The first Verity La interview with Andrea Goldsmith was in December 2010. Back then we focused on her novel Reunion (4th Estate, 2009), and Goldsmith spoke eloquently about the magic of imagination, the lure of language, and the ‘moral power of fiction’. Since the publication of that acclaimed work, the Melbourne-based novelist and essayist has travelled overseas, including to the Galapagos Islands, and more recently has seen the publication of her seventh novel, The Memory Trap (4th Estate, 2013). This is a work that eminent Australian literary reviewer Peter Peirce has described as ‘an adult entertainment – passionate, thoughtful and disconcerting – and altogether welcomed’ (Canberra Times, 27 July, 2013). What inspires Andrea Goldsmith? How does she feel about what she creates? And what are her hopes for the future? Interview: Nigel Featherstone.
A novel is a study of complexity, but it could also be true that the act of writing a novel begins with a simple idea. What was the original inspiration for The Memory Trap?
I had long wanted to write a novel that centred on a genius. In particular I wanted to explore how much bad behaviour could be excused in a person who demonstrated a unique gift. While I touched on this notion in my third novel, Facing the Music, there was more I wanted to explore. So the first character to emerge in The Memory Trap was Ramsay Blake, a genius at the piano but a half-baked individual in most other respects.
Memory and memorials happened along by accident. I’ve recounted the story in a long essay called ‘Imagining Memory’:
It was 2009, a bright day in early spring, when I took the afternoon off work and made my way to Heidi Gallery and gardens. There was a haze of fresh green on the deciduous trees, the Yarra seemed less brown than usual, and a rowdy party of magpies, peewees and rainbow lorikeets dashed through the still crisp air. I meandered around the gardens until the lengthening shadows made it uncomfortably chilly, then made my way to the gallery. There I found a sculpture exhibition, the work of Kathy Temin. I knew nothing of her art or her background, so I entered the long room of the main exhibit with no expectations.
I found myself in a forest of white trees constructed of fake fur and soft stuffing. There were stocky trees and slender trees; there were trees of squashed spherical cushions, others were cone-shaped, still others were cylindrical. Some trees were not much more than a metre tall, others stretched to two or three metres in height.
As I moved among these soft white structures, I was simultaneously dwarfed by them, absorbed into them and captured by them. For reasons I could not explain, Kathy Temin’s sculptural landscape had transported me back to Auschwitz. It was not Auschwitz 1, so nicely spruced up for the visitors with its familiar gates and infamous words, Arbeit macht frei. But Auschwitz 2, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the ultimate death factory, with its equally familiar peaked gatehouse under which the trains entered the camp.
Kathy Temin’s white, fake-fur trees took me back to Auschwitz.
In November, 1999, my partner and I spent an afternoon walking the paths and woodlands of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s a huge area and, apart from a few locals taking a short-cut and a small group of bored Polish schoolboys, we were alone. We wandered beneath the pretty trees still rosy with late autumn colour where over half a century earlier Jews were herded together, waiting their turn for the gas chambers. We stood in the ruins of Crematoria 2, 3, 4 and 5 where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children had been reduced to ash. We tramped along the seemingly endless columns and rows of wooden huts. We gazed at the three-tiered bunks where dozens of Jews had been crammed in together: the sick, the dying, and the steadfastly surviving.
At the end of the railway tracks and situated between the ruins of Crematoria 2 and 3 is the International Monument to the Victims of Auschwitz. Built in 1967 in Soviet brutalism style, it consists of huge cement blocks in a geometric pile. In front of the blocks and set into the horizontal brickwork are plaques carrying the terrible statistics. It’s big this monument, and strikingly unbeautiful. It had no effect on me. This place, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was monument enough.
Kathy Temin’s sculpture was called My Monument: White Forest. I did not learn the title until I was reading the exhibition catalogue at home that evening. Sue Cramer, one of the curators of the exhibition writes: ‘If not for the title of Kathy Temin’s sculptural environment My Monument: White Forest, we might not at first recognise this maze-like arrangement of furry white, oddly shaped trees as a monument.’
I knew it immediately.
Cramer continues: ‘Temin describes the work as a “memorial garden, an attempt to translate the feeling I had when visiting memorial sites in Eastern Europe.”’
I wondered how I recognised this. What was it about My Monument: White Forest that made it so unambiguous to me and so very eloquent?
It was this visit to Kathy Temin’s exhibition and the thoughts it engendered that inspired the character of Nina Jameson, an international consultant on memorial projects. And along with her came the major theme of The Memory Trap, namely memory: both at a national level with the cultivation of national identity, and memory at an individual level in the construction of personal identity and relationships.
