An accidental author

Word of mouth has made Rosalie Ham’s first book a best seller. She talks to Karen Kissane.

THE TOWN policeman is a cross-dresser with a sense of theatre; Priscilla meets Blue Heelers. The local madwoman’s false teeth are green with neglect. The puritanical chemist puts White Lily into vaginal cream destined for an adulterous itch. Welcome to Dungatar, Rosalie Ham’s warm and nasty vision of rural Australia.

Ham’s book The Dressmaker is a kind of Lord of the Flies in frocks. Blurbed as “an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute-couture”, it has become a slow-burn best seller since its release last year.

Its fame has spread not through marketing campaigns but by word of mouth. Readers love its eccentric mix of pathos and black humor, potboiler plot and writerly insight, cruelty and compassion. So do movie makers, and Ham’s publishers are now choosing between five offers to convert the book to a film.

Ham, of course, is pleased. Few first-time novelists find themselves sitting so pretty. But success has come late -she is 46 – and has not yet brought with it enough money to transform her life. She is still in her simple weatherboard house, still squeezing her writing into three or four days a week, still making a living nursing old people.

“I’ve always done aged-care work, on and off, since I left school,” she says comfortably, sitting at her kitchen table. (We briefly canvassed sitting on the couch but she’s a kitchen-table kind of person, she says.) “I’ve done a lot of things, and a bit of travelling, but that kind of work’s always kept me alive and paid the bills. I really like it.”

It isn’t depressing? “No. The old people are lovely. They’re incontinent or they might be demented or whatever but they still have personalities. If I give them a shower and make them happy and comfortable and comb their hair and pop in with a cup of tea and a biscuit, it makes their day. I just like old people. And it also feels incredibly normal to me now to have conversations with people with dementia.”

One of the most vividly drawn characters in Ham’s book, Molly, is a neglected old woman with dementia who is shunned partly because of her craziness. Her paranoia makes her hilariously vicious but another side of her appears after her daughter, a dressmaker, returns to Dungatar to care for her. All of that came from Ham’s day job.

“As hydration and nutrition seeped into Molly’s body her faculties came back. That happens,” she says.

“Often people come into a nursing home and they’ve been eating bread and jam and a cup of tea for years and years so they’re malnourished and dehydrated and confused. After a while they improve because they’re forcefed love and attention and kindness and people around them care for them and take them to singing … They’re not cured, but they are better.”
Ham has a nurse’s brisk cheeriness and an understated, dry humor. She has a short, easy-care haircut, a direct manner, and an equally pragmatic approach to life’s big questions.

When her heroine Tilly, distraught with grief, can find no consolation in a Bible, Ham has her stab it. “I’m a bit dubious about religion,” Ham acknowledges cautiously. “Having a country upbringing, the cycle of life and death becomes somewhat matter of fact, as it does being an aged-care nurse.

“I don’t believe in an afterlife. And I’m fairly brutal about that. You were born, you live for a certain amount of time, and then you die. That’s just the way it is. There’s no point to suffering at all. Terrible things just happen to people.”

But she denies that any have ever happened to her. Ham, who was born and raised in the southern New South Wales town of Jerilderie, lays claim to a happy childhood in a caring community that functioned like an extended family for her.

“My experience in my home town was the absolute contrary (to Dungatar),” she says firmly. “I never felt any kind of animosity about anything I’d ever done. Small country towns are enormously supportive and very protective. That’s wherein lies the irony, because if you do the wrong thing, really the wrong thing, you can be ostracised by a country town and (their disapproval) will bind them together.” She grins. “So you just don’t do anything wrong.”
There are some hints that country life was not quite as uncomplicated as all that. When she was 10, her farmer parents divorced. When she was a young woman, she came back from an interstate holiday to false rumors that she had left town because she was pregnant. Perhaps neither event scarred her, but they did help sow in her imagination the seeds for the book that one reviewer called “a feral Seachange”.

The book was an accident; the product of serendipity. Ham had written three plays (“which not a lot of people outside my friends and family came to see, I must say”) and decided she wanted to learn more about performance writing. She enrolled in the appropriate course at RMIT but arrived on the day to find that subject was already full.

As she was leaving, she was waylaid by novelist Antoni Jach, a part-time teacher in fiction in the course, who insisted she try the novel unit instead. Ham reluctantly agreed. She expected to study great literature but was appalled in the first lesson to be asked for a 500-word synopsis of her book. She had landed in a novel-writing course.

She recovered quickly. “I had an idea and started writing it. Then you had to hand in 3000 words, and then you had to hand in 10,000 words, and I had 30,000 words. It was only three weeks before I realised that this was the best `accident’ that had ever occurred to me.”

Says Jach, “Rosalie’s a very talented writer and very hard-working. She went through a long process of finding her voice as a novelist.

“A lot of apprentice writers start writing in a very formal way … and it’s when they use their own voice the writing comes to life. Rosalie’s got a terrific command of the vernacular and she’s very lively as a person. She was one of those people who is very, very funny in the cafeteria. I said, `Put that energy and creativeness into your writing; put that touch of blackness in the novel’.”

Three years after she began the course, Ham had a book. It was refused by several publishers before she sent it to Duffy and Snellgrove, where its first 60 pages hit the desk of editor Gail MacCallum. “I started when I got home and got to the end of it without even having noticed,” MacCallum recalls. “I had to wait in this lather for 12 hours before I could ring her and say `Is there any more of it?”‘

MacCallum was struck by the strength of the characters and the narrative pace, “which is unusual, I think, sadly. In Australia there seems to be this gap between high literature and the more general mass market, and I think this book fills it”.

MacCallum was also struck by the book’s startling mix of kindness and venom. Ham is gentle with the broken or fragile parts of her characters, the pathetic, tawdry tragedies of the everyday. But she has a penetrating and pitiless eye for human cruelties.

The dressmaker offers the town’s small-minded women the chance to transform themselves externally but they are unable to transform their mean and petty internal selves. As a result, the book ends on a note of apocalyptic vengefulness.

It is hard to know whether Ham is exceptionally compassionate or exceptionally unforgiving. “Both,” she says without hesitation. “I do know that I am capable of great compassion and I know that I can be unforgiving; people have told me that. When I was much younger, I was a lot more caustic and sarcasm was a big thing and I had to learn to squash it down. And now I’m very good at holding my tongue.”
Her current project is a novel set in country Victoria in 1895. “My main character is in a confined, oppressive sort of environment, being rural Victoria at that time, which is a couple of years behind everybody else. But, at the same time, things are moving. Women are not wanting to wear corsets any more and they’re wanting to ride bicycles and she’s in the middle and she’s torn … And it’s all laced with humor.

“I thought I might see if I could write a more `literary’ novel, but if it doesn’t work I’ll just go back and write what I’ve always written, and that’s a cross between black comedy and something macabre and something sad. Good ingredients for a good read.”

The Dressmaker, by Rosalie Ham, Duffy and Snellgrove, $18.95.

Rosalie Ham, author and aged care nurse

Born: Jerilderie, NSW, 1955.

Educated: Rusden, Bachelor of Education in drama and literature; currently completing advanced diploma in professional writing and editing at RMIT.

Career: Three plays performed; first novel, The Dressmaker, published last year. Currently short listed for the booksellers’ choice for best book for 2000. Works part-time as an aged care nurse.

Lives: Brunswick, with her husband (set and props facilitator Ian McLay) and stepson (Morgan).

First published in The Age.

The gaze of Aphrodite


Karen Kissane

WHEN artist Rosemary Valadon decided to paint noted Australian women as classical archetypes, she chose Germaine Greer as Artemis, Blanche d’Alpuget as Athena and artist Annette Bezor as Aphrodite, goddess of love.Valadon had been taken with a Bezor painting entitled So Glad You Came: “It was orgasmic: a woman’s face with the mouth half open in bliss, and she was surrounded by all this patterning. It was a woman’s experience of desire and sexuality.”

