Rock Journalism and Holocaust Shadows: An Interview with Lily Brett
Interview by Jo Case, for the Wheeler Centre
Lily Brett is one of Australia’s most-loved writers, best known for the blackly comic novels (like her masterpiece Too Many Men and most recently, You Gotta Have Balls) that create fictional worlds with parallels to her extraordinary life. The heroines of her novels are funny, feisty, neurotic Jewish women with Holocaust survivor parents and writing careers.
Born in Germany to parents who survived Auschwitz, Lily emigrated to Melbourne as a young child. Her childhood was shadowed by the trauma of her parents’ past; haunted by the spectre of dead relatives and the ‘unspeakable’ acts her parents and their friends survived. Aged nineteen, Lily became a writer for the music magazine Go-Set, travelling to London and New York to interview rock stars like Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. She says that she got the job because she had a car, rather than for her writing talent, but she soon discovered that she loved to write – and was mentored by legendary Australian rock journalist Lillian Roxon.
These experiences inform her latest novel, Lola Bensky. The Wheeler Centre spoke to Lily when she was in Melbourne last month – about her novel, celebrity journalism, growing up different, and the danger of deciding someone is not quite as human as you, based on their religion, skin colour or gender.
I love that Lola is so terrifically interested in the personal details of the people she interviews, and of their pasts and how that influences the present, but she’s not actually a music fan at all. I wondered if you think that’s an advantage of sorts for her in a way, because she speaks to them as human beings, rather than as gods – so they open up to her.
Lola had several advantages. And you are right, the first advantage was definitely that she was not really interested in rock music, the history of rock music. In fact, she didn’t like loud music. She used to put her fingers in her ears sometimes, because she went to a lot of rock concerts. So I think not being immersed in the world of rock music was a big help.
And then also, having two parents who’d been imprisoned in Nazi ghettos and then Nazi death camps really makes idolising rock stars almost absurd. So Lola came from a very, very different place than if you’d grown up with sunshine and Sao biscuits and a feeling that the world was just pefect. She really, really wanted to know who these people were.
It didn’t occur to Lola to feel that there was any disparity between her and the person she was interviewing. She just thought they’d had different lives.
Today nobody gets a personal picture out of anyone who’s a celebrity in any way, you have to be a celebrity for ten minutes and you’ve got your own management company, public relations company, bodyguards. As an interviewer, you get 15 minutes with 20 other journalists and a very small window of what you can say and what they can’t say.
They have lists of questions that are vetted …
Totally. And you will never get another chance to interview anybody if you don’t stick to those questions. And people are giving the same answers. And you look at someone like Tom Cruise or whoever else it may be, you just know you will never, never know who they really are.
That was one of the things that I love about the book – that you do get this very human sense of these people. One thing that did occur to me was that idea of would you get a celebrity profile like that now – and as you say, not just because of the lists of questions, but also that fear of not being able to work again.
There’s no way. This was the beginning of celebrity journalism and it really was naive. You would never get that access now. I thought there was nothing unusual in being in Mick Jagger’s apartment by myself. I’d interviewed Cher in London and I interviewed her again in her home in LA. You would never get the chance to watch Sonny and Cher having little domestic conversations in between your interview with no one telling you to stop.
When I interviewed the Mamas and the Papas, I remember, for them it was just like having another guest in the house. I remember at one stage, after I’d been there for quite a few hours, thinking I wonder when I should leave. No one seemed bothered by my presence and I seemed to be included in what was happening. That would never happen today.
Then, you could be normal, you could have a normal life. Today, if you’re famous, you don’t ever meet a regular human being because the only people you meet are other celebrities or people on your payroll. It must be, I think, a very limited life.
Lola Bensky enjoys interviews and profiles and putting together a picture of people. When you were doing interviews and profiles, did you enjoy it in the same way?
Oh, I loved it. I found it immensely satisfying. I also found it a responsibility – to do the very best I could. I wasn’t overwhelmed or overawed by whomever I was interviewing and I was also unimpeded by a lot of other people being around. The part of it I really loved was putting it together. I had never been trained as a journalist.
I did have one journalist give me a good piece of advice and that was ‘Always start with a good line’. And I’ve stuck to it through all of my books.
I noticed that this book starts with a good line. [‘Lola Bensky was sitting on an uncomfortably high stool. She could feel the nylon threads of her fishnet stockings digging into her thighs.’]
All of mine do. I mean, if you only get one piece of advice about writing, you should listen to it!
You talk about having had a passion to do it really well, and to paint an honest picture of the person. Because you can create an interview that’s technically accurate but doesn’t give a good picture of that person, can’t you?
Oh yeah. You have to leave knowing and understanding something more about the person than when you began reading. Otherwise there’s no point. And it has to be informative. And I admire people who can do it well.
For me, it was the beginning of my writing career. I didn’t know I was going to have a writing career, of course. It was the beginning of understanding that I loved to write, and that words put together well can be so potent, can mean so much, can move people, possibly change the way they think. How very, very important that is.
