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Open Page with Helen Garner

September 2019, no. 414

Open Page with Helen Garner

September 2019, no. 414

Where are you happiest?

At the desk, in the moment between putting a full-stop and rereading the sentence.

What’s your idea of hell?

Not being able to read for ten days after cataract surgery.

What do you consider the most specious virtue?


Helen Garner (photograph by Nicholas Purcell/Text Publishing)Helen Garner (photograph by Nicholas Purcell/Text Publishing)

What is your favourite film?

The Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera.

And your favourite book?

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym.

Name the three people with whom you would most like to dine.

My three ex-husbands. One at a time.

Which word do you most dislike, and which one would you like to see back in public usage?

Inappropriate. Gay, in its original meaning.

Who is your favourite author?

Primo Levi, particularly at the moment, because I’ve just reread If This Is A Man and The Truce.

And your favourite literary hero or heroine?

Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’s novel True Grit.

Which quality do you most admire in a writer?

Readiness to cut without remorse.

Which book influenced you most in your youth?

Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia.

Name an early literary idol or influence whom you no longer admire – or vice versa.

Joan Didion. Not sure what happened, to her or to me, but she lost me about twenty years ago.

What, if anything, impedes your writing?

Fear, and the combination of my hearing loss and the muffled acoustics in courtrooms.

What do you think of the state of criticism?

I’m okay with it as long as I can find a good tough fair review, and trustworthy guidance.

And writers’ festivals?

The big city ones scare me. I like small regional ones, like Mildura, where there’s only one session at a time. Everyone goes to everything, and a conversation grows over several days.

Do you read reviews of your own books?

Of course. I’m a bottomless pit of existential uncertainty.

Are artists valued in our society?

Judging by the number of people I see in bookshops, I would say yes.

What are you working on now?

An essay about grandmothers. Harder than it sounds.

Helen Garner writes novels, stories, screenplays and works of non-fiction. In 2006 she received the inaugural Melbourne Prize for Literature, and in 2016 she won the Windham–Campbell Prize for non-fiction and the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award. In 2019 she was honoured with the Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. Her books include Monkey Grip, This House of Grief, and Everywhere I Look.

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Comments (2)

  • Helen Garner is always interesting and this Q&A is no exception. I completely agree about the festivals in smaller centres. Perhaps my favourite session ever was in Mildura with David Malouf and Chris Wallace-Crabbe in conversation. My experience with Joan Didion, though, is diametrically opposed to Helen Garner's. I tried reading her when I was in my twenties and it just didn't resonate. I picked up 'Play It As It Lays' this year, aged fifty-five, and I was deeply moved and impressed. Best of all, I am glad that Helen remains a 'bottomless pit of existential uncertainty'. That surely means we can still look forward to her magnificent writing for a while yet.
    Posted by Mark Lamont
    19 May 2020
  • I love reading her essay on grandmothers.
    Posted by Sue POLSON
    11 September 2019

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