And, having met Bezor, Valadon knew her appearance also lent itself to the theme: “Her skin was soft and full, she had blonde hair, and there was a lightness to her, but she was a strong-looking woman as well … She’s very spirited and self-assured.”

Today, Bezor is vaguely embarrassed about having agreed to pose. “I think my ego got the better of me, and my narcissism. I wanted to see what someone else would do with me.

“We had this South Australian `Living Artist’ breakfast a couple of years ago, and they had all these people voting for things, categories, and I actually won the sexiest artist. And of course I was mortified. Being painted as Aphrodite is a bit like that; it’s double-edged: `By the way, she makes great paintings, doesn’t she?’

“Looking back, I should have gone up to the microphone at that breakfast and said, `Would everyone who voted for me please leave their telephone number at the door?”‘ She laughs, her good humor restored.

The problematic aspects of female beauty and desire and the gaze of others have long been themes in Bezor’s painting and in her life. Her large, lush, sensual canvasses are often filled with female forms erotically draped across different backgrounds: landscapes, flowers, brilliantly patterned fabrics or swirls of cloud.

Enigmatic female faces gaze half-submerged through textured layers of haze; Intercourse I and Intercourse II are merely a smudge of an inward-looking eye and a mouth.

In Wrestling with the Cherubim, a voluptuously naked Bezor wrestles with other versions of herself in a tangle of limbs while attacked by a flock of chubby cherubim, the struggle set against the deep ochre of an Australian desert at dusk.

Bezor has always been unashamedly unfashionable: a figurative artist in a time when abstraction is the go; a purveyor of color and beauty in an era when grittiness, if not ugliness, is thought to have more power.

Melbourne gallery owner Robert Lindsay, who will exhibit Bezor’s next show early next year, says: “She would be one of the first female artists that focused on the feminine rather than on being a feminist. She’s less concerned with the politics and status of women than she is with society’s enduring mystique of female beauty … Hers is not a butch gaze; it’s a beguiling gaze.”

Richard Grayson is a fellow artist, curator and writer, and a former director of Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation. He is author of a newly published monograph on Bezor’s work (the lavishly illustrated A Passionate Gaze). “I think she’s one of the pre-eminent figurative painters,” he says. “She’s made a very large contribution to Australian art, and she’s not hit a plateau; she’s still evolving.”

He sees Bezor as a “desert island painter”: “She’d carry on painting even if stuck on a desert island with no audience. She’s impelled by something within herself.”

The girl who left school at 14 to work in a hairdressing salon has come a long way. Even then, however, Bezor was struggling with the dark side of desirability. She left school early because boys gave her a hard time about her pretty face and well-developed body.

The hairdressing job offered no relief from unwanted attentions: “We had a male manager and he’d pat my bum as he’d go past, or pinch my waist, and say, `You’ve got a bit of puppy fat’. They would cut my hair and say, `You’ve got to wear makeup because you look too young’.

“I was constantly being manipulated. So I became anorexic for four years. Then I managed a salon when I was 19. I hated it. I had a nervous breakdown.” She lost her virginity, found herself pregnant, miscarried, then got more hateful work selling sewing machines door-to-door. The first of her two short-lived marriages, at 21, was followed by two confused years of “goofing off”, living on the dole in a shared house and experimenting with drugs.

“I applied for art school because that’s what people around me were doing,” says Bezor. But she floundered so badly for her first couple of years that one lecturer told her she shouldn’t be there. Her mutinousness kicked in and she was determined to prove him wrong.

She says her refusal to be cowed has stood her in good stead in the years since: “… if you’re going to get crushed easily then you can’t be an artist.”

Her creativity might never have been unleashed had it not been for a trauma that left her a wounded Aphrodite. In a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, she says, “I was raped in fourth year – and quite brutally, the man was sent to jail for five years … But I couldn’t work at art school in my final year because I couldn’t relate to people.

“The reason I’m telling you this is because it’s what caused the breakthrough. I stayed in the house where I was raped; I was raped in my bedroom. I took my easels and paints home and I painted (in that room) the whole of my fourth year. There was something about being alone and not having people watch me and say I wasn’t any good; I painted some amazing figures. I won a prize that year.