I was just discovering that I was in love with the keyboard. I fell in love with my Olivetti typewriter and have remained in love with the keyboard. I can’t pass a keyboard. When I’m away from home and I pass an open keyboard, I just want to go and tap it. It’s really bad.
Lola can’t help disclosing snippets of her parents’ terrible pasts when she’s interviewing her subjects, although it’s something she rarely discusses in her everyday life, and I wonder why you think that is.
I think that in most people’s everyday lives, especially as teenagers, you don’t go into depth about the difficulties, about your parents. However, when you’re having a very serious conversation with someone, very surprisingly, whether that person is a friend or someone you’re interviewing and you want to get to know – if you want to get on well with them, and you want to find out things about them, one of the best ways of doing that is by revealing yourself as well. A lot of journalists hide themselves. It’s not good journalistic practice to interfere with what you’re writing. But luckily I knew nothing about good journalistic practice, let alone journalism.
I think I shared that information with people because they were intimate conversations I was having. When you’re young, you focus on other issues. Like why do I have to come home so early – and other more superficial aspects of life. And yet my parents’ past, like Lola’s parents’ past, was just part of me. Of every breath I took, really. I just understood more and more when I became older.
And reflected more?
Yeah. That not everyone else grew up with parents who’d suffered so enormously and who’d had unspeakable – and I never use that word lightly – had unspeakable things done to them. They had their parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews and nieces murdered. I don’t know how you want to keep living after that. I really don’t know. I don’t understand it.
But obviously there is something that makes you want to. There was something that made my mother want to turn radishes into roses. She would carve them into roses and make things out of butter – carve the butter. So she wanted to set a beautiful dinner table. Even when there was no money, she always wanted to make something beautiful.
A good writer is an observer. So was that experience, of living in a world where you were aware of your difference from other families, and being so conscious of watching your parents from the outside, useful for your writer’s toolkit?
I think that growing up with two parents who didn’t speak English very well, especially when I was young, makes you very, very aware and very conscious of watching what’s happening in the world all the time. Because the world didn’t seem an altogether safe place to me. And I knew my mother certainly didn’t think it was a safe place and neither did my father.
How much of Lola’s experiences with the rock stars in the book are drawn from your own experiences. Is the truth of them drawn from your encounters with those people?
Well, of course the truth of them has to be. And to me, that was the most important aspect of writing about them. That I paint as true a portrait of them as I could. I wanted to show them as they really are – human beings. I really did interview every single person who I did in the book and tonnes I never bothered to mention. But what actually happened and what didn’t happen is not actually relevant for me.
For me, some of the most interesting scenes were with Linda Eastman [the rock photographer, later Paul McCartney’s wife] and Lillian Roxon. Those two women who were working in that man’s world alongside Lola. And I just wondered – what was it like to be one of the few women who were working in that world?
That’s how the world was. It was exactly how the rest of life was. The newspapers, the radio stations: everything was run by and dominated by men. What was strange and wonderful was knowing women who were working in that world and who were doing very, very well. Particularly Lillian Roxon. She was Australia’s first female foreign correspondent and she was an extraordinary woman. I loved her dearly and she gave me advice that I ignored.
Did she give you similar advice to Lola? [Lillian tells Lola to move to New York permanently, and not to get married.]
Yeah, absolutely. She was probably the most single most interesting person I’d met in my life up to then. I’d never met a person who had such independence of thought – a woman, let alone a man – such independence of thought, such passion. And she sought me out. When she didn’t want me to go back to Australia, she said, ‘You are so talented, you would do so well over here in the States’. No one had ever called me talented. I certainly didn’t think I was talented, because I thought that talented meant you could play the piano very well, or you were a concert violinist. So I got a terrible shock when she said that.
I feel absurdly proud of the fact that her niece is the attorney general. She would have nearly burst with pride, had she lived to know that. What a great piece of migration to Australia that was. You’ve got Lillian and you’ve got Nicola – what a bonus to this country. This country that still has a proportion of the population complaining like crazy about migrants.
You’ve talked about the danger of what happens when you think someone’s not the same as you and how that bleeds into politics. I wonder if you’re concerned about the way this is reflected in contemporary politics?
Well, yeah. I think that’s a very important issue. It’s very dangerous if a human being decides that someone else, possibly because of the colour of their skin or their religious beliefs or their sexual orientation , or even the music they play, is not quite as human as you. And it’s also very dangerous if you decide that someone because of their gender – or, more specifically, that someone, if they’re a woman – is not quite as human as you. And that’s what Tony Abbot demonstrated in parliament with that ‘died of shame’ quote. And I think that’s disgusting.
What did you think of Julia Gillard’s speech?
Oh, I think that every woman in the world just cheered. I think every woman all around the world – it just rang out loud and true. Just tell him exactly what you think of him.
Do you think it’s positive that at least we’re talking about these things to do with gender?
Oh yeah. I think it’s more than positive. I’m almost glad that Tony Abbott was so moronic as to say it. Because now people know what a misogynist is. And I think it’s a very good thing. Women not speaking up – we’ve tried that for a very long time and it doesn’t do a thing. And it’s very important.