July 2015

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with Helen Garner

In Helen Garner's latest book, This House of Grief, she follows the trial, conviction, and eventual appeal, of Robert Farquharson, a man accused of deliberately drowning his three young sons by driving his car into a body of water. After Farquharson escaped his sinking car, he said he had briefly passed out from a coughing fit, and that is what caused the accident. But the mother of the children, his ex-wife, had recently moved in with a new man, and one of his friends reported he had made some vague threats of revenge.

Garner's account of the trial is made all the more harrowing by her seemingly simple approach in the reporting. She simply writes down what she sees at the trial, without too much stylistic interference. One call fall into the book the way one falls into an abyss, where the reader is forced to confront some of the darkest impulses of human nature. The absence of absolute clarity of guilt or innocence, and the way that the domestic violence of the rejected man has become mundane and routine, makes the book difficult to turn away from.

This is not Garner's first work of legal consideration. In, The Consolation of Joe Cinque, She also took on the trial of a woman accused of murdering her boyfriend after a dinner party with friends with whom she had shared her plans. And in The First Stone, Garner investigated accusations of sexual harassment against a college official. The First Stone, despite being published twenty years ago, has become all too relevant again, as campus feminist groups are using their power to silence professors they disagree with (see for example the case of Laura Kipnis) and becoming bullies with Puritanical streaks. Garner ultimately condemned the campus feminists in The First Stone, and the book is almost as controversial today as it was at its debut.

Over a career spanning decades, Garner has moved from fiction to nonfiction, mixing the two forms expertly and showing a kind of ruthlessness with her characters and subjects that does not discount compassion, but rather an acceptance that there are no easy answers, that women are not only the oppressed and men are not only the oppressors, and that a wildness lives at the heart of us all no matter how we try to pretend at civility.

I spoke with Garner on the phone from her home in Melbourne, and the transcript has been edited lightly for length and flow.

What was it about this case that made you want to devote yourself to covering it?

My interest started when the crime happened. This happened in the town where I was born. So I followed the case from the very beginning from... there is the equivalent of what in America I think is called a grand jury -- the magistrate decides whether there's been a crime. I didn't sell the book beforehand, just in case it turned out not to have legs. I don't sign a contract until it's done. I don't like to commit myself until I'm sure there's a form to the story.

It took seven and a half years or so, from start to finish. I started this book roughly a year after I finished The Consolation of Joe Cinque. I did not knew if it was going to come together a book until it was over.

There were two trials, the original trial and conviction and then the appeal, with the same evidence at both, but at the second there was this bombshell witness. I had to write about both trials, but I did not know how I was going to write all this boring shit again. All of the technical evidence. This was the hardest technical book I've written, getting through all of the evidence.

I have to say, I read it straight through in one day, and then couldn't get out of bed for hours after, it didn't read like it was a struggle.

That is good to hear, I was worried. You go through the entire trial once, and then you have to go through it again, I wasn't sure the audience would stay with me. The audience now is more savvy for all this technical stuff, I haven't listened to Serial but I've been told it goes through a lot of evidence in the same way, and people get hooked.

This was the second book about a trial that you've written, the first being The Consolation of Joe Cinque. Did your approach vary between the trials? I had no idea they were written back-to-back in this way.

Yes, it was very different. There, I interviewed Cinque's parents for research, and they poured out their stories to me in a rage. I had full access to one side of the story, the story of the victim. And I had no access to the other side, despite my best efforts. I incurred an obligation to one side of the story. A painful, difficult obligation. Grueling, really.

With House of Grief, when I was starting out I dutifully approached both sides, but both said no. And I thought, I'm free. I can tell this story in a different way. I was able to detach much more. I just watched the court and trial process. So it was still grueling, but in a different way.

I read in a speech you gave at the Stella Awards a few years back, a statement you made about an ex-husband who had told you that nonfiction wasn't really art and how you had accidentally absorbed this opinion from him. I was wondering if you've since been able to shake off that judgment and see your own nonfiction writing as art.

Yes, I was married to a novelist, my first husband. He was what they call a "writer's writer." A modernist. He used to say to me that women cannot be artists, and at first I thought he was joking, but then I slowly realized he meant it. I was working in freelance journalism, feature writing, that sort of thing, and I was uncomfortable in that area. I like the border between forms, I don't want to have to label something as fiction and something else as nonfiction.

He had a severe hierarchy. The novel was at the top and journalism and nonfiction was way below that. And unconsciously I moved away from where we'd have rivalry and I wrote what would become The First Stone, a work of nonfiction.

I was under the sway of that husband, and still am. I suppose I still have an overhanging feeling that this is not the highest form of writing. But it infuriates me. Have you read John Hersey's Hiroshima? It's magnificent. It has poetic power and beauty. Australia in particular seems to think of the novel as art and nonfiction not. Even something like The Spare Room, it was based on real events but I called it a novel because I invented a few characters, which turns it into a work of fiction. It sells well, it won prizes. My nonfiction does not win prizes.

Where do you think this comes from, this anxiety about what is art and what can squeak into that category?

I think it's men.

[Laughs] Certainly the desire to make rules and enforce them is a masculine pursuit. It's just so heavy and old-fashioned. Women are the great readers. Women will sustain literature and writing. I just want to write a book and have it just be a book. Although I understand the bookstore anxiety about how to organize and label things.