“Being left alone had other negative aspects in terms of my emotional wellbeing, but in terms of my creativity it was what I needed.”

She can talk about the rape coolly but her voice wavers when she recalls her most vivid memory of that solitary time: an injured bird.

“It’s one of those things that haunts me forever. I tried to save it and I couldn’t, so then I tried to chloroform it. I put it in a box and surrounded it with pillows and put cotton wool in there and thought, `Now it will be peaceful’. Eight hours later I took the pillows from around this box and it was still alive and looking at me, so I took it outside and let it go. It would have died, or a cat would have got it or something.”

She takes a deep, steadying breath.”I didn’t know what to do. I’d become a child again, in some way.”
Bezor must have regained her confidence by 1981 when she painted one of her most loved works, The snake is dead. A buxom, dark-haired woman lolls naked at a modern-day bush picnic, full of cheerful insouciance. Around her are eucalypts; above her a bird carries a dead snake. This is a triumphant Australian Eve, saucily unashamed.

Bezor says, “I was surrounded by the most amazing women at that time, and they were doing all these classes to rid themselves of any guilt about their bodies … They used to go along and take all their clothes off and tell each other how wonderful they were, basically.

“I got to see some things that most people don’t see as long as they live. People made love in front of me; I was invited along to watch various couplings, which I did with great gusto … because I am a voyeur. (They invited me) to prove to themselves that they were these wonderfully free and open people, and … they did have a sexual, sensual freedom that I don’t think a lot of women feel these days.”

Today Bezor is working on two series of paintings. In one she Asianises the features of faces from classic paintings: “It talks about the accident of birth, the superficiality of the surface, and how we regard Asians.” In the other she paints the faces of young women in soft porn magazines.

While she has spent most of her life wrestling with the superficiality of beauty, ageing has increased the preoccupation. “I realise as I get older that you do have to have a different kind of power … If your power has resided in your attractiveness, you’re going to be in a very lost space. My work is a huge thing for me because a lot of respect is accorded to me. I don’t get asked, `Why haven’t you had children? Why aren’t you in a relationship?’ People just look at what you do and how hard you work at it …”

Next year Bezor is off to Los Angeles; soon she will return to her beloved Paris. She used to spend half her time there but decided recently that superannuation was a priority: “I have to stop throwing money into the Seine.” Aphrodite, it seems, has developed some of Athena’s hard-headedness. “I don’t want to be old and poor. Bugger that.”

Annette Bezor: A Passionate Gaze, by Richard Grayson, Wakefield Press, $35.

Annette Bezor, artist

Born: Adelaide.

Educated: Degree in Fine Art at the South Australian School of Art, 1974-77; residency at the Power Studio, Cite Internationale des Arts, Paris, 1996.

Career: 19 solo exhibitions in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne; numerous group exhibitions; awarded Australia Council Fellowship in 1990 and represented at the ARCO International Art Fair in Madrid in 1996 and 1998; represented in the collections of all major Australian state galleries; painted the official portrait of former Premier Joan Kirner.

Lives: Adelaide and Paris

First published in The Age.

Who’s afraid of Harry Potter? Not me

IT’S time to stand up and be counted in defence of Harry Potter, boy wizard, publishing phenomenon, and magnet for the ire of Adults Who Know Better.

Harry is not a caricature. His stories are not plagiaristic pastiches unworthy to be deemed classics of children’s literature. And his exploits are not going to inspire kids into absconding at midnight to slaughter goats on altars to Beelzebub.

The Harry Potter books, by Scottish author Joanna Rowling, have taken off like a bushfire in a drought. Her warm, funny stories of an orphan who goes off to boarding school to study wizardry are being devoured by millions of eight to 14-year-olds.

In England, editions with adult black-and-white covers have been printed for the many fathers seen furtively reading the series on the train. Rowling’s earnings this year are estimated to reach more than $200million.

