Laughter lines



JENNIFER ROWE’S laughter was often the despair of her first husband. Take the time sheets of tin roofing were blowing off their house in a Sydney storm. Rowe found herself up in the roofspace in her nightie, fighting the wind and holding on to her husband as he tried to hold on to what was left of the roof with a bent coathanger.“I started screaming with laughter,” she says. “It was so ridiculous.”

Rowe’s latest children’s book under her “Emily Rodda” pen-name, The Julia Tapes, careers its way through a string of similarly slapstick scenarios, outrageous in their combined implausibility but amusing nonetheless. The crashing finale is a Keystone-Cops misadventure in the roofspace.

“What happens as you get older,” Rowe says sagely, “is that you start to realise that anything you can imagine can happen. That’s what I’ve always believed in my children’s books.”

It’s a formula that has proved extraordinarily successful. “Emily Rodda” has won the Children’s Book of the Year award five times and her work is translated and sold overseas. On Friday her Bob the Builder and the Elves won the Honor Book in the younger readers category of Book of the Year.

Altogether Rowe/Rodda has written more than 40 children’s books, including 30 novels in the popular Teen Inc mystery series. She’s just called a halt to those, despite pleading letters from fans. “I’ve run out of crimes to happen at Raven Hill,” she says firmly.

Rowe’s adult books, published under her real name, have also become international bestsellers. Her sharply characterised crime novels include Grim Pickings, which was made into a two-part television mini-series. More recently Rowe was commissioned by producer Hal McElroy to create the characters and storylines for the television hit Murder Call. She transformed her fictional heroine, Birdie, into homicide detective Tessa Vance.

Rowe is renowned for her prolific output. She finds it fairly effortless, despite her busy private life as a mother of four (and a second marriage to Bob the builder, with whom she lives in the Blue Mountains). The decision to try writing in the first place is what took years of effort. She reached it only after a long struggle with self-doubt.

As a child growing up on Sydney’s leafy North Shore she loved reading and often wrote little stories: “I thought that when I grew up I would just write longer things and they would be published.

“Then, when I got to high school and began to study literature in more depth, I started to get embarrassed (at my temerity); it was also, I suppose, adolescence. Then I studied English literature at university, which is almost death for anyone who wants to be a writer, studying all these great authors.”

So she abandoned all hope of exploring her own talent because she thought her longing grandiose: “Like putting aside the idea of being an astronaut; it’s just so far out of reach. So I went into book editing so that I could be close to (literature) but didn’t have to put myself on the line and actually write it.”

When her oldest child, Kate, was seven, she demanded that Rowe make up stories for her at bedtime. Rowe submitted Kate’s favorite to her then employer, Angus and Robertson, under the name Emily Rodda so that it would be judged on its merits (and to avoid the mortifying possibility of public exposure and rejection). She did not “come out” until after the book, Something Special, won Children’s Book of the Year in 1985.

Soon afterwards Rowe found herself unexpectedly pregnant with twin boys. For many women that would have meant a temporary end to creativity outside of motherhood, but Rowe experienced a surge in her confidence and her determination to write.

She says, “It was such an extreme thing to find yourself a mother of four. It’s been an enormous blessing because after I had the twins, I started to think that nothing was impossible … And being responsible for other lives makes you less concerned about how you look to other people.”

When the twins were a year old she became editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly. She would arrive home from the office at the end of a demanding day, step out of her workclothes and into a zip-up dress and walk into the kitchen to start dinner and deal with the evening clamor. Three nights a week, when the children were in bed, she sat down to write her fiction. By the time she left the Weekly five years later – by then a single mother – she had 11 books in print and enough overseas royalties to risk writing full-time.

This is not a superwoman saga. Rowe says she coped partly by minimising housework. She hasn’t ironed in 20 years. A former Weekly colleague once said of her time there, “We used to check her before she went out to make sure she had matching shoes on and her petticoat wasn’t showing and there wasn’t a splodge of Farex on her shoulder.”
Says Rowe, “I know people who spend more time manicuring their nails than I spend making dinner. That’s fine if they want to do that. It’s just that I don’t.”

Writing was not a third job but her way of relaxing. “With kids and work you’re at everyone’s beck and call. When you’re writing you are your own person. I still remember driving home from work in those years and thinking, `Tonight’s the night!’

