How to Write About Darkness with Helen Garner at Sydney Writers’ Festival

The first thing that struck me about Helen Garner was her small frame, resembling that of a young adolescent. The wide sweep of stage dwarfed her as she stepped lightly across it – as nimble as a cat – to the large black lectern at its centre, marking the end of her short journey. Pixie like in appearance and with cropped greying hair she possessed a youthful nervous energy that belied her 70 plus years.

The second thing I noticed was her nervousness when she first spoke, dry mouthed. She soon forgot about herself and the words came freely. Her stature growing before our eyes as she focused on what she came here to do: share her experience of writing about darkness in her fiction to a polite reverent audience. We, her loyal acolytes, had donned scarves and boots to come out on a chilly mid-week night to hear our idol.

helen garner sydney writers festival

Helen Garner at Sydney Writers' Festival. Image Credit: Prudence Upton.

From my vantage point 8 rows from the front I had a clear view of her hallmark mischievous smile and a larrikin twinkle in her eyes as she eased into her task ahead. Both were at odds with the professorial air her gold rimmed glasses emitted, glimpses of the former teacher behind them. At times during her talk in the hour that followed I saw an intensity in her face and an intelligence that was reflected in the notes she read from. Here was a writer known for speaking her mind but who was simultaneously connected to the humour of life and the art of storytelling.

Garner was introduced by Cath Keenan, executive director and founder of the Sydney Story Factory. Keenan commenced the evening by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land beneath our venue, the Gadigal people. She also paid tribute to the keepers of the many stories that have been told prior to this special night at the City Recital Hall.

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Keenan described Garner’s distinctive voice: ‘as clear as a bell’, unique and distinctly her own, someone who has never shied away from controversy.

The darker side of male/female relationships has been a common thread in Garner’s work since the inception of her first book Monkey Grip in 1977. References to her latest work of non-fiction This House of Grief dominated the talk, which centres on the bleakest of incidents: when a grief stricken man, Robert Farquharson, drove his 3 sons into a dam on the way home to his ex-wife on Father’s Day in 2005. It took 2 trials, 3 appeals and 8 years before he was convicted of his crime.

Garner is a self-proclaimed ‘old hippy’, cutting a contrast in her brown suede pants and comfortable shoes to our corporately attired presenter Keenan. Garner admitted to getting ‘bashed’ by cops in her hippy youth at marches. Whereas these days she has a new found respect for them since her experiences in the courtroom, finding them calm, decent and shrewd.

She also envies them as they are employed to ‘fix situations’, they are trained to do so. She was privy to information and scenes in the courtrooms that she had no prior experience in dealing with. In the Farquharson case in particular she couldn’t wait to get home from court to hug her grandsons, who live just next door. Though she was worried about contaminating them – as if all the sadness and darkness she had witnessed during the day could leak out.

Quiet reigned in the cavernous 1200 seat auditorium when Garner spoke. No wonder she was nervous when she first walked onto the stage. We, a tribe of loyal wordsmiths gathered together, laughed in all the right places. Her use of the vernacular throughout the talk - ‘cops,’ ‘crims’, ‘sh*t’ – contradicted the thoroughness and the authority of her writing voice she read to us from.

Helen Garner is funny! She is self-deprecating too. This is what makes her writing so plausible. But how can someone with such a sense of humour write about such darkness? This is what we had gathered together to find out. Garner admitted in her introduction that her topic of the evening was ‘rashly chosen’ (cue: more audience laughter)

She also claimed to feeling tired of being defensive, especially in regard to the Farquharson case, and has been accused of making excuses and being ‘soft on men’. She stated clearly that she is not interested in writing about monsters; she instead turns our attention to ‘the fine membrane that separates ourselves from our darker selves’. She points to Farquharson as an example of the thousands of men out there – unable to articulate their feelings, hearts broken by rejection. This can be very dangerous ground.

Garner sets out to understand all the protagonists in the situation, however bleak. Her empathy for murderers and victims overrides convention and has made her a very controversial figure since publishing her other works of non-fiction based on trial and jury: The First Stone (1995) and Joe Cinque’s Consolation (2004).

She admits to entering into a ‘dangerous relationship of trust’ when she wrote Joe Cinque’s Consolation, as she had close contact with Joe’s family who presented only one side of the story. But for This House of Grief she believes that her narrow focus is the winning formula, one story written in human terms. This was in part due to the absence of contact with the main protagonists of this heart wrenching recount. People on both sides refused politely her offer of an interview.

