THE WELL-EXERCISED IMAGINATION: an interview with Andrea Goldsmith
The official blurb says this: ‘Andrea Goldsmith originally trained as a speech pathologist and was a pioneer in the development of communication aids for people unable to speak. Her first novel, Gracious Living, was published in 1989. This was followed by Modern Interiors, then Facing the Music, Under the Knife and The Prosperous Thief, which was shortlisted for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award. Her literary essays have appeared in Heat, Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Best Australian Essays and numerous anthologies. She has taught creative writing throughout Australia, and has mentored several new writers. She lives in inner Melbourne.’
What the official blurb doesn’t say is that Andrea Goldsmith has been described as a novelist who, if there was any justice in the world, should be a house-hold name, that she’s honest (sometimes painfully so), and people who know her well say she’s fiercely loyal. A year after her sixth novel, Reunion, was published to critical acclaim, what is Goldsmith thinking, what is she writing, and where is she heading? Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
Since 1990, you’ve written six novels, including The Prosperous Thief (2002) and Reunion, published last year. What keeps you going as a novelist?
What keeps me going is what started me writing in the first place. I fell in love with books – fictions – as a young child. Books were my best companions in the crowded and often fraught environment of the family. And they were an always-reliable comfort. And totally capitvating as well – unlike the rest of childhood. In fact, I didn’t much care for childhood, and probably would have failed it completely if I hadn’t had the escape into fiction. I found the stories irresistible and I loved getting inside the heads of characters. And there was something almost magical in the way the characters’ lives were as close as my own hand, and as I grew older I was drawn to the language too. I fell for fiction, fell heavily, and at the age of eight I decided I wanted to be a writer.
Little has changed. I find plunging into my imagination and making up stories endlessly interesting. I am fascinated by character, bringing each one to life through narrative. And I delight in the fact I can give a character a personality change if s/he is not working within the emerging novel. And I love the English language, it’s gorgeous. Such pleasure to be had playing with metaphor and imagery.
All this keeps me going through the long years of writing a novel – both in good times and sluggish times. I never forget why I am doing this job – being a writer of fiction – rather than an accountant, or indeed the speech pathologist I once was.
I’ve always been intrigued by how writers continue to be motivated by that initial childhood rush of escape and fantastic engagement. As opposed to being an accountant, or the speech pathologist you once were, what does the act of being a writer bring to your own, non-writer life?
I’m not sure there IS a non-writing life for a writer. Sure, I wash and eat and clean and shop, and I sleep (badly) and am a responsive and responsible member of my family, but novels in progress are portable, and when you are working on a novel, which is all the time, it travels where you travel. I am rarely bored because of the portable imagination, although I may appear rude when others are boring because I have drifted off into my own thoughts.
There is nothing more inspiring nor compelling than a well-exercised imagination. IT FEELS SO GOOD. And it invigorates every aspect of life. I stand at the sink doing the dishes having spent the morning on a section which figures my character Elliot – recovering alcoholic, biographer, hopelessly in love with his wife who is hopelessly besotted with someone else – and I imagine Elliot washing the plates and cutlery his wife has used, the mix of emotions – yearning, love, resentment, anger – and how these play out in the mundane task of dish washing. When the dishes are only half-finished I leave the kitchen and return to my study where I jot down the mini-section: Elliot does the dishes.
‘There is nothing more inspiring nor compelling than a well-exercised imagination’ – if only this could be more universally valued! I’d like to ask about Reunion now. One of the elements of the novel that intrigued me the most was the Network of Global Australians (NOGA), a fictional collective of academics, thinkers and scientists with an international reach. How important is it to you as an Australian writer than our novels have an outward focus? Supplementary to that question is this: do you believe that novels should have a cultural vision (as potentially problematic as that term may be)?
With its qualities of narrative and rich characterisation, fiction easily holds us in thrall, and it does so for many many hours at a time. As such it provides an excellent means of exploring difficult and complex human conundrums. I am interested in the realist novel (it’s worth noting that most of the novels which have endured these past couple of hundred years are realist). The realist novel situates its made-up characters in a real world. The characters will engage and be engaged by that world. They will reflect and grapple with current concerns – and they do so with a power that is, I think beyond the reach of non-fiction. In a novel I can have characters reflecting different stances on the same issue – for example, voluntary euthanasia or the role of the military in the finding of scientific research (these are just two of the contemporary issues that swirl around in Reunion). A novel can range over moral issues in ways far less partisan and simplistic than everyday life provides. Again, in Reunion: I have a sexual relationship between a forty-year-old man and an adolescent that within the framework of the novel can be seen to be justified.
Should novels have outward focus? Most definitely. And besides, navel-gazing (unless it is your own) is so boring.
Re. cultural vision: I have no desire to write the GRAN (the Great Australian Novel), whatever that might look like in 2010. I hate all forms of nationalism. I do, however, like the moral power inherent in fiction. Fiction can go where other writing forms would not dare to tread.
Thank God the novel has survived, because it could be said that we’re more and more moving into simplistic times – the ‘either you’re with us or against us’ stuff. It’s easily argued that the novel is our best cultural tool to investigate and communicate the complex, because surely if the novel has a mission it’s to dive deep into complexity (as opposed to film, which seems to have lost its way in that regard). In terms of the novel’s ongoing viability, perhaps even vitality, how hopeful are you that the novel’s here to stay despite the technological maelstrom that’s currently circling the writing community?
The novel has been pronounced dead several times and yet it has continued to thrive. I don’t know why people are so surprised by this. The novel can and does go where other art forms do not; the novel draws us into an imaginative space where we are players; the novel informs; it entertains, and it provides much needed solitude in a noisy and jittery world. I think the novel meets a number of fundamental human dispositions. We are, I think, drawn to narrative (and if you doubt this watch young children listening to a story); we are endlessly curious about other lives and other times; we like the dance of our own imaginations – mental exercise – in the same way that we like the feel of muscles and sinews with physical exercise.
Far from killing the novel, technology provides us with increased options for reading. I can buy books from Readings or Gleebooks as well as Amazon and the UK Book Depository. The experience of book buying is different in each case. At home the half-dozen books I am reading are scattered across various desks and tables. I pick one up and have the pleasure of the reading enhanced by the pleasure of the book – the actual object with its textures and smell and weight. But in January when I go to Europe for a month I’ll be taking my Kindle. I have already bought six e-books ranging from the latest John Grisham (wonderful airplane reading) to Howard Jacobson’s Booker-winner The Finkler Question. And because I’m going to Sicily I want to re-read The Leopard, but rather than take my rather frail book-copy, I have bought exactly the same translation in Kindle-version. Also on my Kindle I have a small reference library which includes the complete plays of Shakespeare, the James I Authorised Version of the Bible, some T.S. Eliot, a French-English dictionary and an Oxford English dictionary. This is paradise for a peripatetic writer. Before the Kindle I would first pack my books for a trip and then see what space was left for clothes.
Nice to read a balanced – and hopeful – view about technology! You’ve achieved so much. What’s next in your writer’s life?
Once a writer always a writer. So – what’s next? Another novel. It’s called Waiting for the Crocodile and, like all my books, there is a bunch of flawed characters who love and betray and obsess and grapple with the big issues of the day. It’s a novel about memory: that complex, slippery, delusion-tinged quality that defines us all.
After that novel there’s another and then another. With each novel I always write a long essay and I expect this will continue, as will the shorter occasional articles I write for newspapers and literary journals. And I will read: greedy reading of novels new and old, biographies, history and philosophy. And I will step out into the world with the novelist’s gaze, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and seeing the familiar in strange and compelling guise. A rather nice job.