“They say that when children have played successfully for about 20 minutes, they are refreshed by it. It’s to do with losing yourself in something. Writing’s like that. It’s also like reading. You know when you’re reading a book that you love and you can’t put it down? And when it’s finished I feel quite sad. There’s a moment of enormous elation because it was so good, and then a sense of loss that it’s over.”

Rowe says her children’s stories just flow, as if she is discovering the story as she writes; the amanuensis of her own unconscious. The adult crime novels must be more artfully constructed with more conscious attention to details such as chronology and motivation.

She wrote The Julia Tapes because she was concerned there was an overabundance of grim social realism novels in the early teen market.

“Adults happily read and write a variety of books about their own world, but for some reason we have got into this way of thinking that children have to be confronted with misery for them to understand real life.

“But, as well as being sad and tragic, life is also funny and ridiculous and warm and enthralling. People shouldn’t be associating reality with misery all the time, as if the two things are (synonymous).”

She is also impatient with adults who are “precious” about children’s literature. “I started off reading what everyone started with in those days, that wonderful woman whom everyone now despises, Enid Blyton. I must have read a book of hers a week before moving onto L.M.Montgomery and the Anne of Green Gables series, which seemed effortlessly then to lead on to the Bronte sisters and adult fiction.

“People now are getting very precious about children’s fiction, as if they want books to be solemn honored things that are terribly sensitively written and beautifully produced and they won’t accept anything else. But that leaves the low ground to television and film.”

Children need to learn that reading is fun and anything that does that is valuable: “I always say to teachers and parents’ groups, `Have you ever known a little boy who can’t read the Nintendo game book or the competition on the packet of Weetbix?’ You need to give them a good reason to read, like it being such a good story they can’t put it down. They need that kind of fodder.”

Rowe remembers trawling right through her parents’ eclectic bookshelves when she was growing up. “If you read a huge variety of things rather than the things that are handpicked for you, it’s good for you. It makes you realise how many voices there are and how, if you can read, you will never be lonely.”
Emily Rodda will talk at children’s literature sessions of The Age/ Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Tuesday and Thursday.

First published in The Age.

Mother Courage cracks the whip

PROFILE – Louise Adler – Cultural Identity


THAT whip crack of a laugh is Louise Adler’s riff. She races through her life story, pausing only as she rounds some half-remembered corner into a scene of past absurdity; then she stops to laugh. Crack.Going back to uni lecturing weeks after the birth of her first baby, longing to crawl under the desk “for just an inch of sleep”. Crack.

Her brother force-feeding her Plato and R. D. Laing when she was 11. Crack.

Her first meal in an English university dorm: “Spam fritters with potatoes and baked beans flowing over it! `Oy vey,’ I thought, `I don’t think I can do this English cuisine.”‘ Craaack …

That laugh was her riff on radio, too. There it signalled amusement not so much at her own predicament as at that of her interviewee, says journalist David Marr, her predecessor as host of Arts Today on Radio National.

“It’s a wonderful laugh on radio,” he says. “People who don’t know that laugh usually assume at that point they are going to be let off the hook, but the laugh is usually an indication that another hook is coming their way.”
But those days are over, for now at least. Adler has left the ABC to become deputy director of the Victorian College of the Arts. “The VCA is the right home, in a sense, for me, because of the nexus between the arts and the academy,” she says. “I guess that’s where I’ve always been.”

Adler says she left Arts Today because three years of live radio was gruelling: “It’s like doing matric every day. Reading 700 pages of Salman Rushdie over the weekend because you have to prepare your questions – there’s no way you can fake this, and you want him to give you something different to what he’s giving everyone else – means the pressure is enormous.”

While it was also fun, she found the “instant-expert” quality of daily journalism frustrating. “Arts Today is probably the privileged and luxurious end of journalism, but I feel like I have talked to some of the finest minds in the world, and what have I retained?”

If there is more behind her decision to move, we won’t be hearing it from her. Adler refuses to be drawn on aspects of ABC life other than the excellence of her producers, and her gratitude that a raw recruit such as herself was given a chance. There are limits to her famed directness.

In 1993, Adler was nominated by Good Weekend magazine as one of Australia’s 45 most powerful women, up there with High Court judge Mary Gaudron and the ACTU’s Jennie George. She was then publisher at Reed/Heinemann, following a stint as editor of Australian Book Review.

