Date Archives April 2012

Writing Mothers: Anna Funder

Author Anna Funder
Author Anna Funder

I’ve been writing an essay for Island Magazine on the topic, Writing Mothers, where I’ve been looking at mother characters in Australian fiction (written by women), and talking to novelists and bloggers about how they even begin to juggle their writing with pregnancy and having children. I’ve also talked to writers (who are not mothers) about how they go about creating characters (who are mothers).

I’ve been surprised at how little research has been done on the topic (although the Australian Women Writers’ Network has been brilliant at giving me leads). It seems that mothers shimmy out of the limelight wherever possible. The article will be published in July but, in the meantime, I thought I’d start a series on Writing Mothers where I publish some of the interviews in full that I’ve quoted from in the article.

First up is Anna Funder, author of Stasiland (which won the world’s biggest prize for non-fiction, the Samuel Johnson Prize) and an outstanding debut novel, All That I Am (one of the best Australian novels of the past year, nominated for the Miles Franklin). She is one of Australia’s most exciting writers and here she talks about the challenges of writing when you have three children.

When you were pregnant, what were your expectations regarding having a baby and writing? Were you planning to write after the baby was born?

Anna Funder, Stasiland
Anna Funder, Stasiland

AF: I was finishing Stasiland when I was pregnant with my first child. I think pregnancy is a wonderful state, in that it chemically blurs all kinds of anxieties about the (completely and utterly unimaginable ) future that is coming. That applies to both babies, and books — how can anyone have any idea what it’s going to be like with either? I think I expected to have a quiet time with my baby, which I did for a little bit, but then the book took off and I was travelling and talking a lot for a couple of years.

When my baby was two weeks old I went out and bought a three-piece set of matching luggage on a whim. My dear friend, a mother of four, said to me, ‘You have a two-week-old baby. Where do you think you’re going??’ I had no idea, but I ended up travelling all over the place with my daughter.

What was it like in reality? Did you get any writing done in the first year after your baby was born?

AF: I wrote a lot of articles and speeches. I didn’t really have the mental wherewithal to nut out the architecture of a big novel — that came later. I found it hard to organise my time. My husband was overseas weeks at a time for about half the year, and I was in a city without much family support. I have three children now, and imagine I’m a bit better at outsourcing some of the care and making time to write. But truth be told, I put my novel All That I Am away for the first six months of my son’s life. I tried to have a break from it. Of course I wrote other stuff during that time.

Did you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or was it the opposite? Were you more creative, as you had less time, and had to be super disciplined?

AF: I don’t find discipline so hard. I find writing hard, but I am more stressed out by not doing it than by doing it, so I organise my life to be able to work. What is not good for writing is sleep deprivation and lactation; the brain function that is important for writing — the wordy, analytical, associative, creative part of your mind — is shut down by prolactin I believe. This is so that grown women who are used to doing a great many things can stay seated the eight hours a day it takes to feed a newborn without going mad, so it’s a good thing.

Also, a mother’s focus is incredibly directed, and her emotional energy is absolutely heightened by having a baby. This intensity of living and loving — this experience of being part of a dyad — is a wonderful gift. Like all intense emotional experiences, it broadens you in the longer term, which can make you a better writer. Motherhood also makes you a whole lot more vulnerable to the world, you have a greater stake in the future, and in the little people you’re putting into it. That’s not bad for a human being, or a writer.

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Translation)
Anna Funder, All That I Am (Translation)

Did you find the experience of motherhood starting to seep into your characters? Into the way you portray people?

AF: One woman whose story I wrote in Stasiland was separated from her baby by the Berlin Wall. I always found it a terrible story, but I realised much more shockingly after having a baby what she must have gone through. It wasn’t possible to do this solely by an act of sympathetic experience. I had to have the emotional receptors for it, and the only way to get those is –—in this instance — to have had a baby. I probably wouldn’t have written the story any differently. I still think it’s fine. But this experience is salutary for me. If what you do is work to enable people to understand and experience others, and other things through words, it makes you realise the limits of them.

Have you written about any mothers in your fiction before or after the birth? Did having a child mean you had to go back and rewrite or change characterisation?

AF: I do write about mothers. Often it is influenced more by my own mother, than by my experience of mothering. But I feel pretty well-equipped now, after three children, to write a convincing mother character. Or twenty.

Stay tuned for the next interview in the Writing Mothers series: blogger Bianca Wordley (isn’t that just the perfect name for a writer?).

Have you read Anna Funder’s Stasiland or All That I Am? What are your thoughts on these books?

Or are you a writing mother? How do you juggle your writing time with looking after the kids?

Nothing like a good spanky


Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method
Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method

In the opening scenes of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method we see Keira Knightley (as Sabina Spielrein) play mad. There’s no doubt about it. She’s hysterical. She bends forward at the waist, dry-retching as if she’s swallowed a wild chimpanzee. Her teeth chatter. She swims in a fishpond, cackling loudly, covered in mud, as the hospital’s male attendants prod and entice her. As the calm doctor Carl Jung applies his new method, the ‘talking cure’, she reveals very quickly that her father used to take all her clothes off (the first time when she was four) and beat her. And the revelation that fuels her sexual energies from then on? She used to like it.

