The Spare Room is your first novel for 15 years. Why did you decide to write it now and why this subject?
I had been publishing fiction, and making a living between books by writing feature journalism, since 1977, and thought of myself as both a novelist and a journalist. In the early 1990s I published a book called The First Stone, about a Melbourne University sexual harassment case; it took issue with a certain kind of victim feminism of the time, and to my great surprise (and a lot of people’s severe annoyance) it stayed on the best-seller list for months. Then I published Joe Cinque’s Conoslation, an account of two Canberra murder trials, which was also well received. By then I thought I’d found my metier, and wondered if I would ever get back across the border into fiction. But then a friend I loved died of cancer. I needed to write about it. I didn’t want to write memoir or non-fiction: I wanted to go back to the freedom of fiction, where you can claim ownership of the material, and handle it in any way that enables you to create a larger, deeper truth.
Despite the disclaimer at the front of the novel, the narrator, like you, is named Helen. Why did you call her that?
I called her Helen because, although the book is a novel (see above), I didn’t want people to think I was inventing one particular aspect of the story – namely, the anger that the narrator feels in the face of her dying friend’s stubborn refusal to face the facts. I was shocked by these ugly emotions and I wanted to own up to them, in the hope that other people would know them and confess them too, and this has turned out, very gratifyingly, to be the case.
This is an extremely sad book but is written with a lightness of touch and is also very funny in parts. It is poignant without being sentimental. This is a great achievement with such heavy subject matter and we wondered whether it was difficult to write?
Actually I wrote it quite fast – I think it took me about eight months. The story was burning a hole in me – I desperately needed to find a shape for it, to create some sense out of the pain of it (which is why anyone writes, in my opinion, with varying degrees of closeness to their own experience.) I loved writing it – I mean I couldn’t wait to get to the desk each morning and keep shaping, shaping, shaping. And cutting. Because when you’re writing about someone dying, you have to fight a tremendous urge to soften the story, to blur the ugly bits and make it sentimental. I kept radically attacking what I’d written. I wanted to keep the mad laughter but strip off anything mushy or misty-eyed. This is one reason why the book’s so short. When I got to the last bit, where I had to write about Nicola dying, I kept procrastinating. I wrote a lot of stuff that was all right in itself, I mean as writing, but I had a strong sense that I was barking up the wrong tree. And one day I woke up and saw it was a failure of nerve. I knew I had to tackle Nicola’s death head on. So I gritted my teeth and threw myself at it. When I got to the end I was panting. Then I lay on my office floor and cried for ages.
How important is it to tell the truth?
For some people (e.g. narrating Helen in the novel) it’s so important that it’s almost an ethical duty. This makes her, in some readers’ view, much too forceful in a situation where delicacy and patience were required. Several readers have found something fundamentalist, even arrogant, in the way Helen deals with Nicola’s inability to accept that she is going to die. I understand this response – I certainly wasn’t meaning to put forward her behaviour as a model to others in similar situations! But as a general principle I believe that truth frees us, if we can be brave enough. The passage on p. 89 that starts ‘Death will not be denied’ pretty much sums up what I think, though I know it is a very tough statement; it’s an ideal that I myself have had trouble living up to, and have hesitated to apply in complicated situations.
Helen is a great character study and the ending of the novel was perfect. Did you feel that she was, ultimately, enriched or diminished by those three weeks?
Oh, enriched, enriched, enriched.
Who are your literary influences?
I don’t know about influence – it seems to happen osmotically throughout a whole life. But here’s a list of writers I love, off the top of my head and in no particular order: Janet Malcolm and Gitta Sereny (in non-fiction); Tolstoy, Chekhov, George Eliot, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Hilary Mantel, Primo Levi, Colm Toibin, Katharine Mansfield …