Helen Garner read from her latest book of essays, Everywhere I Look, a collection that spans ten years of writing and various subjects. She spoke about writing essays and writing her previous books with Ben Lerner, author of The Hatred of Poetry.
Lerner points out that in many of Garner’s essays, she seems to approach subjects from a point of view of rage and anger.
“I feel as though I’ve been furious for most of my life,” Garner says.
Garner spent several weeks with a sick friend living in her spare bedroom while the friend sought treatment for her terminal illness. Garner wrote a novelization of the experience, The Spare Room. She explains that the things required of a caregiver often lead to these feelings of anger especially when faced with the social expectations of carers as forgiving and patient people. Many carers harbor these latent feelings of anger.
When she read from the The Spare Room, Garner said she found sympathy from other caregivers that made her feel better about her own feelings of anger. “Naturally I was appalled at myself for having those feelings.” Garner also explained she enjoyed the benefit of very short period of caregiving, but many people spend their lifetimes providing.
Anger is not Garner’s only source of inspiration. She also likes legal proceedings. “I like going to courts!” she insists. Another of her works, This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial, with her attending the trial of a murderer. She explains that once you see people in court and you hear their stories, you begin to get hooked.
She wrote about the trial of Robert Farquharson, a father accused of murdering the mother of his children. People would often accuse her of finding excuses for him because they expected him to be a monster and she didn’t always present him that way. He was just an ordinary guy, she says.
Lots of people say they couldn’t read the book because of the horror of the murders. Garner sees her job as a writer as digesting those horrors and winnowing them away so that other people can bear reading about them and consuming them. It’s important to be able to contemplate these things.
Garner says she doesn’t watch crime dramas on television or read crime books. She often includes a character based on herself in the book and stories she writes as a way of accessing the events. But even though Helen is there, Garner fictionalizes elements of these stories for a variety of reasons. In the case of The Spare Room, she wanted to condense the timeline, and the real life friend didn’t pass away quite as quickly. But in the interest of making the story more interesting for the reader, it is often necessary to fictionalize elements of it.
When her friend did die, she says she was angry about the death. She was angry because her friend was dead, but also because it meant confronting her own eventually demise.
For the books written about court cases though, she says she didn’t feel she had the right to make them novels. She didn’t know what the truth was in those cases. Including herself as an observer allowed for interpretation of the facts and for opinions to exist. A fictional narrator would create a new truth.
“I feel very strongly that I have a contract with the reader,” she says.
At one point in her career, Garner made a living as a journalist. That helps her with her writing now. For one column she wrote, the word length was very precisely seven hundred and seventy words to fit in the printed space. She disliked when her editor cut her piece down, so she made sure that she hit the target exactly. The experience was helpful in training her to distill her writing.
“Life is short. People’s attention span is short.”