It’s late afternoon and in the Blue Mountains among the blue gums and paperbarks sits author Eleanor Dark’s property Varuna. The sun is low in the sky, casting a glow over the property. Eleanor Dark has received a letter.
“Eleanor, my pet, you’ve done a tremendous thing. What a piece of work! It took courage and industry and brains to keep all the threads straight and the historical information in perspective. This, following on The Timeless Land, is an achievement which surely lifts you to the majorest Australian novelist.” The letter, dated 7 November, 1948, was signed by by Miles Franklin.
Literary friendships have had a long history in Australia. They have cropped up in our cultural consciousness over the centuries. Throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, female writers wrote collaboratively and maintained an incredible circle of friendship.
Sixty six years after Eleanor Dark and Miles Franklin shared their exchanges, Anna Funder, winner of the 2012 Miles Franklin Award for her novel All That I Am, spoke about her own literary friendships.
She says that because writing is necessarily solitary, it’s important to have friends who do the same thing and understand the process.
“If you are writing a novel, you are building a cathedral,” she says. “You have to draw up a plan and it has to stand up, and be beautiful. Once you have done it, you can ask a friend, ‘I’ve built this thing, do you think it will stand up?’.”
Different authors will allow literary friendships to intrude at various stages of the creative process.
“I suppose there are two categories of literary friendships; one where you get together and talk about literature, and one where you actually collaborate and do something creative together,” says writer Gabrielle Carey. “My first book was a result of a literary friendship.” That book was Puberty Blues, which she co-wrote with Kathy Lette; her most recent book, the memoir Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family, was published last October.
Over the past few decades, Gabrielle Carey has developed a deep interest in James Joyce. This interest, she says, has taken her to meet other Joyceans. These literary friends are her favourite people.
“There’s such a lovely sensitive, human, uncompetitive spirit. They’re like your ideal human being,” she says.
A common bond would seem like a given in any friendship, but a shared interest in Joyce has an impact on Gabrielle Carey’s creative work.
“This interest in James Joyce led me to reconnect with an old friend recently.” That friend is comedy writer John Clarke. He has been reading Joyce for decades, and Gabrielle discovered that Joyce had a huge impact on Clarke’s humour; she describes Clarke’s parody of Finnegans Wake as hilarious. “So I wrote an essay about him and James Joyce.”
Gabrielle Carey describes the friendships she makes through her work as extraordinary.
Historian Maggie Mackellar met writer and editor Drusilla Modjeska when she was adapting Core of My Heart, My Country from a thesis to a published work. Later, the connection evolved into friendship when Maggie was working on her memoir, When It Rains. She says Modjeska’s friendship was one that sustained her through the writing process.
Reflecting on their friendship during that time, Drusilla Modjeska says, “Watching her find its shape reminded me of my young self – for she was much the same age as I had been when I wrote Poppy.”
Maggie Mackellar said it was through a “stroke of good fortune” to have Drusilla Modjeska as her first editor. “She’s been incredibly supportive of me in my writing and as a person. She sees herself as forming this new generation of young writers.”
She regards such friendships as of crucial importance in her life and work. She did not anticipate that friendships would consolidate as she adapted her doctorate to book. And she reflects on the supportive exchanges between Miles Franklin, Jane (Jean) Devanny, Marjorie Barnard and Eleanor Dark throughout the early twentieth century.
The questions Maggie and her friends ask one another about reading and writing are the same as those exchanged by those earlier writers.
“There’s a really warm exchange of ideas,” she says, referring to correspondence recorded in Carole Ferrier’s As Good as a Yarn With You: Letters Between Franklin, Prichard, Devanny, Barnard, Eldershaw and Dark, published in 1994.
Maggie Mackeller’s experience sounds as good as a yarn, too. “I’ve always found a generosity of spirit and mind when sharing work. Though I have spoken to others who have been crushed by literary friendships, that’s never been my experience.”
Writer Angelo Loukakis, executive director of The Australian Society of Authors, elevates the notion of friendship above the literary, especially thinking about how competition among young writers could be detrimental to friendship.
“In the normal course of human affairs and interactions there’s a sense of empathy, understanding, concern – all qualities of friendship that are important and ought to be the foundation before any further element in the friendship.”
He says writers find themselves in friendships not because they share the same aesthetic, but “because they find their spirits amenable”. He says that although he has friends who are writers, they do not always want to spend their time “comparing notes on passages and phrases” in his writing.
Anna Funder echoes that sentiment when she says she is having two friends, a journalist and a novelist, over for dinner that night. Despite their shared literary interests, she says, “It’s most likely we won’t talk about writing.” And perhaps it’s nice to let the work rest for a moment, rather than gaze upon its architectural intricacies. Especially if it’s already standing.
Literary Friendships: Hilary Bell and Antonia Pesenti
May 23, 3-4pm
Pier 2/3, The Loft
Literary Friendships: Robert Dessaix and Michelle de Kretser
May 24, 3-4pm
Pier 2/3, Main Stage