Helen Garner Q&A: “I’m happier as a divorced grandmother than ever before”

The writer talks punctuation, Seinfeld, and Nancy Pelosi.

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Helen Garner was born in Geelong, Australia in 1942. Her debut novel “Monkey Grip” was celebrated for its social realism and portrayal of female experience. She has published widely across fiction and non-fiction and has been called “Australia’s greatest living writer”.

What’s your earliest memory?

A big black window bursting with stars. I think they must have been fireworks.

Who was your childhood hero?

The Fairy Blackstick in Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring, because she turned up, uninvited with no gift, to the christening of the baby of a stupid, vain couple whose riches were ill-gotten; she leaned over the cradle and said: “The best thing I can wish for you, my dear, is a little misfortune.”

What book last changed your thinking?

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, a brilliantly composed array of interviews with hundreds of women whose experiences in the Soviet armed forces had been scrubbed from the public record. Since she won the Nobel prize, no one can deny that non-fiction can be high literature.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Nancy Pelosi, because she’s got the brains and the hard political experience to stick it to America’s buffoon of a president.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Punctuation. Otherwise, like quite a few writers, I don’t know much about anything that could be called a subject. It’s taken me decades to stop feeling ashamed of this.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Any in which there was good dentistry and I wouldn’t have to wear plunging necklines or huge wigs and die in childbirth.

What TV show could you not live without?

Seinfeld. I love its characters for their shameless narcissism and their obsession with the small, ridiculous problems of life.

Who would paint your portrait?

Someone with a merciful eye who wouldn’t expect me to keep them entertained while they worked.

What’s your theme tune?

“Don’t Fence Me In”. It’s the happily divorced woman’s anthem, very melodious and unregretful – also, it’s only got about seven chords and I can play it on my ukulele.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

When I was ten or so my grandfather said to me, “You’re quick on the uptake, my girl, but that is not enough.” I was stung. But he was absolutely right, as I have had to learn and relearn many times over the years.

What’s currently bugging you?

The fact that I planted my tomatoes way too close together and they’re tall and wild and hardly fruiting at all.

What would make your life better?

Remembering the tomato mistake next year.

When were you happiest?

No doubt about it, I’m happier now at 76, as a no-longer-married grandmother, than I’ve ever been before. I can’t believe my luck. I’m loved and useful and free and endlessly entertained, all at once.

In another life, what job would you have?

I could clean houses. I’m good at that.

Are we all doomed?

Of course; we’ve always known it. That’s why there’s poetry and music, philosophy and religion: so we can bear it. 

Helen Garner’s debut “Monkey Grip” has been reissued in the UK by Text Publishing

This article appears in the 22 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency