My knowledge of Australia includes Yoram Gross animated films, Peter Carey books and Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus – none of which makes me an expert. But, understanding my limitations, I went out and found myself a ringer. Lisa Hill from ANZ LitLovers graciously agreed to an interview.
BookSexy Review – Lisa, thank you so much for the interview! I have a bunch of questions for you.
Lisa – I’m not an expert, you know, just an enthusiast, but I’d be happy to help.
BookSexy Review – You’re way too modest. ANZ LitLovers is one of my favorite blogs. For those who haven’t discovered it yet, can you please talk about the blog and how it got started?
Lisa – Back in 2002 a friend and I started our own online book group, ANZ LitLovers, because we realised that Australian authors were only ever going to be a token presence in any international online book group and we wanted to explore the literature that is our own. I’ve read widely across other literatures: Russian, Irish, American, French, Indian, Canadian, African and British, but I feel there’s something missing in my life if I don’t read from my own history and culture.
In my other life (the day job) I set up a professional blog after doing a Web 2.0 course, and from there it was a short step to set up the ANZ LitLovers blog . My initial aim was to join other book bloggers with contributions from ANZ LitLovers group members. But they were bashful about publishing to the world, and I was not – mainly because I thought then that no one was reading it except for us! That eventually morphed into my book blog – and like Topsy, it just growed!* I’m still amazed to find that a little niche blog like mine has reached a 150,000 hit milestone and garners over 6000 visitors from all over the world each month and I am very grateful to the readers who drop by to make a quick comment. It is so encouraging, even when they don’t agree with me!
BookSexy Review – Do you only review Australian books & authors?
Lisa – I now review almost all my reading so the blog has become an adjunct to the reading journals I’ve been keeping for years and years. My focus is firmly on Australian literature but I also read a fair bit of classic and contemporary literature from around the world, because I don’t think I can comment on OzLit without placing it in context with other literary traditions, cultures and trends. In the last couple of years I’ve extended my reach to our neighbours across the Tasman and am now regularly reading and reviewing New Zealand literature as well.
I’m not a professional critic but I aim to be a well-informed amateur. I know I have to earn the respect of my readers by doing more than just putting shallow or insular opinions out there in cyber-space.
BookSexy Review – And do you run any particular series and/or features that readers interested in Australian literature might want to follow?
Lisa – I am working my way through all the Miles Franklin Award winners in my collection, I try to cover the current shortlists, and I like to review debut authors to introduce them to my readers. I also like exploring the backlists of favourite Aussie and out-of-print authors on my TBR such as Geoffrey Dutton, Vance Palmer and D’Arcy Niland. I like to give space to interesting writers of experimental, more elusive kinds of writing such as that of Gerald Murnane and Brian Castro and I try not be intimidated by things I don’t understand. In the time-honoured Aussie tradition, I ‘have a go’ and hope that my readers will start a conversation in the comments box to set me straight if I’ve misunderstood an author’s intent. I love making contact with Aussie authors for my Meet an Aussie Author series and am grateful to them for making time to contribute to it.
BookSexy Review – Would you say Australia has a strong literary tradition?
Lisa – Australia took a while to develop its own tradition; much of what was written here was derivative of the British tradition even after Federation in 1901. We don’t have a Thomas Hardy or an Anthony Trollope, a Jane Austen or a George Eliot, probably because it could hardly be expected of a convict settlement to produce social commentary! The short story collections of Henry Lawson (1867-1922) and Barbara Baynton (1857-1929) are the most well-known of early Australian writers but (For the Term of) His Natural Life by Marcus Clark (1846-1991) is still popular today after all these years. But even in the 20th century Aussie authors struggled to be published and had to go offshore; and authors and other creative artists were still fleeing to the UK in the 1960s.
However, in my opinion, by doing so they lost the opportunity to shape the contemporary Australian literary tradition which is exemplified by writers of my own time such as David Malouf, Jessica Anderson, Thea Astley, Xavier Herbert, David Foster, Thomas Keneally, Elizabeth Jolley, Amy Witting, Olga Masters, Ruth Park, Rodney Hall, Marion Halligan, Christopher Koch and Alex Miller. There are many more I could name, but these are my favourites who write as only Australians can. These – and Patrick White – were the writers who developed the identity and shaped the reputation of Australian writing here and overseas.