It was publisher Sandy Grant, now chief executive of Hardy Grant, who plucked her from ABR and told her she had what it took to be a publisher.

“She is fiercely intelligent and a terrific judge of people,” he says. “She judges people faster and more accurately than anyone I have ever worked with, and her first impressions are always right. She was able to read material in a way that helped authors; (she understands) writers’ works and intentions. She developed a very good publishing program for us.”

Weaknesses? “None.”

Really? “She’s very blunt; I think her directness often rattles people.”

Other former colleagues talk of her drive. “She likes status and she knows how to work for it,” says one, “but she doesn’t have to work too hard.” Others have found her prickly and defensive under pressure. She can be sensitive to slights; she told one interviewer she keeps “a long list of crimes against humanity or against Louise”.

She is also said to be bossy to the point of “maternalistic”. Adler has no trouble owning her bossiness. She says she is a domestic tyrant in her marriage to comic actor Max Gillies, who is as vague around the house as he is focused on stage. They have two children, aged 12 and 15. Their initial meeting was set up by a friend after Adler had confided she despaired of finding a kind and considerate man: “My girlfriend said, `There’s only one left, and his name is Max.”‘

At home, says Adler, “I manage the domestic sphere in a completely authoritarian and, he would say, retrograde fashion. He says no feminist today should be doing what I’m doing, which is saying, `I’m in control of the kitchen and I’ll do all the cooking, dear’.”
Mark Davis, author of the cultural analysis Gangland, believes Adler used her organisational skills and networks to help marshal the anti-Demidenko forces in the intellectual debate over the ethics of Helen Darville’s book, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Darville initially published the book under the name Demidenko and misrepresented herself as being of Ukrainian background.

The novel told of Jewish persecution in World War II from the perspective of anti-Semitic Ukrainian perpetrators. For commentators such as David Marr and Jill Kitson, Darville entered into the imaginations of anti-Semites in a way that highlighted their evil. For Adler, the book constituted a deeply offensive rewriting of history, and was itself anti-Semitic because of the way it portrayed Jews.

“It was stereotypes from Nazi propaganda,” she says, still outraged. “I think (we do need to) understand the psychopathology of the collaborator. The genocidal project was facilitated by lots of people in Europe helping the Nazis. But Helen Demidenko-Darville did not want to understand that; she wanted to legitimise it. She wanted to endorse … that barbarism.”

The fact that there was disagreement about how the book should be read distresses her still. “I had thought what had happened during the Second World War was a nightmare, a catastrophe that had significance for the whole of humanity.

“The fact that the literary community, people that I respected and regarded highly, did not view the book the way I did and the way people like me did, showed me that they viewed the Second World War as `a Jewish issue’ … ”

Adler went to school with children whose parents screamed in the night, and the Holocaust played a large part in her own family’s history. Her mother’s parents fled Germany for Australia just before the outbreak of war with her mother, then six. “Most of their family was murdered in Europe; there’s nothing left of that family, basically.”

Adler’s father, 13 at the start of the war, joined the Jewish section of the French resistance in Paris and later became the youngest sergeant in the French army. He has spent much of his life documenting fascism and the choices people made under it.

“For him, it was about political action and taking responsibility, being active rather than simply surviving. It sounds very pompous, but I think there is a morality that involves action and choices, and I think at the time he thought that meant that there was a need to (fight), despite the fact that it put his own mother at risk.”

Black American writer James McBride, author of the memoir The Color of Water, attacked Adler publicly at last year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival over a radio interview in which he claimed Adler had hounded his elderly mother about having abandoned her Jewishness (a central aspect of his book). Adler is a tenacious interviewer but was nonplussed by the accusation.

Later, she read a magazine article in which McBride mentioned the interview again. “He said, `I can always tell it. The room reeks of it when I’m being interviewed by someone who’s Jewish. I can smell the Jewishness a mile off.”‘ Adler raises her eyebrows in amazement and is momentarily silent.

In Gangland, Mark Davis slotted Adler into a group of baby-boomer identities he saw as cultural gatekeepers preventing younger, more radical voices being heard. He says he is anti-Demidenko, but was concerned that Adler’s camp tended to draw too broad a conclusion from the book, accusing young intellectuals generally of lacking historical memory and a moral centre.

