INTERVIEW: Gillian Mears on ‘Foal’s Bread’ (A&U)

Gillian Mears (credit Shannon Hemmings)

Gillian Mears grew up horse mad and horse-book mad. She spoke to Heather Dyer about her latest novel, Foal’s Bread (A&U). (See the review here.)

You obviously have a great love of horses. How important have they been in your life? Have you got any favourite horse books’?
In the company of a charitable horse there is nothing that you can’t learn deeply and intricately about yourself. Horses have been the greatest teachers of my life. From the age of 9 to 16 nothing was more important to me and some of my sisters than time spent with our horses. The seasons would pretty much determine what we’d be doing, and my favourite season of all was summer, when you’d ride bareback down for a swim at the Spit on the Clarence River. The horses were indolent, with grass bellies and sun-faded coats. Swimming your horse lent a magical quality of power to any afternoon. So too the stop that always followed a swim, at the long-gone Villiers St corner shop for a little whitepaper bag of mixed lollies that certain horses also loved to eat. The first horse book I can remember reading was Right Royal by John Masefield. It had been one of my English grandmother’s books. It held many line drawings as well as beautiful tissue-guarded colour plates. Next probably would’ve been Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty followed by Mary O’Hara’s ‘Wyoming’ trilogy and some of Elyne Mitchell’s ‘Silver Brumby’ and Mary Grant Bruce’s ‘Billabong’ books. If a book had a horse on the cover it was greeted with potential reverence, confirmed once you verified that it wasn’t a ridiculous horse-girl book. When I first read John Steinbeck’s classic The Red Pony I was deeply affected because my best friend’s pony had just had strangles and not long after that died a terrible death from tetanus. I loved the horses that appeared as a matter of course in many of Nan Chauncy’s novels. There was also the mare Bless in a Herman Hesse, and Bree and Hwin, the Narnian horses from C S Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, and most recently of all, Nino from The Crossing, stabbed in the breast by a Mexican bandit. Henry Wynmalen’s Equitation was borrowed almost constantly from Grafton High School library by one Mears girl or another. I also often took out anthologies of horse stories that yielded gems such as D H Lawrence’s ‘Rocking Horse Winner’, a favourite to this day. After leaving home, my dream of becoming a better rider never abated. I was learning many marvellous things with Bellini, the last horse in my life, an ex-racehorse from Queensland, when the onset of MS when I was 31 stopped the lessons dead in their tracks.

Jealousy between Minna and her daughter-in- law Noah, and then between Noah and her daughter Lainey, threaten to destroy their relationships. Do you find jealousy an interesting emotion to write about?
The very word jealousy seems alive. Like a snake gliding into a house there is a feeling of danger, danger! I once saw a king brown snake that had found its way into the vacuum cleaner bag under a child’s bed. The mother threw snake and bag into a cauldron of water coming to the boil on the stove. I feel that in Foal’s Bread, no jealousy shines with such reptilian glossiness as that that breaks out in Noah for her beloved daughter. I found that those chapters unpeeled from my pen with little need of rewriting. Older writings of mine have also investigated the sly and malignant force that is jealousy.

Some of the characters, in particular Minna, could have been deeply unsympathetic, but you manage to keep her just this side of that. Was this difficult to achieve?
I found Minna’s humanity shone out in one startling similarity to Noah—both women in different parts of the book feel ashamed to cry. This poignant recognition made it possible to maintain the relentless portrayal of the flinty, mean old Minna.

Your previous novels and short stories have won many awards, including the Vogel Award and several Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes. Did these awards offer you more freedom, or did they put pressure on you as a writer?
It’s hard to answer this question with unequivocal certainty. Although at one level the prizes came always as a genuine surprise, somewhere deeper in I would accept that they were emphasising that writing was my rightful destiny. The most stress I’ve ever felt in my writing life happened when completing The Grass Sister. This was due to a basic mistrust in my material. I was struggling to find the story I really needed to tell. This rather than any pressure from any prize is what delayed The Grass Sister’s completion by many months.

There appears to be a trend in Australian literary fiction for historical novels with a rural setting. What was it about this time and place that appealed to you?
In many ways writing reminds me of riding an old familiar horse. One wisdom text that always faces out on my bookshelf is equestrian Paul Belasik’s Riding towards the Light (Robert Hale). I’ve always thought that it could just as easily be called Writing towards the Light. Or I’ve thought that writing fiction is like whip-cracking, letting the plaited leather float out in front of you before bringing it back with an almighty crack. I let the whip of Foal’s Bread float out for so many years that I nearly never brought it back. Finally though, my lifelong love and unerring affection for men and women born between the wars demanded that I narrate my novel using their vocabulary. I’ve always loved the great storytelling abilities of that generation. I think of the loneliness and hominess of their old huts. I hear their slow, heart-broken voices, even as they’re telling some incredible story (their voice like a race being called, up and down, up and down) that will practically split you in two with laughter. I wanted to catch the kindness and never-ending generosity of that generation. Certain old horsemen would never charge money to hog your horse’s mane before disappearing for a while on a spree that would leave them high and dry and nearly dead on the bed for days. In conclusion, although I grew up in the 60s and 70s, it’s as if the sound of an earlier era runs in my blood like an old kero pump choot-choot-choot.

