant poetry scene in the 1970s when you were both putting on readings with writers like Alec Hope, Bob Brissenden, David Campbell, David Brooks and Rosemary Dobson. What stands out most for you about that time?

GP: It was a halcyon period in many ways — and certainly essential to my development as a poet. To meet the standard set by Alec Hope, David Campbell, Bob Brissenden and Rosemary Dobson was no small consideration. David Brooks was in the younger generation, along with Alan Gould, Kevin Hart, Mark O’Connor, Philip Mead, et al. They also had the effect of driving me forward. One way or another, the latter group ran the ANU Poetry Society, produced a nationally-distributed magazine called Canberra Poetry and issued quality broadsheets from the Open Door Press. In age, I was conveniently between the two groups and both were an incentive for me to keep writing and become more serious about my art.

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To be a Canberra poet in those days (as opposed to a Sydney or Melbourne one) marked you, to some extent, as an aesthetic conservative but I had no trouble making connections with other differently-inclined poets in Sydney and, to a lesser extent, in Melbourne. Back before he published his first book in 1965, Les Murray had worked at the ANU as a translator and his influence was (perhaps coincidentally) strongly felt by most, if not all, of the younger generation of Canberra poets. These, too, were the years of the Australian ‘Poetry Wars’ in which, like Switzerland, I tried, in my reviewing and other activities, to remain neutral—although my own poetry did, I concede, suggest a loyalty to one side rather than the other.

IG: What was your experience of the ‘elder’ poets?

GP: Alec [Hope] was the first of them to read any of my work, well before I published a single poem. A small selection was sent to him via a mutual friend and Alec replied generously saying something to the effect that ‘this poet may have something; he seems to spit the poems out of the side of his mouth’. I took that as a favourable reference to what I considered my ‘minimalism’. It was perhaps even more generous when one considered Alec’s notorious essay on ‘free verse’ — which he condemned absolutely while being more than kind to its practitioners. Perhaps, even then, he noticed my verse was less ‘free’ than I thought.

David Campbell was another who took young poets seriously. I can remember his showing me a few of his as yet unfinished poems and seeking my opinion, not the action of most poets 25 years one’s senior. David was also a considerable lunch companion and inviter of poets to lunch at his small station called ‘Folly’s Run’ (where he would say: ‘Come about ten and we can do some work on the yards first.’)

Judith Wright I came to know better towards the end of her life when she was living in a flat in Lyons. I recall her launching a book for me in 1980 and having the distinct feeling that she had accepted me by then as the ‘genuine article’ — not someone who was merely dabbling at the edges of the art. Rosemary Dobson, who died only last June, was comparably inspirational though in a rather different way. Unlike Judith, Rosemary was not political and perhaps rather like the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, had a more transcendent approach, as well as a more familial and domestic one. Her very presence at the readings I ran from 1994 in successive Canberra cafés (now Poetry at the Gods) was, in itself, encouraging — not only to local poets but to those who came from Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere. Hers was a quiet presence but an indispensable one.

Other poets of that time, who are perhaps undeservedly less well-known, include RF (Bob) Brissenden and the diplomat JR Rowland — one rather wilder than the other but both encouraging by their sustained presence on the scene. Bob, in particular, was famous for his parties (the like of which are rare these days, I’m afraid). Bob, like Alec Hope, was deeply learned and reminded us that the twentieth was not the only century with any merit. The age of Doctor Johnson was also of interest.

IG: How has Canberra’s poetry scene changed since then?

GP: That’s a long story — suffice to say that the ‘scene’ now is more diverse, with performance and slam poetry playing a role, too. ‘Literary’ poetry, on the ‘page’ rather than ‘stage’, is my preferred genre — even though I think the ‘oral’ dimension of poetry is crucial. It’s interesting that we now have more than 20 ‘literary’ poets in Canberra (and surrounding regions) with some sort of national profile. It can make it hard to fit them all in every second year or so at the Gods readings. I organise — which, of course, have many poets from all around the country (and even overseas, on occasion) as well.

IG: Your poem ‘My Mother’s God’ is included in The Invisible Thread. Can you tell us about what sparked it, and what it means to you?

GP: It came from arguments I used to have with my mother when I was about 19. I was a member of the Student Christian Movement at the time but have long since been an agnostic. My mother recognised the poem as one of my best but she still felt embarrassed by it (probably because it was too ‘close to the bone’). I suspect it’s a definitive version of what I call ‘secular protestantism’, a tendency which I have not altogether escaped myself.

IG: Religion is one of the major themes of your work, what keeps bringing you back to this theme?

GP: Religion is not ‘going away’ as rapidly as atheists would wish. It’s a potent force in the world (quite often for ill). We need to understand it (in its many different dimensions) and recognise its long role in our intellectual history. Most of our current secular values originate in Christianity (particularly Lutheran protestantism) but it’s more than fortunate the eighteenth century enlightenment came along too as an ‘antidote’ to its excesses. I don’t really like certainty in any form, religious or secular, but metaphysical questions continue to intrigue me. My partner, Alison, (who grew up in a manse) assures me I have written too many religious poems and she’s probably right.

