Phoebe Bond talks to Georgia Blain about her new novel Too Close To Home, writing about and engaging with the politics of the times and the challenges of being a non-Aboriginal writer writing Aboriginal characters.
This is the first adult novel you’ve written in seven years. How did the writing of this book compare to previous novels? Can you talk a bit about the impetus to write Too Close To Home and the challenges you faced along the way?
I started the book when I was writing my memoir, Births Deaths Marriages. It was my fiction hit on the side as I tried to pin down my own life – and initially it was something I wrote in scraps, not sure whether I had a novel. However, once the memoir was finished, and the publicity was done, I returned to it – sure that there was a story there.
The initial impetus came from attending a talk given by David Marr in which he argued that writers had stopped writing about Australia in the present – that we were failing to face up to the issues of the day. It was the midst of the Howard era; the time of Mark Latham’s run at leadership, and a period when inner city people with left politics were routinely dismissed as the out of touch latte sipping elite.
I felt there were a few responses to Marr’s criticism:
- artists need time to let responses germinate and brew
- artists felt disenfranchised, hopeless and powerless during this period, none of which is conducive to creativity
- and for me, I was always aware of something uncomfortable inside, a sense that it was very easy for me to espouse particular politics, to express outrage at xenophobia, racism and fear politics from within an easy white middle class inner city ghetto where I spent all my time hanging with people very like myself.
This sense of discomfort became all the more heightened when my daughter first started primary school – and like the characters in the book, we lived in an area just outside the fashionable parts of the inner west, an area that is on the turn, and the school she attended was very mixed. I realised how we tend to congregate with people like ourselves, how little we often see of lives that our different to our own, and I wanted to move my characters out of their comfort zone, to really put their politics to the test.
Although it took a long time, the book was actually a joy to write. It’s very character driven, and the more I wrote the more I wanted to know what happened to these people. I wanted them to be alive, intelligent, aware of their flaws – people that readers felt they knew.
When I finally finished, so much had happened in the Australian political landscape (we’d lost Howard and Rudd), and yet in many ways it felt like so little had changed. Political campaigns were still run on a hideous mix of fear and hip pocket incentives. And so I decided to update the book to very close to the current time.
Set in an inner-city suburb of Sydney at the time of Kevin Rudd's overthrow, the characters in Too Close To Home seem to have a strong and fairly unified stance on Australia’s changing political climate in 2010. Who were you intending as the readership for this book? Do you think it will appeal to the politically unengaged?
I really don’t think about the intended readership as I write. I suppose I try and write a book that I would like to read. I want a story that pulls me along, characters that are vivid and engaging, and ultimately I hope that I will be both moved and forced to see the world a little differently. I don’t think anyone is completely politically unengaged, but even if you were very close to the end of that spectrum, I would think that the human element of the story – the dilemmas that the central characters face in their relationships (and this is political in itself) would pull you in.
Too Close To Home comprises a cast of characters in their forties, who work in the arts, who vote Green, who have children outside the confines of the nuclear family, and who you say, espouse beliefs that have become outdated and irrelevant. What propelled you put these characters under the microscope?
I tend to explore issues that intrigue me in my own life. I wanted to put political beliefs that I hold to the test. I wanted to put the kind of people that I know and live with and spend all my time with right there under the microscope – to be brutally honest and to make myself squirm a little uncomfortably in doing so.
Many non-Aboriginal writers are too scared to write Aboriginal characters into their novels for fear of breaching cultural codes. What were some of the challenges and rewards of creating Shane, Darlene and Archie, the Aboriginal family in Too Close To Home?
I was very aware of the difficulties non-Aboriginal writers can face in creating Aboriginal characters but one of the key issues that I wanted to explore was racism, and the divide between black and white Australia. And I didn’t want to do this in a simplistic way – the good Aboriginal characters, the bad whites, the obvious examples of racism. I hate reading books or watching movies where racism is reduced to simplistic extremes. I think it’s dangerous when we do this because it allows us to congratulate ourselves far too easily – we can tell ourselves that we’re not like that. In fact, racism is far more insidious. It’s there in all the assumptions we hold as soon as we meet someone, the quick ways in which we will pigeon hole people, the fact that we so often hang with people like ourselves, rarely moving out of our cultural comfort zone.
I really wanted Shane and his kids, Darlene and Archie, to be completely real. This was absolutely essential. I didn’t want him to just a drunk, or just a spiritual elder. He’s very rough around the edges, politically savvy, shy, a drinker, a neglectful parent and a very loving parent. His kids are exuberant, confident, cheeky and exhausting. They live in a different way to central white characters – and bridging this divide is extremely difficult for Freya, the main female character.
The novel is essentially divided into two halves, Summer and Winter, and your prose beautifully evokes Australia’s climate. Can you talk about how seasonal change and the ever-present sense of weather informed your creative processes?
Since I’ve moved further west, I’ve become very aware of how stinking hot this city can be. I write in little fibro sunroom that is blistering in summer and freezing in winter – so there’s a certain inevitability to the presence of the seasons in my work!
Freya’s friends Mikhala, Anna and Louise, are all older, career-focused women who want (and struggle) to have babies later in life. There was a real sense of them having a finite amount of time. What drove you to explore this theme?
At the time I had my daughter I was 34 (and termed a geriatric mother!). I was fortunate in having work and a partner and fertility - but so many women I know found themselves in their late thirties and early forties missing one of these ingredients. This can be incredibly painful. It’s a dividing time – you suddenly discover you’re on one side of the fence or the other – and for a lot of women (not all) there can be considerable grief involved in this, which isn’t always recognised by the world. I also hang with a lot of gays and lesbians who have had kids outside the confines of the traditional heterosexual family structure, and I’ve known single heterosexual women who’ve looked at ways of doing it on their own. Those last gasps of fertility or possibility when it comes to having kids are emotional, fraught and fascinating – perfect fodder for a novelist.
What are some of your favourite books and writers? Are there any that influenced you in the writing of this book?
I’m terrible at answering this question! I forget the name of everything as soon as I read it. At the moment I’m on a Colm Toibin binge, which is wonderful; I love short stories – Richard Ford and Alice Munroe in particular. I thoroughly enjoyed Fiona McGregor’s Indelible Ink. So, I suppose my ‘bent’ is fairly naturalistic – but I want my books to be rich and complex, to pull me right in, so that I’m completely unaware of the craft, just utterly absorbed.