Clementine Ford interviews Miriam Sved

The best kind of storytellers are the ones so adept at their craft that they can hypnotise even those readers bitterly opposed to the subject matter. So it is with Miriam Sved, whose debut novel, Game Day, addresses the complex, often insidious and interweaving relationships formed between the members of an Australian Football League club.

The book is being sold as the journey taken by two young rookies, Mick ‘Mickey’ Reece and Jake Dooley, as they endure the gruelling physical and emotional trials of one complete AFL season. But the book is less linear than it sounds: Sved has employed the structure of a short-story collection with alternating voices, perspectives and preoccupations. The result is impressively subtle; key incidents considered in one chapter are deftly resolved through echoes in later ones. Liberated from the confines of a constant narrator, Sved is able to explore some of the more glaring contradictions, corruptions and insecurities present in such a revered institution, and the people within. ‘Liberating is a good word for how it felt,’ she says. ‘I loved the freedom and the scope of it, and I loved being able to play with the voices and give them free rein without worrying that I was going to be shackled to them for a whole novel.’

Sved invokes the feverish atmosphere of Melbourne’s AFL obsession so well – its majestic highs and devastating lows – that it would be easy to assume she’s been a dedicated supporter of the game since childhood. In fact, the opposite is true. ‘I was an outsider to the game when I moved down here in 2001, and I was immediately pretty interested in the social phenomenon of it: so many people asked me if I had a team, and told me about their teams, and tried to get me involved with their teams. I went to a couple of games and was pretty taken by the grandiosity of the whole thing, but this was without having much understanding of the game itself.’

Years later, she moved in with her partner, a woman she describes as a ‘die-hard footy nut’. They would watch the games together, Sved slowly contracting the fever. ‘I remember the first time I found myself shouting at the telly during a close game, and then thinking where the hell did that come from?’ This sense of falling into fandom without even realising it is evoked in the later stages of Game Day, as Mickey Reece’s mother, Kate, recalls the way allegiances can have a means of creeping under your skin – in Kate’s case, this comes first via her country-born husband and then her footy-star son.

Indeed, it is the undercurrent of female suffocation that is most transfixing in Sved’s book. With steadfast clarity, she addresses in turn the girls and women whose efforts to participate in such a hyper-masculine code are accompanied by the ever-present reminder that they will never truly belong to it. There’s Bec, the young woman who has established rules of engagement so that she can ascend from post-game ‘root’ to powerful WAG. And Em, a little girl attending a live game with her father for the first time, who catches a glimmer of the kind of woman she will need to become if she wants to be acknowledged, and seen, as a part of it all. In one of the book’s most acute scenes, there is the footy-mad nine-year-old daughter of our nameless club’s public relations officer, lying in bed beneath a giant poster of her favourite player while her father works behind the scenes to cover up yet another incident of the player’s sexual misconduct.

‘It’s an aspect of the book I thought about a lot, and I guess worried about,’ Sved says. ‘I wanted to do justice to different things that sometimes seem competing and even contradictory within the sport: the joy of the game, which exists for so many women as well as men; and the exclusionary, blokey parts of AFL culture. I think the reality is more multi-faceted than it just being a blokes’ game. There are so many women closely connected to it – women who know everything there is to know about AFL, who live week to week hanging on their team’s fortunes, and also many who work in the game. And then you watch the footy shows and the award shows and the whole thing does seem so blokey. I guess I just tried to give both of those realities their due – the reality that the game is loved by and means a lot to so many people, so many of them women; and the reality that there are many aspects of the whole culture that feel exclusionary.’

MiriamSved_crLaughtonPhotograph by Georgia Laughton.

But Sved’s allegiance is not solely to the women of this story. Her compassion for characters and their motivations sees her taking a far more circumspect and realistic view of the players themselves, many of whom have been typecast by media reports or narratives proposed by feminists such as myself. ‘I knew I had to pay attention to the abhorrent behaviour that some dickhead footballers exhibit, and there are aspects of the culture of the game that I find gross and hard to forgive,’ Sved explains. ‘But individually I don’t think of footballers as a necessarily or automatically bad bunch.’ She cites Anna Krien’s Night Games as expertly depicting the sense of recklessness and sexual entitlement that can be fostered by footy culture, and says that she wasn’t interested in sympathising with footballers en masse. ‘But as individual characters I had no trouble getting behind the idea of a psychological spectrum, a range of personalities and character types, and it was interesting to think about how the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the AFL might work on those different kinds of characters.’

The result is hypnotic, startling almost in its breadth and focus. Tellingly, it also belies what we might think constitutes a ‘sports book’. The machinations of Australian sporting culture have always bored me, while reports of AFL cover-ups and toxic culture have often sent chills down my spine. And yet, settling in for a chapter or two of Game Day meant only to realise that, hours later and still reading, the afternoon light had waned across the sky and a light must be turned on.

Clementine Ford is a writer and public speaker based in Melbourne. She writes a regular column for Fairfax’s Daily Life. Her essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Just Between Us and Sincerely: Women of Letters. She is fond of the works of Patricia Highsmith and Penfolds, often at the same time. She tweets @clementine_ford.