Her success has made fools of children’s publishers. Their accepted wisdom was that TV-watching kids would not have the attention span to read books as long as Rowling’s (more than 400 pages). She was rejected by nine publishers but, once in print, won immediate success – with children, that is.

The adult world is divided. Literati say the world of her books is thin, its imagery derivative and its structure flawed. Religious fundamentalists in America are trying to have the books banned from schools because the wizardry is “satanic”, and last month they were banned by the principal of a British primary school.

Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, are about as satanic as the Brady Bunch on broomsticks. Parents can trust Rowling’s work: her values are friendship and kindness, honesty and courage.

Rowling fully deserves children’s affection. She writes a cracking yarn and has an intuitive understanding of a child’s emotional world. Children love her stories not just because they entertain but because they do what people have always needed stories to do: play out symbolically the psychic dramas of human development and the moral dilemmas of life’s big questions. On this level the Harry Potter books have great integrity.

Poor narrative structure? Harry is very much the archetypal hero described by Joseph Campbell in his analysis of universal mythic themes, The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous foes are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Like Campbell’s heroes, Harry crosses a magical threshold into the other world (in his case, Platform Nine and Three Quarters at King’s Cross Station), receives all kinds of unexpected supernatural aid and is transformed by his experience of victory over evil.

True, Rowling has picked like a magpie through the treasury of children’s stories. Her Every Flavor Beans, which offer all sorts of surprises to the taste buds, echo products from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Ursula Le Guin wrote about a magic school in Wizard of Earthsea; Rowling’s giant spider Aragog might have descended from Tolkien’s Shelob, and her flying car – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, surely?

But in literature, little is truly original. Most stories are derivative in some way. Rowling has been criticised for copying Roald Dahl in her sketching of Harry as an orphan child abused by nasty relatives, but Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach mimicked an even earlier abused-orphan story, Cinderella.

James Joyce drew on the myth of Ulysses to produce his modern classic of the same name, and academics build whole careers detecting the allusions buried in it. Kids could play a similar game with the post-modern parodies in Harry Potter books. When they grow up and study media they’ll be told it’s called intertextuality.

And Rowling does it so wittily; the monstrous slavering three-headed dog guarding the sorcerer’s stone is based on Cerberus, but it’s Rowling’s deft touch to name it Fluffy. As for those Every Flavor Beans – any misappropriation involved is redeemed by this comical passage about the wise old wizard Dumbledore, Harry’s principal at Hogwarts:

“`I was unfortunate enough in my youth to come across a vomit-flavored one, and since then I’m afraid I’ve rather lost my liking for them. But I think I’d be safe with a nice toffee, don’t you?” He smiled and popped the golden brown bean into his mouth. Then he choked and said, “Alas! Ear wax!”

The question of where Rowling obtained individual nuggets of material is secondary; what matters is the wholeness and emotional truth of her stories. Here she excels.

Harry the orphan symbolises every child’s deepest fear: having to navigate a dark and dangerous world without parents. He is working out who he is and how he will face his fate. He learns that pleasantness is sometimes a veneer for evil and that unsympathetic characters can prove surprisingly staunch and upright.

From his mentor, Dumbledore, he hears universal wisdoms. On the dark lord Voldemort, known as You Know Who: “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

Harry learns that his remarkable powers are due to the fact that he has something of the dreaded Voldemort within himself; a metaphor for original sin, and the way our strengths are also our weaknesses.

And Dumbledore helps Harry keep alive his sense of the parents he lost. He tells Harry it was only his mother’s love that protected him from Voldemort’s attack when he was a baby: “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved you is gone, will give you some protection forever.”

Rowling is welcome into my children’s psyches any time.

The next book is due in June. See you on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross Station.

First published in The Age.

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.

Heart of the matter

Barry Otto has been an actor for more than 30 years and with two new films out he again demonstrates why he is one of our most respected thespians. He spoke to KAREN KISSANE.