What the last book you read and loved?
The Crossing, which is the second volume in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Border Trilogy’.

BOOK REVIEW: Foal’s Bread (Gillian Mears, A&U)

It’s been 16 years since Gillian Mears published her last novel, The Grass Sister, which won the regional Commonwealth Prize for best book in 1996. The Mint Lawn won the 1991 Vogel Award and she has also written a number of award-winning short-story collections. Foal’s Bread takes its title from a small object that, on rare occasions, is found in a new foal’s mouth at birth. It looks like bread, hence the name, but nobody really knows what it is. It is thought to be lucky, however. If the horse is a jumper, it will jump high; if it’s a sprinter, it will run fast.

Set in rural NSW prior to WWII, the book opens with 14-year-old Noah and her father droving pigs to a farm. That evening while the men are off drinking, Noah deliverers the baby she barely knew she was carrying, fathered by her now dead uncle. When the infant cries she wishes it had been born dead, saving her the trouble of killing it. But she finds she cannot kill it, and instead sends her baby floating down the river in a box. That image will haunt her.

When Noah meets champion horse-jumper Roley at a country show he is impressed by her riding and jumping skills. He lends her the foal’s bread he carries with him and she jumps even higher. Over several years their relationship develops, until Roley marries Noah and brings her back to the family farm. Her skills at the farm are useful, but not enough to overcome the jealousy that Roley’s mother Minna feels at being displaced in her son’s affections. Two children are born, but after a time Roley’s physical condition begins to decline. As his body deteriorates, so does his relationship with Noah. And when Noah’s daughter Lainey starts jumping higher than she ever did, Noah is jealous—hating herself for it, but unable to help it. Her own life, so ordinary, is a disappointment.

The relationships between the characters in Foal’s Bread are rich and varied, and Mears rarely takes the obvious route as she explores emotions of love, jealousy, frustration and disappointment. Despite their many flaws and foibles, I found it impossible not to feel for each of the characters as they grappled with their problems; even mother-in-law Minna, with her constant sniping and jealousy, remained sympathetic, and this is a testament to Mears’ skill.

Foal’s Bread is a book to be read slowly and savoured. The country setting and language of the time are beautifully captured and the characters are intricately observed. Mears obviously loves horses, and the horsejumping shows, with their smells and sounds, come alive on the page. Mears is up there with Tim Winton and Kate Grenville. Let’s hope her next book isn’t as far off.

Heather Dyer is the owner of Fairfield Books in Melbourne. This review first appeared in the October issue of  Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

INTERVIEW: Charlotte Wood on ‘Animal People’ (A&U)

In the September issue of Bookseller+Publisher, reviewer Heather Dyer interviewed Charlotte Wood about her new book Animal People. Wood had lots of interesting things to say about writing comedy, revisiting characters from previous novels and conducting book research in zoos. Here is the extended interview.

You’ve said that each new book is both a challenge, and a reaction to the previous book. What was your challenge/reaction with Animal People?
I had several new creative challenges to play with in this novel. The first was to write my way through a thoroughly ordinary day while making it an extraordinary, life-changing one for Stephen, my character. There were also structural challenges involved in the one-day timeframe, in terms of keeping up a lively, naturalistic narrative that revealed things about Stephen without lumping in too much static flashback. And my final big challenge was to embrace an element of comedy in a way I had never done before—that to me was the riskiest element of all. I’ve discovered that for me, and I suspect for many writers, it’s easier to write a sad or violent or tragic scene than a funny or a tender one. It can become banal to keep falling back on misery to propel a story, I think, and so I found the challenge to balance comedy and seriousness, or tenderness, quite an exhilarating task with this book.

The reaction to the last book is probably most apparent in the setting. The Children is set entirely in a country town, whereas Animal People is thoroughly urban—they are, perhaps, companion portraits of city and regional living. Oh, and in point of view—The Children is told from several points of view whereas in Animal People we see everything only through Stephen’s eyes. And I didn’t realise how hard that was going to be until I did it.

What did you see in Stephen that made you decide to develop a book around him?
Not until quite some time after I’d finished The Children did Stephen occur to me as a character—I knew the next book would be set in a city, and I wanted it to be a one-day book. But I kept being drawn back to thinking of him, I think, because he was the only character in The Children I didn’t feel I completely understood by the time I finished writing that novel. He remained unresolved when the others—Mandy especially—I felt I knew, inside out. And in a way—this will sound odd, for a person one has invented—I still worried about him. I wanted to see him through the next stage of his life, and I wanted him not to be so lonely. It is very strange how fictional characters can sort of embed themselves in one’s consciousness almost as if they are real. I think of him as a kind of wayward cousin I’ve always loved, but who inexplicably finds life a bit of a struggle.