IG: What book has had the most significant impact on you?

GP: That’s hard to say; there are so many. I’d certainly mention William Carlos Williams’ Selected Poems and Judith Wright’s The Moving Image as two crucial ones in my formative years.

IG: What books are currently on your bedside table?

GP: It’s a big, unread pile threatening to ‘brain’ me in the night. At the moment I’m reading Patrick White’s first novel, Happy Valley. I would like to read more fiction and philosophy than I do. Of course, I read a lot of contemporary Australian poetry as a reviewer and a certain amount of history and nonfiction as ‘research’ for my poems.

IG: What are your literary plans for 2013?

GP: My New Selected Poems (Puncher & Wattman) is due out in October and my ‘horizontal narrative’ in verse, 1953, (UQP) will be launched at the National Library Bookshop in April. At the moment, I’m working on individual poems rather than any longer project.

Geoff Page will be reading his Invisible Thread poem at an evening of readings on 14 March, 6 pm at Paperchain Bookstore. Other readers will include Bill Gammage, Marion Halligan, Susan Hampton, Suzanne Edgar and Julian Davies.

The Invisible Thread series: Steve Kelen

6 February 2013

This week I’ve disappeared into the world of my much-neglected  novel. I’ve been tightening, ruthlessly cutting, and thoroughly enjoying myself. But I’m emerging briefly to draw your attention to the next (and second to last) video interview with Invisible Thread poet SK Kelen. As you can probably tell, I had a good time chatting with Steve. He amused me by recounting how at a very young age he won a poetry competition and a substantial prize, setting up the false expectation of a lucrative career. (Poets everywhere are no doubt smiling sympathetically and shaking their heads.)

Steve has now been at it for over 40 years, with The Australian recently describing him as ‘an integral part of Australian lyricism for his negotiation of the intensity of local, suburban experience’. Readers can be grateful for the illusion that set Steve on this notoriously impoverished path. A quote from French writer Jules Renard springs to mind: ‘Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.’

And on that note I’ll get back to the business of working on my own penniless project.

The Invisible Thread series: Dorothy Johnston

2 February 2013

We’ve finally reached the end of our video interview series but we’re going out with a bang. When I spoke to Dorothy Johnston on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin she was feisty, outspoken and honest. We talked about everything from the importance of having the ‘right’ length of jeans and going to the ‘right’ bars in literary Melbourne, to hitchhiking from Sydney to Canberra during the time of Ivan Milat, how her writing set in Canberra is a way of saying ‘up you’, and why the Seven Writers’ iconic status is ‘a false view’.

Dorothy was one of three founding members of Seven Writers (I also spoke to fellow member Marion Halligan recently and that interview can be found here). I’m always fascinated by writers’ groups, particularly the ones that work, because so many don’t. The idea of a regular gathering of like-minded colleagues who are mutually supportive and constructive in their criticism is so attractive. Yet most groups seem to falter for one reason or another. The longevity of Seven Writers is a mark of its success—for 18 years these women shared their lives and their work.

During our interview Dorothy related a story about a celebration Seven Writers held when the collective number of their published books exceeded the combined total of their children and grandchildren. As a mother of three, this intertwining of books and children is greatly appealing. All seven of them were mothering and writing and carving out their own paths, separately yet together.

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Given their success, it’s little wonder that Seven Writers is held up as an ideal, but Dorothy asserts this as ‘a false view’. She says: ‘It took us ages to get off the ground as a writers’ group and we weren’t at all well-known…For ages it didn’t seem as if we would survive at all. So that business of the kind of iconic status is not something that we have ever fostered or sought.’ And yet she acknowledges the immense value of the group. ‘You knew you would get honest responses about a piece of writing. That you could take anything to them. You could take ideas to them or some scrappy first draft, and people would pay attention. That’s immeasurably hard to find.’

INVISIBLE‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’, included in The Invisible Thread, is a story that came out of that time and marks the beginning of Dorothy’s emotional connection with Canberra. It arose from the traumatic experience of her 11-month-old baby contracting salmonella poisoning. For days he lay in the Canberra Hospital, situated beside the lake, hovering between life and death. Dorothy found herself in a state of suspension. Unable to go home, she spent time looking out over the lake. Like many of us, Dorothy moved to Canberra reluctantly, but when her son survived she says ‘it became the place of my heart’.

The Canberra Hospital no longer exists. It was imploded in a public event with much fanfare that ended, appallingly, in the death of a child. For our interview Dorothy and I meet at this significant site, so bound up in memories and meaning. It is a blustery day and the leaves on the silver barks flip their smooth ivory backs at us. As we talk about the mythical boatman of her story I half expect him to glide into view. To say to us, ‘I’m taking you where you want to go. You’ll recognise it when we get there.’ He doesn’t show, but later a couple of kayaks paddle silently into the camera frame. It’s as close as we’re going to get.

I hope you’ve enjoyed watching these interviews as much as I’ve enjoyed making them. And a big thank you to Dylan Jones, cameraman and editor for all 19 videos. You can catch up on any you’ve missed here, but first click on the triangle below and spend a few minutes with Dorothy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArdnY-aUNXI