Carrington Hotel, Katoomba NSW Australia
Tegan Bennett Daylight’s house somehow seems to suggest her name. It’s a weatherboard cottage painted royal blue and in the front garden a row of towering sunflowers leads to a little porch. Today, it’s a perfect day in the Blue Mountains. A clear sky, abundant sunshine and the promise of a new beginning.
Author, teacher and critic, Daylight answers the door in a grey shift dress and Blundstone boots. She has short cropped hair, wears glasses and is as warm as the weather, shaking hands and offering refreshments. The inside of the house is colourful, painted the same blue as the outside and full of sunlight. The hallway opens to a dining room with a long table covered in papers. She picks up a painted teacup of green Japanese matcha tea, saying that she and academic husband Russell have been marking assignments for the literacy course they teach at Charles Sturt University.
If day and place evoke her name, where did it come from? Why Daylight? At the time her debut novel Bombora was shortlisted for the Vogel Prize in 1996, she was known as Tegan Bennett. She and Russell changed their names by deed-poll when they married. Seeming to suggest a first chapter, the Daylight moniker marked the start of her “family self”. “We knew we wanted to have kids, and we wanted them to have the same last name as we did. But we are both feminists and we didn’t want to simply have the kids named just after (Russell). And ‘Daylight’ was a nickname that we had for each other. Before we got married, we used to call each other Mr and Mrs Daylight; neither of us can remember why. When it came time to get married, we just thought that’s the name we’ve been calling each other, so that’s what we ended up with.”
Her latest book Six Bedrooms was shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Award and also represents something of a fresh start. It is her first collection of short stories and her first adult book in nine years. Not that she has been idle between books. She’s produced short stories, essays and other non-fiction. She has several degrees including a Masters and a Doctorate, both in Creative Arts. She taught creative writing at UTS for 15 years and has been raising two children.
The mild disarray of papers on the dining table is repeated throughout the house and everywhere there are signs of a busy, creative family life. On the floor of the living room, there is an abandoned game of Monopoly with cards, fake cash, and tokens strewn on the rug. In the corner, there is an upright piano with sheet music and a child’s drawings on the stand. It echoes the “messy vitality” she refers to when describing the pleasure she takes in teaching young people.
A grey cat who has been sleeping on one of the children’s beds, strolls in, yawns and mooches out again. There is a painting hanging on the blue wall of a young girl looking out onto a yellow meadow, painted by her mother, who died in 2014. When asked about her proudest achievements, she points to her children, the satisfaction she gets when she finishes a piece of writing, and having been able to look after her mum before her death.
Tegan Bennett Daylight describes her childhood growing up in a big house on the North Shore as very happy and comfortable. Her father was a corporate lawyer and her mother a home maker who became an artist later on. She credits them with influencing her to become a writer by both being big readers and always being surrounded by books. This is the same in the Daylight household where a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf takes up one entire wall of the living room. “The other thing was that my mother was very, very observant. And she was constantly pointing things out to us as children. We were sort of made to be awake and alert to the world all the time. And my dad was similar to that, but he was more sensitive to people.”
In Six Bedrooms, most of the stories deal with adolescence and coming of age. The writing has been described as being infused with “vinegar and heart’s blood”. Stinging but compassionately told, many of the narratives are drawn from real life. When asked about this formative period of youth, she says she was a sensitive and self-conscious teenager.
“It’s a time of huge excitement but huge change. A time when you’re trying to form yourself and you’re trying on different selves. And you’re generally horrified by all the selves that you seem to be able to come up with, so as soon as you can get it over and done with, you try to forget about it as quickly as possible. But, in fact, it’s unfinished business, which is exactly what great fiction writers want.”
If changing her name to Daylight was an exercise in “trying on a self”, it seems that it has been this illuminated, holistic self that she’s stuck with. It is also the self that has been applauded for being able to draw the universal out of narrow experience. In this respect, she’s been likened to one of her heroes Alice Munro. Her attitude to this acclaim is refreshingly pragmatic. “You just do what you can. I’m definitely interested in detail and domestic life. I’m interested in the way we are with our parents and the way we are with our children and the way we are with partners. You can’t get much more universal than that.”
Tegan Bennett Daylight is appearing at the following events:
My Reading Life, Friday, 20 May, 11:30-12:30, Roslyn Packer Theatre
Tegan Bennett Daylight: Six Bedrooms, Saturday 21 May 11.30-12.30,
Philharmonia Studio Pier 4/5 Walsh Bay