A Sidelong Relationship to Truth: An Interview with Michelle de Kretser

Michelle de Kretser’s novels include The Rose Grower, The Lost Dog, and Questions of Travel. She was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Australia before working as an editor with Lonely Planet. Her awards include the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Prime Minister’s Literary Award, a short-listing for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, and a long-listing for the Man Booker Prize. De Kretser often explores the themes of history, identity, location, relationships and belonging. We caught up to talk about her new novel, The Life to Come, which is on the shortlist of the Stella Prize, and is released in the US today.

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ROBERT WOOD: How did you come to writing? Not only in your practice, but also your thematic concerns?

MICHELLE DE KRETSER: My first novel, The Rose Grower, is set in France during the French Revolution. I had a year’s sabbatical from my work as an editor, and I began writing as a way of passing the time, really. My partner Chris and I had been on a walking holiday in rural France the previous year, during which time Chris had been thinking and talking about 18th-century French literature for a course he was teaching at Melbourne University. We’d both read Simon Schama’s Citizens and thought it tremendous. We were walking through the Gers, the province once known as Gascony, and even then, at the end of the 20th century, it felt so removed from Paris and urban French life, that we wondered what it must have been like in times past. I looked, idly, for a novel, in French or English, set in south-western France during the revolution, wondering how those world-changing events had been received so far from Paris. I didn’t find what I was looking for (it’s quite possible that such a novel exists, but my search was desultory); if I had, I might well not have become a writer. We write what we want to read — that’s how I began, anyway.

Tell us about The Rose Grower and how you shifted from that into writing about your own life.

On the surface, The Rose Grower seems to have no connection whatsoever to my life. I was smugly pleased about that: I’d avoided the ubiquitous autobiographical first novel. Then, when I was looking for an epigraph for the book, I came across something Napoleon Bonaparte said when shown the corpses strewn over a battlefield: “Small change! Small change!” It made me rethink the relationship between my novel and my life. Ethnically, I belong to a minority Sri Lankan community known as Dutch Burghers: people of mixed Asian and European heritage. In the wake of Ceylon’s independence from Britain, there was a considerable diaspora of Burghers — language politics played a large part — and my family ended up in Australia. I realized that I knew, from the inside out, what it was like to be the small change of history. And that site, the intersection of the self and history, is where all my books are located. History is inseparable from geography, of course, and I’m interested in writing about people in relation to place and time.

In that way, your new novel, The Life to Come, continues the threads that are in your previous work, including Questions of Travel. Can you tell us what it is about?

What is The Life to Come about? You know the answer to that: read it and find out. Otherwise, you’re approaching imaginative literature as journalism. The ideas a novel expresses are only part of what it’s “about”; the rest (the greater part) is how it expresses them — matters of style, structure, pacing, perspective, tone. They can only be experienced in the act of reading. The other thing is that every reader will have a different answer to that question. In that sense of individual meaning-making, a novel is completed every time someone reads it.

That is all very well said, and I think it gets to the heart of the joys and challenges of reading — how we make and collaborate on meaning. But, where did The Life to Come come from and what did it relate to in your life?

As to where this book came from: it came from the things all novels come from, a stew of wishes, observations, fear, dreams, and a hefty dose of magic. The sources of art are inexplicable, baffling. Look at my answer to the previous question. It tells you something about where my first book came from. Be careful: it’s quite the little story, isn’t it, and stories have a sidelong relationship to truth. But, here are some of the ingredients that went into The Life to Come: a house that I walked past in Sydney, disgust with neoliberal cruelties, disquiet at left-wing self-righteousness, an interest in journeys through cultures, classes and time, lacerating sorrow, despair at what gets left out of national mythologies, various dogs, a documentary I saw in 1993 about the massacre of Algerians in Paris, the delight I take in serious novels that are also pleasurable to read, the delight I take in novels with complicated characters, long walks in rural France, foodie-ism, the cultivation of public selves, impatience with the fetishisation of story, wondrous sights, the fears that beset writers, a desire to halt the violence of time.

That is a wonderful stew of influences. Across a range of those themes, the book is often acerbically humorous and has a real bite to it. Can you explain what the satirical elements in the voice and narration allow you to do?

I hope it enables me to ask what we’re doing with our lives and our societies while avoiding preaching. Not sure I always succeeded there. In her wonderful novel Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck quotes Brecht: “He who laughs has not yet received the terrible news.” It explains why comic novels often feel light-weight. What satire tries to do is to make you laugh so that you’re more receptive to the terrible news. And: I’m SO TIRED of the conflation of seriousness and earnestness, especially in literary fiction.

Building from that, The Life to Come self-consciously understands the novel in a social tradition. It takes the position that it is a way to critique power and privilege, not only of politicians and public figures, but everyday citizens and the chattering classes in particular. How do you see the novel as a form of social critique?

Well, you’ve already answered that; beautifully, in fact. Look: we spoke of satire. Satirists are thwarted romantics. We take aim at folly, greed, self-deception, cruelty because we believe in utopias. Otherwise, why bother with critique? One of the characters in the novel says, “I believe in the ethics of possibility.” Perhaps one function of art is to keep the possibility of change for the better in view.

Quite a few readers have told me that they felt confronted by The Life to Come; they go on to say something like, “It really made me think about things I do and say, and question myself.” What an extraordinarily magnanimous response — I’m incredibly touched by the open-hearted spirit readers have brought to the novel. They make me glad I wrote it.

In that way, what is the public role of intellectuals, artists, writers? How do you respond to the political moment now and what is the work of the future that is yet to come, as it were?

Intellectuals and artists are two different things, and I’m not an intellectual in the sense I think you mean, so I can’t comment on their role. Artists have no given public role; an individual artist might choose to create one, of course. Our sole obligation is to our work: to make it the best we can. What the public goes on to do with it or make of it is not our affair. I count Fiona McFarlane’s novel The Night Guest among the best to have come out of Australia in recent years. It’s about an elderly woman who is slipping into dementia, and her relationships with those around her. It draws attention to the isolation of elderly people but I wouldn’t describe it as a novel of social critique, or a political novel. It’s merely superb. It’s the antithesis of Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, a consciously political novel, a novel of social critique — but I value the two books equally. It’s important to bear in mind that what we label “political” shifts over time. Because Alice Munro wrote about the lives of women she was dismissed by masculinist critics for decades; feminist scholars and female readers always understood the political import of her subject matter, which is widely recognised now. The Life to Come is my response to the political moment. No, actually it’s my response to life at this time. As for the work to come: oh, I don’t know, what about producing leaders inspired by kindness and generosity rather than by cruelty and greed? What about ending systemic violence against Indigenous Australians? Then there’s dismantling capitalism, along with self-satisfaction, quietism and commercial pet food. Luckily, none of it is my work: it belongs to the young. I have great faith in them; in you.

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