(Note to self: never strip and humiliate children in case they develop serious belt fetish.)

From then on, the film ignores Spielrein (after a bit of hanky panky she is cured! she is cured!) and become a turgid account of the relationship between Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), reduced to a kind of one-upmanship of I’ll show you my dream if you show me yours. The dreams they dissect together are so obvious I’m surprised they don’t feature teeth falling out or going down steps into the basement or snakes writhing in water; you know, you’ve all had them. But these dreams are symbolic, see, with a capital S, because of the horrors that are to come (the holocaust): there’s a wave of water about to crash down.

Despite Spielrein’s brilliant intellect and challenge to the authority of Freud, she’s mainly pictured in corset (falling delicately off nipples) strapped and bent over the couch while Jung flagellates himself on all accounts. I’m not a prude. I quite like to watch. But I want to know why this turns her on. What is the connection between humiliation and sexual pleasure? What is the even deeper connection to her father? And why does Jung administering this punishment apparently offer her such freedom? Is it really her only way to connect to the world? Cronenberg ignores all of this. It’s so much easier just to film a bit of coy S+M in a mirror.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary

I’m trying to think of other films that employ a bit of S+M. The wonderful Secretary springs to mind, enlivened with a bit of humour and deadpan performances. Then there’s Salo (that I’ve always been meaning to watch, but the thought of it…), David Cronenberg’s own Crash (an unforgettable piece of filmmaking based on JG Ballard’s novel) and The Piano Teacher, with Isabelle Huppert’s usual knockout performance. (Serious fetishists have their own opinions, of course. See the serious discussion here.)

But look I’m no expert. The idea of masochistic sexual play makes me want to choke myself (now hang on a minute). Some may say any fiction writer in Australia is a masochist. But I think if it came to the crunch, I’d be much more interested in being a sadist. There’s a world of opportunity there.

For a more interesting look at a brilliant woman confronting mental illness, see Jane Campion’s classic biopic of Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table. Actress Kerry Fox goes inward and quiet; it’s a mesmerising performance to watch. I understand she’s not seen as an hysteric, and she doesn’t get off on S+M, but it’s an incredibly moving and powerful film, in its understated way.

Anyone into a bit of S+M? What are the most interesting examples of films and literature that explore it (you can post anonymously of course!)?

Or have you seen A Dangerous Method? What did you think of Spielrein’s character? The relationship between Freud and Jung?

They don’t make playgrounds like they used to…

Old slippery dipIn my day the slippery dips (they weren’t called slides then) were made of steel and you’d burn your bum as soon as the heat went above 26 degrees.
In my day there were no shade cloths to protect you from the sun. That’s why I’ve got so many goddamn freckles.
In my day, if you fell off the monkeybars, you fell onto grass. Or even worse, gravel. Or, if the teachers really hated you, cement. (Now it’s the much softer artificial turf — only a problem if you’re worried your children will get cancer from toxic waste.)
In my day roundabouts went so fast you could actually fall off from the giddy speed and hallucinate for hours afterwards.
In my day you could play on the seesaw and suffer a bone-crushing spinal injury when a big kid jumped off the other end while you were still in the air (oh, happy days).
In my day the flying foxes went into the tree.
In my day the slippery dips weren’t gently tapered at the end; they fell away dramatically so you’d get a mouthful of dirt if you came down forwards.

But in my day I never encountered a Variety Playground.

Lake Macquarie Variety Playground
Lake Macquarie Variety Playground, Speers Point

I took McCool (my three-year-old son) to a new park yesterday, the Lake Macquarie Variety Playground (yep that’s its official title) in Speers Point in Newcastle, and we both ended up having panic attacks.

His was at the start of the day. He fell asleep in the car (not a good start) and had to be woken up. ‘Wake up, we’re at the park!’ I always talk in exclamation points to him these days. He said ‘I want to go home’, ‘I want to go to the café’ ‘I want some banana bread’ ‘No, mumma, I DO want to play’ in the three minutes it took him to meander out of his carseat. He was starting to work up to a tanty.

And then we both saw it. A metallic rocket pointing to the sky. He started moving towards it as if being drawn in by a religious cult, his eyes fixed greedily to the top of the three-storey slide. As he scampered up the ropes to the first level, I realised this monstrosity had been purposely designed to keep parents out. By the time I had negotiated the maze to almost reach him, McCool (did I mention he is three years old?) had climbed into an enormous monkey cage, where teenagers and toddlers screamed, swinging arm in arm, embracing the Darwinist theory of evolution full throttle.

As he continued to scale up up up, without a thought in my direction, I realised that my anxiety was as much for me as him. I did not want to go in there. This was a mummy test. Ladders, cages, vertigo, tigers. A vertical maze. Who knew what awaited me? But my mum was down the bottom, staring up at me, looking more and more demanding as each child ‘not McCool’ emerged from the slide at silver speed. She pointed with one finger. Up. I gestured bravely as if that had always been my intention.

