Helen Garner: Ethics, Erotics and Hauling Seaweed

A packed (and somewhat awed) crowd gathered at RMIT’s Storey Hall last week to hear Helen Garner deliver the keynote address of the NonFictioNow conference.

She spoke generously about her struggles with her book-in-progress, the patience required to find the shape of a book, the ethics and erotics of interviewing, and the towering influence of Janet Malcolm on her work.

Helen Garner: 'The grandeur or the squalor of another person’s suffering seeks out your limits and reveals them to you in a blazing light.’

Helen Garner: 'The grandeur or the squalor of another person’s suffering seeks out your limits and reveals them to you in a blazing light.’

Robert Farquahson and being Truman Capote

Since 2006, Garner has been following the story of Robert Farquahson, the man who drove into a Winchelsea dam on Father’s Day, with his three children buckled into the backseat – and emerged safely, when they did not. Farquahson says that he had a coughing fit and lost consciousness, that it was all a terrible accident. A witness reports him saying that he would pay back his ex-wife ‘big time’, not long before. Farquahson was found guilty of three counts of murder in 2007 and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole – he has appealed the decision twice, and is waiting on the result of his second appeal.

‘Patience has never been my strong suit,’ said Garner. ‘Some people have wondered why I couldn’t just sit down like Truman Capote, and write the story without waiting for the final outcome. I was stupid enough to try this. I tried for almost a year. It was like dragging great shaggy ropes of seaweed out of my guts.’

She said that she wrote 70,000 ‘useless’ words that her sister described as ‘boring’.

‘The point of view of the work was wrong, the tone of voice was wrong, the structure was wrong. The whole damn thing was wrong, wrong, wrong. It was misbegotten. It was a disaster.’

On patience

Garner talked about the quality of patience – ‘a quality rarely modelled or praised in our fast-moving world’ – and what she’s learned from watching detectives, who must pay attention and wait in order to do their jobs.

That same patience, she said, is demanded of a writer.

‘Until I make the form, or rather sense one rising from the material as I helplessly brood over it, the things I want to say aren’t even things. They’re only pebbles of consciousness. I have to respect them – and collect them – without knowing what they are.’

‘If I try to force the unborn thing into some clever shape my bossy intellect thrusts at me, I’ll deafen and blind myself to what’s going on around me. Busy hauling those seaweed ropes out of my guts, I’ll miss the moment when the wind changes.’

The ethics and erotics of interviewing

Interviewing is at the heart of Garner’s great non-fiction books, The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation – and her much-lauded journalism.

She talked about her encounters with students recently, at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advanced Journalism – and their trepidation about interviewing people.

‘Their anxiety expressed itself over and over in these terms: Who does the story belong to? And do I have the right to tell it?’

Garner’s verdict? ‘The story does not exist as a story until the writer makes it. A story is not an object that’s been dropped on the ground … What you stumble on is a mess of fragments. It’s your task as a writer – indeed, your duty, your sole function in the universe – to do the labour of shaping inchoate matter into some meaningful, pain-relieving and aesthetically pleasing form.’

She also talked about what she called ‘the erotics of interviewing’ – the intimate connection an interviewer makes with their subject, particularly when that subject has experienced trauma.

‘The charge of serious psychic energy that can flash between a subject and an interviewer – what the Jungians call The spark that ignites and connects.’

Garner talked about the ‘nine gruelling hours’ she spent with Maria Cinque and her husband, interviewing them about their murdered son for Joe Cinque’s Consolation. In Maria’s presence, she said, she ‘had no idea about how to comport myself … I felt small and weak. Ignorant. Shallow. Unjustly blessed by my uneventful life.’

‘The grandeur or the squalor of another person’s suffering seeks out your limits and reveals them to you in a blazing light,’ she said. ‘It challenges you to open yourself, to enlarge your imagination to a point where you can encompass what you’re being shown. Where you can make a place inside yourself to hold that suffering and to contemplate it with the humility and the reverence that it demands. This hurts. But it’s also an honour and a precious opportunity.’

She told the audience that she became close to the Cinques, that she now considers them friends – though this continuing bond is uncommon. To continue the many intimacies of all her interview subjects would be unbearably intense, though she often hears about developments in their lives from afar.

’Proper fear is good’

‘Nothing is achieved without proper fear,’ she said. ‘Proper fear is good. It’s a mistake to approach an interview knowing what you want to find out and going after it by means of a list of questions – or even worse, with a template derived from an overarching idea.’

Garner talked about finding a profile she’d written in an old magazine recently, and realising that the reason the interview had never quite worked was because she had gone in with an agenda, rather than letting it evolve.

‘Every interviewer, every journalist and non-fiction writer and documentary-maker, has a personal cache of missed chances.’

Influence and Janet Malcolm

Garner has talked before about her admiration for the writer Janet Malcolm. ‘Whenever I open one of her books, I feel an affinity I rarely reach with other writers,’ she told the crowd at Storey Hall. ‘The tone of her voice fills me with intense curiosity and delight.’

Discovering The Silent Woman, Malcolm’s study of Sylvia Plath, while trying to write The First Stone, was a revelation, introducing Garner to the ‘psychoanalytic view of reality’.

The theory’s ‘basic doctrine’ is, according to Malcolm, ‘that life is lived on two levels of thought and act. One in our awareness. And the other only inferable, from dreams, slips of the tongue and inexplicable behaviour.’

‘I learned from watching and copying her that I could go much further than describing people’s behaviour,’ said Garner. ‘I saw that I could get a grip and start to interpret it, to coax meaning from it’

‘The tools were already in my possession without my knowing it.’