Australia's new hero of magic realism: Verity La interviews Glenda Guest

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns

In the literary world there is a propensity for prize-winning authors to be elevated – or to elevate themselves – onto a special pedestal, complete with pretentious black-and-white profile photographs designed to make the subject appear as erudite and aloof as possible. Glenda Guest is not one such writer. She is approachable and refreshingly frank, and her media photo (example above, for your viewing pleasure) makes her look like someone who you could chat to for days on end, and the topics would range from books to daffodils and everything in between. Plus she uses terms like ‘cruel my chances’, and that’s a great thing.
Recently I spoke with Glenda about her novel Siddon Rock (Vintage 2009), which won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers Prize Best First Book Award as well as being long-listed for the Miles Franklin Award, short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Prize Best First Book (the Glenda Adams Prize), and short-listed in the Australian Book Industry Awards’ best debut writer section. We discussed how Siddon Rock came to be published, the pros and cons of writing courses, and what she’s currently working on.  Sadly, daffodils didn’t get a mention, though Glenda did share with us the strangest – potentially most magical – soup recipe imaginable.
But before we launch into the interview, here’s a bit more about Glenda. As well as fiction, Glenda has written and/or edited non-fiction, magazine and journal feature articles, reviews, and a regular literature column. She has worked as a sub-editor, and a literary editor, and was the deputy editor of a monthly arts magazine. As well as teaching creative writing at Macquarie and Griffith Gold Coast universities, Glenda has organised and taught writing workshops at various levels to vastly different groups, for example teenagers (Blacktown young people’s workshop), and adult writing and literature workshops, including for Adult Education, and one-off annual online tutorials in short story with year 11 English students.
Nigel Featherstone: Glenda, Siddon Rock has received an extraordinary amount of accolades. What has this meant to you as a writer?
Glenda Guest: Wow – why not start with a hard question! There are a whole range of emotions here. I laugh every time I think about it: the kid from the backblocks of WA who everyone thought was an academic disaster whose only good subject was English. The afternoon that I heard that I was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best First Book award I cried a lot. As a writer, I think it’s all rather a double-edged sword, so to speak, but the main thing it’s done is give me the confidence to continue writing in the way I do; not necessarily using magic realism as that was a tool to tell that particular story, but looking for ways that break away from the mould of how a novel ‘should’ be written, although there are a couple of critics who won’t like that at all – there are way too many ‘should’s in reviews. It’s also fantastic and breath-taking to have such acknowledgement from one’s peers, and a bit of cash, but it’s also a real challenge for what comes next, whatever it is, in that the bar has been set rather high now. Maybe I should write the next one under a pseudonym, so I still have the right to fail.
NF: Speaking of ‘failing’, at the National Library of Australia a few years ago I heard David Malouf say how important it is to take the wrong steps because ultimately they’re the right steps – he said this was the most important advice he could give new writers. With Siddon Rock, did you give yourself permission to explore and potentially fail? Was the magic realism there from the start, or was it something that you discovered through the writing process?
GG: The easy last question first. As the novel was part of a PhD in Writing there had to be a strong concept to present as my topic, and this had to be strong to be approved. My topic was Magic Realism and Writing Place, and this came about when my interest in magic realism (MR) as a way to explore the liminal of a place and my other interest in the dynamics of small or closed communities came together. I asked my supervisor, Nigel Krauth, what he thought of writing a small town in MR mode. His response was something along the lines of that MR is the only world literary mode to explore such a place. So off I went, not knowing just what a difficult thing I was trying to do.
I love the internet! Trying to research MR from Australia — where there’s little academic interest in the mode, almost no texts available, and a quite distorted view of what MR actually is that’s peddled by reviewers when they can’t classify writing into recognised genres — would have been impossible without modern technology, as I could not have travelled to Europe, USA or the South Americas to find what I was pointed to via the web. Canadian academics and writers, particularly, were helpful and interested.
Writing for a PhD gave me the opportunity to explore different ways of doing it all, not only in using a writing mode that’s often denigrated as low-grade fantasy in Australia, but in the shape of the narrative arc. I’m not keen on reading books that begin at the beginning and step along until the end, so I’m not that interested in writing them – although my next one may well be just that! The writer has to be engaged and interested if the reader is to be the same, don’t you think? (NF: I sure do!)
However, while there was lots of time and space to explore and play with the concept, narrative, characters, underlying myths etc, and there were many, many wrong steps along the way because I had no idea of how to go about this thing and it was all exploration of unknown territory, there was no thought of ultimate failure at the PhD level – that couldn’t happen! But then there was also no thought that I had to do things a particular way because it had to be published. This was, I think, the ultimate freedom: the lack of concern about it being ‘liked’ by anyone except three well informed, intelligent academics who would be the PhD markers. That was the audience for whom it was written.
