Reunion is a wonderfully rich and lively novel of ideas; but it’s also very character-driven. What came first, the characters or the ideas? And did you have to make a conscious effort to keep them balanced – not to let one override the other?
The ideas always come first for me. I have a very low tolerance to boredom, and a few juicy ideas will hold my interest through the long years of writing a novel. The nature of enduring friendship, obsessive love, a passion for work which is blindly irresistible, the seesaw of risk/certainty which is rarely balanced in a fully lived life, these were the ideas that fuelled Reunion. They also provided hugely fertile ground for creating characters.
As you develop the characters, so the ideas become absorbed into their own particular stories, their own desires and confusions, their mistakes, their secrets. The ideas become absorbed into the fiction.
For the four university friends, ‘the only life worth living was the examined one’. But at various points in the novel, they are careful not to examine their relationships and ideals too closely, for fear of being challenged. What drew you to exploring this paradox?
I’ve long been fascinated by the discrepancies between how people want to behave, how they actually do behave, and their understanding of their actions in retrospect. It seems to me that we cut quite a lot of slack in important relationships, that we will protect such relationships even at the expense of honesty or authenticity. This happens with the characters in Reunion – and not just with the old friends but also in the marriage which is central to the novel. It’s a question of ideals and how these survive the push and pull of everyday life. It’s a question, too, of compromise, and how one person’s compromise is another’s capitulation. I find these issues pretty gripping – both in life and in fiction.
‘It is the storms that matter, the storms that test you.’ This concept seems to be at the heart of the novel –not just in relation to the conflict between ideals and ethics, but relationships, too, as the idealised, ‘special’ friendship between the four university friends is pushed to the limits. Did you set out to explore this concept, or did it develop as you wrote the book?
Everyone can manage the calm seas – work going well, marriage and affair nicely balanced, no debts, regular holidays – but that’s not the stuff of a fully-lived life. Nor does it make for an interesting novel. I’m fascinated by what happens when competing passions are brought hard against each other, how people (and characters) untangle the conflict between, say, loyalty to a friend and a passion for work.
Novels provide a wonderful, leisurely way of exploring the complexities of being human. You, the author, create the characters, you create the situations, you throw up the conflicts. It’s great work. At the beginning of writing I knew my characters would be faced with challenges and conflicts that would test the friendships, but the exact nature of these only emerged as the novel started to take shape.
Your juxtaposition of 1970s Melbourne with new millennium Melbourne throws the way we live now into sharp relief, as well as showing what we have lost and gained in the changes of the past twenty years or so. Was that something you were hoping to do?
Yes. Reunion was written and set during the endless Howard years – a period of terrible wear and tear on the moral fabric of this nation. Of particular concern to me was how readily Australians accepted the Howard agenda. Values and beliefs need constant scrutiny and interrogation otherwise you can find yourself behaving in ways that in a different context you would, without hesitation, judge as reprehensible.
Talk helps to sort things out. I regret the loss of face-to-face discussion, of risky argument, and riskier confession. I like real-time, real-space talk with its blushing emotion, its dry mouth and faltering eye-contact. I regret that leisure time these days is more likely to be spent in silent communion with a computer than potentially excruciating embarrassing engagement with others. (And none of this is to suggest I want a return to the 1970s, no woman who loves her iBook would.)
Helen wonders ‘how she would live’ if forced out of science. This seems to be a central thread of the book – how would you live without your driving passion? And what sacrifices would you make to keep it? How far would you go, or allow yourself to be pushed? How important was this idea to the book?
It was crucial to the book and one of the original ideas I wanted to explore. I love connecting with people who have a driving passion – whether for quilting or gardening or cooking or doing science it doesn’t matter. Without a driving passion existence would be a warm water bath.
A recurring theme considers the line between calculated risk and caution – particularly, the risk we take of losing out on life and experience when being overly cautious. Ava, queen of the calculated risk, has scaled the heights of ambition (at a cost she considers fair); while perfectionist Jack begins the novel stalled in an agony of inaction. What made you want to explore this idea? Do you think it relates to society as well as individuals?
At this time in human history the desire for certainty has pervaded practically every aspect of life. We seem to be prepared to forfeit a whole swag of freedoms and possibilities in order to ensure safety and predictability. Yet as the terrain of what is defined as acceptable behaviour shrinks, we lose much of what constitutes being human, including an appreciation and embrace of diversity. The fact is that we may well chafe against uncertainty in human existence, but uncertainty has always been a characteristic of human beings wherever they have lived in groups.
As children, both Helen and Ava had relationships with much older men. At university Ava had an affair with Conrad, her philosophy lecturer. All these experiences – risky as they were, nourished the successful adults they became. Yet in these days of caution those involved would be condemned out of hand, and result in sackings and prison sentences.
Jack, in his devotion to perfection, has opted for certainty in his life. Perfection is an absolute, you know exactly what it looks like: it is neat and tidy, it has all the answers. I think there is quite a lot of this sort of ‘benign’ fundamentalism around and it threatens to suck the richness and imagination out of life itself.
The impact of technology and the methods of communication we use on the relationships we have is an ongoing thread in Reunion. There are various references to the ‘romance’ and intimacy of letter-writing and email’s susceptibility to surveillance, for instance. But new technology is also integral to key events in the book. How important was this aspect of the book for you?
I love my Mac. I marvel at what I can discover within reach of my laptop. At the same time I think we need to understand better how technology affects learning, memory, identity, communication, privacy and I think we need to do this before the new technology is in widespread use. No one knows exactly how the dodo disappeared. We wouldn’t want future generations to say the same of memory, face-to-face communication, even privacy itself.
Novelist Ava reflects on the special ‘firsts’ particular to book lovers. Given this novel’s rich relationship and references to the world of literature, you must be a book lover. What were some of your ‘firsts’?
Enid Blyton taught me to be both a reader and a writer. She showed the seductions of a story. She whisked me away from the noise and powerlessness of childhood. Hail to thee, great Enid!
The first grown-up book I read by myself was Dickens' Tale of Two Cities. My mother said it was a wonderful book but difficult to get into (I was quite young at the time). So she read the first twenty pages aloud to me, and then I was off and running by myself. It remains my favourite Dickens.
Hugo’s Les Miserables was the first book I bought with my own money. A boy who travelled the 69 tram up Glenferrie Road, on whom I had a huge crush, said he was reading it. After I finished the book I knew he was lying. I nonetheless remained smitten.