Tuesday, April 14, 2015

NEWCASTLE WRITERS FESTIVAL 2015: Helen Garner in conversation with Caroline Baum

This was the session we had all been waiting for...ok, I had been waiting for.
Helen Garner in conversation with Caroline Baum, talking about her latest book and hopefully other topics.
And it was all this and more.
I am relying on my memory and a few notes here, as I was so engrossed I did not write a lot down.
Caroline started by asking Helen to read page one of her latest book, This House of Grief.  Caroline said it reads like a twisted fairy tale, especially with the use of 'Once' within that section. Helen agreed that that had been her intention. She also says she writes her first page last and thought of the story as a bad country and western song, in fact she wished she could have turned it into a song.
They spoke about how terribly difficult this book was to write and how she struggled with it, especially as it went to a second trial, she did not know if she had it in her to finish it. Her sister told her to free herself. She did put it aside for a while with the intent of not coming back to it, but it lured her back.
Caroline and Helen then went over some of the topics from Friday night's opening night, including sentimentality within endings. Helen spoke about her love of the film, 12 Angry Men - another favourite of mine, and that it had a happy ending which some would call sentimental, she doesn't agree. Sometimes endings are happy or sentimental, it can be irritating, but also true. This is interesting as I have never really been a fan of the happy ending, my experience in life has just not been that, so I can find them false and irritating. Yet, there are some, which really ring true and they make me smile, a gift of hopefulness I guess.
Caroline told Helen that David Marr had called her our greatest writer of Non-Fiction. Helen was taken aback by this strong praise.
They then went on to talk about the bit of trouble Helen found herself in by making a comment about the trial at The Wheeler Centre, while the trial was still on. She commented that "only one person knows what happened that night and he's not talking." meaning that Farquharson was behind the wheel but couldn't remember anything that happened. The talk went up on Youtube and she was called on contempt of court and asked to get the video down asap, which she did. She believes now, she was bluffed!
She spoke about Fiction versus Non-Fiction, explaining that when you are writing Fiction and you get into a jam, you just make up stuff, but not so with Non Fiction, there is a duty to the facts.
Helen also spoke about her relationships with people she shared the courtroom with, including the police, she believes a good cop is a really fabulous person. I agree with her wholeheartedly.
Helen then went on to talk about the thing that struck me about her and the book the most, her portrait of Farquharson himself. She was struck by his sadness, and only described what she witnessed and was taken to task on it by many people. She was told she was making excuses for him and she was rocked by it. She felt she had been fair to all involved and she realised people want wanted to hear he was a monster. And this is what I love about Helen the person and Helen the writer - for they are the same - she said she writes these books so we can get an insight into that person. Not to feel sorry or to feel hatred, but so we might be able to see that person coming and prevent such things happening again.

Powerful stuff huh?
She explained the events leading up to what happened and how you can see he was effected, this means no blame to his wife, it is what it is. She was saddened by people's reactions to her descriptions, saying it was crude and simplistic to be so black and white about human behaviour, it was like trying to find an algebraic equation that did not exist.
I could feel her helplessness as she described all of this, her kindness and her disappointment in the more judgmental, simplistic views of people. I understood where she is coming from, I whispered to my friend B, "she just gets people". 

And this is what makes her writing superb. She is matter of a fact, and to the point, spare of words, and deep in humanity. The subject matter of her Non Fiction is not what I would normally read, but I immerse myself in it, because she is not only our best writer of Non Fiction, but our best writer full stop.

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