His view of her has softened since then. “I mention her as one of the people who have been curmudgeonly about literary theory, but in her show that’s definitely not been the case. She’s actually increasingly thought about the sorts of women’s issues and post-colonial issues that two or three years ago she was, by implication, criticising.”

He also admires her forthright engagement with his critique: “A lot of people responded to Gangland negatively and defensively. She was generous to a fault. She handled it with a lot of style and invited me on to her show. That takes some depth of character.”

Adler is amused at the notion that she might be sitting on the heads of younger people. “I thought that Mark Davis’ “gates” were extremely wide, from people in their 60s down to people in their late 30s and 40s. The intellectual preoccupations of my generation (Adler is 45) are quite different to those of people in their sixties.

“I certainly have not used any of the positions I have been in to keep people out. My entire reason for being, in terms of the work I’ve done, has been to include people. `May a thousand opinions bloom’ has been my attitude.” The problems Davis describes are more due to the inherent conservatism of media organisations, says Adler.

A severely asthmatic child, Adler spent most winters home from school curled up with books. Her first choice was Enid Blyton. Her father tolerated it until the night she arrived at the dinner table and squealed, “Ooh goody, lashings of potatoes!” He ditched Blyton and began introducing her to adult reading. She was 11.

HER mother drilled her in maths times tables in the kitchen and taught her how to write. Her parents took her to Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts – “with the rest of the continental schnitzel crowd” – every Saturday night and to Festival Hall to hear the Russian poet Yevtushenko.

“Culture was the important thing,” Adler says. “Music. Books. Painting. Politics … We would always march in the Hiroshima Day march.”

Part of Adler’s brief at the VCA is to help students receive a broader cultural education. The college wants her to develop connections between the disciplines and encourage the relationship between theory and practice.

Writer Tom Kenneally, a friend of Adler’s, says he suspects that “students and staff with hard-luck stories will absorb quite a deal of her time. She’s very generous-spirited, a bit of a Mother Courage figure …

“I’m sure that further down the track there’s something grander awaiting her. She has an intense and lively temperament that seems to require her to recreate herself several times over a lifetime.”

Louise Adler

1954: Born in Melbourne
Universities attended: Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Reading University, Columbia University.

1978: Teacher, Columbia University, New York City.

1980: Tutor, University of Melbourne.

1988: Editor of Australian Book Review.

1989: Publishing director, Reed Books Australia.

1994: Arts and entertainment editor, The Age.

1996: Radio National Arts Today presenter.

First published in  The Age.

Home violence hits all: study

Men are as likely to be assaulted by their partners as women, and both sexes report similar levels of pain and need for medical attention after domestic violence, according to new research from Melbourne University.

A national sample survey of 1643 Australians in relationships found that 4.7per cent had been physically assaulted by a partner in the previous year.

Violence runs in couples, with partners striking each other in more than half of violent relationships.

The research found the only gender difference was that more women than men felt frightened or intimidated by their partner’s threats of violence.

The study, Domestic Violence in Australia, was based on an analysis of questions asked in the 1997 International Social Science Survey by the Australian National University. The questions related only to physical violence and did not canvass mental cruelty or sexual assault.

The domestic violence figures were analysed by a Melbourne University team headed by Associate Professor Bruce Headey of the Centre for Public Policy.

Professor Headey said yesterday he was confident that most of the findings were reliable, except for the figures relating to male injuries. He warned that the gender-neutral rates of injury reported in this study were not supported by other, more objective data such as medical records or police reports.

Nearly four times more women than men are murdered by their partners each year, and five times as many women as men go to hospitals with domestic violence injuries.

“We’re really talking about `in-between’ violence, not the very serious cases,” Professor Headey said.

The survey found almost exactly the same percentage of men admitted assault (3.4per cent) as the number of women who reported being assaulted (3.7 per cent). But more men claimed to be assaulted (5.7 per cent) than women admitted assault (3.6 per cent).

The study found that most people who had grown up in violent households did not become violent.

But of the men who had violent fathers, 9.8 per cent were violent themselves. The rate was only 2.5 per cent among men with non-violent fathers.

Women with violent fathers were more likely to be victims as adults. Women with violent mothers were more likely to become offenders themselves.

