Q&A with Alex Miller, author of Autumn Laing

Readings Managing Director Mark Rubbo interviews Alex Miller, one of Australia’s most lauded novelists, about his latest, Autumn Laing.

You acknowledge that the book is loosely based on Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan, and I notice that the cover of your novel, The Sitters, features a work by Joy Hester, who was also part of the Heide circle and a great friend of Sunday Reed’s. Has this theme been something you’ve wanted to write about for some time?

I’ve had a lifelong interest in the life and art of Sidney Nolan and have found the story of his success against the odds an inspiration. When I set out to write this book I did not expect to be writing it in the voice of a character initially based on Sunday Reed. In fact the character of Autumn Laing – as my wife Stephanie pointed out to me almost as soon as I began working in Autumn’s voice – owes more to Anne Neil, my first wife and a lifelong friend of our family, than she does to Sunday Reed. I readily acknowledged this, and told Stephanie that the book was privately an homage to Anne, though I doubted anyone would notice this – perhaps a few of Anne’s old friends from her MLC days will see the likeness. These things are complicated and rather private and not easily talked about; the sources, I mean, of the characters in one’s books.

But, yes, this story owes much to the life and times of Sunday Reed and her stormy relationship with Sidney Nolan and I continue to find them both an inspiration. The picture you refer to on the cover of the first edition of The Sitters was one that I bought at Joels for Anne 40 years ago. It’s now in the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. My friend, the poet Barrie Reid, told me it is one of Joy’s many portraits of John and Sunday Reed – who, although they owe a debt to them, are not, of course, to be confused with my fictional characters Arthur and Autumn Laing.

A recurring premise of the book is that small decisions in life can lead to radical changes in the course of one’s life, do you really believe this?

Perhaps what I’m noticing (or referring to) in the book with these small decisions and their consequences is the critical sense of fate we develop about the timing of our decisions – damned if we do, and damned if we don’t, that kind of thing. Sometimes no matter which way we turn we seem fated to end up caught in the same predicament. At this we may either shrug fatalistically and say it was meant to be and believe ourselves put upon by a malign providence, or persist in our attempts to change our circumstances. It is a wonderful fact of our existence that the timing of our decisions and their consequences, no matter how trivial those decisions might be, can either be the death of us or may lead to the realisation of our most cherished dreams. The random complexity of reality and its refusal to submit to formulaic plotting is reflected in this relationship of the most trivial to the most important decisions of our lives. It is something the realist novel – and Autumn Laing is a realist novel – is required, and indeed privileged, to observe. It is not only the devil, but is also the meaning that is in the detail.

There is a passage in the novel in which the artist Pat Donlon is taunted by his contemporaries for his rejection of the European tradition that is being taught at the Gallery School. Donlon’s response to this is to insist that, ‘Our problem is not to make it new but to make it Australian.’ Is this for you the novel’s central theme?

The central theme of this novel is Autumn Laing’s attempt, as an old woman, to gain the forgiveness of Pat Donlon’s first wife, Edith, whom she deeply wronged when they were all young and driven by their passions and the fire of fierce ambition. The central theme of the book is Autumn Laing’s difficult moral search to clear her conscience before she dies. The theme is private morality. It is because she is a woman who has a demanding conscience that seeing Edith, who she had thought long dead and had not seen for many years, makes Autumn feel the sting of the guilt of her past that still clings to her in her old age. Edith, she realises, might have been her oldest friend instead of her oldest enemy. If she, Autumn, had her life again, she says to herself, instead of wronging Edith she would put her arms around her and comfort her. That Autumn badly misreads Edith’s life and her own part in it is one of the great ironies of the story. Such is the theme of this book. Autumn’s examination of her life reinforces her understanding of how important friendships have been, particularly Freddy and Barnaby’s faith in her.

But the setting of her story is Australian art and artists. Pat Donlon feels deeply inauthentic as an aspiring Australian artist when confronted with the fact that all the major art movements in his country have their origins in Europe and that it is toward Europe that his contemporaries aspire for their further studies and even their careers – the schools of Paris and London in particular. He rebels against this but has no answer to it. Frustrated and depressed by the provincial and contemptuous response to his work of Melbourne’s senior art critic, he very nearly despairs of his ambition to become an artist. It is Autumn’s recognition of Pat’s authenticity that revives his hopes and helps him to begin again to aspire. In this, Pat Donlon’s career closely parallels my own and his despair and new hope are events with which I closely identify and feel a deep sympathy.

