Jo Case interviews Deborah Forster about her first novel The Book of Emmett.
Emmett, the abusive father whose shadow looms large over the book and the lives of all his family, is a wonderfully complex character. He is ‘a monster’, but his frequent rages and bouts of madness are interspersed with glimpses of humanity – moments that, viewed in isolation, make him charismatic and even loving. The juxtaposition of the two Emmetts is heartbreaking. How did you go about crafting Emmett, and what was your view of him?
As an unpredictable person, someone absolutely terrifying but then, on occasion also completely wonderful. There are people like Emmett around, and many put on a good show of hiding themselves but they’re in deep trouble. At least these days they have a chance of getting help; in Emmett’s they didn’t.
He represents the damage that damaged people do. He is tragic, probably toxic but when he dies, at least some of his children love him and that is a kind of miracle, which to me, is what forgiveness is. Though Emmett would hate to admit it, he was a victim of poverty, of his generation, of absentee parents and of his own sensitive nature. He has an addictive personality and he’s a narcissist. He’s also a parent and he’s volatile. Many children put up with variations of Emmett, male or female. Not all parents fit the standard of perfection.
Emmett says in one of his rambles: ‘Triumph over adversity – all the best stories have it’. There’s an element of this theme in the book. Although the Brown family all bear terrible scars, they manage to live better lives than the ones they began with. Was Emmett’s comment a conscious reference to the novel itself?
It was something I thought he would say and think, particularly with reference to the books he loved, such as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. Triumph over adversity seems to be something readers are often after even though it’s not always possible. Sometimes forgiveness is as good as it gets. I believe it’s better than triumph actually because it involves recognition from others rather than vindication over them. So yes it was a sly message to myself in a way, in that I wonder why we all expect to triumph. Hope perches in us, I suppose.
This is a very Melbourne novel, anchored in a rich sense of place – not just the ‘blasted landscape’ of Footscray, but the cramped streets of North Melbourne, the Lifesaver-coloured cottages of Kensington and the perfect peaches and strong coffees of the Queen Victoria markets. How integral was the setting for you?
I see place as another character in this novel and I wanted the place and the people to reflect each other, to reflect the toughness of Footscray people as well as their sweetness. I love those places. That Footscray has gone now, it’s changed as everything always changes. When I was a kid, I wasn’t so crazy about it. I craved trees and flowers and pretty houses, much more like it’s become.
Originally the book was set more in North Melbourne and I researched the market and discovered there’s a cemetery still under the big car park. A cemetery was strictly divided according to race and religion. Amazing. I lived in North Melbourne when I was young and grew to love it. The Queen Victoria Market is beloved in this city and it seems almost spiritual to me in its beauty. All that glorious fresh food.
You write in intricate, knowing detail about the atmosphere of the newspaper where Louisa works as a journalist. How much did you draw on your own early years as a journalist for that?
The feelings of the journalist Louisa about journalism are not my own, they are how I thought she would feel. Journalism served me well over the years. I worked on staff and as a freelance on papers and magazines for a long time and ended up a columnist which was what I’d been aiming at. I learned much about life from journalism and about writing from intelligent editors. In the book I condensed and edited and changed many things, left out all the shorthand practise (now completely gone from the memory banks), left out the mistakes, left out the parties and the hours spent yakking at the Celtic Club, though to be honest, there, I was mostly a voyeur. Journalists and photographers are the best things about journalism, they’re often hilarious, usually kind and always gossipy.
The Brown children have mixed feelings about their father, despite their best efforts to simply hate him. ‘How can you love a monster?’ That’s really a question that haunts all of the characters, isn’t it?
It haunts them all and each fights the battle about whether their father is worth loving. Some find easier answers than others. Their characters indicate how they will handle it. One reader thought the book said: ‘a family is a family no matter what’. I see that. We are linked to our families in the most basic, eternal way and sometimes it’s painful and sometimes it’s boring and sometimes it’s wonderful. How long do you love someone? When do you give up on them? The love for them is like our blood. Still, what is forgivable to Louisa may not be to Jessie. Everything is personal.
I was interested in Emmett because he pushes those he loved a long way. In those days there was a lot of ‘domestic violence’ everywhere, possibly more visibly in the west than in more genteel suburbs. To forgive some of the things he did requires incredible compassion.
Exploring the boundaries of love is rewarding and enlightening. Emmett was a monster when he was a young man but that isn’t all he is and he doesn’t stay that way forever. Intent is important when you are prosecuting and his intentions were unknown even to himself. The trouble is he never knows how he will behave. A bit like the world really: you go out every day and you never know what will happen. Everything is random.
The characters in this novel are all driven by their history, either consciously or subconsciously repeating old patterns, or striving to avoid them – sometimes both. Louisa chooses a man who resembles her father. Rob decides any of them would be crazy to have children. Emmett, the abuser, was an abused child. How important was this to you in writing the novel?
It’s an important thing to realise what you have come from and that while you are in control of your present, you’re not in control of your past. I think by the end of the novel, most of the Browns have come to some sort of peace and have reached some kind of forgiveness. Childhood is very personal and it takes time to absorb and time to grow out of it. Louisa marries the first man who shows her any attention. That he was a poet seemed to her a kind of blessing so she rushed in and her impulsive nature caused her problems. Rob is closed off, still traumatised by what he endured. His care for Louisa’s children is hopeful though, he saves them and they love him. He probably has the most tender heart of anyone in the family. Jessie aims to save the world and, even so, she chooses a wise man as her partner. That’s hopeful. And Emmett the abuser, it turns out, was abused as a child. I wonder that this should be a surprise to anyone. Fundamentally good people usually behave badly for a reason. And yet this is never an excuse.
The bonds between the siblings was one of the most moving threads of the novel, and you capture the complexities of that bond beautifully – the recurring conflict and competition as well as the instinctive drawing together for comfort and support. Did you have to work to create that balance, or did it come naturally as you wrote?
The idea of love is a natural and rewarding thing to write about. Love is always my favourite topic. People who grew up in such an environment would love each other deeply. In the book, they are each other’s consolation, their comrades, their best mates. I thought of them as being in the trenches together.