First published in The Age.

Young women now hit `The Wall’ later – and it shocks them

SOMETIMES I’m invited into private schools to talk to girls about women in the workforce. The audiences of 14 and 15-year-olds have no experience of what it’s like out there, but they do have a strong sense that the world will be their oyster. Their teachers tell them that if they work hard, they will do well. Employers come to their schools and brag about how many women they now have in their company and how they’re looking for more.These girls grow up thinking that their world is different to their mothers’, and that bright young women can take their rightful place in it. They’re the kind of girls who grow into Dr Fiona Stewart’s disillusioned Generation X’ers.

Talking to them about how rough it still can be for women is like trying to talk to first-time pregnant mothers about parenting. The mothers are preoccupied with the present and can’t think past the birth. They don’t want to hear about how tough the early months of mothering can be. They’re anxious enough as it is. The girls are similarly resistant to taking in unpleasant facts. They need to believe that it will be all right.

Gen-X women with high expectations, according to Stewart, often end up blaming feminism for disappointment in adult life when they find it impossible to “have it all”: when the professional race is exhausting, when they can’t do the superwoman job-and-babies number, or when their relationships have caved in or never kicked off because they concentrated too fiercely on career achievement.

Stewart rightly points out that these disappointments are not failures of feminism but failures of society to accommodate the way feminism has raised women’s expectations. In some cases, personal problems might be a contributing factor too. Stewart’s findings might not apply to young women overall because she did not interview a large random sample. And she recruited her subjects through advertisements, so it is possible that dissatisfied young women were more likely to respond and therefore skewed the results. On the other hand, maybe she’s struck something here. Maybe young women are angry at older women for having somehow let them down.Either way, this debate is not about a generational divide.

Stewart’s findings are more likely to be the result of a generational change in the age at which educated women become politicised about “the feminine condition”. As individuals, women tend not to become feminists until they have hit “The Wall”. For older feminists this happened much earlier in life. In their 20s they were told that they couldn’t work or study and also be mothers. Those in the public service lost their jobs if they married. Women were paid less than men for the same work and many jobs were assumed to be closed to them altogether.The Wall was clearly visible.

Today young women are encouraged at school, nurtured at university, and welcomed into junior ranks of the professional workforce. The wall has moved, and they don’t see what’s left of it until they hit it in their 30s.

This is the age at which they discover that they cannot give their children what they need and work crazy hours climbing the corporate ladder; that the employers who were happy to encourage them in the role of handmaiden are reluctant to share real power with them; that the notion of genuinely equal pay is still just a notion.And if Stewart is right, they then blame older women, rather than a recalcitrant system, for their troubles. Stewart has reported that one young woman who found she could not do the career and the baby simultaneously blamed “bloody feminist rhetoric” for her disappointment. Where did she get her feminism? Out of a Weeties packet?
No one ever told me I could have it all; maybe that’s a side-effect of a working-class upbringing. This is, after all, a largely middle-class debate among privileged Anglo women. Can’t complete the PhD and get up six times a night to the baby? Tell that to the migrant mothers for whom economic restructuring has meant long shifts worked at short notice for employers maximising the new workplace “flexibility”. Or to the unemployed public-housing mums who have to water down milk for the kids. Or to battered women too scared to leave the men who provide for their children. They are women who really do have little power over their own lives. The women Stewart interviewed have much more freedom, and for some of them to say choice is “the mustard gas of their generation” is nauseating.

Choice always involves a path foregone as well as a path followed, and it involves some grief. Negotiating that is one of the tasks of midlife.

Former sex discrimination commissioner Quentin Bryce is one of many older feminists who have been quite sympathetic to younger women. “I often find myself telling ambitious thirty-somethings that they can’t hold down a full-time, demanding, professional role, have a second child and finish the MBA this year … You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at the same time.”

That’s what the next generation of schoolgirls needs to hear, too. As well as being instilled with confidence that they can succeed, they need to understand about glass ceilings and blokey workplace dynamics; about the struggle to balance work and family; about how, historically, women’s progress has always stalled under pitiless economic conditions and governments that support markets rather than people. If young women are to be resilient, they must be alerted to The Wall. Suggestions on how to get that message past the optimism of youth are welcome.

First published in The Sunday Age.