I entered the warren of ladders and cages, landing on sore ankles, jarring knees, after each step. When I was almost to the top, I saw my son, yeah there he was, down the bottom, apparently safely shot out of the slide cannon, happily articulating to grandma. Dodged a bullet there. As I wound my way down slowly against a barrage of kids, she yelled up at me, ‘he wants to go again!’

This time we went up together, but I became even more of a liability. ‘Can you come down after me?’, he pleaded, his three-year-old logic working the usual miracles. I did my best. I really did. Waiting in queue — while children with flailing limbs assaulted us from all sides —miles off the ground, I watched the flimsy slide bounce and shake as a hefty dad took his daughter down helter-skelter.

Justine Clarke, Look Both Ways
Justine Clarke, Look Both Ways

And all I could think of? Two words. Newcastle. Earthquake. All these kids falling to the ground. The slide falling away like a used condom. Soiled. Well, enough metaphor already. All of us dead, actually.

I thought I did my job. As a mum. I got McCool to the slide. I asked a dad behind him if he could keep an eye. I got the hell out of there, down the ladders, the way I had come. But at the bottom? Nothing. Minutes passed. Not a sign of him. I was not going back in there. I looked at mum. She gave me the finger again. Well, okay, I started moving tentatively back. And then I saw him. In another man’s arms. Down down down. He’d asked a dad to carry him down all the ladders. He didn’t seem the slightest bit anxious. But he didn’t want to go down the slide again. Not without me behind him.

In my day I would have gone down that slide. What has happened to youthful recklessness? With motherhood I’ve become like Meryl (Justine Clarke) in Sarah Watts’ wonderful Look Both Ways, endlessly catastrophising — only I don’t do it artistically, in beautiful animations.

I just breathe heavily, close my eyes, and want to get out of there.

What do you remember of playgrounds? Were they a time of fun, or fear? Let me know your stories, childhood or parental traumas…

Vulnerability in the digital age

Don Draper, Mad Men
Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Mad Men

One of the talks I like to watch again and again on the net is Brené Brown’s lively and moving dissection of vulnerability at the wonderful TED site. She speaks of the importance of embracing vulnerability, how difficult this can be in a world where happiness is often equated with success, and how admitting you’re vulnerable is often a first step to making a real connection with someone.

There are many situations where vulnerability is required, or even demanded: labour pains at birth; attending a funeral; giving a speech in front of strangers; going for a job interview for a position you really want; moving to a new place and trying to make friends (as we will be, soon).

And I think, for writers, it’s a constant theme in our work. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, your words (and your persona) are being examined closely: what do they reveal about you as a person, your past relationships, your current state of mind? When new fiction writers face audiences at festivals, or talk to people about their book at parties, they are invariably asked, ‘Is the book autobiographical?’ or ‘Is that character based on you?’

It can be a difficult question to answer. I see it as like making a jug of cordial. You add a bit of the sweet syrupy stuff (the essence, from your life) but then you mix in water and it dilutes, becomes a different substance, more tart, a new texture to swallow.

Nurse Jackie
Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie

Vulnerability is on my mind as I was offered a book deal this week, to publish my first novel. My first reaction (obviously) was to sing the most irritating song on earth, ‘I’m Walking on Sunshine’, for the entire week and open the bubbles. But then I started to get nervous. Would I feel exposed? What if my grandmother read it? Would readers start to think the central character was based on me? Would my friends and family feel betrayed?

Many of the most exciting narratives of our time are based around the central issue of vulnerability. What would The Sopranos be without Tony Soprano’s regular visit to his therapist and unexpected panic attacks (when he’s cooking sausages) — his central core fear of his weaknesses being revealed. And then there’s Mad Men, where all characters hide various shameful acts (or at least labelled shameful at the time) under a veneer of glamour and rigorous work ethic (helped by generous alcohol consumption during work hours). Don Draper is particularly vulnerable because it is his true identity he tries so desperately to hide, the shame of being a deserter; by creating a new character to hide behind, his links with reality are tenuous, and his decision-making is flawed. In Nurse Jackie, Jackie copes by having a double life: prescription drug addiction and an affair with the man who doles them out. In Breaking Bad, a man is so frightened of revealing his life-threatening cancer to his wife, he starts cooking amphetamines and becomes embroiled in murdering mayhem.

You’d think in today’s age, where revelation is all (Oprah style), that admitting you’re vulnerable may be easier. But I think the technologies that surround us — the way we can now text, FB, msg or email when something is too difficult to say face to face, or even on the phone — means we are protected (wrapped up in our techno-turtle-shells) from disappointing others, from revealing ourselves.

When my grandfather died, I got a text message. In six words a beautiful, humble, loving man was reduced (for me). The person on the other end of the phone was too vulnerable to speak, to tell others, in grief. But those moments can be the most important ones in day to day life, the ones we always remember, for what they reveal (and don’t) about the person on the other end of the line.