THE Sydney taxi driver was laconic but nosey. Who was I going to interview? An actor? Oh yeah, which one? Barry Otto? “Heard of him but don’t know him,” he pronounced. “What’s he done?”
Well, he’s the manic depressive Roy in the film Cosi, and the evil father and the passive son in Lilian’s Story, and he was Doug Hastings, the forlorn dad of the brilliant young dancer in Strictly Ballroom . . .At this point the guy in the driver’s seat turns around, his face luminous, and blurts: “I love him! I loved him in that role. He was the sacred holder of the inheritance.
Everything in the son came from him. Even though he was despised, he secretly went on doing his little pot-bellied hoofing at night when no one was watching. That’s me! That’s my life story!”
Which only goes to show. You can spend 30 years in theatre doing everything from Shakespeare to Puss in Boots; you can play the lead in an arthouse film that wins international acclaim (Otto was Harry Joy in Peter Carey’s Bliss); and you can be hailed by your colleagues as a
great (and an untemperamental great, at that, for which said colleagues are doubly appreciative).

And none of it will earn you any cred with the man in the street. It is for his everyman roles on film that Barry Otto is best known and loved.

He accepts the news of the taxi-driver’s accolade gracefully but later it becomes clear that he’s feeling a bit suffocated by Doug’s success. “I did Doug and they say, `Well, Barry’s really good as a weak, sensitive old man’ and when another script comes along they say, `Barry for the broken down man’.

They wouldn’t think so easily of Barry playing Lilian’s father, this evil monster, or playing my policeman’s role in The Custodian.”
It’s one of his three gripes about how he’s regarded in the industry, the other two being how offended he feels at still having to screen test (“Why don’t they just look at my last three films?”) and how grieved he was when the big film offers failed to roll in after Bliss.

Talking about it, he suddenly has that disappointed-by-life Doug Hastings look about him: “I thought, What did I do wrong in Bliss? I won best actor (the 1985 Sydney Film Critics Circle Award), and it won best film (AFI awards). But maybe a lot of people in this small industry didn’t like Bliss. It was a black comedy ahead of its time. I dunno.”
To interview Otto is to see a master at work. He does not so much tell stories as act them, slipping effortlessly in and out of character. Talking about his role in Jackie Chan’s next action movie, A Nice Guy, he tries to describe working with a crew of 70 Cantonese and scripts that were written the night before each day’s filming. He gives up on language and jumps to his feet, firing off an authoritative stream of babble in the Asian cadence. How did he play Puss in Boots, way back in 1972? “I was all in black. I was a slinky Puss, ” he says seductively, sliding his hand along an imaginary tail.

Otto, 55, lives with his second wife, Sue Hill, and their two young children in a huge terrace house of faded grandeur in Sydney’s inner west. (“When an actor lives in this suburb, it’s a declaration he’s an ordinary bloke,” the taxi driver had said – but maybe he was projecting again.) He was right in that Otto’s start in life could not have been more ordinary. He was the only boy of three children whose father worked as a butcher. They did not own a car or a house, but the fact that they had to rent turned out to be a godsend for Otto.

As a child he would stand beside his mother when the landlord, patriarch of a Brisbane sawmilling family, came to collect the rent. The man gave him a job when he was 18 and he and his daughter, May Thompson, became Otto’s mentors. Otto calls May, now in her 80s, his godmother, and has named his second daughter Gracie May. (His older daughter is actress Miranda Otto).

It was May Thompson who introduced Otto to theatre and encouraged him to exploit his drawing talent by studying graphics. He became a fashion illustrator for the Myer Emporium in Brisbane and moved into professional acting from amateur theatre.

Thompson also gave Otto a taste for material luxuries. Asked whether his history shows how hard it is for working- class kids to get ahead without the sort of help he had, Otto says: “But I was determined, too. I was going to live in a house like May had. We had none of the things she had. I hated our house as a kid. Just hated it. This house is full of antiques upstairs; all my film money went on buying oak, carved oak.”
His is the house of a hopeless romantic. The cracked and peeling paint is hardly visible between the dozens of beautifully framed antique paintings and photographs that cover the walls.

Out in his big timber-lined studio (a former coach-house) in the backyard, the walls are also lined from floor to ceiling with photographs and paintings, and some of the canvasses are his own. Otto loves to paint; he says his style can be compared to the pre-Raphaelites. The results on view today are watercolors of luscious maidens in period dress.