Although The Memory Trap is told from multiple points of view, to my mind it is Nina Jameson’s story. She’s recovering – unraveling? – from the sudden end to her marriage and returns to Australia where she reconnects with people from her past, including your flawed, sometimes utterly dysfunctional genius Ramsay Blake. Considering the genesis of the novel in Kathy Temin’s exhibition, what does Nina mean to you as her writer?
Nina is a character, and like all my characters, she has to interest me. And she does – in two main respects. Firstly, I’ve long been interested in monuments, so Nina’s job interests me, as do many of her musings on the purpose and effectiveness of monuments. I agree with her that memory is a subset of the imagination and that memory is more in service to present hopes and desires than the events and/or people it is seeking to preserve.
Secondly, Nina is of interest to me in her relationship with Daniel, both when the marriage breaks down and a year later when he resumes contact with her. Of all the characters in The Memory Trap, only Nina is not deceived or deluded by memory, and certainly not when it comes to her marriage. (Actually, she’s not the only character: Zoe’s teenage daughter Hayley is extremely clear-sighted.)
I think that Nina carries the story in the first half of the book, but it is Elliot who moves it along in the second. This was most unexpected. But then the way in which I write my novels makes such surprises inevitable. It’s a very organic process for me. I write my way into the characters and I write many many drafts. What I begin with – whether ideas or characters – is rarely what I end up with.
You mention Elliot, the husband of Nina’s sister Zoe. Whilst much of The Memory Trap is indeed about memory, it also seems to me to be about longing. Halfway through the novel, there is this about Elliot: ‘Cravings, his whole life rent by cravings. And if the cravings suddenly stopped, what would be left of him? Was there something about those hardwired longings that he clung to? Was it the cravings themselves that held him in thrall and not what he craved for?’ What is it exactly about this sense of longing, do you think, that drives the second half of the novel?
I think that longing – unrequited dreams and desires – permeates the entire novel. After her husband, Daniel, deserts her, Nina longs for him and her old life; and of course, later in the book, Daniel longs to have Nina back again. Zoe, long-married to Elliot but longer in thrall to the piano-playing genius Ramsay, yearns for Ramsay. Elliot, who fell in love with Zoe at first sight, has preserved the wonderful feelings of their first months together throughout twenty years of a miserable marriage: he longs for the woman he fell in love with. Ramsay’s younger brother, Sean, once so close to Ramsay has been estranged from him for thirty years. Sean has never really dealt with the loss of his brother and still longs for him. And Ramsay, when his music seems to have deserted him longs for it to return.
Longings tell us a lot about people. They can also highlight delusions, and The Memory Trap is particularly concerned with the delusions and deceits of memory. For example, if Elliot spent less time thinking about the halcyon days of the past when he fell in love with Zoe, he might turn a more realistic gaze on the disaster that is his marriage now. And Zoe, so carried away by her dreams of Ramsay fails to see what an impossible prospect he really is as a lover/partner.
Longing creates rich narrative fuel.
The Memory Trap also reflects on monuments, both personal and national, and longing comes in here as well. All those WW1 monuments dotted throughout Europe, the UK and of course Australia, were initially built to assuage the longing the bereft felt over the loss of their sons, brothers, husbands, friends on foreign soil. There is a longing not to forget. There is a longing for the dead to be alive again. Similarly with the more private monuments people build when a beloved dies. The character of Beth, whose husband died three months before she appears in The Memory Trap, has created private monuments throughout her house.
Many novelists say they write to work out what they think. Did you come to any interesting conclusions in the writing of The Memory Trap, either in terms of the book’s themes or the act of creating fiction, or perhaps both?
I write fiction because I cannot resist it – nor do I want to. I write because I’m defenceless against the seductions of story-telling. I write because I delight in slipping beneath the skin of people – characters – who are not myself. I write because I love language and am intrigued by the intricacies of meaning. I write because there’s nothing else I prefer to do.
BUT – one of the by-products of writing novels is that they provide the opportunity to explore ideas and conundrums, explore them in depth, over a period of time, and from multiple points of view. This is not a reason to write, but it provides plenty of fuel during the journey.
With The Memory Trap I am wiser about memory at the end of writing than I was at the beginning. I understand how it happens that memory – whether personal memory or national (as expressed through monuments) – is more in service to present desires and beliefs than the past event it is seeking to maintain. I understand that memory is a subset of the imagination – that when we remember something we are re-imagining it. I am wiser about marriage and marriage-type relationships, and that too much is made of forgiveness in a long-term liaison. (In the case of Nina and Daniel, they both believe that one unforgiveable act is not a sufficient reason for ending an otherwise good marriage.) And I know more about the singular focus that drives a pianist like Ramsay to better his work – the same singluar focus, incidentally, that keeps Zoe in thrall to Ramsay for close on three decades and Elliot in love with his faithless wife during twenty years of a bad marriage. It’s the same passionate fuel that keeps a novelist at her desk until the job is done.
