Brenda Walker has written four novels and one memoir. The most recent novel, The Wing of Night (Penguin, 2006) won the Asher Award, the Nita B. Kibble Award, and was shortlished for the Miles Franklin Award. Her memoir, Reading by Moonlight (Hamish Hamilton, 2010) won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Nonfiction and the Nita B. Kibble Award. She is chair of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. An excerpt from her story “The Houses That Are Left Behind” can be found here. It appears in the Mar/Apr 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “The Houses That Are Left Behind”?
I’m interested in the issue of refuge. Clearly this is a heartbreaking global matter at present and the ideas of refuge in the story come from a place of relative privilege. My own sense of refuge is shaped by my understanding, as a writer, that it’s very hard to sustain creativity in the face of dislocation. James Joyce, writing on paper supported by the lid of a suitcase, is very much the exception—although some writing, like Viktor Schlovsky’s exquisite Zoo, is generated by exile and rupture. My story is of course about loss and a kind of restitution that’s lightly shadowed by an awareness of past losses. Strands of the story are autobiographical: the blonde hair on the sofa, my stepdaughter’s dress. When I began the story we had just moved to a new apartment that was both secure and exposed, because it has large areas of glass, and I began to think about refuge.
I’m eager to hear more about the woman in crisis in the beginning of this story. Was she the first part of the story that came to you? How and when did she first arrive?
She was an experiment in letting plot drift, and I began the story with her. Some mysteries should be allowed to wander through a story. There’s a temptation to bolt a character like this into a plot line, but I wanted to create the impression of multiple irresolute lives outside the place of refuge. Neil is of course a sinister instance of this.
In your description of the way houses are occupied and then lost—“until the point where a key no longer fits a lock”—I hear faint echoes of Jessica Anderson. Were you at all influenced by Tirra Lirra By the River in your work, or in this story specifically?
What a wonderful question! Jessica Anderson and my mother were friends. My mother visited her in her apartment in Kings Cross. I think most Australian women writers of my generation are influenced by Jessica Anderson because she has such an acerbic edge but she reserves warmth—sometimes an exasperated warmth—for most of her characters. Her style is just so keen and fine.
Are there any contemporary Australian authors you’d especially recommend to your readers?
Oh, yes! So many. I’m interested in newer urban women novelists. Three recent Australian novels strike me as especially good: complex and psychologically astute and capable of writing multidimensional characters. Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident is a good example. So is The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love is a brilliant novel about Marina Abramovic.
I was struck by the way you framed Neil’s relaxation ritual: “The death threats and hate mail, the weird letters to and from women—it’s how he pulled himself together. Some men buy a pint after work, and then they buy one for another mate and both men relax with their elbows on the bar. Neil had his hate mail.” This description is remarkably empathetic. Do you ever have trouble finding empathy for a despicable character? Or do you look forward to writing characters like Neil?
I often think of something Saul Bellow said—and I’m paraphrasing here—that as novelists, we can’t simply consign people to hell. That’s not our job. We have to stretch our understanding of people’s behavior. I’ve always been impressed by A Woman in Berlin, a memoir of the brutal Russian occupation of Berlin, initially published anonymously. We now know that the author was Marta Hillers. She gives a lot of thought to the reasons for the assaults on women. One is the availability of alcohol, deliberately left in the way of the conquering army. Saul Bellow and Marta Hillers shine very brightly for me. I don’t think I look forward to writing about the Neils of the world but I do think that that is my job.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
The style stays fairly uniform but the preoccupations change. I haven’t written much for the past few years. My last book was a memoir about reading. My health was bad and I tried to express the value of certain kinds of literature, and to link writers—Japanese, Irish, Australian, Florentine—who were connected in my mind. This seemed urgent at the time. I thought this may be my last book, but I seem to have survived and the book marks a point of division in my life and work. I was very interested in the Australian response to war, in Australian rural life, and in the historical novel. I’m still interested in these things, but the projects I am working on are more contemporary and autobiographical or stimulated by my immediate circumstances. My memoir helped me to see the value of that.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
My life is steady and often quite serene and I make every effort to keep it that way. I worked for a long time on the fiction of Samuel Beckett and I still return to his style. His life had the usual human obstacles, and of course he was in great danger in Paris during the war. He seems to me to have had a great capacity to steady himself, to live with simplicity and steadiness whatever the circumstances. Nothing can be achieved otherwise. I am involved in a life-long conversation about politics, history and literature with my European husband, and this underpins the work I’m doing at present.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
The best writing advice I was given was to toss away a novel that wasn’t working. After the dramatic burning of this manuscript I wrote Poe’s Cat, which was a real joy, and a quick book to write. Sometimes the only remedy for a piece of writing is a fire. Paradoxically, it’s also often important not to give up and writers, myself included, often underestimate the time it will take to finish a manuscript. I hope each book will be a quick book, but this seldom happens.
Of course, reading is an important unseen part of a writer’s job.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m reading my way into three projects, or three parts of the same project. This is useful, because they can revolve around my work table, and I don’t get tired of any particular subject. Each, in its own way, is a fond memorial to a person I’ve known.