So, the short answer to the first part of your question – yes.
NF: It’s interesting that you talk about how Siddon Rock came from writing in the academic environment, and that this gave you a way of focusing on the writing, and the learning, and the exploration, rather than ‘writing for the market’, which is a terrible term and I wonder if it results in writers producing stories they don’t believe in. I say this because there are those who think that the tertiary writing courses aren’t doing much to progress the creation of Australian literature. But I’d like to ask you about how you put Siddon Rock aside for a number of years before being convinced to seek publication. Can I ask why you put it aside for so long, and what made you feel that it was ready for publication?
GG: The first part – writing courses. I do think it depends on what constitutes ‘learning to write’ and at which institution. I was very fortunate in that I fell into a creative arts degree that could have been constructed just for me: lots of reading, lots of theory interestingly taught by one of the best teachers I’ve ever come across, then that theory was put aside so that the knowledge is there, but not showing in the text, if that makes sense. There was absolutely no ‘this is how you must do it’ attitude that unfortunately is very strong at one or two universities, which I’m not going to name here, but sometimes I pick up a story and can tell immediately which institution the writer attended. However, most importantly there was an attitude that there are no boundaries to experimentation but out of that experimentation must come gripping, interesting work.
On this, my agent Lyn Tranter was reluctant to read my manuscript originally when I said it came from my PhD, her comment being that writing from universities is usually rather cookie-cutter. She asked me why Siddon Rock was so different from the mould, and when I told her who my supervisor was and that he let me alone until there was a first draft, she said, that accounts for it then.
And I agree that ‘writing for the market’ is a terrible term, and I’m sure that much of the pop fiction on bookshop shelves has been written that way. Unfortunately some of the institutions actually tell students this, so it makes the courses not creative writing but genre writing to a template!
One of the things I tell my students is that I can show them many things about technique and concept and how the components of writing can work, but only they themselves can find the unique spark in themselves that takes it all and turns it into something wonderful; that many things can be learned, but writing cannot be taught. And there’s a great difference between the two, is there not?
But to the question. I think that by the end of the very long PhD process – remembering I was part-time for a while, and deferred for 18 months as well, due to financial stuff – I was heartily sick of the thing and didn’t want to ever, ever work on it again. And I knew that it would have to be worked on somewhat to bring it to publication standard. Through the leader of a week-long workshop I attended, an agent had looked at an early draft; she said she was getting out of agenting, but gave me some names who she thought would be interested when it was completed. That little list sat on my desk for yonks, I think because I knew the novel was so different and weird from the ‘good writing’ in the bookshops, and I had little faith that the manuscript was good enough to even send to an agent.
The other thing was, too, there was so much talk around about how hard it is to get a manuscript read through publishers, or even to get to an agent to read your work. And if I did try a publisher’s slush pile, which one might like it? And would I cruel my chances of finding an agent if I’d tried around the publishers (and the answer to that one is definitely yes). See how the head was working? It was all too hard!
Nothing had changed in the manuscript when I contacted Lyn Tranter, I’d not even opened the box it was in. Here’s the story: one evening I was ‘tidying’ my desk – you know, moving piles of stuff around – and the little list fell out off my computer screen where it had been taped. I had the phone in one hand and the list in the other, and the two came together. I dialed the first number – it was as simple as that. The time must have right with all the good planets lined up and pushing me along, because Lyn answered the phone herself; she was in the office alone as it was late, and usually doesn’t answer after hours. I told her I’d been given her name. She asked what the book was about – such a difficult thing to answer, that – we talked, she got reluctant because of it coming from a university course, she said send me the first chapter, and I knew it was a professional courtesy to the person who had recommended her. I sent it.
A few weeks later she called and said send me the rest, then asked me to go to see her, and here we are. And yes, there were alterations, including moving around of the first section, throwing away the last section and rewriting it into the ‘good salt’ piece that it is now, adding the section where my main character Macha is on Crete and sees the villagers shot, and some other bits and pieces.
So, it was ennui and a lack of faith in myself that made me put it away, and sheer luck that made me call the agent I did.
NF: Thinking about the future now, I understand that you’re working on a biography of sorts, or should that be called ‘life-writing’. How are you finding moving from magic-realist fiction to writing about your own life? If that’s not too blunt a question!