I am wiser at the end of writing – but what a failing, what a waste of three-to-four years of life if I were not. I do not write in order to become wise, but if this did not happen, I would know that the work I was producing was shallow, boring, inconsequential, a sham. And similarly the author.
As for the act of creating fiction itself, at the finish of The Memory Trap, my seventh novel, I know that writing novels, creating and then crafting a large work that has coherence and integrity, that demands of a reader a dozen hours out of a schedule already under stress, is no easier for the seventh book than it was for the first. But while the process is no easier, I understand the process better, I’m familiar with it. These days I make my way through the years of writing a new novel without the hand-wringing, wrist-slitting dramatics that accompanied the early novels. I know that the writing will come right in the end: that the incoherence of a first draft will give way to a jumbled second draft, which will eventually become a tidier third draft and so on till the final book-worthy version. I know that for me there’s no point in worrying about how my novel will end because I never know my ending until I’m ready to hand the novel to my agent – and in a couple of instances, even later. I know better now how to cut portions that might read like a dream but simply cannot justify their inclusion in the novel, and I know when I can allow an indulgent digression. I know that writing a novel is a process shot through with uncertainty – you only know you can do it when it is finished – so there’s no point in high anxiety on the way, no point in wondering if you’ll ever complete the task. Give in to the uncertainty, leap into the current; you may feel as if you’re drowning, but you won’t.
Yes, I know the process better these days, even though the process itself is as challenging as it has ever been.
One of the most distinctive elements of The Memory Trap – and this can be found in Reunion as well – is that your main characters are very much situated in a broader context. They’re not just Australians in Australia, but Australians overseas – they’re international. What is it that you’re saying through your novels about Australia’s place in the world?
This is interesting. I suppose it IS a feature of my novels. In fact, all my novels have at least one section or character based overseas, generally London, but not exclusively. I confess I have not been wanting to say anything about Australia’s place in the rest of the world. Rather, the fiction works better (and so does the author) with a bigger and more diverse canvas. There are more possibilities to deepen characterisation when you move people away from the familiar. And besides, my characters, mostly well-educated people who work in the arts or the professions, are the type of Australian to have worked and/or studied overseas.
In addition, I love London. I know the city well (or at least parts of it), I have spent a lot of time there since my early twenties. And similarly New York – particularly the Upper West Side of NYC – I have visited often and over many decades. The locations work in the fictions, but as well it gives me pleasure to use these places.
The Memory Trap is your seventh novel from a career spanning almost 25 years. What is your hope for this novel? And is that hope any different to those associated with your previous work?
Another interesting question. If you had asked it before the book was published I would have replied that my hopes and expectations were as they have been for the past few novels. But something odd – good, very good – seems to be happening with this novel. While I see The Memory Trap very much in the same vein as the rest of my work – it’s a novel of characterisation, an ensemble novel in that there are several characters, there are certain intellectual themes – it is being greeted with more excitement and enthusiasm by readers and reviewers alike. Not that I haven’t had a good press in the past, I have, but the positive response seems to be more widespread and stronger than in the past. Sales are excellent, according to my publishers, and particularly so, given the straitened times for literary novels.
Perhaps it is the themes – memory, marriage, the mysteries of music – that have galvanised readers. And the characters, too. It pleases me that so many people highlight Elliot as their favourite character. It pleases me that Ramsay interests so many readers. And the whole area of monuments. It is not something that people have commonly thought about, but as one interviewer said to me, when she read about Nina’s job she wanted to do that job too, and wondered how one went about it.
The Memory Trap deals with the malleability and deceits of memory through the lives of its characters; through Nina’s job as an international consultant on memorial projects it explores memory at a national level as well. We humans seem to have a need to memorialise, certainly we have a need to remember. Maybe that explains the response to The Memory Trap. How it is being received, allows me to hope that this book will sell overseas, will be translated into a dozen languages, will sell squillions, Hollywood will come knocking, and every fantasy that has ever filled the mind of this writer will be realised.
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of contemporary fiction and creative journalism. Since 2010 Nigel has been working on a series of novellas exploring modern Australian family life. The first, Fall On Me, was published by Blemish Books in 2011 and won the 2012 ACT Writing and Publishing Award (fiction).