Farquharson’s ex claimed his innocence until the second hearing, a watershed moment in Garner’s eyes, who wanted him to be innocent as the alternative was too intolerable to speculate. The ex-wife became from that moment the volatile witness from hell. Garner asks us from the black podium: ‘What is not more interesting than that?’ (more paroxysms of laughter from her doting disciples)

She humanises situations in her non-fiction with sharp observations of the everyday and draws us into the centre of what is going on, its heartbeat. Such as the way she talked about the photographs she found in one of Joe Cinque’s police files: a snapshot in a frame on a mantelpiece of a grinning young man in Rome, waving, with springy black hair full of vitality looking very pleased with himself. He had made it!

And that same face prone, face up on a bedroom floor, his naked body as relaxed as a sun bather; though on closer inspection there were track marks on his arm, a dishevelled bed beside him, black muck dribbling from the corner of his mouth and a dark uneven flush of blood pooling at his thighs.

When we witness the intimacy and horror of this scene we are no longer sitting comfortably on the sidelines admonishing evil for good in all its stark black-and-whiteness. We have entered the murky grey zone not far from our own vulnerability and human foibles; they are no longer a kept secret.

Garner has been accused in the past of ambushing other people’s trauma. I could see and hear from her impassioned tone and facial expression that it is her empathy that enables her to step back from the abyss far enough to render the situation real, not embellished, over sentimental or sensational. But not too far to not identify with her own mortality.

She shared with us during the course of the evening her other sources of inspiration. Rummaging through the archives of the Police and Justice Museum near Circular Quay in Sydney she came to realise that she wasn’t the steady unflinching person she thought she was. She uncovered the ‘unsentimental respect’ and ‘holiness’ of places where someone had died in the black and white photographs that she was allowed to inspect closely.

She also talked about admiration for the sparse writing style of Charles Raznikoff (1894 – 1976), an American poet whose writing subjects included Holocaust survivors, immigrants, and the urban and rural poor of the USA.

Another American writer Janet Malcolm was noted too, born in 1934 she has been a staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine since the 1960s and is known for her ‘not-nice’ style of writing about the everyday horrors of humankind.

Garner shared her unexpected uplifting moments on her breaks from the courtrooms. She once heard music down a hallway, ‘fragile drifts of notes and ghostly arpeggios’. Her ability to connect to this beauty sustained her in the dark hours of the courtroom as did human touches, such as when a stranger appeared brandishing a plate of lamingtons left over from a staff farewell party.

It was humbling to hear that Garner has self-doubts as a writer too. She had penned 60,000 words of This House of Grief when the jury found Farquharson guilty at the 2nd hearing. Then she put the book on hold when he appealed the jury’s decision and was granted a new trial (on technical grounds). She had also just shown the book to some friends who admitted that it was a boring read.

During the 6 month hiatus that followed she wrote The Spare Room, centred on the relationship between a woman and her friend who was dying of cancer. This book won 3 awards: the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Queensland Premier’s Award for Fiction and the Barbara Jefferis Award, and has been translated into many languages. Her break from writing non-fiction was well timed!

Garner was beginning to feel that the Farquharson case was too much for her, that she needed to abandon it. It was much bigger than she had envisaged. Her resolve lasted only ‘about 3 days’. Fortunately for us followers she persisted.

She stated:

Love is brutal, tears into the centre of us and lays us wide open."

That love and hate can both be as destructive as each other, and are inextricably linked. Garner has been shocked at the polarisation of opinion displayed in courtrooms and the media. She also admits to not being surprised anymore when she hears about people killing their children, her view now being 3 dimensional. And tells us with great wisdom: ‘comfort – you can’t own or deserve it. Like grace, you have to wait for it to come’. And that ‘we all have our own share of darkness’.

Helen Garner showed us on this night, by revealing her own vulnerability and by admitting to her own dark side, and by then turning darkness upside down to reveal the light underneath, that it is possible to write about darkness, just as the opposite is true.

She looks at the humanity behind the crime. Her words to Susan Wyndham from the Sydney Morning Herald on 15th August 2014 sum up her formula for writing about darkness:

What I’d like to think I do is take their trauma into the middle of me and contemplate it and brood over it in some useful way that’s not just a lot of screaming and shouting about evil."

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