So why the return to a courtroom?

I really love court, watching a trial. I feel completely alive when watching a trial. It's the most wonderful and fascinating spectacle. Grueling and appalling, but you're working at full capacity. It is thrilling to see how people's emotions can be brought to bear on human behavior in a productive way. But then, dreadful things happen in the name of justice.

People are always surprised, always asking me: how come you're allowed? Why do I get to watch the trial? They don't know what anyone can walk in. It's a public forum. It always amazes me that courts aren't packed with spectators.

What is it that you love? The bringing of order to chaos?

Bringing order to chaos, the way we can shine some rational light on people's darkest motives. All of the awful complexities of human life boiled down to a narrative.

There's a moment in your book, you quote a friend's response to the trial, she says something like, why can't men just leave? Why when a marriage falls apart do some of them have to kill everyone? Did you find an explanation while writing this book?

I don't think so. I believe that people, even civilized people, are filled with destructive impulses. There is something wild in humans. Anyone who has raised children knows that. People can be deeply wounded by the loss of love, particularly men. They don't have to take revenge by killing the children. There are other ways to be destructive. Just look at family court.

There is real pain and rage at the break-up of marriages. A friend of mine is a judge, and he told me he just can't read my book. "I'm kind of numb. I can't go there." Judges suffer greatly for what's brought before them. Even though we think of them as being above all that. But sometimes pain breaks out into cruelty and savagery. Law isn't going to stop that.

Your book The First Stone is twenty years old now, but, I don't know if this is going on in Australia, too, but on American campuses, this type of feminist action that you described, with affirmative consent rules and organizing against professors is happening all over again. The professor and feminist writer Laura Kipnis was brought up on charges of harassment under a secretive tribunal, due to an essay that she published, and students were actively protesting against her.

When The First Stone came out here, I knew it would make people angry, but I did not anticipate the mania. Campus feminism had a crazed Puritanism around it. I got a lot of mail from both sides. But from the feminists, I got a hysterical response. But then after time went by, I started to get letters from those same feminists, saying, I was really enraged and I thought you were appalling, but now that I'm a bit older I see that things are not quite as black and white as I once thought. That was deeply gratifying.

But still some women are beyond furious. A friend's reading group took the book up and a woman, who had not shown up for any of the other meetings, showed up seething with anger from when she read the book twenty years ago.

Mania feminism bursts out now and then. It was dealt with then, but it comes in waves. It's astonishing how hysterical things get. The First Stone was essentially a story about foolishness. And then that foolishness got entangled. The story burst out, and people got so angry. It calmed down, but feminist mania goes in a cycle of explode and then calm, explode and then calm.

I thought feminism was going to change the world! Back in the day of women's studies on all of the college campuses, but that moment has passed. I remember one event at an art museum in Sydney, I thought it would have a respectable crowd, but the line was out the door. And I was being protested by young, angry feminists. It was kind of a big thrill. Lunatics!

Does this wing of the feminist movement ever make you want to disown the whole thing? Call yourself something else, maybe? Because sometimes I look around, and it's like...

No. But I don't belong to any feminist organization. I believe in fairness and decency. I hate puritanical feminism. It's all man-hating. I thought we moved past that. I'm 72 now. Since 1998, I have not been in a relationship, and I have found that for the first time I could have real friendships with men. Now that I'm not "looking for a man," I appreciate their differentness. It's a different sort of companionship. I don't have to fight for my place anymore.

But I find that people come up to me, wanting me to write their stories. These men with their stories of being at the mercy of feminists. I don't want anything to do with it.

What have you been reading lately?

I'm trying to write some fiction, but I feel irritation whenever I pick up a novel to read. I sense that writers are all now having to think up some clever structure, or have to think up some interesting profession for their characters.

Is it just new fiction that you find irritating? Or do you want to punch Henry James in the face, too?

Ha! No, I like Henry James. It's contemporary. With new fiction, there's this scent of coming out of creative writing classes. It's all so scrubbed and polished. But with terrible grammar and punctuation, apparently no one is teaching that anymore.

I can still read Barbara Pym, who is dark and black about things, but with beautiful laughter. There's a lot of loneliness in it. I like writers from the '40s and '50s, like Elizabeth Taylor. And I have a great love for nonfiction. I wish it had a better name. It's defined by what it is not, that never seemed fair to me.

Oh! Did you read The Goldfinch?

I did.

What did you think?

Honestly, I hated it.

I did too! I hated it! I took a 24 hour flight and I was stupid enough that this was the only reading material I had on me. I left it in the airport on the woman's toilet. What a load of shit that was. I am relieved you hated it too, I was worried my shit detector was off.

It won all of the prizes, though.

What were they thinking? Once or twice I've been on a panel for a prize that had to tear itself apart to get to a winner. And a mediocre book ends up winning because of the crush of books nominated and the judges are polarized. But what a load of shit.

And when you're nominated... You start hoping your book will win an award, even though you know better. And that's when you realize that your self is not in the driver's seat, because you get excited and then totally crushed when you lose. You start crying, "Is there something wrong with me?" That happened to me, once or twice. But I got over it.