It was my friend Max Blatt who, by believing in me, revived my dreams of becoming a novelist at a time when I was close to despair. In Pat Donlon’s case it is his lover, Autumn Laing, and her dear friend Barnaby, who in the end provide the means for Donlon’s full realization of himself and his vision. Such moments of recognition are critical in the lives and careers of nearly all artists and writers. Few survive the demons of doubt alone. Friendship, love and acknowledgement are always a central theme in the life of any artist or writer. Such debts are not always acknowledged, however. There are those who prefer to have it seem their genius has flowered in a private medium where the love and belief of others have played no part. Pat Donlon, and the man on whom he is modelled, may have been of this kind. But I’m not sure. The story in this book has nothing to say about that. The reader, as always, will decide.

It’s a structure that’s quite different to your other books. How did you decide on that?

Each book, like each individual human life, has its own unique structure. Just as we can’t predict the structure of a human life until that life has been lived, the paradox for the writer is that we can’t predict the structure of the story until the story has been told. It was Salman Rushdie, I believe, who said we have to write the book to find out what it is we want to write about. I spent 18 months on preliminary work with this story, but it wasn’t until I had understood that the story was to be the confessional of the sole survivor, and that it was to be an attempt by the old woman, Autumn Laing, to pay due penance for her youthful sins so that she might die at peace with her conscience, that the structure of this book was dictated. At that point I abandoned, as preliminary, the work I’d done so far and began again in Autumn’s voice.

The risk was that by revealing the youthful cruelties of the main character at once I would disaffect the reader. But if Autumn is to confess herself before she dies then she must do so honestly and with courage and must reveal her sins without attempting to gloss over them and make herself seem better than she might be. The book is Autumn’s moral statement about her life. It is her examined life. But it is the reader, at the end of the book, who will decide whether or not she is worthy of being forgiven, or at the very least of being understood as a complex human being who has undergone great changes of conviction during her long life, and who, rather than slip away quietly, has asked herself the most difficult questions.

The way you bring the novel to its conclusion, with what, in effect, are two dénouements, was particularly successful. Did you have this in sight at the beginning of the book?

No. The end (which I won’t give away) took me as much by surprise as it does Autumn. I can give an example of this sort of thing from a previous novel, where I won’t be giving anything away. In Lovesong there is a rather mean character who always sits with the warm-hearted oud player, Nejib, in the café Chez Dom, where much of the action in that book takes place. I had no idea who this man was, except that he insisted on being there and was obviously tolerated by the nice oud player. It wasn’t until John, the café’s Australian proprietor, in a state of shock after the mean man has murdered Bruno in front of them all, asks Nejib: ‘Who is he?’ that I realised who he was.

The identity of this man, so crucial to the outcome of this book, came to me as I wrote Nejib’s answer, ‘He is my brother.’ My God, so that’s who he was? * I thought, and took a deep breath and relaxed. The end of *Autumn Laing came to me in this way also, as I was writing it. It is one of the great joys of being a writer whose stories are of necessity not subject to plots that the story’s most critical moments often unfold in this way at the very instant when the answer is required. The novelist who writes in this way does so with the requirement of faith. The unconscious, from where it all emerges, I suppose, plays with us, and makes us hold our breath and strains our faith with terrible suspense sometimes, then at the very last it lets go and hands over the precious gift of the answer. I think if I knew all this when I began to write the book I would take to gardening or some other pastime, for writing would be the most boring thing to do.

I’ve heard on the grapevine that you are very pleased (and rightly so) with this book. If this is so, how has it been more satisfying than some of your other books?

I am always intensely critical of my own work and live in fear of how it is to be received. What has reached you on the grapevine is a version of my frequent expressions of joy at hearing Autumn’s voice when I was sitting on a park bench in Holland Park a year ago watching squirrels and thinking about my childhood in London. Her voice remained with me reliably throughout the writing of the book and it was a joy to be with her. Of course there is always a degree or two of illusion about the joy a writer feels while writing, but either one feels the joy or the whole thing is pointless, and if there is only anguish then one ought to be doing something else.