Peggy Frew talks to Kate Veitch about House of Sticks
Former Art of Fighting bassist Peggy Frew won the Unpublished Manuscript Award Category of last year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for House of Sticks. This came on the heels of another pretty damn impressive award two years earlier – The Age Short Story Award. And now, House of Sticks, a revealing and suspenseful novel of family life, has made the journey from manuscript to novel. It’s earned accolades from fellow musician Clare Bowditch and novelist Kate Veitch (Listen, Truth), who interviewed Peggy about her debut novel for Readings.
From the first line of House of Sticks, we know we’re inside a contemporary Australian family. ‘Shit,’ says Bonnie, as she pulls up outside her home, and her almost-five-year-old twins in the back seat don’t turn a hair. Nor is Bonnie herself – despite being, as we will soon learn, a chronic apologiser – in the least chagrined: almost unthinkable in a British or American novel about a family that’s white, middle-class and intact. We’re right here, right now.
Bonnie lives in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, and has put her career as a guitarist on hold to be a full-time mother. She adores the twins, new baby Jess, and partner Pete, who makes furniture in the backyard workshop. So, what is Bonnie swearing about? Parked outside their house, she’s spotted the van belonging to a feckless old buddy of Pete’s, Doug: a bloke who pushes every button in her anxiously self-doubting psyche. For Bonnie is someone riven with uncertainty about herself, and striving with every breath to be a better person than she feels she is.
This is a young woman deep in the transformative crucible of early motherhood – a crucible her creator knows very well. Author Peggy Frew lives with her partner in Melbourne’s inner north, and when I visit her there I watch their three kids, all blonde-haired and fine-boned like their mother, spool out and eddy around her. She hasn’t played bass guitar in her old band, Art of Fighting, for some years. Like Bonnie too, she filches what time she can away from motherhood for her creative work: writing, lately, rather than music. House of Sticks, she explains, ‘draws on real life, and on experiences I’ve had. But it is fiction. Bonnie isn’t me, even though I’ve used my own experiences to form her, and the same applies to all the other characters.’ But Frew is admirably sanguine about the likelihood that many readers will assume the novel to be largely autobiographical. Indeed, she says, ‘I expect it’.
‘I think readers often make these assumptions – I know I do. They’ll see the similarities, and they don’t know what the differences are. So it’s going to happen, and in some ways that actually makes me feel freer to use real life as a starting point: I might as well, if that’s what people are going to think anyway. You just have to take the inspiration as it comes and be grateful for it.’
Peggy Frew grew up in a family inspired by both words and music. She remembers, as a small child, sitting in the bathroom with an enormous book of poetry open on her lap, reading aloud to her mother lying in the bath. ‘I read a lot, and wrote stories. Then later, well into my teens, I became self-conscious about my own writing and more or less stopped. I had the awful realisation that writing is a skill requiring practice and refinement – and I was so mortified by the imperfection of my early efforts that I lost the nerve to push through. Also, I was young and distractible, and life offered other opportunities: music came along and filled that creative space.’
In her mid-twenties, ‘sick of doing crap jobs to support myself as a musician’, Frew enrolled in the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT. It took her six years to complete the two year diploma, largely because motherhood intervened. And it’s her depiction of the way motherhood intervenes in life that is one of House of Sticks’ greatest and most original strengths. Remarkably few novels even attempt to get inside the experience of pregnancy, birth and breast-feeding; of being that sentimentalised and despised creature, the at-home mum, and the consequences – social, sexual, emotional and financial – that flow from there.
It’s not that Bonnie didn’t want to become a mother: she did, very much. But as the French essayist Anatole France wrote, ‘All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.’ We understand this, culturally, rather literally, and mostly as something in which men engage: think of all the award-winning movies and books that deal with death in terms of war, or of committing or solving murders. Yet the subtle, profound and far more common change – and no less dramatic for being so widespread – that bearing and rearing children brings to our lives is barely examined in fiction or film, and is almost never considered prize-worthy material.
House of Sticks may be the novel which breaks this mould. Frew got stuck into it after winning The Age Short Story Award in December 2008. She describes that award as ‘enormously important, and validating’ of her writing aspirations (and she also tells one of those droll, grotty, self-deprecating stories – the trench humour of parenthood – about her two-day-old son vomiting mightily all over himself, and her, and even the phone on which Age literary editor Jason Steger, who had rung to tell her of the win, was at that moment asking how soon he could send out a photographer). The first draft of the novel – most of it written at night, while her kids were sleeping – was finished just in time for submission to the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2010, which it won. This award doesn’t come with any guarantee of publication, but a bevy of Australia’s best publishers were soon vying for House of Sticks. Frew’s decision to go with the small, highly regarded independent Scribe was based largely on the editorial support she felt she’d receive.
A book by Booki.sh
Although the children are not this novel’s main characters, we see, reading it, that Frew shares Helen Garner’s gift for giving us their astonishingly distinct personalities, their private games and their random passions, in just a few lines, or a bare handful of words. As Frew’s clear eye observes the shoreline of domestic life, we realise that what should be safe and familiar is becoming veiled by dark, unsettling mists. A thing as trivial as a missing flower pot evokes a creeping sense of dread. We begin to fear that something terrible is going to happen as a result of Doug’s intrusion into Bonnie’s household; the sway that this ramshackle man has over the five-year-old twins feels particularly ominous, and reminded me of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. In this realm, innocence can turn to menace in a moment, love to resentment, and trust to prickling suspicion.
Frew says it’s a place she’s long been drawn to. ‘I’ve always been interested in coming-of-age stories, the dividing lines between the worlds of adults and of children. I’ve done some writing that explores these themes from the child’s perspective – about the often confusing awakening we all go through, when we start to glimpse the adult world and its machinations, but don’t fully understand it. I think those experiences can have a profound effect on people, and on the adults we end up being.’
‘But having children of my own added to the equation; now I was in the position of wanting, impossibly, to protect my own kids from any kind of disturbing or hurtful confusion. I was faced with the agonies of being responsible for – essentially – innocents. How much to control? How much to protect, without smothering? How to allow them to develop resilience and independence without putting them at risk?’
These are questions pertinent not only to parents of small children but, in a wider sense, to all of us in Australia. Right here, right now: how much do we fear the other – the person whose ways are strange to us? And with what justification? What values do we hold most dear, as a society, and as individuals? Are we, like Bonnie, so afflicted with self-doubt that we cannot develop our own robust morality?
And I wonder: could the judges of our literary awards consider House of Sticks as seriously as a novel about a man returning damaged from war, or one in which the female character’s main role is that of a corpse? It would be a bold step, to recognise how the story of a young mother in the suburbs also holds some of the big issues of our times up to the light and skillfully, lovingly, allusively examines them.
Kate Veitch’s latest novel is Trust.