Susan Johnson has been on the Australian literary scene for a long time. She is the author of six novels and one memoir (A Better Woman) and the editor of two collections. She wrote poetry as a teenager, then moved into the world of a working journalist (for the now-defunct Nation Review), where she found herself doing a different kind of – ultimately unsatisfying – writing. “Journalism was all about the surface, the supposedly real events in life. But I kept thinking that I wanted to get behind the stories.” It was, she concedes, good training in the art of observation.
Her first Australia Council grant of $8000 gave her the confidence to quit her job and move to full-time writing.
“I studied my favourite books and unpicked them to see how they work,” she recalled. One of those books was Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip. Susan’s first book, Messages from Chaos, failed to be shortlisted for the Vogel, which she entered – but was greeted with much acclaim. “It was seen as a kind of Sex in the City capturing of modern womanhood,” observed chair Louise Adler, a professed fan of all of Susan’s work. (“Your novels seem to have reflected what’s been going on in my stage of life.”)
Writers, said Susan, are born rather than made. For instance, you need a certain temperament to be a writer. “I think all writers by nature are introverts.”
“Most writers are temperamentally suited to sitting in a windowless room for long periods. These days, writers are expected to be performing seals. Like Salman going to parties with gorgeous models.”
Susan’s latest book, Life in Seven Mistakes, is a deeply affecting, blackly comic novel about a baby-boomer artist, Elizabeth, forced to spend Christmas with her dysfunctional family on the Gold Coast. Her “worst nightmare would be to be trapped forever in a room with her family”: blustering former business bigwig dad, Bob; uptight faded beauty and domestic goddess mum, Nance; her brother Robbo, turning into his dad; his wife Katie, driven as mad as Elizabeth by the Barton clan; their anorexic daughter; Elizabeth’s resentful husband, Neil; her three children, each with different fathers. Absent is heroin addict Nick, the black sheep of the family – only present in the form of a shadowy pall that hangs over the clan. As they bicker and bitch; sulk and sigh; sink into decades-old dynamics, we learn the story of how this family has evolved in tune with the massive social changes of their times. Running parallel to the current story is the romance of Bob and Nance in the 1950s, starting from the beginning, rich in ideals.
“The Bartons represent the birth of modern Australia,” said Susan. “The Snowy River scheme [which Bob worked on as a young man] is such a metaphor for the birth of modern Australia, too.”She talked about how the Snowy River scheme was a part of the beginnings of multiculturalism.
“Baby boomers are the first generation in history who think self-definition is a birthright. It’s like that Loreal ad. ‘Because you’re worth it.’ It’s such a baby-boomer thing to say.” Susan talked about how she wanted to explore what happens when baby boomers come up against the issue of what to do about their aging parents, and when they need to make decisions that might not be in their own self-interest.
“You’re going to get a whole generation that will come a cropper. I wanted to dramatise that whole issue of the moral obligation to our parents or otherwise.” Susan, who lives in London, while her parents are still in Queensland, says that this issue is one that is resonant for her right now. “I feel torn about living so far away.”
“That responsibility to your children is another big issue for me. I wonder, have I made my boys’ lives harder by moving to London? I personally think and imagine much easier when I’m removed from a place. The experience of being an expatriate has made my writing life much easier. But that’s me, not my family.”
She also talked about her phenomenonally successful memoir, A Better Woman, about her experience of dealing with a rare injury sustained in a traumatic birth, one most often experienced in Third World countries. “I felt like a real freak. And a failure.” She had been contracted to write a kind of “manual to motherhood” for Random House, but ended up writing a heartfelt, brutally honest memoir of her experience instead, recording the near-breakdown of her marriage and her post-natal depression.
“Suddenly, I had all these women contacting me from all over the world, who also had this rare condition. I also had letters from women who hadn’t been injured during birth, but had found new motherhood really hard, for their own reasons. It’s one of those central myths of our society the myth of the selfless mother.”
She reflected that the myth of the good-enough mother and the good-enough daughter (the latter of which is central to Life in Seven Mistakes) are both stereotypes of femaleness that many women struggle with.
Returning to the theme of what makes a writer, she mused that a lot of writers have experienced themselves as different growing up, and come to think of themselves as outsiders in some way. “They share the experience of growing up communing most deeply with an interior world.”
“A friend of mine has a different theory,” she said, “that all writers are bonkers in some way, they’re a bit mad.”