The studio is also where he writes. He hopes that his script about a trans-sexual, tentatively entitled “The Man in The Little Black Dress”, will be made into a film next year. The idea, he says, “came out of meeting a trans-sexual, who I didn’t pick as a trans-sexual, driving a taxi in Sydney.

It was a man who had become a woman. She was a very plain woman, not all dressed up with lipstick and high heels and false nails. She had socks on, and a blouse, with her hair in a little knot at the back.

“She told me that she’d been a man for 45 years and was a woman now and had had a divorce a year ago with her wife and was paying off the taxi licence . . . The story she told me was so funny, so absurd and so touching and courageous.

“When I got out of the taxi, I thought, `I’ve never played this person.’ I wanted to write a really funny, compassionate story.”
It’s not hard to imagine Otto in the role. Much as he may sigh to hear it, he has a gift for portraying male vulnerability in a way that inspires compassion rather than contempt in the audience. In Lilian’s Story there is sympathy rather than disgust for Lilian’s brother, his spirit so crushed that he does not help his sister in her direst need; there is sadness rather than impatience for the loopy Roy in Cosi, who is either barking orders or cowering childlike under the bedclothes.

THERE was going to be a question for Otto about whether he had allowed his portrayal of Roy to career into caricature, but he raises the issue first. Angrily.

It turns out that Age reviews had accused him of just that, most unfairly, he argues. Cosi, a warm and funny film, was based on an experience of the director Louis Nowra. As a student he was commissioned to direct a play with inmates of a psychiatric hospital. The film’s larger-than-life characters were based on these real people, and Otto and the other actors spent time in mental hospitals researching their roles. If they seem over the top, perhaps it’s because most of us only meet those of the mentally ill who have been medicated into a wooden semblance of calm.

“What is a caricature?” Otto asks. “A caricature is a send up of the real thing. In fact I would pale alongside many of them. Some people think . . . they’re not like that, and I say, `Excuse me; I’ve done the research!”‘ The barbs bit deep because if there is one thing for which Otto is renowned in the trade, it is his professionalism. He is meticulous in his preparation for a role. Mark Joffe, who directed him in Cosi, says, “He’s incredibly generous.

Cosi was a big cast and he managed to gel them all together.

He was the leader of the cast and he did it with style.

“As an actor he’s got a wonderful range. He can do drama and comedy, he has a wonderful sense of timing and of the absurd. And he doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is . . . a rare quality in an actor.” Nadia Tass, who directed him in a theatre version of Cosi, agrees. “I think this is a guy who belongs with the very, very top actors of the world, people like Gielgud.” Ruth Cracknell, who played Lilian, says simply, “He’s lovely, just lovely. That’s all.” Asked about his weaknesses, Tass says she found none; Joffe pauses a moment, then offers, “He has incredibly bad taste in clothes . . .”
Otto has been generous with today’s performance too. He has talked for three hours, meandering seamlessly over his personal and public life but offering only what he is comfortable with, gently resisting being steered.

He relaxes utterly only when a stage is created for him.

The photographer sets up studio lights in the old coachhouse, creating a pool of light in which Otto is asked to sit, centre- stage. He slowly swings one leg as the discourse becomes a monologue, the actor at ease before his audience, playing to it while appearing oblivious of it. The scene lacks only the curtain.

Cosi and Lilian’s Story are screening now.


1994: Green Room award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Cosi.

1992: Film Critics Circle of Australia award for Best Supporting Actor in Strictly Ballroom.

1992: AFI award for Best Supporting Actor in a Leading Role for Strictly Ballroom.

1991: Green Room award for Best Male Actor in a Leading Role for The Marriage of Figaro.

1986: AFI nomination for Best Actor for The More Things Change.

1985: Sydney Critics Circle award for Best Actor for Bliss.

1985: AFI award nomination for Best Actor for Bliss.

First published in The Age

Bargain paperbacks continue the Penguin tradition

Sixty years on, Australians are celebrating the paperback by buying pocket-sized morsels of work by 60 writers. 