Do you plan to write about any of the other siblings from The Children?
I’ve completely done with Mandy, I think I’m certain about that. And I think Cathy is far too sane and well-adjusted to make good fiction out of, really. But who knows what might happen to her in a decade or so? My next novel is knocking at the door of my mind and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Connolly family. But I didn’t plan on writing more about Stephen either, so who knows—never say never. I quite like the symmetry of the idea that a book about Cathy might emerge one day, though I can’t really imagine it in the foreseeable future.

Animals, and human interactions with them, play an important role in the story, but Stephen is, for the most part, mystified by the amount of attention people lavish on them. Do you share his views?
I’ve loved exploring my own bewilderment in this novel. I have come to the conclusion that perhaps I’m a little lacking in the ‘cute response’—a syndrome researchers refer to in describing human responses towards animals. I don’t get, for example, the whole baby-orangutan/elephant/panda-video ‘squee!’ thing. I find it faintly embarrassing (but then I have English heritage). At the same time, I think I have more respect for animals than some baby-orangutan-squealing people do, and writing the novel was a fascinating way for me to explore our contradictory attitudes to animals as a society. We sentimentalise animals to almost exactly the same extent that we brutalise them, and while anthropomorphism can be a good thing (in understanding, for example, when animals might feel pain), it can also be disrespectful and narcissistically human-centred in assuming that what is good for us is good for animals. What I’m interested in is the many kinds and levels of denial we employ in our behaviour towards animals.

Did you do any research in zoos for this book? And did you find them a good study of animal, and human, behaviour?
I certainly spent time in zoos around the country. I highly recommend visiting a zoo to observe human behaviour—it’s really quite enthralling. People are very, very weird. One of the most striking things I noticed was how desperate we seem to be, at zoos, for the animals to look at us. A lot of human behaviour at zoos is kind of depressing, though … many of us seem to treat it as a kind of shopping expedition—there’s an acquisitive vibe about getting photographs, ticking off lists and so on. But of course it’s ripe for comedy too—zoos are so rich in anthropomorphism.

Book buzz: the ones to watch 2011

The Australian Booksellers Association held its annual conference in Melbourne during the weekend. The regular Book Buzz session was one of the highlights, showcasing the favourite books by booksellers and publishers coming out in the following months.

Aviva Tuffield from Scribe recommends:

  • Machine Man by Max Barry (Scribe, August) is a techno thriller where a scientist loses a leg in an industrial accident, but it’s not a tragedy, it’s an opportunity to build a better body.
  • House of Sticks by Peggy Frew (Scribe, September) is humane and compassionate book, a portrait of contemporary family life that is great for book clubs.
  • The Third Wave by Alison Thompson (Scribe, September), an inspiring account of an Australian volunteering in Sri Lanka.

Amanda Macky from Dymocks Adelaide recommends:

  • Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung (Black Inc., September). Macky says, ‘if you want to know why people want to be refugees in Australia, to come here where it’s safe and peaceful read this book and you’ll understand’.
  • Smut by Alan Bennett (Profile Books), a little demi-hardback featuring two stories. Macky says this book ‘will have appeal to anybody who likes English humour, anybody who’s enjoyed Alan Bennett in the past and anybody who is into vicarious sex and a little surprise’.
  • The Deadly Touch of the Tigress by Ian Hamilton (Sphere, October). Originally sold in Canada as The Water Rat of Wanchai, Macky believes ‘neither title does this book justice’.

Heather Dyer from Fairfield Books recommends:

  • The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Picador, September) is about a woman who communicates with people through the language of flowers and after leaving state care she meets a man.
  • EJ12 Girl Hero series by Susannah McFarlane at LemonFizz Media, who created the Go Girl and Zac Power series at Hardie Grant. McFarlane developed EJ12 because she felt there were no other series around the suited her eight-year-old daughter.
  • Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland (Text, August) is a ‘gripping’ true story of Black Saturday.

Ben Ball from Penguin recommends:

  • All That I Am by Anna Funder (Hamish Hamilton, September) is about three people who were involved in the resistance against the rise of Hilter prior to World War II. Ball says ‘you have a treat in store’. Funder will be a the Brisbane Writers Festival.
  • Midnight in Peking by Paul French (Viking, September) is a true crime book set during the last days of old Peking on the eve of  World War II, in the seedy underbelly of the city. The body of the daughter of an ex-British Consul found with innards removed.
  • Tony Robinson’s History of Australia (Viking, November) by Tony Robinson who did a program about Australia on the History Channel.