BookSexy Review – And how would you describe the identity Australian writing? Latin America has “magical realism”, the American South has Southern Gothic (along with a morbid fascination with run-on sentences) and the British seem to be attached to really thick novels with implausible plot twists (I blame Dickens & Wilkie Collins). So, please, feel free to stereotype an entire continent’s literature when answering this question. If you had to name a defining characteristic of Australian lit, what would it be? Your time starts…. now!
Lisa – Oh dear, I know I’m going to get myself into trouble with this answer …
I’m going to go out on a limb anyway and suggest that one defining characteristic is the character in extremis. From Henry Handel Richardson’s Richard Mahoney going mad in the Australian heat in her The Fortunes of Richard Mahony trilogy (1930) to the bizarre psychological state of Brian Castro’s Redvers in The Bath Fugues (2009), Australian authors like playing around with the characters in extreme situations. Indeed in a memorable Miles Franklin Award shortlist in 2009 the judges chose five novels featuring characters in extremis: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, Breath by Tim Winton, Ice by Louis Nowra, The Pages by Murray Bail and Wanting by Richard Flanagan.
Leslie Cannold has just produced The Book of Rachel (2011) (featuring a sister of Jesus); Susan Johnson’s Life in Seven Mistakes (2008) features a creative artist at the end of her tether; Gone by Jennifer Mills is about a man on the road after release from prison, Snake by Kate Jennings dissects a lacerating divorce, and Glenys Osborne’s Come Inside is the story of a woman who survives an 1887 shipwreck with no memory of anything except her name. Eliot Perlman brought us to tears with his portrait of the victims of economic rationalism in Three Dollars; and Joan London’s characters get sucked into the seedy side of Melbourne in The Good Parents.
BookSexy Review – “In extremis” is a Latin phrase. It means “in the farthest reaches” or “at the point of death” (thanks Wikipedia!). I obviously don’t need to ask you for examples. 🙂 So why do you think there’s this fascination with characters pushed to their limits?
Lisa – Perhaps it has something to do with our in extremis history: a bunch of settlers trying to make sense of a hostile landscape like no other juxtaposed with our indigenous stone age people trying to survive an invasion that threatened their very existence. In The Secret River and its successor The Lieutenant, one of my favourite authors, Kate Grenville explicitly focuses on crucial moments in this clash between the interloper and the Aborigine; and Kim Scott, an indigenous author from Western Australia has explored the same issue of First Contact in his brilliant new novel That Deadman Dance, (which has just won the 2011 Miles Franklin Award).
Perhaps it’s our geography too: despite a powerful love of home, we have a strong sense of that home being stranded on the edge of the world and being a long way from cultures we identify with. We romanticise the beauty and majesty of the wilderness and the arid inland but most of us are afraid of it, and so we huddle along the coastal environment in cities. Characterisation often features urbanites not at home in the bush: David Musgrave plays with the Age of Exploration in Glissando and Cate Kennedy’s characters risk all in the wilderness of Tasmania in The World Beneath. Roger McDonald explores this from an interesting new angle in When Colts Ran because it suggests that the ANZAC myth and the rugged Aussie Bush Male myth has passed its use-by date and that searching for a new 21st century male identity in the bush is problematic.
BookSexy Review – Who, in your opinion, is the most influential – your must read – Australian author?
Lisa – This one’s easy: it’s Patrick White, our only Nobel prize-winning author. My favourite is Voss, which satirizes the Age of Exploration with White’s trademark scorn, but I recommend The Twyborn Affair to start with because it was a bestseller in his day and the curious life of the gender-bending Eddie Twyborn is fascinating stuff. (BTW in extremis again, you see?)
BookSexy Review – And is there a new author in Australia who you’re particularly excited about?
Lisa – Oh, this is really, really hard! Only one? If I must restrain myself I’m going to give this gong to Chinese born Ouyang Yu – because in The English Class he exemplifies a new non-English-speaking-background Australian voice: born overseas but shaped here and writing playfully in an accessible postmodern style.
BookSexy Review – Lisa, thank you again for all the fabulous recommendations and for taking the time to answer my questions. And I encourage anyone who wants to learn more about ANZ (which stands for Australia & New Zealand), or read more of Lisa’s reviews and recommendations, to pay a visit to ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.
I’m off to order a copy of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. Right after I download Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (available via Kindle for only 99-cents!).