WHEN the author Gerald Murnane was eight, he saw his first Penguin paperbacks at his grandmother’s house. It was the 1940s and, in the unerring way families have of ensuring the very behavior they want to discourage, his aunts warned him that such books were not fit for children.

But when Murnane finally sneaked them away he found their contents more puzzling than enlightening. He was left with a strong sense that words such as “mistress” and “affair” held worlds of meaning he had yet to explore.

Later, Murnane qualified for university but disdained it in favor of “a typical young-man project of educating myself and becoming a writer at the same time”. For this he read Pelicans, the Penguin imprint for educational non-fiction.

He still has his paperback works of Hume and Berkeley, histories of England and introductions to art.

In the 1950s he returned to the Penguin family for his sex education but this time his luck was out. The Psychology of Sex, which he was inspired to buy after seeing it in the hands of many other young hopefuls, turned out to be a ponderous psychoanalytic tome that probably read little better in its original German.

Penguin paperbacks are woven through the reading lives of nearly three generations of Australians. In 1935 Penguin was launched with 10 sixpenny titles by authors including Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway; soon they were selling in their millions.

The company is marking its 60th birthday this year with a special issue that echoes its original aim of supplying ordinary people with good writing, cheaply. A publisher’s sell-out of 500,000 copies of Penguin 60s, pocket-sized morsels of work by 60 writers from Marcus Aurelius to Poppy Z. Brite, has gone into Australian bookshops, where they retail for a phenomenally popular $1.95.

For half the price of a glossy magazine, the reader gets about an hour’s taste of a writer’s style in the form of a chapter of a novel, some short stories or, if it’s Marcus Aurelius, a series of meditations. In England last July, eight of the mini-books cracked the top 10 non-fiction paperback list and three made fiction’s top 10. Their success might lead to increases in sales of other works by those authors; like the titbits a butcher barbecues outside his shop on a Saturday morning, the mini-books are designed to be delectable little temptations enticing readers into buying more.

That’s the part that exasperates Morris Lurie, who happens to be a Penguin author. “They should be giving them away free when you buy a Penguin, because they’re only promoting other books,” he snaps. “They’re only a few pages, and it’s their birthday and they do make 10 trillion dollars a year.

” But the former Premier, Joan Kirner, finds them a delight: “They’re terrific for aeroplanes and things. It’s nice to have something small and light that you can fill in an hour with and they’ve got large enough print for me to be able to read them.”
When she was a child, Kirner’s family had a few hardcover children’s classics such as titles by Mary Grant Bruce and the “royal albums”: “How to grow up like the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret!” It was when she got to teacher’s college, a working-class girl determined to make good, that she discovered the paperback mostly in its second-hand form.

She still has a bookcase filled with the orange and blue spines of the Penguins she read and studied then.

For her and for many other Australian public figures, the paperback was the only affordable gateway into the world of ideas. Lurie says, “That’s where we found out about all sorts of authors William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald.

The books have a great tendency to turn brown Penguin have always used cheap paper but they introduced us to lots of people.”
For Patsy Adam-Smith, author of books including The Anzacs and Goodbye Girlie, paperbacks were her lifeline to the world when she was an unhappy young wife in an isolated Tasmanian town in the ’50s. “I had to buy books; I couldn’t borrow, I don’t think there were people who read.” She remembers in particular Clochemerle, the satiric novel of French village life “It would have delighted me at the time; I didn’t know people who spoke out honestly” and Homer’s Iliad, which she loved so much she named her daughter Danae.

The writer Morris West has never been published by Penguin but remembers being asked to join its stable by its founder, Allen Lane, “back in the days when he was adventuring”.

West sees Lane’s launch of the paperback in the English-speaking world as “a seminal event, like the Internet”, and not just for readers. Suddenly authors who would have thought themselves lucky to be selling tens of thousands of books found they were being read by millions.

The readers, at least, would disagree with George Orwell’s comment in 1936: “The Penguin books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.”

First published in The Age.