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Helen Garner

Helen GarnerHelen Garner (born 1942) is an Australian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist. Garner’s first novel, Monkey Grip, published in 1977, immediately established her as an original voice on the Australian literary scene – it is now widely considered a classic. She has a reputation for incorporating and adapting her personal experiences in her fiction, something that has brought her widespread attention, particularly with her novels, Monkey Grip and The Spare Room (2008).

Throughout her career, Garner has written both fiction and non-fiction. She attracted controversy with her book The First Stone (1995) about a sexual-harassment scandal in a university college. She has also written for film and theatre, and has consistently won awards for her work, including the Walkley Award for a 1993 Time Magazine report. Adaptations of two of her works have appeared as feature films: her debut novel Monkey Grip and her true-crime book Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004) – the former released in 1982 and the latter in 2016.


‘Curiosity is a muscle,’ Helen Garner declares in the first essay of this selection, displaying again the metaphorical spark that marks her out and keeps her readers plundering her pages. She is writing about writing, and her revelations couple a disarming intimacy – Garner the wry, lifelong apprentice, confiding trade secrets – with shrewd and reflexive moral admonition. Here, in a brief paragraph, is laid out the disciplinary ground of fiction and reportage, plus a private view of Garner’s workshop and tools: ‘Patience is a muscle,’ she continues. ‘What begins as a necessary exercise gradually becomes natural. And then immense landscapes open out in front of you.’ It’s a beguiling act, this ability of hers to be forever the journeywoman but in the assured allegorical diction of a latter-day Bunyan.

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Dear Editor,

Dr Jenna Mead claims, among other things in her most recent attempt to discredit The First Stone, that I have ‘invented dialogue’ and written ‘hypothetical meetings with imaginary characters’. All the conversations and encounters in the book are documented in detailed, scrupulous notes. This includes my account of a telephone conversation between Dr Mead and me, which she would perhaps prefer to think of as a figment of my ‘merciless imagination. If only Dr Mead were an imaginary character – but it would strain the ingenuity of a better writer than I am, to have dreamt her up.

Helen Garner, Elizabeth Bay NSW

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We meet in one of the ubiquitous coffee shops in Brunswick Street. I order a cappuccino, all milky froth. Hers is a short black; bitter and strong. Over the past decade our relationship has been desultory, unevenly balanced: we live in different states and she is a famous novelist. I have always been in a supplicant role. We have something approaching a friendship, maybe. Today she defers to me. She has just reviewed my book on the Orr case for the Times Literary Supplement. And liked it, she says. She wants my help.

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We are the stories we tell. We need our stories: they make us feel real. Stories give to our personal experience the particular shapes and cohesiveness we call ‘self’. When we enter into new friendships, when we fall in love, we tell our stories. The closer we draw to people, the more of our stories we are willing to risk. ‘Risk’ is always a factor. If we fall out with our closest friends, if love turns to enmity, the stories which are us may be stolen from our telling, and reshaped with malicious intent, putting at peril our cohesiveness, pressing us into despair, pushing towards the fragmentation of self we call madness. The stories which make us strong, self-confident, keep us vulnerable as well. Stories are easy to steal.

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Here it is, nearly Christmas, and as usual, the list of Books I Have Read is running into the hundreds, and I have that end-of-year mad, fleeting illusion that also afflicts exam-fevered students … that somehow it All Adds Up.

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The inner-suburban dinginess of Cosmo Cosmolino could place Helen Gamer within an honourable tradition stretching at least from Dickens (Charles) to Dickins (Barry). It is a tradition that, observing the mundane and the domestic (not to be confused with each other), has produced works of pathos and wit, of great emotional intensity and sparkling humour. It is a tradition within which great writers have managed to invest dull lives, mean-spirited characters, and tawdry events with charm and universal significance, with an appeal reaching beyond the local and the specific. It is also a tradition within which great novelists ensure that their readers’ sympathy and curiosity are aroused to the extent that they will keep turning the pages well beyond bedtime and care about what comes next.

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Would it surprise you to know that a number of our well-known writers write to please themselves? Probably not. If there’s no pleasure, or challenge, or stimulus, the outcome would probably not be worth the effort. If this effort is writing, it seems especially unlikely that someone would engage in the activity without enjoying the chance to be their own audience.

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La Mama: The story of a theatre by Liz Jones, Betty Burstall, and Helen Garner

August 1988, no. 103

The most impressive building in the village of Tepoztlán, near Cuernavaca, is a huge sixteenth century Spanish monastery. But high up on the cliffs, when the mist rises, you can see – if you know where to look – a tiny Indian temple which everyone in the valley knows is where the gods really live.

La Mama is like that – to those who know it. But even the watchers on the bank know that theatre is built on a foundation of human sacrifice, so it is not surprising that La Mama should, on close inspection, turn out to be a regular little charnel house, a bloody altar on which all sorts of queer and callous rituals are performed in the hope of raising up the great gods Laughter and Applause. Apparently I sacrificed a wife and child there myself.

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The publishing world and other allied industries, namely the media and literary critics, tend to promote authors on a ‘star’ system. Especially women writers. They allow certain women to become ‘flavour of the month’. Recently, if you remember, it was Beverley Farmer, and then Kate Grenville. For a short period, every newspaper, magazine, or radio program with a literary bent featured them and their fiction. This treatment is reserved for fiction writers. Never is such sustained coverage given to that awesome creature, the ‘woman poet’.

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This book is about a twelve-year-old boy called Ort Flack, into whose life, at a moment of drastic need, bursts none other than God, in the form of a silvery white cloud. The cloud has been there all along, hanging over the house, a personal vision of Ort’s, as mysterious and troubling and comforting to ...

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