Helen Garner on noticing, marriage and the sublime

Helen Garner’s first book, Monkey Grip, was published in 1977. She is well known for her novels, short stories, journalism and essays, and for several influential works of non-fiction. In 2006 she received the inaugural Melbourne Prize for Literature, and in 2016 she won the prestigious Windham–Campbell Literature Prize for non-fiction. In 2019 she was honoured with the Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. The first volume of her diaries, Yellow Notebook was published by Text in 2019, followed by One Day I’ll Remember This in 2020 and most recently How to End a Story in 2021. Helen lives in Melbourne.

In this wide ranging conversation, Garner describes:

  • Mrs Dunkley in Grade 5 teaching sentences (as told in the essay Dear Mrs Dunkley in Everywhere I Look)
  • Riding across town with the Monkey Grip manuscript in her bike basket
  • The practice of diary writing and how it has informed her writing process
  • How much she likes sentences and likes doing them properly
  • Love for editing and juxtaposition: ‘Finding the two bits that zap together that were previously muffled by some shit in the middle’
  • ‘People think the world is full of couples,” says E. “In fact it is made up of triangles.”
  • The difficulty of marriage and her admiration for those who do it: ‘Being married is one of the hardest things that people do. It’s a great struggle. I’m awestruck by people who can do it, and who can keep going and who find that both people in the marriage can maintain their full humanity and not be bowed and be made to kind of crouch, by the marriage set up.’
  • Experiences of motherhood and the how her parenting style reminds her of Bryan Brown in The Shiralee
  • The tendency to avoid the desk, which Garner discusses further here
  • The influence of Nadine Gordimer : ‘Writers don’t know when they are working and when they are not.’
  • The discipline of writing a weekly column for The Age.
  • Come on, put your nose to the grindstone girl. Don’t bludge.
  • The significance of correspondence in her life, particularly with Elizabeth Jolly and Tim Winton
  • Dealing with criticism post The First Stone (and the moment Helen Demidenko took the heat off her)
  • The cellars we store our insults in
  • Visiting Antarctica
  • Finding joy now – being a grandmother, walking along the river.

Best advice Helen ever received:

You use too many adverbs. Hit me like a bucket of Cold Water. Was fantastic.

Helen recommends debut novel Love and Virtue by Diana Reid.

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