GG: Not too blunt at all. In fact, the reason I’m attempting to write a memoir is because I’ve had people say things like ‘you must have had a really interesting young life’ during discussion of Siddon Rock. My reply is usually, well no, just a boring upbringing in a small town. But then my daughter said, ‘But it wasn’t, was it. There was parental divorce at a time when it was unusual and difficult, the to-ing and fro-ing between two towns, and you did some things that were not socially acceptable then, before you got married, then left that after a few days. What’s ordinary and boring there?’
I didn’t know how to start with this. I looked at the screen a lot; read how-to books on life writing, and other people’s memoirs and found them not very useful at all. Then I came to realise that all I want to do is tell a story – it always comes back to that, doesn’t it, telling the story the right way for that story. And this is why magic realism was right for Siddon Rock as I wanted to map the town not only in ongoing time, but in the layers that form the people and the place, horizontally and vertically, so to speak. So, magic realism will probably not be right for the next fiction, because the way something is written has to be the right way for that story. And this is the same for the memoir. So no, it wasn’t difficult to move from MR to memoir, once I found some sort of shape, as it’s all about the story being told.
NF: How much of yourself is in your fiction, and how much fiction is appearing in your life-writing?

GG: Maybe the response here is this: how can much of the writer NOT be in their fiction? I think there are three main research areas, speaking academically here: the formally researched books, journals, other people’s written knowledge; then observation, really seeing and understanding what goes on around us every day; then there are our own lives, not a direct-quote influence, but as a composite to draw on.
Here’s the Glenda Guest Soup theory: everything we know, see, think, do, down to the minutest un-thought action, is stored in the pressure-cooker of memory where it gets steamed and combined into Memory Soup. Then, when the writer needs something, the soup produces it, not in the form it was originally but as what is needed now. Okay, bits of carrot and celery might be vaguely recognisable at times, but generally it’s a different product from the original components. And we can’t invent what we don’t know, can we.
Thinking about Memory Soup and life writing/memoir, we know memory is not to be trusted, for all the above reasons, so writing a memoir can only be the story as the writer remembers it, shaped into a readable form. It’s fictionalised to the degree that it’s being put on paper as a story, so it must be ongoing in some way. Like writing fiction, there are choices to be made about what is to be told and what is left aside. Every writer makes that choice on a minute-to-minute basis when they are writing, but with memoir it’s more considered as everything can’t be told and personal influences also come into play. I found I was self-censoring, but now can detect when that starts and can work my way around it. I’m not interested in writing some sort of milked-down reality; if it’s to be done it has to be done truly, even if that shocks some people who know me.
All that said, if the memoir gets published and someone who has read Siddon Rock reads it, I’m sure there’ll be ah-ha moments for the reader, as they recognise influences, if not actual moments.
NF: To finish up: what would be the once piece of advice you’d give writers who are at the beginning of their creative journey?

GG: Ahhh! I try to avoid this question! So, fancy-footing around the obvious things, I’d probably say much as you quoted David Malouf. And: take chances. If it doesn’t work, there’s nothing that can’t be changed.
Note: Shortly Verity La will publish the first draft of the first chapter of Glenda Guests’ memoir-in-progress.  Stay tuned.