Helen Garner will never get bored of observing people, she told the crowd at the City Recital Hall for her Sydney Writers’ Festival event How can we write about darkness? on Thursday night.
Sharing anecdotes, the novelist and screenwriter said she’d spent a week in a hospital in Penrith talking to people for a story she was writing.
Everyone was keen to share their stories; one man in particular. He was upset over some shelves that had been put into his office.
“They were wrong. And he didn’t want them where they were. And he wanted to show me where he wanted them and he really wanted me to understand this. And so I just kept on taking notes,” Ms Garner said.
The story of the misplaced shelves didn’t end up in the article. “But I really liked him. I felt for him because his shelves were in the wrong place. I think it was after that week and about the shelves; that’s when I realised I was pretty much unboreable.”
Ms Garner’s non-fiction works are anything but boring. She has written 12 books, but her session led by Catherine Keenan, executive director of Sydney Story Factory, focused on just three: The First Stone (1995); Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004); and her latest, This House of Grief – The Story of a Murder Trial (2014). All are crime stories.
This House of Grief recounts Ms Garner’s experiences observing the trials of Robert Farquharson, a man convicted of drowning his three sons on Father’s Day in 2005 by driving his car into a dam. Mr Farquharson claimed he’d had a coughing fit, but the prosecution argued it was a deliberate act to punish his wife for leaving him and taking up with another man.
The trials spanned the course of almost eight years. Ms Garner said that if she had known this from the start, she couldn’t imagine that she would have taken the project on. At one point, she did consider leaving it.
“I cleared the decks and put everything away. And it lasted three days. And then I realised if I didn’t write that book, then I’d just go even more nuts,” she said.
Her finished book is rich in detail; Ms Garner conveys the ambiguity of the guilty verdict against Mr Farquharson through her observations of the trial proceedings.
Ms Garner said a friend had told her about a woman who owned his local bookshop. The woman had declared that she wouldn’t, under any circumstance, read House of Grief. “Why?’ the friend had asked. “Because I know that nowhere in the book does she say that Robert Farquharson is a monster,” the woman had said.
“Does she mean she would read the book if I stated categorically at the outset or in the conclusion, that the accused man was a monster?” she asked. “But if he had been a monster, I wouldn’t have been interested in writing about it.”
She said she was not interested in the crimes committed by monsters or psychopaths. “I’m interested in ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separate our daylight cells from the darkness — the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.”
Ms Garner said she often worried the darkness that – since writing the three books of non-fiction crime – now lives in her, will burst through her. “My three grandchildren are very close to me and they’re in and out of my house all the time,” she said. “And occasionally I used to feel that, I knew these awful things and that they would leak out of me and contaminate them.”
Earlier, Ms Keenan, a former Sydney Morning Herald journalist, had called Ms Garner “one of our finest, finest writers”, and said she had carved out “a territory that is uniquely and distinctly her own”.
So is Ms Garner done with darkness?
“Done with it?” she said. “I’m stuck with it now.”